not in Primary anymore

open letter to a young swan

My dear self,
I have a few things to say to you.
You came out of high school on top
with no babies or rap sheets, no debt, no addictions,
but life has been painful.
Life weighs on your shoulders, a battle fought internally.
You take swirling trains of thought in your mind,
constantly struggling to figure out who you are.
I know that right now it does not seem like everything is going to be okay.
You are worried that you do not fit in.

But it is more than that.
You have never really fit in with the girls, have you?
You have always liked boys better.
Boys are easier to be yourself with.
You can easily be a girl in a group of boys.
In a group of girls, you feel like a giraffe.
Tall, square knees, frizzy hair, big hands, big feet, big nose; big everything.
Never dainty, hardly graceful.
Blunt and bold and impatient for real conversations,
words that would capture your imagination like the books you love to read.

Not that teenage boys had that much better of conversations,
but at least you could relax and be yourself with them.
With girls, you have to know a secret code you were never taught in order to fit in.
With boys, all you need is the hint of bra straps under your shirt and a winning smile,
and they will never forget you are female.

Adults called you “boy crazy” when you were young.
That was harsh. It made you feel like a slut,
though you did not have a word for it.
You felt their judgement like a bag of stones.
Boy crazy: desperate and sinful and eager for male attention.
This was not so.
It was just hard to fit in with the girls.
Because girls have tough expectations, right?
They want you to act and dress and talk and think in certain ways,
ways that feel unnatural.

I have to say, it never really has gotten better.
When girls want you to be a girl, you still have to put on a mask and play the part.

You learned to read faces pretty well after that spring your best friend died.
You wrote in your journal that, based on people’s facial reactions to you,
you must look terrible.
You tried so hard to wear the right faces,
but they could see the emptiness in your eyes.
They lost their bubbly girl;
you lost your light.
You look back now and laugh,
because if you do not laugh, you will cry.

Laughter beats tears, even if the joke is not funny.

You read their eyes sometimes when you are in a group of girls,
when people look at you standing with them.
You are a weed masquerading in a garden of mint,
a blip that could blend in if you squint,
but if you get too close, close enough to touch it,
smell it, really take it in,
it is obvious that it does not belong.
You make the picture all wrong.
Remove yourself and they are rewarded with beauty.

No one has said it, but you can read the words in their eyes.
Gawky. Mannish. Misfit.
The worst of it all is that no one has had the heart to tell it to you out loud.
You are the freak that stands alone in a crowd.
But no one has dared to say, knowing now how fragile you are.
A weak little freak, cannot handle the truth.
An ugly duckling forever stuck in its youth.
You will never find your family of swans because the swans are lying.
They are rebels.
They want attention.

They are really ducks, too!

Isn’t that what they tell you?
That there is no hope?
That you are small, and alone, and you do not fit in?
You will never fit in, because belonging in the world is a sin.
And if you want to be happy, you must be a duck.
Because the powers that be
dangle joy like a guillotine,
and one false move—a honk where a quack should be—will be your end.

You prefer things in the open.
You wish everyone would wear their heart on their sleeve like you do,
vulnerable and honest and willing to work out differences with words.

You lose yourself in books,
a safe place where even if the good guys do not win,
you can trust the author to help you learn something about life.
Maybe learn to love better,
or understand that even when evil triumphs over good,
it is still better to be on the good side.
That is terrible, you think.
Later you will learn that that is just social order,
and you cannot do anything about it.
All you can do is what you have ever done:
On days when you cannot muster the energy to conform, you eat alone.
On days you feel like you could participate with the group,
you make sure everyone else is invited too.
And when they are not,
you sit with them so they are not alone like you.

When you were little
you learned how under God’s watchful eye
life was supposed to be like it is in stories.
If you are good, good things are supposed to happen to you,
and if bad things happen, you are supposed to learn from it.
But it was still easier to live between the pages.
Life was too big and too unpredictable.
It was nice to believe in a big father in the sky most days—
stories that stoke the winter hearth of the soul—
but sometimes belief did not warm your heart.
Sometimes truth was too much for your little soul to take.
On those days, a tangible promise of peace waited on the bookshelf,
and only then was it possible to imagine a fairer place across the river.

But years pass and nothing changes.
Closure comes in drops of water squeezing from your eyes in secret;
in journal entries that read like confessions:
“Please take me as I am. My life is so hard-won.”

Your room is set in blues, greens, and browns:
cactuses and palm trees, all without blossom; new life in barren earth.
Your room is neutral, peaceful.
The haven you made for yourself is without gender, filled only with life:
the quilt you sewed out of scrap material;
the hanging pictures of the past, or frames of lovely foreign lands.
Alone in your mind it does not matter—only in comparison do you fall short.
You see so clearly where you have failed but cannot
erase yourself.
You have tried but someone always stops you.
You see girls and know they are beautiful, and you long to be a part of them,
glittering and wise and mysterious like the moon.
You want to be their pretty girl
and you want to be yourself.
You do not fit in the mold you were poured at birth,
and yet your sex has ultimately determined your worth.

So you quack.
You buy pinks and reds for your wardrobe,
though you would be comfortable in blues and blacks.
You quack.
You flirt with boys and go to church and keep your comments to yourself,
“Am I the only one who does not understand?”
Your life is going just as they planned,
so do they want a standing ovation?
They say it is the best plan in creation,
and no one can tell them otherwise,
because they have convinced us they are right.

We know they are right.

They are right,
so you are going to die alone on the river bank,
little duckling,
humming a swansong for your missing family.
You will live their life, not yours,
and it will be cause for dismal hymns, but be grateful.
This life is a blessing.
When you are not their problem anymore,
when they do not have to explain to you about life,
do not have to explain you to others ducks,
they will sing you sweet songs about somewhere better.

Eyes closed, feathers lifting in the breeze, you will pray,
little duckling,
that the birds across the river will call you swanling.
Maybe then the confusion of this life will wash away, and with it
the ones that told you they understood.
The ones who helped you make good choices to lead you safely home.
The ones you followed, if only because they had left you with no better option.
They convinced you of their gleaming truth
and then built walls you did not understand.

Maybe there you will find others you feel safe with.
Maybe it will be beautiful, and you will be at peace.

But for now, little duckling,
it just burns. Questions of twists
and turns, blind suggestions of where to travel,
who to ask,
they all spin in your mind, tug at your heart.
Light smiles down from above and
someday you will see how they see.
But it is okay if you do not,
because following their rules
means that you are free.

Better to be an ugly duckling
than what your heart tells you to be.

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