I have always been sort of aware of the way I present myself to people. I don’t know if it was specifically my mother, or all southern mothers, but I was always led, verbally or non-verbally, to be conscious of the optics of everything I did. I remember at a very young age trying to emulate what I saw as masculine behavior in, not adult men but, my older male cousins. I am the youngest of nine grandchildren, two of which are from my father’s side of the family and five are from my mother’s side of the family and the two remaining are my sister and me. And I am the baby of them all. Well, except that now I am not. I have an uncle that is seven years older than I am and he just had a baby not too long ago. Wait, that’s not right. His wife had a baby not too long ago. Now he is the youngest of them all. Except he doesn’t count the two grandchildren on my father’s side because he isn’t related to them. But then he does have a gaggle of cousins on his mother’s side, but I am not related to them and I don’t even know why I told you about them. The point being! I am from a small southern community and I was constantly reminded that the community can see everything!
The Community… That is something that every southerner hears about from an early age. It is like Big Brother. And I guarantee you that no one is more terrified of the watchful eye of the community than your mother. Why is she so aware of the community and their scathing opinions and their comments that sear through to the bone like an ice hot syringe? Because she is one of them. She has her own opinion about other southern women and the way they raise their children and no one does it better than her. Why? Because no one did it better than her mother and her mother taught her everything she knows. And if your mother has a sister, there is another micro-war being waged to see which daughter can uphold the legacy of the mother more devoutly. Alliances are made in the Community. If two women are sitting alone in church in between Sunday School and communion you could bet your offering plate money, double or nothing, they are talking about a member of a third family and how they are doing something that is the matriarch’s fault.
I knew from day one, day one I tell you, that I was different. I could look around and be sure that there was something about me that didn’t seem to fit with the formula of what southerners thought was normal and acceptable. Luckily, today, I have a lot of friends from my old community who love me and really love how different I am. they seem to live vicariously through me. I am hyper-aware of this and I like to put on a good show for the Christian folk. I can get away with it because I am Christian myself. Despite what some of the Church of Christ and Baptist Christians might elude to, they are not the gate keepers to God and if you have a relationship with him or her, that is your business.
Though, I have shed the layer of self-consciousness that leads me to care in the least little bit what the community thinks of me, let’s be clear, there are still many, many layers to self-consciousness that lie within. It is something that southerners will never shake. You can move to Europe, New York City, Istanbul, etc. and you can lose the accent, die your hair purple, pierce anything that is remotely pink or cover every inch of your alabaster skin in the permanent ink of sin, but you are still going to be aware of what people think of you. You will always think about what people think. We always hear about Catholic guilt or Jewish guilt, but I think another guilt that is secretly strong and sneaky is Southern Protestant guilt. It’s like herpes or rosacea, it lingers under the skin and hasn't showed its ugly face for ages, but then you have an event that happens once in a lifetime and there she is, primed for the world to see.
People like me, the ones people call, “The Ones That Made It Out,” I believe are the ones that are the most sensitive to what people think. We are always aware of keeping up appearances. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the family Christmas letter, the Church Bulletin, your grandmother that get’s her hair done down at Shelby Harris’s shop, the ways people have access to us are limitless. Sometimes I walk around New York City with my determinant walk and “Get the hell outta my way you Godforsaken tourist” grimace, and I eat my sushi and I have my baggie of kale chips and I read The New York Times while I sip my Korean soup prepared specially by authentic “little old Korean ladies” fresh off the boat for 50 years now in Korean town and all I can think is, “God I would punch a nun in the throat for a nice heaping of collard greens and corn bread.” But you don’t dare… Have collard greens or corn bread, I mean. Punching a nun is not as much of a betrayal to the image you have created for yourself as having collard greens or corn bread would be. My grandfather would even throw a turkey neck in his to flavor the juice.
I think the one thing that I realize most about myself in New York City is that I am constantly aware of the image I project. I have the reputation for being a bookworm. This is something that I love most about the image that I project. I ride the subway for 30-40 minutes one-way everyday and so it is a wonderful time to get some reading done. Most people listen to music, but I read because I love to read. I don’t dare throw my books into a bag because I have to at least try to keep them in as pristine a condition as possible. The reason I love the bookworm persona that others have projected onto me is because I have two college degrees. No one knows that in New York City, nor do they care. But I care. I want to let the world know that. The reason for this is I am working in a world, right now, that has nothing to do with my degree, and I struggle for intellectual stimulation in this world in which I have found myself. So, having an outward symbol that tells the world I am intelligent makes me beam with pride. People tell me that too. They say, “You must be really smart. Every time I see you, you have a book.” I beam with joy on the inside.
We… and by we, I am referring to “the ones that got out…” We are constantly making choices, though. I choose to wear the clothes I wear because it says I am trendy, but casual. I see the New York ladies always throwing on a nice top over black leggings and some boots. That is the uniform that says, “I was born here, so if you want to see my style you better look at my face because my makeup is flawless.” I can pick a southern lady out of the crowd in New York because she will be wearing the cutest sandals with pedicured toes and not a hair out of place on top of her head. I also wear Karma beads that I bought in a New Age shop that has a shaman and a psychic on site. I wear them for three reasons. One, because they say I am worldly and spiritual, two, because I actually am spiritual and in need of a lighter and more positive energy and I am hoping that the placebo effect will take root, and three, because I like the way they look. I wear my FitBit because I want to say to the world, I care about fitness and my own health. If you followed me home from work you would see me proceed directly to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts and pick up a few and then march straight to my apartment and unbutton my shorts with the loudest exhale. After that you could watch my waist line expand three and a half inches as I conclude the sucking in portion of the program.
If you stop to look around you, you will notice that everyone has an article of clothing or accessory, a behavior, or a prop that would fall under the category of “Because Of What Others Think.” I wonder to myself, why do we do this to ourselves? Upon the many conversations I have had with native-born New Yorkers, I now know that they too grew up in communities like this. The communities that are scattered around New York are limitless. There are Polish communities, Jewish communities, Dominican communities, Puerto Rican communities, Russian communities, Asian communities, hipster communities, open-minded liberal communities, black communities, rich white communities, middle-class white communities, poor communities, rich mixed communities. The list goes on and on and all of them have their own watchful eyes that are probably being completely controlled by the mothers in the community. The only community that I can think of that might escape the disease of self-consciousness is the open-minded liberal community. But then, even that community would put undue pressure on their children. Say someone was born into this community and they grew up to want to be a wife and stay-at-home mother. They would be ridiculed for not having more of an identity than what she does for her husband and her children. So, really, no one can escape this curse.
I think it should be mandatory, whenever you meet someone new, you have to take 30 seconds to look them over, find one thing about them that would induce jealousy, and then tell them one thing about yourself that you don’t like about you, and they have to do the same.
Me: “Hi I am Kyle. I really like your clothes. They are so nice I wish I could put together an
outfit like that. I really hate the way I look chubby in every picture despite how much
weight I lose.
Brad: “Hi. I am Bradley Von Littlespoon. Nice to meet you. Thank you. I got these clothes out of
my cousin’s closest after he was hit by a little person shot out of a cannon at the circus. I
really like your karma beads and FitBit. I like how you wear them on the same wrist,
accentuating your non-dominant hand. I really hate how big my Adam’s apple is. I feel like
it’s all anyone stares at when they are talking to me.
See? Doesn’t that relieve so much pressure when you are out and about with so many other people in this world. We are all suffering from essentially the same problems… Well, except Brad’s cousin. We all want to feel special. We all want to belong. We all want someone to look at us and, just for a moment, think, “Man, I would love to just see what his life is like.” We all know, honestly, we wouldn’t change lives with anyone. Because we all know deep down inside we wouldn’t be just getting rid of our problems, we would be taking theirs. Better the mess you know than the mess you don’t know. Am I right? So, the next time you meet someone new, just instantly tell them something you like about them and then follow it up with something extremely personal you don’t care for about yourself. I bet you will be incredibly surprised by how quickly you bond with this person.
NOTICE: My license to be a Personal Life Coach has expired and was only valid in Dickey
County in the state of North Dakota to begin with. Taking the sage life advice you
have read in the previous passage is doing so at your own risk.