A number of years ago, I was taking an art class, and I got talking with an instructor who was visiting from the east coast, where I'm also from. She'd always been a good girl: Catholic school, art college on scholarship, career making and teaching art. She'd done everything right in her life. Eventually, she started to feel so shaped by the forces around her who defined what "everything right" looked like that she didn't have much sense of herself. I remember her telling me that it took her a long time to get over needing some sort of approval from the world for everything she did. Needing approval is not the best road to making great art. For a time she stopped presenting her art publicly, and she ended up developing a whole new practice, returning to working with clay--something she loved, but that isn't exactly high status in the art world. By the time I met her, she was making art and teaching and enjoying it all again, and it felt more real to her than it had. She said her turning point had been a conversation with her husband, who pointed out that she was still acting like the schoolgirl who really wanted the teachers to say what a grand girl she was.
Ouch. I feel like that these days. At the time, it didn't much apply to me at all. I'd been one of those high achieving kids, but as an adult I'd quit lots of things that people thought I was supposed to be doing. Even sitting by a kiln chatting with an art instructor, as I was doing that evening years ago, would have been considered a waste of time by many of the people I knew. I didn't care.
But being in school somehow brings a lot of that old approval stuff back again. I love reading and writing and researching. It's interesting and intellectually stimulating, and I feel lucky that I'm allowed to spend my time doing it. But whenever I submit a project to be graded, I feel like I'm waiting for a God I don't entirely believe in to reach out and pat me on the head and tell me I'm a good girl after all. There is no winning this game. A perfect grade means I have to live up to that next time or I'm not so good after all. (And anyway, maybe the professor was being kind, so it doesn't quite count.) Anything even slightly less than perfect has me replaying all the problems in my work.
I'm embarrassed to be writing about this. It doesn't feel like an adult issue. I thought I'd got past this years ago. I guess not. Now I think leaving the whole academic and career world as I did was more like a giant workaround. I thought I'd given all that worldly approval a big old, "Screw you!" and gone off to do my own thing. (It might not be surprising that "my thing" ended up involving a lot of wine every evening.) But it's one thing to keep away from the world of approval altogether, and quite another to be submerged in it and not completely shaped by it. Now that I'm a full time student, I am judged and graded all the time. Trying to be OK with that is tricky. It's pretty darn draining, oscillating out there on the end of some approval system that feels like it matters. And it's hard to talk about, because I don't expect much sympathy or understanding. Maybe it looks like some sort of humble-brag. But it doesn't feel like that. It feels like not knowing my way around in the world, and not knowing who to ask for directions.
And maybe it seems like this has nothing to do with drinking, either. But it does. It's been a bit over 11 months since I quit drinking. The semester was not only my first as a full time student, and my first in grad school, it was my first school semester ever (or since I was 19, anyway, and that seems like forever ago) without drinking to smooth away the rough edges of insecurity and panic. And I did it. I finished my courses and fulfilled all my teaching assistant obligations and sent out my conference proposals for the upcoming year. And I'm doing some interesting work. Interesting to me, and sometimes to a few other people. Honestly, I think that's pretty good. Maybe even great. It's true, I was wildly insecure at times, and many days I came home and wept, sure that everyone in the room had hated me. I think that feeling has to do with the approval thing I'm talking about. Being critical of ideas means taking a stance that's sometimes unpopular, and when I do that, as I do, I am keenly aware of the undercurrents of feeling in the room. And that's uncomfortable. I think I'm managing to stay with what's interesting to me, and that means going against the grain sometimes. So there's lots to be uncomfortable about, and being hyper-aware of the currents of social and academic approval doesn't make it smoother. Not drinking means I don't make it worse for myself, but it also means I don't get to hide from it, ever.
So that's the acceptance I started writing about. I really thought I was a punk rock rebel who didn't care what people thought. I'm appalled to find that I notice every nuance of what people think of me. And I care. Ouch, again. But that's exactly the thing I have to accept. You can't separate yourself from the world and live, protected and authentic and pure. Maybe that's what I thought I was doing, all those evenings drinking too much wine, staying separate from life. It doesn't look like much of a way to live, though. Participating in life means swimming in the wonder and the muck of the world. It's painful, and I don't know my way about in it. But I'm part of it. We all are.