I complained to my friend Chris that I was having a hard time figuring out who I was.
"Start out with one thing, say: 'I like X' and work from there," Chris said. That seemed easy, too easy. What about the variables, when liking X meant denying Y, and the questions that came with it?
"Don't worry about that, you'll get to it," Chris said.
He was right. There was some comfort in confirming the small things. I knew what was first on my list: I like New York. I said it to myself as we crossed back over the Brooklyn Bridge that night.
I knew it would be a very long time before I could add to my short list: "I like myself." In fact, I don't think I ever could. Applying Chris' principal to myself, meant picking just one thing about me that I liked.
Glancing in the mirror, I turned to look at my profile. I like my nose, I said. but then quickly recanted. Maybe I like my nose.
In society, confidence is praised, but at the same time, so is modesty. In high school, everyone knew that it was wrong to ever admit in the locker room: "I like my body," but that it was acceptable to poke at one's 26 inch waist and say, "I'm getting bigger."
For this reason, admitting that I liked my nose, seemed awful. It also permitted me to hate my round, child-like cheeks, the frizzy, shoulder-length hair that hides in a bun, and my microscopic ears.
It was in 2008 when Chris and I had that conversation. It's taken nearly seven years for me to come to a list of things I like. It's short and solid, only three items, max. The fourth item (nose related) appears and reappears with the tide.
On Ash Wednesday, I went to meet Bo at the Hungarian Pastry Shop after work. I walked to a table in the middle of the restaurant, amid many stares at the ashes on my forehead. I looked around desperately, but no one else was wearing them. Bo was on his way to meet me, so I did some writing and noticed a man across the restaurant looking up and down at me rapidly.
"A man is sketching me," I texted to Bo. I was having an ugly day, the ashes weren't helping.
When Bo arrived he sneaked a look at the man's sketch pad.
"I saw it," he said. "He's doing it with a pen."
Bo approached him as we left and asked to see the drawing.
"She's very special to me, I'd like to have it," Bo said to him.
"She's much prettier than this, but I have to draw it fast because of the ink," he said to Bo. "I noticed she had the ashes, and I remember going to get them when I was growing up. She's the only one I've seen all day with the ashes."
He'd sketched me holding my coffee cup with both hands with a grumpy, concerned stare. My hair parted at the middle, twisted up on each side. The ashes like a sideways heart. It was Ariel -- the abstract version. I liked it much more than the fantasy version I wanted in photographs.
In that moment, the value of ones own uniqueness over cultural beauty became apparent. If I gave up my self doubt and my worry over being well liked for my modesty, I could gain acceptance of myself. I know now which is more important.
Bo exchanged information with the artist, but we never heard from him again. And on liking my nose? It'll be a slowly but surely kind of thing.