There is no real conversation without vulnerability.
I hate these things. It’s stuporously early on a bright, frigid January Saturday morning, and I’m not ready for this. Oblivious of the implications, Jill has put the question I’ve been struggling with for over five years now into a little class exercise – the cheap, easy-for-you-to-ask kind whose purpose I appreciate, but whose implementation always sets my desire to engage authentically back into the ice ages. Kinda like an overly grabby first date (or, also, like a trick with zero preliminaries).
The point of the exercise is to examine assumptions and worldviews, but the very act presumes identity revelation (or its opposite) is cost-free – an assumption only the privileged make. At least that’s how I feel at the moment.
We’re in Louise’s Senior Seminar, on the tranquil campus of the College of St. Catherine, in St. Paul, Minnesota. This course is the capstone in the Master of Arts of Organizational Leadership (MAOL) program. I have actually felt, at times, a sense of belonging here.
We’re an intimate group this term, just six students, sitting now in an irregular little circle at the front end of the room, in those hard school seats with lift-up mini-desk-tops built into the arm of the chair. Three of us are white fifty-ish women (four if you count our instructor, Louise), the other three are thirty-somethings; one of them a single, black woman from Kenya; one a married, white, brand-new dad; and one a married, white, young mom – Jill, who is leading today’s seminar, on diversity.
Over the course of the term, each student designs and leads one two-hour seminar on a topic the group has chosen. Jill has just concluded her presentation on the importance of diversity, and is now leading us in the ‘window-pane exercise’.
As we pass around the handouts – sheets printed with an image of an empty grid topped by a fan-light – a ‘windowpane’, she asks us to fill in the ‘panes’ with the labels we use to identify ourselves: race, stage of life, gender, life roles, job title, etc., the lenses through which we view the world. No label is right or wrong (unless it’s unspeakable. . . ).
No-one would know it to look at me, but I don’t find this an easy question. The fact is, I have so many true identities, I’d need a classification system to represent them all. I have not lived my life building one coherent monolith of an identity, but repeatedly letting go of who-I-thought-I-was, seeking out every possible identification, trying to identify with everything. But the question at hand is: do I claim my public sameness here, which would be easy, obvious and add nothing to the conversation, or do I claim my (myriad and private) differences – which would serve the purpose of the exercise, but feel like tearing my skin off, and carries practical dangers.
My pulse has sped up, swooshing loudly in my bad ear–I choose the easy route.
But I’ve done this before, it’s my usual stance, and I know how it feels.
You know you don’t want to do that.
Instantly, I resent being forced to implicitly stand up for the status quo. I am as sick of “passing” as I am of the assumptions inherent in this exercise. As tired of affirming people’s assumption that I’m exactly normal, as I am of the well-intentioned use of other-people’s differences, of asking ‘others’ to carry the cost and the weight of enlightenment.
So who’s forcing you Christine? Why assume they can’t handle real answers? Whose game are you playing anyway? And, if not these people, who at least understand the stakes, then whom?
Years later, my pulse will still race recalling this moment. I scrutinize the paper, hating that I have to make this decision right now, my heart battering my ribcage. Time to fill in my labels. Do I have to do this? Couldn’t I gracefully abstain? The deafening hiss of my pulse in my ear convinces me. I scrawl, then wait through the report-backs, battery acid filling my stomach.
The others become more humanly interesting, but there are no big shocks.
When it’s my turn, I say “I hate these exercises. I realize their value, but I hate doing them”. Polite curiosity smiles back at me.
My throat constricts when I’m upset, angry, tense, or afraid, demanding increasing attention in recent years. My voice comes out wrong: froggy, wiry, the asynchronized screeching of a turbulent plurality. No-one else hears it but me and my husband, but I find it unnerving. An instantaneous tool for self-awareness, I’ve become so attuned to this tension that I no longer even need speak to know something is wrong and start scanning for the trigger. But right now the cause, huge and blatant, requires no inquiry, and my voice sounds as if I just inhaled helium.
“I hate them because they present me with a dilemma,” I continue, pushing the sound out through my stricken voicebox as if pushing a boulder up an incline. “I can write down the obvious:
Pause to suck air through the bottleneck. “Those labels are true enough.” I continue.
“They’re what you’d expect and would be comfortable hearing. They’re what I’d be comfortable telling you.” Another breath. “But saying them I become an imposter, a liar, because they don’t mean anything to me.” Another inhalation. “If I say those words, you’ll think you know who I am, but you’ll have no idea and I’ll resent feeling trapped into presenting a ubiquitous facade. Because those labels are not the lenses I see through. The lenses I see through fit these labels.”
I breathe again.
Now that there’s no turning back, my throat releases. I hold up my trembling paper & read off my labels:
“Welfare Brat who grew up in a housing project
Oldest child of a mentally ill single mother
Abused Foster Child
Ex-Thief & Bully
Ex-Single Mom who had a son with a gay man
Uneducated Pink-Collar worker
And all the rest comes after”
Something stings my eyes, I continue:
“If I choose the first option you will talk to me in ways and about things that annoy me, assuming I share your beliefs and values. You might like me, but I will resent you without your knowing, or knowing why. There will be an invisible barrier that only I will see.
If I choose the second option, you will understand how little we have in common. I will like you better this way. But there may still be an invisible barrier, which you will know and I will suspect.
I don’t care what labels I wear and my sense of self is not stuck in the distant past. But regardless of what I have become, I still see the world through my earliest lenses first. I don’t understand myself, my life or the world around me in the ways you’d think when you look at me. My lenses come from a far less safe, orderly, and predictable world than than that first set of labels points to. I’ve learned to live in this educated, middle-class world that seems to represent reality, but this is not my native tongue. I often feel alien here, but because I’ve learned to pass, and my skin color matches the majorities’s, people think they know me. So I hate these exercises because every time I’m presented with one, I have to decide whether to sustain the illusion, or blow my cover. I know the value to others if I blow my cover. I get the purpose of this exercise. I’ve spent most of adult life among people who assume – incorrectly, and based on no more than appearance (and omission) – that I share their worldview. I get that my being truthful helps us examine our assumptions – which is crucial. But for me, disclosure comes at a cost that I’ve never chosen to pay for one of these little diversity exercises before. And whatever choice I make, this sort of discussion makes me extremely uncomfortable. Whichever choice I make, I’m going to feel further from the group than I did before. The question is: do I want to be seen as extremely ‘other’ for who I really am, or be considered ‘one of us’ for pretending to be who I am not?”
Saying this, I watch their faces change. I could say their jaws go slack, their eyes pop out and their expressions fall flat. But that would be inaccurate and mean. They’re good people – all of them. Open-minded, progressive, well-intentioned. They just never expected me to say what I said – that’s obvious – no-one ever does. Louise, of course, is smiling: Jill’s exercise is a success.
Finally shutting up, I lift the mini-desk off my lap, pull my feet up on the chair & wrap my arms around my knees to help stabilize the shaking.
The discussion that follows goes far deeper than it would have. Everyone expresses gratitude for my sharing & honesty; it was enlightening, they’re awed by my courage.
I, usually a yapper, have little to say for the rest of the session, my energy spent on restraining the trembling, holding back tears, resisting the urge to curl up under the old wooden desk at back of the room.
At home later I cuddle up on the couch in my husband’s arms, still trembling, and contemplate my reaction.
I’m generally expressive and outspoken, giving an impression of being abnormally honest, open, and authentic. But my layers run so deep that what in others would be profoundly private and secret is middle-ground to me. I can afford to reveal more than most while preserving vast hidden continents no-one else suspects.
Even I had come to believe I am comfortable with exposure and that my secrets were merely a pragmatic choice. But I didn’t leave the house that morning planning to drop any bombs, and I didn’t anticipate the psychic upheaval resulting from suddenly shining a public light in long-dark private places. Who I ‘really’ am is everyday truth amongst my husband, my twenty-something son and I, a shared common understanding, a topic we’re at ease with. I’ve done therapy (all kinds), I feel as ‘healed’ as I believe it gets in real life.
There are even others scattered about, people who have known me long enough or well enough to have heard my stories – which I usually enjoy telling. It surprised me how traumatic it was to add six new people to the list of those who ‘knew’.
We mete out our vulnerability in homeopathically dilute doses here, among the civilized. Me especially, born, as I was, sans naiveté.
But really, what caused all that shaking? Was it what people would think? I doubted it – I’m no stranger to the dislike of others. Was it touching on the past? I doubted that too – I have been ‘doing the work’ for so long now. On that day, I couldn’t quite say why I trembled.
Now I understand it was premonition. Saying it out loud again, in front of relative strangers, pulled on a thread that held together the fabric of the life I’d made. The fabric that houses and clothes and feeds me and mine, that gives me a place in this world, the respect of others, and an income.
It was the beginning of the end, the first unraveling of a story that made me feel relatively safe in the world. It was, I see now, the crossing of my own Rubicon. A miniscule advance that completely altered the trajectory.
Not the battle itself, but the point at which the battle became inevitable. My story was turning back again, slowly, into the darkness. As my old therapist Nor Hall put it:
Trembling is caused by Dionysos “…the Shaker, the Loosener”. He is that trembling energy that shakes the maenad loose from the confines of complacence. . . Everything edifying – ennobling, spiritually uplifting, morally elevating, improving: these massively built defenses against the downward pull of instinct – trembles and crashes resoundingly. . . Foundations of identity tremble when the edifice is shaken . . . Physical trembling announces the imminent takeover. We shake like a leaf when a resistance is about to break.
Nor Hall – Those Women
I was trembling at the return of my dark Daimon, come to claim that which at long last was coming to term, coming to claim my dues.