I spent a large amount of my life feeling invisible.
Over the course of my school career, I went to seven different ones. I was not popular. I was goofy-looking and had braces and lots of spots on my face. I wore Goodwill clothes and tried to dress like Claudia Kishi from The Baby-Sitters Club, which was probably an unfortunate choice because nobody got it and I wasn’t wearing Calvin Kleins, so…
I was not so cool.
I was so not cool that for years I barely spoke. I thought no one wanted to listen to what I had to say. At home, at school — didn’t matter. I read like crazy and kept journals by the stack, and in thinking back I was really, really angry. Young girls aren’t given much allowance to be angry, but I was. I was angry that I had no voice except in the recesses of my own mind. I was angry that the ringleader of the popular group had some weird personal vendetta against me. I was angry that, as a newcomer in a school of bluebloods, I was unwelcome.
My family were really loving, and some might read this, so I kind of want to make it clear that this wasn’t an intentional thing on their part, but I have a really clear memory of going out to lunch with a family friend, my sister, and our moms. At one point, I started to say something and someone cut me off, so I shut up, and our friend Myra held up her hand and said, “Wait, wait, wait, wait…hold on. I’ve noticed this happening several times and haven’t said anything, but I’m going to say this now: every time Emmie opens her mouth to say something, someone cuts her off and talks right over her. Let her speak when she wants to speak.”
That moment was revelatory for me. Another moment happened a year or so later when I said something to one of my only friends in school, and a boy looked at me flabbergasted and said, “You can talk?”
Anyone who knows me these days knows that it’s actually more difficult to get me to STOP talking. But growing up? I lived and breathed a reality that no one really wanted to hear anything I had to say.
The other day I read this fabulous Salon article by Arthur Chu about his experience meeting Felicia Day. Specifically, how she not only saw him when he was alone and she was in a sea of her friends and comrades, but that she engaged with him and took a chance on him — and moreover, the power in that moment. How simply being seen can reopen you to your own confidence. It’s a sense of, yes, I exist. I matter.
This year I ended up, very strangely, having several encounters like that with people I greatly admired. One I sort of pounced at Capclave and is now one of my good friends. Another I pounced at Capclave expecting a “hey, you’re cool, great books, such art wow” and it turned into a solid acquaintanceship. Someone else I met at WFC and asked me to stay in touch when I was not expecting anything of the sort. And then at another con, people I hugely admire took time to speak with me, get to know me, and even communicate with me afterward.
I was thinking for a moment that it was silly to feel so validated by those moments, but it really isn’t. To have someone you admire look at you and see you — the you you feel you are — is a powerful, heady thing. It’s terrifying to put yourself out there. But these are the instances in which you are rewarded for it.
I wrote a while ago about people reaching back when you reach out, and one of the huge things it has inspired in me to have people I admire reach back is wanting to do the same. Because oddly — and I’m not being facetious, this is new and odd — I’m in a place where people are reaching out to me. It makes me want to reach back to them, to share, to acknowledge, to listen.
We all exist in a consistent give and take of reaching out and reaching back. It can be utterly terrifying when we reach out and someone DOESN’T reach back. It makes us feel exposed and vulnerable. And can make us feel frightened and even angry, like the anger I’ve felt as a kid and an adult when brushed aside.
The reason I wanted to write this is because reaching back is incredibly powerful. It can transform someone, as it did with Arthur Chu, and honestly, as it’s doing with me right now. It’s made it even more important for me to realize that when people don’t reach back, the reason is most likely not me. It’s not something I did wrong, or something unappealing about me as a person; more likely, it’s because they are busy, or they honestly didn’t see me, or they are holding off for some OTHER reason.
I remember at BurCon in 2013 during karaoke, Chad Lindberg came down into the audience. I made eye contact with him and thought he was coming over, but he got swept away. I was a little disappointed and thought that again, I hadn’t been seen. A few minutes later, lo and behold, he came directly to me, put his arm around me and said, “I was coming over to you.” And he took a picture with me that still to this day makes me happy, not just because I got to take a picture with Chad, but because it’s a symbol that he saw me. He didn’t have to come over. He did anyway.
Thinking about these things makes me more cognizant of how I behave at cons when I am the one on the panels and people are coming up to me. That’s still a very new thing for me, to be approached face to face by someone who likes what I said or liked a story I told, or wanted to agree with me about a point I made. I’ve tried — hopefully with success — to be approachable. I know how scary it can be to go up to someone, and I’m really not a scary person. I’m kind of awkward and dopey and I make fart jokes when I get nervous.
This doesn’t just go for instances where there is a perceived power differential, but out in the day to day. I make eye contact with homeless people, even if it’s just to tell them that I don’t actually HAVE any change. It’s a way of saying, “You’re not invisible, and even if I can’t help, I see you.” If I can help, I do. I try to respond to tweets, especially when they’re about something in particular and wanting to have a conversation. I can’t always, but I try.
As silly as it sounds to get all weird and Nic Cagey and be like, “I see you” *Face/Off face pet*, in practice it can be enormously meaningful. The least we can do for one another is give those small moments of connection. They don’t really cost us anything, and they might be worth more to others than we know.
What’s a moment in your life where someone unexpectedly saw you — really saw you — and you felt visible?
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