I once had a girlfriend who danced the hula. Her name was Lola. Actually, it wasn’t Lola but I can’t tell you her real name or I would have to kill you. Or she would kill me.
She hadn’t been hula dancing long and although she was a nice mover, she was always a little unsure of what the next step should be.
I once went to watch her and her group give an outdoor performance and it was nice to watch. At the start my girlfriend did really well but as the dance progressed to stages she hadn’t practised so well she became hesitant and kept glancing at the woman next to her, making sure she was doing the right steps. This meant that she was always a little less fluent and a fraction of a second behind the woman next to her. She was trying to predict the next steps from the incipient movements and body shape of her neighbour.
The whole performance was good but my girlfriend needed to be a little more sure of herself, less hesitant. She needed to cut out the need to check what the others were doing. If you have to keep checking then the whole joy and spontaneity of dancing is lost. I should know because I once took Salsa classes. It’s not as easy as it looks.
I sometimes feel like my girlfriend must have felt during that performance. I state my views tentatively in case I find myself in the company of people who completely disagree; I have quite strong views but not necessarily the strong personality to match. I sing along to songs until I go wrong. Then I stop. When I am introduced to the staff of a new university I shuffle into line with the rest of my colleagues, making sure I am neither too far in front nor too far behind. Life sometimes becomes like one long check list.
Even in my free time my one dominant thought is: What should I be doing? The idea that there is a right and a wrong way for me to spend my leisure time is peculiar. Surely I should simply do what I do and move unthinkingly from one activity to another. Where the idea of ‘should’ comes into this I don’t understand.
I admire people who do their own thing, people who aren’t always checking that they are ‘doing things right’. If they sing the wrong words they continue singing their own version. If they have a view they express it, regardless of its unpopularity. They suddenly find themselves standing out of line but when they realise, this is cause for laughter, not embarrassment. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, comes to mind when I think of this kind of person. Such people seem to be dancing to their own tune, marching to the beat of their own drum rather than following some external blue print. This is the sentiment expressed in the Frank Sinatra song ‘My Way’.
I suspect that this is also how people who become masters in their field tend to do things. Picasso probably didn’t worry if he was ‘doing his paintings right’. His idea of right must have come from inside himself rather than the outside world. The same goes for Mozart and Shakespeare and many other people who did their own thing and were good at it. For many of them, once they had reached a certain level of expertise there was no one left to learn from so they blazed their own trail.
Yet many of my actions don’t feel like I am dancing to my own tune. Just like my girlfriend’s dancing, my actions are driven by external rather than internal factors.
I notice this especially with time. Usually I am aware that time is moving along a straight line from morning to evening and I locate myself along that line. It sometimes feels like time is running parallel to my life and I join up with it at certain moments. This is public time.
Yet on other occasions, time feels less like a railway track and more like something that I am inside. Then time is where I live, like a room.
There may be good reasons why we constantly align ourselves with the world around us and often the only way to learn something is by copying others. Even so, once the learning stage is over you should feel at home enough to do things your own way. I certainly feel happier when time loses its long thin shape and I feel am inside it and just doing what I am doing. Then I don’t think about checking things against some external benchmark. Like Frank Sinatra, I do it my way.