I sat next to her and watched as she took in each word as if it were breath.
You're mother earth, someone told her. The tears formed and her hands shook. You write beauty into existence someone else said and she sighed.
"Thank you," she whispered.
I didn't know if she believed them. I didn't know because she reminded me of myself. At her age, I questioned every good thing said about me. At her age, I embraced every negative word spoken over me. I didn't believe I had anything good to say. I didn't believe my story mattered. I didn't even know I had a story to tell.
What made her different? She knew she had something to say. She was telling her story.
I didn't want her to stop.
When there was silence, a moment's pause, I spoke.
"I need you to remember these truths — that's what they are you know, truths. I need you to remember and I need you to understand the absolute danger of believing a lie."
I told her I feared she would forget everything that was said and instead cling to the lies. The ones whispering she wasn't good enough. The ones reminding her of all of the can't and none of the could.
Thirty minutes later, she walked into another room with someone else.
I was too busy to notice. I heard bits and pieces of the conversation but couldn't for the life of me determine what was going on because I didn't want to disturb. It looked heated. She looked confused. The other person, serious.
But I kept walking in and out, refusing to look their way, trying to stay focused on what I needed to do in that moment.
The person she spoke with pulled me aside later that day.
"There will be people who tell you things about me. They will tell you that you won't believe what I've said. It's okay. You don't need to defend me."
I blinked, exhausted.
"Um, okay?" I smiled. "I don't need to defend you. I get that — you're a grown ass woman." And I walked away, shaking my head, an unease settling in my bones.
I found out as I was getting into the car to leave.
I raised my arm to wave goodbye, and the one who told me not to defend her got out and walked in my direction. She turned and called toward the people waiting in her car, "I just need to tell Elora something."
And I listened, my pulse racing and my mind reeling and my eyes blinking heavily, as she told me the words she spoke into the one I sat next to earlier.
They were words of death.
I nodded when I should have spoken against what she said. I said okay when I should have said no. What she was telling me, I knew it wasn't true. I knew it was a lie from the deepest part of my bones. But I was so tired and the weekend left me so stressed and I just wanted to get away.
I thought that was drama, but my life shook even more on the way to lunch. I received a text that triggered me in all of the ways and walked into the restaurant zombie-eyed and shaking. My best friend saw me and pulled me out of the group immediately. We walked outside and I cried and she comforted me and pulled me close and spoke the truth I needed to hear and slapped me on my ass so I could walk back in as a human.
I didn't even think about what was said until later when friends rallied around me and told me I wasn't crazy and I actually got to eat.
And then I saw her.
She put on a good show. I give her that much. But I saw the pain behind her eyes. The hesitant way she looked at others, the way her smile didn't engulf her face anymore, the constant reach of her fingers toward her forehead. This was the point where I was no longer confused. I was angry. This wasn't about defending anyone. This was about shutting the lies DOWN because they were limiting the beauty and breath of someone I loved.
Before she left, I pulled her aside. I wrapped her in a hug. I whispered in her ear.
"Don't let it rest."
I didn't know if she knew I knew. I didn't know if she let it sunk deep. I didn't know any of this until later in the week when we'd exchange messages and catch up and I would tell her in no uncertain terms that I was not in agreement and would not be listening to the words spoken over her.
"You get to choose to do the same," I said. "You get to choose what to pick up and what to cast aside."
And you do, too.
There will be moments where critics speak over us in a way we weren't anticipating. Family members, friends, acquaintances, book reviewers — they will say things out of their own perspective (and possibly woundedness) and this will rock us sideways into next week if we aren't careful.
Each time this happens, we get to decide. Do we choose to embrace what was said as truth? Or do we choose to let it go as something not worth our time? Critics WILL come. It's part of this life we live as creatives. And sometimes, critics will have something for us that will propel us forward and make us better.
And sometimes, what they offer is death.
Can you tell the difference?
The one I spoke to so long ago? She's still telling her story. She recognized the sting of death and decided not to wear the garments chosen for her. Instead, she's wearing her own. Writing her words. Choosing herself again and again and again.
The critic did not win.