I was seven, at my friend’s house down the street, and we were running along one of the dirt hills typical of the California desert child’s playscape. For an afternoon, we were beautiful grown-up women with houses and cars and busy lives full of walking in and out of our houses and driving our cars to very important places. She declared her boyfriend’s name to be Kevin, as usual, and waited for me to bestow a moniker on my imaginary significant other.
But instead of telling her my handsome out-of-thin-air boyfriend would be Dillon or Brandon (it was 1993, after all) I stood taller on the dirt slope and told my seven year old friend that I didn’t have a boyfriend.
“Well, are you playing you broke up with him?” she asked, drawing lines in the dry sand with a stick to indicate walls and doors. It annoyed me to hear other kids use the word “playing” when they meant “pretending,” because games were played and make-believe wasn’t a game. But I wasn’t quite pretentious enough to correct them aloud.
But no, it wasn’t that I had pretend-broken-up with my pretend boyfriend. Taking a deep breath, I announced to the little girl from down the street that I didn’t want to have a boyfriend at all anymore, that my parents had heard about this thing called courting, that it was kinda like dating but without girlfriends and boyfriends and nobody could kiss each other until they got married.
“Huh. Well. That’s weird.” She squinted, as we all did under the intensity of the hot desert sunshine. “So what’s the name of the guy you’re doing that courting thing with then?”
By twelve years old, courtship speeches were old hat, having perfected the rattling off my modesty rules, my why-homeschoolers-don’t-need-socialization argument, my list of biblical reasons women shouldn’t hold jobs, ever. At 15, I discussed fabric headcoverings vs. a woman’s hair as her covering complete with Greek roots, and if you wanted to delve deeper into veilings vs. caps or hair up vs. hair down, I’d go there… with a gentle and quiet spirit, naturally. I was well-versed in the unnecessary evils of college for all high school gradates but especially girls, and my journal pages were filling up with personal wrestling over predestination and free will. By 17, those broad topics had become dry and tired, and I’d moved on to determining which musical rhythms displeased God, the finer points of the Bible version debate and whether teenage girls could wear front-slit denim skirts without defrauding a brother.
I knew my stuff, once upon a time, and wasn’t afraid of speaking up.
Life is a constant pendulum swing, and I spent a few years teaching myself to ask questions more than I found answers and to doubt more than I believed.
I viewed the Ashleigh of 10 and 20 years ago with disdain, curling my lip at her as she played across my memory in handwriting and typed print, stating untried opinions boldly, scattering her juvenile certainty like dandelion seeds, using parroted phrases and an upturned nose as a debate tool.
Becoming convinced of how much one doesn’t know can make a person hesitant to speak at all, lest she be dead wrong again. And somewhere in the necessary sorting and sifting I’ve lost the ability to know my mind, to hold opinions and offer them aloud. If I speak at all, it’s in circles, round and round, rambling about nothing and everything at once. Petrified of a misspeak or of my future self’s disapproval, I bite my tongue until it bleeds.
Silence is healthy and very often it’s even holy. But sometimes it becomes nothing more than a shield behind which fear can cower and tremble.
Recently I’ve been leaving the question marks off of my sentences. I’ve begun to explain without five justifications per one certainty.
Not because I’ve discovered I know everything, but because I’m comfortable admitting I don’t. I’ve acknowledged and welcomed my loose grip on answers and truth and I’m gingerly testing its safety. Will it hold me?
I’ve even started being gentle with the know-it-all Ashleigh of 10 and 20 years ago and imagining I can trust future-me to do the same. I’m cautiously optimistic, believing perhaps a realization of my own limitations will enable me to hear instead of prescribing and projecting. I’m trusting myself to own new words of peace and understanding instead of arguing and questioning, simple grace instead of harsh judgements.
Being okay with being wrong takes practice, especially when one has spent her life clinging tightly to her answers.
But I’m learning to own my words.