Last Sunday night, I went to dinner with three old girlfriends and a new one. Before, during, and after our fabulous food we laughed our heads off and most likely appeared to have consumed many more cocktails than we had (that’s not to say cocktails weren’t consumed).
At one point, someone suggested that we each tell something about ourself that other people in the group didn’t know, something that the others might find surprising. Luckily, I was early in the lineup and was able to get away with a fairly safe fact rather than a true confession. Even so, Oregon Writer spewed her g&t when I revealed that, for five years, I played the French horn; who knew? I learned some fascinating things: it is possible to live to age 30 without a driver’s license, Bill Gates at one point had a serious dandruff problem, and – no matter how hard you might work up your stripper persona/gimmick – you need only show up at a strip club to get a job and you can walk away after stripping one night without ever flaunting your geographically-themed outfit.
We all shared what we thought were safe things, nothing that risked much. Even so, I came away from the evening feeling that I knew the women much better thanks to their revelations.
So how much intimacy do we miss out on by withholding seemingly unimportant details? We think, “Oh, that can’t possibly be of interest to anyone but me” and keep our lips sealed. Two years ago I took a few vaguely autobiographical pages to my writing group, although I was hesitant to read because I always fear that my work will veer into the maudlin or the merely therapeutic (a la the "Fuzzy Hat” story that someone once read in a workshop, pointless to everyone but the author and the source of great amusement in our writing group). When I finished, Oregon Writer said she wanted more, wanted to know what books were on my nightstand at the time and what kind of candles might have been burning and what was hanging on the walls. I’d excluded those details, exactly the things that help a reader inhabit a text, because I thought they were somehow narcissistic. But by withholding what I thought didn’t matter, I’d prevented the very communication that was my goal.
And this doesn’t even begin to touch on the topic of real secrets, things we keep from people we love and the things we keep from ourselves. How much of the risk we perceive is real and how much is based in needless fear?
I’d love to be more courageous these days, as I approach my fifth decade. I’ve always been prone to spill the beans, but with every year I see how much of that tendency is, ironically, a clever defense mechanism. If people think you’re an open book, they don’t dig for the real information, the stuff hidden in the footnotes or kept in note cards on the desk and never included for publication. I want to be clear. I’m not talking about a disinformation campaign, nor am I advocating deceit. I refer to sins of omission. But we sin against ourselves, not those to whom we don’t disclose.
I hope, in the months ahead, to speak less but say more. Better to risk the loss of a relationship than to insure a half-relationship by withholding my self.
I thank my friends for their Sunday night revelations. Especially “Logger Girl”… cheers for taking it all off.