Saturday, 17 January 2015

.009 The Slow Lane is Ok Too

I've been taking a pottery class lately, which is the fulfillment of a little dream of mine that has been percolating for a while. I was going to local artisan shows and galleries and the more pottery I saw, the more I wanted to try it myself. I wanted to cut into the clay and feel it spinning on the wheel. I wanted to make something in-your-hands tangible.

I promised myself that I wouldn't write about the pottery class. The potter and the clay is a common metaphor and the English major in me has been trained to avoid cliche at all costs. The first night that I sat behind the pottery wheel, though, a certain space was created. It was one of those unexpectedly holy moments. I stumble upon those kind of spaces when I do artsy things, or when I go to bookstores, or sometimes when I swim, but I'm sure that everyone has a different way of finding those moments. It happens when you slip into your niche or knock against something that absolutely fills your soul. Anyway, I found a new way to worship in the pottery studio.

The very first thing I learned is that when you start out with clay on the wheel, you have to centre it. The centring process is something you have to learn how to feel. I kept messing up at first because I'd try to force it. I didn't know, yet, what I was supposed to be feeling. I spent hours on that wheel, understanding the clay, guiding it, and learning where and how to apply pressure. It's like a rhythm or a dance. You have to feel it in a different part of yourself. You have to be present and in tune with the speed of the wheel and the way the clay is moving. To shape the clay, you have to learn a balance of firmness and gentleness.


I usually aim to swim on a regular basis. I enjoy it, but I'm trying to redeem it into something more filling for me. I associate swimming with a certain amount of competition and intensity. I'm not the most amazing swimmer and the only times I ever swam in a remotely competitive way was long ago in grade school. I have been a lifeguard for a few years, though, and I've taught swimming lessons and, even though I love it, every time I go into the pool, it feels like a job or a training session. I feel like I should be working on some skill and swimming better than I did yesterday. It suddenly dawned on me recently that I can just swim for fun.

Today I went to a lap swim and intentionally went into the slow lane, which is something I've never done before. I had 40 minutes and one rule: just swim for 40 minutes. I wasn't allowed to count my laps or time myself or anything that felt too competitive. I just swam. I didn't think about how fast I was going or how many lengths I had completed. At one point I was swimming parallel to a guy in the fast lane and, I admit, I had to beat him to the end, but that was the only time I let it come to that. Otherwise, it was just me and the water and time fell away. I stayed in the pool because I wanted to. I have no idea how many laps I did. All I know is that I swam for 40 minutes and it was enjoyable in a soul-filling way.

This is something I am training myself to understand: I don't have to be beating someone or constantly pushing myself to the furthest edge of my potential to be my best self. I feel hypocritical even writing those words, in a way. I am always a proponent of change and growth and reaching toward your very best self. However, lately I've been realizing that sometimes I live life as a competition, and it really isn't. We're all at different points in our journeys and our maturity and our faith. This is a really hard lesson for me to learn, admittedly. I fight hard against it. I know there is something deeper going on, though.

The question is: why am I trying to be the best? Is it genuinely making me better in the sense that it is the right path for me to take? Is it genuinely making me a more fulfilled and freer person? If it isn't, I might be doing it just for respect and applause. I'm not saying that respect is bad. This isn't an issue of "good" or "bad," exactly. It's more an issue of the heart and motivation. If I'm constantly trying to be better because I want people to say that I'm a really accomplished person, I'll probably be burned out and always feeling a little bit lost or never really satisfied. That place is never a good one.

I think that someone who is gentle with their self, their person, someone who learns the rhythm of when to apply pressure and when to let go, is a person who is centred, just like the clay on the wheel. I think we're all kind of learning the balance and rhythm of life and sometimes what we need is to challenge ourselves and other times we need to allow ourselves grace. We need to learn that we don't have to do everything that we know we can accomplish; and not accomplishing what we know we can do isn't necessarily failure, either.

The catch is that this whole learning to be centred thing isn't going to turn out perfectly. Just like the clay, we might end up a bit wobbly in some places and maybe have a few nicks or rough edges. The other thing about clay is that once it is off the wheel, that isn't the end. The clay must be prodded and shaved and smoothed by hand as well. It's all a process of gentle shaping and sometimes you keep a bit of the asymmetry because it adds personality and character.

It's ok to be in the slow lane, sometimes, even when you know that you can hold your own in the fast lane. I also think that it is very ok to aim high and test your limits. The trick is understanding why you are there, and where it is leading you. It's the divide between pride and humility, fear and growth, trust and letting go. It ultimately comes down to you and your heart and your story. You'll know. After a while, you'll learn the rhythm and you'll learn where to place pressure and when to be gentle with yourself. You'll feel when things are off centre and how to pinpoint the problem areas. You're being shaped, surrendering to the Potter's hand and, one day, something unexpectedly beautiful may emerge.

*Right after I wrote this, I began reading Donald Miller's newest book, Scary Close, (and if you've never read Donald Miller, you really should) and in chapter 5 he recounts a strikingly similar swimming experience and a strikingly similar epiphany. I don't know, maybe we're onto something.....

Monday, 5 January 2015

.008 "Introvert" Isn't an Excuse

I'm a classic introvert. I'd rather have a small circle of close friends than a crowd of them. I recharge by being alone. I'd rather listen than talk. Small talk isn't my favourite activity.

These things comprise my safe zone and the place where I automatically go, if given the choice. However, lately I've been wondering if the term "introvert"  can become a cop-out. Since withdrawing from university temporarily, I've found myself staring down a long tunnel of relatively empty time. There's a temptation for me to retreat and write and read novels with a large chunk of that time. I'm an introvert, right? I'm captain of my own ship, right? There are no rules about how I must spend this time. It's my prerogative and I can go to coffee shops by myself if I want to, because its comfortable for me. 

What I'm learning, though, is that, for an introvert, there is a certain boundary between recharging and becoming a little bit reclusive. If I spend long stretches of time alone, I can start thinking too much. My world narrows easily and I focus on myself more than I should. The quiet space is healthy and good for a while, but if I spend too long there, it can become toxic. In that place, "introvert" can just become an excuse for being shy or staying protected in my own cozy world.

Instead of allowing myself the luxury of spending four months indulging my introverted tendencies, I've proactively pushed myself into situations where I'll be forced into new places with new people with new challenges and room for small talk. I'm doing this because I know that, as much as I drag my feet beforehand, I like the person I become afterwards. When I step out of the introvert safe zone, I nudge myself into someone braver and more confident and, yes, a little drained, but purposeful. I'd rather avoid small talk, but maybe it is time to learn how to be more comfortable in those situations. Maybe I'd rather be alone with a book, but why not test the waters of my own, real-life story?

The word "introvert" has the potential to become an excuse for some of us, if we aren't careful. It can become a method of avoidance or a prop for fear. Maybe the next time you really, desperately want to be alone, what you actually need to do is go out or invite someone over or call someone up and talk.

Since my future is kind of unstable at the moment, with a lot of foggy spots and shadowy patches, I sometimes begin to slide into a mindset that brushes up against worry. I think about all the possibilities. I think about everything that isn't happening. I think about everything that is happening that I wish wasn't happening. I think about all the things that seem out of place or misaligned. That is the danger zone. When my time spent alone drifts here, I've learned that this is my cue to stop being alone. 

My new rule is that when I go to that spot in my mind of thinking the same thoughts over and over, or clipping new links into my chain of worry, I have to talk to another human being. It doesn't have to be about what is bothering me. In fact, it is sometimes better if we don't always talk about that, depending on the situation. I think that as introverts, we sometimes mistakenly think that a relationship is less meaningful until it goes deep, but you can't be deep all the time. You probably shouldn't be deep all the time. The deep parts come after the shallow areas because that is how it is supposed to be. Sometimes a float in the shallow end can be just as good for us as a deep dive. 

The challenge I'm giving myself is to not allow this space to become too comfortable. There are healthy points and stretches to withdraw, but there are also times, especially if introversion crosses over into shyness, when withdrawing can be a form of evasion, or it might give us too much time to think. In these spaces, it is good to let people in. I know that what I feel like doing isn't always a gauge of what I should be doing, or what is best for me. Sometimes it feels easier to be alone and the prospect of being with people might seem draining in your head, when really it could be the healthiest, most filling thing you can do for yourself.

"Introvert" should not be an excuse. Don't confuse being introverted with being shy and let it stop you from reaching out to people. I honestly think that introversion can be a bit of an illusion. I would label myself as a total introvert, but the more I learn about myself, the more I find that people are what I need. People fill me and encourage me and challenge me. Sometimes I want to just stay home, but when I go, I find myself happier and more grounded. I've come to understand that I love being with people just as much as I love being alone; it is just not a natural default for me. . . yet. If I avoided conversations and relationships because I'm introverted, I'd miss out.  

So my warning and my challenge to us introverts is to use this label as a way to understand ourselves socially, but not as an excuse to pull away. Use your time alone when you need it, but don't be afraid to stretch beyond the label, either. It isn't a bad thing to attempt to grow in this area.

Extroverts have plenty to teach us, too.