At least once a day I give myself a silent pep talk: “I am not stupid.” Sometimes it’s after one of my sons has asked me a question about the world I should be able to answer but can’t. Sometimes it’s when a friend mentions a bit of world news or drops the name of a musician in a way that suggests everyone but me already knows it. When that happens my mind spins, then blanks, then settles with resignation on the obvious: I’m so dumb. I can’t remember shit.
The nature versus nurture pondering no longer really interests me. I am who I am. For a dozen reasons or none at all, I grew to limit myself because I didn’t believe I was smart enough to say the right thing or make the right choice. I flat-out didn’t trust myself. I’ve done that team-building free fall exercise more than once over the years, and I never had a problem falling back into a web of others’ arms. For most of my life, though, I would have never relied on myself to catch me. Not without prior approval from at least three people, anyway. Couldn’t risk it.
During the years of our marriage, whenever I would complain about how busy my ex always was with his hobbies, the endless number of things he spent time and money and energy on, he would ask me, “Why don’t you have any interests?” Because I’m stupid, I would think, my mind searching desperately for an activity, a sport, even a single subject in history I might have an inclination to study or pursue. Nothing came to mind. I felt blank, dull, uninteresting.
Then many years ago, quite out of nowhere, I decided I wanted to try mosaic art. The idea of arranging different materials together to form something new appealed to me. It seemed to be the kind of art that didn’t involve having to be a skilled artist at all. It was something even I could do.
I started collecting old plates in varying colors and patterns, imagining the day I’d get to break them apart and reshape them however I wanted. I envisioned myself being surprisingly adept at it, a natural. I daydreamed of giving my art as gifts.
But I couldn’t bring myself to break any of the plates – half of which were already cracked or chipped. What if I did it wrong? What if I wasn’t as creative as I imagined I could be? What if nobody wanted my art? What if nobody even liked it?
To this day I’m not sure how I got the courage to trust myself that first time. I suppose it had something to do with the therapy I’d started yet again, and the gnawing, growing realization that trusting myself was the only thing left to do. My true voice, the one that had been a whisper for so long, muted by my inner “stupid” monologue, began to yell the unrelenting call of the desperate-to-be-heard. She cried for freedom, for the chance to stop playing the role she’d been playing, to yank the theater curtain down and allow herself to be the person she yearned to be, not the character she’d become, the role she’d been playing for years to the applause of the crowd and the dismay of her inner critic.
So I did what I felt I had to do: I smashed the beautiful, flawed plate that was my life, agonizing over its demise as it fell. I watched it crash to the ground by my own hands. Seeing it in pieces broke my heart. Many of the shards cut me; they made others bleed too. I sobbed with guilt and pain. I felt selfish and wrong, and in some ways I was. I patched the wounds and prayed for the scars to fade.
And then I started picking up the pieces, broken into new shapes, revealing previously unnoticed beauty and depth. Through my tears and despite my fears, I began fashioning my first work of mosaic art. Bit by bit I added other elements to my life that make sense to me, that make sense of me.
I fell backwards and I trusted that I would catch myself. Because I had to.
In order for this new way to work, I have to be deliberate and intentional, much more so than I’d ever been before. I have to draw inward each time I’m faced with a decision, whether it’s what to do on a weekend or whether to send a pitch to a new editor. It’s embarrassing, but the answers don’t come easy. I have to focus hard, to fight back the critic and actively choose what will move my life forward, what will make me feel good now and later. I have to force myself to be a grownup, not an insecure young girl. I have to strive to be authentic, not an actor reciting her lines, desperate for applause.
I was not used to doing this. I never used to pause and trust that the answer would come to me; I used to pause and wait for someone else to answer for me. It’s exhilarating but exhausting, and sometimes I still find myself waiting (hoping?) for someone else to decide my salary, my sanity, my Saturday night. I still fight the old way, the paralysis and self-doubt. “Stupid” is not a word I allow in my house, yet it has made a nest in my psyche and it does not want to leave. So when it pops up, I take a moment and define myself using other words. “I am not. I am this and this, and this.” Piece by piece, word by word, action by action, I shape and arrange, glue and grout, and hope it holds.
It must be, because every day I care a little less whether anybody approves of the work of art I am becoming.