I used to love paper dolls as a kid. If you’re too young or cool to remember, dear heart, paper dolls were the coolest. Okay, maybe not, but they were what we had. You’d get these eight-inch tall, thick cardboard cut-out people in a box with little plastic stands to place them in, so they could stand upright. They came with sheets of perforated outfits and accessories that you could tear out and attach to the dolls with small paper flaps. The flaps never worked all that well, but you learned to make the best of it. You could change the outfit on the doll and voila! she was transformed! Fun for hours! Okay, not really. It got boring pretty fast. The paper clothes inevitably got wrinkled or the small paper tabs would rip off, rendering the outfit useless.
life is tough and it ends, almost always faster than we hope. Most of us are moving through it ill-equipped, scared, and somewhat cardboard-like. We look sturdy from far away but the closer you get, the more you see the creases, the greasy fingerprints of overuse or abuse or bad choices. We think we can medicate or date or fitness our way around our condition, but after all that, a stiff breeze can still blow us down. So why are we pretending so hard that this is easy and why have we taken a vow of silence about our expiration dates? I guess I’d like to know, particularly when I think about the images we all project into the world.
I think about all the paper outfits I’ve affixed to my cardboard self over the years. Every single one looked so fresh and crisp at the beginning but grew flimsy and worn, sometimes in a matter of hours. The paper tabs fell off of each and every one of my personas, but you can’t keep a girl down for long! I think it must be a knee-jerk reaction we have to fear of being known. I heard a person say once, “there are things we know to be true, deeply true, about ourselves when we are very young.” I think that’s right but unfortunately for me, from a pretty young age, I’ve known a deep truth about my brokenness, my shame, the hurting, dark places in me I thought must be hidden at all costs. “Another year in the National Honor’s Society, another boyfriend, another trip to Anthropologie, another thirty minutes on the elliptical machine, another selfie on Instagram, another bible study, another 5,000 followers, another four glasses of wine or trip out of town and that should do the trick!”
Why do we think these external things will hold water? It’s like we’re trying to build a boat to cross the biggest, deepest ocean, and we’re building it out of paper doll outfits. How’s it working out for you? For me? I can only answer for myself and say “not well.” Something about it all, whether it be the passage of time, age, pain, or lack of control over all of the above, has just gotten the best of me. It’s why I quit Instagram for two years – I was sick and tired of giving the best of me to a fucking app on my smartphone. Let’s be honest, none of us wants that on our tombstone: “she had some really great Instagram posts.” but we keep living that story each day thinking it will somehow add up to a wholehearted, fulfilling life.
What on earth, my dear, are we to do? I’m young still, so I won’t claim to have all the answers, but I think they might start with grace. Grace is the soft voice of a loving mother asking the brave, teary-eyed little boy with the big bottom lip, “where does it hurt?”. It’s the holy communion that happens when someone says “it’s hard for me to be here on this planet right now.” and someone else says “me too.” Grace wakes us up and lets us participate in real life. It reminds us we can’t build a raft to cross this brutal ocean out of our worthless paper outfits, but we can lay on our backs, admit who we really are to each other, hold one another’s hands, and float together in the wide blue darkness. I’m learning to back float these days.. will you join me?