This week, I guest-blogged at my favorite off-kilter abode, The Little Crooked Cottage. I wrote about the books that meant most to me as a child, and how I managed to lose them…and then reunite with one of them.

The lone recovered book in question, called Bunny Blue, is no masterpiece, by anyone’s standards. It was published in the forties, and it’s incredibly dated, both in its saccharine illustrations and its leaden text. But I can’t dismiss it completely, as it played such an important role in my life as a reader. As my mother tells it, she was reading the book to me one day, and I began to read the words out loud along with her. I was three at the time, so this moment was deemed extraordinary. I’ve wondered (as I am sure you’re wondering) if I wasn’t just reciting from memory a story I’d heard over and over so many times. But it turns out I quickly went on to read other things. My grandmother tells the story of how my grandfather doubted my reading prowess, so she had him point out a street sign when we were all in the car one day, and I correctly responded, “Slippery When Wet.” Going to the grocery store with my grandmother was like a game to me, where she would give me her list and I’d find all the items on it, using my newfound talent for reading the labels.

Soon after this, my parents had me tested, and it was determined that I would start kindergarten early. While most kids enter school after they’ve turned five, I had just turned four a few weeks before my first day. I was SO EXCITED to start school. Each day, the summer before, I’d ask my parents if it was time to go yet. I didn’t really understand that my age set me apart from the other kids, until we all got to talking about how old we were, and when I said I was only four, my classmates told me I was a baby who didn’t belong. Perhaps this is where my lifelong inferiority complex began.

During our playtime, I would often draw, using wide sheets of soft, pulpy, grayish paper. I didn’t like coloring in my designs — I just liked the way the black crayon looked against the light(ish) paper. But I’d often abandon each creation before it was completed, sometimes after just one line or squiggle. At some point, the kindergarten teacher or her assistant took me aside, and questioned me about my drawings. Evidently, on the back of each one, I always wrote the same word, in all capital letters: JUNK. It’s amazing (and more than a little bit tragic), how that harsh self-criticism was festering in me at such a young age, and how I’m still that kid, eager to make my mark, yet always berating myself for falling short of an imagined, impossible standard of perfection. In many ways, the critical voice in my head has been more pervasive and aggressive and debilitating than any physical malignancy I’ve faced. It’s a constant struggle to remind myself that the real JUNK is the voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough.

Do you judge yourself too harshly? Has it been a lifelong thing, or a recent phenomenon? How do you silence that critical voice?

REMINDER: If you’re up for some Halloween fun, I’ll be reading some spooky stories at Burnside Park in Providence tomorrow, October 26, from 10:30am to 12:30pm. Details here

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