I've always had a fondness for misfits, mavericks, and nonconformists. I envy the way they're not afraid to stick out or cause a stir. Take, for example, my childhood friend Shawn who wasn't afraid to talk about his passion for women's fashion even though we lived in small town Nebraska. He once conducted a survey of the moms in our second grade class, weighing hair styles and cheekbone structures, before declaring who won his award for prettiest. My mom tied for first.
It seems inconceivable now that the only openly gay person I knew growing up was a courageous little boy who ignored our small town's code of homogeneity. This meant, as it often does for those who refuse to conform, that he was teased and ridiculed and left off the slumber party invitation list. In contrast, I spent much of my life working to blend in, believing this to be the safest way to stay out of trouble and beyond slumber party reproach. In the end, however, it caused me a great deal of a different kind of trouble. The internal sort, where one eventually finds it difficult to live with one's self.
I recently befriended an elderly lady at the local rec center, a nonconformist in her own right. I don't know her name. And she doesn't know mine. But I see her several times a week, mostly in the hot tub. We greet each other like life-long friends. "Hi!!!," she'll shout to me from across the locker room. "How are you?" I shout back. My friend is short, stocky, and has a haircut which resembles those given in the army, buzzed so close to her scalp she's nearly bald. One of the lenses in her eyeglasses is missing and that eye is always squinted shut. She closely resembles Popeye in the cartoons I watched as a kid. She pulls a large, wheeled cart everywhere she goes. It appears to double as her second home. She keeps cleaning products, food, and garbage bags full of clothes in it. One afternoon I noticed a coffee table strapped to the back of it, held on with bungee cords. On another occasion she arrived at the rec center wearing a giant straw sombrero (just like the kind the servers at our local Mexican restaurant bring out when they sing "Happy Birthday" to a customer). I was sweating under the hot sun (quite uncommon at this altitude) and thought how savvy she was.
When I complimented her she said, "Thanks! I can't believe it was just sitting in a pile of free stuff at the soup kitchen."
"You've got a good eye," I said. Which, in her case, is quite literally true.
The afternoon the water in the rec center showers turned to scalding hot she tried to get another woman, who happens to be Mormon, to join her in protesting at the front desk. The Mormon woman, who always wears a skirt and her hair in a bun, seemed uncomfortable at the thought of making a stink.
"OK then," said my friend. "I guess I'll be the one to bitch." I think the Mormon woman nearly fell over dead at this salty language.
A few days ago my friend told me about a knitting project she's embarked on. "I'm knitting a tunic out of silk."
"Wow!" was all I could say, thoroughly impressed. I flamed out pretty quickly after taking one knitting class.
It hasn't come easy, though. My friend told me she spent hours trying to find a pattern online. And she now suffers from discomfort in her arms as a result of the knitting. She sits in the hot tub, after she walks her fifty-something laps in the pool, for relief. Sometimes I wonder why she does it at all. All that time? And even though it causes her discomfort? But then I remember how she told me the way she feels when she's knitting her silk tunic, "It's so peaceful. I just love it. I can sit there for hours." I try to remember her now when I'm struggling in one or another creative project. I hope to be as persistent as she is. I hope to hold on to those moments when I'm filled with peace and joy for the times when I'm not.
I've noticed that many people at the rec center don't talk to my friend. I don't know if it's the cart, or the squinty eye, the giant sombrero, the tube socks that go up to her knees, the white sweatband she wears around her forehead, or the curse words. Or some combination of those. It's true. She doesn't look like most. And she doesn't talk like most. She is entirely herself. One day I hope to be just like her.