A Lesson I Should Learn

The night before we left for Scotland, Sister’s boyfriend, 3G (a person, not the cellular network), gave Niece H a collection of trip-oriented presents:  a journal, a mini-accordian file for keepsakes, and a digital camera.  It was sweet, of course (I was instantly jealous that I hadn’t thought of it), but none of us were sure if Niece H would actually use her travel collection.  Was she old enough for a journal?  Would she want to collect keepsakes?  Could she operate the camera?

The answer was a resounding YES.

Niece H (who, by the way, was awarded the Best Traveler Award by her Grandad, an honor she richly deserved), journaled and collected and photographed her way around Scotland.  Her journal entries were drawings, but they documented our travels as well as any words could have.  An airplane.  A castle.  A bagpipe player.  A flower.  When the tiny accordion file wasn’t big enough for the brochures she decided to collect (which she informed Sister and me that she intended to sell, along with a glass of lemonade, for $1.00 each), Niece H turned a discarded cookie container into her Treasure Box.

The camera, however, was the biggest hit.  Niece H wanted to take pictures everywhere we went.  But she was discriminating:  she’d survey an object she encountered, making the shape of a camera with her little hands, trying to decide whether whatever it was warranted a photo.  Sometimes we’d hear her making a clicking sound as she looked through her imaginary lens.  Click click! Then, a moment later:  ”Mom, can I have my camera?”

Since the idea behind the camera was to take pictures for a scrapbook she and 3G would make when she got home, I wanted to make sure she had shots of herself on her camera.

“Hey, H, lemme get a picture of you,” I’d say.

“But I hate my smile.”

“What?!  You have a great smile.  Here, stand right there.”

And usually, she would.  Then, after I’d taken the picture and given back her camera, I’d see her looking at it with a pained look on her face.  ”I look so bad!” she’d moan.  And then, as often as not, she’d delete it.

I couldn’t tell whether she actually thought she looked bad, or whether she just thought that’s what you’re supposed to say when you look at a picture of yourself.  I’m not sure which would be worse.

On one level, I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.  It’s what we all do, right?  Edit immediately, erasing our bad smiles and awkward angles and limp hair and flabby arms.  Bemoan our unsightly whatevers.  We disparage ourselves so often that we don’t even hear ourselves doing it.  And on the rare occasion that we see a shot we like, we stay silent.

Watching Niece H grimace as she looked at a picture I’d taken of her, I saw myself at that age, when I first decided that I had an Eighth Angle.  My family is laughing (or crying) right now, because they’ve heard about the Eighth Angle for nearly three decades.  I discovered it while in a dressing room as a kid, looking into one of those accordion mirrors.  I was examining myself from all angles when — horror! — I saw one (of nine) that I deemed horrendous.  Since then, I’ve refused to let that particular angle be photographed (my wedding photographer was thoroughly  instructed on this point).

Niece H doesn’t have an Eighth Angle.  She’s objectively adorable.  But even if she did have one, I wouldn’t want her to start obsessing about it now.  Or ever.  She’s too smart, too funny, too delightful to be walking around with some stupid hang-up about her looks.

And so, as I watched her hit the little trashcan icon, I reached out and snatched the camera from her hands.  ”Don’t be like that,” I told her.  ”Be confident.  Confident people don’t waste time saying negative stuff about themselves.  Confident people are too busy being happy and having fun.”

She looked at me with her enormous blue eyes, weighing my words.  ”It’s cooler to be confident,” I said then.  Not particularly eloquent, but true.  She nodded, accepting this.  Then she took her little finger off the delete button and went back to taking pictures.

I looked up and caught my reflection in the car window.  There she was, the girl I’ve been criticizing for the past 25 years.  That day, I cut her a break.

You’re too smart, too funny, too delightful to be walking around with some stupid hang-up about your looks.

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