“It opened my eyes to the notion that unconsciously, I was portraying a version of myself.”
Vasu ToliaRattle – February 21, 2019
I came upon this quote from the artist Vasu Tolia while reading poetry on Rattle.com. It expresses her thoughts after reading an ekphrastic* poem someone else wrote describing a painting of hers. As I read those words, and putting our art aside, I wondered how much we do that very thing in our everyday lives. How much do I do that very thing?
As a former teacher, I’ve conferenced with hundreds of parents who are amazed, shocked, or horrified to hear about the version of their child that I describe as having in my classroom. Countless variations of “Really? She does that? She never does that at home!” or “That’s not the child I know! He is so- (fill in the blank) at home.” Whether it be a positive or a negative, some children clearly have school versions and home versions of themselves. If we are socially adept adults we realize that certain of our behaviors are appropriate for certain settings and we consciously act accordingly, creating normalized “versions” of ourselves. Younger students are often shocked to see their teachers out in public, doing “normal” non- teaching things like shopping, eating at a restaurant or swimming at the lake, beach or pool. Their version of their teacher eats, breathes and lives at school and looks nothing like the super casual version they’ve unexpectedly run into.
To some extent our professions dictate a persona that we consciously or perhaps unconsciously emulate. Famous personalities like Lady Gaga, have a public persona quite different from their private, no makeup, no costumes, no image to portray, real self. One is a role she plays and the other is just the real deal Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. She consciously makes that change though. On stage she portrays Lady Gaga and at home or among friends and family she is simply Stephani. Certainly as artists and in our art work we pour ourselves into whatever medium we choose. But outside of that, when do we unconsciously make that choice?
I recently retired from teaching and my husband and my teammates at school conspired to make a surprise tribute video to recognize and celebrate my career. In her cameo, one of my friends commented that I’m very protective and it took her almost 2 years to crack what some might perceive as my “standoffish façade”, but once she did, once I let her in, she became one of “my fiercely protected people” and she saw me for the hidden treasure I am. At the time I remember thinking, I certainly don’t ever mean to give off that vibe, but apparently I do it like a rock star. Like the facial expressions that sometimes betray me, I unconsciously wear a figurative suit of armor and erect invisible walls to protect the version of myself that I allow only a select few to get to know. Why?
Why indeed? Let’s explore. From the time I was almost 2, and for the next 40 years, I moved around a lot. Like an army brat on steroids lot or running from the law or the landlord who wanted the rent check lot, (neither of which are true as far as I know) making the art of “making friends” both very easy and extremely painful. Friendships have come quickly and gone quickly, as my geographic area changed pre- Internet and social media and way back in the days of snail mail and exorbitant long distance telephone calling. Then if you insert the requirement that they be “true friendships”, well, brick by brick.
Now let’s add puberty while being taller than everyone on the planet and not being graced with a symmetrical face and the perfect smaller nose that every single other person in the whole entire world has and well… suit of armor, check. Throw in an inherent abhorrence for “the plastics”, bullshitters, bigtalkers, and wasting words or time, because don’t forget, I’m gonna move soon, and well… brick by brick.
Besides just exploring this phenomenon in my personal life, there’s a point to all of this. That coworker or classmate of yours, you know, the most likely introverted one? It may be helpful to think of them as one of those scratch and sniff stickers or perfume/cologne inserts that come in magazines. Or perhaps one of those scratch art kits where the beautiful colors appear only after you penetrate the blackness on top. As the musical artists Train and Ashley Monroe sing, “We all got bruises” and by taking the time to scratch the surface of that person who seems a mystery not wanting to be solved, you just might find what caused those bruises and uncover a treasure, in a friend who’ll stay, because that’s what they’ve always wanted.
*ekphrastic poetry- a vivid description of a work of art… that may amplify and expand its meaning