Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Way You Wear Your Face

by Giselle Renarde

A teacher once said to my mother, "There's steel in that girl."

At the time, she was right. Still, I fought back tears when my mother told me. I couldn't decide whether I should be proud. I knew it was true, but was it really so obvious?

The neighbourhood I grew up in was and is very different from the place I live now. Earlier today I was walking down the street and asking myself, "What would be the perfect soundtrack to give this area?" The first song that popped into my head was Pleasant Valley Sunday.

I'm trying to think of the perfect song to accompany the area I grew up in. It would be whatever music scares you shitless, really. Or just the sound of music through apartment walls and people screaming, and then a big crash and you sweating bullets and thinking, "Fuck, should I call the police?"

But of course you shouldn't because it's none of your damn business.

I can't pinpoint any event or moment that turned young Giselle into steel. It was home life coupled with where home was. My mom still lives in that same house, and when I tell people the intersection their eyes widen and they go, "Why?" or "Wow" or just "Yikes." Because why would anyone choose to live in such an unsavoury area?

That's a question I can't answer. I left as soon as I could. I left the steel there, too.

This came to mind the other week, when I was watching So You Think You Can Dance. There was a young woman on the show who had that same steel in her. She came from a rough neighbourhood, too. She faced addiction in her family.

I saw my old self in the way she wore her face: hard, inaccessible, a brick wall of a face. A face you don't want to mess with.

That was me, guys! That was me until I moved to a neighbourhood where I can walk around any time, day or night, and not be afraid. Sure it's weird, being poor and living in an incredibly affluent neighbourhood. I'm surrounded by ego and entitlement and it gets to me sometimes, but at the end of the day entitlement isn't going to steal your jewellery from around your neck or spray bullets from a car window.

Man, it feels good to not be afraid of the place you live. I'm practically Pollyanna when I'm out in the world. I talk to strangers! I smile at everybody! I love them all! Mwah-Mwah! Kisses all 'round!

And then I take the bus back to the neighbourhood where I grew up. Suddenly the smile in my eyes feels embarrassing. It makes me vulnerable. So I shut it down. I lock Pollyanna and her Pleasant Valley Sunday in the basement until I'm back at home base. Because I don't want to be targetted. I don't want to be picked out of the lineup. That one smiling face sticks out, on the bus to my mom's house.

But I feel odd about it. I love the compassionate me. She's my favourite kind of me! I want to share her with the people who live where I used to live. They're sort of like family, in a way.

I try, but I feel uneasy. The world I grew up in seems so predatory, so violent, so ready to take you down.

Out comes the steel, but I put it on like a mask now. It's not coming from the inside out. I'm wearing it so I'll blend in.

Sometimes I feel Pollyanna kicking and screaming, but I make her wear that mask. It's for her own good.


  1. I know what it's like growing up in a tough area. Glad not to live in New Jersey any more where a guy had to be prepared to fight every day. Makes us count blessings all the more. No way should Momma and I have landed where we did.

    And, "So You Think You Can Dance" is one of our faves! Every Summer we watch all the lithe young bodies. Some of those kids are amazing. A truly benevolent talent show that seems not only to focus on the positive but also puts whatever negatives in a proper critical perspective.

  2. Very clever, how you reworded the title of the song, "The Way You Wear Your Hair", but changed it to "face." My Dad grew up in a slum in Glasgow, and used to tell some scary stories about what life was like back there. And Mom grew up in a Chicago neighborhood. They brought me up in a suburb, and though we weren't rich, all of my cousins who still lived in the city wanted to come spend time at our house in the summer. I think they were just looking to escape the omnipresence of so many other souls surrounding them.

    We brought our kids up in a suburb further away from the city, and taught them to seek solace in the quiet of the forest, where the only other living things around have more than 2 legs, and don't threaten you. Glad to know that you feel safe where you are now.

    Oh yea, and the being poor in an affluent area? I hate my exercise class in the spring, when the instructors and everyone around me keep discussing where they will go for this year's spring break. I've never had a spring break vacation. Sometimes we go visit our son. Other people get California, Florida, Hawaii, Jamaica. We get Detroit. Such is life.

  3. Interesting take on the topic, Giselle. This suggests that we might all have a different "face" (or at least potential image), depending on where we are and what seems to be required there.

  4. Giselle, for better or worse I suspect that steel is still there. It just feels much more comfortable to be Pollyanna (though I must say I have a hard time casting you in that role, given your kinky imagination).

    I'm glad you're in a safer place now. You deserve to be.

  5. When I was young and living in a rather nice section of London, I was accosted by a crazy man who leapt from a wall in front of me screaming 'Black or white I'll have ye!" He probably didn't mean this in any sexual way, nevertheless I ran like hell until I reached my flat, turning the key with shaking hands. I had never, until that moment, felt unsafe walking anywhere in town, but that one episode made me wary of dark streets - and to this day I prefer company when I'm walking home in San Diego. Doesn't have to be a grotty neighborhood I guess.

  6. I used to think of writing in different genres and/or under different names as "putting on another hat," which is absurd, since I never wear hats, just the occasional bandana. Really, putting on another face makes more sense. Looking at the world and describing it through different eyes. Pseudoface rather than pseudonym?

    On a different tack, it can be useful for a writer to have intimate knowledge of very different ways of living, including different kinds of neighborhoods with different assortments of people.

  7. I've always thought the ability to smile and be Pollyanna when one knows a different, darker world is a great strength, a sign of bravery that can appear to be foolishness. Be brave when you feel up to it, but there's no shame in choosing to blend in when that seems like the wiser course! And I'm happy you like where you live now. I often get a sense of unreality when I think of the places and situations I've been in and how strange they would seem to many of the people who surround me now.


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