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Friendship, Fitting In, and Other Foreign Languages

There are all sorts of things I enjoy doing. I would even go out on a limb and say that I’m good at a few of them – baking yeast rolls, making embroidered wreaths, mowing the lawn, alphabetizing everything. But something I’ve never been great at has been making (and keeping) friends.

I just don’t think I have the stamina. Especially at this stage in my life, I’m too tired to keep up with people. There are already so many things that require my care, attention, and effort all within the four walls of my house. Keeping track of things outside of my home seems monumental and exhausting. But, more than that, I can’t seem to make myself fit. Anywhere. And, believe me, in my own feeble way, I’ve tried.

Me, my childhood "friends," and a shag carpet.

Growing up, I was an only child with a helicopter mom before that was even a thing. I wasn’t allowed to play in my own front yard (because: kidnappers) and I couldn’t go to other people’s houses unless my parents knew their parents (because: who knows). The thing about that was that my parents seldom knew other parents because they were too timid to befriend them. So, I watched as my classmates’ friendships blossomed, due to their extracurricular exposure, meanwhile mine stagnated because I was left out of the mix.

I learned to play alone early on and never had much practice in the intricacies of building relationships. As a result, the nuances of friendship became almost as lost on me as speaking in a foreign tongue. I grew up only knowing what it was to be a monopoly or a nothing. Even to this day, it’s still hard for me to separate my instinctive pull toward the black and white. It’s always all or nothing; someone is either with me or against me. We are meant to be best friends of the highest order or strangers yet to make eye contact. In my small world, there is absolutely nothing in between.

This sense deepened in middle school, as my peers delighted in making it known how unwilling they were to accept me into the fold. For no real reason that was ever apparent to me, I was picked on and told that I wasn’t pretty/funny/popular/interesting enough to belong anywhere, so I belonged nowhere. I came home in tears most days. I was invited to exactly zero parties. And even though I begged my mom for Girbaud jeans and a “cool” perm, none of those things changed what was inevitable: I was a clunky outsider. A geek. A friendless dork. A nobody.

Within a few years, during high school - when lunch breaks were consumed with attempts to mask my new anorexic habits - I tried desperately to fit in with a small group of kids who were nothing less than run-of-the-mill “stoners.” They weren’t especially smart, but their taste in music was good and they were never particularly mean, so I hoped I would find an easier place in their company. However, fun fact: I never did drugs. As you can imagine, this caused my time in their world to be short-lived. It was okay, though. I didn’t miss them much. And I don’t even think they remembered I was there.

When I recovered from my starvation and took up healthier habits at the gym, I was often the only girl among men in the stinky dankness of the weight room. It was great to be so…unique…but, once again, I still didn’t fit. However, that didn’t bother me as much as my attempts to fold into the art scene after I graduated from school.

As the dust of the teen years settled and I discovered my life-altering love for painting, I knew that making art was what I wanted to do with my life. But, as I was venturing out to galleries, meeting with art directors and attempting to peddle my work, everyone else I knew was going off to college and expanding their horizons (and social circles) exponentially. I tried to meet other artists, but Houston isn’t New York, and that world is just so very…what’s the nice way to say it...full of pretensions. Without money, an effervescent personality, or a string of social ties, I remained disconnected from the scene; an untethered thread trying to weave myself into an exclusionary tapestry. But it never seemed to work.

Apparently, it’s true what they say - you have to know somebody in order to get somewhere! Although I didn’t really know anyone, I pushed and persisted beyond my own natural limits. I made cold calls, I met with venues, I reached out to media, I tried my hand at social mixers. ALL OF IT was beyond uncomfortable for this little introvert. But I loved my art, and I wanted the best for it, so I exhausted all avenues…despite my inclinations to roll-up into a fetal position and close my eyes to the never-ending rejections.

In the end, after dozens of instances of getting my hopes up with gallery heads or juried shows, I always ended up getting brushed off. Even my art didn’t seem to fit in anywhere! The traditional galleries said my work was too modern. The modern galleries said my work was too traditional. The outsider galleries said my work was too mainstream. The mainstream galleries said my work was too outside. In the end, everyone had an opinion: it was simply that I didn’t belong.

Even my artistic subjects are often alone.

But that’s not all! Nope. My journey through awkwardness extends far beyond my early years or my time as an artist. It exists in every fiber of who I am. I’m now in my 40s and can safely say that I still don’t really have a community or place where I fit among people. Not in the deepest sense. I know a few folks, and they sort of know me, but I’m not sure how many of them are actual compadres. Most of them don’t even know my middle name or how loudly I laugh at stand-up comedy.

I’m not sure what I am expecting, either; it’s always been that way. All my truest friends in childhood were imaginary. Many of the real ones have been unrequited. I’ve never been anyone’s maid of honor. Never taken a girls’ trip. I have yet to call someone my best friend and have it really stick (unless you count my husband). And I can’t think of a single person, outside of my family, who I would call with good news or bad – I just don’t think anyone would care that much.

Also - while I’m expanding on things – I should note that I don’t belong to a church (I’m not a believer). I’m not a part of the PTA (I didn’t enjoy the meetings or power struggles). I read books, but I don’t do book clubs. I run, but I prefer to do it alone. In other words, that fabled village – the one that people are always talking about - doesn’t exist for me. It sounds lovely. And it sure would be amazing to feel loved, seen, and accepted by a group of outsiders, but I don’t think everyone gets to live there. I know I surely don’t. I guess someone has to be the odd one out. And maybe that’s my special skill. I mean, really; of course, it is!

In all honesty, even though I get a little sullen when I see everyone being extra extroverted on social media – people out in the world, posing for pictures, doing stuff, faces pressed up close, smiling – I can’t help but also feel a small sense of relief that I don’t have to expend that much effort. I mean, all the time I’ve saved from not taking pictures of brunch or chatting about vague topics of nonsense must have surely added at least a couple of years to my life. Not to mention, I can budget the money allotted for birthday gifts and friendly ventures for something else. Probably just something for the kids. Or the lawn. But still….

The point of this confession is not to self-efface or wallow in my loneliness. In fact, when others aren’t rubbing my nose (virtually, of course) in how broken I am compared to the vast norms that prevail in our society, I feel quite content not knowing my neighbors or becoming engrossed in gossip trains. I don’t intentionally exempt myself from caring. I just haven’t had the best track record for finding myself among those who would reciprocate in equal measures.

If what Ralph Waldo Emerson said is true – “the only way to have a friend is to be one” – maybe I just need to face the fact that I’m not a friend in the same way that I’m not a chesty redhead or a tinny soprano. It’s just not how I’m built. And that’s okay. I’ve lived this long accepting myself for not being skilled at a myriad of other things (stain removal, flirting, grilling steaks, parallel parking). Adding friendship to the list may not be so shameful or uncommon.

Or maybe I just need more sleep. And time. Maybe someday I’ll get more practice and finally find that special group of gal pals. But, until pigs fly, I will settle on making my lawn extra neat, my rolls extra yeasty and bask in the joys that a husband and children will give me – which is to say an entire maddening and exhausting universe unto itself. But a place where I finally fit; a village that is entirely mine.

The only village that will have me - overall a pretty great group!


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