I know I am about a year late to the party, but I recently figured out how to access Netflix on the smarter-than-me Smart TV and discovered Orange is the New Black. And I keep on discovering it. For hours. Hours and hours past my bedtime.
If you haven’t watched the show, it’s a prison-dramedy series on Netflix based loosely on a memoir of the same title. While the character of Piper Chapman is the protagonist of the story, it is truly an ensemble show. Each episode delves deeper into the lives of the other female inmates. Flashbacks reveal each character’s backstory and the reason for her incarceration.
The show takes the notion of what is good and bad and turns it on its ear. Every character is complicated and deeply flawed: a hero and a villain, a victim and a criminal, the wounder and the wounded. Every woman has a story, and that story is slowly revealed, scattered throughout the season like puzzle pieces. When I have enough pieces of a woman’s story together to give it some kind of comprehensive shape, she is no longer just an inmate, she is a woman who made a mistake. A catastrophic mistake.
The show makes me think a lot about mistakes. Wrong turns. Bad choices. Hasty decisions. Impulsivity.
When I was 17, I got a tattoo of a butterfly on my foot because I felt like it. I didn’t plan it or design it. It’s just what I decided to do that day. It’s a stupid tattoo.
Phoebe asks me over and over and over, “Mom, why did you get a butterfly on your foot that will never fly away?”
I’ll give her a few bullshit responses about how I was “expressing myself,” but only one answer ends her interrogation:
“Because I was a knuckle head.” She nods and then walks away, satisfied.
A tattoo is a fairly harmless -albeit impulsive- mistake. The only consequence (other than getting grounded for two weeks) is the annoyance of having to explain it and the endless quest for sandals that will conceal it. No one died from hepatitis or contracted HIV from a dirty tattoo needle. Mom.
Told you so.
But since becoming a mother, I am less forgiving of my mistakes. The stakes are higher, the pressure to do the right thing is more intense. In the past year alone I have made some questionable choices. I want to put these decisions under a microscope, dissect them, pull them apart. Why? Because I don’t want a repeat performance.
I want to put all my mistakes in a sand sieve, then sift through all the excuses and surface emotions until I find the fear. The fear that drives me to act, or more likely, react. The fear that clouds my judgment and tells my brain to JUST MAKE A DECISION, YOU IDIOT before my heart has had a chance to weigh in.
This lady lives in my head. And while this card makes me laugh, I know it’s not that simple. Playing the stupid card is a cop-out – an excuse to not get to the fears and feelings behind the choices. Replaying the video tape of my mistakes is not a pretty process. It brings me face to face with the ugly parts of myself I would rather keep hidden.
One of my favorite characters on Orange is the New Black is Suzanne, aka. “Crazy Eyes.” Well, in Season 1, anyway. She kind of goes off the rails in Season 2.
In Season 1 there is a great bathroom scene between Piper and Crazy Eyes: Piper has been put on custodial duty as a punishment, but Suzanne is mopping the floor by choice. When Piper asks her why, she responds:
Sometimes the feelings inside me get messy like dirt. And I like to clean things. Pretend the dirt is the feelings. This floor is my mind. That is called coping.
My grandmother taught me that the only way to clean a bathroom floor was on your hands and knees. You need to come face to face with the gunk in your grout and show it who’s boss. Chipping away to the core of your mistakes is like cleaning your psychic grout. You get down on your hands and knees with a toothbrush and scrub away all that grime that has covered up who you really are and what you really want. Some of it is other people’s filth, some of it is your own. But it’s your tile, baby. Ain’t no body gonna clean it for you. (That was my bad-ass prison voice).
This past year taught me how little I know about anything, including myself. When I clean my psychic grout without judgement, I am consistently surprised by what I find underneath. When I examine a past mistake and discover the reason behind it, I get back a part of myself that I gave away.
I didn’t get a tattoo “because I felt like it.” I got a tattoo because back in the day -before I began to contort myself into a people-pleasing rule follower -I was a bit of a rebel. Especially for someone in the marching band. Maybe the butterfly on my foot symbolizes my (slightly trashy) attempt to spread my own wings.
We can’t run from our choices. But we can’t define ourselves by them either. We can build a prison with avoidance and excuses, but a lack or forgiveness does the same thing. There is power in owning and understanding our mistakes. Then, there is freedom and redemption in releasing them. Unchaining ourselves from old stories we tell about ourselves, and cleaning the slate for a new story to be written.