That time I took that solo road trip, a couple of days’ worth of driving, crossing the border to meet up with my friend Mary in a city midway between our two homes for a weekend writing retreat. The plan was to make some headway on our latest projects and also catch up, get the back story.
Mary is wise, in this very inscrutable, take-no-prisoners, no-bullshit, occasionally infuriating, way. She’ll sit and listen to me utterly intently, her eyes narrowed in focus, as I go deep into all the tiny details of whatever situation is currently vexing me. And I’ll sift through each bit of evidence as though the facts will solve things, add up to the right next move. And she’ll nod a lot, and then she’ll say something Yoda-like, like “For me, loving someone means that I don’t want to change them in any way.”
And then I’m floored, stopped dead in my tracks, as I imagine loving the clerk at the convenience store, imagine the possibilities for all the love there could be. It’s a bit frightening.
I was anxious on this particular trip. I’d been anxious for weeks at that point: an intense, constant buzz in my brain that dialed up or down but never quite turned off. Anxiety left my insides knotted and uncomfortable, made food unpalatable or shot it right through me. I was losing weight. The act of being anxious, stupidly, make me feel even more anxious: I hated the feeling, the amount of focus it took, almost as much as I hated the situation that I (mistakenly) thought was making me anxious and the fact that there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it. You know, the only person you’re in charge of is yourself, etc.
I told all this to Mary in the living room of our AirBnB writing rental, explained the feelings and the people involved, trotted out all the tiny, apparently pertinent, details. And she listened in that way she does, and she related her own stories of being similarly anxious in similar situations, and then she said The Thing, the Jedi truth of that particular moment:
“It sounds as though you’ve given your self-esteem to somebody else, and now you need to get back.”
How does one wrest back one’s self-esteem from its utterly unsuspecting thieves? Especially since they’re not really the ones who actually stole it in the first place? I’ve discovered that, often in these situations, the solution to the riddle lies less in finding a solution then actually noticing the problem. If that makes sense. In other words, the only thing I could reliably do was [buzzword alert] get mindful about it all: Lookit, how you’re doing that thing again? The thing where you let someone else dictate the tenor of your mood for this particular moment? You could redirect that.
So I chewed on that for a while.
And then our weekend ended, and I began my trek home. And I stopped midway for lunch at this charming little restaurant near the border. I had a Reuben sandwich, which isn’t really important except that the weekend had been filled with some very good Reuben sandwiches already and so I continued on with that theme. In the great scheme of charming restaurants, this one had shelves full of books to peruse while you waited for or ate your meal. I figured it was one of those places that worked on the honour system: leave a book, take a book, at your discretion. And so I perused, moving through fiction and how-to and cookbooks until I got to self-help. Where I spied this:
And I laughed. Here it was: my self-esteem, for the (re)taking.
And so, I took it. I hid the book under my newspaper, because really, I’m not sure that reading a book about recovering one’s self-esteem in public is necessarily the best way to recover it. (Although, apparently, blogging about it is. Go figure.) I wasn’t actually intending to read the book, although I’m sure that when it was published in 1992 it contained a lot of wisdom and probably still does. I just wanted to take a picture of the cover and text it to Mary, be amused by it together, and then donate it.
I finished my lunch, paid for my Reuben sandwich, got back in the car and pulled out of the restaurant and then looked a little more closely at its sign. Which included the words, “And Used Bookstore.”
I had just stolen a book.
A book on recovering my self-esteem.
And I was about to take stolen property across the border.
Do I really even have to detail the scenarios I imagined as I sped toward the border? Of being pulled over and searched, fined or arrested, never again allowed back into the United States? Do I have to tell you about the imaginary headlines that screamed through my head: CANADIAN WOMAN ARRESTED FOR SMUGGLING STOLEN BOOK ON SELF-ESTEEM ACROSS BORDER? The imagined video footage of me stopping at a gas station, surreptitiously shoving the evidence into a garbage can?
Reader, I was not caught. I made it home safe and sound, my crime undetected. Until now.
I’m not sure what the moral of the story is, or if it even has one. Next time I’m in that town, I’ll stop by that restaurant and leave a couple bucks in the tip jar. In the meantime, the anxiety ebbed. I figured out some stuff. At the moment, I feel like I’ve got a pretty decent grasp on my own self-esteem and a fairly clear vision of when I err in the direction of handing it over to someone else. It’s an ongoing project. The book has served its purpose and is going in my ever-growing donation pile. Maybe someone else will discover it just when they need to. In the meantime, I continue to clear space, changing (or trying to change) only what I can, only what belongs to me, and in the process making room for that much more love.