It’s 1989. The video camera – an old 8 mm – sweeps into a room, the focus, soft at first, comes clear and true on an impossibly dimpled face. A round, brown-eyed, dark haired two year old sits contentedly enveloped in a world of her own making. “Horses!”, she says popping out of her isolated reverie, perhaps an invitation for the linear adult mind behind the camera to join her circular story.
The camera pans out. Joplin tunes, the Maple Leaf Rag, waft up the stairs from the piano in the living room. To this little cherubs left enters another figure. Distractedly moving back and forth about the room, occasionally interrupting the quiet play of the two year old, this girl of seven touts similar features – minus the dimple craters and the baby fat, and the internal nature of the darling on the floor. Catching on to the camera the seven year old obediently states her name, “Laura,” and informs the camera that she is not, in fact, “little.” Empowered now, and prompted by the videographer, she puffs her chest and shows her audience what she’d been up to that afternoon. No, she didn’t make a fort out of couch cushions, she didn’t build a lego castle, she didn’t join her sister in the land of horses. She didn’t even play with the teepee that sat on the bottom shelves of the small bookcase she was now presenting.
She organized them.
That’s right. She organized shelves – proudly and loudly, securing her place among the future of OCD adults.
That seven year old, you may have guessed, was me. The tugboat on the floor my little sister. I find it delightfully appropriate that I watched this home video – sent to me last week by my cousin – on the eve before my 28th birthday.
Birthday. Truth be told, I struggle each year, turning inward to deconstruct the childhood anxiety for gifts, cake and attention that in my ripe old age ring empty to me now. True to the stereotype of hippie California (chicken or the egg) I find myself inherently resisting the unnecessary accumulation of stuff, the wasteful gluttony of a self-centered and self-proclaimed ‘me’ day, instead turning to reflection, seeking to place more heartfelt meaning to these 365 day markers.
Lo and behold the more I ponder what has transpired in the past year, the more I taste the essence of passing time in what ‘growth metrics’ I can conjure; things I’m grateful for, problems I’ve solved, new people and material possessions that have arrived my life, knowledge gained, tears shed, intimacies navigated, triggers and sticky mental constructs de-fibbed.
Not just a psycho-spiritual exercise, I’ve also engaged in ceremony. Prayer circles in Marin, women circles in the city, collaging, vision boards, long talks with my parents, with my teachers, with my community. I’ve renewed my meditation practice with fresh vigor, I’ve gone on a dietary cleanse, I’ve ordered new books, and sought after new knowledge. I’ve dedicated myself anew to a home yoga practice, and a compassionate lens through which to view the world. I’ve lit candles with much fanfare for the coming year. I’ve quit drinking caffeine…for a week.
All these things feel good to me, they feel…appropriate. They feel somehow proactive. And yet, almost 21 years later, twenty one years, beyond all the ups and downs and ins and outs of life experience, all the ceremony and all the gold stars on the line graph of growth, I’m still organizing shelves – proudly and loudly.
My sister is still playing with horses, my mom and dad still play the piano – Joplin, when I ask, from memory. Does that not blow you away?
Authenticity, it seems – real, deep-down, to the core, in the moment authenticity – is a rather pesky theme in my life, always returning from different angles and with new methods of exploration. Apparently I haven’t gotten it yet.
The thing is, I joke about organizing shelves, but even just a year ago that observation would have come under ruthless attack by the part of myself that wants to be….well….something else. The part of myself that says: cool the fire, slow yourself down, don’t be so linear, engage the feminine. It’s the part of myself that qualifies innate personally traits based on observation and admiration of others’ innate personality traits. It’s the part of myself that can be so easily be triggered into a sloppy, sobbing mess at the first poke and prod of outside criticism – not because the critique was harsh or even inaccurate, but because I don’t want to be seen that way. You see? I’ve already qualified it for myself, which leaves no room for a second opinion, and when you get to a point where conversation – observation even – is impossible, you’re in trouble.
David Whyte says: …as human beings we are actually the only corner of creation which can refuse to be itself. We can actually not only refuse to be ourselves but we can then hang a mask over our face and pretend to be something that we’re not. And we can even take another virtuosic second step and forget that we’re wearing a mask and become the thing we were actually pretending to be in the beginning.
How often we forget to be ourselves? How often do we ignore – ignore in ourselves and wish away in other people – that some things you arrive with, and those things, no matter how avoided or stuffed, or concealed, will always be there, for better or for worse, and that the qualification of those things, better or worse, is appropriated only by your perspective, inflated by societal imprints?
The stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and beyond that, about what parts of us we ‘like’ and what parts of us we ‘don’t’ – casted, written, directed and produced by our small selves – go. so. deep.
What I realized in my 28 year reflection is that we are at great risk in this time of abundant introspective luxury, where all the self-help programs in the world sit at the tip of your typing fingers, where hearts and minds, ears are opening to hear the soft messages that maturation, that progress, whispers with the deceptive promise of a ‘new you,’ a ‘better you.’ We are at constant risk of forgetting that single most important yogic message: You are purnatva, whole, complete, perfect. That the game, therefore, is not to become something else, but to realize, and then fully embrace, the gift that you already are. As my friend Dave ‘dk’ Kennedy says: “don’t become a growth junkie.” You’re qualified to be yourself.
I celebrate another year around the sun today. I celebrate those people in my life who see me for who I am, and although constantly challenging me, never trying to change me or mold me into someone I’m not. To live in the space of the heart is to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is strength, and it takes strength – every ounce of it – to live your truth day in and day out.
So a toast, if you will, to the absolute wonder of this life we all share, of the space that begs to be filled by you, the only one who can, and for the coming chapter – the clean, glittering slate of 28 that yawns ahead of me in infinite, shelf organizing, project managing, team leading, extroverted, proud and loud, potential.
Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice. You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.
Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you.