Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Black and Green (or just green)

My parents both worked when I was little. I stayed with Grandma and Grandpa in their light brick cottage on a busy street. The neighbors were mere feet away, houses separated by about the width of a driveway. Billy lived in one of the houses located so close to Grandma and Grandpa's and I liked him very much.

He, much more mature and two years older, would often get bored and likely enjoyed the way I laughed at all his jokes and generally doted on him. So we spent a good deal of time together before I started school. When Billy would tire of hide and seek, he would propose a game of tag. But he was much, much faster than I was. So he decided that we'd each have safe zones. I was big on safety even then, and was mollified enough to listen carefully to the rules. Since the yards were relatively small and the driveways moderately wide, he decided that there were two basic zones in our play area. The yards would be green. The driveways - all blacktopped - were black.

"So," Billy explained while I looked up at him and thought about how cute his sandy hair was, "you can be safe when you're in green. I'll be safe in black. But when you leave your safe zone, the other person can tag you!"

"Why would I leave my safe zone?" I asked, confused but already scampering toward the soft grass that would keep me from being tagged.

He walked over so he was also behind the house and looked at me. "There's no game otherwise. We'd both just stand around."

I thought for a moment, then looked around. I had a sandbox and the pretty lilac bush in Grandma and Grandpa's back yard. There were flowers in the alley. Enough to keep me busy. But I didn't want Billy to go home, so I giggled and chased after him when he'd sprint though the grass.

"You have to come in the black zone, Katie!" He eventually coaxed with increasing intensity. "It's not fun otherwise."

"But I'm safe if I stay here." I insisted.

"But how is that fun?!" He demanded, and I eventually acquiesced. But I didn't like the feeling of heightened emotion when my tiny feet left the soft grass for the blacktop. He'd hide around the house, sometimes letting me get away to sigh with relief when I'd reach the grass again, sometimes laughing when he tagged me gently.

I mention this because - as Boss was out of town this week - I have not left my house apart from a trip to the store and several walks with the dog. It's not a big deal - there's nothing on my calendar and I am working from home. I'm doing a lot of analysis, made figures and did some writing. It's been largely productive and nobody's said anything about staying home when the department is largely empty anyway.

But I don't know exactly why I do it. Why safety is so prized and fun somehow scary. But given the opportunity, I will often opt for complete isolation. I read blogs and have talked to Mom twice a day to check in (She's doing quite well, though therapy was painful today. Her therapist seems very pleased with her progress though and she's not been sick lately. Yay!). I've written email, though it's mostly professional in nature. And it's not that I couldn't stand seeing anyone, it's more that - given a choice - I just won't.

The thing is that isolation builds on itself and I was raised to believe that this lifestyle is very wrong. So I start feeling miserably guilty as I spend days according to my own schedule. "It's not fun otherwise! There's no game to it!" I start to say to myself. Or I hear my parents cluck in disapproval when I opted out of a party or the prom. They grow concerned when I don't go to the office - they worry over the lack of contact, fret that I won't meet anyone to marry, wonder if I'm missing out on something that makes life more fun or exciting.

"It stresses me out." I confided to Grandma years ago. I was 16 and had fled the Snowball weekend at my high school when my friend went home sick. She went back the next day. I did not.

Instead, I drove to town and rode the elevator up to the fourth floor of the retirement home where Grandma had a studio apartment. Instead of ice breakers with M&Ms while sitting in a circle with strangers who might become friends, I made cinnamon raisin toast with peanut butter and curled up in the mauve apartment of the woman I loved most.

I didn't encounter the confusion of my parents there. They had understood I wasn't having fun, but thought I should return when my friend went back to the high school to sleep on the floor and risk embarrassment in some strange activity designed to build trust or confidence or self-esteem. I soaked in comfort and love at Grandma's, spending the night while we talked and read books and she assured me that there was nothing wrong with me. That this weekend wasn't all that important and if I wanted to not be there, then I shouldn't be there.

She's been the only one who sat in the grass with me. If there was a place I felt safe, she loved me too much to push me out of it. Perhaps she trusted that others would do so. For her, there was unconditional acceptance and pride.

"I'm glad you left." I remember her saying as she stroked my hair as I started to feel badly about myself again. "It's important to know when something doesn't work for you. It takes courage to walk away, to find something better. And you know I love spending time with you. If you feel better being with me and I feel better being with you, then we must be doing something right."

I can still hear her voice in my head if I really focus. (Now I'm crying. Hold on.)

OK, I'm all emotional now so I can't remember my point. Something about balance and there being a different tipping point for different people. Then this other statement about how people - much as I might avoid them sometimes - are important. Those that coax me out on the blacktop and those I particularly adore that sit with me in the grass.

I think that was my point. That and I really, really love my family. Oh, and I'm going to the office tomorrow. Because I have meetings.

Well, and - to summarize - the black and green game is really sucky if one person refuses to leave the grass. Just in case some of you would like to play.


StyleyGeek said...

We used to play a game like that at primary school, but with an incentive to leave the "safe" spots. Our school had covered walkways with poles spaced a few metres apart holding them up. So we played "pole tag", where you were safe if you were touching a pole. The person who was "it" had to tag you when you left the protection of the pole. You could only have one child to each pole.

But any one child could signal to another that they should swap places, and then if you refused, your friend might start running towards you and get tagged because they couldn't grab your pole if you were still there. So there was peer pressure to run when you got a signal from a friend.

So my point is (1) I think there is nothing wrong with staying in your safe space, if you want to.
(2) but if you DO want to get into the habit of leaving it, maybe you need to arrange your life so that leaving the safe space benefits someone else who you care about. That can be a powerful motivator.

post-doc said...

See? That's a better game! :) I absolutely see your point though. Motivation to find a balance that is both safe and challenging is important. I would easily become stagnant otherwise. Perhaps I already have. No worries though - I'll fix it.

Lucy said...

I never understood the point of games like that. Why would anyone leave their safe area when there was no incentive to do so?
I think there are reasons to leave one's metaphorical safe space, but I still need a push when success isn't guaranteed.
I think the variations I played on the game involved a time limit on how long you could stay safe without leaving and coming back, or having to compete for room in the safe area. I think Styley's version would work better in real life.

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