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The Museum of Me

December 14, 2010

There are a small handful of people who know how truly and deeply shy I am. I value them more than anything, because, as much as I love words, I never have to use them. The words, that is, I don’t need them. The friends? I try very hard not to use them. Though sometimes, I say the words, “I need a fucking drink,” and they can read between the words. I love that. Like I love scotch. Like I love me.

But back to being shy. I am very shy, almost crippling so, and this is something that no one believes about me. I can see why it’s confusing, really. I am comfortable walking around naked in public, and there are pictures to prove it. I am comfortable sharing my thoughts with the world at large, and there are millions of my words all over the web to prove it. I am comfortable traveling alone, trying new things, I say “yes” far more than “no,” or even “why.” I look people in the eye when I speak and I don’t keep secrets (my own secrets, that is.) I am an open book. I am the most open person I know.

But I am terribly shy.

I arrived home this afternoon, just plain old fucking bedraggled (after two of the most grueling weeks I can remember in my life,) with the deep-inside knowledge that I had blown an opportunity because I, of all people, could not get out of my shell. It wasn’t a point worth arguing, (I learned long ago that I will not sell myself, it’s waste of energy, when just being myself is how I’d rather spend time.) But it is something that I wanted to think about. Why am I so fucking shy? It makes it damned near impossible to connect with people on a real level.

So I got home, and opened up my computer, and found a handful of fan mail, and a couple of come-ons, from people who have never met me. And an image formed that started to make sense to me, of strangers wandering around me, and appreciating (or rejecting) what they think they see.

Because I am so open (and I have no regrets about that,) people think they know me. But, intuitively, I know they don’t. They know my words, my pictures, my thoughts, my reputation, but those are little more than artwork hung on the walls of the magnificent thing that is “me.” Just like people wandering through any museum, they interpret my words – and the other  artifacts of my soul – however they want. They find meaning in them that I never intended. I love that I can do that for people, but it has nothing to do with me.

I love the feeling of people wandering around in me, stopping occasionally, growing, and sometimes sharing what they think and feel. But  I do not confuse that with any adoration for me (even when they sometimes do.) It is easy to let people do that, because their own ideas are a perfect barrier between us. It is the opposite of intimate. If anything, it shuts me down even more, makes me even more suspicious – do you really see “me,” or just what you want to see. I am the strictest guard in the museum of me.

And I am comfortable with who I am, I don’t really care what these “strangers” think of me. It is their experience to have.

Which is entirely different than when I want to open the museum after hours, for a private showing, with someone whose opinion does matter to me. Everything about me changes. My speech quickens, I get spastic, I don’t know what to say. I find myself scurrying them around from room to room without ever giving them the chance to soak anything in and feel something. I don’t let them do the very thing that I create my art to do in the first place.  Feel something, learn something.

It’s this neurotic mess of “look at this,” and “look at this” and “maybe you’ll like this,” and “tell me what you want.” It’s got to be like trying to catch an epileptic hamster on roller skates.

On the one hand, it happens rarely. On the other hand, it only happens when it really matters to me.

I’ve tried various “tricks” to mitigate it. “Only say half the things that cross your mind.” “Only answer and respond, don’t probe.” “If all else fails, just fuck.”  But the truth is, I need to just be the me that I am in my head, in my words.

I need to trust them enough to let them wander. To let them ask questions. To be still.

I was trying to figure out where it came from – besides the primordial goo that is just who I am. (And to be clear, I LOVE who I am. This is just a weird habit that I’d like to understand and obliterate.)

There are some simple things. Thanks, in no small part, to my mother’s propensity for frequent marriage, I went to 3 elementary schools, 2 junior highs and 3 high schools. (The high schools had to do with me being an angry teen.) As a result, I was ALWAYS the new kid. So I learned very young to not fit in, and not need people. My coping skill, then as now, was to write. I wrote instead of connecting to people. In the grand scheme of coping skills, this is far better than fist-fights or heroin. But, it is  not much more useful than either of those when it comes to forming connections.

There is also a lifetime of having been called “Sarah Berhardt” by my family who was perpetually ill at ease by my “dramatic” nature. Mind you, I wasn’t dramatic in the theatrical sense, but I was never one to sit by and let crap happen. If I thought something was wrong, I would say so – not something most adults enjoy coming from the mouth of a precocious kid. When I felt I was being treated unjustly, I rebelled however was necessary. The more chaotic the world around me, the louder and crazier my rebellion needed to be.  It was never for the sake of drama, it was my comic book sense of vigilante justice.

As an adult, those things are all still true about me. They combine with a true love of sensory exploration and a habit of saying “yes” to anything. As a young adult, I began to hear, “you’re too much”

But I am only human, and thing I want most is to be just like everyone else, and fit in. My shyness, it seems is a carefully crafted defense mechanism, but it has been so internalized that it is now classic “fight or flight.” I am at risk of not fitting in, I will shut down all unnecessary resources. But when I do that, I am not me. It doesn’t feel good, it hurts. And it is counter productive. This is a habit I will break.

This habit of writing, creating, expressing myself so openly is one that directly connects my past and present. It is at the core of who I am, but also of how I cope with the world, and what I believe is my great gift to share with others. It’s different now because I don’t intentionally use it to disconnect, but it has the same effect because people think they know me, and as a result, don’t bother to look for anything to contradict what they have already decided about  me.  It is also something akin to having a mental disability that is not obviously apparent, it is a behavior that blocks people rather than inviting them in….  Like mild Asperger’s. There are no obvious telltale signs, just a kid who is rude or has bad social skills, people think he is “weird” rather than looking deeper. People assume I am NOT shy, so they see no reason to be patient or dig…..  But I am. The outward signs of my openness keep people at bay, just as  – and just as dismissible as –  the awkward social skills of someone who “looks” normal but has Asperger’s.

This is far from the first time that my “art” has been mistaken for something else. It is easy to confuse comfort with myself with the idea that my self is comfortable in the rest of the world.  It takes me so long. I am slow. (Were I not more self-aware and allergic to pith, I’d say something about fine wine, being decanted and breathing, it takes me a while to open. It just does. No matter how great the reviews prior to popping the cork.)

After a few sips of scotch, and a few moments of words flowing from me like the intoxicant that they are, I feel better. This is me. My friend arrives and I tell her, “I do not want to be a writer any more. I want to rid myself of this.” She hugs me and tells me I can’t. It’s who I am.

And she’s right.  And I feel better, because there are people who know. I am so painfully shy, and it takes me so long to open up. But it is so worth it.

I laugh at myself, because when she arrives, this is mostly written, and I know I will finish it when she’s gone. But here’s the truth that I know. In some ways, I think it is a vetting tool for me, as much as a defense mechanism. If you can’t handle it, then we won’t bother. If you can, and you can come in, after hours, when it’s creepy and creeky and dark, then we will discover great things, together. Whether you are a friend or a lover, my door is open. But this is not a guided tour.

With everything I’ve got, I will try to be still, to not tell you where to go, and let you explore. I am that confident that you will find magic. But, please know that it scares me. It is not my natural modus operandi. I put all of this out there so that you will look at yourself rather than me.

But I get it. It’s late, it’s time to turn the tables. I will look at me, but frankly, it’s more fun when I don’t do it alone.

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