For a significant time in my life, I tended bar and waited tables and eventually reached a level of mastery that only comes after years in the profession. In order to get and stay employed at upper tier establishments, you must meet demanding criteria with excellence, and make it look second nature. Once, a fellow apron-in-the-trenches, Raven, observed that while it may seem to someone peering in from outside or to a server-in-training all graceful and effortless, it’s actually harder than it appears, and can be interpreted as a more accessible job than it really is. Cultivating an efficient, hospitable presence in the midst of crying babies, hungry diners, first dates, and VIP business deals calls for a complex recipe. Oenophilic knowledge, reflexive prioritization, vast patience, and a fluid physicality with an intimately choreographed and fast-paced dance among tables, swinging kitchen doors and moving human targets are all ingredients that create an illusion of a seamless, well-edited film. She was right, we made it look easy, and we earned our Oscar every single night.
Despite proficiency and agility, it’s not always wine and roses. Steve, another veteran colleague, adds one crucial perspective that can make the difference between a shift feeling like an Amazonian jungle drive with no struts or shocks, and cruising the Autobahn in a cushy, air-conditioned Beemer. In industry jargon, being ‘in the weeds’ means you’re on a sinking ship, you NEED HELP NOW, all hell’s breaking loose, and the wreckage is piling up. Sometimes no amount of technical ability can save you from this kind of disaster. With his signature wry wit, he offers this wise salve, “Kellie, you can’t be in the weeds, if you just. don’t. care.”
Contemplate that for a moment.
When pressure mounts – a raucous table tries to flag you down for their third bottle of wine, another wants to send back undercooked steak that they ordered rare, the chef is yelling for you to pick up hot plates, crema on an espresso is fading at the counter and your barista won’t be too pleased to make it over, and the host just seated an ornery family of eight in your station – it’s hard to all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. The last thing that will help is grasping for perfection and squeeeeezing tight. Instead, give up. Stop caring about the mess, the stress, doing your best. Embrace chaos and move through the madness. Keep humor in your pocket; toss the-sky-is-falling panic. Once you stop caring that you’re in the weeds, sanity and order swiftly return.
This is how I finally came to write. For too long, I harbored lofty views of what writing should be – gazed up on vaunted writers as gods – Faulkner, Dickens, Hemingway, Twain – as anyone with literary ambitions would. I intensely pulsed with visions of grand words and clever turns of phrase like the masters. I toted high ideals, yet felt low and too intimidated to put pen to paper for fear that I could nary craft as expert a sentence as theirs. Nothing I wrote would be good enough, much less perfect, so why even try? In essence, my wish to be a great writer actually prevented me from ever seriously commiting. What use is that? So I alternated between fits of private prose and artistic abstinence, but always ended up disappointed in myself. Journals got filled, shelved, forgotten. Yes, Mr. Famous Author, follow me right this way to your corner table.
Then I remembered how I did what I did for a living, and the philosophies of Raven and Steve. There was the answer, the road to freedom. I acknowledged that it would take years to achieve mastery, if ever, and I stopped caring about being top-notch. I didn’t need to be a great writer. I didn’t even need to be a good writer. I laid down striving for perfection. Starving for expression, all I had to do was write.
At once, my first gig waiting tables, back when I was far from competent, came rushing into memory. One night early on I dropped an entire tray of frozen pina coladas and other frou-frou drinks all over a poor little girl who had the misfortune of sitting beneath me. Out of mortifying embarrassment I laughed uncontrollably, while she burst into frightened tears. It was all so horrible, but I cleaned up the mess, got on with the shift, and went back to work the next night and then the night after that. I persevered, got less clumsy, and built up skills.
We’re rarely good straight out of the gate; so when I ask a friend, a best-selling author, for beginning writerly advice he offers up the same, wise morsel – make as many mistakes as I can. So I do, continually, and it’s OK because now I’ve learned not to care about looking foolish or amateur. All I want to do is write and have fun doing it.
This week, I sit cross-legged in yoga class, prayerful hands in front of my heart, post-OM, pre-asanas and the instructor, about to lead the group in a series of balancing poses, suggests we set an intention for our evening’s practice. Before I can think up one, she shares hers – to wobble. She actually intends to sway, to teeter.
Let go, whispers the universe!
Kapow! I finally get it… Validity exists in shakiness as much as in stability. When we’re trying to ground, find steadiness on one foot, arms akimbo, torso bent forward, and we falter – indeed, that is exactly when to accept imbalance – it’s integral to the pose, and not as I’ve long thought, failing. I’ll never be in the weeds again.
As soon as I embrace the wobble, the imperfection, I stop falling down, and finally begin.