A teacher in grad school once told me to shut up, right in the middle of a workshop. I think I’ve blocked out the details. I just remember how hot my face felt, how stunned I was by her directive. “Shut up, Jena.” Sucking in my breath.
I was the kid in class with my hand shot up in the air when I knew the answer. The youngest of three kids who slipped notes under my parent’s bedroom door if anybody in the house had been fighting. The one who skipped a grade, who made sure the others didn’t get caught.
We all have our stories.
Some big stuff is coming up in my life these days that is helping me look at how these stories, these habits, these patterns and dynamics established over a lifetime, take their toll. How they come at the expense of deeper connections and closeness with some of the people I treasure most.
I remember a collection of poems I had in high school. Mostly it was the title I loved: These Are Not Sweet Girls. Despite appearances, I myself was not all sweetness and light; but I did learn early and learn well how to play the part, how to hide my rebellion, how to swallow my voice.
In coaching training, there was plenty of talk about “playing small.” I have always been one to talk a fierce talk about not settling, about living large. But in my own ways, I am still afraid to take up too much room. To talk too much. To give voice to angry or hurt feelings. To bellow and roar. To speak my truth in the most vulnerable spaces.
There are still occasions when I overeat instead, swallow all of that emotion, turn it on myself where it smolders. I can feel it in my throat sometimes, that lava lump of unvoiced power.
“Playing small” is hardly something most of us do consciously. The phrase even strikes me as a a little trite. What I do know is that when we are able and willing to start being conscious of the effects of our learned behavior, we can choose to work on understanding and changing it. We can be powerful.
Lately with clients, I’ve been offering the question, “Is it working?”
We can get so caught up in our habits, in our dynamics, in our patterning, in our day-in-day-out ways of being and interacting with people near and far, so caught up in the wheels of our own unexamined assumptions and rules about who we are, who the other is, what will happen if, etc. that we don’t pause long enough to ask the simple question of whether our way of doing something (or not doing it, as the case may be) is actually working.
Often, it is. Usually there’s something purposeful about any way of being. Eating large quantities of raisin challah with butter alone late at night is safer than sitting with anger, sitting with loss, sitting with questions I might be afraid to ask or answer.
But is it working? Well, in that instance, no. It’s not working, because I wake up at 3:00am feeling like shit and needing a kind of sustenance that has nothing to do with bread.
And it comes. On a bumpy dirt road in the country, where we remember how much we loved driving cross-country together, reading “Snow Falling on Cedars” out loud through those interminable stretches of the Midwest. How we had a pretty clear vision ten years ago for what we wanted to create, and maybe it’s time for a new vision.
It does come, the connection. But not without effort. Not without stepping into the ring, gloves off. Not without moving into the fear that someone will surely tell me to shut up if I talk too much. And no, nobody since that teacher has ever said such a thing.
It can feel like an impossible task, to keep growing when there is so much laundry to fold, so many dishes to wash, so many checkbooks to balance and teeth to brush.
Back in 1992 during my summer of love, I wrote a whole chapbook of poems for my boyfriend. It’s in a crate in the basement somewhere, no doubt. But there is one line I have always carried with me: I will bury bones of pearl in this field, along with all the things I wanted to tell.
So, is it working? Tonight, I think it is. I can feel the movement, some old debris loosening up in there. If I can really sit here so close to the flame, I’d have to say I’m not scared and that the only thing that really does scare me is the prospect of living my life in fear, of slowly disappearing, imploding.
No, I am much too hungry, much too greedy, much to big to settle for that. Even saying this much requires many deep breaths, a recommittment to the truth of why I’m here, here writing, here being a wife and a mama and a coach and a sister. Beyond every story, there is something that wants to be said, expressed, released, seen.
I wll dig up the bones of pearl from this field, and share all the things I’ve been afraid to tell.