Saturday, January 16, 2010

Life Tip #7

This life tip comes to you at the request of my sweet cousin, Britt. I thought about it for a week or so before I jumped in. See, I struggled with this issue for many years - even wrote my first 10,000 word theme on it in college - "Ralph Waldo Emerson - Analysis of 'On Self-Reliance.'" And it's been such a important theme in my life that I still have that paper and I refer to it once in a while. Here's why . . .

Emerson said something about this subject that scared me. Not in a BOO sort of way - more like a haunting. For anytime I think about what he said about following your dreams, my heart races, and I think protectively of the songs, stories, thoughts, and hints of books I've written. I think of all those thoughts - all those ideas that came from my head - indeed, my heart, and I worry for them because they have not been validated in the way I writer does of their works - they have not been published. Here's what he said - and a disclaimer here - I never said I was going to make you laugh all the time when I started this - in fact, I've been trying to make you think the whole time. That I've been funny is just a bonus.

He said,

"To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost, and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another."

There. There it is. Each line is a knife slicing through the coldest of northern winds. Read it again slowly. Pay attention to what he is saying to you. This is not a person who was trying to be clever or mysterious in his writings. He's not trying to lead you down a convoluted path before he gives you the point. He tells you - those ideas, that "gleam of light" that "flashes . . .from within," - that's not something to ignore. These bards he speaks of - they were not more special than you or I - they were only more determined to say what everyone else was already thinking and they had the ability to do so in an artful way. The torturous part to me and to all writers is the last line - that tomorrow someone will say those words we've held at the tip of our tongues - in the recesses of our diaries and journals and minds - and we will have to accept our own idea from another like a stolen recipe at a family reunion.

Okay, I'll stop for a minute with the literature. I'll just say this was a huge influence on me and how I lived from the ages of 19 to 27. Self-reliance was paramount and Emerson's words were a constant stream of literary fuel. Like many of the women I know, I took great pride in getting through school on my own, living on my own, and thinking for myself. I never was much of a team player anyway - too bossy - so this life suited me fine.

And then I got married.

All you married folk are laughing now, aren't you? Doesn't work quite the same, does it? I wonder how long it took for some of you before the last brick came down. For you young, spry, singular-minded green shoots, the point is this - the idea of self-reliance will change depending on the over-arching goals in your life. It was never my goal to lose my self-reliance. In fact, it was never my goal to get married. It's one thing to fall in love and an entirely different thing to fall in love and sync with someone. That's what happened to me. God sent me a soul mate, and my life made sense for the second time in a different way. Then the fighting began.
And we fought.
And fought.
And fought.
But when I think of it now, I realize I was the only one fighting. He was just living out our vows.

You young girls listen: You get married and it's no longer all about you. This is shocking to the system. And it's not about freedom or getting to do all the things you did on your own. It's about developing that part of yourself that is undeveloped. Sure, you can change a car battery and plan your own vacations and keep a plant alive (most of it, anyway), but do you know how to let your guard down and let someone love you? It's harder than they make it look in the movies. I've never been held back by my husband, but I have struggled against him. See, when you're in love, the other person wants to know what makes you tick. And us self-reliant women have never had to explain that to anyone. We just are who we are. Or are we?

Love has meant looking him in the eye and explaining what drives me. Explaining that, yes, the treadmill is so big it takes up half the room, but I need it for my sanity. Admitting that I really hate someone reading over my shoulder because writing is such a sacred thing to me. Telling him that my life is so perfect, I'm afraid all the time that something will ruin it.

I can't even say that it means the same thing when you're in a committed relationship. I mean, I want to be self-reliant in the "let-me-rearrange-the-furniture-and-don't-tell-me-it-won't-work" sort of way, but do I really want to change my own battery? No.

Tell you what I want to do - I want to make that period of my life part of my wisdom cache. I want to be able to draw from it when my girls are teenagers facing peer pressure. I want to use it when they're in college and going through heart breaks and tough times. I want to remember it when I'm doing an 8.0 incline at 3.4 miles per hour and I'm not sure how much longer I can keep it up.

Maybe I'm too young to be nostalgic, but that's where I am. And it's a good place to be when you watch your little girl struggling to cut in a straight line, her hair falling in her face and the tip of her tongue peeking out of the corner of her mouth in that determined way - looking just like her dad when he's deep in thought. I sit and watch her and daydream about the kind of young woman she's going to be, and I wonder how long it will be before I can start reading her Emerson . . .

For Britt, in celebration of who you are and where you are. But mostly in celebration of where you're going to go . . .