Sunday, July 18, 2021

The Most Beautiful Phrase I’ve Ever Learned: I Don’t Know

I teach Spanish classes to kids and adults. On the first day of the adult classes I always say more or less the same thing: 

“You are going to mess up. There is no way to learn a language without it. The more you mess up, the more you practice and say things out loud, the faster you learn. This is a safe place to say the wrong things. And just to make sure you know that I’m in the same boat as you, I will share with you one of my most mortifying mistakes. I once told my Spanish roommate that I had a penis sandwich for dinner.” 


It sets the tone nicely for the class, because it’s true. It’s also a direct result of what was, for me, the very painful process of learning a language, because when I lived in Spain 20 years ago, I didn’t know how to say the three most beautiful words I know when you string them together: I don’t know.


Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to hear that I am a perfectionist. This does not mean my house is always clean or my dishes are always done, but it does mean that I will clean my house and wash my dishes before anyone comes over because I want to present the idea that I have my shit together. One of my friends is mystified that I clean my house before I leave on vacation or before I even go anywhere overnight. Certainly, part of this is because it’s nice to come home to a clean house. But, if I’m being honest, the real reason is in case anyone has to come into my house while I’m gone. I want it to look like I am the kind of person who always has a clean house. (Spoiler alert: I’m not. And I hate cleaning. I do it, but I’d rather be doing almost anything instead of cleaning—it’s become one of the reason why I prefer living in smaller houses: less to clean. And I like to read books, so you can imagine where my time goes if I know there’s no chance of guests showing up.)


I still struggle with the clean house piece, so as you can see I’m still at least a recovering perfectionist. But over the past 10 years I have learned this one phrase that has taken A LOT of pressure off of my perfectionist thinking and presenting. 


I. Don’t. Know.


“Morgan, why do Spanish speakers say “Buenos días—plural—instead of buen día, singular?”

I don’t know. 

“Morgan, how do you say railing in Spanish?”
I don’t know. 

“Morgan, what’s the population of the town where you live?”

I don’t know.


Now, I am a pretty solid researcher—thank you, journalism degree—and I can look all these things up, and I will, and have (actually, they say both buen día and buenos días, depending on where you are). But it used to be that I didn’t know how to admit in the moment that I didn’t know something. It used to be I’d be more likely to (wince) make up an answer than admit I didn’t know. 


This doesn’t go well when you’re teaching your second language to a bunch of people. I certainly know a lot about Spanish grammar and I have a large Spanish vocabulary—thank you, Latin American language and cultures degree, plus lots of time living in Spanish-speaking countries—but I am not and will never be a native speaker. I don’t always get the prepositions right. I don’t know all the words. I forget where I’ve learned certain slang or vocabulary and whether it’s applicable to other countries as well. Anyone who’s ever really dived (dove? I don’t know) into learning a second language understands this; most beginners do not. Some of them show up to my classes and ask me questions like I hold all the answers when I don’t. I don’t even hold all the answers in English! (Nearly everything I know about English grammar I learned through Spanish grammar.) It’s not my students’ fault they think this. But that doesn’t mean I should let them continue thinking it.


My God, Invisible Audience. What a cluster. I didn’t even realize how painful it was to try to present myself as knowing everything until I stopped doing it. It still took a lot of time—it still doesn’t always come easy—but the beauty of admitting I don’t know has opened up all sorts of space.


There’s a lot that went into the discovery. First of all, I had to realize how much codependence had to do with it—feeling responsible for others’ feelings and needs. I had to realize that I was putting myself on a pedestal and presenting myself as perfect, then being just as surprised as everyone else—indeed, even more so, I’d expect—when I fell off. And above all, it’s a way I’ve used to hold myself separate from others. Because if they know I’m not perfect, they wouldn’t want me in their life…right?


Then of course there’s the flip side: if I can say I don’t know, I can recognize how much it takes for other people to say it. Perhaps one of the greatest gifts I’ve given myself in the last 10 years is starting to recognize and appreciate real vulnerability in others, and to want it for myself and in my relationships. It takes vulnerability to say you don’t know. This is so different from the girl who used to be funny—the one who was self-deprecating and tried to win people through being a know-it-all—the girl who couldn’t figure out why her actions didn’t lead to more profound relationships.


I don’t have it all figured out, Invisible Audience. That’s what I’m trying to tell you: I don’t know. The older I get, the less I think I will ever have it all figured out. But the more I let that sink in, the more relief there is in it. I feel more able to be myself and let go of that perfection that’s kept me isolated for so long. 


Love and I-Don’t-Know-How-Many-Kisses,


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Sunday, July 4, 2021

Hi. I'm Resentful.


Hello Invisible Audience,


Welcome back, and thanks for reading.


So as I said, I’ve been in Mexico. There are a lot of good things here, not the least of which is my ability to write while I’m here. It helps that the internet isn’t all that great – it means I have a computer and a word processor but no way to connect to Facebook or Instagram, which not only steal my time but also give me all sorts of ideas about how unworthy I am. But at any rate, here I am, sitting in a coffee shop and the internet has been overwhelmed by all the people who are here trying to work, and I have given up on the things I need to online in order to write to you instead.


Are you familiar with Brené Brown, Invisible Audience? Someone first recommended her TED Talk on vulnerability to me, and since then I’ve become quite the fan…if you can call yourself a fan of someone whose books and general messages about vulnerability and showing up and being authentic make you want to curse and scream and throw things. 


Anyway, Brené Brown and her two sisters who work with her are in the middle of a 6-part series on Brené’s podcast, Unlocking Us. It’s about the things that make us want to hide, and the things that make us want to never trust ourselves or others again, and the many, many barriers we put up to protect ourselves that instead simply cause isolation. Or rather, that’s what it is for me. You could probably listen to the same thing and come up with an entirely different point of view.


In yesterday’s episode, they talked about resentment; about how it’s part of the envy family. One of Brene’s sisters said something about how knowing that puts the resentment back in her control—it means that she can then ask herself what she’s not getting that she sees others have that makes her resentful.  


Damn it, Invisible Audience. 


I have this idea that I’m the only one suffering; that I’m the only one who can’t bring myself to open up; that if anyone else had the same problems I have they would understand and cut me a break. But the truth is, Invisible Audience, that I’m not cutting myself the break. It’s actually very rare that someone comes to me and says anything remotely like, “You should be trying harder than this. You should be able to handle all the things that are thrown at you. You should have more of this shit figured out.”


And this leads to my biggest resentment of all, Invisible Audience. I didn’t make all these expectations up. People may not say these things out loud to me, but the expectation is nevertheless there. It comes in a cacophony of messages, some as old as childhood but many as recent as this morning. It comes in the ads on Facebook that show either what I should look like or what I do look like and how I should be embracing it; in the perfect lives choreographed on Facebook posts. It comes from the multi-billion-dollar health and wellness industry that tells me  that I’ll just feel better if my diet is all organic, vegan, with hundreds of dollars in supplements and constant detoxification products. It comes from all these places, and yet it is my personal job to be able to turn my back on it, not take it in and be a strong, independent woman who can be vulnerable but needs nothing and is fine with the wrinkles gathering around her eyes but can’t find a date because of them…or maybe it’s because I’ve internalized my pain so much that now I’m deciding I’m not worthy. If it’s the latter, that’s my fault, too, now, because now--despite having taken in all the conditioning like a good girl and doing all I was told--now I'm told that that very conditioning is standing between me and happiness. Now it’s my job to just stop taking all this in and be something I have never been because believing in myself was wrung out of me like dirt out of a shirt in the wash.


Do I sound resentful, Invisible Audience? Because I am. I am pissed


I’m going to be 40 in September. This birthday is looming before me in a way that is different than previous ones. This isn’t where I thought I would be. This isn’t what I thought I would have. This isn’t how I thought I would feel. But here I am. 


There’s always more work to do, Invisible Audience. I’ve been at this long enough to know that, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier. I’m so tired of these unrealistic expectations, but I can’t seem to shake them. And that makes me the most resentful of all.


Is there a way out of this? It’s certainly not about ignoring it—if it were, I would have felt much happier in my twenties. And it’s not just about living a life that reflects who I really am, or I wouldn’t feel so resentful about a lot of my thirties. It’s not just about therapy, but life is certainly better than it would have been without it. Instead, there’s me, doing what I do, being who I am, trying my best to move forward and also being aware of the hang-ups that hold me back. Like this one.


Maybe it’s not about letting it go after all, Invisible Audience. Maybe it’s about putting it out there because others might feel the same way. Maybe it’s about putting voice to these things because others feel them, too. Maybe it’s about finding my tribe among those who struggle, instead of trying to pretend there’s something wrong with me because that’s the case. Maybe it’s about accepting that this is something on my path that I will be walking with for a while and learning to accept that instead of getting in a wrestling match with it every day.


Maybe it’s about sharing it with you, so that you—and I—don’t feel so alone.


Love and resentful kisses,