If I were to say my parent’s stellar success as physicians did not affect me, I’d be lying. No, they didn’t pressure me to have their ambitions. The consistent message was to be the person God created me to be. The problem is, what if God intended me to be a crappy artist? What if God is saying, “Joanna is, you know…okay.” My parents lucked into their vocations early and spent their lives mastering their skills. My story felt different.
I wasn’t raised Roman Catholic, so guilt didn’t have claws in me. I dove headfirst from the beginning – literally diving into the ocean at age three upon my first visit – either blissfully ignorant or stubbornly foolish. A cradle-born Episcopalian and a wildling. My mother curated a library of wisdom. It lines her side of the bedroom with floor to ceiling bookshelves – books on parenting, marriage, recovery, writing, and spirituality. Perhaps I mistook myself for a pitcher, and once my mother poured her intellect in, I would be protected from fuck-ups. When she saw me headed for collision or in the midst of danger, I was gob smacked by my mother’s warnings. What could she possibly know that I didn’t? Ha.
In my mid thirties, I found new ground – more space for reflection – as if I climbed a peak and could see the panorama of my decisions. I wondered about who I was and who I was becoming. I wondered if having regrets meant devaluing myself or strip mining the treasured memories attached to particular mistakes.
I was the oddball in my family, saying the true thing at the wrong time. The drifter, the wanderer. My ex-husband called me quicksilver. Next to my parents and brothers, I was lost. My mistakes are a string of chipped, mismatched beads. The hospitalization, the abortion, the college drop out, the early marriage – the divorce, the affair, the betrayal of friends. My brothers’ lives seemed clean and orderly, a line of polished stones, just like our parents.
It seems there is a paradox in U.S. culture. Many companies value mistakes for the sake of innovation. Kindergarten teachers view mistakes as fruitful exploration, fertile ground for creativity. And yet, there is an undeniable pressure embedded in our ethos to be the very best at what we do, and by doing so, we do not blunder – as if “success” is linear. Never mind the stories of scientific breakthroughs via missteps in calculation – never mind a sawmill in Montana earning its livelihood by prizing diseased and fungal-riddled wood for home design – never mind the off-center tile in front of the altar at Trinity Cathedral, placed to remind us that nothing is perfect. We love/hate imperfection. We liken “mistake” with not paying attention, laziness, incompetence, poor planning, with not doing our homework.
Mistake – to err, from the word, wander. I laugh at this etymology. Wandering without a plan is my favorite free-time activity. The streets of Seattle, Missoula, D.C., and Eureka Springs – the woods, the beach – wandering brings peace. Euphoria. Surprise is guaranteed. The scent of baked bread. The sound of a distant instrument. A scissor-tailed flycatcher and a rogue apple tree. I see a Somali woman balancing a birthday cake on her head while carrying a child. There, on the ground, a tiny mosaic embedded in a rock.
One of my brothers cautioned my husband after our engagement. “You need to know that Joanna is a walker. I mean, she’ll just walk and walk.”
He’s right. I’ve got the bone spurs to prove it.
Wanderlust is there too. Sometimes this feels like an affliction – get in the car and just drive. On these days, I am the opposite of Benedictine stability.
In truth, we are surrounded by mistakes every second of every day. Each time I buy food, I participate in a chain of mistakes – of social inequities and environmental degradation. This presidential term feels like a giant mistake.
As I write, I am inside a beach condo on a key that Mother Nature wants to reshape and swallow, but we beach people do not allow that to happen. We dredge the Gulf and dump tons of sand to maintain the key.
I am not suggesting moral relativity – that because we live with daily intractable dilemmas, I can put a bow on all the mistakes of my past. Rather, I want to turn my awareness away from dualisms.
I wish I had done certain things differently. There is grief. There I am, crouched in the bathtub with a handful of clay. Tears stream as I shape mud into a mother figure who holds the pregnancy I let go of. Do we wish we were God when we wish for a different past? A poet friend tells me sinning isn’t so much about transgression as it is a waste of time. To regret is to miss the point entirely. Those years of wandering between college semesters, my parents wringing their hands, my peers buying houses and birthing babies – all I knew was to poke my way through school – maybe I’m a forester – or a social scientist – or a teacher – I’m just not sure.
My mistakes are part and parcel of survival in a world I often feel lost in, while others appear steady at the wheel, firm in their convictions. Nature is my foothold. Art is how I make sense of being alive. I know that once I am no longer able to create, I will be over. Kaput. If you look at humanity across time, art-making isn’t just for the drunk-on-Holy-Spirit types; it’s the way millions navigate the hurt places, the muddled and confused dark pits. Look at the Women’s Marches on January 21st. Look at the countless acts of creativity during these uncertain times. In other words, shit happens. Call it doctrine of original sin – or call it people are never as enlightened as they think they are and they make terrible decisions – or, simply put, people can be jerks. And, sometimes, incredible things happen. There’s no tidy bow. No moral lesson. It’s the great mystery – this lizard brain of ours, wanting to live and not just persist but to thrive and flourish.
Mistakes are the coyote trickster outside my tent, snickering – Ha! You’re on your knees, you really messed up, and by the way, here’s a set of finger paints. I had no idea I was actually praying to God when I made art, when I took a photograph, wrote an essay, sat on a rock, walked aimlessly through a town.
Last night a hymn snuck into my dream. It played like a soundtrack. The details do not matter. It’s the hymn ringing like a bell in my head: Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing. I find the Sufijan Stevens version on iTunes. Read the lyrics. This is my song. This is my story.
Jesus sought me when a stranger
wandering from the fold of God
My mistakes are a prayer flag shaking in the wind.
He, to rescue me from danger
Interposed His precious blood
My mistakes are on the altar, blessed with the wine and bread.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love
God was in the car next to me as I sped into the night.
Here’s my heart,
O take and seal it Seal it
I had no idea God was there in the art-making. In the paint, the ink, the desire to create. In the clay I shaped in a bathtub.
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace
Streams of mercy, never ceasing
Call for songs of loudest praise
God is the coyote laughing.
Teach me some melodious sonnet
Sung by flaming tongues above
I am the sonnet. You are the sonnet. We are sonnets.
There is a Latin phrase linked to wandering. Solvitur ambulando, It is solved by walking. May us wayfarers never tire.