10 April, 2019

Today's Gavel Club Speech: "Bend or Break"

The fourth project in Toastmasters' "Competent Communication" manual is simply to craft a five- to seven-minute speech that makes use of metaphor, simile, and alliteration. I spent two weeks mulling over what topic best suited this, finally deciding only this past weekend. Preparation is for amateurs! (Or so I keep telling myself.) In any event, the speech I hastily wrote for today's meeting of the Speak Easy Gavel Club appears below.

* * * * *

"Don't push the river, it flows by itself." These words of wisdom were handed down to me by my father, the guru of the suburbs. You see, growing up I was always trying to stay on top of a situation. I needed the security of feeling in control. The unexpected made me nervous. Just ask the friend who threw me a surprise party when I turned nineteen and got a bloody nose as a thank-you.

Here's another example: grits. I didn't grow up in the South. My dad might've been Missouri born and raised, but you'd never have known it. My mother is German, and if you'd asked her, back when I was young, she'd have answered your question with a question: "What's a grit?" So I don't know where I picked it up, but from the time I moved out on my own and had to stock my own kitchen, I ate grits for breakfast every single morning. I ate them out of the same white-and-black bowl, using the same slender-handled stainless steel spoon. I ate them only with butter and sugar. To me, that was grits. Put anything else on them, such as cheese, onions, or green peppers, and I wouldn't touch the stuff. Put them in another bowl and I might eat them, but I'd be upset about it — like, stomach-turning upset. It was a whole thing.

I called these routines my "systems." I had a "right way" of doing everything from getting dressed to calling for pizza delivery. And before you go thinking "OCD," I'll just say that OCD had nothing on me. People with obsessive compulsive disorder do what they do because they feel something deep inside them say they have to, kind of how you or I feel an urge to use the toilet. We all know that you turn a lightbulb clockwise to screw it into the socket, and that's how my systems seemed to me — sane and practical, while any other way of doing a thing seemed just plain ridiculous.

"Life is what happens to you when you're busy making other plans," John Lennon sang. Because I had plans — aka systems — for socializing, showering, sex, and a slew of other stuff, I was just setting myself up to be knocked down by circumstance.

I was talking with a friend the other day who told me about this idea some therapists call "radical acceptance." How many of you know about Alcoholics Anonymous' Serenity Prayer? Radical acceptance is just a technical-sounding name for the same thing. It's seeing the things you can't change and letting your mind be at ease about them. It sounds so obvious: if you can't change a thing, why try? But all of us struggle against the flow at one time or another.

You've heard that phrase, right, Go with the flow? When I first came to prison, almost twenty years ago, I was a night owl. I'd wake up in the late-afternoon, eat dinner, then stay up writing, reading, drawing, smoking cigarettes, and drinking coffee, until it was time for breakfast. After a shower, I'd go to bed at about 9:30 in the morning. Standing-only custody counts didn't exist back then, not at the facility I was in. Sleepers didn't even need to sit up in bed, so this worked. Except when it didn't. Caseworker hours, cell searches — these all would interrupt my sleep, and I'd complain. Even visiting hours required me to adjust my schedule. But if I had to wake up and haul myself into the back office for legal mail at noon, whose fault was that? I had to realize that I was the one being unreasonable, fighting the flow. I had my system, but the prison had a system far bigger than mine. In fact, prison basically is a system. And here's the thing: once I realized that and adjusted my schedule to match the institution's, my day-to-day stopped being such a struggle. I got uninterrupted sleep. I wasn't a zombie on visits anymore. Win-win, all around.

Sleep is a rhythm you keep time to. Changing the beat, from one where I lived like an owl, up at sunset, to one where I lived like a rooster, awake before dawn, was tricky. In the end, though, it took less effort than fighting daytime hours would have. We get into these habits and they become part of us. Breaking them feels like we're tearing away a part of ourselves. It's uncomfortable, sometimes even painful. We resist. We tell ourselves stuff like, This is impossible! We dig in deeper, dead set against changing ourselves. Maybe we think it means we've lost, like we're surrendering, like we're weak. But really, the fight's not with stuff imposed on us, it's with ourselves.

And yes, now that I know this, I will eat my grits off a plastic tray with a spork.

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