An open and shut case

Other people’s words about … signs

[The waitress] leans over our table and turns the sign in the window so that it says CLOSED on the outside. But on our side, perfectly positioned between Mabel’s place and mine, it says OPEN. If this were a short story, it would mean something.

From ‘We Are Not Alone’
by Nina La Cour

I am the kind of person who, like Marin, the narrator in the passage above, can’t help seeing life through symbols and signs: I see metaphorical OPEN and CLOSED signs in my own life every day.

Lately, as some of you know, I’ve been released (at least for now) from the routine of salaried office work. I’m not answerable to an employer any more; I don’t have to be at the office at a particular time, or sign on and off at the beginning and end of my shift, or conform to a certain dress code, or take my lunch hour at a stipulated time for a stipulated duration. All of which implies a certain freedom, the kind of freedom I’ve often craved.

But I do have to hustle. If I want to get work as a freelancer, I have to go out and seek it, something I never had to do as a salaried employee. And in the daily transactions of that hustling — contacting people, letting them know of my existence and of the work I do, following up their responses, thinking of new people to contact and new ways to work — it’s all too easy to see signs everywhere I look. Someone doesn’t answer my email? That’s a CLOSED sign. Someone writes back, saying it’s lovely to hear from me? That’s an OPEN sign.

And so on.

It’s exhausting and exciting, both those things at once, and I don’t know yet where it will take me or what it will lead me to — or whether, ultimately, it will be sustainable. But for now, it’s early days, and I’m giving it a chance, and I still believe there might be some OPEN signs on the path ahead of me …

Signs and symbols: The way forward?

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Meanwhile, as always, I’ve been reading! Here’s the recent digest:

Inner world

Other people’s words about … resilience

I think maybe [my father] liked the worlds in his head better than the real one. As far as I ever knew, he didn’t have any close friends … Once, when I was about nine or ten, I told him I wasn’t very popular at school. He told me that friends were overrated, because the only person you could ever really count on was yourself. Weirdly, that actually made me feel better.

from ‘Thanks for the Trouble
by Tommy Wallach

I am, I suppose, what most people would describe as introverted. There are other words that go along with this kind of description: shy, quiet, aloof, disengaged, uncertain, insecure, antisocial. Those are mostly negative words, I see. Perhaps they are coined by extroverts.

The year that we lived in England, I was at my most introverted: I had no friends at all. (Here’s a question: do you end up without friends because you are introverted, or do you become introverted because you have no friends?) I was fourteen, and I wandered those long school corridors with the white polished floors alone. I wore the wrong clothes, and I had the wrong accent, and I lived life at the wrong pace and the wrong volume. At lunch I sat in one of the stalls in the girls’ toilets, waiting the hour out. I listened to girls coming in and out, the cubicle doors swinging, the toilets flushing. My breath caught on the sweet spray of perfume they doused themselves with as they stood before the mirrors. I listened to their chatter, high and loud and lipsticked. And then I listened to the door to the girls’ room banging shut again, their footsteps receding down the white-floored corridors as they went back to wherever they had come from.

After the first few weeks, one of the school teachers took pity on me, and introduced me to a couple of girls in my class.

‘Go and sit with them at lunchtime,’ he said, with a look on his face that was half-pity and half-exasperation. He was small and balding and chipper. ‘They’re nice girls. They’ll look after you.’

Such well-meaning, misguided intentions! I looked at the two girls and they looked back at me. I could see they were as horrified at the prospect of me spending lunchtime with them as I was. And yet we all did what he said. They took me back to their lunchtime bench, and I sat with them and their friends — that day and the day after and the day after that. For months, in fact, I ate my sandwich with them silently; I sat with them silently; I watched them silently; I listened to them silently. They took to ignoring me, in the end. They went on with their lives — their parties and their gossip and their drinking and their shopping and their boyfriends — while I sat mute beside them, in what seems to me now almost a parody of introversion.

I have often thought back to that year in high school. I’ve thought about how, at night, I lay in the darkness of my bedroom, the one with the wallpaper with pretty sprigs of flowers dotted over it, and longed for popularity and friendship, for someone my own age to count on. I’ve thought about how I believed that I must be faulty in some way — weak, or cowardly, or defective — because I couldn’t do what other people my own age did instinctively: talk. Make connections. Relax. Laugh.

So it astonishes me now, to look back and see a different possibility, a different narrative, from the one I’ve just told. I don’t believe that friends are ‘overrated’, to use Wallach’s word. Still, I wonder: what if I had learned to trust myself during that year? What if I had learned that I was my own friend? What if I had allowed myself to like the world in my head at least as much as the real one? More broadly, what if we could teach all young people to count on themselves in this way? What, then?

I am not sure. But I think it’s important to listen to alternative narratives like the one in the words above: to retell our life-stories to ourselves, to seek out new plots, new endings. I think it’s important to trust your own inner world: to learn to turn to it in times of need, or in times of loneliness. Introversion, in this context, is irrelevant. What’s relevant is resilience. Resilience is all that matters.

Resilience, you will note, is not a negative word.