Dresses — oh how I loved to dress in dresses! Five years old, I knew nothing about fashion, but I knew the bigger the skirt, the more fabulous I’d feel. I wore colorful dresses, pastel dresses, short dresses, hand-me-down dresses, and they always boasted bustly princess skirts. I’d visit my grandmother, loving her attention as I twirled and twirled and twirled just to show them off to her!
“Mija,” she’d smile, “you’re spinning so fast in your dress! Be careful or you’re just going to fly away from here!” I’d drop to the floor like a ring around a rosy, giggling as she clapped and giggled back.
Public policy had appeared on my radar not more than three years ago, when I was invited to a conference on the futures of Regional Centers in California. From that moment, stars had continually aligned, connecting me with contacts in and around my behavioral world, each offering me a tantalizing taste of policymaking until it was MY turn to talk to THEM, on that rainy Sacramento weekend, discussing how the brothers and sisters of people with disabilities would transform the way this world looked at family support.
A neuroscience major, I’d long practiced telling myself that I was ‘excited’ rather than ‘nervous,’ because the circuitry through the brain is the exact same for both emotions; our experiences of the emotions simply depends upon our labeling of them. I always felt better telling myself I was excited, not nervous. And that’s what I told myself in the days leading up to this policy conference — the time spent practicing the speech I believed to be aimed at parents, teachers, and general community members who were interested in a general update to the developmental disability world.
Oh, was I wrong! I saw neither anyone ‘general’ nor ‘public’ when we stepped into the Holiday Inn’s ballroom arena. Imagine believing you’re just going to make a run to the grocery store, when you open the door and walk right into a Victorian ball. I had been raised in the ways of private school; however, nothing could have prepared me for the surprise of seeing the fellow mountain-movers that were making up my audience.
I suddenly felt underdressed — something I hardly ever allow myself to feel, as I’d internalized it as a sign of insecurity — but I felt it then. I scanned the room feverishly for a sign of hair that wasn’t speckled with grey, but felt a small stone plunk into my stomach; I was the youngest attendee in the whole ballroom. The other wonderful ladies on our Executive Committee were not much older than I, even though I was the youngest of the four of us, and collectively, we were the youngest by about fifteen years. Oh, I felt underdressed and babyfaced and over-cleavaged, having attempted to make myself as presentable to the public; perhaps I was showing off a little too much assets in a sea of professionals who would have underestimated my lack of a dinner jacket, because I looked too much like a woman, and weren’t we all reliving the Peggy Olsen roller coaster of Mad Men, just in different hairdos???
So ran my anxious thoughts, but then I heard my grandma, almost standing beside me and not sitting hundreds of miles away — oh her Craftsman home, the stability and steadfast love that shaped me like the flames that present the phoenix: “Mija, I feel like you’re going to fly right out of here!”
I had never felt more powerful as a child than when I was spinning in my ballroom dresses, a childhood princess, ready to fly on powerful wings and pintucks pinned with tucked-in little flowers! I had inherent power, my grandma told me so. I’d been practicing, and she’d been priming!
Our speech delivered, our energy palpitating through the room, we curtsied to a round of cheerful applause. We. Had. Arrived.
Later that night, having celebrated our fame on Twitter (on accounts that weren’t ours!!!), I ran into a Los Angeles contact, one of the instrumental leaders who had sent me flying toward the Capitol years prior — “Sacramento better watch out, Jackie! You really are a seismic force, taking things by storm in a wrap dress!”
All I could do was grin.