Scene: Last Saturday at the Spur festival’s Literary Cabaret.
I am standing at the Arts and Letters club, and a writer I have just met (but already hugged three times) is tapping against my cleavage and insisting “Your heart is trying to talk to you! It’s saying beep beep beep beep I have a message for you!”
Then his hand becomes a manic spider, dancing just above my freshly-shaved head. “You are all up here in your brain. You are ignoring your heart.” He returns his fingertip to my chest, and taps out a few more “beep beep beeps” for emphasis. He then looks at me sternly, says “Okay?” a few times, gives me a final hug and swoops away.
His name is David-Benjamin Tomlinson, and a few hours earlier I watched in tears as he performed a monologue about having a complicated and unattractive reaction to his best friend having a baby. It was vulnerable and hilarious and open-hearted, which is how I would describe all of my favourite art.
I loved it, but even while listening to it, I was making mental edits. At one point, he decides he is going to win this little girl over with a dance party. And as he talks about this dance party, it seems like he has won her over. I feel like my heart is being cracked open.
But then his piece continued for another two segments, and during those segments I was thinking “No. Now it is messy. Now I know that one action didn’t solve everything. Now I can’t write my own happy ending.” When the piece eventually did wrap up, though, I had to admit it was stronger that way. It had more of an impact on me, because it was more realistic.
I love other people’s realities. I tell everyone to be brave and genuine and vulnerable. I tell them that it is a gift to their community to show trust in this way. I tell them to be a role model for imperfect people doing their best. But in all honesty, I feel like the realistic version of me is embarrassing, so I’ve been hiding it away. I worry that if I paint myself in a realistic light, it will be clear that I can be impatient and avoidant and petty and untrustworthy.
I spent a few recent years in the fight of my life, trying to keep feeling like I was loveable while facing a lot of evidence to the contrary. And by some metrics my plan was successful; I survived with my sense of worthiness intact. Except now I feel like the only way I can maintain that feeling is to wrap the emotional equivalent of one of those lead blankets around myself, to keep out X-ray eyes.
This is the fear that I try to explain to David-Benjamin after his performance. Except it is humiliating to articulate. So I start sentences about not wanting to seem imperfect and then trail off, avoiding the eyes of someone who has just told an audience of strangers that he hated his best friend’s baby.
But the truth is, this epiphany won’t last. This is not my tidy happy ending. This is not the point where I reassure all of you that they will only get generous and open-hearted writing from me for now on. I don’t have that in me.
All I am able to do is admit to everyone that I am scared. I’m scared that my self-preservation became self-desctruction, and that in my flailing determination to look after myself when I was left at sea, I doubled down on some of my worst qualities. And I’m scared that the very nature of these qualities is what makes them hardest to process in public.
My impatience means that I don’t want to start over in finding my voice and audience. My pettiness means that I don’t really feel I should have to. My avoidance means that I don’t want to dig through myself to do this work. And my untrustworthiness means that I don’t feel like anything I would write would be believable even to myself.
I guess believing myself is what David-Benjamin was trying to tell me to do, with his beep beep beeps on my chest. To reassure myself that I am a reliable narrator. To stop gaslighting myself, for crying out loud.
The truth is, I can’t make any promises. I can’t even promise to do my best because I don’t even know what my best is. But I want to thank everyone who encourages me to keep trying, and who tells me my voice is valuable and that I don’t have to be perfect.
And I want to thank David-Benjamin, for being a shining example of the value of authentic connection.