Chasing my Tail

Do you love how I'm still using photos of Spello even though I'm in Virginia?

For the record, this isn't my last post. I'm not sure when that last post will be, as I'm allowing that to happen organically, but I since the spiritual relief of writing Quitting the Blog, I've discovered more I want to explore. I think a few more weeks, and then I'll write that wrap-up post, and perhaps I'll write periodically afterwards when the spirit moves.

Since writing that last post, I've been sitting with this notion of "bests". In America, it's implicit and omnipresent. Look on TripAdvisor, everyone wants to know where to find the best gelateria in Rome, the best cathedral in Venice, the best place for bistecca in Tuscany. Look at pre-teen girls, and their ranking of who is their best friend. Look at awards shows or columns, shouting what an arbitrary panel of judges claims is the best of the year. Listen to people talk, this friend just found the best recipe for pancakes, that friend just had the best beach vacation.  This isn't just other people, this is me, too. I've said all of these things. But now I realize, those pronouncements set up an illusory scaffold. When I report that I just found the best deal or that I enjoyed the best cupcake, I put myself on a precipice. Any other choice would have by definition been substandard. I'm at constant risk of making a cataclysmic choice, and must keep striving to do or be better. And on the receiving end, when I hear that my neighbor just bought the best set of pans, what does that mean for me and my choices? Well, that they are wrong, of course. I'm wrong. Let the tacit self-flagellation begin.

In Italy, I never heard "migliore" (best). Instead, people talked about what they liked. Mi piace tanto. "I like it very much", or literally, "It's very pleasing to me". When your frame is what you like rather than evaluating on some external standard, then it's about you, what you like, where you feel led, your experience. It says nothing about other people, it says nothing about your previous or future choices, it creates no judgement or expectation. It is just pleasing to you. Punto e basta.

Mi piace.

What a difference. Our culture is suffocatingly competitive. One parent's school choice calls into question another parent's decision. One child's fabulous experience with judo suggests that soccer doesn't teach important life skills. One child's dyslexia is cause to self-congratulate one's own child's easy reading. One child's life changing sleep-away camp encourages a sense that our own child lounging away the summer reading comic books is tantamount to writing off any future happiness. We're always looking to know where we are on the ladder. Are we successful? Are we doing it right? Are we making impeccable choices?

Add to this the sheer number of choices in our culture, and now I understand why I have been so emotionally wrung. I find myself staring at two packages of paper towels, identical except one boasts that it is "the puddle soaker" and the other declares that it is "super thirsty." Which do I want? I stand there with my eyes going back and forth to determine a difference, to evaluate which is best along a dizzying array of criteria. I stall.

And then the other day I stood baffled as my adult cat chased her tail. She acted like she'd never seen it before and whipped around in circles trying to catch it. Just when she thought she had it, her restless appendage surprisingly whipped away and she was flummoxed and pounced anew. I thought, "My cat is the dumbest. Four years old and she doesn't even know her own tail. Look at her spin in circles, getting absolutely nowhere, she doesn't even know how foolish she is."

Revelation.

That is me. This push for bests, that's my tail. This striving to have my choices validated and confirmed as exemplary, that's my tail. This need to exist beyond the reach of other's real or imagined judgement, that's my tail. Before we left for Italy, I chased that tail without question. I was Juno. Just as clueless, just as frantic, just as baffled by why I always felt off-balance. Then I spent last year in a culture that lacks this habit of comparison, this need to rise like pure cream. Italians are quite the opposite, and veer headlong into fatalism (sometimes to their detriment—a little tenacity is often a good thing). Ah, well. Too bad my child went to school in the wrong shoes. What's for lunch? They don't look for what is best, they look for what they like. So they send their children to the free music lessons the school provides, they live in the home they inherited from their family, they cook the way they've always cooked. They don't have best friends, they have "amici del cuore," friends of the heart.

Now we're back, and I can see that the trying to avoid judgement, the wanting to make sure my children follow all the steps to get into a good college, the insecurity that I'm doing it all wrong, the looking for evidence that each step I take is peerless—that is tail chasing at its finest.

And this, I believe, is why I feel shoved into a life that no longer fits. My wide-open Italian spirit chafes within the shackles of judgement.

Constant speculating forward to assess how my choices will play out is completely contrary to a year of mi piace. Now I get it, and the mental image of tail chasing helps me nip it when I sense it. Since that light bulb moment of watching my demented cat, there have been many opportunities to practice simply not allowing myself to get whirled into this frame of best. When I notice my mind filling with static, I scan for where I'm either chasing an illusion or I'm getting sucked into somebody else engaging in appendage wrestling. I launch a mental image of tail chasing, and I get off the train. Static goes down, and all of a sudden, I feel so clear. It's kind of amazing. Without the tail chasing, everything feels easier. My heart feels open. I can breathe more deeply. The moment feels like a cozy place to sink into rather than a prickly place to flee from into some uncertain future.

Mi piace. 

Mi piace tantissimo.