Saturday, June 29, 2013

Mountains Out of Molehills

I have recently befriended some of my neighbors that live down the hill. Amongst their defining characteristics, they are all expats like me – although they hail from various parts of the world – they’re all men about my age, and they have fantastic potluck/dinner parties.

One in particular is a great cook, but the rest of them are great at asking if they can help with something: the first time I went over there for a Mexican cooking night, the dishes were scooped off the counter and washed as they were dirtied; the tasks I needed done were done without complaint and even with some enthusiasm, and the conversation – covering everything from living abroad to podcasts on NPR – was so enthralling that soon six hours had passed before I even noticed. I don’t think I’m totally off base at this point to say that these men are STRAIGHT. Sorry guy friends, but this sort of helpful, multi-tasking behavior is not necessarily something that I expect from you; considering that these men calmly discussed how other people in Boquete had assumed they were gay, too, I don’t think my astonishment is that out of hand.

Here’s the thing: every time I go to this house and my contribution is a dish I’m asked to make while I’m there, I bring a recipe. I bring a recipe because, despite the fact that I consider myself a “concoctionist” and therefore make things up as I go along for the most part, there is something about being surrounded by people good at what they do and comfortable with who they are that makes me incredibly uncomfortable.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. On my first date with my ex-boyfriend, we decided to make dinner at my house. He took on fish tacos, and I made a recipe out of my book, because I was too nervous to just throw things in a bowl and trust my ability to have it turn out for someone I was trying to impress. That night, Isaac asked me for my opinion on the pico de gallo he’d just made. It was delicious. I told him it might need more lime, because suddenly I had panicked, and couldn’t figure out if the right answer was to say it was great or to try and improve it. He very respectfully disagreed with me, and we ate it as is – truth be told, it was already perfect.

I remember telling someone about this first date later; about how insecure I had felt cooking with the host of a cooking show, even if that’s how we’d originally first met: because I had just published my SECOND cookbook, for crying out loud, and he had interviewed me for his show.

“Morgan, you’re one of the best cooks I know,” this friend said when I told her the story. “How could you possibly be intimidated by someone else’s cooking?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because of how I’ve found myself feeling in the presence of my neighbors. It helped that that first night we started discussing how one of them – the really fantastic cook, actually – had healthy enough self esteem that anyone could tell him pretty much anything about himself, good or bad, and he would simply register the information without tying it to how he felt about himself, for better or for worse. Tell him he had just made the best batch of carnitas ever, and he’d probably agree with you. Tell him that you thought he’d overcooked the steak, and he’d shrug his shoulders and move on.

 I am not like that. In fact, I have found the reason that I often feel so uncomfortable in the company of these men is because they expect nothing from me but my friendship: I do not have to be the best cook there – and to be honest, I’m not – I do not need to wow anyone with all my travels abroad, because they’re just as well-traveled as I am, and I’m not even the only one fluent in Spanish.
And you know what? This is really scary for me. If I’m not impressive to someone, then what am I? If I can’t offer something to them that they don’t already have, how could I possibly be worth anything at all?

I know how ridiculous this sounds on a very basic level. I am not totally devoid of awareness of what I can offer to a new group of friends in terms of my personality or my characteristics. However, it’s brought up a very important issue that I had already been working on: if you take away or minimize my accomplishments, I struggle to believe I’m worth anything.

The second summer I lived in Mexico, I had a conversation with a woman who pointed out to me that even lazy people deserved love. My immediate, visceral response says everything: “NO,” I thought, “No, they don’t.” That means that somewhere in there, somewhere not quite hidden anymore, I don’t feel like I’m worth love if I’m not accomplishing something. If I’m just there to enjoy myself, if my only role is to be me, to know that I am worthwhile regardless of what I have or haven’t accomplished, I feel adrift and unable to find my footing. If I’m not something to someone else, I often feel like I am not anything at all.

Thankfully, aside from eating delicious food and having fun interesting company, my time with my neighbors has become good practice. I feel uncomfortable, but not necessarily in a bad way: I feel uncomfortable because I’m trying on a new skin in their presence. It doesn’t quite fit yet, but like some of the best shoes I’ve ever owned, I have to break it in before it will truly feel comfortable. As I said last week, if I want my life to be different than it’s always been, I have to do something different than what I’ve always done.

So here’s to different; to growing pains, and to new friends who need nothing more from me than me. Most importantly, here’s to being comfortable with that.

Love and still uncomfortable kisses,