My bad memories don’t bother me much. They’re tucked away back there somewhere, but mostly out of mind. It’s my good memories I’ve spent half my lifetime trying to overcome.
All of high school, and most of college are in the vaults, but every time I listen to Gregorian Chant, I’m back in 1997 putting on my plastic headphones and tape deck to go for a walk along the Thames river near Port Meadow, happily anticipating that around any bend in the path I’m likely to run into a pub, a church or a friend.
It was such a short window of time, six months, that I spent in Oxford, but I think of it as the best time, because I was fresh out of a bad relationship, free and foreign in another country, reading some of the best books ever written under the tutelage of insanely intelligent (and sometimes very attractive) teachers, while living the communal life of students sharing a small house.
I laughed a lot. Did things I couldn’t get away with at home, not so much because they were bad, but because people would have thought I was weird. I wore my religion publicly, and my clothes oddly. I drew so many pictures.
I’ve gotten into the habit of thinking that I was most myself during that interlude, even though I was away from my native habitat and my people, doing things you only get to do once in a lifetime. I was a personality that relied on transience in order even to exist. If I’d thought any of those people would know me ten years out, I probably wouldn’t have felt so free. And I was still dependent on my parents’ dime, charging my life on their credit card, with the statements arriving on my mother’s desk half-way around the world.
When it was over, I came home to depression and a new dumb relationship. I drew mostly sad pictures of myself and wrote my life story so far. There began a long, dull phase of self-portraiture from which I’ve never quite recovered. And even once the depression had lifted, my former life in Oxford felt like a chronic condition that would flare up and make me sore whenever the weather at home turned dark.
It still does.
I was born in suburbia, grew up in wood paneled dens with hollow doors and carpeted hallways, and spent half my life in the car. I passed my adolescent afternoons feasting on Oprah Winfrey and cereal bowls full of mixed up sugar and butter, then hid all the evidence when I heard my mom’s car pull into the driveway from work.
I came onto Jane Austen and Shakespeare late in life, and only after much coercion. I have always thought tea’s too weak, and stout’s too strong, but MGD is surprisingly good.
These are minor discrepancies of taste and experience, really, but there is enough difference in how I presented myself, even to myself, to conclude that I have operated under a false assumption off what it means to BE most myself.
Whatever brief career I made of travel, before that and ever after I have wanted to be at home. I’m here, for better or worse, here where I was made, and where I belong.
The confounding thing is that I got more satisfaction out of ironing my bedsheets this morning than I have from weeks of false starts in writing. I bought a good iron that works well, and putting clean straight sheets on the bed is a small but certain increase in my quality of life.
And I thought I didn’t give a damn about bedsheets. It just never lined up for me what my irritation with a wrinkled cuff of top-sheet under my chin at night meant. If the bed doesn’t get made during the day, I make it at night before I go to sleep. Order in the sheets is integral to my ability to rest at night.
It came as such a surprise to me that I cared, even though I come from a long line of linen-conscious women. My mom taught me how to fold hospital corners when I was little. I can’t remember not being responsible for my own bed sheets.
And yesterday, Andy was asking questions about the washing machine, how do you start the dryer? How much soap goes in the washer? And this morning at 7 A.M. he came and removed his clean jeans from the washer and said, “My plan worked! Did you notice I was washing and drying my jeans last night so they’d be clean today for school?”
He’s seven. This may be genetic.
And see, all this time I’ve been operating under the assumption that I’m a lovable chaotic person, and not an irritating person who likes ironed sheets. Every day is new and confusing.
“Perfection is vocation, flourishing in joy…Perfection does exactly what it was meant to do.”–Father Cassian Derbes, O.P.
The steady revelation of growing older is that other people are so interesting, particularly people who surrendered their heroic self long before I did, and set to work honoring how they were designed–people who quietly, consistently do the drudge work of being themselves.
I read an article by a doctor who councils couples in adulterous relationships. She posited that affairs are never about dissatisfaction with the person you’re married to, but rather they’re about reclaiming someone you once were.
I’ve known several families who’ve decided to move with their children to exotic places, “to embrace life more fully,” escape mediocrity, etc. And it’s appealing at first to think that yes, that’s what we’re supposed to do–be free! Have the courage to seize your dreams (so you don’t accidentally seize someone else’s spouse instead)!
But if I don’t like who I’ve become, if I’m too angry, easily provoked, duty bound, and dull–it’s not because I’m here rather than there, it’s because I’ve allowed myself to be angry, easily provoked, duty bound and dull.
There is no place where I can go to flee my mediocrity; there’s no “life I was meant to live” that I’m not living; there’s no best self besides the self I am. Sin has trans-Atlantic tendencies.
Leon Bloy said, “The only sadness in life is not to be a saint.” I’m supposed to be a saint. That is perfection– vocation flourishing in joy.
My husband had to mentor a new hire this week, and he came home exhausted each day, because as he noted, when you’re teaching someone, you have to slow down. You can’t work at your own pace, you have to do everything mindfully with explanation.
Thats why I’m not a good teacher myself, I said. Because even though my body appears to be stationary most of the time, my mind is always moving. I don’t like to slow down to explain things. I don’t even like to slow down enough to choose my reactions.
Everything that happens in life doesn’t require an equal and opposite reaction. When the kids act out, I’m not required to respond with my own kaboom. That is how I become the angry, anxious and unhappy person I don’t like being. To exercise freedom of response, is to choose, no matter where I am, or what the circumstances may be, to respond as a saint would respond. To choose holiness, quiet, patience, to hang on the cross for a moment, feel the agony of uncertainty, writhe a little as I wait for the untaught to catch up, and feel all the turmoil of inaction and patience as the price of freedom.
It would be easier if it were my job, and I were getting paid to be patient, maybe.
My kids keep talking about “cosplay” and I had to look it up because it sounds kind of dirty. And I’m hearing that it has to do with role playing games and dressing up like cartoon or video game characters. I think maybe my “Oxford Experience” was a bit of cosplay.
I put on an uninhibited persona that was probably an amalgamation of pop and literary figures I’d encountered over the years. I wanted my friends to call me Doctor Judith. I tucked cigarettes in my bra strap and went out running. I chopped my hair off in the bathroom, straight across the back like a blunt yew hedge, because that’s what you do when you’re young and uninhibited–you romantically cut your hair.
I don’t think it’s possible to be a cosplay saint. Or rather, it’s possible to dress up like a saint–for Holloween, even!–but it’s not possible to be a saint if you’re always pretending to be someone you’re not, or going after some self who’s magically different and better than the self currently slouched in the living room chair scrolling around on the internet.
It can be very painful to accept that the unattractive person is your self, and it can feel for a minute like hope has dimmed if this is all you have to work with. And maybe, it’s true, stepping out of the house can provide a reinvigorating fresh canvas for future change and better habits.
But the first step in becoming a saint is accepting that lump of clay. It is what it is. Patience.