The phoenix rising from the ashes doesn’t spare a thought for the ashes, the drab and random detritus of a former incarnation. It moves forward and upward, buoyed by new wings, new eyes, new strength. Ultimately, it finds itself exhausted and alone, at the brink of another incineration.
I am no phoenix. My rebirths look more like horrible accidents than flaming pyres. My flight through this world involves a good deal of careening off immovable objects, punctuated by sudden apparently pointless shifts in direction. I repeat old mistakes, often disguised as new ones to prevent any chance that I might learn from them. My tears occasionally heal my pain, but mostly they are just embarrassing and make my eyes swell.
I’m okay with that, because every time I pick myself up off the dungheap of my latest adventure, I learn a little bit more about how I got there. Unlike the phoenix, I have plenty of time to take a good hard look at the debris I leave behind, and to choose how much of it, if any, to bring with me into the next stage of the journey. The debris is memory, the residue of experience and feeling that forms my impression of the past and predetermines my response to the future. It’s the barnacles on my emotional hull that slow its steering and in time can disrupt the integrity of the ship itself. Memory can’t be left fully behind, though. For one thing, my brain won’t allow it. For another, some of it is useful. Unlike the phoenix, I get to figure out where memory has tricked me in the past and to leave that behind. I also get to select the memories that give me strength and hope and bring them with me. Every time my life requires me to regroup and start over, I get to stop and take a good hard look at the situation. How did I get here? What did I get from it? What did I lose? What do I want now? And then, sometimes sadder but always a little wiser, I start putting one foot in front of the other again.
I find that as I get older and more experienced at screwing up, I also become much more comfortable with it. I don’t seek it out, by any means, but I must say that the prospect of dismal failure is much less frightening than it used to be. The opinions of others don’t carry as much weight in my mind as they once did. A consequence has to be markedly more negative to dissuade me these days than, say, 20 years ago. I find this extremely liberating. It’s also a lot riskier than my younger self would have been comfortable with. Paradoxically, I find that I make fewer mistakes and spend less time second-guessing myself nowadays. Interesting.
There are so many more exciting things to do too, now that fear has loosened its grip somewhat on my faculties. People have seen me mess up so often they’ve stopped looking over my shoulder and even given up on offering advice. Many of them have even decided to accept that I don’t always behave as they would like and to engage with me as I actually am—a gift I have come to appreciate perhaps more than any other. I am continually and delightedly flabbergasted by my friends’ willingness to overlook my faults and like me anyway. I’ve even begun offering that gift to those in my life who simply refuse to conform to my idea of who they should be. As I round the corner of middle age and look around me, I see no need for us to judge each other for our differences. As long as we try not to harm one another, what difference does it make how we live our lives? 10 years ago I would have been terrified by such a notion; now I embrace it.
This started out as a meandering chat about the decidedly unromantic path of human beings along life’s unexpected paths. And now it’s about something altogether different…the excitement of realizing that it’s okay to screw up, it’s okay to change direction. It’s even okay to be wrong. The important part is to learn from it. As long as our missteps take us upward and forward, no matter how circuitous the route, then we have a touch of the phoenix in us. Not the unthinking, if gorgeous, mythical creature, but the fiery, relentless, eternal spirit that transforms thoughts into life and life, ultimately, into flight.
©Mary Braden 2013