Where do the messages come from, that we are not worthy? Not accepted? Not loved?

Last week while going through photos of my childhood, I came across two class pictures: one from first grade, the other from second. The change was startling. In the first I am grinning in a green turtleneck, my eyes bright behind round metal glasses. In the second I look as if I’d been arrested for a crime–eyes hard, mouth a grim line.

Not because I’d missed a cue from the photographer. Because in one year, I’d picked up too many cues from others. That my home-sewn hippy dresses and kitchen scissor’s haircut and too-big mouth were not right, not good enough. That I was not good enough. Not worthy of love.

And I did have a big mouth. So big a friend’s mom pulled me aside in a restaurant parking lot to tell me to keep it closed when we went inside. So big that when a chorus teacher instructed my class to open our mouths as wide as we could, I opened mine only half way. So big I told friends my feelings–my honest feelings–not realizing this would cost me friends. And I said foolish things too, lacking the social discernment others seemed to so easily grasp.

By fifth grade when my school picture arrived in the crinkly envelope, I pulled out a pen and scratched out my face. Unworthy. Unaccepted. Unloved.

Three decades later, it surprises me to see there was nothing wrong with me. No dragon’s teeth. No horns. No wickedly sprouting tail. I was a cute kid. Looking at a picture of myself at four, wearing a dress sewn by my grandmother and blowing out the candles on my mother’s lovingly home-baked cake,  I was surprised at just how cute. How happy. How clearly loved.

But that was before climbing on the yellow bus that took me away from the farm and deposited me in a world that slams its fist into little girl’s mouths that open too wide and talk too loud.

These feelings came rushing back thirty-six years later as I picked a photo to celebrate my birthday, the turning of a new decade.

The last one has been hard, so hard. Wanting to thank the women who’d helped me through it, I asked Dana to take our children bowling so I could throw a small dinner party.

“Bring a dish,” I wrote in the invitation. “Dress: Seventies glamour.”

Before my friends arrived–in Maine mud boots and kung-foo clothes and a sequined black beret–I slipped into a dress before mixing punch and waiting at the door.

Not everyone could make it, but I’m so grateful for those who did (and those who wanted to). Once again, I wore a dress sewn by my grandmother–a floor length pink and green floral sheath–and ate cake. Once again, I felt loved. And that big mouth? For three hours, I threw it open and laughed.

“You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,” Psalm 30:11.