Default Mode: Still Looking for a View Outside the Big Top

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Someone who knows me well put a lot of thought into my recent birthday gift. It’s a neatly framed, whimsically illustrated Polish proverb. Six words, printed in white on a spring green background.

Not my circus. Not my monkeys.

I gather it’s a well-known bit of wisdom. A quick Google search turned up T-shirts and coffee mugs and blog entries. It was new to me, though. And it arrived at just the right moment.

My resignation as Manager of the Universe a year ago has been a bust. All those resolutions to ease up, relax my grip, and stop obsessing sounded great when I wrote them, but writing is one thing. Living is quite another.

I had a brief run of ignoring the calculated cruelty of inanimate objects and weather systems. There were entire days when I refused to react to the oven that quit an hour before the dinner party or the ice storm that stranded me in North Carolina. There was a short respite from windy sighs in the checkout line while the person in front of me dug in her purse for coupons. A few times, I practiced deep breathing instead of cursing in game-day traffic. I rose above snide remarks. I refused to take personal responsibility for the bad moods of others. For a while there, I was the Let-It-Go poster girl.

None of this was intuitive. Most of the time, I felt like I was trying to levitate a car.

So before long, it was back to default mode. Me, ranting at the toaster. Me, convinced that the traffic lights on Kingston Pike are timed to impede my travel. Me, demanding a smooth path and a quiet life. Me, ringmaster and executive monkey wrangler.

Yoga, you’re thinking. This woman needs to try yoga. Or possibly herbal tea. Wrong on both counts. I’m a yoga dropout. I don’t like anything I can’t do right the first time. And I’m allergic to herbal tea. So where does that leave me?

Back with my framed proverb. The Poles are on to something here. They didn’t invent the idea, but they found a catchy way of summing it up. On first reading, it sounds like a recipe for indifference, a sort of verbal shrug. Not my problem. But on closer examination, it seems to suggest the notion of knowing one’s place in the universe.

Now there’s a concept. One has a place in the universe. That place is almost certainly not the center. There’s a whole world out there of people gasping for breath, physically and spiritually. There are enough circuses to put Ringling Brothers in the shade. I don’t have to be ringside at all of them.

I could, in fact, step back a bit and take in the view outside the big top. Here is a cool April evening, green and still, in this infinitesimal speck of the Earth called Knoxville. Here are cars turned homeward, faces glimpsed through rain-streaked windows. From a distance, I can imagine other lives as hectic and ambiguous as mine, as full of contradiction and wonder. I push my cart through the grocery aisle, listening to fragments of conversation behind me: He’s still on a ventilator. She has no one else.

In the space of an hour today, my pealing cell phone has brought me news of possibility and news of failed hope. To my amazement, I had nothing to do with either outcome, not a scrap of influence over any of the players.

I study the proverb in its neat frame, parse the meaning once more. I should be wiser. I should know my place by heart. Late in the game and after many a false start, I’m still looking.

Stephanie Piper

Stephanie Piper's At This Point examines the mystery, absurdity, and persistent beauty of daily life. She has been a newspaper reporter, editor, and award-winning columnist for more than 30 years. Her Midpoint column appeared monthly in Metro Pulse from 1997 until 2014.

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