Sunday, August 4, 2013

Gifts from my mother

 Today I'm getting dressed up in my new sequined dress, taking myself out to a pre-theater prix fixe dinner at The Russian Tea House, and then to a show in the theater district. I did an off-Broadway and an off-off Broadway, and this was supposed to be my big Broadway show but the one I wanted to see moved to a smaller theater. So it's cheaper, which is fine by me.
And I was thinking today about things people have said to me about my trip. And about me going out places alone. And things I've heard people say about themselves, about being uncomfortable in (fancy places, crowds when alone, fill in the blank). And thinking about what makes people comfortable, or not comfortable, welcome or not welcome. And some of it is how you interpret what happens when you walk in, and some of it is what happened in the past in similar situations, but I think a lot of it is being confident in your own competence and ability to handle it, in being able to predict what will happen and knowing what your responses will be. You can't predict it very well without knowledge, and you can't respond very well, or with the necessary agility, without training. No one is just automatically confident, unless you are completely ignorant & oblivious to the world. You learn confidence by being exposed to new situations in safe ways, and figuring out what your toolbox of skills contains to help you through each challenge.
Which brings me to my mother. Who is kind of worried about me. But I don't think she realizes how much she has done to give me the confidence and the training that makes me feel like I can do what I do. She's also able, in that special way moms have, of completely tearing the rug out from under that confidence, and I'm learning as an adult to deal with that piece. But I really think my sense of adventure comes from her - or if not originally from her, then at least it was strengthened, given strategies and game plans and techniques, from her lessons.
I knew as a kid that my mom had had a big city experience before she was married - the tiny bits I heard sounded very glamorous and exciting. Girlfriends and downtown apartments and dinners out in pretty clothes. But what was really key in how I ended up here, I think, was what my mother chose to do when she was raising me.  She taught me how to navigate the adult world, in a way that was specific to social situations and polite society. She thinks a lot of this part of me came from charm school, but well before that, it came from her.
As far back as I can remember, I was getting lessons in the kind of behavior expected in public. I don't mean that parts we teach kids in schools, the basics about standing in line and not putting your hands under your clothes. I mean about how to handle yourself in situations where you are likely to encounter people who are above your social class. At a restaurant, for example. We didn't always have a lot of money, but if we went out to eat there were rules and expectations. You dressed nicely. You spoke to the server. You participated in the table conversation with adults or you stayed quiet. You learned about tipping (gratitude is always the right choice). It sounds pretty simple, but if you don't have experiences like this as a kid when you aren't "in charge," it is probably pretty intimidating to do it yourself.
I was watching my colleague Dave with his wife and daughters at a fancy Noho restaurant last week, and watching the girls and the way they watched the adults talk, and remembering what that was like as a child. I remember being so exasperated by how much adults talked, but all those hours of sitting quietly and listening were huge in so many ways - they taught me how to comport myself.
My mother was pretty big on dressing appropriately. I had to dress up for flying standby -- "Jeans are for paying customers" -- for school events, if guests were coming over for dinner.  Was I a girly girl before this, because of it, was it a happy coincidence? In any case, it was clear that there were rules about appearance, and that as long as you knew the rules, you didn't have to feel uncomfortable. 
My mother took me places. She took me out of school once to see Camelot at the Fisher Theater, just the two of us. She took me to see stage plays in far flung community theaters across the state. She took me to the library, a lot. She shared old movies with me (you can't say anything interesting if you don't know anything interesting). I saw her jitterbug. She came with me on school field trips to museums and the choir trips to Boston and Florida. She sent me on trips to NYC when I was in high school, and tried to plan ways for me to see Europe (ways that would not stress her out, which was hard :) She took me to teas and parties and concerts, shopping and errands and tours. She took me places - and every time she did, I was learning.
I have memories of dinner parties at the homes of family friends and cocktail parties she hosted and a thousand opportunities I had to see adults interacting in civilized society. I saw alcohol use in ways that were never scary, always comfortable and social. I was given alcohol occasionally, and taught about being careful with it (nobody likes a sloppy drunk, or a mean one). She taught me common prayers and major parts of the Bible and made me memorize them, so I would be able to attend Mass and not feel like a leper. She taught me to make a bechamel sauce, and to set a table (fresh flowers are a sign of wealth). She took me into the voting booth with her.  
There was never anything scary to me about nicely dressed older folks. Being with my own unpredictable age group was always far more intimidating to me. I know I can walk into any room, even if the Queen is in there, and handle myself okay. I might worry about having enough money, but I won't worry about my manners. Know how to dress. Know what is expected, or if you aren't sure, make a prediction based on a similar situation. Stand up tall and smile. Excuse yourself when you aren't having fun anymore. A lady doesn't make her discomfort anyone else's problem.
I hear people worrying about class differences sometimes - I've done it, too. But I find myself doing it less and less as I get older, as I realize that I have much more power over how I am perceived and received than I once thought, and that the insecurities I think the entire world sees, they really don't. I may be making some things up as I go, but so is nearly everyone else, and some of them are looking at me as an expert. I know that part of the motivation behind learning manners is this class inferiority complex - how to keep anyone from finding out you don't belong and ejecting you. People who grew up knowing they belong don't worry about fitting in (fussing about the cutlery is bourgeois). But I appreciate knowing that my manners are what makes me fit in - it is more empowering somehow to know that it is what I do, and not what my name is, that allows me entrance into the room.
By manners, of course, I don't mean just how to eat a fish that shows up on your dinner plate with the head and tail intact (never turn your nose up at food you are offered). I mean everything that goes into fitting in, blending, not drawing untoward attention to oneself but vibrating the good energy inside of you out into the room, making things go smoothly, following social cues. Drawing others to you as a side effect of the pleasure you take in your own company alone in a crowd, rather than as an intentional gambit of pitifulness or ostentation. The balance you do between making others comfortable and remaining intact as yourself.
All of this I think contributes to "being comfortable." I know how to handle myself because of the manners my mother gave to me, this precious gift she gave me of knowing what to expect in so many situations and knowing what to do. Because she taught me that others always have expectations of you, and that to suss out what these expectations are and meet them, or exceed them, is generally a simple matter, often even fun, and repays high dividends in social capital (break the stereotype - bait your own hook). She laid a baseline, and inspired a social curiosity, that I have been able to build on my entire life.
And as much as it bothers her that I want to run about alone and experience everything, she is the reason I am able to do so. There have been so many hundreds of times her lessons have come back to me exactly when I needed them (don't believe anyone who says you can't do something - that's just an invitation to a theme party called Watch Me). And when I see the look on the other person's face, and know that I have just dazzled her or him with my mother's manners, I am grateful all over again.
Of course we all want to be rescued. Walking into the room alone, facing down the sea of eyes, listening to yourself make less than stellar remarks...damn it, who cares? Mannners, shmanners. You could be home eating noodles. Someday some man will pluck you out of your ennui, saying, "Nobody puts Baby in the corner." He'll cover up all your flaws, make up for all of your inadequacies, and allow you to bask in the radiance of skills you didn't execute.
I live this fantasy sometimes too. It's a nice fantasy. Being rescued feels awesome. Someone thought you were worthy of rescue! You have value! His skills are your skills, right? He'll teach you? They'll rub off? Maybe you'll just get credit for them...In a rescue, only the hero has an identity. Who am I, anyway? A noodle-eater. Someone waiting for her life to begin. Someone so pathetic no hero can resist me. When your Charming comes, you may find you don't like him very much if the girl he likes is a girl you don't.
My mother told me once that she knew she couldn't get a divorce until she got over her fear of being home alone at night. When I was considering divorce, my friends warned me that I might never meet anyone else, that singledom was terrifying -- women rotting alone with TV and cats or fighting off hideous blind dates. I remembered my mother teaching herself to be brave, and I started setting tasks for myself. What am I afraid of? What can I do about it? I found all kinds of tools in my toolbox. Shiny new tools I had never used and didn't know I had. And old familiar tools, like my mother's manners, that I had let dull in the box while I was trying to be someone else. Maybe I don't have to be embarrassed about being feminine, or cheerful. Maybe I'm not prissy. Maybe I'm fascinating. I can get myself out of the corner. I don't have to wait anymore.
There's another kind of silver screen romance moment. The kind where Charming sets up the opportunity for you to perform because you are elegant, because he enjoys watching you do your thing. In this scene, you are a consort, rather than a damsel; you understand and appreciate what he is doing to tee up the crowd because you can do it, too. "You caught that?" he asks, impressed.  Two cats, lithe and sinuous, each a bit of a Puss in Boots, mesmerizing the room together. It makes for a hell of a better story.
How much are you not doing for yourself? What's in your toolbox that you aren't using? What pieces of yourself have you lost along the way? What makes you comfortable or uncomfortable, and what are you afraid of?
Maybe you don't actually want to be rescued. Maybe you are your own hero.
You don't need to fall in love with the person you want to be - you can be that person instead. 

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