Be Yourself? Which self?

“Just be yourself.” I’ve been given that suggestion hundreds of times, and it was particularly unwelcome coming from my waitress who I suspected had indulged in a few too many free shots at the bar.

In a way, it was my own fault. I’d broken one of my cardinal rules and shared a piece of personal information with this complete stranger. Once she knew I was apprehensive about meeting my fellow diners, she proceeded to offer a steady stream of unwanted advice until they arrived. This morning I’m still miffed that my oblivious husband tipped her 20%.

But bad restaurant experiences aside, that is a horrible piece of advice. Pretty much anything you do or say is yourself. Some sides of you are more likeable, or more fully developed, or more integrated into the whole you, but if it is coming out of your mouth without an intent to lie, it is you.

The problem is that we are all complex creatures. I have a squeamish side that gets nauseous at little things. I also have a this-is-an-emergency side that steps in and deals with the grossest of injuries if need be. I’m not faking either one. I’m not a simple person, and neither are you.

So when people tell me to be myself, my answer is “which self?” I’ve got at least dozen different genuine responses in my head to anything you have to say. Some may lead to a budding friendship, others to hostility. Over time you might get to know most of those sides of me, but which one do I let you see first?

This dilemma of defining the real me has recently spilled over into my writing, or more accurately into the marketing of my books. I love my book titles and my book covers. They are the real me. However, I’ve been told by those I respect that neither titles nor covers are helping me sell books.

After quite a bit of reflection, I’ve decided that being effective is also the real me. I’m practical and I like to achieve my goals. My goal is to find more readers. So, the real me is renaming my books and has sought out a professional to provide covers that will be a lot more like the one shown here. (It is for someone elses book about an appearance changer.)

What will those new names be? I’m having a lot of fun deciding on them. What will the new covers really look like? I can’t wait to find out. I’ll be sharing some of both here over the next few months, and if all goes according to plan a new crime novel about a gay genius who can change his appearance will be released in early January 2019.

The real me can’t wait.

 

Are you “performing,” or performing?

I get the idea for this blog post while I’m doing yoga, right when I am instructed to be “totally present in the now.” This is a common prompt for anything involving meditation, but the problem is that the instructor takes it one step further and asks us to reflect on what keeps us from doing so.

“I know, I know” the eager student in my head clamors.  She likes getting answers right. “I replay scenes from the past, and I concentrate on tasks and I worry about the future.” But then another voice in my head speaks up, and it is less anxious to please.

“Just how effective a human being do you think you would be if you didn’t focus on getting something done?” it asks. “Performing the tasks that help you survive is what buys you the freedom to sit around and chant om and do this other shit.”

“Shhhhh!” I hush both voices, and then just when I finally have things under control, the yoga instructor joins in the conversation.

true voice 5In fairness, he is a profound individual, and on occasion he will mix his own insights into the class practice and this always enhances the class for me.  This day, he has an answer for the question he has just asked. And he wants to share that answer with us.

“Performing,” he says. “You can’t be present in the now when you are performing.”

“I got that one!” the eager student yells in my head. “Performing tasks. It is one of the three things I said. You heard me. I got it. And I get extra credit for coming up with two more answers, too.”

Only it turns out, I didn’t get it. My yoga instructor is not concerned with my performing tasks or my living in the past or the future. He seems to think those are pretty trivial problems. He is hoping to help me avoid acting like I am someone who I am not. He believes that you can only be present in the here and now, when you are authentic.

Okay, that’s another idea. Decades ago we told each other not to be fake, but recent years have introduced the similar concept of personal authenticity. I like the nuances of this new word better. Unfortunately, though, the contribution from the instructor gets the various voices of my monkey mind going once again.

“Do you even know what is authentically you?” one asks. “Good student, good mother, good worker, good wife. You’ve played roles all of your life. When didn’t you?”

“Well yes, we all play roles to some extent.” my calmer and wiser monkey mind chines in. “It doesn’t mean those aren’t facets of the real you. They’re just not all there is to you.”

“Go deep beneath your roles and your accomplishments,” the instructor continues. He is managing quite well to be part of this conversation. What the hell. I take a deep breath and try to distance myself, to become the objective observer he is urging me to become. What do I see?

Psychedelic 16I see a soul sitting quietly on a mat. She cares deeply about things, but has learned to muffle the intensity of her emotions as their force often bothers others.  She wishes to be liked, and she knows that people seldom enjoy another who is too passionate. She is a ridiculous goody-two shoes (is that even still an expression?) who hates injustice, despises bullying, and truly believes in living an honorable life. She exaggerates to tell a story but won’t tell lies, and she would rather be by herself than with most people. Finally, she has never felt like she was normal and she thinks people would like her better if she was.  She has no idea how to go about being so.

“That’s it,” the instructor says. “Reach for the authentic you.”  I occasionally wonder if the man is telepathic.

The woman on the mat looks up at me and she smiles.  She is usually happy, but I know that she is happiest when she is writing. When something she writes comes out just the way she wants it to, she wants to stand on top of a table in a crowded place and scream “yes” several times at the top of her lungs, but of course she knows that would make her even less likable. And possibly incarcerated.

We are moving into end-of-class shavasana now, and a quiet corner of my monkey mind points out that I haven’t exactly been silent throughout today’s practice. No I haven’t. I’ve enjoyed this search for the true me, though, and think that it has been as good as enjoying the quiet in my head would have been. Many paths to the top of the mountain and all that. Today, this was my best way to be in this moment. I think that it doesn’t get any more authentic than that.

(As for what my monkey mind had to say about focusing on the past — see my post Bring back the good old days? on my z2 blog. For thoughts about my never ending preoccupation with performing tasks — see my post Frittering life away? on my c3 blog. And for my concerns about planning for the future, see Prepare for the worst? on my d4 blog.)

When I wrote this scene in y1, I was scratching away at the idea of a person’s authenticity being tied into doing the things that they love. Now I’m even more sure that is true. Enjoy this short excerpt.

“What’s this?” he asked Toby, lifting a large bulky paper sack out of the dinghy.

“Tonight’s entertainment,” Toby replied. Afi’s eyes widened as a single, almost forty-inch-long fire knife fell out onto the sand, its regulation fourteen-and-a-half-inch blade glistening. There was a fire wick and a small can of outboard motor fuel.

“It was just sitting there when I walked into the farmers market,” Toby confessed a little sheepishly. “The man was quite happy to sell it to me, and I figured you could use it to at least start getting back in practice.”

fire dancingAfi shook his head in disbelief and Toby thought he saw a hint of tears in Afi’s eyes. “After dinner I want you to show me and our new crew member what you can do with this,” Toby said.

So after food was finished, the knife and wick were prepared, and as the very last glimmer of light vanished off to the west, Afi did a careful hand spin with the burning baton. Then he tried a slow figure eight. Then a cautious toss and catch, followed by a slightly more confident toss and catch behind his back. Then a bolder under-the-leg throw. He was grinning now, and the muscle memory was coming back. Joy and Toby watched in increasing wonder as Afi’s hesitant movements transformed, until he was confidently moving the glowing stick to the beat of drums only he could hear in his head.

He began to stomp his feet as he moved, adding head movements in the Kiribati style. Toby and Joy gained a sense of the rhythm to which Afi was moving. Joy began softly clapping with the motion, adding a little percussion. Afi grinned in appreciation and she clapped more forcefully. As his movements sped up, her clapping sped with them, and the two of them were working together now to create the performance. Joy clapped. Afi spun the fire knife. Toby watched in absolute fascination. Finally, by the end of the dance, Afi had become a whirling, glowing swirl of orange flame, powered by Joy’s now jubilant participation and by his own sheer joy in the exhilaration of doing something that he truly loved.

This box went everywhere with me

On April 28 I gave my king-sized bed away to a stranger, and for the next fifty-five nights I slept on the beds and couches of family, friends and a few hotel chains. It was a transition I orchestrated, born of selling a house sooner than expected while still needing to work and save money before moving across the country. I’ve known folks who’ve volunteered in Haiti and Kenya for longer, others who served in harm’s way in dangerous conditions. I would be safe and comfortable, so my little stint without my own place hardly seemed to qualify as an adventure. It even sounded easy.

mind unleashed 2But life is relative, isn’t it? After fifteen years with my toothbrush in the same place, I found being afloat disconcerting. Like most poor swimmers, I looked for things to grab onto. I was lucky in what I found. Two years ago I started a daily qigong practice, and my fifteen or so minutes a day of moving meditation became an anchor. Greek yogurt, readily available and easy to eat, was my daily bread. While putting the house on the market I worked to develop the habit of sipping water whenever I became tired or anxious, and this routine worked remarkably well once I was adrift. (As a plus, I was better hydrated than I have ever been in my life.)

My most effective idea, however, was an eighteen by thirty inch box I threw together just before closing. It was meant to hold a few comforts that wouldn’t fit into my suitcase, but over two months in turned into more than that. It became my treasure box, a child-like source of comfort that I carried in to wherever I was staying. As I added new items to it and threw other things out, it became a picture of the woman I had become. What did I really need to be happy. Which comforts did I rely on? This box was not about what I wanted people to think I was like. It was about the real me, trivial as that might be.

Contents:

1. a thin microfiber blanket
2. an extension cord
3. to go coffee cups and lids for taking that last cup with me in the car
4. a tote bag with a picture of my husband, 3 children and mother
5. a popcorn bowl and several bags of microwave popcorn
6. a cloth napkin and a real fork
7. a real wine glass and cork screw
8. a scissors and scotch tape.
9. speakers to attach to my computer
10. clean wash cloths
11. a white noise generator
12. a hair straightener to keep my bangs straight
13. a plastic bag with band-aids, hair ties and Emory boards
14. a couple of cans of soup and a can opener

box2Add my cell phone and my laptop to the list and this was everything but my clothes and wallet that I needed to survive. It is accurate to add that the phone and computer provided favorite music, contact with those I love, and entertainment, making them my two most valuable possessions.

Okay …. so it looks like the real me is a lot about eating, drinking and getting a good night’s sleep. And while Ford Perfect traveled the galaxy armed only with his trusty towel, it looks like I prefer cloth napkins and washcloths. To each their own. Could I have gotten by without my box of precious belongings? Of course I could have. Did I need much more? Not really. At least not for only fifty-five days.