What Happens When a Non-Participant Starts to Participate

a potter's hands working a pot on the wheel
Image by Barb Ignatius / CC BY

“Look with your eyes, not with your hands.”

I can’t remember how many times I heard that growing up. Particularly as I walked through stores with my mother.

The warning was warranted of course. Stores were inevitably crammed full of things I found fascinating. And like most small children, I felt an urge to reach out and touch things that captivated my interest.

And yes, I’d probably break them or at least get them dirty. No good.

But my mother let me tag along with her when she went shopping, so long as I kept my hands to myself.

“Look with your eyes, not with your hands,” was an attitude that prevailed at home as well. I had a collection of toys that were all safe. Toys that wouldn’t make a mess either. Or too much noise. But that was it. That was all I was permitted to use. Everything else in the house was to be looked at and not touched.

I’d look on in wonder when I’d visit friends’ homes. They had messy toys, loud ones. Areas that were designed for them to play and explore. Their parents had taken the point of view that children were wild, messy, and loud. And instead of trying to train it out of their children, they built places where it was safe for their kids to do so. Some of them even treated their children like small grownups, letting them look with their hands all the time.

Visiting them was like being in a foreign country. One where children were encouraged to explore the world, develop autonomy. Even if autonomy were messy and occasionally broke things.

Me, I had to learn to control myself. It was an idea that followed me into church as well. You had to remain still, quiet, or be dragged out into the car and punished after the fact.

I Learned to Only Experiment Inside of Myself

So I looked with my eyes, not with my hands for years. I found ways to play quietly that didn’t look like much to an observer (as I didn’t have much privacy or alone time as a kid either) but that still entertained me. When I was little, this involved coming up with elaborate back stories for my stuffed animals. Ones that I’d act out in little dramas, shaking them when they spoke.

As I got a bit older, I didn’t need the stuffed animals anymore. I started to read books and to write my own stories down.

I wasn’t allowed to act upon the world around me, because I might break something or make a mess, so I drew in on myself. And it’s in that inner world that I experimented. There and only there.

What Happens When All Talk, No Action Marries All Action, No Talk

I grew into a person who was all talk, very little action.

As fate would have it, after many twists and turns (including a parade of lovers entering and exiting and a cross-country move), I would meet a person who was all action, very little talk.

My husband Justin had been experimenting with potentially dangerous things since he’d been in diapers. To his mother’s credit, she did cut the cords off toasters before she gave them to him as toys to take apart. But he basically spent his childhood doing all the things that I was told to fear.

And he learned and learned.

He learned by doing until he learned to read. And then he taught himself to do lots of things you weren’t supposed to be able to teach yourself to do — with books from the public library. Even then it was usually attached to reality, to the physical. He read and tried. Read and tried.

He has a keen mechanical sense that I find enviable. I can’t begin to understand it, what that must be like. Spatially I’m a mess. I have worked hard on my direction sense, and with the advent of GPS, it’s markedly better than it used to be. But I’m a slow learner when it comes to anything visuospatial. My brain doesn’t want to think in three dimensions. My brain barely wants to extend outside of me, for even a few inches, let alone rotate imaginary objects in theoretical space.

But he’s completely the opposite. The mechanical world is his playground.

I know it’s been frustrating for him. He’ll give me instructions to do something, with words, and I’ll try my hardest to do what he’s telling me to do, but I pretty much always guess incorrectly what he means.

It isn’t just machines either. While I’m getting to be a pretty good housekeeper, it literally took me years of constant effort to get there. I just didn’t see the messes very well. And even if I hadn’t been bad at that part, I also had a hard time becoming competent at the skills needed. Even as I read articles and watched videos and practiced.

I was a slow learner.

The Visuospatial World Outside of Me Is a Mystery

It was nothing for me to sit and listen to someone else who was having a hard day. Offer validation and support. Counsel, if they sought it.

Picking up new foreign languages, too, wasn’t so hard.

But I couldn’t for the life of me detail clean a kitchen properly. I always missed some small area that jumped out to others.

And any time I did DIY I was always making some dumb mistake. When I was repainting the cabinets in the kitchen while fixing up the old house to sell it, I missed painting an area near them.

My brain was focused on doing the task, in very literal, limited terms: Painting the cabinets themselves. To my husband it was obvious that the bit of wall/trim next to them was now the wrong color and needed to also be updated and refreshed. But I hadn’t noticed it. I wasn’t working by sight in the same global sense. I was at the mercy of my attentional focus. On very consciously directing my gaze towards certain areas and forcing myself to analyze them. Through sheer obsessive will.

And at baseline, I wasn’t in the habit of really processing my visual environment or comparing it against what it should look like.

Yes, even during a renovation.

In the end, that area did get painted. The reno was a success. The house sold. But I know it was mindblowing to my husband that I didn’t notice obvious things that needed to be done.

Moving From Abstraction to the Physical Realm

It was only recently that I made the connection that I became a writer because I was conditioned to be scared of messing things up. Of making the wrong impact on my surroundings. Of breaking or damaging something. And being punished for it.

I needed a safe place to experiment. A place where only ideas were attacked. Not paint or walls.

A place where I didn’t run the risk of actually electrocuting myself or losing a limb if I touched the wrong thing in my house in the wrong way.  (My father had lots of tools.)

I found that place in abstraction. Words. Ideas. They were my first home, not reality or physical space.

And the reason I realized this was because I’ve recently started taking classes to learn how to make things. Physical objects. Actual things.

As I mentioned in a post a few days ago, I’ve been taking some ceramics classes. And that’s been challenging enough. But I’m also taking classes here and there in other miscellaneous areas like 3D printing and screenprinting.

I’ll be honest with you: I am not naturally talented at it. At all. On my best day, I approach competent. And most days are not my best days.

But I’m enjoying the challenge of it. In forcing myself to stop pulling inward. To stop being afraid I’ll break something or hurt myself or mess something up. And to actually start to do, to make, and to participate.

For once.

Participate beyond the realm of abstraction. Or ideas.

Sometimes I break something or make a mess. But life goes on. And I learn.

What Happens When a Non-Participant Starts to Participate?

At my last office job, a coworker (who I affectionately mentally dubbed Work Bestie) noted that I never wanted to be part of whatever extracurricular activity the rest of the office was doing. During the office FitBit step challenge, I was volun-drafted by my boss, who signed me up for the contest without my say-so, knowing that I walked all the time for recreation (and to think) and would be a boon to whatever team got me.

I was a little irritated, but I didn’t feel like fighting with my boss. I figured I’d save up my complaints for more pressing issues later on, where I was sure I’d need them.

The team I was on ended up winning. And when my team won, I had to be reminded several times to pick up the gift card prize and basically never spoke of the competition.

Work Bestie noticed that. And she noted that I also seemed to be made uncomfortable by holidays. And she certainly noted that I didn’t celebrate them.

“I know,” I said. “It’s odd. But it’s me.”

She shook her head. “I don’t think it’s odd at all,” she said. “You’re just the office non-par.”

“Non-par” being short for non-participant.

She pointed out that I tended to step back from interpersonal conflicts that others would engage in. That I mostly stuck to my workload and wasn’t lured in by irrelevant gossip or extra credit scraps. And that while we were now quite close, it had taken her an awfully long time to know what an interesting person I was because I only revealed my personality in short bursts.

When she told me this, I sort of shrugged and went on my way.

But lately, that, too, has come back to me. And I find myself wondering — what happens when a former non-participant moves against all of their former instincts and everything they have learned and starts to participate?

I guess we’ll find out.

Maybe they break things. Maybe they make a mess.

But I’d imagine life goes on. And they learn.

*

Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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