True Story Thursday vol. 7: navigation fail; then, navigation success!

Last Tuesday I attempted to attend an open mic here in the city. The previous week I hadn't gone, due to having a terrible cold. Dave was still extremely sick last week, so I went alone. I thought I remembered the route well enough: take the train thus far, then take the bus to the appropriate street. What I didn't realize was that two completely different buses pull in at that train station, one heading north-south, the other heading east-west. Last Tuesday, I took the wrong one. I rode for several miles, guitar wedged awkwardly between my knees, hopeful but nervous. Increasingly more nervous, as street after street went by and the neighborhoods become less and less recognizable.

When I finally realized I was going the wrong way, I took the same bus back in the opposite direction, thinking that had been the problem. But looking out again at block after block of unfamiliar buildings, I knew somehow I was still going the wrong way. By this time it was about an hour after the event was supposed to have begun, and I gave up. Got off the bus, walked into a local Burger King and got myself some food.

I was so angry with myself I could barely have spoken, if there'd been anyone around to talk to. So I sat at a table in the Burger King and started to write in my Anatomy of Trust notebook, which in a pinch doubles as a "random thoughts" journal if I'm stranded without other sources of blank paper. Part of what I wrote was:

I chose to get fixed on trust and personality because I believe, believe now and believed then, that those were the avenues by which the things I feared arrived at me. [...] I could understand the people well enough to get by. But I knew I'd never be free from the things I feared until I understood the relationships.
And still self-sabotaging after all these years.
What does it mean when I get myself lost?
Only when I'm on the way to do something I really want and which will be really good for me. Only then.
Here I sit in a damn Burger King, miles from the pub, because it seemed my visual memories of having made a bus & train trek there once before were sufficient.
Relationships that scare me?
How about my relationship with me?

Getting around in Chicago is, in fact, a pretty straightforward endeavor. The whole city is laid out on a grid with the occasional diagonal street for ease of navigation. Madison is zero north and south, State is zero east and west, and address numbers increase in every direction as one travels away from those axes. Every major intersection is labeled with the address of each street, and every minor intersection with the names of both streets. The only way you can get lost is by forgetting where you're going, or by not knowing where you are--whether you're north or south, east or west.

The interior of the mind is a little more fluid, though. Any understanding we have of ourselves is framed in the form of a story, a story arc. "First this happened to me; I became like this because of it" or "I did this in that situation, and discovered that this was a part of me." Ursula LeGuin once wrote that the fantasy story reflects the journey into the self; the language of fantasy is the symbolic language understood by the unconscious. There is no grid. There are no streets with numbers, no buses that declare which direction they're going and their ultimate destinations in a soothing recorded voice every time they pull up to a stop. Just a story, with as much exposition and character development as you're able to pack into the limitations of the frame.

After my experience of navigation fail I was pretty upset. I cried on Dave's shoulder a bit when I got home. He hugged me, made me tea, and told me not to be so hard on myself. It was still tough for me to calm down. The navigation fail itself wasn't so bad; all I lost was a few hours of my time, time which could have been much better spent, and the cost of some bus fare. What scared me was the self-sabotage. I've worked hard to break that habit, to re-train all the parts of myself that depended on it. Clearly that work is not finished. But it was frustrating and infuriating to me, because I do feel like I've made a lot of progress. I even have lots of nifty aphorisms and catchphrases to encourage myself when confronted with an unpleasant personality-construction problem. There's that wise saying by the late Douglas Adams, "The more something is designed never to break, the more difficult it is to get at when you need to repair it." Or my personal favorite of the catchphrases I've come up with: "If you feel stupid, it means you just got smarter." That one's my motto.

But what I'm trying to do, in seeking out local open mics, finding opportunities to play my songs in front of new people, is something new for me. The goal is to get out of my existing comfort zone and into the larger world. One small step in a very positive direction. Whatever fearful, pessimistic parts of me are tied into those old bad habits, perceived that this act is the thin edge of a wedge. There's creative work kept secret, and then there's creative work brought to the attention of others. Once I gain the confidence to step out in front of an audience, to make a small little place for myself in my local musical community, who knows where it might end? It's a categorical shift, from singing in my apartment to singing in a local bar. So once the shift is made, once I'm comfortable in front of a small, casual, local audience, whatever hard work and effort is required to get a bigger audience is only a matter of degree. At least, that's the way I perceive it--so by the same measure, that's the way my unconscious fears perceive it.

I had a dream last week that I think bears on this subject. I was standing around on a sidewalk in a dingy neighborhood, part of a group of local people. Some of us smoked cigarettes, others spoke of inconsequential things in low tones. But we were all weighed down by fear: this neighborhood was ruled by some evil, authoritarian government, and anyone even suspected of opposing them would be dealt with severely. So instead of going anywhere or doing anything, we all just stood around hoping nothing bad would happen.

So, in my dream, I got mad. I started smacking myself in the forehead with the flat of my palm, the way you do when you realize you've done something incredibly stupid. The thought wasn't one I "thought out loud" to the point of putting it into words, but I felt as though I was in the wrong place, that this wasn't somewhere I was supposed to be.

After a goodly number of forehead smacks, the scene shifted. I was standing in an upstairs room in a large and run-down building. The walls and ceiling were black, not as though they'd been painted that way, but as though they were stained by years of accumulated soot and grime. Debris was scattered all over the floor. Now, in this part of the dream, I had telekinesis. I could move stuff around just by pointing at it and willing it to move. When I looked up at the ceiling I noticed an enormous rectangular vent shaft, like the kind that's connected to a furnace or fireplace to take out the hot air. But instead of leading outside the building, as other ventilation ducts I've seen always do, it curved around sharply. Just a few feet from the room's single, grimy window, it ended in a grille which pointed right back into the middle of the room. I poked around the inside of the ventilation duct with a little telekinetic force and realized that it was almost completely choked off. I was glad I didn't have to physically put my hand in there to clear it out. Who knows what spiky nasty bits were wedged in there along with the soot and ash? But still, it puzzled me, because even if I managed to clear out the vent shaft--an arduous task even with telekinesis!--it would still be blowing all that hot air and soot and ash right back inside the room.

Later on that week I had an appointment at my local mental health place, and found myself describing this dream to the doctor. (She's not my permanent therapist; I'm still in the intake and evaluation phase. Still, why pass up a perfectly good human sounding board?) And after I'd talked it out, it occured to me: "That's a pretty good image for what I do with my anger. Because I'm not too comfortable expressing or even feeling anger, except towards myself." It's still a problem whose solution I've yet to find.

But having a clear idea what the problem is can be helpful in finding ways to circumvent it, and get good stuff done anyway. Most psychological issues aren't things you can clear up easily or quickly. And while it's true that the mind, like the body, isn't exactly a machine, if you find out something isn't working the way it should, it's nice to know what it is so that you can avoid using it when possible. If your ankle's sprained, you try not to put your full weight on it. And if some part of your motivations are sprained, you try not to lean too hard on your own initiative in that area.

So this Tuesday I went out by myself again. But this time I was a half hour early, and armed with detailed directions. This time, I made it there.

And I had a wonderful time! There was a nice couple there, who'd also come to perform. They lent me a pair of maracas, so I got to accompany everybody who played as a miniature rhythm section. I got invited to two other open mics, and some guy gave me his phone number, saying "we should totally jam sometime." May have been not entirely musical in nature, but hey, at least I made an impression.

One of the open mics to which I was invited was on Thursday, at a small tavern on the south side. Navigation success again! And again someone came up to me and gave me their phone number. Only this time it was a lady, who talked with me for awhile about music and was very encouraging. One of the people from Tuesday night showed up, late in the evening, and I got to introduce him to a couple of the people I'd met. Even though it was my first time at that place, I was already starting to feel at home.

Best of all the guy running the Thursday night open mic came up to me as everyone was getting ready to leave, and told me he'd actually been recording the entire night. He said once he'd gotten a chance to chop up the sound file, he could email me mp3's of the songs I played. Once I get those, I will totally send them to y'all! And/or post them somewhere!

It reminds me of the kind of thing that always happens in fantasy stories.
Step one. Fall into perilous bog. Get covered in yucky mud and almost eaten by crocodile.
Step two. Find way to circumnavigate perilous bog.
Step three. Find hidden ruins which contain treasure.
Step four. Use treasure to buy things. Things you like!


Amber E said...

Yay for stories with character development (in this case non-fictional character development) and a happy ending!

Anonymous said...

Wow! I am in a situation similar to yours. I'm afraid to get out there and show my talents.

This post was very inspiring. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I want to post your song as a post on my blog--with credits to you of course.

Can I?

jhedeen said...

Crystal that's neat! I'm glad you didn't give up after the first (second?) week. I'm starting to play guitar again, at New River on Wednesday evenings--I am the lowliest part of the band--just rhythm guitar--but I love it. My fingers aren't too thrilled yet. Apparently you can lose those calluses--it's been a while. We should get together again soon. When I DON'T have to rush off to work. What did the psychologist think about the dream? It seems like there's a lot there.