Tag Archives: holding back

Wild Bears and Potted Plants

A week or so ago, my brother Dave texted a photo of a bear edging along the deck railing of his house in Colorado. Even in an area where bears are common, the presence of a 200-pound animal a few feet from the sliding glass doors is enough to trigger the flight or fight response.

In this case, the bear posed no threat — it was trolling for seed fallen from a bird feeder — but it’s interesting how life offers a reality check, sometimes in the most unexpected ways.

A potted plant, for example.

When I get up in the morning, I open the blinds on all the windows in my 1924 bungalow. I want as much light in the house as I can get. But as the weather has gotten warmer — high today is predicted for 90 degrees — I now angle the blinds to admit as much light as possible while also blocking direct sunlight.

New Life

In the living room, however,I make an exception.

For years I have had a potted plant in the living room — a lily of some sort — and other than watering it occasionally, I’ve done nothing to encourage it.

And for years it eked along, never flowering, just surviving.

But about a year ago, I moved it directly under the living room window, and it has come alive. When I raise the blinds, brilliant sunlight splashes onto extravagant and outstretched green leaves, and I am amazed at how expansive and exuberant the plant seems.

It has become a daily reality check, and a challenge. The plant is doing great, but how am I doing?

Or, to stay with the analogy, have I raised the blinds on my own life?

Answer: not completely.

Holding Back

As an imperfect being with a highly elevated sense of my own failings, I know that I have spent my life holding back.

Years ago, I did a weekend men’s retreat with Dan Millman, author of “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior.” At the end, we broke a board with our hands, after first writing on it what we wanted to break through.

I wrote, “Holding back.”

I broke the board, but not the habit, and it was too many years later before I finally found a process that leads to the recovery of my authentic self. A process, I should add, that’s still in progress.

The morning ritual with the blinds reminds me that I’ve got limited time left on the planet and way too much left in the tank. Doubts and fears haven’t disappeared by any means, but I’ve had my time in the dark. I’ve got to open the blinds every day.

Or, bringing it back to bears — real and metaphorical — German filmmaker Werner Herzog put it this way recently in an interview with Carlos Watson: “Get used to the bear behind you.”

Healing the Future

When I was 8, my 9-year-old cousin Skip showed me a drawing he’d made of a rowboat, and it shocked me.

When I drew, my subject matter was pretty much limited to fighter jets with the US Air Force insignia on the side. I probably drew boats, too, so it wasn’t that Skip had drawn a boat that amazed me. It was how he drew it.

My drawings were flat  — two dimensional. But Skip’s boat had three dimensions. It projected off the page, and when I saw that something in me died.

To the extent that any 8-year-old knows what he’s going to be when he grows up, I didn’t fancy myself an artist. But until then nothing had persuaded me that my drawings were inadequate, either.

Skip’s did, and in my despair I ignored that he had learned it from a book, and maybe I could, too. All I could think was that this was yet another instance where I wasn’t good enough, that I couldn’t do it, and that I might as well give up. So I did.

No Latitude for Mistakes

Such thinking didn’t originate with that episode, of course. It was a continuation of experiences that began years before, all convincing me that I was inadequate, that the turf that I could call my own — the realm where I was adequate and capable — was pitifully small and subject to further erosion.

That subconscious belief washed over into adult life, limiting my willingness to try new things only when I thought I could be good at them immediately. There was no latitude for making mistakes. I had to be perfect.

I never took up playing the guitar for that reason. Yet, like millions of others, I played air guitar along with  Mark Knopfler, Billy Gibbons and Carlos Santana, and still regret that I didn’t give it a try. I never risked surfing while living in Hawaii, and body-surfed in the islands only because I’d done a tamer version of it on the Mainland and loved it.

Years later, a wonderful artist and former high school classmate,  Claire Watson Garcia, gave me a free painting lesson and strongly urged me to continue. I didn’t.

Unfounded Assumptions

Self-doubt and saying “no” was such a part of my identity that I assumed that’s who I really was. But after the failure of three long relationships (two of them divorces), I began to re-examine my life and realized that many of my assumptions were unfounded and had been forced upon me by childhood circumstances.

In the mid-1990s, I attended a men’s retreat led by New Age author Dan Millman. Millman, a former gymnast, did a great job of mixing instruction with physical activity, and the finale was breaking a board with our bare hands.

The premise was that if we could break a board, we could also break through personal issues. So before we broke the boards, we had to write on them what we were trying to break through.

I wrote:  “Holding back.”

I broke the board successfully, but breaking through the control and perfectionism behind the holding back has been a long and difficult process. I’m still working on it.

“I Can’t”

A few days ago, after more than a year of pondering it, watching YouTube videos and consulting knowledgable friends, I finally decided to replace my kitchen faucet.

This was not a vanity project. The faucet stopped working in March of 2017, I’m embarrassed to say. But since the spray hose still worked, I limped along, not wanting to pay a plumber, yet not wanting to give up on the idea that, dammit, I could do it.

The hang-up, as usual, was self-doubt. Just as I concluded from Skip’s drawing that I was not an artist, I also learned long ago that I was not mechanical. My brother, Dave, the kid who raised and lowered the family trash can into a tree with a block and tackle, he was mechanical. He became an engineer.

I was an athlete who could spell and loved to read, and discovered later that I could write. Beyond that, every new thing, every change in the status quo was a challenge and a referendum on my self-worth, and my reaction was always “I can’t.”

Open Mind, Willing Heart

But when I started questioning my assumptions, not many of them were valid. Including, it still amazes me to say, the idea that I have no mechanical ability. Over the past few years, I’ve learned that with an open mind and a willing heart, I can do far more than I thought.

It began with replacing a washer in a leaky bathroom faucet — laughably easy for many, but for me it was a beginning. Then I risked replacing the flush valve in a toilet. The new one included instructions on how to clean it. So I took apart the old one, cleaned it, put it back together and it worked.

Wow, I did that?

I replaced a doorknob, a toilet lever, a lamp socket. I put up a new mailbox and, despite massive misgivings, installed a dryer vent.

At that point, I was almost giddy with success, and when an electrical outlet started smoking, I consulted a contractor friend. Suitably informed, I turned off the circuit breaker, pulled the outlet from the wall, took pictures of the wiring, bought a new one, wired it and installed it.

At that point, I felt like I was on the North Face of home repair. Screw up electrical stuff and you’re homeless.

And then the piece de resistance: I removed the defective kitchen faucet — which proved to be as deeply resistant to change as I am — and installed a sleek new one. It will be a week or so before I stop sharing my amazement at that accomplishment.

Inconvenient Opportunities

It’s absurd that I waited a year to brave it, especially with all the junk from beneath the sink sitting on a coffee table in my sunroom, reminding me daily of my unwillingness. That I finally overcame it was huge, and exposes another level to the experience that goes beyond the satisfaction of having a cool new faucet.

Household breakdowns — like divorces, getting laid off and so many other things I resent and resist — are always inconvenient and uncomfortable, but they are also opportunities.

When I hold back, I’m a victim; the past is running me. Accepting that life is about problem solving opens up possibilities to change, grow, and take back my life.

Taking action led to a series of accomplishments that unlocked a limiting mentality and opens me up to things I may have set aside — like drawing and painting — and to possibilities I may never have even considered.

In other words, It’s about hope and changing the trajectory of a life. It’s about healing the future.