Although I may have spent a little more time performing in public than the average schmo — singing, speaking and reading poetry, giving speeches, presenting information — I have never gotten comfortable with it. It occurred to me the other day that even having someone turn to me and say, “So how’ve you been?” strikes me deer-in-headlightsish.
I often hear myself stumble through some down-in-the-mouth response, and wonder why I’m doing that. It occurs to me that the other thing that strikes me in that moment is that fear I have of bringing the wrath of the gods down on me if I admit to contentment, to positive thinking, to having good fun.
I also have experienced more often than my anxious ears care to, in the event I do manage to report positively on my beings and doings, someone say something along the lines of “It must be nice,” which gives me some kind of survival guilt.
Cripes, I’m a delicate flower! How did this happen to me?
Well, that’s for the shrink’s couch, but now that I’ve become aware of what all happens when I’m confronted with this pretty easily foreseeable situation, maybe I can better prepare myself for the risk and resilience of answering positively. Because I have generally been doing pretty positive things: new work, little projects, outdoorsy things, keeping good company, and generally going about my business noticing things, generally being “pretty good.”
Or I can just do what my old colleague Arnie Will would do in the face of such question: consistently and with great ebullience, he’d reply “Ab-so-lute-ly faaan-tastic.” It pretty much stops the conversation.
Then maybe in the moment I can quickly piece together a little narrative, something from my recent days that can anchor the conversation.
Constructing stories of our days and lives is something we humans seem to do innately. It seems to be how we make sense of life and the passage of time, and how we connect to each other, each of us tumbling around in the tempests of our own teacups.
But we can also be stuck in a story. It’s fashionable nowadays to talk about a “narrative” and “changing the narrative,” and in many ways, it’s a wise realization — that what we believe transcribes what is possible. If our story of our own situation is limiting, it seems entirely possible that we are limiting our situation and story, that if we edited our story, we might shift our understanding, we might open up possibilities.
I heard a commentary on the radio referring to a new book out called The Queen, which examines the “welfare queen” narrative that was used successfully in the Reagan era to cast deep aspersion on the social service system by painting welfare recipients as living large through government handouts. That story persists, even in the face of other more credible and widespread stories of people scraping by.
The American pull-up-your-own bootstrap story is a double-edge sword: it can give hope to those who want to change their circumstance, but can discredit people screwed by their circumstance, indeed by the generational history of their circumstance by highlighting the stories of people who were able to overcome their circumstance. Must be nice…
On the other hand, the old American democratic narrative notion that “anyone can be president” story has proved itself in…well…all kinds of ways.
So my thoughts have meandered far from the simple question “how ya doin” and my ridiculous response. Sometimes stories do that, I guess. And that’s absolutely fantastic.
With the coming of the sun (in this northern hemisphere anyway, you southern hemispheres also have cause to pause), this seems like the opportunity to tell our stories anew. So, spill it, sisters and brothers. And maybe the most important story is the one we tell ourselves about ourselves. Might as well make it a good one.