Enterprise, Alabama—I stood before a small auditorium of people. Guitar strapped to my chest. I told a story about my cousin falling off a chicken house and breaking his big toe. People laughed at the punchline. I sang a song to go with it. I told another story. Another song.
And I was thinking to myself.
“I’m not qualified to be here,” that’s what I was thinking in the moment. “I’m not supposed to be doing this.”
After the show, I went to the back. I hugged necks. I shook hands with people who were kind enough to attend. One woman told me her son died this past month. Another man embraced me and said: “I’m eighty tonight, thanks for making my birthday good.”
And a nine-year-old named Emily gave me a handwritten letter. As it happens, I’ve written about Emily once before. Months ago, I mistakenly wrote that she was seven years old.
“I’m actually nine,” Emily clarified. “But you’re okay.”
Sometimes I feel like an impostor doing what I do for a living. I mean it. I have no idea what I’m doing. Furthermore, why would anyone read my words? Why would anyone care to hear to my stories?
I’m so painfully ordinary it hurts. I grew up among lots of grass, and plain people, and tiny post offices. I was not a good athlete, a terrible student, and I was chubby. With freckles. And a big nose. And ugly hair.
I remember when Mother used to take family photographs. She would position us just right. “Say cheese!” she’d yell. She’d send me to the drugstore to pick up the photos after a few weeks.
I would open the Kodak envelope and thumb through glossy photographs. When I’d see my own picture, I wanted to crawl under a flat rock.
Nothing was “okay” with the way I was put together. I was ugly, awkward, plump, with a haircut that practically screamed “fundamentalist.” Daddy cut my hair on our porch, using scissors and an enamel mixing bowl.
Worse still, I was a straight-C student, soft spoken, and you should’ve seen me hold a baseball bat.
When my father died, I became even more awkward—at least that’s what I saw in the mirror. I hated the way shirts clung to my little belly. And the way my ugly hair made me look like a wild-eyed evangelical. I slumped instead of standing straight. I even had puffy ankles.
I didn’t like me. I was not a charming kid. I was quiet, not too bright, and nobody would’ve ever picked me to play football. Even fewer would’ve picked me to go to a dance.
I tried to start jogging when I was fifteen. I wanted to lose weight and be skinnier. I wanted to be somebody. I wanted to love me. I wanted to be “okay.”
So, I would run gravel roads at night, in the dark, so nobody could see me. I ran every evening at eight.
I huffed and puffed. I remember my sneakers crunching on gravel. The sound of my own heavy breathing.
Sometimes, I would stop running and sit on the shoulder of the road. The constellations above me were marvelous. And I would wish I could be with them in the sky.
Those boyhood feelings never leave you. No matter how old you get. No matter what your station in life. Those feelings are like handprints embedded in a cement sidewalk.
But today, I’m sorry I ever felt that way. Because I am here, with you, doing this. Whatever this is. You’re reading these words, and you can’t know how much it means to me.
I never knew I was a storyteller, and it feels strange admitting that. To me, I will always be a child who hated his own photograph. A boy who wished he could tuck his head into his shell and not come out except to eat, drink, and maybe pee.
But I was wrong. I owe myself an apology for not being satisfied with what I was made to be. I realize this now.
Sadly, I didn’t come to this realization on my own. It happened earlier this week. In Enterprise. It was a nine-year-old (not a seven-year-old) named Emily. She was sent to me from the very same place the constellations come from, to remind me of an important thing.
I apologized to Emily for making a mistake when I wrote about her. She hugged me. Her eyes met mine. She said:
“You’re okay,” she said.
I know it’s only two words. And I know those words are simply nine letters hooked together.
But I am grateful she said them.