Dear Olive

illustration by Brianna Ashby

Dear Olive,

How should a person be?

Love,

Sheila

***

Dear Sheila,

The summer I was seven, I spent two days on the middle bench of an airless yellow VW bus driving from Albuquerque to Los Angeles, with my family decomposing all around me.

The summer I was seven, my grandfather taught me to dance to distract me from our family burning down to their knees. He was the best partner I’ll ever have.

That was the summer my brother Duane stopped talking. When he painted giant positive negative portraits of Nietzsche on bed sheets and carried around a paperback copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra that he curled open like the Red Sea. By no longer investing any energy in being a member of the human race, he was freed to obsess over becoming a test pilot. Push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups. Every repetition climbing a bit higher toward the goal of getting stronger, sharper, more disciplined, better. He grew his hair long that year; his bangs hiding his eyes like a cave and I hoped that if he missed talking to anyone at all, it was me.

My father was gone a lot that year, out delivering motivational training seminars to mid-sized businesses in the industrial ring around Albuquerque. When he was home, I could hear him through our stuccoed walls, discreet as curtains. Typing at an angry clip or leaving messages for his agent. Talking too loudly about the selling power of his book on the Nine Steps to Success. I don’t remember the steps but resilience must have been one. Not shame though—you couldn’t possibly have any shame and leave as many messages as my dad did for Stan Grossman that summer. That was the least happy I ever saw my dad, though the question of happiness never would have occurred to him. Life was about the polarities of winning and losing. And he was suffering the incredible discomfort of wandering around some uncertain land between.

Mom always said Dad was the most handsome boy she ever dated. And she dated plenty of others. A wealthy boy named Evelyn (which made Grandpa and me laugh and laugh), who used to come into the coffee shop mom worked at during college. Every Thursday morning at 7:15 he’d sit down at the counter and ask her out. Two eggs, scrambled hard. A side of bacon and rye toast. And what are you doing Saturday night? The city attorney’s son even proposed to her, home on Christmas break from a fancy medical school in Tennessee. But none of them had what Dad had. Mom said the moment he walked in, the coffee shop shifted. The diners felt him pass and couldn’t stop themselves from turning to stare. That’s the kind of charisma we’re talking about, Olive, she said. You could feel it like a bonfire. It was the way he stood, or the perfect wave of his hair. Or that smile that made people want to offer him everything they had and feel proud if he accepted. Somewhere along the way, though, I guess that flame got a little smaller. Even if dad still believed in himself, people had started to turn back to their food.

When my Uncle Richard came to stay with us that summer, I saw how mom would smile behind her hand when he made fun of Dad for being uptight or cheesy or tyrannical. It was like she knew she needed to stand beside him, but her legs were getting tired. And Uncle Richard’s invitation for her to sit down awhile was just a new flood of water in our family’s sinking life raft.

I couldn’t blame her really. Dad had plans. Opportunities. Pitches. But Mom had work. Every day, every week, overtime. The whole weight of life was hanging from the wrinkles around her eyes. Casting her mouth down into a frown she shoved off whenever she saw me or Duane. Sometimes, I’d climb out of bed and sneak down the hall to watch her at night. Sitting at the dining room table with a cup of flat Sprite, pushing her hair back until it rose up in crooked, static clumps like swamp reeds. Looking from a stack of papers to the calculator and pounding in numbers over and over, like a safe combination she’d forgotten. My grandpa said she was so beat all the time because it was exhausting work for the woman to be the man of the family. I don’t think she ever stopped being the mom either, so maybe he was right.

Grandpa was my favorite and I was his. He made fun of Duane and dad over dinner and told you the things adults are always trying to hide away or pretty up for you. What it was like to shoot a Nazi or take drugs or how he loved grandma but was also really happy to be able to get other women to love him when she died. And then he’d shuffle off to the bathroom and leave you alone to figure out what you thought of that.

So there we were that summer. Duane, who hated everyone. Dad whose life had run away from him. Uncle Richard, crushed into powder because the boy he loved didn’t love him back and his big job was gone. Mom, swimming across the ocean with us all on her back. Grandpa. And me.

In the midst of this mess, I got invited to compete in a beauty pageant, 800 miles away. All I cared about that summer was being a beauty. I was a seven-year-old girl and there was nothing more magical than the way Miss America’s face flicked on like neon when they announced the runner-up and she suddenly knew she had won. In a world full of women, it came down to her. She was the perfect mix of Snow White and Helen of Troy and Jessica Rabbit. The world had deemed her inscrutable, and what could be better than that?

Looking back, I don’t know why they decided to go. My family had no energy, no money, no time. Nothing left. And yet they took the road trip. For me.

And it saved my life. Not because I won the contest—oh no. Not even because the trip was a happy memory. It was terrible: The car was ruined by the time we arrived. Grandpa died halfway to California. Did I mention that? My grandpa / best friend died without a single noise while I slept eight feet away in a 20 year old motel bed. I tried not to be too sad because I knew he would have thought it was funny to go like that. My parents fought all night and dad lost his book deal. Duane found out he was color blind—you’ve never heard an animal howl like Duane did when he realized he couldn’t be a pilot. Uncle Richard was still on suicide watch, still dragging the carcass of his life behind him to politely keep up with us because someone had decided he couldn’t be trusted alone anymore.

We were in shambles. I was stewing in the sewage of my family’s fear that summer. Their insecurities and loneliness and resentment at life. At the weight of expectations upon them.

They were losing faith and I was getting lost alongside them.

Looking back, I guess I thought winning a pageant—being judged the very best girl—might be enough to save us.

We fled into the pageant like refugees. Tired and forlorn and carrying our dead. While outside, tan dads on Bluetooths parked black SUVs so shiny they looked perpetually wet in this seaside desert. Inside, blonde, taut moms hugged blonde, taut daughters and reminded them to smile.

I went in earnestly hoping that the world would discover it had been wrong about me—waiting for its change of heart was getting exhausting. But spending three hours in a sweaty South Bay Hilton taught me one thing that changed my life forever: I’d been trusting the wrong people.

It came to me in the middle of my dance routine. Picture this: I’m up on this temporary ballroom stage, hitting all my moves and keeping perfect time. Doing it better than I’d ever done it. But these people—they don’t get it. Their faces are flinching at the music and the girls are laughing and pointing at my outfit.

And suddenly, just like that, I realized the world was a tyrant. A boring, unappeasable tyrant with terrible taste. It couldn’t see what an epic song grandpa and I had chosen. Or how impossibly tricky it was to rip off Velcro pants without missing a step. How hard my grandpa had worked to sew them, even though it made his hands twist and cramp up and his eyes sting and blur. They didn’t even get it.

You see, Dear Sheila, there’s a moment in this life when we each get to decide: Who are we going to trust? Who will we choose to stand by?

I’d known these pageant dummies for all of an hour. They had long waxy smiles that they presented to the world, but off stage no one even responded when I said hello. Or I like your pantyhose. Or did you sew that bow on your butt yourself?

But me? I had known me for seven years. I had kept me company when Mom and Dad yelled behind their bedroom door and Duane’s silence flooded the house like a fog. I had calmed me down and cheered me up and made me laugh.

I trusted me more than I trusted them.

So I stood up on that stage and I danced for grandpa, who trusted himself too, and I danced for me and I danced in celebration that the verdict didn’t matter anymore. My family even came up onstage, leaving behind that quiet, awkward crowd with their tsking and their pursed lips. Just stepped right up out of the failure and judgment and danced like they’d finally been released. Elbows flying and butts bouncing. Spinning and spinning and laughing right next to me in that hot fat freedom.

I didn’t win the pageant, Sheila. I got kicked out, actually. Dad did lose his book and Duane lost his dream and we all lost Grandpa.

But somehow all that loss paved a way. We got back to trusting that we were good enough.

So what’s the meaning of life? How are people supposed to be? Well, Sheila, this is what I believe: The only secret is knowing—in your bones, in the sinew that winds around them and the blood that flows above them—that you are good enough.

More than that, that you are Enough.

Believing this is the start to everything. Nothing really ever grows unless it’s planted here first. You might argue this is narcissistic but I assure you: Nothing more surely guarantees a life of miserly self-absorption than the constant fear that somehow you are not good enough. The plague and marathon of insecurity is what dooms us. It’s what makes us do the worst things to each other.

But accepting that you are just what you need to be? That’s what sets you free. You are able to create without worry. To teach without ego and learn without judgment. To root for the rest of the world to win. To forgive people who don’t root for you. To give and love without expectation for reciprocation or praise. Knowing that you don’t need the world’s endorsement (and “the world” is as big as the media and as small as your boss or boyfriend) brings an abundant peace that you’ll never find through competition or achievement or beauty.

And it will build you a tribe of people who need the same sweet grace. Because what people are drawn to more than anything is others who can teach them, convince them, pardon them and endow them with the sacred understanding that We Are Each Enough.

So this is your job: Believe in the wholeness and beauty and weirdness and sanctity of yourself—just as you are, despite what you do—and then become a disciple for this faith.

When you are well convinced of your own irrevocable enoughness, start paying attention to the goodness in others and reflect that light back at them like you are ending a blackout. It is a search after all, my friend, and they are lost. Go find your tribe and gift this enoughness to them. There’s no more sacred work in the world than spreading this grace.

We are enough.

Hallelujah.

You have been Enough for as long as you’ve been anything at all. You are already what a person should be, Sheila. And the faster you figure that out, the sooner you’ll be free.

Love,

Olive