Open Letter to Joni Mitchell, Day 4: Risks
I’ve been thinking a lot about risk-taking. How I make few risks that are uncomfortable. Despite the fact that I’m a confessional writer and making myself vulnerable that way can be considered risky, making myself vulnerable on paper is very comfortable. It’s what I do. On paper, I can bare my soul, so to speak, and still hold something back. I don’t think I take any risks, however, where I don’t hold anything back.
I am not conscious of being fearful of risk-taking. I think, however, that is only because that fear is habitual, reflexive. It was sown into me as a child so I don’t really recognize it as something apart from me, something foreign.
When I was a kid, for a couple of summers, my mom sent my sister and me—accompanied by our Granny Eutrice—to stay with friends of hers who lived in Orlando. We did the usual things: watched all of the soaps on CBS as well as pro wrestling, “bathed” by playing in the lawn sprinkler (my grandmother’s idea so we didn’t waste water), and went to (the now-defunct) Circus World, which at the time was a theme park that doubled as the winter home of the (now also defunct) Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. I remember one particular demonstration by the trapeze artists during which they asked for kid volunteers to try the trapeze. I went to raise my hand, and my grandmother slapped it down. She didn’t explain why—Trinidadian grandmothers are not known for being great explainers of their motives—but somehow I intuited that the risk was too great. I also absorbed—rightly or not—that it wasn’t the physical risk that was problematic, but rather there was something unseemly and unsafe about being in the spotlight like that. What if I couldn’t get it right? What if instead of soaring magnificently, my pre-adolescent body just dangled there, leaden and incapable of flight? Why would I want to fail so publicly? Better to keep one’s hand down, and not even try to be the chosen one.
Even earlier than that, my mother had inculcated in me that public failure was unacceptable. Each night, she would check my homework. Even if all my answers were correct, if there was even a hint of an eraser mark, I had to rewrite the whole thing. I can’t even imagine the number of looseleaf sheets I went through, striving to hide the evidence that in the process of learning I had made mistakes. What mattered was neither the learning process nor the correct answer; evidence of having made a mistake was the paramount shame.
It is not possible, of course, to get through life without taking risks. Every job interview is a risk; you’re taking a risk every time you pursue a new friendship or a new romance. And you can’t be a poet who has endured dozens of workshops, not to mention hundreds of rejection letters, without being comfortable with the idea of failure. But therein lies the problem—I’m okay with the comfortable failures, the ones I’ve experienced time and time again, the ones that many people I know can relate to. These failures hurt my pride, but other than that, I stay mostly intact.
But what about risks that might end in extraordinary failure? The kind of failure that can turn your entire world upside down. The kind of failure that can undo who you think you are. The kind of discomfort that doesn’t dissipate in an hour or a day or a month. The kind of failure that can near-drown you as you fight your way through it. What do those risks look like for me? What do I give up by not searching them out? What level of discomfort am I willing to bear if taking those possibly soul-wrenching risks are the only way to activate my gifts at a deeper level?
Which is not to say I’m advocating for recklessness. Or impulsivity. What I’m trying to work out is how to think (and pray) myself into a state of preparation for transformative risk. I need to get to the place where I can not only see the questions I need to ask myself, but I’m willing to ask those questions. I have to get to a place where the fear of making a spectacle of myself—by changing careers or writing the book no one including myself would expect me to write or whatever my risk is—is not more important, more valuable than my unwillingness to live a nice but mediocre (compared to what it could be) life.