Last month, I read an essay by a woman named Jennifer Trafton, and in it she described “the feeling of being the Picassoesque face in every crowd…You would like me, surely, if only my left ear were not hanging crookedly off the end of my tongue.” The essay made me cry.
I was raised by parents who were academics and who were Christians. They had PhDs from the University of Chicago and now taught British literature at a state university, and every Sunday morning we brought along hymnals and sang “Fairest Lord Jesus” and “Holy, Holy, Holy” on the way to church in the minivan. In a world where the evangelical mind was a scandal, and universities were ever busier building ivory towers of Babel, they, and therefore we, were impossibilities. Yet there we sat after dinner each night, reading aloud everything from Corrie Ten Boom to Thackeray to Yeats to the Psalms.
And so I was always acutely aware I was like no one around me. From the time I was about six I understood that I was my own little untethered island, floating through the strange seas of the wide world. My friends listened to Adventures in Odyssey and went to the beach every summer and spring and watched the Disney Channel and had things like Gushers and individually packaged Pringles in their snacks. I read multiple books a day and swung on a swing my dad had made and took long walks when my mom kicked me out of the house for reading too much and ate home-grown dried tomatoes off the racks of my mother’s dehydrator. Through sticky North Carolina summers, we went without air conditioning and lived with windows open to the breeze, and in winter we heated our house with a wood stove. Once, while standing in my kitchen, a friend who had been to my house dozens of times told me that it seemed strange that my family owned something so modern and practical as a microwave.
I felt displaced. I was made of some other metal than all those around me, softer, with an odd sheen, and I knew the differences went far beyond my family. I remember as a child spending afternoons wandering round and round my backyard looking for a place that could be only mine, that felt just right. I climbed trees and I crawled under bushes and no place fit. I was the wrong shape for all of them. Later when I first began to write stories in earnest, I always stuck consciously to fairy tales. I felt so unsure of and baffled by the world around me, that I didn’t think I could muster it onto the page. I did not belong to it, and it did not belong to me.
I don’t think a day has gone by when I have not felt too small or too large, too old or too young, too much or too little. I was loved and am loved, and I have never once doubted that, but in every group, I feel like the token, though I’m never sure what I’m meant to be a token of–the one who reads and dreams and cries and digs her heels in? The one-of-these-things-is-not-like-the-other girl?
When I was young I resisted my differences: I wished my parents had named me Sarah, like everybody else, and when the other fifth grade girls chatted about their manicures and asked me if I was going to get one too, I said ‘maybe,’ knowing as I said it that it was a lie. But by the time I hit middle school, I had decided to make peace with my awkwardly glinting differences, to learn to love them. I began to cling to them, in fact, sometimes at the cost of relationships with other people. I was shy and stubborn and defensive. (I am still shy and stubborn and defensive, but sometimes I am a little better at hiding it.) I cowered beneath the banner of myself. In fact, there were seasons and places in my life when, for my own comfort, I consistently translated “I am different than you” into “I am better than you.” I thought that superiority would ward off loneliness and fear. (It didn’t. It just made me bitter.)
Around the time I was seventeen or eighteen, though, I gradually began to get a little better at friendship. I started to actually listen, and wait, and wade slowly through the waters of the people around me. And I found, over the course of months and years, that many people who to me had seemed as if they fit so well, were actually covering their own strangely shaped hearts with their hands, and covertly glancing at the world around them with incredulity. I began to carry a quietly blossoming sense of awe as I encountered others. I wasn’t the oddity. We all were.
I know now that the misfit feeling comes from different sources and is more tangible for some than others. For some it’s characterized by real, crushing sorrow or sin which has marked them like Cain, for others by differences in race or culture or ability or interest or by unhappy and broken families and relationships. For many of us though, it’s just a vague feeling that one is some complex and malfunctioning prototype abandoned in a warehouse full of unlike objects.
None of this seems joyful or purposeful and yet I remain awed. I’m not certain why. Perhaps it is because I know our loneliness has the potential to teach us compassion and kindness. Perhaps it is because I know we were not abandoned in the warehouse after all, and that God has a plan for all us billions of impossibilities. Or perhaps it is because I know that God came to seek and save the lost and call little Zacchaeus out of the tree where he clung. I am overwhelmed by the largeness and the strangeness of such original Love.