An Ode to Sucking

If you’re looking for a travel destination in the month of August, I can’t recommend anyplace less than south Louisiana. The heat and humidity at that time of year will make you feel like you’re walking through jello.

Hot jello.

But if, for some absurd reason, you decide to go to south Louisiana in the month of August, I would particularly not recommend fraternizing with fires. It only makes the heat situation worse.

As you may have guessed, I made this mistake.

I knew it was a poor choice at the time, but I didn’t much care. I was disenamored with myself and my situation in life, and I figured if the whole thing went up in flames at least I would get a dramatic finale.

That’s what brought me to a haunted bed and breakfast in not-quite-Lafayette to learn to dance with fire.

While I was fraternizing with fire at the haunted bed and breakfast, a friend snapped several photos. One of the photos is a candid shot of me learning to breathe fire from another performer. In the photo I am blowing a fireball while the dragon (the fire performance community colloquially refers to fire-breathers as ‘dragons’) stands behind me with his hand on my back. I untagged myself in the photo years ago because I didn’t like the way I looked, and now no matter how much I search for it I can’t find it. So that’s a regret.

That photo became the inspiration for a drawing:

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I even made the baby dragon pudgy in an attempt to accurately represent how I saw myself in the photo. By the time I had finished the drawing, I knew I wanted something similar as a tattoo. It represented an homage to the teachers who had encouraged me do things I did not think I could do. The tattoo would also remind me to share knowledge with others the way that my teachers had shared their knowledge with me.

Over time I lost this drawing, just like I lost the photo. I redrew the thing years later so Cass Consentino could tattoo it on my arm. By then I had decided to make the baby dragon more slinky so she looked less like a character from The Land BeforeTime.

In addition to the shape of the baby dragon, the meaning of the tattoo had changed. The image still honors my mentors, but the focus is no longer on the transfer of knowledge.

Instead, it’s on the wisdom gained through screwing up.

I wanted to represent the periods in which I had been a beginner, and sucked at things, and messed up, and made mistakes, and looked bad.

There is value in making mistakes. Teachers happen to be in a position to share their stories and experience after they have gained that experience. But one thing that gets lost in our memories is the sucking. We frequently fail to remember how much we sucked at things.

When we’re looking back at an experience after it happened, we tend to malform it a little, to simplify it. We think we always knew what we know now, and we think we have always believed what we believe now. The human memory gets fuzzy with time.

And as the simpler, more general version of an event replaces our more specific recollection, we don’t realize that our recollection is getting fuzzier. It still looks clear to us. And that’s because the human brain does an excellent job of maintaining perceived clarity by filling in the gaps in what we remember with what makes sense to have happened, given what we do remember.

As a result, our recollection of how we got to where we are follows a much straighter path than it actually did — because the logical fill-ins draw a line from A to B, with no detours. And then, when somebody comes after the teacher and does take a detour, they think they’re doing the whole thing wrong. They don’t realize that the people who came before them also took detours because the people who came before them don’t remember the detours.

On those occasions when I go back and read my writing from four years ago, I frequently find pretty big differences between the experience as I remember it now and the experience as I described it then. I also notice massive changes in my writing style, my personality, and my convictions. I was a more oblivious person then. Sometimes I cringe about the things that I said and did. I feel embarrassed that I wasn’t embarrassed about them them — that I was evidently un-embarrassed enough that I wrote a letter about them to forty people.

That doesn’t freak me out now (er…as much) because I think that there is value in sharing mistake-making with others. Because being wrong sometimes doesn’t make me (or YOU!) less-than. It makes me (and YOU!) a human being, on a path of learning things, who hasn’t reached the end yet. And when I’m not at the end of the path and I come across evidence that the people I admire also once struggled with things, I find that very motivating. So hopefully my suckage can similarly, one day, motivate somebody else too.

In the moment, when I make a mistake or don’t do well at something, I get embarrassed. I don’t want people to see it. It’s hard to remember that everyone goes through this, and it’s hard to celebrate sucking as part of the process of learning. I want to be good at this now, dammit!

But that’s not how it works. And later when I can do something, it will be motivating and grounding for me, and valuable to other beginners, that I remember the period when I couldn’t.

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