great learnings

For most my life, I’ve been told I was a great learner.
I always took it as a great compliment.

For several months, though, I’ve been coming to understand:

Being a great learner can come
with great downsides.

I grew to learn well, and quickly, in childhood,
where the stakes were, daily, very high:

If I do this, I will be beaten for it. I’d better not do this again!

If I do that, I will be locked in a dark bathroom for it, for a day. I’d better not do that again!

If, on the other hand, I did this other thing and got routinely good results, I learned to do this other thing. A lot. Doing that meant not only the absence of punishment but the felt presence of affection.

I was a great learner! Learning fast was, as it happened,
how I once survived.

So: I got very good
at learning, fast.

It recently occurred to me that learning fast isn’t all upside. It has distinct downsides:

You get so good at learning what others expect, and want,
that you forget your own wants,
and how to find them, or …
that they could even
matter.

In these COVID times, I work from home, but dress for work every day.
Dressing for work a few weeks back, I thought ruefully,
“I wish I had more red shirts for these red shoes!”

It then struck me:

“These red shoes” probably come
in other, not-red, colors.

So I searched … and then:

I ordered them in white, and black, and now wear them,
every weekday, when I get dressed for work.

But: those shoes weren’t just any red shoes.

I’d bought them in 2015, when I saw a tiny pair of those Salt Water sandals and went,
“They still make those?!?!” before ordering myself an adult-sized pair.

Back when I was little, you see, I’d had my own pair.

I’d loved them so much that I
dreamed of them, once, when I was five or six:
a dream about letting go of learning what others want from you
and listening, instead, to what you want for you.

In 2015, in “little red sandals,” I wrote about my early childhood dream:

I dreamed my dad took my younger sister and me to the Bay by himself.

He hoisted me onto his shoulders and began carrying me out into deeper water. I was excited and terrified. I was going to see what he got to see, way out where the big boys swam!

I was confused when he stopped. “You have to take off your sandals before we go,” he explained.

“I won’t,” I told him, looking at my sandals where they dangled just below his shoulders. “I won’t.”

He set me down. The water lapped around my ankles.

He crouched down. “You can’t come with me if you don’t take off your sandals.”

I was not, not, not, no way not ever going to take off those sandals. “Then I can’t come with you.”

“Okay,” he said, before wading alone into deeper water. I watched as he disappeared, and then turned my eyes toward my sandals. Had I made the right choice? I didn’t know. I really did want to see where he went when he swam away, but even more than that, I wanted to keep safe my little red sandals.

I searched for seashells with my sister instead of learning what happened at the horizon, and I was happy.

Once a week, my family today sits down to create, side-by-side, our own individual projects.

Last week, inspired by a healer, I chose to draw a version of my red sandals.

They’re no objective masterpiece, it’s true, but I was lost as I drew them:

lost in knowing what I want for me, and in gratitude for the little girl me
who learned quickly what others wanted, so that she could survive
long enough to, decades later, listen to her own wants …
even those as simple as
little red sandals.

These days,
my very favorite people to hold near are those who don’t care
how fast I learn, or when I make mistakes, but just say, “I really like talking to you!”

The more time I spend with people who are very, very vocally clear about these things,
the easier it is to be clear, with myself, that learning fast what others want
will only carry me so far;

instead, finding those, self included especially,
who care for me as I am, regardless of which hoops I choose to jump,
helps guide my discovery what I want in my life
today. Tomorrow.

So every time I buckle those sandals,
you’d better believe I’m not thinking
about sandals, but about people
who love loud, and
unreservedly.

I’m learning … not fast, but well.

I’m learning, at last,
what it suits me
to learn.

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