When I was growing up, my mother’s friends frequently referred to me as “interesting,” in the midwestern way of pronouncing the word, “inner-rest-in.” As far as I could tell, I simply was who I was, and I didn’t know any other way to be. “Quiet,” they would say, or “backward,” which meant shy, and “good,” which meant I was no real trouble, not in the way some children were trouble. I could be conniving and reclusive, but I looked angelic to parents other than my own: I’d like nothing better than to sit and draw or cut strings of paper dolls, or to open a book and read it, in another world.
People no longer refer to me as interesting, quiet, backward or good. Then again, people do not march straight up to me with the dictums my mother’s friends would announce: “Denise, you could be such a pretty girl, if you just did something with your hair!” By the time I was in junior high, I could recite, deadpan and dripping with sincerity, “Well, Mrs. Osgood, I woke up this morning and did something with my hair, and this is exactly what happened.” I would shrug my shoulders and walk away, rolling my eyes as any self-respecting human being would do. Other girls with wildly curling hair cut it so short it almost disappeared, and a few fought the good fight with the curling irons of the time, but after a few years of burns and torture, quickly undone by weather, I threw away anything with an electrical cord that supposedly related to my hair. The more I do nothing with my hair, the better it behaves. Go figure.
For many years, people described me as “colorful,” which I think was a way of saying that the world is awfully gray, and I was a contrast. It also made me think of the former “inner-resting,” perhaps meaning that the world is awfully dull, and I am not. Which is “inner-rest-ing,” when I think of it. I am prone to wear rich colors, too, it is true—that’s simply what looks best on me, looks best to me. It’s not a statement of anything other than taste, this color-filled style.
When I lived in Washington State, the highest cultural compliment was to be called “authentic,” which I loved, and I enjoyed that title when it was earnestly applied to me. I wanted to earn it, and be more authentic than ever. I miss the egalitarian nature of the Pacific Northwest, the pure absence of pretension and class divisions. My students, there, were fond of calling me “a stud,” which was the highest student-level compliment, and it always caught me off-guard. “And you are a male breeding horse, yourself,” I would answer, stammering to avoid blushing the color of a fire hydrant.
Recently I have been called a hippie, though I’ve never carried a protest sign, never comfortably flashed a peace sign. I was actually born too late for those things, and my college campus was nauseatingly preppy. I chose hippie fashions before there was any exotic hippie chic— thrift shop clothes were a fun and creative way of dressing, my favorite. I was fond of oversized men’s shirts and ties, too, which could never be mistaken as hippie clothes. But yes, I owned peasant skirts and flat shoes, all-cotton blouses and batiked silk scarves for my hair. I compost. I eat organic eggs and I like green vegetables. I wish I were a better hippie, truer to my ideals.
And recently, also, I have been called “honest.” Several people have gone so far as to name honesty their favorite trait of mine, which intrigues me. I was interesting in a fairly dull place, where people’s lives seemed scripted and choices were few. I was colorful (and I still am) in a place and time where most people seemed reduced to the gray color of the workaday world, and that period of my life felt vibrant and sparkling. And now, honest, which might well mean that people expect dishonesty, that honesty is disarming. And if honesty is disarming, that might explain a lot, as friends and neighbors here don’t always know what to do with me, how to take me.
One beloved supervisor compared my honesty to a four-year-olds inability to guage response in others—he was trying to be helpful in explaining work politics, and I appreciate that, and I appreciated him, at the time. “Politically naïve,” he called me, next, and I responded that the same was said of Jimmy Carter, one of my personal heroes—and that I was proud to be lumped with him. I was being a lovable smartass that day, but oddly enough I learned a great deal in that conversation, and the lesson stays with me.
I think I’ve become less “four-year-old” honest, less politically naïve, but the impulse remains the same, first to know the clear-headed truth about a situation, then to say it out loud.
The more I read about the childhoods of writers, the more I see similar themes, chronic honesty, inability to fit in easily. Perhaps “sticking out in a crowd” is a schooling for thick skin, so necessary if one is to continue writing.
Two former students visited me when I lived in the Pacific Northwest, and they discussed me as they traveled cross-country, they said. “We both agreed that you are the most articulate woman we’ve ever met.” Of all the descriptors ever applied to me, I’d say “articulate” was the one that made me dizzy with joy.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll accept the honor of being the most articulate woman you’ve ever met. Oh, my—you called me articulate…”
Interesting, colorful, articulate, honest. What will I be named next? Fabulous, perhaps I’ll be named something absolutely fabulous, and interesting, and colorful.