Tuesday, March 27, 2007


It was the smell of something that connected me for a moment with my entire life. Something familiar. Something without a name, but with a strong feeling of belonging on the planet. Perhaps the smell had to do with lying in the dirt under a pepper tree as a kid, listening absently to birdsong and digging little roads for my brother’s toy cars to travel. Or maybe it was something else--but at this moment of smell-recall, I relaxed completely and a smile broke out on my face.

I was home.

In the flat hot light
Of a cloudless noon,
Desert distance is

But bright clouds in cerulean skies
Casting shadow-dotted distances,
Illuminate desert vastness.

So too with sound:
The desert quietude
Enshrouds tightly;
But distant bird song
Rips its fabric, freeing
A deeper vastness of silence.

Wonderful, those moments of clarity, of feeling like I'm home! Smells bring these moments on--and so does birdsong, occasionally. I want to write a bit about how I've begun to attain more clarity, felt at home for longer stretches of time. But first, I need to contrast clarity with how I have usually felt in my life:

“I used to think I was indecisive, but now I’m not so sure.”

As far back as I can recall there have been times of self-doubt, sometimes in very long stretches. A psychologist would doubtless try to analyze what caused this self-doubt: was it my father leaving when I was a month old? Was it my mother’s loneliness and alcoholism? Was it the unremitting pain of congenital skin lesions (caused by incontinentia pigmenti) that plagued me for the first three months of my life?

It might as well have started with that first spank on the butt to get me to breathe--I actually don’t think it matters what “caused” the condition, if anything “caused” it at all. Temperament comes with us, from a time before this life: some babies are cranky and grow up to be cranky adults, while others smile and coo contentedly and remain sanguine their entire lives. I was (and still am) colicky, sensitive to stimuli, perceptive, and optimistic. I may also have been born with self-doubt! Be all this as it may, self-doubt has been an integral part of my mortal landscape, and understanding that it’s just a piece of the fabric of my being is more helpful than knowing where it came from.

Now, wrestling with self-doubt has been and still is my greatest mortal challenge. Knowing what I can control and what I cannot is my second-greatest challenge.

. . .

Clothing challenges of the self-doubting (women, perk up; this will sound familiar):

1. Milo Predonovitch called me up to go to a movie. I had met him while rockclimbing with Linda Crabtree at Lunch Rock near Tahquitz peak, felt at ease with him, and had given him my phone number despite much giggling from Linda. I recall spending about two hours staring at my closet wondering what to wear on a warm summer’s evening. I decided on a white button-down shirt, with rolled sleeves, worn untucked over madras bermuda shorts. Probably I wore penny loafers without socks. I was clean, my long hair brushed, my legs shaved. I was sixteen, a senior in high school.

Milo, who lived two hours away in Manhattan Beach, came for me, got introduced to my parents, and took me out to the Loma theater in Point Loma to watch “The Sound of Music.” He wasn’t exactly wearing a suit, but he was more dressed up than I was, and the moment we looked at each other, I knew I should have chosen a dress! I felt embarrassed and ill at ease all evening. Probably he did, too. It was my first and last date with Milo.

2. The summer before that senior year, I had spent five weeks at Humboldt State College in Arcata, California, with a group of other kids from around the country in a National Science Foundation summer school. I’d bought a red sweatshirt with the Humboldt State logo on the front, and paraded it--like everyone else there--inside out. It was the thing to do. But when I wore it to Grossmont High that Fall--nicely, over a white, mandatorily-knee-length skirt, I discovered that NO ONE ELSE wore sweatshirts at school, let alone inside out. I was stared at. I was mortified. I changed it during break to right-side-out, but it didn’t help. I felt completely outcast--as usual.

3. Sometime in my junior year at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I saw a cute minidress on sale and bought it on a whim. It was made of that old double-knit polyester, a thick fabric with the unflattering drape of neoprene. It was also bright Kelly green. I had no accessories to match, as green is NOT my color. I wore it once, maybe twice. Again, the stares of others (real or imagined) made me feel ill at ease, a complete nerd.

I’ve always enjoyed wearing jeans and a tee shirt, however, with maybe a loose big shirt over the top with rolled-up sleeves. I feel comfortable in that style. I feel like I can be myself around others. Nobody's staring at my assets. But so many times I have made wrong clothing choices, not believing in myself, buying and wearing clothes that I think others would like to see me in, instead of the ones I want to be in. There are of course times when more formal attire is appropriate, and even there, I KNOW what looks good on me and what doesn’t--yet I have often “bought against my better judgment.” I feel uncomfortable in the outfit, and thus it winds up unchosen and unworn in my closet--representing a waste of money and a hanger upon which COULD be hanging something better instead.

So how do I know what is right for me? That feeling of comfort, and of feeling that I can be “me,” is the guide. Looking in the mirror when I'm wearing something RIGHT, there is a moment of "being home," like when I smell the familiar smells, or hear the silence and peace of the desert. I can be me. I smile. The problem is that I have so rarely felt the feeling of “me” that I barely recognize it when it does pop up. The old joke about the guy who was asked why he kept banging his head with a hammer comes to mind--he answered, “Because it feels so good when I stop!" If he'd just quit with the hammer thing, he might eventually discover that his head can feel good WITHOUT the freakin' self-abuse...

If I spend so much time dressing the way I think would please others, I never get enough instances of “me” feeling to recognize it--NOR do I build any momentum to get to the next step, which is saying, “Hey, I like how this feels and I want to spend more time feeling comfortable. I think I’ll buy more clothes that make me feel like myself.”

These examples of clothing angst show just one way I've felt uncomfortable on the planet. Realizing that I am the one making choices that result in discomfort, and that I can feel better if I can just make different choices, are the first steps I took in becoming more at home, more relaxed. Then, the more time I spent feeling comfortable, the more I noticed when I DIDN'T feel comfortable. The more I noticed my discomforts, the more I thought about them. The more I thought about them, the more ideas I got about how I could change things.

All this sounds simple, but it has taken years for me to figure out.

This really does have something to do with my pottery, by the way: an artist who "isn't herself" can hardly be expected to create original art! She will only copy those around her. In the same way that I have broken through the fashion barrier to create my own style in clothing that I wear, I have finally been able to break through an art-fashion barrier too--and I now make what I want to, what comes from within, what makes me smile.

I am home.

No comments: