As usual when I’m heading someplace important, especially if I’m right on schedule - or more likely, late - as opposed to being early and relaxed, which hasn’t happened since before I had children and has somehow become a habit, just like writing run-on sentences, I start sweating and my freshly flat-ironed hair starts to pop into the most pubic and freakish curls around my hairline.
This also happens when I’m put on the spot or if I suddenly feel anxious.
Like when I was talking to my son’s teacher last week after he’d apologized to her for mouthing a curse word to impress a girl in his class, who he says is the root of his focus issues because she sits right next to him and he “can’t stop thinking about her.” (Which reminds me to have a talk with him about what impresses and what does not impress the ladies).
While I was explaining to his teacher that my little potty mouth* would be giving her a written apology later in the day, I saw her glance at the glistening area just above my forehead, and I swear I detected the slightest little widening of her eyes at what was surely a curl springing out at her like a Chuckie-faced “Jack” popping out of his hand-cranked box.
The scene was similar a few days ago when I’d dropped into my seat on the train, like a real city girl, but my hands were full with my computer bag, purse, cup of coffee, and my phone, so I couldn’t get everything shifted around fast enough to clear the seat next to me for the guy behind me. “Sorry, I’m new,” I said as a droplet of salty embarrasment landed on an eyelash.
“No worries, we’ll have you trained on all the things that annoy us regulars by the time you get to your stop,” he said. He was funny.
I was on my way to the Texas Conference for Women, which I’ve covered in my blog now for four years, but I’ve never been more excited than this one. Viola Davis was to be the main keynote speaker and I love every single thing about her.
I’d read years ago that she grew up in poverty, but then went to Julliard, and I hoped she’d talk about how she was able to accomplish that. How was she able to break out of the jar labelled “poor” that holds all the classic ingredients: alcoholism, violence, hunger, shame, and poor education that most mortals can’t climb out of?
Only the most magical unicorns can break the cycle and become something other than those who’ve raised them.
Viola Davis told the audience - no, she transported the audience to her childhood apartment in Rhode Island, where she grew up all tangled up in filth and rats and pee-soaked clothes.
Listening to this woman speak moved me more than any other speaker ever has. She performed her words, but it didn’t feel like a performance, it felt like I was with six-year-old Viola, hearing the rats screeching during the night, and hearing her tell herself she was going to get out of there and never, never end up like her mom.
She grew up telling herself she’d be an actress - an educated actress - so that she’d look good on paper. She envisioned herself one day saying, “I’m the first-generation to ever go to college in my family.”
Viola Davis moved through her life like that, moving toward her goal of becoming a highly educated actress, but always hiding the fact that she came from destitution. Always hiding the fact that her father was an alcoholic, an abuser.
She said those facts would ruin the “fabulous, wonderful testimony that looked good on paper,” so she’d hide them away so that nobody would know.
Hiding away the life of that little six-year-old girl.
After graduating Julliard, Viola felt like she was Queen of the Mountain. She was invincible. Different than other people. She was able to speak her dreams and manifest them. She felt she had a special something that pushed her to greatness. She had arrived.
After a long pause she said, “but the crash always comes when you wake up.”
Once she stopped running and moving toward her big dream - once she’d achieved what was on her self-prescribed must-have list of achievements - when she had a minute to “wake up,” she realized that it didn’t matter that she’d said all her life how she’d never have a man that beat her like her dad had beat her mom.
It didn’t matter that she got out of that filthy apartment.
It didn’t matter that she was away from kids who chased her around and called her ugly and slung that revolting “n” word at her.
It didn’t matter that she had a degree from Julliard and that she was now a professional actress.
She felt less than.
She felt she was all of the words those nasty kids smeared on her.
“Like Brené Brown says, ‘if you shut out the dark, then you shut out the light.’ You’ve got to own your story. All of it,” Viola said** to a completely silent room of more than 7,500 women.
She admitted she was putting so much energy into hiding her past away and pretending to be someone else, and trying to cover it all up with a fancy education and a fancy career, it was killing everything else she had inside her.
Viola’s voice is deep and powerful and confident. She sounded like a preacher up there.
In fact - even though the room was quiet, except for the occasional cough or some soft clicking of heels as people dared leave this woman’s presence to go to the restroom or wait in line for author book signings - when Viola would say something especially powerful, a few women sprinkled throughout the audience would shout out, “Alright!” or “Yes ma’am!”
You know what moved me so much about her speech?
It’s not that she gave out a secret recipe for making something of herself despite poverty.
It’s not that she said to God at just nine years old, as she hid away in the bathroom with her hands clutched tightly together while her dad pummeled her mother on the other side of the door, begging for Him to take her out of this life, “I know you don’t exist. I know you’ve passed me by.”
It’s not that she moved people to tears talking about the picture of her six-year-old self, the one “without a smile, but without a frown - she just was.”
It’s because Viola Davis spoke to the heart of everyone in the room when she talked about those “less than” feelings.
Every person in the room could relate.
I mean, who besides Donald Trump hasn’t had those feelings in their life?
Even the wait staff who stood along the walls - men included, because these feelings are universal - nodded their heads in understanding of exactly what "less than" feels like.
You don’t have to have rats gnawing your neck at night, or tired feet from standing in the government cheese line to feel like you don’t stack up.
Not to minimize Viola's achievements in life. Lord knows that you've got to be a special kind of "dig your heels in" type of person to accomplish what she has in her life.
But her speech spoke to everyone. It was at the same time, a kick in the teeth for everyone who's complained about not succeeding because of the cards they were dealt, as it was a realization for many that, "hey, even Viola Davis gets fraud complex."
On the train ride home, I sat across from a woman who’d also attended the Conference. She said that in past years, her company sent a few employees, but she didn’t make the cut this year so she bought a ticket on her own and took a vacation day to attend.
The lady sitting next to me piped in to say she’d wanted to go, but tickets sold out after just a few weeks, but she wasn’t too heartbroken because she’s not an entrepreneur, so she didn’t think she’d be missing much.
Across-from-me-lady said to next-to-me-lady, “You have to go next year! There’s something for every woman, not just business owners. I don’t have my own business, but I spent my own money and a vacation day because every year I go, I feel…**looking for the word** energized!”
Some people envision a women’s conference to be a huge group of feminists, and not in the equality-seeking manner that the term was originally intended. They picture the stereotyped feminists: women who hate men, commit to never wearing pink, and refuse to show feminine qualities in fear of betraying their inner Susan B. Anthony.
That is not what this is like.
The Texas Conference for Women fills the Austin Convention Center with a zing of energy that permeates you as you walk through those giant glass doors into air conditioned sweetness**.
There’s a smell of celebrity in the air and you can feel success wafting around you like the scent of a warm, rum-soaked bread pudding. There are breakout sessions and roundtables on a whole spread of topics: parenting, financial security, healthy eating & exercise, career, finding work-life balance, and yes, even entrepreneurship.
Like across-from-me-lady, I also feel energized at the end of my day at the Conference.
I have so much more to tell you!
And since I made a commitment to myself and to you to write five days a week through at least November, over the next few days I’m going to tell you highlights from other speakers like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, the great sexual harassment whistleblowing pioneer, Anita Hill, author of I Know How She Does It, Laura Venderkam, and local neuroscientist, Shonté Jovan Taylor.
Wanna go next year? Mark November 9, 2018 on your calendar and signup here to get updated on when they open up ticket sales.
Now you! Have you ever had that “not-so-perfect” feeling (not in like a Massengill way, but in an “I am less than” way)? Tell me about it in the comments. And please share this with someone you think is amazing!
*The truth is, he's not a potty mouth at all. At least, I didn't think he was. We jokingly refer to him in my family as our "uber conservative Christian," because he's suuuper judgy about clothing he considers risqué (he hid a pair of my high heels under my carseat so nobody would see them) and has zero tolerance for cursing, but he comes from filthy-mouthed stock, so we aren't quite sure where his Bible beating comes from.
**You know you’ve made it in this life if Viola Davis is quoting you. Bravo Brené Brown, you smarty pants you.
***The air conditioning was a bit much this year. I’m 100% sure there’s nobody more hot natured than me, and my body was covered in goosebumps so much of the day, I felt my leg hairs growing like sturdy saplings through the wooly socks I wore under my boots.