Sometimes I think that I have spent my life under deep cover. Most of it, anyway. There may have been a handful of early years when I was my true self, a brief interval before I got the memo about introverts and their dismal social prospects. I can just about remember the hours of solitary play, the blissful time alone with a book. And then, the insistent chorus of voices: What are you doing here, all by yourself? Go and join the other children. Go and find someone to talk to. You’re a bright girl. Get out there and shine.
I recall some well-meaning adult telling me that shyness was a form of selfishness, a kind of spiritual hoarding, keeping one’s gifts hidden. The idea that my natural preference for solitude was a defect of character and a source of disapproval took root, and I began the arduous task of constructing a perky, outgoing persona.
It was trial and error at first, watching the popular girls and trying on their ways of being in the world. But faking a passion for dodgeball and laughing at the boys’ lame jokes and shunning the geeks who used to be my occasional friends felt like uphill work. And the nonstop whispering and chattering took its toll. Was it really necessary to talk all the time? Did they never stop to refuel?
Eventually, I became an accomplished chameleon. I learned to take on the protective coloration of the group, to blend in and keep my eccentric craving for peace and quiet and way too much poetry under wraps. Even so, I shrank from large gatherings, avoided big, jolly groups of strangers who all seemed to know each other and to share a talent for small talk.
Blind dates in college were a particular form of torture. You’ll like him, the pretty blonde matchmaker from my dorm would insist. He’s got a great sense of humor. And maybe he did, before downing half a quart of bourbon and passing out at Tommy’s Briar Patch Inn while I escaped to the Ladies’ Room and willed myself to disappear. The extroverts on my floor would shrug when I told them this story. Laugh it off, they advised. Go talk to some cute guy at the bar. Snake your roommate’s date. Lighten up.
Like many introverts, I found a safe place in the theater. My fear of crowds did not extend to the faceless audience. Creating a character and telling the story was a kind of mission, a way to translate the language of an interior life. On stage, I could be anyone and everyone. For a few hours behind the footlights, I was real again.
Writing, I have discovered, presents another paradox. The most solitary of pursuits, it is also the most crowded and often the noisiest. The voices of memory, the catalogue of observations fill the quiet room with sound and color. Scenes emerge in vivid detail. On a good day, it’s an introvert’s paradise: lively solitude.
I’ve been shedding my chameleon skin for a while now. It has become too heavy and confining for daily wear. At this point, it’s time to make peace with who I am: an introvert with finely honed social skills. I will almost certainly never be the life of the party. I will always hate dodgeball and blind dates with sloppy drunks and I will always hesitate at the threshold of large cocktail receptions, scanning the crowd for one familiar face. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Still, I wish I could have five minutes with that long-ago lady who chided me about spiritual hoarding. My interior rooms may be crowded, but I have learned that there is more than one way to share.
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