“Never forget that once upon a time, in an unguarded moment,
you recognized yourself as a friend.” ―Elizabeth Gilbert
HJT, or Horizontal Joke Time, is one of my favourite things about being married.
What is HJT? It’s when the planets mysteriously align and my beau and I wake up in a good mood. We don’t get up. Heck, we don’t even sit up. We just lie in bed (clothing optional), and launch into a Seinfeld-esque monologue about this upside-down Aerosol cheese world. In the comfort of our own bed, we riff about everything from “As Seen on TV” commercials to Donald Trump’s combover.
It’s a place of absolute trust. So the sassy observations, biased stories and sweeping generalizations flow freely and seamlessly. In fact, the only rule of HJT is to keep it outside the family. We makes jokes about the rest of ‘dem crazies in the world, just not each other.
A few months ago, HJT struck on a Wednesday. It was a typical fall morning in Vancouver: rainy, grey, and full of To-Do’s and Hello-What-Are-You-Thinking-Must-Do’s. But Husband and I woke up happy.
After a solid 15 minutes of quality HJT, I leaned over and grabbed my brand new iPhone, eager to experiment with Siri–the digital personal assistant I’d heard so much about.
I muddled with the Home button until I heard her signature boop-boop sound.
Siri: What can I help you with?
Me: [smiling from ear to ear] How’s the weather today?
Siri: I’m not sure what you said.
I looked up at Husband with furrowed brows. “Why won’t she work?”
“Siri is a machine, babe. You can’t talk to it in that soft and timid voice you seem to have adopted lately.”
Oh no, he didn’t! Was I just mocked by Husband during HJT? I felt like I’d been slapped with a thousand dirty diapers.
“You’re mean,” I whispered, before collapsing onto the bed.
“What?” he responded in disbelief.
“Umm… Since when do I have a soft and timid voice?”
He looked straight at me, answering, without hesitation, “February.”
I slumped further into my pillow like a wounded animal. February. Goshdarnit. Figures! That was the month I’d left the security of a day job to pursue writing and photography full-time. Apparently, it was also the month I’d gone tragically mute. Correction: “soft” and “timid.” Words I simply don’t associate with myself.
In high school, I was anything but “soft.” In fact, some boys in my church choir nicknamed me “No.10” because I sang so loud. My voice was apparently the equivalent of 10 people.
Somehow, in the scary, uncertain pursuit of my passions, I had morphed from “No. 10” to “soft and timid.” I think it began because I was ashamed of leaving the corporate world, and this shame had deepened as I bought into the lie of perfectionism in my new career as a creative.
When I first announced my decision to some friends, one of them quipped, “Geez. That’s my dream! I want to marry someone who can take care of me, so I can spend all day making art.” I don’t think she meant to hurt my feelings. She was mostly laughing about her own circumstance. But a whole year later, I still feel the sting of that comment.
Is that how my friends see me now? As some entitled and lazy “Real Housewife” of Central Surrey? Had I lost the nobility of a “real” job that supported my family only to earn the disregard of being an artist? (i.e. Not a real job.)
The truth is, before marriage, I didn’t have the luxury of pursuing a creative career path. My family had immigrated to North America, and in their fifties and sixties, my parents struggled to find jobs that truly compensated their skills and experience. I, on the other hand, eventually landed in a job for which I had no skill or experience, and no sentimental attachment, but which compensated me generously. And it was a godsend for my family’s financial stability at the time. Writing and photography were just things I did on the weekend.
My husband changed all that. He opened up a whole new world of possibilities. We had conversations about how art and stories matter. We talked about how even though artists and storytellers are rarely compensated well, they are the bedrock that shapes society.
So, we tweaked our budget and reassessed our financial goals because we figured it was more important for me to feel like I was making a contribution using my true gifts than to be jaded–my blue icy hands clinging on to a stable paycheck.
And YES, this decision was only possible because we are able to support ourselves on my husband’s paycheck. This ultimately made me feel guilty and privileged. The shame of it silenced me.
I asked myself, if my mom and dad don’t get to work jobs they love, if so many of my friends don’t either, then why do I?
I haven’t found an answer to that one yet. But I have tried to pay back the privilege and guilt by working myself to death. I have let shame drive me to a level of perfectionism that completely undoes the promise and purpose of my calling.
It was so much easier when I was writing and taking pictures in obscurity. It wasn’t my job. I wasn’t selling it or attaching it so openly to my identity. No one was paying attention to me. I was just Little O’ Me playing Lego in my corner after homework. Then Lego became my full-time job. And the crummy two-storey buildings I was constructing suddenly just looked SAD. I needed to build flyovers, tunnels and submarines to feel like my contribution mattered. To feel like I mattered.
Suddenly I felt the (self-imposed) pressure for every photoshoot to be groundbreaking; every blogpost to have high engagement; every random, creative inkling to bear exponential fruit.
I completely forgot what creativity was and why I was so attracted to it in the first place.
The creativity I’d once known was about play, not performance. It was about delight, not perfection; about curiosity and not uniformity.
It was not about following a formula for success: with websites managed like multi-tiered organizations, where Facebook was the storefront and Twitter, the customer service hotline. It wasn’t about measuring myself against the backdrop of other people’s Klout–I mean, Art. It all got too loud, too perfect, and too slick for me.
When I began, I was never striving to be a corporation, or an expert, or influential figure. I was just a girl who set out to capture beauty in the world with my camera and to tell my-life-right-now stories with my pen, so that people I loved and met in the world might feel less alone and less crazy.
That said, my amateur attempts at making art didn’t seem to justify the extravagance of doing it full-time. Unless I was doing something so worthwhile, making actual contributions to the world, shaping history and culture, I didn’t feel I deserved the decadence of making art full-time. How could I justify this, if I was still just finding my voice?
It was a vicious cycle. I felt guilty about doing art full-time. So I tried to do it reallyreallyreally well. But I measured myself against expectations I couldn’t meet, so I felt guilty about doing art full-time. Bahhh!
Shame kept me and my art small, safe and stale.
Shame kept me “soft and timid.”
Shame kept me in bondage.
Shame of being judged for my privilege kept me from confiding in my friends because they are out there working real jobs.
Perfectionism paralyzed and silenced me.
Perfectionism made me doubt my instincts.
Perfectionism made me feel alone and crazy.
But I thought I’d managed to keep this inner battle on the down-lo. I didn’t realize this lack of self-worth had manifested in my voice. I didn’t know the person I loved noticed the very moment I’d been silenced.
Siri, you were the last straw.
You broke my heart. You couldn’t “help” me because you weren’t “sure what [I] said.” This made me wonder how many more people couldn’t hear me anymore? (I mean, hello? That’s kind of important for a storyteller.)
When my rage subsided, you helped me consider why I first chose this path–you know, before I lost my voice. You made me challenge my shame and perfectionism:
“Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter? Why am I afraid to live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors of the earth and sky and sea? Why am I afraid to love, I who love love?” ― Eugene O’Neill
You reminded me of a time when I was not afraid.
You made me want to be brave again.