Outside My Comfort Zone

or when I discovered something about myself

Photo by Javid Naderi on Unsplash

“This is how you wear a sari in six simple steps.” Publicly showing others how to wear a sari taught me one of life’s most important lessons. It took me having to move to a new town, join a club, and wade through some nerve-wracking speech attempts for this to dawn on me. But I get ahead of myself.

When my daughter moved to a new town for college, my husband and I decided to follow her. Rather than mope around the house in a new town, I joined a club to make new friends as much as to build up my speech-making skills. The reaction of my friends back home ranged from naysaying (Are you really that bored?) to second-guessing (Where is the need for public speaking?) and the cheerleading (What a great idea!).

At my first club meeting, I saw a motley crew. There were twenty people seated in a semicircle — a rabble-rouser grey-haired professor, a theater-loving couple, a dyed-in-the-wool musician and some student secularists. It reminded me of John Steinbeck’s description of Cannery Row as “a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” I watched first-time speakers fumble their way through five-minute speeches and the knot in my stomach disappeared. I was ready to take the plunge.

Taking the plunge

My first few speeches were mostly incidents from my life. Now that I had a captive audience who couldn’t leave the room at the slightest pretext I wasn’t one to let go of this opportunity. By the end of four speeches, my fellow club members picked up the rudiments of Indian classical music, the culinary outputs of a Tamil kitchen, and the highs and lows of arranged marriages. Even my latest music project had my club members learn a thing or two about the legacy of Western and Eastern mystics. My league of extraordinary people swapped their own recipes of potato salads and fudge brownies with me even as I learned about atheism, secularism, and skepticism.

A league of extraordinary people

I began my demonstration speech with a bit of trepidation. I was wearing a tattered t-shirt frayed at the edges and leggings that had gone through many wash cycles. As I displayed my mother’s old navy blue silk sari, I noticed my audience watching with a great deal of interest. The purpose of the speech was to demonstrate a process through a sequence of steps. I was reminded briefly of the time when I first wore a sari as a teen. My mother had been impatient with me then and her remarks were not helpful. “Why aren’t you a quick learner? Wearing a sari is so easy.” I barely managed to make the pleats then. Now, my hands no longer trembled as I showed my fellow club members how one could wear a sari in six easy steps. I only wish my mother had been in the room.

The demonstration speech

The ‘sari’ speech became a turning point for me, not just because the novice had become the teacher. I realized it was the first time I’d truly stepped outside my comfort zone in public — running the risk of not just making a fool of myself, but facing many inner demons — about public speaking, my sense of style and representing my culture. It was easy enough for the biologist and Nobel laureate John Sulston to ask “What is the purpose of being human and alive without doing new things?” The experience taught me that when we step outside our comfort zone is when we discover something for ourselves.