Wednesday, September 26, 2007

See For Yourself

I always think about the renaissance of St. Louis, and somewhere along the way, I forgot about my own. I don’t think it’s one of those things you can plan-- a renaissance. We never know the exact moment something new will occur or be born. Revival is a process, a continuation like our lives, an evolution like our city. Renaissance makes us think of a rebirth, and though I think we know when things need to change, most of us realize it late, after some kind of change has already begun.

That’s what happened with me.

Last January, on New Year’s Day, sitting at my dining table surrounded by friends, I gave up struggle, and I tried to rid myself of my need for recognition. Struggle, which I had once mistakenly found poetic, and which I took almost as part of my work ethic, seemed easy enough to give up. For me, it was an attempt to rid myself of my own martyrdom, of which I wasn’t the least bit proud, but found myself continually aware. The need for recognition went hand in hand with that sense of martyrdom, like my own odd way of being Superwoman.

Recognition is just validation. And I’d spent years seeking it, and for years watched it go to everyone around me, which, frankly, only increased that terrible sense of being lost. I thought later of when I’d had the most successes in my life, and how those successes always seemed undeserved, almost too easy or irrelevant in some way-- obsolete. Then, I couldn’t have cared less. If recognition is not the goal, then it is hardly an end. There was a time when I did things because they felt necessary, when my decisions and my thoughts and my actions came from a place of passion and urgency. The things I did, and did well, had their own intrinsic rewards, and I had always done them first and foremost for myself; others be damned.

And I began thinking of that, and then of leadership and service. I try to give my students the tools and the opportunities to be leaders in their lives. We focus on these ideas, a big part of that being to follow your own compass, to be motivated from your own core, to silence out all the misdirections and mistakes that are screaming at you. What I didn’t realize for a long time was that my need for recognition had become akin to my need for others. approval. And my hopes for getting St. Louis noticed was more a desire of validation-- like, “Hey, look at me! I’m a part of something great!” Obviously, this is not a good thing. It was not who I wanted to be or what I wanted to work for anymore.

The truth is, we see cities the way we see ourselves. The streets, the buildings, the brick and the muddy river; the people we encounter, the ideas we applaud, the failures we cry over-- they’re all just parables, ways to see ourselves. We project and magnify and create and reflect ourselves onto this living, breathing body of a city. That’s why we love some places and why others leave us empty and flat. Places we love make us see new things in ourselves, like waking up to something new over and over. We understand and identify. We feel these places, literally. We feel them in our heart; we allow them to wash over us and move into us and fill us up.

This is how I feel about St. Louis; this is how I love it. There are days when I have my doubts, much like there are days I doubt myself. There are times when I think we will not recover, times when I am embarrassed by our decisions and actions and speak defensively. There are times when I want to send everyone in the country a letter telling them I know the secret, and the secret is this city. For better or worse, this is my city. It is where I feel alive, and where I chose to live. Every day I still choose it.

I spent the summer thinking about what comes next, but I realized what that really means is, what comes next for me. I can only make this city better by making it feel right for me. It’s like education: I cannot teach something if I don’t know what the desired outcome is. I cannot change something if I can’t name what I want to change. Surprisingly, I’ve come to this decision: screw St. Louis. This isn’t about a city, it’s about me. I don’t care if other people love or hate this place; I care only that it continues to be a place where I want to be. It’s about living and doing the things I love, which hopefully are aligned with creating a better city, but it can’t only be about that. I don’t know what that outcome is, nor do I know how to achieve it alone. But I do know how to do the things I love. So I’ll do what I am good at.

From now on, I’m going back to how I got here-- following my gut, pissing off some folks along the way, being outspoken, and burning the bridges that are about to fall down regardless. This city will be what it is, and it will likely be that way with or without me. Maybe I can affect some kind of change in my little pocket of brick and trees, but I can’t do anything if I’m not doing it for the right reason. I don’t know how this city can reflect growth in my eyes if I can’t even grow myself. So, for now, I’m done worrying about St. Louis’ renaissance. It will come or it won’t (and truthfully, I think it’s long been here anyway). I’m just going to keep working on seeing the city I love, and hopefully along the way I’ll remember to keep looking at myself. The good things usually find us-- all we have to do is recognize them when they appear.

Look for new posts about great things and great people each Wednesday night. See the city for what it is, and the city will begin to see you.