Standing in front of the woman who ran the camp, I was ashamed. “Sorry,” I said, weeping too hard to stop.
“You caved,” one of my eleven-year old bunkmates hissed as we left her office.
“Jellyfish spine,” another said.
I was nine-years old and at sleep-away camp. It was the first time I’d been away from home, an eight-week stint, an entire summer. My parents had asked for me to be put in a dorm with our neighbor’s daughter. She was eleven. Being nine with a bunch of eleven-year-olds was hard. I was homesick, and shy, and out of my depth, and now I was in trouble.
There’d been a rumor that the postmaster in the tiny town near our camp was going through the mail. With the collective wisdom of the under-twelve crowd, we’d written warnings on the envelopes addressed to our parents. Mailman, do not open! This is private! Mr. Postman stay out! The letters had been noticed and the head of the camp had called us into her office. Now eight girls stood in front of her desk. She was ancient, with curly white hair and a heavy, jowly neck. Her voice was soft, “What do you think the postmaster will think of us here at the camp?”
I started to cry. The other girls shot me disgusted looks. As we filed out, they whispered, “Jellyfish.” I couldn’t disagree. I was spineless.
Jellyfish spine became a label I used on myself. It haunted me in small, day-to-day things: an opinion I wouldn’t voice because I knew it was unpopular or an action I wouldn’t take because it was risky. In my early twenties, the director of a film I was up for asked me and three other actresses to take off our clothes as part of an audition. There was going to be an artsy shower scene in the film. I took off my clothes, hating every minute, horribly embarrassed and trying not to show it. I got the part, though never made the movie. The director later raped me. Back then I figured I had it coming. I know better now.
It’s easier to build a shell than a spine. Hiding is familiar, even comfortable. I know how to keep my mouth shut and my head down. It was innate stubbornness, a tricky quality at best, that first aided me in the spine-building project. My father used to say, “Giving your word is like signing a contract.” I learned to stubbornly keep that word, even when it was uncomfortable. Keeping my word has been good for adding calcium to this bendable backbone.
Loyalty also helps. Do me a good turn and, like a Labrador Retriever who’s found a half-eaten hamburger in the woods and keeps returning to the spot, I’ll remember it. Who knew looking for ways to repay a kindness would also firm a vertebra? When my father took his last breaths my mother, in her unbearable pain, wanted to leave the room. I said, “You go, I’ll stay.” No blame. It was understandable. She stayed, pressing her shoulder into mine, and together we bore witness to his final moment.
Inch by inch, choice by choice, my spine strengthened over time. Do I speak my whole truth? Do I take all the actions I wish I would? No, not by a long shot. I am still shy, too sensitive for my own good, a work in progress. These days, when I feel the fear beating in my chest, hear myself stumbling over words, I keep going. “Good job,” I tell myself, “brave girl.” There’s nothing brave about a lion roaring, it’s a lion’s nature. But how often do you hear a jellyfish roar?