At some point in our lives, all of us feel insecure—whether because we are rejected by someone we love, or because we make a hash of a good career opportunity, or because we choose poorly and discover ourselves in a situation in which we do not want to be, or simply because we allow ourselves to become mired in patterns from the past.
Two weeks ago, I went to the Dalmatian Club of America National Specialty, where Dal lovers from East Coast to West gathered to show their dogs, to meet new people, and to celebrate with old friends. This enormous show (somewhere close to 400 Dalmatians) is always a lot of fun—from participating with your dog, to people-watching ringside, to spending late nights in animated conversation at the bar.
For over two decades, I have gone to the Specialty accompanied by old friends, sharing a room and hanging around with the same crowd. I am basically a shy person, and, in the past, one who always liked to follow a leader. But this year, about to celebrate my sixty-second birthday, the thought of meeting new people excited me, even though it simultaneously gave me some anxiety.
I came from a home where my mother dominated the scene, and the rest of us followed her like ducklings, suiting our moods to hers, doing whatever she asked or instructed. Throughout my adult life I have sought out strong women like her, those who set the tone of our relationship, those who made certain I was well directed as to what to do next.
With each of them, I was once again following a mother duck, often quite happily, as it made me feel secure. Throughout my middle years, it was still difficult to walk into a room full of strangers by myself, or to go solo to a hotel dining room to eat in silence at a table for two. Change can be frightening, and often it seems easier to remain in the past, cuddled up in the safety of the nest. But as the seventh decade of my life approached, I discovered that a new strength inside me was leading me to seek different relationships and different experiences entirely. This has not been an easy transition to achieve. Going to the National alone, entirely on my own, would be a test to how much I had truly grown.
And so, with fresh resolution, I set off on my trip and faced my first challenge. As I checked into my room at the hotel following a bumpy late afternoon flight into Cleveland, I saw the lobby poster listing that evening’s event: a bonfire party on the beach. I had no one with whom to go, but nevertheless took the shuttle down, and was relieved and happy to be hugged by a friend as I walked in, one who knew how hard this was for me. Later, huddled around the fire in the dark and sharing a turkey sandwich, I found myself chatting with people I knew only peripherally.
By the time I returned to my room I felt as if I had conquered a difficult hurdle, and for the rest of my time there I continued along just that path, spending my time seeking out strangers and having dinner with them, sitting and watching a parade of black and white (or brown and white) spotties with those I barely knew, and barhopping, staying up much later than was my custom and trying to make new friends.
Flying home from Cleveland a week later, I reflected upon what a good time I’d had. I discovered that people welcomed my sense of humor, my intuition, my insights, my opinions—without even knowing me well enough to understand what an effort I was making or the anxiety I might be experiencing (which was, interestingly enough, diminishing). Others enjoyed me, just for myself. I had defeated old emotional patterns and come wholly into my own. There was empowerment in that.
As I collected my luggage at the carousel—happy to see Brad and Cody, who waited in the baggage area to meet me, the latter washing my face lavishly—I thought how different we can be from our dogs in this way, if we so choose. Cody throws his foreleg over Mac’s shoulder to rise above him, and the younger dog takes on a meek and mild expression; he accepts the place into which he is put. Dogs seek out a pack order. Perhaps humans should not—at least, not in their personal relationships, if they want them to grow, to be both satisfying and free.
At my computer once again, I discover I have new Facebook buddies, new dog friends and a new attitude about myself. Describing my experience to a strong woman whom I admire, I likened it to eating in a familiar restaurant, one at which I used to peruse the specials up on the chalkboard or order from a menu created by someone else. Today, however, I am the chef in my own kitchen, dreaming up a new meal for those I care about and love—and for myself as well. What a pleasure it is.
I have taped a favorite Anais Nin quotation above my desk: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” This describes what I have learned. Exactly.