Wednesday, April 14, 2010

In the Birdcage, part 2

I drove home from Massachusetts that May day abuzz with possibility and excitement, and with Bill's birdcage escape instructions at the front of my mind.

When I got home, I did my best not only to share Bill's insights with David, but also, much harder, to put his advice into practice--to affirm myself as a writer and an artist. (I'm really not sure what he meant by "artist"--I think rather than being about a clear focus on the visual arts, it had more to do with creative self-expression, which was a recurring theme across the several tests and indicators I had taken.)

This was 1997, and I don't know if there were many books around in those days trumpeting the ways of positive thinking and the use of affirmations in creating a new reality for oneself and one's life. I suspect there were some around, though nowhere near the popular explosion of the present book and internet world.

Even if there were some good books about out there that might have supported me in creating and "employing" affirmations then and there, I wasn't reading any of those books. They would have been way way off my reading list and would never have passed the censorship of my predispositions and assumptions in those days.

So I undertook to "affirm myself as an artist and a writer" as best I could. I tried writing simple statements a bunch of times in my journal every morning, and maybe, if I was feeling particularly uninhibited, looking myself in the mirror and speaking out loud: "I am a writer and an artist. I am an artist and a writer." 

I felt incredibly awkward, stupid, and inauthentic. Deep down, I didn't believe what I was saying.

Or maybe really really deep down I did, but in those thicker, tangled middle layers that stood between me and my deepest, truest, highest self, I thought it was hogwash. As patently untrue as if I had stared at an orange and said, "This is a blue apple. This is a blue apple." Mere repetition was not going to change the reality of how I perceived myself.

But I bravely kept it up . . . for a few days. Until I could stand it no longer and began to add more genuine-feeling truth to the statement.

Soon it had become: "I am a writer and an artist and a mother." And the mother part, that undeniable fact of my relational existence, eventually squeezed out the writer and artist. Since I was on sabbatical, I had a reprieve from the Episcopal priest part of my self-identity, but eventually the Episcopal priest part joined the mother part, and . . . you get the idea.

My fiercely protective ego doing its level best to keep me "safe" had won that round: Old, known, and familiar identity had been reaffirmed; potential new identity denied. (Although when David and I returned from that sabbatical, we made small changes to our shared work schedules, with the aim of allowing me more time to write. It was an excellent idea that proved very hard, make that impossible, for me to honor.)

But at least some strangely stubborn and potent seeds had been planted. Actually, I have a feeling those seeds had been planted long long ago, and somehow the sabbatical had provided enough forms of moisture and disturbance to crack the hard shell of each seed case, so that whether I was ready to acknowledge my dreams or not, something, some sort of growth had been set in motion underground.

The most unusual of the tests that I had taken as part of Bill's vocational counseling was called the "16PF". In the written materials Bill had sent me, he noted that many of his clients over the years had found this one test to be the catalyst for the most powerful insights.

Reviewing the 16PF results, I thought I sounded like a case for a psych ward. I think that's because it is oriented toward the world of corporate professionals, and I had answered some of its "work behavior" questions from the perspective not just of restless parish priest but also of harried, stressed out mother of two young children (that was a big part of my "work" after all!). And Bill did warn me that the 16PF was not exactly geared toward feeling and intuitive (feminine?) ways of wisdom.

This meant that there were some really off-the-mark observations in its analysis of me, suggesting that I might be overly focused on getting my own needs met and inappropriately uninhibited in expressing my emotional responses to my colleagues in working situations (like, yelling at my children?). But then it also said I was apt to keep my thoughts and feelings so hidden and quiet that others had a hard time knowing me. (Ah, not only was there quite a difference between my behavior at work and my behavior at home, but there was also the wide gap between how an introvert perceives and describes her inner emotional climate and what she expresses outwardly.)

Along with some piercing observations about my pattern of being reluctant to ask for support and my aversion to taking risks, the 16PF did leave me really pondering one particular quandary. It stated: "Ms. Curtis tends to get most satisfaction in life from chances to be helpful to others. She feels best, however, when she can do so while working alone and apart from others."

This may sound strange, but I could not get my head around that at all. It struck me as so utterly paradoxical as to be almost nonsense. Like an impenetrable Zen koan, or a brain teaser designed to torture those who try to solve it. 

"How can I be helpful to others if I prefer working alone and apart from others?" I kept asking myself. That's impossible! Aren't those two realities complete opposites? 

I could, of course, see how other people might be able to do what's helpful to others by working alone--scientists, for instance, doing research for the cure of disease; writers writing insightful or inspiring books, articles, or poems; musicians composing music to soothe the soul or awaken new possibilities; painters and other visual artists creating windows to expand our own ways of seeing or celebrating the world. I'm sure there are a thousand more human occupations that might fit.

That made perfect sense to me. For those others. Just somehow not for me. For me to see myself as a writer would be-- selfish and self-centered, grandiose, unrealistic, just another romantic idealist notion to add to my considerable collection of abandoned romantic idealist notions. 

Clearly I wasn't really an artist or a writer or a scientist . . . just an extreme introvert! And there are times, in this very extraverted culture of ours, when being an introvert can feel not just like a quirk of personality but like an immense liability, a major character flaw, perhaps even a moral defect. That is if you believe the accusations that get heaped on us introverts from time to time: "You don't like people." "You're anti-social." "You're kind of a misfit."

To which, in my better moments, I might reply by remembering what one of my colleagues used to say, almost with a hint of envy: "Ah, but you have such a rich inner life!"

(Remember those words--"moral defect"--for later in this story. Well, actually; you don't need to remember them. I will take care of that for you.)

My unimaginative questions continued: Isn't helping other people all about helping them in person, face to face, like the pastoral care that clergy offer to their congregations? Like my adolescent goal of joining the Peace Corps? Like Mother Teresa ministering to the poorest of the poor in Calcutta? Like a mother caring for her children, or a teacher teaching patiently in a classroom?

And lurking somewhere in the background, perhaps not even all that far in the background, the real clincher, the horribly moralistic, incredibly powerful silencer of all thoughts of really honoring myself as a writer and an artist, or even as just a human being apart from my family and congregation: Jesus himself, for Christ's sake (I couldn't resist)! The "pioneer and perfecter" of our faith, the hero, the role model, the guy whose example we are supposedly all dying to emulate, saying loud and clear:

"Whoever would be my disciple, she has to deny herself, take up her cross, and follow me."

To which I now say from a safer distance, "Thanks a lot, Jesus.  But I'm not signing on to that particular scheme."

But back then in 1997, as I said before, my fiercely protective-of-the-status-quo ego, seemed to prevail. And I stayed stuck.


Anonymous said...

I really like the way you organize your thoughts...

Cori Lynn Berg said...


Double hmmm...

Garnetrose said...

You can be all those things..a mother, writer and artist.

Sukie Curtis said...

The challenge (for me at least) is/was to imagine not always putting the writer and artist in second, third, or last place, behind "more important" or "holier" obligations.

To imagine that my holiest obligation might actually be to become as fully myself as possible, even perhaps at the expense of other obligations (at least for a time).

Connie said...

It takes the greatest courage to break out of long-established thought and behavior patterns. It amazes me that you have been able to do it!

Sukie Curtis said...

I appreciate that! The putting yourself second (third, last) that so many women "learn" to do, plus motherhood, plus Christian piety, plus priesthood did make for a rather high hurdle@

Patsy said...

A couple of thoughts on the "Jesus Example". . .I wonder if the "deny yourself, take up the cross and follow me" bit might actually refer to something completely different than what has ever been explored by the rigid pulpit. . .if if might actually have to do with the extravagant wild freedom to be found in God. I'll add here that the book, "The Shack" has turned my ideas of God upside down and inside out (exploring it with a study group). Beyond that, there is certainly plenty of example in scripture of Jesus taking off by himself, communing with nature and the deepest purpose of his own life. It's just that most clergy (or churches at large) don't find that among the more important stuff for focus). Finally. . .you might want to have a look at the book, "A Language Older Than Words" if you haven't already. It has everything to do with getting through all the tangled middle-mess you refer to. Thanks for all the thought-provoking reflections!

Sukie Curtis said...

Hi, Patsy! Thanks for joining the conversation! I am sure you are right about those other ways of imagining "deny yourself"--I love that phrase "extravagant wild freedom to be found in God"! Some days I'm there, and some days...not so much!

And thanks for reminding me of "A Language Older Than Words"--it's a title I have encountered before and have not read it. An inviting provocative title, for sure.

Thanks for leaving a comment.