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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.


Open Letter to Marc Maron, Day 25 (What story do you tell yourself about yourself?)

…Have I compared myself to others or tried to “keep up with Joneses” today? Have I given myself a moment just to daydream? Have I had a moment of gratitude for all that I have? Have I stopped contemplating all that I lack for at least a little while? Have I truly, madly, deeply lived today?

And one more question: have I really seen myself today? If you asked me what I looked like as a girl, I would say I was always fat. But if you look at pictures of me from that time, I’m not waifish, but I’m still fairly slender. Narrow shoulders, small breasts, a tiny waist, flat stomach, and hips that flare more like eggplants than the watermelons I lug around these days. In other words, I was somewhat curvy but I was far from fat. But I’d been made to feel ugly often enough by my parents during those days, and in those days once I hit junior year of college and really did start to gain weight, that the story I tell myself is that I was always fat, always the ugly sister.

I wonder what effect it would have had on my issues with overeating and body image and self-esteem if I’d had a clear picture of myself to begin with. Or if the narrative I was told about myself focused more on my strengths–intelligence, humor, leadership skill, ability to work on a team, empathy–than on the things I wasn’t so good at, or that I had to work a little harder at.

We all carry around a narrative about ourselves. Some of it we make ourselves but a great deal of the story we tell about ourselves has been–consciously and unconsciously, explicitly and implicitly–told to us by other people. In the ideal situation, the distance between what we tell ourselves about ourselves and what other people tell us about ourselves is minimal. (Let’s face it: we can’t be purely objective about ourselves, and possibly we can’t be purely objective about others either.) But in a case like mine that distance is Grand Canyon-sized. I’ve learned to get a truer picture of myself by, despite what Public Enemy says, learning to believe my hype.

But I still need to check in. To look around the actual evidence of my life and see what it reveals about who I am. True, it reveals that I’m a lousy housekeeper, but if I look at what I’ve accomplished in my 9-5 and with my poetry, and if I look at the quality of the people in my life and the quality of sustained relationships I have, it affirms that every time that old narrative starts running in my head–I’m lazy, not worthy of love, not good enough, voiceless, blah blah blah–I’ve got exactly the proof I need to shut it down. I just need to remember to ask the question before I get too far down the rabbit hole of that old story.

Speaking of being overweight…

To be continued…

Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 9)

…. And today, as I start year 45, I’m profoundly grateful that I’ve found some quality people to connect to, people who—to borrow from Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’ Diary because, well, Colin Firth—like me just as I am. And that is both glorious as hell and profoundly uncomfortable, don’t you think Marc?

(I wrote that last bit when I got home from my birthday revels last night, which consisted of tapas, two margaritas, and a solo shot of tequila for sipping. Which isn’t to say I was drunk. Or tipsy. But things were a little shaky moving from the couch to my desk and so forth.)

I’m thinking about what I mean by the fact that being loved “just as I am” can be profoundly uncomfortable. What is so scary about someone loving us even with all our flaws intact? Is it that if they accept us no matter what we don’t have an excuse to escape when feelings get too intense? Is the fact that knowing that someone accepts my flaws can be a catalyst to work on them problematic because my perfectionism kicks in and I live in constant fear of disappointing them even though I’ve already established that they’re going to love me anyway? There’s some sort of pressure I feel with close relationships that I can’t quite explain or articulate. When I feel myself getting close to a person, it can feel like a vise closing, like asthma attacking my lungs.

I want to write this in the past tense—when I felt myself getting close to a person—and I do think that feeling has grown more muted over the years, but there are definitely times when a maelstrom of doubt rises up regarding whether even my closest friends really care for me, and, of course, I’m always the bad guy. “It’s because I said that thing at breakfast.” “It’s because I didn’t go to that party.” “It’s because I told that joke.”

That doubt, that overdeveloped willingness to take the blame—isn’t that how I survived childhood?—has led me to cling on to some very toxic friendships. I’d blame myself for all the bad feelings, all the bad times, and keep hold of them and never notice how that person was undermining me, never supporting me, never going out of their way for me. Which I’ve slowly and painstakingly had to learn is what a normal relationship is like. I’ve also slowly and painstakingly had to learn that even the most devoted friend can’t show up every single time. And that’s also what a normal relationship is like.

I say “had to learn” but the truth is I’m re-teaching myself that lesson more days than I’d like. You asked once on air why you always seem to have to relearn the same shit. My answer? Just because. I think maybe that it might not even be because you or I are particularly broken—though we are broken in a particular way. For all of us, maybe, there’s some lesson we need to learn over and over again and maybe we are still learning even as we transition to the next life. What do you think?

To be continued…

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