As a little girl I learned to hide my flaws and weaknesses. I protected them with secrecy and I'm not sure why. I didn't know then that there's no possibility of physical perfection, or of being good at everything. I didn't know that asking for help is a satisfying option. And I was lucky to discover how freeing the guidance of kind and generous mentors is.
Of the people I could turn to for tender understanding, three stand out in my memory. They partnered with me in a matter-of-fact way to solve problems my young mind believed were unsolvable. They even made it fun to discover ways around or through my challenges.
I was diagnosed with fallen arches. The “cure” the doctor prescribed was to wear black oxfords with metal arches — the shoes were hideous to my eye, and uncomfortable on my feet. The soles of the shoes didn’t bend so I could only walk flatfooted, making clunky noises as each foot hit the ground. Jumping rope or playing hopscotch with my friends was embarrassingly difficult. I was devastated. My devoted grandmother, Bubu, felt my distress and came to my rescue. With determination and creativity she crafted flexible moccasins, still using the rigid arch supports, but now quiet under foot and bearable to wear.
I was a nail biter. I chewed my cuticles and bit off every part of the nail my teeth could grab. I hid my hands behind my back, in pockets, or under the table. Aunty Irene took me for my very first manicure. She anticipated every aspect of the visit. The manicurist never mentioned my ragged fingernails. Instead she lifted my hands — first turning them gently one way, then the other — while complimenting the shapeliness of my fingers. She led me to a wall of glistening nail polish bottled in cheerful shades of reds and pinks. Aunty and I took our time selecting the right color. Finally we chose a delicate hue called, “Pretty Pink.” My chewed nails finally came out of hiding.
I had and continue to have a poor sense of direction. As a child the confusion made me fearful of getting lost. Uncle Jack introduced me to my first map. The complex, book-like structure unfolded like an accordion. When it was fully open it covered the entire carpet in our small living room. On our hands and knees we searched the scramble of streets to locate two places: home and school. We played a game of finding the easiest paths between the two. Then Uncle Jack took the time to walk the route with me — one of his big hands protectively enveloping my small one, and the other pointing out personal landmarks that maps can never show.
That was long ago. I learned more from these mentors than the lessons above. They taught by example how to empathize and respect the tender feelings we all have when we feel vulnerable. I learned to support anyone who is being bullied. I learned the lesson so well that it's often difficult for me to laugh at late night comedians who make a profession of mocking celebrities. They make cruel humor seem okay. It’s not!
Although sometimes it may not feel safe to expose our vulnerabilities, armoring for protection isn't the answer. Building walls doesn’t protect us from getting hurt. It only keeps people away and fences us off from connections that can be supportive.
So I've learned from my mentors how to trust and be trusted — how to let down my guard and to stop hiding what’s impossible to hide — my frailties and imperfections. But I am discerning about my choice of confidants and mentors. Over the years I’ve learned that when I invite someone to share something close to my heart, sometimes they break it.
I've also learned that I'm resilient. I can open my heart again and again.
That's not a weakness; it’s a strength to be appreciated.