The first time I reinvented myself, I was eleven.
After having a disastrous year at my Catholic school, my mother made a decision that saved my life: She decided to have me repeat fifth grade at the school my cousin Sericea went to. When she first told me about this I was terrified. I'd heard all these horror stories about public school. They did drugs! They listened to Rick Springfield's "Darling Nikki!" where he swore! I'd be eaten alive. My mother was firm. "You need to start over somewhere else," she told me. "You can reinvent yourself if you want." I didn't want to reinvent myself.
In Catholic school, everyone called me Jenny. I grew to hate it. It always felt like Jenny was The One Who Couldn't Do Anything Right. Don't ask her to do three digit division. And no way can you read her handwriting. I hated being Jenny, yet I didn't have the voice, the gumption, to say "Don't call me Jenny."
Yet on the first day at this new school, roll was called. Mrs. Steele said my name, then looked up. "What name would you like to be called?" she asked me.
I looked at her. Nobody asked before. If they have, I've blocked it. "Jennifer is fine," I said. Taking my name was reinventing myself. It wasn't getting a new job or marriage, but it was a start.
In my life I've dressed in Guess Jeans and Espirit, then the next year worn white stockings and China flats when I realized how much I hated dressing like everyone else. I worked for my local library system until I was twenty-seven. Two years later, I was studying to become a teacher. When that didn't work out, I went to Mills College, a junior at age thirty-two, graduating a year later. As the years went on I lost people I loved, had my heart broken a couple of times. Yet as Elton John once sang, I'm still standing.
The year I turned thirty-nine I felt stagnant. I wasn't sure what I was going to do next in my life. One bad day I looked at my hair, hating it. It looked so blah. I wanted a pixie haircut, the kind of haircut Mia Farrow got in Rosemary's Baby. My inner mind was going crazy: You can't get that haircut! What will people think? It will make you look fat!
Then I remembered On Golden Pond. Not the actual movie; but a story Jane Fonda told in her memoirs about Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn asked Fonda if she was going to do the backward flip in the movie. Fonda was going to have a stand in do it for her, but Hepburn said "You have to do it. Mustn't get soggy, now." Challenged, Fonda decided to do the backward flip. Not only did she do it, the reaction when she's in the water of pure surprise and joy is genuine.
I took a picture of Mia Farrow back in 1967. Marched to Supercuts. "Can you cut my hair like this?" I asked the hairdresser. She nodded. It was one of the best haircuts I had in my life. As she washed my hair she did it slowly, making sure the water was warm enough, then massaging my scalp. When she cut my hair I closed my eyes (I always do this during haircuts) but one time I opened them. I saw a forrest of hair on the floor.
After she blow-dried my hair, I looked in the mirror. I was stunned. I looked great. I knew I looked great. I wasn't Mia Farrow but I wasn't the crabby person who'd walked in half a hour before.
I've gotten so many compliments on this haircut, saying how "it suits me" and how good I look. I realized my 39th year was going to be about not getting soggy. If it worked for my hair, what else could happen?
I've had bad dandruff for years. Instead of just trying shampoo after shampoo, I went to a doctor who told me I had a bad scalp infection, and try this medication. It worked; my dandruff went away. A friend asked me if I wanted to participate in a reading on the 21st anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). Yes, I'd do that. I know it doesn't sound like huge changes, but I wanted to try new things. The old ways weren't working for me, trying something else.
So not getting soggy is the reason why I decided to put out ebooks through Smashwords. I always wanted to have something out there in the world published; I always thought I would walk into Borders and find a book of mine there. But Borders closed, the world changed. I thought about doing the whole finding an agent then send in my manuscript then worry if it's not good enough or someone would like it, and I realized I can do that another time. Not now. Now I had to get something out there in the world that was mine, something I was proud of.
What sold me on e-books was Amanda Hocking. A girl living in Minnesota, she decided to self-publish her own books. Pretty soon they were selling on Amazon, then she got a multi-million deal from St. Martin's. Okay, I'm not Amanda Hocking. I'd love to sell millions of books, but if people other than my family and friends read them as well, that's great too.
What I loved about Hocking's story is she refused to get soggy. She decided that she wanted to put herself out there, share stories with people. She wanted to do this all her life. Her mother, according to USA Today, even had to tell a school counselor and not discourage her daughter from dreaming of becoming a writer. Her mother wouldn't let her girl get soggy, and she didn't.
So the collection of essays I'm putting together is my telling the world "I'm not getting soggy by gum!" It is titled Take What You Got And Fly With It. I got the quote from watching again a tribute to Jim Henson starring--of course--the Muppets. When they find out Henson died, Fozzie decides there's no way they could do a decent tribute to Henson. Robin (Kermit's nephew) reminds Fozzie of what Jim said: take what you got and fly with it. The Muppets then sing one of Henson's favorite songs "Just One Person" Kermit comes in, then says "Do you have anything silly to end it with?" Of course. Fozzie yells, "Cue the production number! Fly with it!" They end it with Muppets flying and dancing, creating joy out of sorrow.
So Mr. Henson and Ms. Hepburn, I'm taking your advice. I'm flying with what I have, while not getting soggy. I can say this: the art of reinvention doesn't have to be overly dramatic. It starts with a haircut, speaking up for yourself, and being who you are. It is creating joy out of sorrow. It is learning how to live your life on your terms. And if you can, end it with something silly.
Causes Jennifer Gibbons Supports
Gilda's Club, Greenpeace, Rosie's Broadway Kids,Westwind Foster Family Agency, Amber Brown Fund, Linda Duncan Fund for Contra Costa Libraries