catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 4 :: 2006.02.24 — 2006.03.10


A hidden self

Lately, I’ve thought a lot about how the patterns of our childhoods shape who we become as adults. My mom has told me many times how I rarely slept when I was a baby. I’d wake up so early and she’d be so exhausted that she’d put me in a playpen so she could sleep on the couch while I watched Sesame Street and Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood and whatever else was on PBS before sunrise.

Of course, I was too young to remember these early mornings, but this story fits the pattern of things I do recall. I remember going to a friend’s birthday party in kindergarten. We clustered around a little table in mismatched chairs to eat lunch and share birthday cake. Several times, my friend’s mother scolded me for sitting on my feet to make myself taller, closer to the action. “How many times do I have to tell you?” she asked. I got the impression that I was not supposed to be such an active, eager child.

And I remember playing Barbie dolls when I was three or four with my aunt, who was twelve years older than I was. Apparently, I hadn’t grown a sensor switch yet between my brain and my mouth and I said, “Here you take this one, because she’s ugly and I’ll take the pretty one.” She threw her ugly doll at me and stalked away. I don’t blame her. But somewhere inside me a voice said, “You just keep your mouth shut.” The scene in American Beauty in which Colonel Fitz is beating his son is a strange parallel for me. “You can’t just go around doing whatever you want,” is the lesson he attempts to impart, both with his fists and his words.

The image I have of my childhood self is a hyperactive, talkative, dramatic and somewhat unkind little girl who knew how to manipulate other kids, how to be the teacher’s pet and when to turn on the tears. And of course such little girls should learn that “you can’t just go around doing whatever you want” when what you want hurts and deceives others, but there is a core of my abandon that I miss, that has diminished too much over time.

People who know me today would probably be hard-pressed to make the connection between who I was and who I am. I’m much more likely to sit back, be quiet and sleep late than I am to rise early, speak impulsively and try to be the closest one to the birthday girl. My early childhood experiences, along with junior high clique trauma and hurtful high school relationships have lit up a lesson that flashes like a neon sign in the front of my brain: CLOSED. I think I have learned to mistrust the people around me (“they don’t really like me”), as well as myself (“remember that stupid thing you said?”), which all culminates in a convenient persona that some have called wisdom or peace or sensibility or seriousness, but is really just well-masked fear and image consciousness.

It’s not easy to analyze one’s self in this way, particularly in so public a medium, but the question of my identity?my “hats”?is tied up in such memories. I’ve been frustrated for several years now by the side effects of a closed personality. I live so much in my head that I have a tendency to miss seeing and responding to the needs of others and I have a hard time expressing affection verbally and physically toward those I love. I am grateful for my husband, with whom no such barriers exist, but I also wish I could grow my love so big it would burst these artificial boundaries I’ve cultivated to “protect” myself.

If this is the place a person arrives by virtue of formative experiences as mild as my own, I can only imagine the difficult task of being vulnerable and open when one has endured much more traumatizing experiences. From within my own carefully crafted space, I can’t imagine what words I could say with enough confidence for them to travel successfully over my both wall and theirs.

But to those who are waiting openly just outside the wall of someone else’s boundary, I can say: take the risk that the person inside is unable to make. Put your arm around him and leave it there a while. Tell her a secret. Tell him you are grateful for him. Hold her hand. Keeping people in boxes?even in the boxes they seemingly have put themselves in?mostly just leads to loneliness and numbness, in my experience.

May we all be given the grace to become fools for love’s sake.

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