Lingering lovingly on failure

back of head with irregular hair cut, sign reading "oops!"

When does a boon become a curse?

A trick question, of course: as any good Buddhist will tell you, a “boon” is just a thing, a fulcrum upon which other things can tilt one way or another. Like the Chinese Farmer story that’s haunted me since I first heard of it, what is your blessing is your curse, and vice versa.

For example, this ten-year stretch of my life:

I hate my job in advertising (curse) but it’s paid me well enough to transition to something I love (blessing), which turns out to be acting (curse). I’ve already moved to the #2 market for industry work (blessing), but an inability to book lucrative freelance ad work locally (curse) forces me to take a Stupid Day Job at one-fifth the wages I’d been earning as an ad ho (curse).

During the course of this job, I learn humility (blessing) but become so bored (curse) that I teach myself rudimentary skills in graphic design (blessing), which gives me an “in” at a highly-respected theater company (blessing).

Lacking sufficient acting proficiency, however, I grow increasingly desperate for decent roles (curse), the pursuit of which finally causes me to renege on a promise to my then-boyfriend, who subsequently dumps me (curse), exacerbating my health issues by masking the Crohn’s onset I’m unwittingly undergoing as garden-variety, heartbreak-induced weight loss (curse), leading to months of pain and hospitalization (curse) but paving the way for a bloody epiphany (blessing, although technically, more of an E-ticket ride) that changes the way I look at the world forever (blessing).

You can just as easily go through the previous three grafs swapping out “curse” for “blessing,” of course. Even the epiphany itself, which was absolutely the most fabulous 10 – 20 seconds of my life to date, could be looked at as a curse, no less because it made all other highs pale by comparison than because it was a wake-up bell that could not be un-rung.

My point, and I do have one, is this: looking at the why and how of things, keeping score, even a certain amount of anguish and teeth-gnashing, is not only more compelling to me, but in a lot of ways, it’s more fruitful. FOR ME. My blessings, seeing the potential in things, minute and obsessive analysis of my turns in the road, are my curse.

I love figuring things out; I love inhaling scads of information, putting it through whatever filters, then puzzling out how it fits together. And then? I like moving on. I’m not completely obsessive, but yeah, as my shrink has confirmed, I’m on the spectrum. Which is one of the reasons why I pay more attention to what I haven’t done than what I have, to how I fell short rather than succeeded, or however I’m phrasing it in the glass-half-empty way I do.

Are there other reasons? Yes: I’m nuts! And a perfectionist! My compass, she is effed up, probably irretrievably so. I am so messed up and it is so deeply ingrained that the best I will ever do is getting so smart about it that I can, to paraphrase my first-shrink-slash-astrologer, learn to do an end-run around my own nonsense so quickly that it will seem like I am not mightily effed up, that I may even get to (mostly) live the life of someone who is not mightily effed up. You know, that whole lounging-with-attitude ability that normal people have. This doesn’t mean I should not keep trying, nor that I should allow myself to use me as a punching bag. Not at all. A lot of what I try to make public is my process around this change, around seeing what’s messed up and figuring out ways of straightening it, untangling it, learning to put it aside where appropriate.

the author's teddy bearWhich is what brings me to Teddelia. Teddelia has been my personal teddy bear since I was small enough that she was big (in real life, she stands roughly 8″ high, whereas I am a towering 62″). Not continuously, she had many years of rest while the blankets Bunny stepped in, but she came out of retirement in my late 30s, during my relationship with The Youngster; we had a thing about using inanimate objects to act out a lot of drama we couldn’t bear to handle (no pun intended) ourselves.

The relationship ended (cf. reneging incident, above), but my thing for Teddelia stayed strong. She’ll get a breather for long stretches, but when the going gets tough, as it inevitably does, she hops onto my belly and we have ourselves a little discussion. If you can call it that. Usually, she stares me down or makes me laugh or does something else that the soft, fuzzy, oft-ignored, occasionally-steamrolled part of me needs to do to get the hard-ass’s attention. And after the illumination and debriefing, we snuggle up with a book or a repeat viewing of Jackie Brown or some Rohmer flick and put the day to bed.

And the talking to myself is not limited to the times Teddelia is handy. One of my newer habits is to call myself out on my own shit, out loud. I’ll make a mistake, say, letting the milk boil over, which happens far more than you’d think, given how many half-gallons of yogurt I’ve made over the past eight years.

Me (leaping from chair at the sound of the milk sizzling as it hits the range): @#$%! Idiot! I can’t believe you did it AGAIN.

Other Me (gently-but-firmly, as she chases after self-flagellating Me): Hey hey hey hey hey, that’s not how we talk about our friend, Colleen!

Me (irritated, but chastened, dealing with burners, sponges, etc.): Sorry. I know. Goddammit. Sorry.

Fin. Or sort of. It’s a process, right? Sometimes there’s more cursing; sometimes the chastening is (almost) as mean as the self-flagellating. But it’s getting better. It’s a process.

This is only the beginning of unpacking my last two posts on being annoyed with myself for not being able to get my work done properly, and of my problems with finding my “off” switch. I felt it was the most important part to bring to light, though, because if you jump on this blog at any given point, especially a Monday point when the heavy-duty essays tend to break, it’s easy to think that all I do is walk around beating the crap out of myself for not fulfilling unreasonable promises to myself. There’s far more to examine around the word “unreasonable,” for starters, my decision-making process for discernment as well as load capacity. In case I don’t get around to it immediately, yes, I am and have been addressing what should or shouldn’t make the cut based on what I actually want, as well as what’s humanly possible to do.

But if I “linger lovingly upon my failures,” to paraphrase Dan Owen, know that it’s as much about the pleasure and enjoyment I get from figuring shit out and bringing it to light, about figuring this shit out so I can do that shit differently, even if I fail at it as well, as it is some perverted desire to attack myself. I mean, yeah, there’s probably some of that, and I’m definitely not a natural horn-tooter, but I absolutely celebrate the gains.

Maybe not as much as I “should.” Almost definitely not in front of you. But to myself and to intimates, furry and other. Even out loud, sometimes.


Image by rutlo via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Hey, Colleen!

    Wow. You’ve done a lot of work to overcome some of your challenges. That’s something TO be proud of, so go ahead — toot your own horn. Out loud, and in public, even. If you don’t do it, I will!

    Once again you remind me of a comedic singer-songwriter (whose name I can’t remember) whose performances are all about recovery. Today, you remind me of his song, “I Just Keep Shoulding on Myself” (or something to that effect — my memory’s not at its best today). Before, you’ve reminded me of my personal favorite, “I Want It All, and I Want It Now.” I’ll see if I can search the ‘net for him and let you know his name.

    (BTW, the whole of life is a spectrum. If you’re not on it somewhere, you’re dead.)


    1. I will pass on the horn-tootin’, but I will press you for those songs. Because my searches are turning up NOTHING. (Well, they’re turning up a lot, but not those two songs.)

  2. When I first started down the road of being spiritual, I came across a quote by Marianne Williamson about how when you first discover spirituality, you feel all great and then all the shit will start to hit the fan. I laughed it off because I was feeling great and so I figured that I would just keep on smooth sailing. It did not happen. All the crap did hit the fan and it was a huge blessings. It felt like hell at times but I have no regrets.

    I came to see that failures were only failures if I did not learn from my experience. Plus nothing of value was ever gained by playing it safe and by life having no bumps along the road.

    1. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield talks about that in one of his lectures, that whole dip after the high. (I love his lectures. Note to self: post more links to Jack Kornfield’s lectures!) (I’m sure *lots* of spiritual leaders talk about it; he just popped into my brain.)

  3. Colleen –
    You just described my life! it helps to hear your similar experience, i feel less crazy. Thank you.

  4. Fantastic post! Thank you so much for sharing. I talk to myself all the time, though I limit a lot of it to my journal. But I have long, intense conversations with myself quite often. I think it’s a great to way to resolve conflicts and figure out where you have conflicting rules within yourself.

    I don’t know if this will be at all helpful to you but I’ll share it anyways. I have a tendency (as I think we all do) to attack myself for my work habits. I found a solution that is working wonders for my own productivity and relationship to myself and work. Every morning before I am allowed to start any work, I journal. It could be as short as a paragraph, though that’s only happened once. I talk to myself about how I’m feeling about my different projects and what’s priority.

    Good luck! And for what it’s worth, I think you’re already ahead of the game by being conscious of and trying to correct the things that aren’t working for you.

    1. Funny you should mention that: in her session for the World-Changing Writing Workshop, Jen Louden brought up that practice as a precursor to writing her “for-real” stuff (my term, not hers!) for the day. I played with it a bit up during my recent stay in Ojai and hot damn, if it didn’t work!

      Someone else—maybe here, in the comments—suggested grabbing the old journal and just letting a little steam off here, there, wherever. Which I also tried and damn if THAT didn’t work, too.

      So thanks for confirming. I’ll write more about it later, when I’ve got more experience using the practice intentionally.

      (Oh, and anyone who clicks on that WCWW link, it’s an affiliate link. Because as I will explain in my upcoming newsletter, it is a killer thing of beauty, and not even one-tenth b/c I am a part of it.)

  5. Great post, just when I needed it. You could have titled this one YOU ARE NOT ALONE. In blinking neon.

    Although personally I think we should all strive for great heroic failures. Otherwise you’re just not trying.

  6. That was so *me* it’s scary. (Blessing – definitely blessing.)

    After another bout (week) of not sleeping (curse), I had a little breakdown last night. My hamster brain got stuck on the idea “if you stop trying, you can’t fuck up anymore”. (curse)

    Then I slept last night (blessing) and found this post (blessing) and I will *try* again today. Thank you.

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