While I was working at Cool but Aimless job, they hired a new assistant to work in my department. I was asked to train him, explain the office rules, etc. As we started talking, something about this guy immediately rubbed me the wrong way. Perhaps it was his penchant for bragging, perhaps it was the way he cocked his head to the side and smiled at me condescendingly whenever I explained something he thought he already knew. When I took him to lunch, he asked me about other positions open around campus (yes, Cool but Aimless Job was at a university...heaven!). Curious, I thought. Didn’t they mention to him that we’re not allowed to look for another position for the first six months? I asked him if he’d been told, and he said, "Oh, yeah...but I’m not going to let that stop me. After all...it’s better to ask for forgiveness than ask for permission.”
Ooh, how I hated that phrase (he would repeat it often during the short time he worked in our department). I told myself that it was because I despise cheerfully amoral bland business speak, and I do.
But it wasn’t just that.
I’ve always had an issue with needing permission, with obedience, with following the rules. From the time I was a little girl, I was searching the Universe for Signs...signs that I was on the right track, that I wasn’t doing it wrong, that I would thus be spared the embarrassment of everyone seeing me try and fail. For a long time, I got my Signs in the form of praise from my teachers--I was a very good student, and so obviously loved school that my teachers responded to my enthusiasm with effusive applause. Is there anything more wonderful than working through a task and then being acknowledged for it, having it read to the class, singled out? Not when you’re seven (and probably not when you’re seventy seven either). I learned that if you did things correctly, you got a gold star...and there was only one way to be right--to have someone else tell you that it was right.
Oh, sure, I’d get the occasional reprimand at home--for being "too emotional”, "too absent minded” and for having my "head always stuck between the pages of a book.” But, back then, intuitively I knew that this was the way I wanted and needed to be.
The problem was, I stopped knowing how to find pleasure in my work without a chorus of approval. How would I know it was any good unless someone told me? How would I know I should continue without a Sign?
As I got older, unfortunately, the Signs became fewer and farther between...or maybe I just became less adept at seeing them. I wanted so much to be discovered, rescued, to be anointed by Someone in the Know...an artistic mentor, a patron, a cheerleader. I suppose everyone wants this...but I needed it. So I searched...and found a lot of ambivalence. There was the college writing teacher who told me flat out, "I can’t tell you whether or not you have any talent at this.” (Which was probably true, but at the time I was devastated). There was the summer honors program I applied for and didn’t get into (I took that Sign into, oh, last week or so). There was the occasional, "You know...you’re not bad at this.” But I never managed to take those as Signs. No, a sign was now a warning from the universe, to make sure I ceased being troublesome, and settle down like a good girl.
But I still needed someone to tell me what to do...anything to avoid embarrassment (I am one of those people who needs to change the channel during Three’s Company, so strongly do I feel that gut twisting cringing before people get laughed at). I learned to divide the world into "Me” and "Not Me”...and of course "Not Me” was absolutely everything I wanted to be. I got it into my head that if something was natural, the world would sing and dance for you. Trumpets would blare from on high, and it would never feel like work, never feel awkward, would always feel effortless, instinctual.
You can imagine how often this happened.
So I stuffed my unruly desires away, staring with envy at the people who seemed entitled to everything--the people I went to school with who were brilliant and creative and never, ever struggled. People like John Updike, Joan Didion, Anne Rice, Joseph Campbell, Oprah, people I went to school with, people who were bohemian--a much longer list than this one. Basically anyone who was, you know...Not Me. You may have one of these lists too...you may even be on mine.
And I continued this trend through my time at Big Publishing House--surrounded by confident, self assured people who had apparently read everything, seen every movie, traveled everywhere, and gone to every museum, art house, library--I withered, shrunk away, waited to be sent home with my low brow, television-watching, uneducated self. Never mind that I had gone to school with many of these types. Never mind that I had been hired over so many others. Obviously, there had been some mistake--this was HARD, grueling, in fact. Embarrassing when I had an opinion in an editorial meeting which was met with...silence and what seemed to be barely restrained sighs of disapproval. Definitely not natural. Definitely Not Me.
And the Entitled Ones continued doing exactly as they pleased...dancing, arguing, passionately reading, discovering, creating. And I watched them...trying in vain to see what made them special--what was I missing? I read many, many self help books for clues, for instructions, but what I was really looking for was a trumpet blare, "yes you Monica...you should be an artist...it is your DESTINY!” I so wanted to have a destiny, like all of my favorite characters in my books. I wanted to DO SOMETHING with all of these vague longings, with this freeflowing passion that I was scared to act upon.
But of course, none of the authors in these books knew my name. So I took the opposite tack...read until something didn’t match up with me. That usually happened a lot faster--probably because I was looking to have my opinions confirmed. After all...like everyone in my family said, people just can't change. If something is meant to be, it just happens. (And what a destructive belief THAT was!). So I tried to resign myself to my fate--I wasn’t meant to be an artist; that was for the Entitled Ones. I wasn’t meant to live a dream, follow my bliss, discover and hone a talent. Nope, not me.
Meanwhile, a pressure built and grew inside of me, one I tried to ignore until it crystallized into a single diamond question.
At first I took the question literally, searching still more books to try and find everything that was wrong. At various times, I've felt I was the wrong gender, or the wrong age, or the wrong ethnicity, or the wrong social class, or fell on the wrong side of the Bell Curve. But...I still didn’t feel like I had found the answer to my insistent question. Why couldn’t I do the things I wanted to do, take the risks I wanted to take, just go ahead and get sloppy get naked fall in love?
And this weekend it just hit me. The only difference between them and me is that, well, they DID it. That was it. They were entitled to do it because they CHOSE to be, or maybe they just didn’t know any other way to be. They chose not to edit themselves, to freely imitate others they admired, to look foolish, to fail, to fall and fall again. Dimly, in memory, I saw that these people were occasionally laughed at, seen as excessively theatrical or moody or just too, too. But in their imperfections, I found them perfect. They concentrated on the object of their desires, instead of whether they should have thought of it themselves, or whether people would laugh or be scornful or cross the street when they walked by.
They give themselves permission.
And I’m starting to...thanks in large part to all of the wonderful artists I see online, struggling, dreaming, choosing, pondering, stumbling, but always, always creating.
So...it still feels awkward, and occasionally grueling, and not at all meant to be. There aren't any trumpets (yet). I’m probably still too intense, too emotional, too idealistic, too lazy, too undisciplined, too flowery with my language, too uneducated, too dumb.
But I’m still going to do it. I’ve decided to give myself a Sign. I’ve decided to give myself permission.