Musings on My Own Incompetence

Guanajuato, Mexico

Guanajuato, Mexico

My back hurts. I sit with the laptop resting on my knees, and all I can think about is how much my back hurts. And the second toe on my left foot feels numb and tingly.

I should write but the world impinges. Or perhaps it’s not the world I’m in so much as the world that’s in me that sets up obstacles to the work I claim to want to do, but seem so often incapable of pulling off.

I know the rules about showing up and getting to it. But no matter how often I remind myself of them, I often can’t quite manage to do it. Why is that?

I’d like to say that I’ve figured it out, which is why I’ve determined to set down that hard-won wisdom here. But the truth of the matter is, I’m not sure why I can’t always seem to do what I know I need to do, what I say I really want to do. So I’m writing this morning not because I’ve discovered some truth, but because I hope that the process of writing will help me suss out what truth there is to be had. (I fear you'll find these musings merely an exercise in self-indulgence, but when I lower my bucket into the well, this is what I come up with.)

I don’t know why I go through these huge swings, arcing between focused motivation and fuzzy lethargy. I do know that I’m a strong starter, an idea person, but I’m often a bad sustainer. I don’t want to sell myself short and give you, dear reader, the idea that I’m all talk and no show. I can get things done. I have a pretty good reputation for doing stuff that I say I’ll do. But often, I lose interest at some point and want to move on to the next thing.

I can write a book—not effortlessly, but with the motivational momentum necessary to do the job, and do it passably well. But writing the next book … that’s a tough one. (The prospect of admitting that for you to read sends cold stabs of fear through my chest.)

Man, my back hurts. And my mouth is dry. I think I need something to drink. (See how easily it happens?)

I’m very competitive, by nature. So, if there’s something to be proved, I’m your man.

Nobody else has been able to do this? I’ll bet I can do it. In fact, I’ll kill myself to do it—not just to prove that it can be done, but to prove that it can be done by me. (I find sharing this kind of disclosure extremely uncomfortable—as, I suspect, in some way, in reading it do you.)

Climb that mountain? Fell that tree? Fix that broken thing? Person? Community? Earn that degree? Write that piece? Pass that initiative? Here I am. Look no further.

But after that? Climb that mountain again? Already did it. No adventure left in it.

Besides, my back hurts. And I could really use some coffee. And these kids … they make so much noise; it’s hard to concentrate.

I’m in Mexico at a children’s home. Kids everywhere. Playing soccer. Eating popcorn. Pushing a broken paint roller through the dust and dirt. And they seem so happy.

I come down every year. Juan and Selene, my uncle and aunt, run the Casa Hogar de San Juan—which takes in children that other people, for whatever reason, can no longer raise. They have twenty children here now—down from thirty last year. Once, in the mid 1970s, when my grandparents (who founded the home and operated it for almost forty years) were running things, they had fifty-five children. Twenty isn’t fifty-five, but it’s not nothing either.

Over 250 children through the years. I know enough about how these children got to be where they are not to romanticize life in a children’s home, but happiness springs up with amazing regularity here at the Casa Hogar. Having very little, the children seem to find what they need in the lives they lead here.

Idealizing the simple life of the poor and downtrodden is a temptation the well-situated ought assiduously to avoid. But identifying joy in simplicity seems virtuous to me. And so I’ll risk looking like the American lout I so often fear I am, and marvel at these children’s enthusiastic embrace of the life they’ve been given, not to mention the life they give back.

My back hurts. And I have a piece of the popcorn that Pancho gave me stuck in my teeth. The soccer announcer blares in the background, in the way only Spanish-speaking announcers can.

But I’m determined not to be distracted. I’m determined not to let the world tell me there’s something else.

I suspect that’s at the heart of my problem: I labor under the illusion that for life to have meaning there must always be something else, some new mountain to climb, some new language to master, some different obstacle to conquer. What I have in front of me, the experiences I’ve already collected hold too little fascination for me. I’m too easily distracted from the work I have been given to do, unless it carries with it the promise of something new and different, something few others are capable of doing.

And even as I write it, I know how self-absorbed and narcissistic it sounds. So much so, in fact, that I’m not sure I want this particular facet of my personality revealed to the world.

But I believe that writing is a search for truth—even (perhaps especially) truth that discloses that which we might otherwise wish to hold close, hold closed. Interesting word, “disclose”—a kind of backhanded way of saying, “lay bare,” “open up” … literally “un-close.”

So, I lay bare, open up, “un-close” in hopes that the truth I find will offer insight to me, and perhaps, by indirection, to you.

I set down the truth, as much as I know how, but not nearly as often as I should—perhaps in some way hoping to connect to the world that I—like the children laughing around me—happen to inhabit, rather than the world on the top of the next mountain. Because I can’t inhabit that world. I can only inhabit the anticipation of that world, which is not really a world at all, but merely a semiotic placeholder for a world that exists in the space between my abilities and my capacious need to win.

My back really hurts, but I’m writing—which means I may be close. I don’t know.