This is my serious face. Well, one of them. Since the time I was born I have been a serious person; serious in thought, serious in work, serious in play. There are more pictures of me with a half smile than teethy toddler ones. I was constantly leery of the world and of the intentions of those around me. "Smile, Erin!" would produce an effect of pure disdain, but I would grudgingly oblige with a nuanced smile, sans teeth.
When my father would burst out in song, particularly in public, particularly at a restaurant, I, in my budding adolescence and therefore constant embarrassment to be around my parents (simply because) would hiss. "Daaaaaad!" My mom would instantly frown. "Oh, Erin," she began, "you're so serious. Lighten up." And then I would retreat to eating my chicken strips and fries with a sullen acquiescence, mentally removing myself from the table.
While my parents may have viewed my seriousness differently, my teachers took it upon themselves to uncover what was behind the frown.
In 8th grade, my Spanish teacher called me up to her desk. "Are you okay?" she asked me. In 9th grade, it was my English teacher who called me up to his desk. "Are you okay?" he asked me.
Yes, I would reply.
I was just simply, me. My face rests in a way that projects gloom and upset over cheerful and non-plussed. I don't know what my teachers were searching for in my face. Perhaps they were wondering if I was depressed or sick, lonely or angry.
Maybe I was. I'm not sure.
I just know that in middle school, I wasn't one to skip down the halls dispensing high-fives to friends or teachers. I kept my head down, hiding behind my straight brown hair, wondering constantly if I had something on my face. I was terrified of being laughed at. It was hard enough adjusting to menstruation and bra straps, why did the teachers find the need to pay attention to me?
When I was on a summer break from college, I stayed with my parents in a D.C. suburb and a few days a week I took the Metro into the city to volunteer at the Smithsonian. After my shift, I would wander around Georgetown or the National Mall. Here, I got more attention. By strange men. They would hoot and holler and whistle. "Smile for me, girl," they would drawl. I never obliged, never called them out on their harassment. I just stayed mute and grim and solemn.
"The über brooder" became my occasional nickname in my mid-twenties when I worked for a small garden landscape company. I was broody, melancholic, wistful, and angsty for justice, both personal and societal. A gardening client and astrologist once remarked on my comfort in wearing my hoodie over my head. When I offered that I was a Scorpio, she saw that act, of putting the hood up as something typical of serious Scorpio behavior. That need to stay protected and hidden.
I don't remember exactly when I started to smile more. Likely it has been a combination of work, friendships, communities, growth through therapy and spiritual practice. Getting older helps.
Before I leave the house, I find myself making a concerted effort to smile at myself in the mirror. If I can't see myself, if I can't acknowledge myself, how can I ever do that for someone else?
People, in general, aren't out to "get me." I am not out to "get" them. We're all in our own process. We have our own filters of the world. We are frequent smilers or not. We are easy to anger or not.
I've come to realize that my solemnity, my "serious face," my care and deliberation around the dispensation of smiles, is a gift. It's not something I ought to be ashamed of. I'm not quick to deception with a look; if I'm upset, it's generally obvious. If I'm happy, the same applies.
I do smile with my teeth in photos now and I rarely think about if I have something on my face like I did twenty years ago. I smile more and I am (in general) more content. And a lot of that makes sense: I'm no longer a teen or mid-twenty-something feeling like my world is ending.
Serious or smiling, I'm still me. I still ask myself tough questions. I still ponder the meaning of existence. I'm curious about social justice and clean water and the powerful art form of film and storytelling and so much more. I'm still thinking about that ridiculous joke that only I think is funny.
Smile (as you feel called to).