Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Living between the lines

Last summer I lived at an ashram that served mostly vegan or vegetarian fare. I worked a lot in the kitchen, and befriended one of the cooks, a woman named Lee who had a knack for pushing peoples’ buttons.
One morning she sauntered up to me and said quietly, “I got some. You wanna do it tomorrow?”
My eyes lit up.
“We’ll come in early, before anyone else is up. Don’t. Tell. ANYONE.”
The next morning there were three of us in the kitchen. The sun wasn’t up, no one was really around, and there we were, breaking all sorts of rules by cooking wholly for ourselves and an item that was not usually on the menu: BACON.
In fact this was the morning that I wrote my bacon haiku, still by far (in my personal opinion) the best haiku I’ve ever written:

We sort of got in trouble for this. Well, Lee did; no one said anything to me, presumably because she was the one who worked for them and therefore was responsible for not pulling all of us to the dark side (the pork side?).

It wasn’t necessarily the frying of fatty pork that did it (although a vegan walked into the kitchen at one point and said, “Oh, something smells good, no wait, no it doesn’t, it smells like burning pig flesh.”) it was using the kitchen for our own personal meal. If everyone did that, there would be havoc, plus surely there was some sort of liability in cooking for yourself without permission: what if I had been badly burned by that delicious pork fat I was so craving?

Anyway. I went along with the plan because Lee was my friend and because I was really craving some meat. The whole time, though, I was on edge. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I knew it wouldn’t go over well, and I was afraid of breaking the rules. Not because I thought we’d be kicked out for something like this, but because my specialty in life is always performing well and impressing people when the expectations are clear.

Don’t tell my math teacher, but in high school math was one of my favorite subjects. I hated the material, but Mr. Reed was very clear about his expectations. He very clearly stated what would help you in his class and how to get ahead, whether you did well on the tests or not. Therefore, despite the fact that it was the subject that I understood the least, I had one of the highest grades because he had clearly laid out the guidelines of how to do that: show up before school for help; if he assigned the even numbered problems, do the odds for extra credit. Keep your old tests and the corrections and you can use them on the final at the end of the semester.

It was the same in college. It has always been that way: tell me what I’m supposed to do and what you expect of me, regardless of whether I like it or am comfortable with it, and I will excel.

I could write an epic piece on why this is so; how it’s actually a defense mechanism, and how I always felt the safest following those expectations because I am afraid of conflict and am actually noticed less if I’m doing everything right. Well, maybe not noticed less, but in trouble less.

And yet anyone who knows me knows that’s not completely the case. I agreed to Operation Bacon, after all; I drank in high school despite the athletic code; I speed on back roads and here I am, in Panama, trying to break out of a paradigm that I haven’t felt like I’ve wanted to be in for quite awhile, but whose rules are very succinct and clear.

Regardless of whether or not I’m living by the rules, living outside of them makes me really uncomfortable. I do it anyway because some deeper, more visceral part of me craves something unimaginable, something not defined by pre-written lines of rules or code, but I am uncomfortable nonetheless when I’m not sure where my decisions will get me because no one has written the rule book for it yet.

It throws me for a loop when it doesn’t work the way I’ve been told it should. Eat well, exercise and take care of yourself, and you will be healthy. Jesus, I wish. I am recovering from a cough, a sore throat, an ear infection and candida, a chronic health issue I have where there is too much evil, devil yeast (technical term) in my intestinal tract and to kill it I must abstain from sugars of all types or anything that can be turned into sugar: all carbohydrates, dairy products, vinegars, root vegetables, fruit and alcohol. Despite my diet of meat, greens and nuts, I haven’t been feeling much better, and here’s where the problem lies: I’ve been doing everything right, and it’s not turning out the way I want it to; the way I’ve been told it’s supposed to.

Know how I know? Because I found myself exhausted, awake in the middle of the night and uncomfortable, and the paradigm I grew up in told me that I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself and buck the f@#$ up. Instead, I let myself cry at the injustice of it all: of having to take better care of myself than others have to, of just wanting someone to take care of me sometimes, and, between 9/11, Barbara’s death on 9/12 and my birthday, not wanting to be alone to face this by myself.

And you know how I knew I had fallen out of the paradigm? Because I couldn’t think of a word that described the justifiable wailing cry of someone who is legitimately and justifiably fed up and needs to express it. That word doesn’t exist in the idea that I grew up in. We have all these words for whining, complaining, self-pity, but where’s the word for how you honestly feel when you’ve been kicked around, despite all your best efforts to the contrary?

And that’s when I need to live between the lines, invisible audience: when the words I want aren’t there, and the idea I’m going for can’t be described in a single, solitary term. It’s when context is most important, because describing the context is all I have to go on. It’s not just about creating my own path, it’s about writing my own vocabulary for what I’m experiencing, because the vocabulary hasn’t been there before, at least not for me.

I guess that’s what my book is about, ultimately. It’s about trying to write something between the lines of what I’ve always understood my life should be. It’s what this blog is about: finding myself outside of the rules and the expectations; finding the real, legitimate, hard-to-describe-in-solitary-terms, me.

Love and between-the-lines kisses

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