Writing from the Heart: Accepting us

It’s good to know we’re fine just the way we are.

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What other people think of me is none of my business, a mantra I repeat now and then just to remind myself to be myself. I only need to hear it when I’m feeling that who I am is not going to work for whomever I’m about to encounter. Luckily, those times are few and far between these days.

I remember reading an Ann Landers quote: “At 20 we worry about what others think of us … at 40 we don’t care what they think of us … at age 60 we discover they haven’t been thinking of us at all.” But I was in my 20s, and 60 was a bridge not even imagined, forget a bridge too far. So the wisdom must have gone in one ear and nestled comfortably in my head.

There was an era when I probably could have used a flashing neon sign with “who cares, who cares, who cares,” following me into every space I entered.

In 1965, on July 3, I had a blind date with my husband-to-be (but who knew?), and then on July 4, I had a blind date with the guy I was programmed to marry: Yale undergraduate, Harvard Law, prominent moneyed family, everything my parents dreamed for their daughter. The only problem was, they were their dreams, not mine. And there was a second problem; Joel and I laughed all night, and David wasn’t a nice person. Sadly, I was so brainwashed, I continued to date them both, hoping Harvard would ask me to marry him first.

I have a disastrous memory of being at David’s sister’s gorgeous apartment on Riverside Drive, NYC, on a Sunday morning with his parents and the New York Times. At that point I had been dating their son for about seven months. They were demonstrably unimpressed. I had done just about everything I could to get them to like me. So there I was, intimidated by the expensive surroundings, the intellectual conversation, and now they were all doing the NY Times Magazine crossword puzzle, out loud, as a group. I knew to keep my head down and hope they wouldn’t notice that I wouldn’t be contributing. Anything.

Suddenly I heard my name: “Nancy, here’s one for you.” My heart started banging in my chest, and all I could do was silently pray, Please God, let me get this. If you let me get this, I’ll donate a kidney to the human of your choice. If I get this, then maybe he’ll marry me and I’ll finally be happy and have wall-to-wall carpeting and Marimekko on the walls of my cool carriage house in Connecticut, Connecticut, and then I’ll finally be happy.

It was some Shakespearean quote, and even if I had known (which I didn’t), my brain had gone into freeze mode, and all I could do was turn chartreuse green and mumble some incoherent non sequitur. I saw their reactions as they looked from me to their golden boy. The translation was obvious: “What are you doing with this girl?”

It’s been decades since I have let anyone make me feel stupid and inconsequential like that. The only time there’s even a hint of that kind of insecurity is when someone brings out a board game and announces they’re going to teach me the rules, and how much I’m going to love this game.

It happened last winter after a lovely dinner with new friends.

My first reaction was, Oh dear, now they’re gonna find out I’m not as smart as they assumed (assuming they assumed I was smart).

It’s not that I feel dumb. I just feel uneducated. From an educational point of view, I have serious gaps. I still don’t know anything about the Boer War (something to do with the Dutch), I don’t know when someone says, Oh, that happened in the 18th century, if it means the 1700s or the 1900s, that MIddlemarch has nothing to do with the calendar, and until recently when my husband explained Newton’s inertia, I thought Newton was just not able to get up off the couch.

So if you were to judge my IQ on those little factual lapses, the number would be below sea level. Practical things that normal people seem to know never took hold in my brain. It was my husband who explained that the sky is blue because of the gas ozone, it was my husband who taught me the concept of exponential, and how the Doppler Effect works, and that eminent domain wasn’t named after a woman named Emma.

Anyway, back to last year, when I baffled my team partner in a game called Code Names, with a clue that I based on a nonfact, on one of those things regular people know, but somehow had eluded me. Now I know octopi don’t have spines. No one humiliated me. No one shamed me. My partner wasn’t upset that we lost because of me.

Walking around my town of Chilmark pretending to be just like all the other people, when just because I have eaten octopus (no more after seeing “My Octopus Teacher”), and thinking that they have spines, does not make me sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap. It just makes me a perpetual student.

There’s a happy ending here. The self-esteem gods have just blessed me with Rummy Cube, a game I happen to be good at. It’s the combination of luck and skill that makes me love it so much. But mostly I never care who wins. It’s just so much fun playing it.

There isn’t one minute that I am worried about what other people think of me. I don’t even worry about what I think of me.

After all, I know if I wanted to learn about the Boer War, I could Google it, and there’s no reason I have to know about the Fifth Amendment and the public use of property. As for Middlemarch and understanding the math of centuries, I’ve finally got my priorities straight. Mostly because I married the right guy.