This is a personal essay I wrote senior year of high school, for Mr. LoCascio's AP Humanities class. We had just read Siddhartha, and before that had done a big unit on existentialism, and the assignment was to write a personal essay about something we'd learned without being taught. A lot of it still holds true, I think.
I remember it so clearly that my face still grows warm, and that embarasses me even more. It was summer, and we were standing around with a bunch of new-found friends. We really didn't know them that well, and so whenever the conversation turned towards more personal topics, I just mumbled some noncommital response. But she -- she kept saying things that at the time I was silently screaming at her for. I don't even remember what they were now, just little reminders of how young we were, or maybe unpopular opinions, or any real opinions. To me they just seemed like the kinds of things you admit to someone you've known for a while, not the kind you just blurt out to casual friends. At least I didn't say anything to her about it though.
I got a letter from my friend Richard not too long ago. He writes the best letters. They're always packed with stickers and comics and fun stuff. I remember the first letter I got from him. I think I wrote him first, but it was some silly little note that told nothing of myself. Then I got this amazing package from him, complete with a tape he'd made me of his favorite music. He'd shown me so much of himself, and I danced all over the house, I was so happy. I didn't realize it then, but what made me so happy about the letter was that he hadn't been shy. He hadn't held back, for fear of overwhelming me, or for fear that I might not like him.
Too often I catch myself holding back with people. I say nothing at all, or talk on and on about some inane topic. I'm clever, or cute, or complimentary, but so often not honest. Many people are like me sometimes. We all have our little defenses, our suits of armor, which we wear to the outside world and take off only for the closest of friends. For almost all of my life I've been doing so, and I never really even noticed.
It wasn't that I wanted to conform, really, to fit in, because in choices of clothing, music, activities, I've often gone against the norm. It was just that I was scared. Scared of the long and laborious process of trying to figure out who I was. Scared of showing too much of that self to someone and then being hurt by them. Because I've never been horribly betrayed by anyone, and there's a reason. Only those who truly know me, and whom I truly love, have the capability of betraying me. People have been rude to me, done or said things that hurt my feelings, sure, but every time it was someone about whom I could say, "I don't really care about his or her opinion anyway."
Somehow, maybe by accident, people have gotten to know me. It's not that I'm unfriendly to them, it's just that, until recently, I had a hard time showing them who I really was. Something one casual friend said struck me. It was last year, before I'd cleaned out my closet, but he didn't know that. He said something like, "Sarah, I would love to look around your closet more than anyone else's. You wear such great clothes." He had meant it as a compliment, of course, but all I could think was, "I don't want him looking at all my collected junk, all my unorganized piles of stuff that I don't even know what's in there..." I had told him I'd have to clean it out first, and then he could look around if he wanted. "No," he'd said, "You don't have to clean it first. I bet even your junk is interesting." I was flattered a little that he thought this way, but overwhelmingly I was uncomfortable with the whole discussion. It was like, even if all the stuff he would have found in my closet had been interesting and even if he wouldn't have cared at all if it was messy, I cared. I didn't want to show all the messy parts of me to someone. There was a whole year when no one but me saw my closet. And the more I think about it, the more my closet becomes a metaphor for my entire life.
Maybe it's all about control. I hate being out of control; that's why I like fast cars or speed boats much better than roller coasters. In a roller coaster I have no control. And maybe I thought that, if I couldn't control people's opinions of me, at least I could decide what they'd be basing their opinions on. But honesty breeds honesty, and superficiality is met with more of the same.
Last spring I had something of a realization on this subject. I'd just seen my friend Steve. He's from St. Louis, and I don't see him that often, so I was really looking forward to it. It was March, and I hadn't seen him since January. So. I saw him. We hung out, sort of, talked a little about nothing in particular. And the next thing I knew I was hugging him goodbye. I went home and cried, feeling empty and unsatisfied. I realized we knew nothing of each other. This boy who I had been calling friend for a year did not know what my favorite books were, or what my favorite classes were, or how I felt about the Vietnam war, or whether I'd ever been in love or not. And I knew nothing of him. So yes, I cried, and then I wrote him this letter. A really honest letter about how I wanted to get to know him and everything, and then of course I didn't mail it. I'd realized that there was a problem with my life, with my relationships, but I wasn't ready to do anything about it just yet.
I write to Richard all the time now. The letters I write sometimes turn into stream-of-consciousness diaries, or stories, or book reviews. He knows so much about me. I don't know where I found the trust to begin writing like this, but I did. Something changed for me. There was no flash of light, no one moment which I can look to and say, "That's when it happened," but I know something happened. I still don't tell intimate details of my life to complete strangers, but I don't wince when my friends do. I still don't invite everyone I meet in to see my closet. But if I did, I wouldn't be ashamed of what they'd find there. Colored origami paper which I use for stationery strewn across the floor, a bulging sock drawer dripping with unmatched glitter and striped socks, dresses -- half of which I don't wear in public -- and old diaries, a green haired Barbie doll, a box of things to attach to my walls if I ever find the time, a suitcase, tons of shoes, old magazines to cut up, a shoebox containing my rock collection from when I was ten and my shell collection from when I was eight...
Last month I met a very vocal person. We began talking, and before I knew it I was arguing with him over existentialism, and about the implications of technology, and where was this coming from? I wasn't used to arguing with someone I'd just met. Before, I probably would have just remained silent. There were other people there too, and I could easily have remained an onlooker. But I didn't. And he may not have liked me all that well, but there were a few times when I got him to say, "Well yeah, that's a good point." If I had said nothing at all, he probably wouldn't even have remembered meeting me.
Sometimes it seems that the older I get, the harder it is to meet new friends. I'm thinking though, that it's because my whole definition of the word 'friend' has changed. Yes, it used to be easy to learn someone's name, exchange a sentence or two, and say I'd met a new friend. Now, though, that just doesn't work. Now when I say I've met a friend it means so much more. It means that I've met someone, learned his or her opinions on some things, had a few good conversations, and maybe shared an experience.
The opinions we share don't have to be earth-shattering; they just have to be real. I talked to someone once for over fifteen minutes about the smells of things like cut grass or an old book, and felt like I knew him a lot better for it. Because it was real. It was something that we'd both thought about, and it showed something about the way we approached life. In Richard Linklater's movie, Before Sunrise, two characters meet on a train and share one night of conversation. So much of what they talk about seems trivial, but all of it is real. And therefore it is all important. She talks about her first crush, her grandmother, her fear of flying. He talks about his skepticism of fortune-tellers, his feeling that he is perpetually a little boy, in a dress rehearsal for life; he mimics Dylan Thomas reciting a W.H. Auden poem. Somehow, they get to know eachother a little more through all of these, because each experience or feeling they speak of is honest.
That, of course, was a movie. No one can be fully honest all the time, no one can divulge pieces of herself to everyone she meets. Still, I'm going to try to tell real stories, to voice real opinions, to sometimes show people the messy closet of me. It takes strength to show someone the naked, messy parts of my mind. It's much easier to cover myself up with jokes or easy answers. But it's unsatisfying. In Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy's character says, "You know, I believe if there's any kind of God, it wouldn't be in any of us -- not you, or me -- but just this little space in between. If there is any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know... It's almost impossible to succeed, but... who cares, really. The answer must be in the attempt." And so I will make the attempt. I will show myself to others, and hope to understand them a little more in return.
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