Outside Looking In
Updated: Aug 25, 2020
Outsider, definition: one not involved with a particular group of people or organization, one who does not live in a particular place; in addition, a person not liked or accepted as a member of any of these entities who feels different from those who are accepted as members.
I’m one of those outsider types by virtue of both birth and temperament. Born into a working class family where money was scarce, in school I located myself at the margins. My clothing wasn’t right, my hair looked funny, my mother forbade me to shave my legs. I kept aloof, a sense of not having what it takes pushing me to the edge. The girls who made decisions about who’s in and who’s out were like Penny, she of the pin-curled sandy hair and patterned polyester blouse that matched her ironed skirt. Or Liz , who smiled for no reason and laughed for even less. Boys came to her unbidden, and Johnny Palmeri cracked my heart as he danced off with her to the cafeteria. Oh the pain of not being pretty.
As if not being pretty weren’t enough, I was smart, really smart. I understood concepts quickly, grasped abstract notions easily, wrote well. Maths were a weak spot, but in other areas of learning, I excelled. What a trial to be smart, another separation from any sense of belonging. Back in the day, being smart was not something a girl would be proud of, let alone display. It would get in the way of her femininity, her desirability, any chance of making a happy family life (the alternative of a satisfactory life alone was near unthinkable unless you were immune to the disdain in the word ‘spinster.’)
Writing this now, I could be describing a Martian landscape where the inhabitants look like petrol pumps and have as many thoughts. Nineteen fifties social expectations limited the idea of what it means to be a woman, let alone vaguely consider that one may choose to identify as non-binary and hence neither female nor male. So it was that smart, unpretty me struggled to feel part of something beyond an unhappy childhood home and a working class neighborhood devoid of intellectual stimulation. My grandfather was the only one with a sense of what might be lurking inside my ten year old awkward self. ‘Colour outside the lines’, he told me, ‘don’t copy what others do.’
Much of my life energy is in the service of engaging my intellect but still colouring outside the lines. The view from the margins offers insights obscured and dismissed by occupants of the solid middle. The danger is veering too far off course, to either left or right. The outsider can lose her way. Depression for women; violence for men. Panic attacks for me. For along with intellect, my outsiderness is fed by intense sensitivity to what I perceive as reality.
The positive side is an ability to read others quickly and understand intuitively; to grasp nuances of literature and social thought; to hold onto contradictory ideas and not insist they are reconcilable. The downside is an over-reaction: to people, to ideas, to any kind of stimuli. The sensitivity that opens so many doors is the same trait which shuts me off from other people, other ideas. In defending my intellect, the sensitive me risks curtailing openness and encouraging my own self-righteousness.
Conversation: Snow White’s wicked stepmother peering into her looking glass: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the prettiest one of all?
Rose looking into her reflection: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the smartest one of all?
Woe betide anyone with the wrong answer, even if the responder is my dearly beloved life-partner who continually challenges my insistence that I’m right. We embody contradictions in our pairing of Scottish engineer with Jewish intellectual. Often I’m distressed when he doesn’t understand what my smart, sensitive self discerns to be an absolute truth. He’s upset because I don’t hew to his rational, more accepting world view. His far more benign world view can balance my impassioned views --when it’s not another occasion for my outrage at his lack of understanding.
The internal battle of being an Outsider who still wishes to connect and to have an impact continues. The reward for the struggle comes in those moments of clarity when I’m pretty sure I’ve got it right-- mostly through words.