Freedom

Freedom must be one of the most commonly used words in American English. It’s a constant in the rhetoric of politicians, educators, religious leaders, and—oh, yeah—of marketing professionals. And it means something different to every one of them, often to the same person at different times. Most seem to equate it with what they see as their individual right to do whatever-it-is that they wish to do, and give the word specially loud emphasis when what they wish to do is contrary to others’ rights, real or perceived, or to the law. In some ways, I tend to think of Freedom as a much smaller thing with a much larger personal impact: freedom from my own limitations.

That’s the freedom I seek, and I suppose, the freedom that only I can grant myself, but am persistently too fearful to dare. Afraid to consider, let alone accept. Amazing, when I reflect on it, that I’ve gotten to this ripe old age, let alone had such a full, joyful life, without being quite able to let go of my inborn fragility of spirit. But there it is. I limit myself to solo singing in an empty house, to dancing behind closed doors. It doesn’t really matter that nobody else would pay that much attention if I did this stuff right along with everyone else; it’s that I feel self-conscious and awkward and don’t like my self-image as singer or dancer or anything so near to being extroverted.

Does this make me unhappy? No. It’s more mysterious than upsetting…I love to hear good singers sing, watch uninhibited dancing. I admire people who are extroverted enough to do whatever they jolly well please without regard to how silly it might make them feel. I like to think I don’t care how silly it makes me feel. But I’m holding on to a modicum of insecurity about not wanting to make other people feel a teensy bit uncomfortable with my gross incompetence. Silly me. Really.

Go on, keep dancing, you over there! It makes me happy. No strings attached.Digital illo: Dance On

Out of Context, Out of Luck

digital illustrationIt’s no secret that I’m ‘bad with faces’. I struggle with what I know is only the mildest of cases of Prosopagnosia, but even my minor jot of that pestilential face-recognition inability causes me occasional discomfiture. More importantly, it has occasioned a moment or two of awkwardness for others when they approach me, knowing that I know or have at least met them, and I fail to recognize them or even register that I saw them quite recently.

I went to a family wedding once and, seeing a cousin I’d not seen often in our adulthood but knew very well in our youth, effused to her on reconnecting. And then I proceeded to do exactly the same with exactly the same cousin at the reception, not an hour later. I knew that I knew her and that she was my cousin, thanks to the occasion and other basic clues, but literally could not see that she was the same person with whom I’d just rejoiced in renewing contact. Even in this obvious setting I failed to see what was as plain as the nose on my face, never mind the should-be-familiar one on hers. My own cousin.

I am enormously thankful that there are people whom I have little or no difficulty identifying and recognizing no matter when or where, but they are not necessarily in the majority. Remove whatever clues to identity my peculiar mind relies upon for identifying a person—that distinctive mustache (especially reliable in the case of a woman!), a man’s unique carriage when walking, that heirloom necklace someone has worn since she inherited it at age twelve—and I am meeting the face attached to that person for the very first time once again. I suppose there might be a touch of the humorous in such a ridiculous predicament, if the person I fail to recognize knows about the situation and isn’t insecure about any failings on my part, but I would rather not have to muddle through the struggle of bridging that synaptical gap, especially in instances when I would rather be friendly and welcoming.

Even the fully operational brain doesn’t always work perfectly in this regard, as witness the lovely and very bright friend I encountered in the grocery store recently. We both took our time staring and sizing up whether the approaching person was indeed known as well as our brains were urging us to know. I, with my Prosopagnostic niggling sense that I needed to place her in a different context to recognize her as a friend from church, school and work paths crossing, was puzzled by my failure to connect the facial proportions and eye color and such with her identity; she, as it turned out, didn’t realize who I was because after knowing me only with my 20-years-established short haircut, she couldn’t place my features now that they’re set in this chin-length swath of hair. So many reasons we might struggle, and it’s rather common after all, but we still rail against the frustration.

But isn’t that just the way life works in general? Whatever our flaws and shortcomings, however valiant and well-meaning our attempts to ameliorate them and better ourselves and at least appear to be improving with age, there are bound to be gaps and mishaps. All I can say is that I’m mighty glad people are generally so patient and forgiving with me no matter what the situation or occasion, and I—well, I will just have to keep trying to put the best face on it.

Duck!

Yep, someone’s sneaking up on you. Or some thing is just about to get you. It’s really inevitable that stuff is about to happen and make you the punchline of the universe’s joke. That’s how it works. In fact, in a plus-perfect moment of synchronicity, despite my having written this post several days ago in preparation for posting on the 8th of September, I had a brain hiccup and completely forgot to press Publish on the appropriate day. So here I am giving you a two-fer in recompense. Pardon my pratfall!photo montageThe nice thing is that we’re all generally in line for the same sort of treatment, so when such craziness happens, the embarrassment of it all is rarely going to linger for long; soon enough, something silly will happen to somebody else in the room and the pangs of self-consciousness will be turned to sympathy for his or her plight, the mortification of being the center of derisive attentions muted by seeing them passed right along to another poor dupe. That is also how it works.photo montageI’m not saying that I enjoy being the buffoon of the moment, mind. In the space of the last few days I managed to both fall off a shallow curb (only a near-miss, as I was able to convert the tripping into an awkward but deep curtsy to the people nearby) and trip forward up a step onto a hardwood floor, whose grain will soon be emblazoned on my knee in a variety of flamboyant purple colors by tomorrow, all while injuring nothing more seriously than my scant supply of dignity. And I’m not proud of this lack of grace, merely cognizant that it’s not limited strictly to me and the joke that remains in strangers’ minds has a lot more to do with the hilarity of the situation than it does with remembering what unknown fool performed the ignominious stunt that so brightened their day.photo montageI’d love to think it possible to overcome and avoid all future Incidents of ridiculous stupidity and clumsiness simply because, once experienced and noted, they can be put to rest, but that is decidedly not how it works. So what I need to overcome and avoid is letting it get to me. I am bound by history, odds and my very nature to slip, fall, make egregious errors and squeeze a minimum of ten smaller mistakes into every day I’m alive, but nothing says I have to be defined exclusively by my failures and flops. Every once in a while I can work to turn such things to entertaining advantage. Who knows, if I pay attention, I might even see the little disaster coming and be able to duck in time to miss it and let it hit someone else for a change.

Sin Boldly, Fail Dramatically

Anyone who knows much about the instigation of the Protestant Reformation knows that its leadership was not enacted by prim and prissy sorts. Martin Luther, besides being quite the rabble-rouser in the event, loved his beer, offended the all-powerful Church that was his employer and effectively, his owner, and married a rebel nun, with whom he had six children. His being credited with advocating that fallible humans should ‘sin boldly’ rather than live in denial of their mortal failings and inability to produce or buy redemption comes as little surprise in light of this life history. But in all of this there’s also more than a tiny hint of very useful everyday advice as well: thinking ourselves capable of perfection tends to stand in the way of getting anywhere close to it. Making mistakes is the only real way to learn and improve. Practice doesn’t make perfect, it enables us to get closer to our ideal of it and, if we’re really smart and lucky, to change and improve our concepts of perfection.photoOur failures do tend to cling to us. There would be no name for Schadenfreude, not even an inkling of its existence, if it weren’t for our feeling relief in and even reveling in, others’ mistakes and disasters; the more public their occurrence or exposure, the better chance of their (sometimes literally, in this digital age) going viral. But for every ninety-nine spectacular pratfalls, there is one person who, by dint of dusting herself off and jumping up with agile alacrity to redo the test and win the day, makes the fall look like a flashy prelude to a show-stopping grand finale that everyone will envy rather than ridicule. What makes this person enviable is not perfection but the ability to rise up from the ashes with new wisdom and determination, both gained from what was probably a whole series of dazzling falls in the process. Even more desirable is the one who manages to let us all in on the secret, admitting fallibility and mortality from the start and leaving the curtain wide open so that we can revel in the learning process with her before she ever hits the stage, can learn from her mistakes. This is a kind of brilliant generosity I have always admired.photoRisk. Taking risks means you will have bumps and bruises to ego and, possibly also, body. Taking none guarantees you will have a dull life and probably, a colorless soul. Worthwhile risks might conceivably include real danger: one can take chances that cost money, job, power, relationships, physical injury–life. More often, they will cost a measure of pride, and that’s something nearly all of us can afford to lose (and some probably should offload a ton or two of it). A policy I developed for myself when I was in college and such a fearful ninny that I would hardly have survived my undergraduate years let alone moved forward in any other part of life if I hadn’t finally forced it on myself, was to accept that whether I believed it or not in the moment, whatever it was that scared me probably wouldn’t kill me. Sounds silly to all who know how minor were the things that held me in utter terror, but the fear was real even if the danger was not. The adjunct rule I decided to apply to this idea was that if It (the risk of the moment) did kill me, it certainly wouldn’t bother me anymore.photoI may have worded these rules in a slightly tongue-in-cheek mode, but I conceived of them as an actual, practical reassurance that anything life hands to me I ought to be able to handle sufficiently. And that hey, if I don’t end up managing quite that well every time, I’ll make some meaningfully big mistakes, learn from them, and do better the next time. I’ve learned that I can’t be humiliated unless I allow myself to be–in truth, it’s strictly an internal experience when you really boil it down, and there’s nothing that says anyone or anything can force me to feel mortified if I refuse to do so. If I make enough mistakes along the way, I’ll get better and smarter to the degree that I’m unlikely to deserve anyone trying to humiliate me anyhow. Being wrong doesn’t necessarily mean burning because I’m flushed with embarrassment, let alone guaranteed burning in Hell; letting it get to me and not taking the opportunity for growth from it is the true error.

The Seal of Approval

What shall I say when I am asked my opinion and I think it would be best not to give it? I feel a little like I should perform a circus act, give the impression of cheery appreciation while keeping the less charming truth to myself. Not a little, really–I think I’m actually quite the liar at heart when it comes to people asking for information I’m pretty sure they would not actually like to receive. There are indeed those who want an honest and purposeful breakdown of the situation in question, but they are in my experience rather few and far between. In real, day-to-day life, what people are generally seeking is reassurance and affirmation, encouragement and support, not really a critique, when they ask for opinions.

So excuse me if I put on my happy face and do a little tap-dance of diversionary niceness when asked. If it’s strictly entertainment you seek, I’m here for you and will do my little tricks as best I can, but I hope you won’t decide to ask me for any touchier information. The only thing I’ll willingly admit your pants make look big is my discomfiture on hearing the question.photo

What Not to Say and When to Say It

I know, I know: I’m remarkably gifted. I have a peculiar talent for saying just the wrong thing at any given opportunity, to the degree that some might think I’d developed a fondness for the flavor of my own toes. I just say what I think, and it’s often not the most politic or informed approach to do so.photoThe upside of the equation is that I have no power or influence, so most of the time there is little danger or harm in my being quite so thoughtless and flippant. Most of the time there isn’t anyone who will take offense or any business that will be tanked by my foolish unedited blundering. Much of the time, it’s as obvious as the dumb things I say that no damage will come of it.antique book page (photo)Still, I know how much power one tiny little word or deed gone astray can have. So I keep trying, knowing that there may be those who think themselves even smaller, weaker and less significant than me and who can be vulnerable to the slightest scratch from an unvarnished remark. If I get lucky, being slow to reveal my dull wits and blunt feelings will become my real trademark and even if no one knows it to thank me I will be able to feel grateful myself for having sidestepped a pointless unkindness. It’s worth a try.photoGood thing everyone’s so generally forgiving, in the meantime.

When the Crumpet Hits the Fan

What to do, what to do? Oh, how shall I ever master the art of propriety in prim company? How could I possibly survive tea with the Queen unscathed? A party with the pope?

photo

What a to-do!

I am gravely impaired when it comes to knowing the correct fork to use for each course, and even worse at knowing what to say among polite folk when moments of acute stress arise. Sadly, the first phrases that come to mind tend to be blurted out with a certain Anglo-Saxon bluntness at best, and I’ve not yet met any such bell that could be un-rung. I sigh.

photo

Is it possible to evade the blades?

There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to Be Myself without descending into silliness and horrendously incorrect Be-havior when I think the stakes are high. Need to impress the boss, make points with a priest, or conquer the king? I’m a lost little sheep. Yes, sheepish I can do. But I do crave approval enough that sometimes I’d really love to be able to gloss over that talent of mine for being a goofball and the unintentional class clown and show a bit more couth and culture, now, wouldn’t I.

photo

Looking foolish, yes, I can do that quite well, but maybe it's just not my cup of tea!

Etiquette coaching? Charm school? Ah, yes, that could all be useful. A kick in the trousers, oh, certainly. A severe talking-to by the headmistress, a careful and thorough study of the Encyclopedia of How to be Apropos, and perhaps a stint in niceness boot camp? Surely all fine and superb ideas and likely to make some improvements in my movements, so to speak. That’s all well and good, but it’s still not going to cure my natural awkwardness and inclination to curl up in a little pill-bug defense pose when faced with imperfection at the exact moment when I wanted to pose as little-miss-perfect. What!!

digitally doctored photo

I believe it's time to get the spinning to stop.

As it happens, I suspect the solution is pretty simple, after all. First step: how about getting over the idea that I can or should be perfect? Hmmm, I think maybe I could do that. I don’t doubt it’d be a healthy approach. Then there’s the useful thought of getting over the whole idea that I can or should convince others that I’m perfect. Aha. A very useful thing to do. What are they going to do, disown me? Refuse to be in the same room? Ha! Crotchety critics and conditional friends? Those are people I don’t want or need in my life! Good for me, if they don’t want to be in it in the first place.

Funny, but when I get thinking straight on the whole topic, it’s not I but rather the focal point that shifts. I realize that what worries me is not whether I can be perfect, not how to be perfect, certainly not how to convince anyone else I’m perfect–especially when I’ve already responded to my frequent-flyer-faux-pas by blurting out the perfectly outlandish verbal proof that reality is so otherwise. It’s more important to me, after all, to let go of all those improbable if not impossible perfectionist worries and know that being my ordinary, fallible, perfectly acceptable plain old self is a better prophylactic against embarrassment and rejection than any other, because it will help insure that I’m in the best company–for me. And I thank you all! [ . . . she cried out with a deep curtsey, tripping on the hem of her gown and cartwheeling down the grand staircase with that massive arrangement of stargazer lilies that she’d knocked over shooting out right over the top of her, and she, all the while, swearing in the most violent purple terms before finally coming to rest in a mangled and guffawing heap, upright and cross-legged, on the marble floor of the foyer, a chipped Limoges teacup improbably perched on top of her once-coiffed head . . . .]