Adjective. 1) Seemingly absurd or self-contradictory. 2) Exhibiting inexplicable aspects that may be true nevertheless. 3) Logically indefensible, though derived from credible inferences of acceptable data. –ON A STICK. Because you know it’ll get messy.
It’s Thanksgiving time. I have been abundantly blessed. Thankful and grateful and blessed, that’s me. I can’t complain. Except I do. Where do I get off whining? Where do any of us?
In my weight loss support group, the talk is the same as the conversation in my head for decades on end. What treats can I squeeze into my daily allotment of calories? I want my cake and to eat it too. I want to be thin, but there’s homemade macaroni and cheese. Can I budget my Thanksgiving Day food allotment so I can enjoy stuffing, and mashed potatoes, and gravy, and the buttered rolls? Or hey, screw it, I’ll cheat on Thanksgiving and think about dieting after the holidays. But the pants are too tight.
If you’re reading this, and you don’t struggle with overeating, then you have my admiration. Also my sneaking suspicion that your character flaws lie in less visible but perhaps more morally questionable places. Uh huh. But not my business.
Why can’t I have a big slab of pumpkin pie, like all the rest of America? Oh, I forgot about people in poverty… but this is about me right now. I hate that I’m deprived of Caramel Cream Cheese Pecan Brownies, when those spiteful people with fast metabolisms eat everything they want and never get fat! It’s not fair. I feel cheated and sad when I see other people wolfing down fried chicken, or loaded baked potatoes, or Death by Chocolate cake, because I want to join in. Not the death part, though. Other people enjoy Starbucks Venti Salted Caramel Mocha (570 calories,) why can’t I? Are there even lattes in my future?
But in the meantime, what if I looked hard at what I often ignore? Echhh.
I have indulged in a lifetime of bad eating habits. This is no surprise to any of you. You can see my belly. Come on, polite is just a lie.
I am horrified to discover that I have increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease because I’m fat, even beyond the risk factor that my mother had Alzheimer’s. I take four prescription medications. I say no to activities with friends because I’m embarrassed that I can’t keep up with them. So fun is more subdued, more sedentary. Dominoes, anyone? I’ve consigned myself to sitting in a chair. I’m tired. Which is boring, really. I hurt. I have pain in my left hip. I have arthritis in my low back. Which must be worsened with higher body weight.
This year I have a new diagnosis of asthma. I run out of breath when I exert myself. My brain and my muscles don’t always get enough oxygen to run the show. And now there’s sleep apnea, so I go to bed with a plastic mask affixed to my face, with a long hose pumping air into my lungs should I forget to inhale. This is a direct result of my body mass index being too high. I’m fat. If you think you need to point it out to me, please don’t. I’m aware. Here’s a direct result of my lifelong habit of using food for comfort, and reward, and to tamp down unwanted feelings, which compromises breathing. Yeah, ill-gotten coping strategy, rooted in childhood deprivation. Blah blah. But this is now. I will breathe in and out over 23,000 times today, each breath altered because of my habits with food. My childhood was a long time ago. I’ve got to quit whining. It is not attractive.
I have no defense if you’re judging, me, but you smokers, quit that!
I’m not that heavy. I know people way heavier than I am. And there’s always somebody sicker than me. I don’t need to shame myself, or them either. They are doing the best they can see to do, and it’s none of my business.
I’m just talking about me. And if you can relate, that’s your stuff.
I’ve gotten used to moving slower—I only notice it when I walk across an airport. I’ve rationalized buying bigger clothing. I’ve told myself those buff gym rats who can actually follow the Zumba instructor’s moves must be less intellectually or emotionally evolved than I am. I’ve settled for the life of the mind because my body won’t go that way.
I can whine that poor me can’t have all my favorites at Thanksgiving. I can moan about the Christmas cookies that will be shoveled into my path, and have to be agonized over. Would a luscious treat magically convey the richer life I hunger for? Or do I really crave the sumptuousness of a life of vitality? Is what I really want more about competence and exhilaration in simple striding and stooping, leaping, squatting and stretching? To play with my three-year-old grandson, to model empowerment for my teen granddaughter, to hold my own with my younger friend who wants to hike. Will I fulfill my promise of an afternoon of bowling to my ten-year-old grandson?
I’m not talking about having ripped abs, or entering bodybuilding competitions. I’m talking about using this almost sixty-five-year-old body as it was designed. To move, to engage, as a vehicle for life. To enjoy the daily pleasures of flesh. To feel the sensation of ownership of the body I was given.
I can gaze transfixed into the pie case at Village Inn, or I can notice how my belly fat might risk that my brain won’t sustain rational thought and witty conversations in my golden years. Pie could mean my memory drains away, and puddles into my cellulite. It might mean that I dial back my shoe-tying and switch to Velcro, that I quit expecting to move on my own two legs from the car to the movie theater.
Should I plan for a wheelchair? My bathrooms are not accessible! Are oxygen tanks in my future? Diabetic supplies? Compression stockings? None of this is sexy. Will the equipment necessary to hoist and heave and move my body around be too difficult to haul out of the trunk? Will I just stay in my house? Will somebody have to wipe my butt because I can’t reach it? What cost to my self-esteem over that? Or I can start moving!
The deprivation model of living has me jealous that the next person gets away with triple cheese lasagna and garlic bread dripping with butter, and Tiramisu for dessert. But while I’m drooling over the menu, I avert my eyes from the ease of a woman exactly my age wearing smaller pants, with a spring in her step, a glow in her skin, and a light in her eyes. Look away from the menu! Get back to yoga class.
These days I’m retired, and I can choose how I invest my hours and my money. I can put my feet up and binge-watch Netflix. I can indulge myself in whatever I really truly want. What do I most want? The sweet fleeting instant of a cream puff melting in my mouth tastes like an ingredient for isolation, depression and disability. Cream puffs age me faster. Is that what I was craving?
The class of 1971 is having a 46-year reunion, next weekend. They’ll be at the football game against the rival high school. Go, Bulldogs!! The soundtrack will include Crosby Stills Nash and Young. Remember Teach Your Children Well? I put in a request, even though I can’t be there this year.
I’ve been thinking about those kids I grew up with. All of us are in our mid-sixties now. Although if they’re like me, I bet they still hold the delusion they’re sixteen and just got their drivers’ licenses. The Beatles are still together in our hearts. How can we have gray hair?
We rallied for peace. We were mythic in our own minds, righteously vocal against the corrupt establishment, against the war, against the lies of politicians, against oppression. We were different than those who came before. But how pure were we really? Did we sit-in because we wanted to fit in?
How much we needed to belong! At the local hangout—Shirley’s Drive-in—I dropped a quarter in the jukebox one afternoon when the place was swarming with high schoolers. I played Time of the Season by the Zombies (or was it Incense and Peppermints by the Strawberry Alarm Clock?) On my way back to my booth, as the beat of psychedelic rock throbbed over the hubbub, one of the jocks gave me such a startled look! Could I like that music without dropping acid? I was a goody-two-shoes, not even allowed to go to dances. I loved those songs. But my jukebox choice that afternoon tried to send a coded message to my peers that I wanted to be one of them. An old longing.
I don’t know what secret feelings the cheerleaders and jocks were hiding inside, but I was uneasy in my own skin. Awkward. Scared all the time. An outsider. I imagine I was obnoxious about what areas of competence I believed I had, in overcompensation for the rest. Maybe I’m still giving off some of the same vibe. There is probably some eye-rolling going on here.
However much we evolve even if we’ve had profound healing, isn’t there still that little kid inside, in an old bubble of fear…will anybody like me? How can I fit? Did they feel it too?
All the way back to earliest grade school, my tough family life prompted covert acting out. Those were hard years at home, and I felt unsafe and unlovable. A kid who feels like that brings it to school with her, to the social milieu. Because where could she lay it down? I observed the apparent social ease of the upper tiers of elementary school social strata—an ease that seemed magically bestowed. Seamlessly, gracefully engaged in by everyone else but me. I was jealous.
These days I know I was wrong in those assumptions. I know that even the kids I imagined were living charmed lives had their own painful challenges. Nobody had it easy.
The next thing I’m going to admit is something I feel ashamed and sad about.
From first grade on, there was Bobby, that everybody liked most, and Susie, the most popular girl. These are not their real names, because that’s not the point. One year Bobby liked Susie, or so it was said. They were both cute, popular, wore nice clothes. They were innocent friends, and nothing else, but we were all of us playing at being grown up, applying what templates of relationships were demonstrated on TV and movie screens. We, as a group (Miss Mendoza’s class—and no, that’s not her real name either) were vicariously trying on social roles. So, we watched with interest, this boy and girl whom we had drafted unawares, into role models without their consent. The sing-song chant of “Bobby and Susie sittin’ in a tree…. K-I-S-S-I-N-G… was some degree of social harassment. Or maybe even bullying. Did it embarrass them? They had no chance to opt out of our attention, to step out of the glare of our teasing, our jealousy, for their preferred status as our imagined social examples.
There was a set of girls, and I was among them, who decided that the fault for our own social deprivation could be pinned on Susie. We were ignorant sexists, blaming the female for the attentions of a male, however innocent all of it was. There was formed a little mean-girls clique, and while I don’t remember the ringleader, my presence gave consent. I was responsible for joining in. We distracted ourselves from the self-loathing we felt for being outside the social limelight. We called ourselves the “Hate Susie Club.” The club was an ugly, fleeting invention, probably the length of a single recess period or two. As far as I know, it evaporated as soon as it was spoken into existence. It took root in my memory not for its duration, or for any actions that were physically undertaken. I remembered it for two reasons I can think of, looking back with my adult eyes. First, it had been a rare moment when I felt included in a kind of membership, which was an experience I was starved for. And second, my conscience burned me like a bad rash, for aiming hateful thoughts at a girl I only admired and would have wanted to be like. Neither Bobby nor Susie had ever been unpleasant to me in any way. Why would I agree to such poisonous energy? I numbed myself and “forgot” about it.
Decades later, on suddenly encountering Susie at a gathering, I blurted out the beginning of an abrupt confession. What earthly reason made me open my mouth? I was seeking, I suppose, to unburden my guilt, apologize, and make amends for the ugly, short-lived meanness of the idea it represented. Such a terrible impulse, serving only me. I spoke the name of the “Hate Susie Club” to her, and then stalled out. As the words left my mouth I froze, aghast at hearing aloud my own complicity in creating a wound that sounded to my own ears more cruel than I had let myself know. And now I had compounded it by speaking it anew. Susie’s face was at first friendly and open, then surprised, then wary and masked. Within a minute, she excused herself and moved away to a cluster of folks across the room.
As an unwitting, needy child I had sinned simply to lend my ears and my voice to a conversation of such hatefulness. But now as an adult I had compounded the harm. And what is worse, I pushed it out of mind, and did not try to repair it since then. I’m realizing in the writing of this post that even now I still had Susie on some kind of social pedestal, and convinced myself she was okay.
I am sorry, Susie. For listening to hateful speech, and joining into it, for however brief a time. I am sorry that my adult bumbling so many years later, for only selfish reasons, caused hurt again. I’m sorry my embarrassment caused me to go silent, for all the time between then and now. I was wrong.
I think now of the bullying I know is rampant in our schools today, and the lives it maims and destroys. As an adult I have engaged in conversations, both personal and professional, on the need to instill compassion in our children. I have presented myself as a compassionate person, and told myself I modeled it.
There are gaps.
But I never saw so clearly that my complicity back then was bullying. That my failure to own it, or clear it, was hateful.
There’s a saying, that “Hurt people hurt people.” Surely the children who bully others, are, themselves, hurt. But I wonder if we turned the camera on ourselves, if we might see that behind our masks of morality, our defended egos, our religious postures, that the festering of our own old wounds maintains ugly blind spots even today. Are we insensitive to the degree we have not healed? Are we still bullies? We may slice open others’ wounds without noticing.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can devastate me.
In our graduating class of 1971, there were more than 500 high school seniors whose lives encompassed personal hopes and dreams, sorrows and fears, pride and shame, promise and despair. Every one of us carried unspoken burdens, then and now. We cannot fully know all the experience of another. 46 years post-graduation, might we examine how we live out what values we say we hold? Might we look for ways to make the world kinder, and more understanding? That would be better.
I can go all my life without ever considering the textures of another human life whose heart beats just around the corner from where I live. Let alone a person, or a people, half a world away. I don’t think about them.
I’m aware that my toenail polish needs to be re-done, that I forgot to start the dryer, that I have an unheard voicemail. I’m aware that I feel hungry, when it hasn’t been that long since breakfast, but there’s a craving, maybe to distract myself from boredom or a nagging emotion I’d rather not have, by noshing on something. What do I want? Something salty maybe….
I am not aware, on the other hand, except in rare, brief moments, if ever at all, of that specific, particular fear in the belly of a child in central Phoenix, homeless with his mother, who slept fitfully next to her, in an alleyway on a piece of cardboard, his hand on her shoulder to reassure himself she’s still there, that she hasn’t left him alone to look for her dealer, even though she said she was never going to do that again, until he jumps awake at the snuffling of a stray mongrel. Now, even though it’s still dark, he obsesses about making sure to be on time for school, where there will be breakfast, even if the kids look at him funny because he smells bad.
I am aware of cat hair between the keys of my keyboard, of the prescriptions I forgot to order, of the questionable color combination of my sports bra and yoga pants with this particular tank top, of feeling discouraged and deprived at how slowly the weight is coming off.
I am not aware of how infectious is the laugh, when she isn’t so consumed with grief, of a twenty-three-year-old woman with two little ones in a refugee camp on the other side of the world, and how attached she was to her mother, who did not escape the dangers the young woman has fled with her husband whose single dimple and shining eyes still make her heart surge, and with her brother who is the cleverest in the family, but they had to leave their older sister behind, because she wasn’t strong, and not quite right in her head since she got hurt so badly, and it would have been more dangerous for the children, although they loved her so, and what will she do now? I’m not aware of the stories her Papa told her as a little girl, that she carries in her heart.
I don’t know why they had to leave. What makes that set of people hate this set of people? What happened to the wild, favorite cousin, who always won at street games, the best friend who shared her secrets when they were ten, the cranky old woman next door who complained about the noise of their giggling? The teacher who crinkled her eyes when she smiled? Did they get out? What sweetness was left behind in the mattresses and the cooking pots they could not bring along to carry on their backs? What memories did she carry into that unfamiliar place they have found to rest, and what was too terrible to remember, but had to be hidden away in the recesses of her mind, only to spring out in nightmares that make her gasp awake, staring, with tears rolling across the bridge of her nose and down, puddling in the palm cupped under her cheek?
I haven’t paid attention to what is happening to those people, strangers to me, foreigners, wherever they are. What fills my awareness is the detail of my own narrow life. I focus on what I want, what I’m afraid to hope for, what I tell myself I shouldn’t try, the things I judge or wonder over. But I don’t need to question if my front door will lock, or if the air conditioning will kick on to keep me comfortable. There is food in my freezer and the pantry. I own a fourteen-year-old car that never fails to start or get me where I want to go, and I have the money to put gas in it, or get it fixed if it breaks. I don’t have much of an investment portfolio, but I have a home that nobody will drag me out of.
Those other lives are out of sight, out of mind, for me. For them, some privileges I call rights cannot be imagined, must not be wished for, and will never be expected because to think of those things only brings on hopelessness, and distracts the attention necessary to find something for the babies to eat today.
Why do I waste my life? You never do that, do you? You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. I’m writing about procrastination, because I’m blocked. Writer’s block.
I’m poised on the verge of fulfilling my dreams, if only I can spontaneously blurt out another hundred, or maybe two hundred more pages or so, and I’ll be done. But I don’t know what words go on the first of those pages.
I can see diverging paths leading into a beautiful green forest of possible choices. So many ideas fill the forest. Something stops me from stepping onto any of those paths.
It’s like there’s a wall of glass between me and the forest paths. I’m squinting, trying to make out what’s lurking there, deep in the forest that I haven’t set foot in, that as-yet unknown territory. And I stand with my nose smushed up against the glass, my breath fogging the surface. I step back and pace. I run my hands over the glass, seeking an opening. I pound in desperation, but then I think someone might hear me getting wild. That wouldn’t do. I scan the expanse of glass. It goes on forever, in all directions. What to do?
I don’t like that I’m up against the glass. It’s not hygienic. Plus, I feel incompetent, lazy, frustrated, angry, sad. A failure. Any of those just make me want to eat a pizza, followed by a pile of chocolate chip cookies. Maybe I should talk about it at my Weight Watchers’ meeting. But that’s another day.
Another day. Therein lies my solution. Procrastination. I did not say it is a good solution, or even a conscious one. I can step back from my view of the glass, with its smeary fingerprints, and the forest beyond. I eat a snack. I surf Facebook. Google celebrities I never heard of. Take a nap. Play Solitaire. Yes. I was tempted to delete that, before you saw it. I wanted you to think well of me.
Solitaire is as pure a procrastination as I know of, and I hate to own it. I don’t mean for you, of course—Solitaire, for you, is a few moments of gentle self-care, a little tender padding between the hard rails of those arduous demands of your fulfilling life. For me it’s just to go numb. To kill time.
Now, how abhorrent is that phrase? Killing time. I am given 86,400 seconds every day (thanks, Google!) I can spend them, invest them. Or I can kill them. Murder the little buggers. Play Solitaire, for example. Either way will get me to the end of the span of time, which I’ll never get back, for writing or anything else. Then another 86,400 seconds will be shelled out. There will come a day when the seconds allotted to me personally will run out, but that’s not for years yet. Maybe. Could be sooner, I guess.
I’m feeling a little hungry….
Okay, I’m back.
Writer’s block is when I’m moving through the middle of a project, and I stall out and roll to a dead stop. In the moment, I can’t see why I can’t get going again. Frustrated, I am prompted to engage in the separate action of procrastination (killing time.) Which , numbing me, helps me avoid engaging in the meaning of the writer’s block. Because the writer’s block is trying to tell me something, if only I’m listening. I haven’t listened.
“You’re going the wrong way!” It says to me. But I’m too busy admiring my own words, telling myself it’s fine.
The novel I’m writing now is actually a story I tried to tell, starting out twenty years ago. I fell in love with the characters, and the story that emerged spontaneously. My writer’s group then, like my new group now, loved my story. But finding what wasn’t working was tougher. Back then I stalled out, and rather that figuring out the problem with the writing, I set the story aside, and turned my attention elsewhere. I avoided facing down my writing dilemma for twenty years.
Coming back to the project now, I love it still. Writer’s block re-emerges yet again, to focus me on the old problem I never resolved, because maybe it’s the central problem. It’s the life problem, or my particular version of it. Writing this is trying to stay honest for today, engaging instead of avoiding, this time. I’m listening now.
My writer’s block problem was fear. Fear that my character, Katie, will be revealed as her own messy, flawed self, even though we meet her as a child. Fear of the exposure of my own unacceptable faults, which in some ways are represented by my fictional character, whose story is not my autobiography, but who has a lot of me at the heart. I was afraid of readers seeing me, through Katie, as untrustworthy, defective, and human. Because however empathetic I am to anyone else who naturally has human failings, I still carry around old shame for being just a human being after all . Oh, just that again. My same life dilemma keeps on recurring, presenting the same lesson until I’m ready to learn it. Just like everybody else.
Yechhhh. Being human prompts my old shame.
I react by I reverting to old strategies of self-protection. I want to stop trying. Stop risking, avoid exposing myself as less than perfect. My old baggage, lugged from early childhood on. I set myself the impossible task of perfection and then I get embarrassed that I can’t do the impossible.
Whoever taught us we were supposed to be superheroes? When reminded that I’m not a superhero, I withdraw in unacknowledged, unspoken defeat, demoralized and disappointed in myself.
Procrastination gives me an intermission, time-out. I use it unconsciously to delay, to transition to a new, transcendent mask of holiness.
Really? Who am I kidding? Like watching internet videos (a killing-time activity) where some guy falls down on camera, but leaps up in a split-second turning a splat into a swagger, suddenly Joe Cool, to say “What are you staring at?” I’m that guy onscreen. Trying to distract from shame about the “failure” by nonchalant denial, bluster, and pretense.
Like this: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=cool+after+fail&&view=detail&mid=DB79A0DA6112104C9CF1DB79A0DA6112104C9CF1&&FORM=VDRVRV
I don’t expect to conquer this instantly.
Failure at being without flaw is really no failure at all, because flawless doesn’t exist, for any of us. It’s a myth, a fake-out. We aim at an inappropriate, unreal target of perfection, which is a setup for precisely the blunder we are so shocked has come to pass. “What are you staring at?” Myself. I’m staring at myself in a mirror, when I watch the clumsy guy try to be Joe Cool. The only way Joe Cool exists is as a fake to cover up the inner, frightened, little nerd.
So as long as I still clutch this old belief that I should be faultless, I will endlessly cycle through aiming for the impossible, failing to reach it, getting all humiliated that I am human, and trying to pretend it never happened, and it never mattered at all to me.
But I’m just who I am. A human being of human proportions, and hang-ups. I’m thoughtless and judgmental, and also forgiving and witty and kind, and angry and bitter. And compassionate and loving, and selfish and disorganized, brave and fearful, but hopelessly bad at the perfection I often demand of myself.
Hmm. When I succeed at not being stuck, at writing, at creating, what am I doing differently? Well, it isn’t that I’ve got it all seamlessly worked out ahead of time, in my head. What I have to do is start. With just an idea. And that will suggest another idea, and I follow that, and pretty soon I’m following a path that shows itself to me, one step at a time. And looking back, I notice that I didn’t pay any attention to that glass, which was illusion after all. I ignored whether it was the “right” idea. It’ll never be flawless. Once I started something, whatever I could do, then I developed momentum, and covered some ground, backtracked sometimes, but then saw how to move on. My readers, if I have any, may grumble about what ground I cover, but I’ll be moving. Or at least practicing discipline. Being imperfect, exposing the imperfections, because they’re honest, and real.
Oscar Wilde said, “You must write badly first. Mistakes lead to discovery. Letting yourself be bad is the best way to become good.” Anne Lamott is well known for encouraging writers to create “shitty first drafts.” Not to encourage bad writing, but to scratch and cudgel, wrestle and hoist a draft, any terrible draft, into actual existence. Make it the rough starting place of the eventual honest expression of who I am. Being real.
Maybe this practice isn’t only for writers. Maybe it’s for people who stop themselves from starting anything because they can’t be perfect from the very first step. Maybe we just have to start, and try. And be willing to do badly at it, in order to get good eventually.
I guess I’ll never know where those forest paths lead unless I ignore the smudgy glass, and the need for having the answers before I start. People will think of me as they decide, not what I convince them about who I am. I will set down one boot onto the grit and hear the sound of my step. Be where I am. Breathe. And then the next step.
That’s the name of my sister’s and brother-in-law’s sailing vessel. It’s a 44-foot ketch, if you know what I mean. No, not a yacht, and Linda and Rod are not rich. “On a shoestring”, every spare penny, for years on end, of what they might otherwise have prudently invested for retirement, went into saving for a boat to sail the world. In 2004 they found an unfinished sailboat at a bargain basement price, posted on the internet. It was a project they could afford, but it was a mess when they hauled it out of an Ohio shed. The former owner had worked for years to build it from a kit, but, sadly, died of cancer before he could finish it, let alone put it in the water. Rod had it hauled all the way to Lake Texoma. Their bargain inspired incredulous stares, and probably some derisive laughter from owners of shiny manufactured boats. They just couldn’t see the vision. Those guys might have named it Texan’s Folly. They would have been wrong.
There were eight years of back-breaking labor as Rod’s and Linda’s considerable skills created sweat equity, after-hours and on weekends. All while they held full-time jobs to pay the bills and purchase raw materials for the boat. Later they sold their McKinney, Texas home and poured the equity into finishing their ocean-going version of sole residence and magic carpet (I can show you the world!) all in one. It wasn’t a mess anymore.
In 2012 they quit their jobs and launched their adventure from Houston, living aboard. Space below deck is compact, complete with built-in water-powered rocking effect, which is great for lulling you to sleep in one of its berths. Unless even that sentence makes you pukey, when it will have the opposite effect. There’s Dramamine for that.
Un-phased by seasickness, Rod and Linda sailed the Caribbean for three years, all the while never having an insurance policy on the boat. (Not only is boat insurance pricey, insurance companies like to have a say about the boat’s whereabouts near tropical storm areas. Where’s the fun in that? Say some sailors.) Talk about risk-takers! You can read about all their ocean travels on their blog at http://svitsperfect.blogspot.com/.
Some of It’s Perfect’s highlights:
Oh, I don’t have space to say much about how, just after they hauled the partially-finished boat south from Texoma to set it into the water of the Gulf, a tropical storm hit their Houston marina. Boats around theirs were reduced to toothpicks. Or how the rudder broke on their shakedown cruise. Kind of a big deal, the rudder. In their first year, getting the feel of their new life and new vessel, they made their way from Houston around the tip of Florida, up the Atlantic coast, and by the next spring, back down to Miami. But let’s skip to the fun! Here’s where it gets complicated.
Their adventuring really got started in 2013, in a grueling 16-hour rough crossing of the gulf stream, from Miami to the Bahamas. Little boat, big ocean. Friday, February 22, they sheltered in the port of the first small island in the Bahamas they encountered, and checked in with customs agents there. The motor of their rubber dinghy, which provided transport while they were at anchor, failed while they were there for the overnight stop. Long story, but Rod had a plan for the repair once they were safely settled in the capital of Nassau, and priorities were attended to.
Sometime during the high winds and waves of the voyage, a rope fell off her stern deck, unspooled into the water, and dragged behind, unnoticed. (Ominous movie music rises here.) On sunny Saturday, It’s Perfect motored into Nassau harbor. Linda was driving, turning to position the boat to set an anchor in the harbor (a money-saver over costs of a marina slip in port.) Rod directed, navigated, and monitored a hundred variables. Unseen below the waterline, the rope tangled in their propeller as it turned. A thingamajig (I’ve learned all the technical terms, you see,) broke. Causing the engine to instantly shut down. That prevented an engine burn out, but for the time being they couldn’t move. Yes, it’s a sailboat, but in a tight place, “parking” requires a motor.
They were drifting into the middle of traffic in the channel, with no way to stop. Impeding the commercial harbor traffic now, Rod radioed for a tow boat. Harbor police showed up and boarded them, and soon insisted on escorting my sister and her husband in their official speedboat to their official headquarters, where they came within a quarter-inch of being officially jailed. Mostly-law-abiding Rod and Linda frantically argued to clear up a customs paperwork error created on the previous day’s registration at the smaller Bahamian port. A clerk had neglected to provide them a copy of one of the declaration forms. They were now suspected of smuggling firearms. Really.
Meanwhile, on a dock a quarter-mile away, I was blissfully ignorant of the tense drama unfolding. Here was a great plot point for the blockbuster movie. Think Harrison Ford and Sigourney Weaver as confident skipper and capable first mate, with Kathy Bates as me, unseasoned traveler (gullible, clueless, nervous) fresh off the plane from the states. But I was trusting. So, I relaxed against my suitcase and swung my legs off the edge of a wooden dock, awaiting our prearranged rendezvous. Vacation! It was my sixtieth birthday, and I was cautiously set for a modest splurge of risk-taking. After waiting several hours beyond the scheduled meeting time, it dawned on me that I was forsaken all alone in a strange country, my reliable big sister a no-show. My cell phone didn’t work, but I finally remembered to check in with the marina office for a message, as previously planned. I was notified of the Police Incident, which kicked up my anxiety several notches. But in time to quell my rising panic, Rod and Linda were released from custody and ferried directly to pick me up and deliver us all back to the boat. It’s Perfect had been towed to another marina, at considerable cost. After the perilous day, the watery swell lulled me to a good night’s sleep.
A couple of years later, in the midst of a thunderstorm, a lightning bolt struck the mast of It’s Perfect while anchored in the idyllic San Blas Islands. Rod and Linda were aboard at the time. They were unhurt, but all their electronics were fried (navigation systems, water-maker, air conditioning, television, DVD, laptop computer, refrigerator, and more.) Remember, no insurance.
Another time, off the coast of Nicaragua, they had a scary near-disaster as an old fishing trawler manned by ragged pirates (one of a very few career paths for natives of hopelessly impoverished coastal societies in third-world countries) made a dead-on rapid approach, and didn’t respond to a friendly radio hail. Drawing nearer, their menacing faces loomed frighteningly close. Rod brandished a flare gun, aiming steadily at their wheelhouse. It was a terrifying game of chicken, but the pirates blinked first, and turned away. Nobody was harmed, and Rod and Linda had a suspenseful story to tell sailors at the dock gatherings.
They’ve lived well on a tight budget for decades, with vast imagination and inspiring resourcefulness. (Rod is master electrician, machinist, carpenter, all-around handyman, and navigator. Linda is visionary, designer, practical planner, financial finagler, skilled upholsterer, and relentless laborer.)
Both will try nearly anything. They have guts far beyond mine. They rode the rush of elevated blood pressure for the pleasure of the breathtaking sunrises and sunsets. And unparalleled stargazing.
They were accompanied by sharks, whales, manatees, pods of dolphins, exotic fish, and sea birds, all from a far more intimate vantage point than a giant cruise ship ever could have offered. They lived by their sweat and muscle, wits and common sense, stubbornness and hard work. I guess it kept them young.
So, what’s perfect about any of that? It was hard, and scary, nerve-wracking to the max. Those of us who prioritize safety and predictability would never sign on. For some, the risks they took every day might be terrifying to consider for a month, let alone for years on end, with no safety net, no home base on land to go back to, and no cushy bank account to cover the unforeseen. I’m sure I’m their very favorite boat guest (in spite of the fact I once yarked up my breakfast, sailing a rough-water crossing to an island.) But I never stayed on with them more than two weeks at a time. Not my style.
Is perfect the absence of difficulty? If so, maybe the perfect life would be settling permanently on a big comfy sofa with endless bags of Cheetos and boxes of chocolate bonbons, cable TV, and nobody to irk you with conflicting opinions. That doesn’t sound right.
It’s Perfect has been perfect for Rod and Linda because it kept them awake and alive, actively engaging with the real world beyond glorious technicolor. Their first-hand cultural experience beat out a lifetime of National Geographic channel videos. They became intimately acquainted with a young Colombian family in Cartagena, when Rod sought out a local Spanish tutor to expand his linguistic limits. They shared meals and stories with living-aboard sailing families from all across the globe. Rod and Linda rode local public transport—it’s the “chicken bus” in Panama, where livestock rides the crowded bus alongside villagers–sitting elbow to elbow with native men and women. They were trusted to cradle babies in assistance of parents who were corralling children, animals, and bundled market goods.
They learned their real place in the world. Not of privilege and power, but of respect for the needs of the next human being, no higher or lower than their own needs. They understood that even those pirates were desperate to make a living for their families. They didn’t surrender the boat, but they didn’t have to hate them either.
Maybe each of our own lives, with the fears and hurdles and frustrations and smack-downs we suffer, really are the perfect venue for individual paths of learning how to negotiate this world. My messy, challenging life has been my own perfect adventure in learning to be human, even for a slow learner.
It really was perfect, Rod and Linda’s sailing life. And it still is—until their next chapter resettles them among the cactus, cedars, and boulders, the blisters, backaches, and obstacles of building a cabin on a wooded mountain in New Mexico. That’ll be perfect.
Last week my local writers’ group reviewed and critiqued a chapter of mine in which my main character, Katie, is nine years old. My writers’ group sympathizes with my little Katie, and they’ve said some harsh things about certain other of my novel’s characters they’ve met, who are not very kind to her. (Which makes me do a secret internal happy dance, even though I know exactly why they are such bitter, mean-spirited characters.)
Katie, in that scene we read, was having one of the toughest days of her young life. I won’t give you a spoiler for my unfinished novel, which is that messy stage of still being written, like when you are organizing your closet but everything is thrown all over the floor, in the meantime.
In the lead-up to the scene we were considering, we saw that little Katie had been reading a book to distract herself from a difficult drama going on around her. I, as the author of this fictional story, had chosen Katie’s book: Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
At the center of that classic book was Anne Shirley, a skinny, red-headed hellion of an orphan girl. I admired her for her vivid imagination and quick wit, and for whacking a boy with her slate when he teased her. Hard enough to break the slate, which warmed my ten-year-old heart. I loved Anne’s story beyond anything else I read in all my elementary school years.
And that is saying quite a lot, seeing as I read so very many books in grade school. The librarians at the public library knew me by name.
I read each book I got my hands on in the same way a desperate survivor of a sinking ship hauls herself, heaving and choking, out of the vast ocean, onto a floating, splintered plank of wood. And hangs on for dear life, as the wild waves toss that plank like a toothpick.
Books were my salvation and my comfort. Anne of Green Gables was the most memorable of them, one of my splintered planks, that floated me when the water was rough. Anne herself was my friend. Anne’s courage and strength inspired me to be brave and strong. The girl had guts.
So, I put my favorite book in my character Katie’s hands, because Katie needed a friend too, for her own survival.
Anne of Green Gables has been on my mind for awhile now. (One reason is that there’s a wonderful new version of the story called Anne with an E, which I saw recently on Netflix. There are other good film versions available, too.) But even before that, I’ve been thinking about Anne’s story as one small textural element embedded in Katie’s character, as I’m working on my novel every day. Katie, like me, loved Anne. And who we love illuminates our own character, I think.
Generations of girls around the world loved Anne. Elisa Gabbert wrote a lovely article in the online journal Literary Hub, about Anne of Green Gables as a childhood cultural reference in her own life. (http://lithub.com/too-smart-or-too-pretty-the-anne-of-green-gables-paradox/) She pondered the conflict for young girls between being beautiful (or at least feeling pressured to be beautiful), and being smart. (Isn’t that one a dilemma!) A paradox illustrated in Anne’s story.
Ms. Gabbert wrote, “Anne, as an orphan, simply wants to have value; she wants the world to want her.”
Ah. Yes! Don’t all of us seek that, in our own way? Whoever we are? And especially if we are not wanted and welcomed, appreciated just as we are, within our own families, or our world?
My survival by reading worked because I saw something in each of the characters in books I read—as being like me in some way. I saw that I was not alone in my struggle to establish that I was worthy of attention. A little less invisible. Maybe if other people believed in me, I might learn to believe in myself as well. Yeah, yeah. Go to therapy, Judy. Well. What you see now is the product of profound (also incomplete) awareness after doing a lot of therapy. Beforehand, I was less–articulate about it.
Anne succeeded in convincing the world that she had value. I knew this because I valued her so highly. She made the world want her, by making me want her. And if I could be convinced of her significance, perhaps I could hope that someone would see me as significant. And they would want me. Is this really tiresome for you to read?
Anne was scrawny, and I was plump (the bane of my existence, then and—well, now I’m working on self-forgiveness.) She lived in Canada, and I lived in the southwest United States. But she was like me. For one thing, we both felt awkward, and had big vocabularies, from reading so much. We both wore second-hand clothes we disliked. (In my vulnerable junior-high years, my mother bought my only winter coat at a thrift store, and it was different from everyone else’s. When I already felt so different. It was of fake-fur, spotted brown and white to give the appearance of a rather garish pseudo-cowhide. Yes. I marvel, looking back, that I was oblivious to what snickers and raised eyebrows may have followed me as I walked to school. Could they have thought it was cool? When I wasn’t? I doubt it. I’m surprised I wasn’t bullied. I chose to see it as distinctive. Was it a certain kind of mixed-message attention? If any of my former classmates remember that coat, just keep it to yourself, would you? No. Tell me. I’d rather know.)
It might, of course, be pointed out that blog-writing, and novel-writing, can be ways to get someone to see the writer. Inviting scrutiny, and approval. So might be a bunch of other jobs, and avocations, as well—people who work in sales, or politics, or teaching, or medicine, or… Wherever there might be appreciation for good effort, there could also be a motive for seeking attention.
There are some people whose style is to avoid the spotlight instead, maybe because they are shy. Or maybe because being seen was somehow toxic in their experience. Plenty of reasons to admire that, one of which is that it leaves more attention for the attention- seekers. But you can forget I said that.
Both Anne and I fought for the regard that made us feel less invisible, and she and I both used our verbal skills to get it. Other people might use sports, or music, or acts of service, or…? Attention was oxygen, necessary for life support. Because it stood for validation, and welcome, and belonging. And if there hadn’t been enough, desperation might have set in.
I know. I get impatient with the attention-seeking of others that I might label obnoxious. Maybe my irritation is a symptom that my own attention-seeking has been interrupted, I guess.
Oh my God. Did I just say that out loud? I’m resisting the backspace-delete key.
When I was younger, I will admit, I was intensely intimidated by my mother-in-law. For every minute of the twenty years I was married to her son. Okay, for years afterward as well. She was my daughters’ grandmother, and there were still occasions after the divorce when we crossed paths. When I married her son I was just nineteen, and I longed for her to be my mother. I yearned to belong to a family that seemed so much more functional than I felt my own to be.
But my husband’s mother (I’ll call her Millie—MIL—mother-in-law—get it?) was a tough cookie. I used to say she didn’t have opinions, she had TRUTH. Or so she seemed to think, and would declare in no uncertain terms to anyone who would listen. And I shrank to a tongue-tied state of childish confusion, in the presence of her surety. She scented my fear, and played on it. She didn’t like me, and I never overcame that. I didn’t like her either. May she rest in peace. She lived a long life.
Back when I was married to her son, she used to tell what she considered a humorous story about a young woman (around my age) I’ll call Sue. Millie described Sue (in the story she told her daughters-in-law) as a terrible housekeeper (with all the attendant details supporting the verdict.) I was also a terrible housekeeper, by the way. That much is true. I was depressed for years, but still.
Anyway, the story went that Sue confided in Millie one day that she had recently suffered a miscarriage. Millie’s response to Sue’s revelation, as she reported it to the daughters-in-law, was, “Well, good!”
Apparently, she thought terrible housekeepers shouldn’t bear children. Yeah, I know. Tough cookie. I was horrified on first hearing the story. Still am.
So that just introduces you to a little bit of who Millie was. Bear with me, because I’ll tie all this up a little further on. Promise. I was going to say trust me, but you’ll decide about that on your own. I’m not the boss of you. So.
A few years later on, when I was in my thirties, as the other daughters-in-law and I were assisting in the production of a family holiday meal in her kitchen, I saw Millie accidentally overflow a salt shaker she was refilling. Without missing a beat, she scooped up a handful of spilled salt and flung it backward over her shoulder, onto the floor. And she continued the flow of the story she was telling while she worked. (Just so you know, she was quite careful that her floor always be spotlessly clean. No one would have accused Millie of poor housekeeping.)
I was astonished by the salt-throwing. It seemed so uncharacteristic!
I blurted out, “I didn’t know you were superstitious!” (Google: “spilled salt superstition” if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
She said, “What?” She looked a little confused. And perhaps startled that I had the guts to tag her.
I said, “You just threw salt over your shoulder.”
She said, “No I didn’t!” End of discussion.
Maybe she was astonished at herself for enacting a little ritual she might have repeated unconsciously. Maybe our relationship had devolved into a one-upmanship she felt compelled to reinforce by denying my reality. But I saw what I saw.
Maybe she wasn’t superstitious. Maybe she was bound to a habitual behavior someone else (who might have been superstitious) modeled for her in childhood. I don’t know.
I’m telling this story because I’m so very interested in the fact I now see, that I found such satisfaction in catching this person who had me so buffaloed, in a behavior that seemed to me: Primitive. Unenlightened. Irrational. Superstitious! Which translated to: In that small moment, I felt superior to her. I cherished that feeling, at the time. Because fleeting superiority contrasted so sweetly with feeling worthless, apologetic, and resentful, in every other interaction I ever had with her.
I have, in my later years, become aware that feeling superior is a real soul-killer. Superiority feeds the ego, and attachment to ego is not a peaceful way to live. I think ego has been eating my lunch for many years. I’ve been noticing it more lately. (Of course, we don’t start noticing without some humbling experiences. That’s for another time.)
So, I’ll tell you another story, about myself, this time—to show I had nothing on her. Superstitious or not. Conscious or not.
I am now sixty-four, I will tell you in full disclosure. This is a supposedly mature age, although that might be debated to document evidence against any claims of actual maturity I might make. Sometime within the last year, there was a morning when I pulled out clothing from my closet, to wear for a casual day at home and running a few errands. Underwear, plus moss-green capri pants, and a light green T-shirt, are what I laid out on my bed, after my shower. I do realize that my sense of style might also be debated. Whatever.
Be that as it may, it flashed into my mind, on the day that this occurred, that it was a Thursday. And the instant that thought popped to the surface, I picked up the chosen outfit, re-hung it in the closet, and pulled out a different set of clothes. I kid you not. And I went about my day without another thought about it.
I now realize I did that because as a child, wearing green on a Thursday would have prompted teasing, chanting, and pinching. (Some ethnic slur about being Irish? Which I happened to be, along with Cherokee and various European blends, but who even knew that, and so what?)
Nobody in today’s world would have teased me or pinched me, for wearing green on a Thursday. Throwback Thursday. Turns out my throwback on Thursdays was the automatic avoidance of green clothing. Knee-jerk reaction. I wore something else that Thursday, in 2017. Not green. At the time, I did not dwell on the meaning of it, or even acknowledge to myself that it meant anything at all. I know this looks bad. Nevertheless, it’s true.
But lately I’ve been seeking awareness. Another freaking growth experience phase, (to paraphrase a quote from someone else I admire, but I can’t remember who it was.) And yes, I asked for it. Leading to my noticing patterns that, in all honesty, I developed in response to my painful childhood. Still, those behaviors are unflatteringly contrary to the kind of life I’ve intended, or claimed to live. (Mature, insightful, kind-hearted, spiritual, generous, blah blah blah.)
Watch out what you seek. Because little lessons bubble up in response. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Seek and you shall find. Today what prompted this little story to bubble up in my mind was this: I spontaneously pulled out the same green outfit to wear—for at-home tasks, and errands. Ba-da-boom. Today happens to be a Wednesday, as I’m writing. But suddenly I flashed on the Thursday wardrobe change. And this time I got it. I made the connection.
Back then—maybe thirty years ago? –When I judged Millie for being superstitious—I claimed a place of superiority, or some more advanced, evolved consciousness than I judged her to have. But if I judged her, I had to judge myself. They are two sides of the same coin. And I did judge myself, as well as others, relentlessly, for decades. Still struggling with that tendency. There is no place of superiority to rest on, from which I will not topple, myself. I ought not to sit up high.
Judge not, that ye be not judged.
So I’m reminded, for another round, that we’re all (including me) just chickens in the barnyard, pecking and scratching. Eating worms and pooping in the dirt. Getting pecked on sometimes, or pecking on somebody else. (This is not to deny that we are children of God, and precious in His sight, and vessels of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus wants me for a sunbeam…. But we also need to get over ourselves. Our superiority complexes. I need to.)
My only personal experience with chickens (beyond the fact that I have a particular affection these days, for a coffee mug with the image of chickens on the side, perhaps a personal talisman) –is from when I was about three years old or so. My mother would have been twenty-four when I was the age of three, the baby of her little brood. She was impoverished, without any job skills. She had secured a job as a waitress at the Choo-choo Burger. So, she had established herself and her three small children in a little rickety house with no running water, after my father left us. We went to Grandma’s house for baths.
We had an outhouse for the necessities. And also there happened to be a mean rooster on the property. (Did you see that movie “Cold Mountain?” You know that scene where Rene Zelweger’s character, Ruby, says, “I despise a ‘floggin’ rooster! …Let’s put him in a pot!”?)
Yeah, like that! One day I independently took my three-year-old-self to the outhouse and opened the door, and this floggin’ rooster flew out from there. Maybe he was mad somebody shut him in there, whoever that was. I don’t have to name names. That rooster attacked me with his spurs, and a great flapping of wings. I was terrorized. (Just one of the smaller reasons I felt the need to attend psychotherapy myself, later on.) My mother eventually secured us better housing (with an indoor toilet) by finding another husband, the fourth in a series. I’m only telling you this because it’s my limited experience with chickens. But I digress.
I am no expert on chickens, and if there’s somebody schooled in the ways of poultry who wants to educate me, I’d welcome the knowledge. But it’s my understanding that chickens like to find a perch high up under the eaves of the henhouse. Or the chicken coop, whatever you call it. (Where the chickens come home to roost, so to speak.) Even barnyard animals like to seek out a vantage point (notice the same root word as AD-vantage) that will give them a view of others, while perhaps being less scrutinized by those down there, and also lend some sense of safety. A superior position, if you will, over those lower in the pecking order. But they’re all just chickens.
That “superior” position is the roost I always sought out for myself. All my life. In grade school, I worked very hard to impress my teachers. That was my hand shooting up, and waving furiously, in the front row, whenever she asked the class a question. I was an insufferable know-it-all. Okay, valid point. I may still be considered that. With a stick up my butt, metaphorically speaking. Smile if you recognize me here. I’m admitting it now, so it’s not necessary to point it out to me. Suffice it to say that you would not have enjoyed playing Trivial Pursuit with me in the eighties. I am acknowledging one of my addictive qualities. Please don’t judge me. Well, if you must, then that’s your business.
I made my career choice, to a significant degree, in order to be “an authority figure,” although there were other fine reasons for my choice to be a psychotherapist. I truly wanted to help. I knew the power of good professional counseling, because I’d received it, and benefited from it, a lot. And I was good at it.
But also, I had a gut level belief (largely unconscious, but not completely,) that authority figures didn’t get hurt. Oh, I knew perfectly well on an intellectual level. But this was my core, my primitive belief system, holding onto the idea that authorities weren’t vulnerable. And that maybe I could find refuge in that role. By the time I got to that career decision, when I was about forty, I had plenty of reasons to want to avoid getting hurt. I was tired of vulnerability. I was ready to stop being a victim. I wanted to be the smartest person in the room, or to give the illusion of it anyway. Here is another trap: it was never true, and it never really worked anyway.
But I had the idea that being smart might save me from what hurt me as a child. Retroactively, I guess. Oh, honey. Didn’t anybody ever tell you that you can’t re-make the past?
Turns out, being a so-called authority figure had its own challenges, and was never insurance against vulnerability, getting hurt, or making poor decisions. And it didn’t automatically confer wisdom, either. Although it could be a handy mask that might be mistaken for wisdom sometimes. Hey, therapists have feet of clay just like everybody else. Even though they can be immensely helpful. So don’t quit psychotherapy because of my truth-telling here, please.
Mental health professionals often choose their career paths to try to heal themselves as much as anyone else. Sometimes unwisely. Psychotherapists (including moi) also may deny that they have made this particular error.
I am—and maybe some of you are too—a lumpy conglomeration of many strengths, and also bad habits sprouting up from woundedness experiences, decked out with surrounding sharp quills, like a porcupine. The quills are prone to spring out spontaneously to defend me from people getting close enough to bump me where I hurt. This makes being in relationship with me a particular challenge. I know. I am not so easy to love.
Oh, I am mixing metaphors here, between the porcupines and the chickens, but I’m just going to have to let that stand.
Perhaps that floggin’ rooster, and Millie, and people whose defensive reactions look like aggression, are wounded souls, trying to protect themselves against anticipated attack from other people, who might bear some slight resemblance to a childhood foe. And maybe this is only rationalization. Maybe that behavior is just meanness. Maybe a lot of us could be found guilty of it sometimes.
I get jumpy when somebody steps near my sore toe after I’ve stubbed it bloody against the bed frame. So when I am vulnerable—to someone who can see the raw, honest truth of who I am, past my old ego-mask of superiority—my quills might flare out. I might peck at another chicken. Or I might automatically withdraw (and abandon the person I say I love) to try to feel safer. I’m sorry. It’s an old habit I haven’t done away with completely. I’m working on being more aware, but for someone who was a therapist for two decades, I’m sad to say I have much more to learn about self-awareness. I’m in the process.
I have my coffee mug to remind me. I am just one of the chickens. Pooping in the dirt and also beloved child of God. It’s a paradox.