All Will Be Welcome

I remember the first time I ever went to a school dance; I was in the seventh grade at a middle school in southern California. I wore a knee-length cotton skirt with a tiny animal print in black and white, and a long black top that was belted at my waist. My hair was styled half up, half down, and I wore earrings and a touch of makeup. I know all of this because I still have a photograph from that night, taken outside my house by my proud mother before she drove me to the dance.

My memories of what I wore are fainter than the ones of what happened at the dance. I’m sure I knew it was going to be a difficult night; after all, I had attended that school for months without making any close friends. I was teased relentlessly for my clothes and my hair and my awkward shyness. I doubt I had any illusions about being part of the crowd at the dance that night, but I think I believed that once I walked into the gym, everything would be okay. I would find someone I knew and blend in with their friends. It would be fine.

It wasn’t.

I walked into the gym and I didn’t know anyone. I saw people clumped together in small groups around the gym, chatting and looking around, but I didn’t see anyone I knew well enough to approach for safety. I must have walked ten miles that night, around the gym, around the outdoor courtyard, back through the gym. Circling…circling, like a bird that has no safe place to land. Worse, the more I circled, the more I was flooded with shame. My head drooped as I cast my eyes downward, and my shoulders hunched forward. My arms remained crossed in front of my chest, as a sort of propping device to keep me from falling forward on to the ground.

And then, a moment of grace: a girl I didn’t know reached out and touched my arm. She said something about my incessant walking, back and forth, back and forth. She invited me to join her and her friends on the dance floor, so I did. And for a least one song, maybe two, I was part of a group. I was welcome.

I really struggle with the idea of being welcome, of being invited in and belonging to something bigger than myself. I don’t know why one part of me deeply desires inclusion, while another part of me revels in remaining separate. I don’t know why sometimes I feel like I belong, and then suddenly I’m out, no longer included and no longer welcome. Sometimes I move on; sometimes other people move on. Regardless of who’s moving on, I often find myself alone, feeling a profound sense of unworthiness.

I recently came across the word “welcome” in Anne Lamott’s book Small Victories, where she writes, “…welcome — both offering and receiving — is our source of safety.” I agree, remembering how comforting it was to be on the dance floor with someone, anyone, who wanted me there. I was reminded of the many times that I have needed someone to welcome me into the fold, rather than leaving me to my endless circling and isolation. I feel gratitude for every person who has ever extended a hand to pull me into the fray.

But I was also reminded that it is difficult for me to welcome others. When I find a group of people that feel safe and loving, something happens inside my heart, and I become viciously protective of what I feel is mine. There isn’t enough to go around: enough friendship, enough comfort, enough space. Welcoming someone else in means that there might not be room for me anymore, so I have to keep others out in order to feel safe.

The downside, of course, is that people don’t particularly want to be around me when I’m acting like a rabid dog, snapping and growling and making it clear to STAY AWAY.

Anne Lamott’s words have me thinking about the possibility of being more welcoming, and I’m considering lowering my guard just the slightest bit. I’m considering the possibility that I won’t lose my spot in the circle if I widen it, ever so slightly, to let someone else in. I’m thinking that a larger group might just mean more safety, more support, and more love.

But it isn’t easy to change old, well-worn behavior patterns. Last night I found myself in the middle of a group of trusted friends, and every single person was speaking to someone else in the room. No one was speaking to me. The shame crashed mercilessly on all sides, and I did what I know: I took my stuff and left the room as fast as I could go.

And then, a moment of grace: a safe, trusted friend reached out, and I was willing to sit in silence with another person. After a while, I was able to express short phrases about why I was hurting. Then I was willing to talk more openly, to make eye contact, and to be held gently. Eventually, the shame faded and I recognized that I am as powerless over these feelings as I was in that gym nearly 30 years ago.  The difference now is that I can care for myself until the feelings pass, by reaching out and being gentle and asking for help.  This morning my “shame hangover” was a little less potent than it’s been in the past.

My hope is that as I become more loving and welcoming to myself, I will become more loving and welcoming to others.  I will extend a hand to someone else and pull them into my group.  I will not be afraid of losing my place in the world.  I will know in the core of my being that there is room for all of us.

There is room, and all are welcome.


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