A new girl showed up at our school. She was a farm girl and wore the same dress – blue flowers and a collar. Maybe it wasn’t the same dress, maybe her grandmother got a deal on fabric and made the same dress five times.
She was fat against my disappearing skin on bones. Thick ankles and wrists. Always white socks with thick black shoes. Her parents died and she was eating her way through grief with her grandparents, who were also eating their way through grief. But I didn’t know that then.
When I arrived at her home there were always sheets of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and pies made with fresh fruits, crisscrossing and sugar coated.
The grandparents raised lions – baby lions. I don’t know how or why or where the lions went when they got bigger, I just remember playing in tall grass and completely in love with their padded paws and growing manes, their vibrating bodies. Small towns are like this – only random details remain and we carry those details in our memory pockets forever.
Words were my food. I disappeared into the stories of others. I slept with books, I ignored my family in the tan food station wagon with books, ate dinner with an open book. Fell asleep in mid story. Read books while my parents argued about money, while my teachers seemed to endlessly repeat themselves. I time traveled through history and left them all behind while I became a twelve-year old moving to Alaska, or any of the sisters in little women. When I wasn’t reading, I was moving swiftly, proving I was faster, stronger and more agile than my older brothers.
My competitive streak began then. With my brothers first and then with Mary Lou. Because she was also good with words, and that year we stood side by side in the spelling bee. Spelling bees were where I got to stand in line and letter by letter, prove who I was.
That I was better than everyone, including Mary Lou.
After a few hours, it was only me and Mary Lou, spelling our hearts out. We went onto the state New Jersey spelling bee together. I don’t remember feeling connected to her then – I just remember wanting to win and wanting her to lose. Imprinted in me are the aluminum chairs sticking to my thighs, the microphone and the stage.
Winning was everything.
I didn’t have to do much to win, but now the stakes were higher. To practice, I randomly opened dictionaries, had my whole family throwing words at me at breakfast, dinner, late at night after Johnnie Carson when I woke up dreaming of winning and Mary Lou losing.
Then one day, before the big event, my wise mother and Mary Lou’s wise grandmother set up a playdate for us again. We ate too many cookies, fish sticks and French fries that were fresh from the oven and lots of homemade ketchup.
We went outside and played with the growing lions, who nestled in Mary Lou’s generous thighs and slept there.
Mary Lou didn’t talk very much. She seemed solid, older, wiser, but we were the same age. I excused myself to go to the small bathroom, where I found next to the toilet – a stack of dictionaries, one about twenty-five pounds.
Every page had been marked in red, blue and yellow. The earth may have stopped spinning in that moment for me. The lions weren’t just lions, Mary Lou’s grandmother’s hands became mythical and my heart opened and ached for her. I saw her for the first time as a girl without parents who turned to food and words and lions.
I don’t remember the word I misspelled at the spelling bee. I do remember standing in that line with Mary Lou in a kind of human solidarity, making it to the end, my legs cramping – thirsty, tired, sad and hungry – and finally not needing to win.
Did I do it on purpose? I don’t remember now. I just remember slowly spelling a word wrong, because winning didn’t matter anymore. I wanted her to win, to put her dictionaries down, to know she was good and words would always be there for her.
And I’m writing this to tell you that our lives are not about winning, having the best story, getting an award or validation, getting that promotion. It’s about finding our place in the world. It’s not about the number of likes, the hearts, the comments on social media. It’s not about craving the right person recognizing us, saying they love us or maybe love us more than someone else.
What matters is how we treat each other. Stepping aside for someone who might really need something at a moment in time when you don’t need it.
Having a good heart matters. Showing up for others matters. Standing behind the curtain may be the greatest gift you offer to the world.
Someone is always behind the stage pulling the thick rope down, so someone else can shine. Sometimes, that person has to be you.