Vulnerability and the Spin

It’s been a long few weeks. This morning, as I watched my daughter walk down the street to high school, I felt the tears well up. It seem like only moments ago, we were holding hands, walking to her preschool and my parenting classes while she bounced up and down off the curb chatting away. Time. Sometimes it seems endless, like a languid, humid summer. And suddenly, it’s autumn.

canstockphoto12404837I packed a whole summer of experiences in the last few weeks. I went to the Minnesota State Fair for the first and last time in my life. I boated down the St. Croix with a friend who has known me for over 30 years. I did the absolute worst interview in my life, which gave me insomnia and crushed my ego into dust. I tried to register voters (the least popular table at a school open house) and wrote pithy comments on a zillion ACLU voter postcards. I frequented bookstores and often fell asleep in my reading chair, book in hand.

I’m a slow processor. It’s taken me a couple of weeks to superglue the pieces of my fragile ego together, after interviewing for a vacant city council seat. There were mitigating factors – it was more like a military board, where there was a prescribed set of questions, no interaction, and a bunch of white guys staring at me grim-faced. 30 years ago, I would have probably aced it. Too many years of learning how to develop rapport and human connection had me little prepared to be interviewed by a room of stenographers, who were literally writing down and grading my answers as I spoke.

canstockphoto7656534I drove away from city hall with the Talking Heads playing in my brain “How did I get here?” I’d tried to prepare for this interview in the way I try to prepare for everything. But I was not prepared to feel simultaneously angry and embarrassed that I had pushed myself to do this thing my heart wasn’t really in – that I’d allowed my ego to speak louder than my gut.

It’s hard to come back from failure and mistakes. But I am my own Spin Master. And my efforts to be an activist, to be engaged in politics, had taken over a good portion of my life. I’d been getting progressively miserable over the last couple of years and while the President would be delighted to take credit for this, as he does all things, I’m not giving it to him. Because we are, no matter what the state of the world, ultimately responsible for the state of our selves. It’s easy to shelve that responsibility when larger causes are on the horizon and to become a mini-martyr in the course of things.

There is an argument that to make a difference, you have to put some real skin in the game. We see the costs throughout history – those who died and suffered or the famous humans who ignored their children, cheated on their spouses, had secret fetishes and addictions of every ilk, yet who made a difference, who went down in history for the one thing that they did really well, whatever it was. But that’s not the path for most of us.

canstockphoto17610549I remember being very irritated by something Brené Brown wrote in her book, Rising Strong. “The ego has a shame-based fear of being ordinary.” She went on to say that this was how she defined narcissism. Nobody wants to think of themselves as being narcissistic, albeit there is a huge difference in degree. But some of us, most of us, are quite ordinary. We’re not building bridges, curing illnesses, climbing whatever tall things we can find. Most of us will never write literature that will be read into the next century or be called the greatest anything (except by those we love, on t-shirts and coffee mugs).

I’m at the age where I know who I am – that I will never enjoy huge crowds of people, I am prone to/revel in saying the wrong thing when I’m irritated, I am never in the moment more than when I am writing, I need shitloads of solitude, I adore my family, and I want to perpetually learn. But then there is my ego. Martyrdom? Sign me up. Hard labor? Tell me where to dig. Endless devotion? Here – have an organ. These are not sacrifices for me. This is business-as-usual, not altruism.

canstockphoto5313640.jpgDespite all the jokes about men and their vehicles and overcompensation, I’ve realized that I have my own Hummvee – doing good in order to make up for not feeling good enough. This is ego. This is thinking that it be critically important I be seen as being good – that appearances are more important than the infrastructure. I let my ego take me to a place where I would not thrive, because it sounded important. More than ordinary.

It’s been a messy, messy epiphany – one that I’ve experienced before in varying degrees, but at this stage in life, it really needs to stick. The outcome is that I’ve put some limits on activism and volunteerism and I’m working to change my time to reflect activities that feed me. I joined a local writers’ group, pulled out the many unfinished writing projects, and am getting down to the business of being ordinary.

That’s how I wrapped up my summer. How was yours?

42 Comments on “Vulnerability and the Spin

  1. Kudos to you! For trying something challenging but also for realizing that making a difference doesn’t always look like you initially thought it might. And it may be a small thing, but your words have helped me numerous times over the last six months when I’ve felt overwhelmed by all the (excuse my language) bullshit that seems to be everywhere all the time. So thanks for making a difference for me and I imagine lots of other people online and IRL. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad that you’ve found some things that have been useful here for you. It might have been turning 50 last year, but I’ve been digging deep in 2018. I feel like no situation, experience, or feeling gets by me un-examined these days. And then I write out loud about it. Perhaps it’s the realization that there’s little we control beyond our personal borders. Thanks for your kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am going to apologize up front for my long comment. But your reference to being “ordinary” has moved me. First, probably, because at the moment I am hypersensitive to words — I’m writing an article on semiotics, and the power of language and words to shape culture and change, particularly as they relate to ageism. And also because your use of the word “ordinary” reminded me of a book I bought several years ago for a friend’s daughter, who had just had a baby. The book — The Parent’s Tao Te Ching — is by William Martin and I bought it primarily because of the following passage, which I loved then (and always will) and decided that if followed, it could be one of the greatest gifts a parent could ever give a child — or for that matter, one we give ourselves:

    “Do not ask your children
    to strive for extraordinary lives.
    Such striving may seem admirable,
    but it is the way of foolishness.
    Help them instead to find the wonder
    and the marvel of an ordinary life.
    Show them the joy of tasting
    tomatoes, apples and pears.
    Show them how to cry
    when pets and people die.
    Show them the infinite pleasure
    in the touch of a hand.
    And make the ordinary come alive for them.
    The extraordinary will take care of itself.”
    ― William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thanks for sharing that piece, Fransi. I think it points to something that can really trip a person up – the necessity to distinguish between that which matters and that which doesn’t. It’s the focusing on the external trappings that can really confuse one’s focus and create misery. I’m hoping to turn that ship around a bit, modelling not just sacrifice, but the right to pursue one’s passions. That whole “It’s okay to be happy” thing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • That’s great to hear Michelle, because it is okay to be happy. And glad you liked that piece. It’s got a great message.

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  3. It’s fascinating to watch you discover these things, Michelle, if I may be so egotistic as to say so. Ego is a sonofabitch, no question. You would be ordinary if you were to not experience this, because most of us don’t. You are not ordinary, you just haven’t found where your extraordinariness clicks in. But you will. You will click in to place, and when that happens, the rest of us would be well-advised to not get in your way!

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    • Thanks, Walt. I suspect that when I let go of the ideas of what I’m supposed to be doing and let myself do the stuff I enjoy doing, I’m going to be rather aggrieved at how easy joy comes, versus the failure borne of all that effort. But I have a long learning curve, so I suppose this is just the way it has to go. I am crossing more things off the list – one shit idea at a time.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Brilliance: “…doing good in order to make up for not feeling good enough. This is ego.” This slides right into my heart like a paper-thin blade. How often have I done this, not realizing what I was trying to make up for?

    Thanks for this post. And the last one (I have been soaking in The Art of Possibility, thanks to you).

    I want to feel my ordinary as good enough. For me, since there isn’t anyone else to be good enough for….

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    • It’s a hard journey back to those moments, comments, experiences that somehow give a person the message that they are not good enough. For me, it’s rooted deep and has been a constant challenge all my life. I’m at the point where I don’t feel it will be undone, but that I can focus on behavior to drive new growth. It requires paying attention to my thoughts and actions, which can be exhausting, but I have to believe that I can make better choices for myself.
      I haven’t finished The Art of Possibility yet, but I frequently think about the things I’ve read thus far. All kinds of windows and doors opening!

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  5. This weekend I read the following in a review of a biography of Edward Lear:
    “There is virtue in the creeping myrtle’s lack of grandeur–and that antic, low, and resilient growth may be what makes grandeur possible in the first place.”
    Never underestimate the virtue of continuing to creep, especially antically.

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  6. I really loved this piece.

    It’s so relatable!! I’m often tumbling over my words in conversation trying to get the “right” ones out. Writing always takes me a bit longer but I’m so happy you wrote this. It brightened and brought a lot of peace to my day.

    Best, A

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    • Thanks – I’m glad that you found something here. Writing is the only way I make sense of anything. These last few weeks have reminded me of my essential nature – which definitely doesn’t have an ability to speak under pressure on the list!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Oh I’ve so been there! Following the ego in order to “be someone” only to be left squirming. Also been there in recognizing that I’m just ordinary, and settling into and feeling the freedom of that. It astonishes me that it takes us (me anyway) a lifetime to learn how to be true to ourselves. Enjoy your writers’ group, and your writing, and your alone time, and the soft sweet days of fall.
    Alison

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    • Thank you, Alison. I got pretty far into this, before I realized that it was my ego making the decisions. The fact that I felt so crushed afterwards was a real tipoff – way too invested in outcomes and not thinking about if I really wanted to serve in a government role. There are better people for this – people for whom diplomacy is second nature. It’s like 8th nature for me – long after independence and creativity and solitude!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Yes I have come to the conclusion that I am happy to be ordinary, and choose to do things that interest me.sometimes I help others in the course of doing so, but that is incidental.

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  9. Wrapping up summer with an epiphany sounds like a great accomplishment, Michelle. So glad to hear you’re going to focus more on writing. And while I’m not generally a fan of deep analysis, it seems like your subconscious was taking care of you when you “blew” your interview for the city council. Something in you must have known that this wasn’t where you wanted to be or where your gifts would be put to best use. While most of us may be ordinary in the vast ocean of humanity, I don’t think any of us are ordinary to the people who know us well—whether they like us or dislike us. When I think about the greatest joys in my life, they were often in the most ordinary of times and settings. Nothin’ wrong with ordinary.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I found out today that the city council selected a lawyer and person of color to fill the vacancy – so I’m happy with their choice, despite my own sense of humiliation. And I also met with my new writing group today – all interesting and engaging people. So my epiphany comes with a bit of joy as well. And fall is starting to happen – which makes my spirits sing. I’m sure there is much teaching and bits of wisdom about the gift of appreciating the “ordinary” things in life. Sometimes my ego makes me forget that.

      Looking so forward to your book (20 days and counting according to Amazon)!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks, Michelle! I received my copies from the printer yesterday, so Amazon should be receiving theirs soon. They usually ship about 10-14 days before the actual publication date. I guess this is really happening!

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Back when I edited the Loft’s magazine (I won’t explain on the assumption that since you’re a writer and a Minnesotan…), someone wrote an article in praise of mediocrity–being in the middle. It struck me as both brave and wise, and it’s stayed with me all these years.

    The state fair didn’t do it for you, then? We used to take the godkids, year after year (and generation after generation). It’s a relief not to have to anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So slow to respond, sorry – it’s been one of those weeks! Mediocrity is at least attainable and anything above that is just gravy.

      I tried to keep an open mind about the state fair. My husband had some nostalgic fondness for it and my daughter had never been. We were all pretty overwhelmed by the number of people, the prices, and the difficulty of navigating to things we’d like to see. Once was definitely enough.

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  11. I’ve struggled with this whole business about being “just” ordinary–as if there’s something wrong with that. I loved a Facebook satire that was making the rounds a couple years ago. It was titled something like, “Man is happy living in small town with childhood friends, high-school sweetheart, work/life balance. What is wrong with him?”

    I’ve noticed something similar in Germany during the brief times I’ve lived there. It’s an oversimplification of course, but many people there come across as simply content with their 6-week vacations, 2-years of family leave, modest careers, backyard barbecues, and renewable energy.

    They see Americans as working too hard for no reason, and being unnecessarily and unhealthily “Leistungsorientiert” (achievement-oriented). And when I get back to Silicon Valley from a trip to Europe I can see their point. There is something fundamentally wrong with a culture that makes people feel bad for being decent “ordinary” human beings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry for the late response – it’s been a chaotic week! I was just reading an article about how a Kansas Board of Education work group recommended removing Helen Keller from their examples of good citizenship, saying they should focus on the military and first responders. This enraged me. First, because of this country’s military fetishism, but secondly, because this approach erases so many people’s experiences. “Ordinary” people. So yes, I agree there is something fundamentally wrong with this country’s idea of accomplishment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Helen Keller’s story and that of her teacher, Annie Sullivan, are something that I remember really well from elementary school (unlike some of the other stories that I read about more “standard” historical figures). I think the story is moving and engaging and helps kids with empathy. I was discussing the removal of Helen Keller with a friend on Facebook. They pointed out that Keller may have had some problematic views on eugenics which would have made her a less than good citizen politically. I hadn’t known that, and I don’t think that’s why they removed her. I think Keller should be learned about not because of her specific political activism but because of her accomplishments as a person with a disability. People with disabilities and their experiences are too often erased from history and culture.

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        • I think there are very few figures in history who aren’t problematic in some regard or another. Erasure of people in history is disturbing. This same group also recommended removing mentions of Hillary Clinton – the first female presidential candidate in US history! Women have only recently started to be added back into history, so I’m doubly suspicious when they are removed.

          Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I totally agree that it’s disturbing how often women are erased from history. This is a quibble, but it makes the larger point: Victoria Woodhull was the first female presidential candidate in US History. She was a suffragist who ran in 1872–before she was even allowed to vote for herself!

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        • Speaking of women who have been erased from history, there is an awesome blog about women musicians and composers called Song of the Lark by Emily Hogstad. I think you’d really enjoy it. She’s written about so many, including women of European descent and women of color. Emily is very well-read and plugged into the classical music scene, and still a common refrain on the blog is “How the f*** did I not know about this woman?!” https://songofthelarkblog.com/

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        • I added that blog to my reader – thanks. My daughter had to dress up like a famous person in 6th grade and do a report on her – she picked Rebecca Clark, a violist. No one knew who she was, but our family learned a lot!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Has your daughter played any of Clarke’s music yet? I played her Passacaglia on an old English Tune when I was switching to viola (from violin). It’s gorgeous. The sonata and some of her other stuff is pretty difficult but it is in ithe standard advanced repertoire for viola.

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  12. One of the best lessons I’ve ever learned was to stop trying to do and be good to make up for not ever feeling like I was good enough. Major breakthrough in happiness and quality of life when I finally got that lesson.

    Like

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