Embarrassed. Selfish. Fake. Disgusted. Afraid. Indignant. Lonely. Ashamed. These are the emotions of success. These are the first feelings that sweep through my crab-trap of a mind and then land squarely in my gut anytime I do something that everyone else perceives as good or right, interesting or special. This is what success feels like to somebody who, for much of her life, has felt it was only acceptable to be a nobody.
But take a look at my social media these last few months. Sure, it’s shiny and curated like everyone else’s, but wow, just look at it! A woman on a mission! A woman living her life like a boss! (A suburban, nerdy poet boss.)
“I hiked alone to a beautiful place!”
“I ran when I felt like shit!”
“I am writing!”
My hashtags have been: “#dowhatyoucan” and “#findyourtherapy.” But believe me, this isn’t some rah-rah cheerleader attempt at life coaching. I won’t be inviting anyone to a webinar anytime soon. I’m not jumping on the trend of waving my woes like a brilliant flag of self-identification….Ok, wait. Maybe a tiny flag. Like 4th of July parade spectator-sized flag, gripped in my fist and holding up to all the parade floats in solidarity. But I’ll explain:
My words as of late have been a practice of authenticity, of shedding the kind of shame that masks itself as dignity and pride.
Salt-of-the-earth is a badge of honor. Common sense builds houses, fixes cars, goes to work every single day, keeps electricity humming through wires, keeps children clutching pencils over workbooks, puts food on the table, and pushes those little ones out of the nest with wings that will keep them aloft—even if sloppily, carelessly, or tentatively so. I’m a fortunate product of solid people, never having known a house without heat, a dinner without meat (though I loathed the cube steak and the stew), or a sixteenth birthday without a car. Let me be clear on this last point: My family was, by no means, wealthy. The car was a 20-year old creaky, finicky Honda hatchback, although repainted brilliant red in the garage of my dad’s friend so this teen girl might like it that much better. The car was a way for the newly minted driver to get herself to and from her job at KFC. (Truth told, I ended up loving that car more than the boys I had crushes on.)
Good girls, my sister and I. Quiet and obedient. We made honor roll and did our chores (mostly) without being asked. Life was about staying out of the way, staying small and grounded. We were taught to cultivate our own common sense and dignity, which we dutifully held like fragile eggs. My little sister was good at juggling that duty with a naturally outgoing kindness. She played some sports, befriended field mice, and bubbled with easy happiness. As the oldest, I tended to clutch my obligations tight with worry. Anxiety was my invisible friend, hidden by a big toothy grin, bouts of frustrated crying, and constant, nearly-consuming assessment of my childhood terrain. So one weekend day, when we were introduced to a huge, perfectly wonderful trampoline, I was terrified.
It was the early 1980s when things like shining, sun-warmed trampolines were play toys of the cool, rich kids on the East side of town. This meant none of our friends had them. We were visiting my father’s aunt, a widow with grown children and grandchildren of her own. Her house was surrounded by hay fields. An early summer sky stretched like a crisp blue banner over the valley. The trampoline, a giant circle of aluminum framework and rubber, sat strangely out of place on her bumpy country lawn.
My little sister hauled herself up over the rounded frame, navigating carefully over the thick, widely spaced metal springs. I watched as she bent her knees, launched herself upward, rocketing high off her feet. Her long brown hair danced around her head with each ricochet of a bounce. She held her arms straight to her sides, giggling like mad with every jump, then expertly reached out to balance her landings. The springs stretched and squeaked, threatening to pinch off any finger or toe with one poorly-angled landing. My sister was around 8 years old and as lighthearted as the air under her feet. I was two years older and stood solidly planted and quiet across the yard.
My parents smiled, chatted and laughed with Aunt Addie while I watched my sister outlined against the sky like an exclamation point. I wanted desperately to not be afraid. How did she get herself up there so well? What if I fell through the cracks between the springs? How would I be able to hold myself up? Wouldn’t my knees crumple? What if I jumped too high?
I don’t remember most of anything my parents may have said to me. There was probably the initial encouragement of “Just go do it!” in an exasperated tone. The longer I stood watching my sister, the more ashamed of myself I became. Chicken. Prissy girl. I stayed on the ground. The ride home is a vague blur except for something I said about wishing I had tried. My parents, hearing my disappointment as whining, shrugged and replied: “Well, it’s too late now. You should have just gotten on the trampoline when you had the chance.” I deserved that, I felt. I’d made the wrong decision. I had been afraid to look foolish on the trampoline. And now I was foolish for not doing it anyway. I wasn’t meant to make those high jumps and flips. Even at that young age, I was already shaming myself with the question: Who did I think I was, anyway?
Writer Elizabeth Gilbert has spoken in her book, “Big Magic,” and on her blog, about the “arrogance of belonging,” taken from the British poet and teacher David Whyte. Gilbert describes this idea in a recent podcast:
“It’s a kind of arrogance that you have to cultivate as an artist. If you don’t have the arrogance of belonging you can never make art. And the arrogance of belonging is not about your ego. It’s just about standing on your own two feet and saying ‘I am. I am here. I exist. I have a vision. I have desires. I have a statement to make. I have pleasures to pursue. And I’m allowed to have all of those things. Because I am. I’m not just here to produce bricks. I’m not just here to make bricks for society to stand on. I’m also here to celebrate the miraculousness of my own particular life.’ This, you are very much entitled to.”
And so it is for any of us—creatives or not—we each are allowed to do more than make bricks. We are, with both fear and joy, allowed to scramble up on the trampoline, to jump, screech, stumble, hurt ourselves. To express glee, to understand terror, to doubt and hesitate. To feel, fail, and need help.
What I know now is that I’ve never been afraid of getting physically hurt. As a kid, I climbed into ditches, belly-crawled through tall field grass looking for grasshoppers, rode my bike too fast on the gravel driveway, and drove my old car too fast on country roads. For all the assumptions made about me as a child, I wasn’t a prima donna, but I was, at times ridiculously sensitive. I was afraid of feelings—terrible things that did nothing but get me in trouble. I was afraid of appearing too right or too wrong. I was afraid of the shame and disappointment my mistakes would cause. (Spoiler Alert: These kinds of little girls grow up to be women with depression and anxiety.) So I went along, the best I could, with everyone else’s way of being. Laugh at the right times, keep your shit together, let others do the bragging, do the work, don’t complain, don’t ask for a damn parade in your honor! Build the bricks. Stay on the ground.
For this now grown-ass lady, the last five years—and especially these months of late—are the times of climbing up over the rickety edge and learning to jump, with the arrogance of belonging, on my own fucking trampoline. My own badass contraption of possible failure. I’m practicing the normal human interaction of sharing life—its worries, hardships, joys—as one would share with a friend over coffee. I’m practicing a new voice, one that wasn’t trained to see this kind of living as shameful, bragging, disloyal, and ridiculous. With an arrogance of belonging, I’m reliving the life of that little girl, learning to speak up about her identity and finding her own way to construct her world. One messy, joyful jump at a time.