What are you going to blog about? And why?” Two very reasonable questions posed by my London-based friend A after I’d told her I was feeling compelled to do that which I’d hitherto harbored only abhorrence. “I have absolutely no idea,” I thought as I typed my reply. As for why? A, along with anyone who knows me well, is well aware that I’m pathologically private, a characteristic conferred on me by virtue of being born into a rural Irish village.
When you grow up in a place where everyone knows everyone else, and everyone else’s business, you make it your business to keep your business to yourself. Secrecy (along with her cousin, Shame) was a specter that loomed large in the background of my formative years, with a finger pressed forebodingly to her lips, ever remindful of the question, “What would they say?” (Fill in the blank: If I said that, did that, thought that, wore that, got caught dead doing that…)
“They” was a term often used, never defined, representing some sort of omnipotent, omniscient court armed with the complex codes to which society should rigidly conform. However, being that no one was privy to the contents of these judicial tomes, one erred on the side of keeping one’s head down to avoid detection.
In my imaginative, impressionable young mind, they assumed the form of the “cross” women I’d see at Sunday Mass. Favoring the front pews nearest the altar, they’d sit—with pursed lips, knitted brows, crossed legs, intertwined fingers resting atop heaving bosoms—beneath the bleeding form of a man nailed to an enormous cross, an ominous reminder of what happens when one says things they don’t like. These women were, to my mind, the most pious, with the most poisonous tongues, one eye on the Holy Host, the other on the slow stream of parishioners who filed past to receive Holy Communion—and judgment. My mother would let a new coat collect dust in dread of what they might say about the audacity of such an indulgent act.
Fear was bred in me from an early age—fear of standing out, fear of speaking up, fear of attracting the attention of those societal vultures who would gladly feast on my entrails were I dumb enough to let my private business become pubic.
Cities became my idea of utopia—large, impersonal spaces, populated by people with broader perspectives, and eyeing horizons more distant than their neighbor’s backyard. Where no one knows anybody, and everybody is free to do and say what they like. I eventually found myself in the most anonymous of them all, New York. “Fabulous,” I thought, “I’m finally free! I can to do, say and be what and who ever I want!” Hmmm. My lip-smacking sense of liberty didn’t last long. One withering head-to-toe glance from a co-worker—a fashion editor so sharply dressed as to practically leave a paper cut in her wake—was enough to make me want to melt into a puddle on the floor. On the Upper East Side, I’ve earned the “stare” for being too avant-garde, on the Lower East side for being too normal. In Chelsea too straight, in Chinatown too Caucasian. I’ve been judged too white, too émigré, too waspy, too rustic, too friendly, too guarded, too naïve, too cynical, too deep, too aloof, too amenable, too stubborn. And let’s not get started on “not enough”: Approachable. Accomplished. Ambitious. Sexy. Skinny. Successful. I was dismayed to learn that they exist in the city that never sleeps, which made evading them even more exhausting.
“OK,” I thought, “maybe utopia is somewhere both anonymous and sparsely populated.” Fast-forward a number of years. I’ve swapped NYC for a quiet stretch of Southern California coastline, and they still torment me. Their presence is most acutely felt in those first moments of the day when, while shrugging off sleep, my sub-conscious serenity is suddenly and shockingly punctuated by a cacophony of voices, as if some brain-cell-sized conductor had raised his baton and animated a slumbering orchestra. Before setting one foot on the floor, I’m already running to catch up with the orders, commands, commentaries, critiques, to do’s, don’t forgets that either jolt me back to the past (“I can’t believe you said that!”) or jettison me into the future (“For God’s sake, don’t forget to do that!”).
Over time, they have assumed the forms of all those (mostly fictitious) characters who’ve presided over my judgment, and become so integrated and internalized, I’m mostly not even aware of their presence. Or the terrible din they make in my mind. I’ll give them props, they’re an eclectic cast—cosmopolitan globs of chewed gum that have stuck to my soles while meandering through the world—who share a common goal: to put the fear of God in me. And they’re very, very good at it. One topic they relish is writing. For years, it was a no-fly zone. “Don’t even go there,” was the skull-and-crossbones warning hung at the entrance to the graveyard that would greet me, post social suicide. When I did go there, despite them, they belittled and beleaguered me at every turn.
“You call that writing?”
“You may write, but you have no right to call yourself a writer.”
“Get published in the New York Times, did you? If you were any good, you’d be in The New Yorker.”
When someone—my brother— first made the suggestion I blog, they had a field day.
“Ha! Blogging’s for people who can’t get published anywhere else. See, we told you, you’re a failure.”
“You must be mighty full of yourself to think you’ve got anything worth saying.”
“Who in their right mind would want to look inside yours?”
I have golden memories of a time when they didn’t exist. When life was one titanic toy to be touched, tasted, explored, experienced. When I lived in the question and the possibility and the promise. When my childhood innocence perceived only purity in the world. Before things were labeled right or wrong, good or bad, do or don’t. Before opportunity became binary, possessed of only two possible outcomes, the scales stacked firmly in favor of the negative. Before fear became my companion and captor.
A couple weeks ago, I went to a book-publishing event in LA, and was mystified to find myself seated next to a blogger. That evening, at dinner, I found myself sitting beside another. I left with a bee in my ear that wouldn’t stop buzzing. I tried swatting it away. (In fairness, they did all the work, reinforcing why blogging was a truly terrible idea.) However, another voice has been cutting through my internal clutter. And when she speaks, I listen. She asks who they are. She suggests that maybe those women at Mass were cross only from carrying their own crucifixes. That maybe the editor in the elevator liked my shoes. That maybe “deep” was meant as a complement. That really, at the end of the day, who cares? And by the way, how’s pathologically private working out for you?
A secret’s only shameful if you keep it to yourself. So I’m sharing mine: I’m afraid. Of a lot of things. Especially anything to do with making my private business public. Which puts blogging pretty much at the top of the list. But I’m doing it anyway. Because I’m practicing not caring what they’ll say. And I’m hoping that in doing so, they’ll have less to say. You, on the other hand, might not. And that’s OK. You might have enjoyed this, you might not, you might not even be reading it. And that’s OK, too. I’m doing this for me, to make some noise in lieu of all the times I’ve swallowed my tongue, and sacrificed the power of my voice to my fear of what they might say.