Okay, so the 4th has come and gone and I’m still thinking about the subject of independence, which can mean so many things. There’s the patriotic kind, which I tend to celebrate more by thanking my lucky stars I get to live in this beautiful land under the rule of law, a freedom I don’t take lightly. I know how many people have risked their lives, and livelihoods to get us where we are today. I thank them. I would even gladly pay more taxes to show my gratitude. How retro!
The sort of independence I’m chasing lately is highly personal. It might even be deemed suspect by those arbiters of good psychological health, the imperious they who seem to operate like a Greek chorus of guardian angels in my brain. You should step outside your comfort zone, should accompany your husband on an almost free business trip to Europe, should get over your almost agoraphobic need to remain at home in order to stick with your novel.
For years I’ve abided by the conventional wisdom of so many experts. In order to become a better person, I needed, I was told, to stretch myself. Take on unfamiliar assignments with gusto, even if the five minute TV interview that went smashingly cost me three weeks of anxiety, or the upcoming book talk at my college reunion sabotaged my ability to enjoy the beach vacation immediately preceding it.
I felt that if I just kept plugging away, I could finally overcome this silliness of mine, this desire for routine and order and sameness, this risk-aversion bordering on pathological.
Decades ago, when my brother Tom was going through a bone marrow transplant, I remember calling him to recount what I thought was a funny story. I tend to make myself the butt of jokes. My anxiety is – in my family – like a quirky pet we all like to poke fun at. I’d returned from a lake visit in Wisconsin, wherein I was in a motor boat with my four-year-old son and his friends. The teenage girl who was driving suddenly offered me a chance at the wheel.
“Go, Mommy!” my son yelled.
For just one minute, I had delusions of grandeur. I grinned. I think might have I even nodded, my game face on.
The driver stood and started the hand-off requiring that I step in and take the wheel when I realized that I might very well kill us. Instead of moving over and calmly putting my hands at two and ten o’clock, I sank to my knees, grabbed the bewildered young woman’s thighs and begged her “Please don’t make me do it!”
We laughed, my brother and I and then I nattered on about a speech I had to give to the foundation of the college I worked for. I was terrified. When I’d exhausted my supply of fearful commentary about the fool I could very well make of myself, Tommy paused and said, “Sheila, just drive the boat.”
My foundation talk went wonderfully. A year later, almost to the day of that phone conversation, I told the ‘Drive the boat’ story at Tommy’s funeral. Those words became code in my family for those things we feared but nevertheless knew we had to do.
Twenty years later, I’m still trying to drive the boat. The trouble is, each time I succeed in public speaking, it makes not a whit of difference in the paralyzing anxiety I experience beforehand. The only exception is when I have to do it routinely, say on book tour, and then it’s a piece of cake.
When I accepted the invitation to speak at my college reunion, it was far enough away that it didn’t seem problematic. Even in March, when I visited my father and mother and mentioned it to them, it was only a cause for congratulations and a true feeling of gratitude. (My college held a very dear place, not just in my own heart but in that of my parents too.)
The next time I visited home, my father was still alive, but not conscious. He died the next morning, surrounded by his kids. Eight weeks later we all gathered at the beach, as we have done for nearly thirty years. We cast some of his ashes into the same water we’d bodysurfed with him just two years earlier, when he was ninety.
I left that vacation with my siblings a day early to fly to Cincinnati and drive to Oxford, Ohio, a tripartite errand during which I first had to keep the plane from crashing, then drive a car on unfamiliar turf after losing my glasses and third, deliver a speech which I’d not been able, despite many days of working on it, to get ‘right.’
The next morning happened to be my father’s birthday. I told myself I was meant to be there. I ended up “winging” the talk, something I never do, and sharing a really lovely hour with intelligent women and men I admired. I met lots of new people, sold some books and enjoyed being back in my old dorm room, walking the halls and reminiscing.
So the moral of the story should be that I came home with renewed enthusiasm to drive the boat. Not so much. Instead, while on a walk with a dear friend who is also a therapist, I said I’d been searching for the meaning in this experience, and yet no grand epiphany had as yet emerged. At that moment, though, even as I said that, the light bulb went on. I found myself saying, and really meaning it, “Maybe the point is that I really don’t have to do this anymore.”
Wow. Seriously? Could I possibly be right? I know it counters the wisdom of the Protestant Ethic and Catholic Guilt as well as my own code of constant self-improvement.
Here’s the thing. I have understood that life will present me with many opportunities to ‘stretch myself.” And though it’s a mighty thing to chug and chug and keep on chugging, it’s also okay to let yourself off the hook.
I remember playing tennis with my dad. He’d tell me that only for the first five minutes of the game did I need to concentrate on lessons the pro had taught. After that I should just forget it and play.
So here’s to stretching myself in a new direction, that of not caring whether I measure up to an ever-increasing goal. Here’s to playing the game as I want, letting myself off the hook, and being myself, even if it means owning my silliness. I’m going to stay put and do what feels comfortable for a while. To paraphrase the author of LETTERS TO JACK who I heard on my beloved NPR, when asked about an accident that paralyzed him, he said that he’d never understood the meaning of happiness until he was stuck with who he was and not constantly striving. So in that spirit, I too am taking leave of my senses, or maybe finally taking note of them.