Learning to be Spicy

I’ve always had a hard time speaking up. Maybe it was a conservative upbringing coupled with my naturally quiet nature. I prefer to go with the flow, stay quiet even if I’m suffering, let others have their way so I don’t have to make a scene.

People have told me I’m sweet and flexible, and I like to think I am (thanks guys). But more often than not, my reasons are less than noble. I’m not always sweet and flexible because I want to be; it’s often due to the fear of conflict that I keep my mouth shut.

My senior year of college, I was in a play, and our tradition in student theater was that each senior would get a notebook in which everyone would write a parting note or thought. The note from our director stuck out to me:

“I know there is a little spice in there with all the sweet,” she wrote. “Stay spicy.”

Those words have remained in my mind ever since, and I’ve tried to figure out what they mean to me. It’s hard, as a shy person, to feel okay with being spicy. It’s hard to be okay with the idea that people may not like your flavor.

I think the internet has magnified my fears in this area. The internet, of course, is a place where everyone speaks their mind, whether it’s well-thought or not, and on the internet people form mobs and crucify each other while, in the real world, eating breakfast or pooping. On the internet, if you give a moderately controversial opinion, or even worse, your raw and unfiltered opinion, you get a bunch of comments from people who are supposed to be your family and friends, who all say things to you with varying degrees of anger or encouragement. These people say things, to you and to each other, that people would rarely say out loud, making vast assumptions about your motivations, your level of education, and your overall character.

Interestingly, I’ve found that this feature of the internet bleeds into my physical conversations, in that I’m so used to seeing bombastic opinions, terrible rhetoric, and knee-jerk reactions that I assume a real-life conversation will contain those too. I might venture that, “Fall is my favorite season,” and I expect a “OH MY GOSH YOU STUPID PREPPY WHITE GIRL WITH YOUR BOOTS AND PUMPKIN SPICE LATTES WHEN WILL IT ALL END?” in return.

Of course, no one in real life says that. (If you do, shame on you. I wish an afterlife of Pumpkin Spice Latte Hell upon you. May you burn in 160 degrees Fahrenheit milk foam.) But the internet, which has succeeded in making so many people stupidly loud, has bullied me into staying quiet.

Of course, being too timid and people-pleasy has been a fault of mine for a while. As a shy and quiet teenager, I got used to coming up with excuses for what I didn’t want to do, because I was terrified of saying, “No.” I’m so busy with schoolwork. I have to watch my little brother. I wish I could, but I… can’t. Or, I went for a compromise: I can’t help with the whole thing, but I’ll help with some of it. When I didn’t want to do any of it.

A few weeks ago, I had an epiphany. Someone asked me if I would be willing to do a certain thing, and while, ironically, I actually did, I was so used to feeling pressured by my internal fears that I was trying to come up with an excuse for why I couldn’t do the thing. And in that moment, I realized how ridiculous and self-sabotaging this was. My fear of speaking up had slowly eroded my sense of what I liked and didn’t like, what I wanted to do and didn’t want to do. I honestly didn’t know, because I didn’t feel like I had the freedom to choose.

I can say anything I want, I thought to myself. I’m an adult. I can say anything I damn well please. I don’t have to come up with an excuse. I can say yes, or I can say no. I can make a decision for myself, and whatever I say won’t be met with an OH MY GOSH YOU STUPID GIRL SHOW SOME RESPECT, because real people don’t say that. Or if they do, well, they have their own problems and I can just turn around and go home.

So in little ways, I’ve tried being more honest with myself. I take the chance and say the thing I think, instead of pretending I agree when I don’t. I take the chance and say what I’d really like to do, instead of pretending that everyone else’s plans sound good to me when they don’t. These decisions aren’t ones I make lightly, and they often cause me a lot of pain.

But I realize it’s an important thing to do, because this is what builds character and integrity: living according to your convictions, even when you want to take the path of least resistance, to keep quiet, to not cause a scene. I’m learning that the voice inside my head which tells me people will be angry, or react like they do on the internet, isn’t telling the whole truth. Because I can be a kind person, and still have convictions. I can disagree with others, and still have friends at the end of the day.

I can be sweet, and still a little spicy.

Know Thyself

In the past few months, my best friend and I have become inadvertent personality scholars.

I don’t quite remember how it started. We bought the same book, Better than Before, about temperament and habit formation. Then we hit a streak where, ironically, we got competitive about reading Quiet, the book on introverts (which we both are). Then during the semester, she read a Myers-Briggs textbook, and we figured out each of our personalities and those of our respective husbands, and read each feature of each personality to oblivion.

(In case you were wondering, I’m a shy introvert, an obliger with a rebel streak, an INFP with a turbulent nature, and a highly-sensitive person. On the Pinterest chart of introverted types as pets, I’m a cute cuddly mouse. According to Buzzfeed, which is even more scientific than Pinterest, I’m a meerkat.)

At some point Jenny asked me whether I thought our newfound knowledge of personality types made us almost too knowledgeable. “Do you think it might make us not rely on God enough?” she wondered. In our shared spiritual tradition, there’s a principle of recognizing, with humility, that we as human beings don’t know everything. And we certainly didn’t want to know so much we became smug, unable to relate to people without first asking the four letters of their Myers-Briggs personality type.

“I find it’s making me rely on him more,” I answered. For one thing, I need guidance outside of myself for putting my newfound knowledge to good use. Also, knowing a lot makes me that smug asshole. So I need help with that too.

But in all seriousness, figuring out how to use one’s knowledge of oneself is incredibly important. Learning so much about myself has taught me that I’m not always as impervious to cultural peer pressure as I think I am. Sometimes I adopt the values of my environment because everyone else thinks those values are common sense, when in reality they often squelch the very strengths I have. And then instead of being thoughtful about my nature, I’ve often been the hardest squelcher of them all, thinking I must fix myself in some way.

I’ve worked fast-paced jobs, but I’m a more quiet, deliberate person. I’ve worked in environments that encourage making sales, but I value authenticity and good causes. I’ve put myself in situations where I am expected to be chatty and engaging and to connect with a ton of people in any given day, but to me connection is something you can’t force. It must be deep and intentional and take a lot of time.

All of this pushing against my own nature has left me frustrated and even more disappointed with who I am. But when Jenny and I started studying personalities, (admittedly) becoming greater nerds on the subject, something clicked. It’s no longer a matter of changing myself to fit a mold, but rather of finding a mold that I can fit into already, a mold with a shape I fit and room I can grow in.

The catch, of course, is that we all have to spend our lives figuring out the tension between who we are and what life is, between who we should be and what life should be. We have to figure out when it’s okay to change and when it’s okay to stick to our nature, when it’s appropriate to build on our strengths, and when it’s better to strengthen our weaknesses. This goes along with that spiritual principle of realizing that no matter how much I know, I don’t know everything. I need guidance and strength outside myself to make big decisions and little decisions, moment by moment, that will polish me more and more into the person I truly am.

So that’s step two.

Rising Above the Oooh

I’ve always considered myself someone who likes to travel. I mean, it makes you sound so accomplished.

“What do you like to do?”
“I’m a writer, and a big reader. I also love to travel.”
“Really! Where have you been?”
“I’ve been to Europe,” *shrug*.
“Oooh.”

I live for the Admiring Oooh.

In all seriousness, I really do enjoy travel, not just for the Admiring Oooh. Visiting new places and seeing life done in different ways has always fascinated me. It’s wonderful to think that while you’re at home doing whatever you do, all these people are here, miles and miles away, doing what they do. It doesn’t stop and start when you arrive, it happens simultaneously with your own timeline. And for a moment, you get to step into a story not your own, and watch it, and sometimes even write some of it.

However, as I’ve gotten older (and this is really sad because I’m not even that old), I’ve found that I have to remind myself how much I love traveling, because more often than not it really stresses me out. New places are unfamiliar, full of a million unknowns, and I hate unknowns. Also I have a sensitive stomach that gets ill easily. Also I need to have enough sleep, and who knows if this will happen? Also I sunburn, literally, like hell. Also I am easily dehydrated. Where’s the closest water fountain? I pull away from my house, my place, with all my things in it, and see it looking so forlorn and abandoned, and I want to run back and cancel everything.

(And this is just going to visit my parents.)

I’ve learned that some things are worth hacking through a slew of fears for. I’ve done it before, and I regret it when I don’t. I want to cling to home, to peace, to the familiar, but not always for noble reasons. Often, very often, I cling to these things out of fear, thinking that without them I will no longer be myself. I forget that I am becoming evermore myself because of the times I travel, the times I encounter unknowns, the times I uproot myself now for better roots later. I would rather be that sort of person than to spare my house’s feelings.

I really do want to be the sort of person who travels, and not just for the Admiring Oooh.

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To My Curls

 

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I used to hate you.

I think I spent all of 2006 in a grocery store aisle, looking for the next product that promised to smooth you out. The next brightly-colored bottle of goop that promised to slick you down. The next electrical metal contraption that promised to iron you flat.

I used to hate the little tendrils that framed my face like grapevines. I used to hate the ends that curled up and out instead of down and under. I used to hate how you stubbornly held your shape, even when all the other girls’ hair could bounce from hairstyle to hairstyle with barely a ripple, fanning out thick and glossy like a yard of silk.

You were too poofy, too voluminous, too Victorian for a time when sleek, slender hair was all the rage. Funny thing is, I don’t think I would have minded you, if it were up to me. But it was middle school. It was 2006. And so it wasn’t up to me.

I wanted to blend in, to be cool, to be like the others. And you refused me every time. You forced me to stand out, to be unusual, to be myself. And I hated it. I was awkward as it was. I didn’t need any help from you.

“Your hair is gorgeous. Trust me,” my mother would say. “I used to pay good money for hair like that.”

I didn’t trust her, because most preteens don’t. Especially when it comes to hair. And the fact that she paid good money in the 90s to look like me wasn’t comforting. The 90s weren’t cool then like they are now.

When I was seventeen, I finally learned how to use a straightener. I ironed you out every day. You were finally glossy and shiny and slippery, like everyone else’s hair. You were hell to keep in a ponytail, and I had to use twice the amount of bobby pins, but I didn’t care. I blended in. I was cool. I was like the others.

(Until it got humid. Or rained. Or I went swimming.)

I snagged my first boyfriend the year I started ironing you out. One day I went to his house and we took a walk through the woods. It started to rain, heavy sheets of water over the trees. I was aghast. You were returning to yourself with each heavy drop.

“Can I borrow your sister’s hair straightener?” I asked him.

“But why? Your hair’s so pretty,” he said.

And then I got braver and let you out. I let the tendrils frame my face, the ringlets twist tighter and tighter, the waves squiggle up and down. I let you fall down my back, fanning out like a cut of heavy brocade. I let you play with the wind.

And slowly I realized I loved you. On days I ironed you out, I missed you. I didn’t recognize myself until I let you come back.

(I married the man you helped me snag.)

We have a lot in common, you and I. We’re moody. We’re whimsical. We’re hopelessly old-fashioned.

And sometimes, you still have a mind of your own. Sometimes you’re belligerent. Sometimes you frizz over yourself like mist on a lake, or you feel coarse as wool and you scratch my hands.

Sometimes, usually on days I’m most frustrated with you, my best friend will tell me, “Your hair is so happy today.”

And I realize she’s right.

So every day I try to notice how happy you are, now that you’re not always smoothed out, slicked down, or ironed flat. I start to notice how lovely it is that you’re happy. How lovely you are because you’re happy.

And it makes me happy too.