I never truly fit in.
When I was young I certainly had friends, but I was never completely comfortable around anyone—it probably explains my ease in front of a crowd instead of in a crowd. Honestly, I’m much better and more myself in front of two-hundred-fifty people or more than I am with three or less. The art of small talk has always eluded me; in fact, I wrote a relatively successful piece entitled just that, “Small Talk.” It’s not my thing.
I could never involve myself in the minutia of life. I was always better at big picture jobs—a hotel, a health club—where the objectives were clear and the conversation was kept to a minimum. So you can see the irony coming, right? Yes, thirty plus years teaching and discussing and reworking writing by college students, very often one-on-one. I always fell back on my health club training. That is, I became not so much a professor of grammatical skills or syntax as much as I was a motivator.
Big picture themes. That’s my wheelhouse.
So I never fit in at departmental meetings or brown bag discussions. In those places my mind shut down when endless conversation ensued about how to word one sentence of a document or the need or not the need for the Oxford comma, and on and on and blah blah blah and whomp whomp whomp…
They didn’t want me there. I didn’t take it personally; I just, once again, didn’t fit in. When I was growing up, Eddie and I would wander the state park and sing, and even with him, my best friend, conversation came with a melody and lyrics. Things don’t change.
I went to a high school reunion a few years ago. I knew just four people there. Kathy, her sister Patti, our friend Michele, and…okay three people. In retrospect that makes sense—I didn’t really do much in high school. My friend Mike and I did announcements, and that left the appearance I was involved, but I wasn’t. There was a mic, a room, and hallways between me and everyone else. Perfect.
In college it was the same. I was very involved, but scrutiny of that involvement is illuminating for me. Radio station (alone in a studio talking to the campus); coffeehouses (alone on stage in front of a crowd of people I couldn’t see anyway because of the lights); weekends with keg parties and drunken floormates found me borrowing a car and heading for Niagara Falls. I was more comfortable around the resident directors who were often alone in their apartments, or driving to Canada.
Even when I did participate, what I participated in is defined by the singular concept of “one.”
Tennis is an isolated sport.
Guitar can be played without accompaniment.
Walking. Hiking. In college it was the Allegheny River, in Tucson I’d drive down and wander the empty streets of a Mexican village, and in New England I’d hike to the top of Mt. Wachusett where kettles of hawks kept my attention for hours.
I find myself more comfortable in nature because it doesn’t mind failure, it pays no attention to shortcomings and disappointments. It simply allows us to exist as we are without judgement or ridicule.
This afternoon after the storm I sat on some stones at the river and watched the choppy waters, the heron gliding across the duck pond toward the marsh, a kingfisher perched on a wire, and the distant, dark clouds building again, bringing more rain again.
It was a few moments of absolute peace of mind.
A thought about this: The peace of mind thing is not easy to obtain. It is not an absence of sounds and conversations, it is an internal escape from one’s own internal disturbances; the constant interior monologue about everything from the practical (money, transportation, deadlines) to the emotional (sick friends, relatives), to the fleeting irrelevance in life that get their claws in your thoughts and won’t release. So finding peace of mind is not easy to do just because my surroundings are quiet and natural; it just makes it easier.
So I sat on the rocks in a rare moment of internal quiet, the still waters of my mind undisturbed by some psychological pebble, and I looked calmly across the river and realized something profound: this river doesn’t want me here either. It was not created for humans, it is not set up for people. It’s why the heron flew off because of me but not because of the egret or the eagle or the osprey. It is why the tide will ebb and flow based upon the natural phenomena of the moon and the sun, gravity and storms—not because of anything or anyone anywhere.
I once stood waist deep in the Congo completely aware that no human should be there. It is the same in any natural place. In Tucson we stood on the shores of the San Rillito River during the horrific floods of 1983 and watched this once calm, low waterway—a place where kids would play baseball at low tide—snap bridges in half, grab houses off of their foundation, flip them over, and carry them on its back to some other place.
Nature has a whole other level of confidence.
Still, it’s as close as I have come in life to being myself, being out there. Hiking in the mountains, canoeing, simply walking down the coast toward some other where.
Some people never find their reason for being here; they let the world saturate their thoughts like a swollen river and swallow them, giving up, giving in, letting that minutia like money and disappointing others get the better of them. It’s easy to do; it happens. I suppose most people don’t ever feel completely comfortable around others, a bit of self-consciousness slips through. But it isn’t that, exactly. It’s that feeling of always thinking I should probably be somewhere else.
Counselors have said since counselors have been saying things that it is essential to find your place in the world. I agree. I’m not sure I ever will, but I certainly agree, and at least I know where to look.
I’ll be outside. Don’t come.