Following Rules

I came across a little stash of cards and scribbled quotes the other day. The sorts of wise words I had thought at various times could help inspire my writing. Or simply get me through a rough day. I sorted through them and tossed many into recycling. Some still made the cut in my heart, and so I added them to my quotes board next to my desk.

Today, one of those caught my eye and held it. Demanding my attention away from the thoughts I had originally sat down to write. It’s a beautiful card on shimmering lavender cardstock. The flowing script says, “Smile, it looks good on you.” I received it from a very talented and gently souled Energy Worker from before I began practicing myself. She would leave cards and candy in her treatment room. And this one I had kept and posted in my offices all these years since.

Had this been a positive message for me all this time? Perhaps. I had thought it positive. Then, today, it struck me as a rebuke. As if I was being told “shoulds”. The Rules. At the very least an explanation of how to seem acceptable by others. It’s not at all an authentic way to live, so unconsciously, so reactive. What if I don’t want to smile? Will I not “look good”? Will others maybe realize that I’m not happy? Is that wrong? These suggestions pop up in very subtle ways sometimes, and if we aren’t careful we blindly follow them.

When I was three years old, my mother took me to the basement of a downtown department store for a portrait photo. I remember that the outfit I wore itched horribly! It was a bright yellow and orange jumper of stretchy, double-knit polyester with a large zipper down the front. Very 1970’s. At one point, my mother or I unzipped this outfit in order for me to scratch my entire torso vigorously. Walking down the stairs hand in hand (possibly for safety, possibly to stop my scratching), my mother explained to me that I had only a short time more to deal with the discomfort. We were almost there. Just do this picture thing and then it’s done.

I remember, next, sitting on a carpeted platform. The photographer was smiling at me, saying things of little importance or grand politeness. Someone gently smoothed my spiral pigtails. I remember clearly that I did not fidget or scratch or complain at all. Whatever the exact words of the speech on the stairs, I had gotten the message and chosen to comply. We were done fairly quickly, I think.

I like to imagine I stripped that jumper off on my way back up the staircase and tossed it far to the side. Possibly yelling “Thank God that s#!+ show is over!” But, of course, I didn’t. That really would have been a story worth remembering. Surely it would have been infamously retold in the family. So I resign myself to knowing I had at least made it to the car still dressed that day.

The resulting portrait was cute. I was posed with legs bent to one side. I was smiling gently. An incredibly fake sort of smile. All the ugly red scratches were well hidden under the adorable clothes. Sugar and spice. So, I had decided to learn and obey the rules sometime before age three.

And today, all these years later, of course I still catch myself following the rules. And I hope I continue catching myself, so I can make the conscious decisions regarding them. Do I choose to smile? Do I choose to wear itchy clothes? Do I choose to comply? So, I smile at the card I have left up on my inspirational quotes board, and I think about how smiling can make me feel better and help others feel better too.

And I think about working more on letting those natural smiles pop up. Authentically. My rules.