Sunday, March 7, 2010

Getting to the root of it

Those who know me well know that, although I am very comfortable engaging with people one-on-one, at a coffee shop or over a meal, and equally comfortable speaking before a large audience or making a fool of myself on stage, I find church coffee hours, cocktail gatherings, theater intermissions and many phone conversations to be almost nightmarish.

Last night I found myself in a series of theater intermissions, as we were attending two back-to-back improv performances. There was time spent in the lobby before the first show, at its intermission, between the two shows, at the second intermission, and following the second show. At each of these intervals I found myself interacting with people on that sort of intermediate level that I find uncomfortable, although several of the interactions involved people complimenting me on the images that are currently on display at our local clinic.

This morning I found I kept slipping upward from what Cynthia Bourgeault sometimes calls "the bottom of the river" in my meditation practice, getting hooked on the thoughts rushing by overhead -- which were mostly memories of those positive comments -- and wondering anxiously about some of the other interactions as well. As I released each time, stepping back down into the coolness, I could feel that part of me that loves and craves approval finding its feet again in the Now; finding joy in the birdsongs outside my window and the gentle slap of the waves on the beach.

So then I went off to church this morning, and, standing in the circle awaiting communion, I realized my thoughts were moving ahead, rehearsing what I might say in 20 minutes or so, if I ran into an old friend at the coffee shop while picking up my husband's coffee and paper. Luckily I was able to be present enough to catch my mind going off to that space, and so I was able to return to the present and savor the communion experience.

But later, driving home, it occurred to me that the part of me that goes off into rehearsal mode has been with me a long time, and stems from all the conversational failures I had as a child. That piece -- and for the sake of clarity, let's name her Marcia -- noticed long ago that I struggled with these situations that sit between the intimacy of the coffee cup and the grandiloquence of performance, and decided it was her job to spend time preparing responses in case they were necessary, precisely because she couldn't count on me to respond appropriately.

But if I look at that objectively, now, as an adult; if I take time to notice that whole phenomenon, I can see that those old failures probably came at least partially from my inability to be present and responsive in the moment. So Marcia, though she THINKS she's helping me out and protecting me, is actually increasing the problem by removing me even further from the present with her anticipatory chatter.

Okay, so then, what is it that makes a social situation like a coffee hour or theater intermission more difficult than a quiet conversation over coffee? I always thought it was "a reluctance to engage in smalltalk" (can you hear the pride behind that remark?), as if I were somehow "above all that sort of thing." But I suspect -- given that though my left ear can detect volume it has never seemed able to process words very well -- that conversation in a crowded room with lots of ambient noise is harder for me to understand, which could certainly lead to embarrassment. So, knowing that potential is there, some other part of me (let's call her Shirley) gets anxious when on the phone or in a group of people, for fear she may make a fool of herself by not understanding and improperly responding. Shirley, of course, is that part of me that desperately longs to please, to be loved -- and of course her very neediness is what makes her so hard to love. And then, of course, the anxiety she feels, anticipating a potential screw-up, creates a sort of rushing urgency that exacerbates the hearing problem.

Surely, I find myself saying to Marcia and Shirley, who are standing before me, shifting nervously from foot to foot, if I can respond appropriately in a quiet conversation, you could probably trust me to respond appropriately in a noisier setting; I just need to be REALLY REALLY conscious, and REALLY REALLY present. Which I can't do with the two of you rattling around. It's not that I don't love you: I love you both very much, and understand that the protection you've undertaken is out of your love for me. It's just that I don't need you to protect me anymore; you can retire now; lie down on a beach somewhere and bask in the sun knowing you've served me long and well.

And how cool is that -- to get a handle on that stuff? Which just goes to show that there IS hope, that old dogs CAN change -- or at least try to. How long has it taken me to get to a point where I can actually see all these parts of me at work? 60 years, you say? Well then. Better late than never.

I find myself just wanting to thank the gardener in that fig story we heard in today's gospel story (Luke 13: 6-9).

Then he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, 'For three years now I've been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven't found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?' " 'Sir,' the man replied, 'leave it alone for one more year, and I'll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.' "

Of COURSE we get impatient with ourselves, frustrated with the old patterns, and with the bits of our lives where we keep pouring out but nothing ever seems to bear fruit. But we always have a choice. We can scrap it, or neglect it, or hate it, or reject it -- or we can watch, pay attention to the roots, stir the ground up around them and give it some fresh nutrients. If, then, it still fails us, well then, there will be a time to root it out.

But give yourself a chance: who knows what miracles of growth might occur with a little extra attention to the deep parts, the roots of things?

And, to honor that thought, I'm gonna go work on my grad school application. It's never too late to pursue your deepest dreams.


Maureen said...

How wonderful you are going to go after that dream to go to grad school! Are you thinking of something in the fine arts? I will be interested to hear much more about this.


M.L. Gallagher said...

Diane, one of the many things I appreciate about reading your blog is the insight I get into my own stuff.

This piece is powerful for me.

Thank you!

And -- when I was a teen, I used to go to these 'social functions' -- I resorted to writing answers on my hand in case I was asked something. And then, one day, my girlfriend and I decided to be cheeky and wrote name tags -- Snow White. Mermaid -- we giggled our way out of there as no one seemed ot notice what we'd done!

Thanks again.


Songbird said...

I'm finding the side effect of making less of my own drama is actually being more present to my reality. Thanks for this reflection.