Outside the Whale
Last night I dreamt that I was in school - not one I've actually attended, but your typical mystery dream reality classroom. Fully clothed this time thankyouverymuch, though we've all had that nightmare too, right? I waited in line to ask the teacher to explain a perplexing homework problem. Just as I got to the front of the line, a bell rang. School ended. I scrambled for words and blurted them all out at once - you know that feeling? The anonymous teacher turned and said, "I'm sorry, but it's too late now. You should have done that earlier. You can still try for partial credit, for the learning experience, but you can't pass."
"But I didn't know where to start!" I huffed. "How do you expect me to solve a problem I don't understand?"
Like any other dream, the persistence of the non-reality, the urgency of my pending doom in this false classroom, broke with the morning. Yet the emotional residue remains. The yuck of failure. The ew of out-of-my-control. Not a fun way to wake up. It's embarrassing, really. I'm here by myself in my own home embarrassed that this imaginary experience is affecting my self-confidence. And then here I am, against all common sense, outing myself, sharing my embarrassment with you, which could have otherwise gone silently into the stack of reasons it's weird to be me today. I dare to hope that I am not alone. Hands up if you've ever been mad at someone in a dream and then acted strangely around them the next day in person. So with that, let's rip apart my subconsciousness on the Internet:
Why does the sense of failure linger? I'm not beholden to any grading system in my daily life. I am, however, married to a teacher. I'm now all too familiar with the anxiety on both sides of the equation: the students' desire to achieve, the teacher's strained hope to impart knowledge. Still, it's been over a year since I've found myself in a true classroom setting as the student.
What about work? In designing for nonprofits, I am my own harshest judge. I set goals for myself and create strategic timelines that I often fail to achieve. The graphic doesn't look quite right until the fourth edit, five hours over my budgeted project time. Or I schedule a post for social media without recognizing that I've selected the wrong date. It's late. I've failed. I can't count. I don't even know the days of the week. Who gave me a college degree?
Then Music. The Nineveh from which I've run too many times to count. I've been living in the whale's stomach for so long I started to hang pictures and roll out rugs. It wasn't comfortable, but it was familiar. I wonder how many times Jonah thought about pulling the ripcord in the whale before he settled into the idea that maybe it wasn't so bad in there after all. Can you have Stockholm Syndrome when your captor is an ocean mammal? My anthem for the last two years in the whale - exiting college, entering the real world (John Mayer was right), moving five times, getting married, both enduring and enjoying the holiday season: Wait for the calm in the storm. Newsflash: sometimes you don't get a calm. Like waiting for a break in the rain to scurry from the Trader Joe's awning to your car across the parking lot; sometimes, the only way is through.
"But I don't know where to start!"
When I finished my contract with the Nashville Civic Design Center in October, I decided not to take on another contract or role to fill out my standard 40-60 hour week. Instead, in a rare moment of trust, I kept only the 20-hour per week role I have with Tirzah International and saved the rest for Music. Ejected onto the shore, covered in whale slime, disoriented and hungry. That's how I feel. And I guess that is the only place we can start - outside the whale.
"How do you expect me to solve a problem I don't understand?"
I think I've been searching for the end of the maze. You know, how we were taught to cleverly solve the maze on the back of the kids' menu - start from the end and you'll always find your way to the beginning. The first step is easy if you know where you want to end up. The end is: a comfortable retirement with sound finances; a healthy, grown family, grandchildren around the Christmas tree; regular vacation and homeownership; CEO or MD after the comma with a successful practice; lasting friendships and leisurely meals. You name it. We've all got an endgame. And if we can only decide where we want to end up, the path will unfold before us. Or so we think. Only I strongly suspect that life isn't about the maze at all.
Outside the whale, the world is brighter, scarier, louder than I remembered. Some days I feel brave simply being here. Mostly, I feel silly relearning to walk, allowing myself to be nursed back to health by strangers, remembering the practices that once made me myself, like I'm cast in the role of Me in a play. Only it's not a play - it's Wednesday. And there is sand between my toes. And there is warm sun on my back. And anywhere is forward, everywhere is the start.