Dreaming of La Sal

A serial novel by Michelle Curry Wright

Backstory 16

How to unlearn most of what you thought you knew in order to learn what you really need to know. 

Early on in my second marriage, which began at age 56 (after the loss of my husband Gary in 2011), I gave Peter a black painting, the sole content of which were the words “Un-be a winner.” I’d hand-lettered the words in white, a typewriter font, with an asterisk inserted in front of them, as if to footnote… everything. 

Because essentially, for us performance-based models of human, this has been the journey and this has been the work, the unlearning, and then the relearning, the unlearning, the relearning. It continues on today as we backpedal to get to a place with more meaning. We had to laugh as one of Peter’s adult sons, equally performance based, read it, confused, unable to “get” it.

“What does that even mean?” he’d asked.

It’s been said in many beautiful ways throughout the ages. Be less of a human doing and more of a human being. The lilies of the field toiling not and spinning not. A million different words to express mindfulness, presence, existence, essence.

Our souls — mine, at least — cry out for more being and less doing daily (hourly!), as if presence in the eternal now were a long, cool drink at a still pool whose edges seem just out of reach. We are parched — even as we continue making the to-do lists, applying all the action verbs we can muster to our lives, satisfying internal checklists of accomplishment in order to pass time more fruitfully or garner praise, or whatever the misbegotten goal might be.

Even our spirituality can edge into our performance-based reality and has to be checked. How do we know these compulsions to do, do, do are off-course? Because they’re compulsive!

In my family, it was always about academics, about getting really good grades and handing over report cards in order to receive love. Certainly they did not invent this methodology – it is rampant in our world today, and worse in other countries than here. But for my parents, if you had the capacity to do well in school, you were required to use it, then make something of yourself. Tossed aside were the arts, sports, and most extracurricular activities. Idling was not encouraged. 

In high school, I strived hard — hard enough to hit that top, and then in college, even though I had veered off into the unfamiliar and dangerous territory of the liberal arts, I persevered in the grade-based life and got the Phi Beta Kappa key at graduation. Only I didn’t. I refused to take the key! 

Here’s where the story really begins, my friends. I concede and take the freaking PBK certificate, but stubbornly refuse the key. A classic move. Why? Because the key is a symbol of everything I have done under duress and I’m not willing to be onboarded for one more minute. The certificate? Well,  some of the heart- and brainwashing had stuck, obviously. Who would love me without some proof that I was worthy of love? Shouldn’t I have a certificate tucked away somewhere for future reference, something I can whip out at any time should this matter come to a head? 

Turns out people like us need unwinding. We have uneasy relationships with notions of success and expectation and self-worth. Through our looking glasses — our shimmering worlds across a divide — are things like meditation, healing, and faith. 

Hence “un-be a winner” — which is the un-being of the person anyone feels they need to be to get approval or love or acceptance or acknowledgement or appreciation.  We don’t have to compete, win, toil or spin to find our worth.  We simply have to un-be and un-do — and do even that without trying so hard.