Snake Skin

When I came back from Atlanta in August, it seemed too close to the start of the fall term. I am so much a creature of steadiness and routine, even more so after a full year at home on sabbatical living to my own rhythm. Last night, again, I had trouble getting to sleep, perseverating over what “needs” to get done before I leave for LA tomorrow. I recognize that my anxiety has less to do with my very short and simple to-do list and more to do with my growing sense of general frenzy over the past few weeks: How to finish prepping the new course, start classes, evaluate tenure candidates, have a visitor for almost a week, throw a birthday party for a friend, prepare for the wedding weekend, sort out the usual onslaught of start-of-term issues, work with a completely revised syllabus. There is nothing big at all and yet everything lacks the predictability I enjoy and rely on. Something to be mindful of, I think. Clinging to routine sounds alarming like sedimentation.

I also have a sort of performance anxiety around the wedding, I guess. As Sheila Heti asked: How should a person be? It’s a great question and one I don’t often ask myself as I stumble from one action to another fulfilling expectations, both mine and from those around me. To say a person should be herself begs the question because how do you know your true self when you are bombarded with demands and norms and expectations? When I’m in small groups, especially one-on-one, I feel more centered. I can find myself and behave genuinely. But with a group, especially a group of folks I don’t see often who are very close friends and family, I always feel the outsider and, seeking to fit in, I can really lose myself. I want to be liked and not stick out as the loner, outlier, weirdo without really wanting to jump into their activities.

Truth is, partying terrifies me, especially when I have no duties, no tasks to occupy me and enable me to appear “as if” I am a part of it all. Some part of this is my introversion, how draining I find it to try to interact with a lot of people at one time. Part of it is that the young adults are, many of them, my “kids,” and I struggle not to become my mother, not to drink myself into oblivion in the corner, and not to feign being the “cool mom” everyone likes.

But who am I really among these kids turned adults who invite me but with whom I’m unsure of my role? It’s really all about my deeply ingrained need to become “valuable” by always, always doing something (indeed, the correct thing) for those around me. What have you done for me lately? Today? This minute to deserve to be here? Of course, I have trained them to see me this way by always playing caretaker mom. They know no different, but perhaps it is not at all what they want or need. And perhaps all of this is my projection onto them and has nothing to do with what they see or want or expect. Maybe it’s as simple as wanting me to be there to celebrate their wedding.

It is so easy for me to project my insecurities onto others when the real terror comes from the fact that it is truly up to me, and only me, to be the person I am and to deal with whatever may occur in relationships if I am no longer the person they once knew. I think the lesson of the rupture with my ex is that I need to jump into that void. I need to stop behaving as if I am the reflection of others’ desires. I want to let that “me” pass away and see what me springs forth free of my imagined and real constraints.

I read somewhere that Socrates, maybe, said something like, “The secret to change is not to waste your energy on clinging to the old but to spend it building the new.” Something like that. It’s true, of course, but it even takes a snake a couple of weeks to shed her skin, and I’ve had my habits a lot longer than a few months.

“California Mountain King Snake Shedding Its Skin” by born1945 is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Sept. 3, 2016

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