At the end of a school day early in my seventh-grade year, I walked out of the air-conditioned building into the hot sun. Directly in front of me were lines of nearly identical station wagons, moms and daughters all looking as if they’d been formed in the same mold: perfect preppy clothes, pearls, low and slicked-back ponytails.
I felt as if I’d been dropped on the set of the wrong movie.
Turning away, I caught a flash of hot pink and denim against the sea of white and khaki. My mom, with her short hair and long turquoise earrings, an enormous Zuni turquoise bracelet, and blue jeans, was leaning against a banister and smoking—smoking!—as she waited to pick me up.
She stood apart from the other moms physically and in dress. Because my mom died before we all had smartphone cameras in our pockets, this image lives only in my head, but many of our family photos show her vibrant, colorful, loud self.
I’d already recognized that my mom was distinguished by the language she used as well as in profession. She swore like the proud Texan she was, despite her periodic efforts to fit into the prim and proper South, and she was one of few working moms at the school, one of only a handful of female physicians.
She didn’t fit in with my classmates’ moms, nor did she try.
I could not have been more proud.
Seventh grade marked the first year I attended a prestigious private school in Atlanta. Despite dressing the part in Izod shirts and Tretorn sneakers, I felt out of my element.
I grew up in denim and moccasins, both of which were forbidden by the school’s dress code. My soul belonged in the west, and I couldn’t quite understand the cookie-cutter mentality of the girls I met even as I tried my best to become one of them.
I don’t mean to knock the school I attended. It’s a wonderful institution that gave me the intellectual grounding for a lifetime.
As much as I appreciate having attended, though, I remember all too well my countdown: six years to graduation. Five years and ten months. Five years and nine months. Five years, eight months, and sixteen days.
I have only one high school classmate who remains a close friend (as opposed to the Facebook friends whom I value but don’t know deeply) and she too struggled against the school’s mold. Those of us who survived more or less intact all broke the mold eventually–or never fit into it.
In my world, we speak of “passing.” He passes for a gourmet, but he really eats Kraft macaroni and cheese at least once a week. She passes for charming, but she drops little barbs into all of her conversations.
“Passing” implies a certain breathlessness that comes from the effort of creating an impression that others expect and accept, regardless of what’s true.
In her youth, my mother passed as a proper Agnes Scott women’s college coed, complete with heels, hats, hose, and gloves and a trashcan to keep the door open should a gentleman caller visit.
And then she exploded that proper persona by attending medical school in the early 1960s, a woman who dared to occupy a spot a man would have expected to hold, though she was denied entry to the male specialties like cardiology and surgery in favor of the more appropriate fields of psychiatry or pediatrics.
After that experience, my mother never passed. She was never able to set aside her truest self to conform to what anyone else expected, even when she might have wanted to do so.
She was rarely inappropriate, but she was always gloriously, exuberantly her Self in what she said, how she said it, how she dressed, and what she chose to do with her time.
Me? I pass sometimes. Passing to me means that I’m living one sister life without even trying to integrate the others.
It’s being in Atlanta and wearing refined jewelry (yes, including pearls) rather than big turquoise jewelry on most days.
It’s following my mom’s example and swearing colorfully in the privacy of my own head but rarely, if ever, in public.
It’s laughing often but not too loud or too long.
It’s what I did during the years when I lived in my head, in my left brain, focusing on analysis to the exclusion of emotion.
It’s appearing to be vulnerable and authentic but actually holding back.
It’s acting like one of the cool kids, which I never have been, in hopes that I might belong in a club that my true Self wouldn’t seek to join.
I started visiting Wyoming on my own in 2006, and I’ve been taken by her essential nature. Wyoming weather is often glorious: dazzling blue skies with marshmallow-puff clouds and shimmering sun.
But the weather can also be dangerous, especially in the winter, when a sudden and unpredicted snowstorm turns a road into a swirling, unrecognizable white blur. People have frozen to death just feet from their cars or homes.
It isn’t because Wyoming is malevolent or seeks to vanquish the unwary. She’s simply doing her thing. If someone gets caught in her swirl, it’s nothing personal.
The Wyoming wind is what it is: essential, eternal, literally and metaphorically a force of nature.
In the years that I’ve visited and now lived in Wyoming, I’ve learned from the wind. Bear no ill will, but be yourself. You can’t pass without surrendering who you truly are.
Fortunately, my Self poses no existential threat to any person. It expresses itself in the work I choose to do, in the stories I seek to tell simply because they need to be told. Some will resonate with others, some may speak only to my heart.
I may wear jeans and moccasins in Atlanta or pearls in Wyoming to express something of who I am. It pleases me. The outer becomes the silent declaration of the inner. Others will adjust, or maybe they won’t, but I will be sovereign in my own life. And so can you.
A quote attributed to Dr. Seuss sums it up well: “Be who you are and say what you feel because people who mind don’t matter and people who matter don’t mind.”
I think my mom would be damn proud.