There’s a new Lidia Yuknavitch book out The Misfit’s Manifesto! It’s based on a TED talk she gave (see below). I love how her gutsy, edgy truth-telling reveals wisdom and compassion. To celebrate, a writer friend, Karen Lynch started a “MisfitsManifesto” campaign on Facebook where people could post how they too felt like a misfit. I read with amusement people’s posts on their whacky dress faux pas or their weird behaviors.
I contemplated the question. What would be my misfit moment? How could I forget?! But first, there is some backstory to the moment.
The biggest single challenge I had my teen years was being a girl with a disability (When I say “challenge” I mean society’s and MY negative attitudes). It was difficult. With all my might I wanted NOT to be labeled and discarded. To that end I willed myself to pass with every passing fiber in my physical and psychic being. I had had lots of practice — passing as a Jew in the anti-semitic community I was raised in and passing as a reasonably happy child in a family that demanded at least the appearance of happiness. I was a child expert in passing.
As a child, I was lucky in that I was wholly physically able-bodied. Proud of it, maybe even narcissistically enchanted with it. On my own, I was energetic and graceful and for awhile, un-constrained. I danced, swam, dove, played pick up games of softball and volleyball, climbed trees, tumbled, cartwheeled, and jumped rope. Any kind of movement came naturally and was my “happy place”.
Then, at eleven, I started to walk with a limp. Just like that. No one knew why. Certainly not me nor my mom. Certainly not the pediatrician, the chiropractor, the podiatrist, no one. It took three years to sort out and then it was too late, or maybe it had always been too late. Polio. Had taken me down. But! Hadn’t killed me. Hadn’t left me in an iron lung. I kept perspective, but still hated that my body couldn’t do all it did before. I developed what I hoped passed for an adolescently careless shuffle. I felt my parents’ dismay. Stiff-upper-lipping-it, they acted as if everything was ok. My job, as daughter, was to also act as if everything was ok. I did. It wasn’t. On rare occasion I would catch the look on a stranger’s face — pity. To this day, I am majorily allergic to pity.
Another perfect misfit moment. About age 9. Grandma Fanny, immigrant seamstress, survivor of the Triangle Factory, and a former actress in the NY Yiddish Theatre, made me this outfit (paisley cotton!) for the Queen Esther contest for Purim at our local reform synagogue. She promised me it would be the best, the most authentic, the closest to what Esther actually would have worn. I learned “authentic” isn’t everything. ALL the other girls were dressed in white, like brides. I was in a state of pure mis-fittery and misery! I think I look kind of adorable here (harbinger of hippie clothing to come), but if I could have hidden my entire self behind that pole, I would have. Instead, look! I appear happy. Kind of.
The summer I turned seventeen, I had surgery on my leg, ankle, and foot to fix the problem. It didn’t. After two months of being in a cast and on crutches, just as I was getting ready to return to my senior year I had fantasized would be better than the last few (the orthopedic surgeon had promised a fix after all), the doc said, Oh yeah, by the way, after we take off the cast, you need to wear a polio brace on your leg for at least three months! Holy fucking cow! Why hadn’t he mentioned this before the surgery?
What were my options? They could attach the brace either to a black and white saddle oxford… or to a brown, old-lady orthopedic shoe. The black and white saddle had only been out of style about 5 years; the brown orthopedic shoe had NEVER been IN style, so I picked the saddle oxford. BUT with my 17 year old fashionista logic, my desperate desire to appear normal, and my horror at what was being foisted upon me, I declared that I would wear the damn shoe only on my left foot (because it needed to be attached to the brace), but not on my right foot. On my right foot, I would continue wearing my sweet little black flats, well, one black flat, the one that went well with the dresses we had to wear back then. Basically I decided to shun my left leg.
And for my misfit moment. Drumroll here… Unfortunately, and unchangeably, I’d signed up for a speech class fall semester. That first week we had to stand up on a small, elevated stage in front of the class. The desks were crammed together four across and five deep. I don’t remember a single face that sat before me. We were to give a speech about who we were, how our summer had been, and what was important to us. The only thing I know for sure about that speech is that I tried to wear an attractive dress that might be more interesting to look at then the clashing shoes and hideously ugly brace below. I remember hoping my talk would indicate that I had more important things on my mind than what was happening to my body. In fact it was as if this saddle-oxford-polio-brace-wearing left leg and foot belonged to another person entirely, and just happened to be standing up there on stage next to me in my cute outfit with black flat shoe. Giving a speech while being totally dissociated from one of the legs that was holding me up is a pretty good trick. Wow on me. I remember feeling determined. I knew my speech by heart, but whatever my deeper feelings and thoughts were, I didn’t have access to them. I had been well taught by my mother to pay no attention to difficult emotions. I now know there were a zillion of them — subterranean.
A few weeks later, a handsome, sweet young man had taken to meeting up with me on campus and walking me to class or to lunch. I was amazed he seemed to like me; I thought him the kindest, nicest person in the world to overlook the whole polio brace situation, to never once mention it. I can’t remember what we actually did talk about but it couldn’t have been much because at the end of October, we went together to the auditorium to hear the smartest kids in class debate the merits of Lyndon Johnson vs Barry Goldwater for President. Once it became clear to which side I was giving my best applause, he walked out on me and never spoke to me again. My feelings at the time?? I don’t know. Life felt weird. I was clearly a misfit. This was just another part of that weirdness and mis-fittery of my existence. Ninety percent of the kids in my class wore Barry Goldwater for President—Bomb Hanoi buttons that autumn of 1964. Not me. I had spent most of my after-school time alone in my room listening to The Beatles, Barbara Streisand, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez. I think if you listen to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez for long enough, you are going to develop a progressive sensibility. I did. Quietly. Around the same time, I received a folded slip of torn pink paper from my neighbor and friend, Robbie, who wrote words I’ll never forget.
“Dear Gayle, My parents recently joined the John Birch Society. You are either a communist or a communist dupe. I can no longer be your friend. Signed, Robbie”.
More mis-fittery. I had never seen or met a communist, and was as afraid of communists as any John Bircher, or any kid* of the 1950s, who’d had to practice duck and cover. As a high school senior, I still believed in the unmitigated goodness of America. It would take my freshman year at college to open my eyes to America’s shadow side at home (Jim Crow and racism) and in the world (Vietnam). Sexism and homophobia were still years away from my awareness and understanding.
In my early twenties, I contemplated considering myself a communist. Then, I realized I wasn’t that either. Since then? I’ve tried on a lot of identities. Some fit better than others, at least for a time.
About fitting in I know very little. There are multitudes of ways to mis-fit. There is outward misfitting, i.e. appearances — the way we dress, or look that doesn’t fit in with those around us. There are odd behaviors, or behavior-at-odds with certain kinds of societal norms. As we get older, there is a different kind of mis-fittery, the way we seem invisible, no matter how striking our clothing or behaviors. There is misfitting that comes from lack of white skin privilege in a race-defined and privileged society, or from being Jewish or Muslim in a predominantly Christian society (or all the variations on religious mis-fittery, and its tragic results— Israel, the Middle East, Myanmar, etc.), or misfitting as a result of being without citizenship, (I’m thinking of the hundreds of thousands of refugees wandering about under- or un-welcomed in Europe, Africa, and other places). There is also inward misfitting. The self abandonment or dissociation that comes from too much emotional pain poorly held, suppressed or repressed.
Reflections like these remind me of the quote I keep at the top of my Facebook page: Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.
Yes, sometimes we choose mis-fittery, but often enough, it chooses us. Be kind. Always. And thank you always Lidia Yuknavitich for the deep dives into humanity you always take us on with your written and spoken words.
*Not all kids were afraid of communists in the 1950s. I have known quite a number of so-called red-diaper babies, kids whose parents were American communists. These kids were not afraid of communists. Instead, they were afraid of the FBI and HUAC, etc.