3. Allegro non troppo.
When I was a young girl, I began swimming lessons. I was not good, as much as I tried to convince myself that I was. I did not pass my first test to transition out of “polliwog” status to “guppy”, but for weeks afterwards, I was convinced they would send me my patch in the mail. I loved the water. I just didn’t quite understand it. I learned to respect it the following summer, when I nearly drowned.
Suddenly, not long after, I figured it out. I went from being frightened to put my face in the water to looking forward every week to the feeling of being beneath the water, pulling myself down with deep strokes. I progressed. Within a couple of years I was spending all my time exploring the bottom of the 7’ section at the local pool, swimming down to sweep along the black lane markers. I bought goggles to see better underwater. I learned to dive, and moved over to the dive pool, where the depth was 12’, and soon, I was challenging myself to go all the way down, submerging deep, deep, to touch the bottom, and to look up at the light far above my head. I wanted to be part of the water, one with it. My friends wanted to lay out on the deck and work on their suntans while they flirted with boys. I wanted to be in the water the entire time, every day. It was my passion, my obsession, and it consumed me.
This is the way I am. When I light upon a topic that intrigues me, I will first cautiously approach, to understand, to look for the spark. If that spark is there, and ignites, the flames burn hot and fast and then steady but fierce as I feed the fire. New books to read, leading to more. Images, or music, and then more and more, branching out to specifics, or deeper and deeper, because I can literally not stop until satiated, and so long as there is another book, or song, or image, I am not satiated. It is on my mind somewhere in every waking moment. It is ever the same.
My one saving grace is that while in the grip of a research obsession, I can put it aside to concentrate on other pressing matters. This was a lesson learned in the depths of my doctoral thesis research. I had come into graduate school filled with research passion, but passion does not always equate with discipline, and it did not for me. Faced with a difficult thesis advisor and discovering that my obsession with the Ostrogoths did not necessarily lead to good scholarship, I moved to another historical field, one where I rightly saw more opportunities. I did much better scholarship in my new field. At the same time, I indulged my flights of passion in topics that were related to my thesis field, but only distantly—and experienced what I now know was my first minor bout of depression. My main research field was not leading to that total immersion and obsession that had powered me into graduate school in the first place. I was enjoying the teaching I was doing, but it was if a fire had gone out on my research work.
Was this where I came to know my future? I did not at the time. At a certain point, I looked at the work I had done and resolved to finish my thesis. And I did.
Once I had completed it, we moved to Columbus, ostensibly to be closer to my bedridden mother, whose dementia meant she no longer recognized me. In all honesty, it was to take advantage of the safety net of living with my parents while I struggled with a sense of dissatisfaction about myself. I had finished my doctorate, yes, but I did not feel worthy of the title. The work I had done felt mechanical. If I were going to invest the rest of my life in a profession where I would be expected to produce and write, how could I even expect to get interviews when I lacked confidence in myself?
I also felt a profound need for a “real job.” I loathed being reliant on my parents, as I had been through my graduate studies. I felt that switching away from the sciences to history had been disappointing to them, although they never said anything of that sort.
And so, I abandoned academia. Not immediately—but I didn’t even make it to the first AHA conference where I might have interviewed. I was already in a “temp to hire” position at Bank One at that point, with managers vying to see who would “get” me.
And sometime around that point, I found a spark and followed it. I read an article on the work of Camilo José Vergara, and bought his book American Ruins. I found the Fabulous Ruins of Detroit website and spent hours upon hours wandering virtually through the abandoned mansions of Brush Park, the empty skyscraper hulks in what Vergara called the American Acropolis of ruins, touring crumbling hotels that now played host to birds, rats, and the occasional squatter. And deeper and deeper I went. Photos of the Brush Park mansions began to adorn my cubicle at work. I followed leads on the individual buildings, read everything I could, found other photos, and even, in the very early years of video content being available online, watched footage of the implosion of Hudson’s and the collapse of ‘Old Slumpy’. I bought books on the buildings of Detroit. And finally, I went to see for myself.
It’s never stopped. This is what I research now. I keep diving down, and sometimes I come up with a new treasure from the depths, pointing me in another direction, something slightly different, but always, in some way, connected with ruins. The Berlin Wall? Now a ruin; I have my own piece of it. Mt. St. Helens? What was “the most perfect cone in the Pacific Northwest” still stands, its side blown out by the 1980 eruption. The architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright? The Darwin Martin House was abandoned in the 30s, left unlocked, the roof caving in from the snow, part of the house demolished once it was reclaimed. The Westcott House? Subdivided into apartments, a major retaining beam removed, it had started to slump dangerously before it was restored. The Larkin Building? Gone, a sad retaining wall all that’s left. I’ve gone on to visit glorious buildings that were never ruins, being so affected by Fallingwater that I wear its mark on my body, but those that were ruined and revived are special to me.
I can now count three times where I have been drowning, my self-confidence weakened, and each time, this obsession has revitalized me, changed me, taught me to invite the deluge, to find myself in the depths again. But what I am discovering this time is deeper than that.
Been searching for all these years
From the highest heights to the deepest seas
But everything is out of reach
And it still hurts me to fail
I scream as loud as I can
So, can you give me a sign, if you hear me now?
I know it´s a foolish try, but it still hurts me to fail
Komm, komm, reiss mir doch einfach mein Herz heraus
Denn es schlägt so schwer
Tief, tief, tief unterm Eis suchst du auch wie ich
Doch du traust dich nicht
Komm, komm, reiss mir doch einfach mein Herz heraus
Denn es schlägt so schwer
Komm, komm, komm
Because it still hurts me to fail
(Kyau and Albert, Mein Herz)
But the hurt becomes the norm. the pain endures, the numbness sets in. My heart still beats, but it is buried deep.
Fear is irrational. Fear is utterly rational. It is both things at one time, a balance of heart and mind, just like all things. Confronted by the prospect of future harm or pain, do I back away or do I confront?
Fear of many things has shaped my life. I would like to say I have triumphed over these fears. I have not. I have learned to live with them, become accustomed to their presence.
I may be numb, but it still hurts me to fail. And I fear it, more than I fear anything in this world. I fear failing to live up to my own ideals, my own dreams, what I believe I am capable of if I only had the courage to try. I fear the confrontation. I fear what others will think. I fear that others will find me wanting, and that that will shatter me. And sometimes, it paralyzes me.
As a child, when confronted by bullies, and lacking the tools to deal with them, I learned to back away, to turn deep inside myself. I put up a wall. There, I could be myself, the person I knew myself to be. I could imagine, create, dream without fear of scorn, or exclusion. I learned that my real feelings, my passions, my obsessions were too weird for this world. The walls were weak at first, and I was vulnerable to attack, but once they were stable, I carefully decorated them with those qualities, those skills from inside that I deemed suitable for the world. And I built walls within walls, so my heart and soul were protected even when I cautiously opened the gate, learned to trust a little.
The outer walls fell into ruin, but the inner ones persist.
(Dammit, leave me to this. I’ve been ready for this for a day now, and each time, each time….stop it. I want to lock that door. I want to not be startled out of the music. I want to not let the flush of sudden discovery colour my face. I want to not feel ashamed for this.
I am twitching again. Unbidden, my foot is bouncing. I don’t even notice it until I notice it. I let it go. Do people see this? )
I fear I will not be remembered. No one will carry my name, for good or ill. The things I have surrounded myself with, the things that bring me a modicum of joy, or a memory, will be meaningless to others. And it hurts to know that I still care how others see me.
I have settled for good enough by telling myself I can never be good enough.
Sometimes when you dive, when you see the treasure waiting at the bottom of the deep, you know that it will take work, life, perhaps even blood, to bring it to the surface. You know it’s there. But if you try to pull it free, it may escape your grasp, slip through your hands, and you will know in that moment what you have lost. But you’ve spotted another gem, less precious, at a shallower depth; you know you can attain, be acclaimed for doing so, so you reach, and it is yours. And that brings you joy for awhile, but the sparkle dulls, and you can’t stop diving down to see the thing you left behind.
And this repeats itself again and again and again.
When I look up, and around, when I listen, when I see fear and grief and despair written clearly on the faces of friends, I look at my heart, and what I have learned by diving so deep. I have protected my heart, but somehow, it still beats. I still feel it. It is strong. Stronger, perhaps, than my fear. If I dare.
And somehow, somewhere…
I feel a flutter, a glimmer of something.
I am not nervous now. There is no shame. The treasure I seek is in my hand already.
It is all there in the music of my voice, my words, what I do, what I put into my life…Others will attribute what they will. Let them.
This is what Brene Brown terms “the wilderness”—that place where you must dare to stand alone for what matters most for you. She says “Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness—an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred space you will ever stand.”
“True belonging is not passive. It’s not the belonging that comes with just joining a group…. It’s a practice that requires us to be vulnerable, get uncomfortable, and learn how to be present with people without sacrificing who we are. We want true belonging, but it takes tremendous courage to knowingly walk into hard moments.”
Being able to do this fully is a privilege. It is possible but takes even more courage when your very safety is threatened, or when you lack the means or the freedom to even stand up in the first place. My first lesson to myself is this: You fear failure most of all. But do you fear for where your next meal will come from? Do you fear that you will be assaulted, even killed for who you are attracted to? Do you fear that, because of the colour of your skin, the police will be called to stop a burglary when you are trying to move into your new apartment?
Do you spend your nights sleeping in the hallway, your bags packed, in case the secret police come to take you away in their black automobiles, and you do not want to wake your family?
History is full of people who could not be who they might have been because of fear made reality. History is full of people who mistook hatred of a common enemy as community, who turned their pain and suffering into inhumanity. And history is also full of those who relaxed in their privilege, safe and secure that the evil would never touch them—until it did.
The time is now. That is what history has shown me. I believe this passionately, deeply. I have my voice, and can raise it, but I can also listen, and believe, and enjoin others to do so as well.
So what do I fear? I do not discount that I do. It is real. But I am not without tools to understand what it is I fear.
Brown mentions braving skills as essential to being able to enter the wilderness, skills that are all about trust. And—this was a revelation to me—that despite my fears that I am not enough, that I lack courage to act…that maybe, just maybe, I have a decent foundation. The skills are: Boundaries, Reliability, Accountability, Vault (the ability to keep confidences), Integrity, Nonjudgement, and Generosity.
There are seven there. Seven virtues, as it were. Every single one of them is something I consciously strive for. I can say that without hesitation. Every. Single. One. Not that I do not struggle—but the struggle is not with wholeheartedly embracing and contemplating these virtues, it is in the active practice of them beyond the walls. It is the battle of Fortitude against Sloth, going beyond contemplation into action. It is the battle of Hope, which looks to a better future, against the vice of Wrath, which only focuses on the immediate pain.
It is easy within my walls, with those people who I trust. It is harder to open up and be vulnerable outside them. That is the wilderness.
But what have I to fear in the wilderness? The unknown? But this is my wilderness, the open garden gate in the crumbling wall showing the way. I know this place, know what I believe. I have never compromised this part of myself, the most important part, but I have kept it quiet, secret, known only to a few friends, and then, even then, never completely. What I didn’t realize is that the wilderness truly is found outside the walls. I know there is much more to be realized in being who I am.
Others will attribute what they will. Let them.
Brown states: “True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are.”
But here are my words. “I have not yet been forgotten. I may yet be again. There is a choice still.”
I need to be who I am.