Your own dictator


“How could I tell you anything? You are not even talking to me.”

On to the second of the two “New Age” books I agreed to read:

“Remember that self-doubt is as self-centered as self-inflation. Your obligation is to reach as deeply as you can and offer your unique and authentic gifts as bravely and beautifully as you’re able.”

Self-doubt and struggling with a lack of sense of self are two different things – but interrelated.

I don’t feel paralyzed by strong self-doubt, and I certainly don’t feel like I lack a sense of self. But I do have those moments of doubt that stop me – maybe not the doubts that tell me I can’t do something. More that I doubt whether I have the strength to persevere through difficult things. I feel this keenly with practical things – do I have the fortitude to push through the difficulties and complexities of learning and understanding all the things I would have to learn and understand to take on X career or Y project? I never feel this doubt or self-questioning otherwise. But then, what of this obligation to reach as far, as wide, as deep as possible into your own capabilities?

Is it really an obligation? To whom? Yourself? The world? I wrote yesterday about projected expectations, and other people assuming things about you. I had a conversation with my father recently (it doesn’t happen often; he is the king of assuming things about others), and he told me something about his sudden bouts with anxiety and the nervous and constant buzz he has in his stomach; he asked if I had ever felt that way. Oh, only every day of my childhood. He was incredulous when I said this, “But why on earth would you be nervous or anxious? You were so smart.” As if being smart erases the kind of self-doubt, nervousness, shyness that shadows you every minute of your life – all it does is help you craft an identity, authentic or not, that you can use when you are out, forced to interact in the world. Does the innate ability or intelligence you possess eventually outweigh or overtake all the doubt or nervousness – or the complete misunderstanding or blindness that those, supposedly closest to you, have applied to you?

Are we obligated by having a natural gift or talent to pursue it? Sure, it seems a waste not to, but are we shirking a duty or responsibility by ignoring our “unique and authentic gifts”, or merely letting ourselves down?

Ultimately, as Julie Carr writes, “You have to be your own dictator
and the law is, hate yourself if you have to, but don’t stop doing the thing you said you were going to do

Julie Carr
I’ll keep explaining—because maybe you still don’t get it
Those children in California (substitute any state), dead from gunfire—
Let me begin again in a little roof garden with my friend
A perverse reader, he listens to my stories as if they were TV
I mean he mocks me lovingly on the roof and at the library book sale
My friend is not a banker but a prison activist
He used to be a philosopher, but like many philosophers, he’s taken a turn
that should be easy to understand
The trajectory from philosopher to activist is like the curve of a single brushstroke across a large canvas
Artists in the fifties paid attention to that
I hate flat language like this, but I’m pretty flat
sometimes. You have to be your own dictator
and the law is, hate yourself if you have to, but don’t stop doing the thing you said you were going to do
As I tell my daughters often
Emotion is a site of unraveling (JB)
I admit, gripping my T-shirt
I wish I were writing in prose an unfolding intensity that shocks history professors and prison activists equally
Later, in the grass, we’ll practice gymnastics and that way contribute our sweat
to Our Ephemeral City

And, reflecting on the doubt, and the not-entirely-accurate identities we inhabit in figuring out who we are, I realize we are like animals who shed their skin. You change identities no matter who you are, and the former you still informs, as memory and experience, but does not define, as the previous New Age tome I read wisely posited:

“To relinquish your former identity is to sacrifice the story you had been living, the one that defined you, empowered you socially – and limited you. This sacrifice captures the essence of leaving home.”

The writer also cited one of my favorite poems from Derek Walcott (here’s a piece); it half-applies:

“The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.”

Photo (c) of Mt Rainier by the late, great Paul Costanich.

The salesman & the sky hook


“He can’t get anything done. His hands are always groping his heirlooms.”

Who are we when we are not who we are?

“In 1969, Abdul-Jabbar was drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, where he would perfect his signature sky hook — a balletic feat that involves an explosive one-legged leap before flinging the ball into the hoop with one hand — and win three of his eventual six M.V.P. awards.”

Some people, even someone famous like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, are out of place where they find themselves (not geographically, but in the lives they inhabit). Living, thriving, but always on the edge, a bit out of place and uncomfortable in the confines of what they do and are expected to do. KAJ was a master of basketball but seemed uncomfortable, preferring writing and intellectual pursuits.

You sell yourself every day as something and someone you are not. But how to break free of that persona and its incumbent expectations to become what you really want to be? (Moreover, how do you figure out exactly what you want to be in the face of the cacophony of voices telling you otherwise or praising your current station?)

It’s a strange dichotomy: people project identities, traits, attributes and activities onto you that may be assumptions or based on natural talent you don’t care to fulfill, but at the same time other people are often the only ones who see the beauty, potential, wells of brilliance and ideas, intelligence, depth, warmth and possibility in us – so much more clearly than we can see any of these things in ourselves. How can others see us so clearly and unclearly at the same time?

One woman who saw me very clearly – to the extent that I grew terrified and pushed her away – comes to mind. She pushed me – a lot, which is probably why I never tried to reconcile with her. I pushed her away in a way that I knew would close the door forever. In some ways she knew precisely what I needed and wanted, but went too far, becoming a kind of salesman herself, touting all the possibilities: “It could be like this all the time.”

But no, it couldn’t. I don’t want to be sold a bill of goods and pressured into something – even if it feels good. Sometimes in my own rare zeal and excitement I fear I am doing something similar.

But these days are at least content, if not happy, lying in bed talking about rhubarb or pressure and all manner of other things, reading about the history of Congo, listening to music, all before falling into a restful sleep, dreaming about all those people who perhaps filled roles they never asked for or onto whom I projected the wrong or misinterpreted expectations – like my friend T, whose absence comes to mind more frequently than it should. Today reading about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and his “sky hook” made me think of an 8th grade prank our teacher (yes, our teacher!) played on T. He sent her across the entire school during class to ask the gym teacher to give her the sky hook. She had no idea what the sky hook was so was expecting to receive an actual thing. She got all the way to the gym and forgot what she was supposed to ask for. She returned to the classroom to get a reminder and headed all the way back to the gym, where the perplexed PE teacher imitated the classic KAJ move, and when T returned, our teacher expected her to demonstrate the sky hook move in front of the class.

Photo (c) 2012 Ruth Hartnup