Hung Out to Dry

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

I was awed during my recent trip to New Orleans by the sheer number of people expressing themselves artistically in public. Damn, it was good to see all those guts turned outward.

Lots of images stay with me: the dreadlocked teenager in a suit sitting atop a traffic-light box strumming a banjo as his buddies played an upright bass and washboard on the sidewalk beneath him; a tattooed young woman belting out the blues on the corner like some punk-rock Bessie Smith; the beautiful couple dressed in old-fashioned clothes dancing the Charleston as an old-time band jammed behind them; the big trombone player with pillows for cheeks who beamed between thrusts of his bent piece of brass.

Driving home from the airport back in North Carolina, I looked out over the well-maintained streets and said to Annie, “I miss me some funk.”

Not to say that the place where we live isn’t the home of some vibrant art; it just seems well tucked-away. People do their funk in private, it seems, and I miss the places I’ve lived and visited where people pin their souls to their lapels and scream.

I say this as someone who himself is fairly guarded in public; I’ve never been an airplane-talker or bus-chatter or look-at-me-over here kind of guy. But I do share my inner struggles and epiphanies, as long as it feels right. To me the idea of “wearing one’s heart on their sleeve” has been misinterpreted and maligned; I’m not advocating the laying bare of all one’s angst in bouts of self-serving sensationalism, but I do think too few people answer basic questions like “how are you today” with real answers. I say, give me some goods, and I’ll give you some of mine.

But such exchanges aren’t for everybody. Some prefer a life where struggles stay safely beneath the surface. I’ve always loved that scene in Annie Hall when a worrisome Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) stops a couple on the street and asks, “You seem like a happy couple; how do you account for it?” And the woman says with a smile, “Uh, I’m very shallow and empty and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.” And her partner pipes in, “And I’m exactly the same way!”

I can understand the instinct to play it safe — it’s a little scary on the ledge. I recently wrote a note to a friend in which I was daring with some feelings I was having; I didn’t hear back from him for a few days, and during that lull (in which I checked email way too often), I fretted over how much of my laundry I’d put out on the line. I read and reread my note, scrutinizing each word to see if it said too much. I was dying for some validation that what I’d exposed was in safe hands, but the silence continued. I ended up regretting that I sent the note, wishing I had not opened the door in my chest where truth comes and goes. Am I a fool to leave it ajar?

The key, it seems, is to know one’s audience. There are some people who like nothing more than to roll up their sleeves and play a good hand of what’s really going on with you. There are others who might like a peek but not a full disclosure. And there are some who would rather not play at all, for a variety of reasons, big and small. I try to be discriminating, but I’m not always going to get it right. There will be times I say too much. It’s in these moments, I think, that integrity truly gets tested. I once told a mentor about a moment when I had revealed too much. “Aha. So they’ve seen you with your pants down!” he said. “Now the question is what will you do in the glare of those lights?”

The answer is: I will continue to be bold, because doing so has freed me from years of shyness as a child and decades of swallowing my truths instead of sharing them. When I pull my own curtains back, whether on the page or in voice, I shed the layers distancing me from life’s messy splendor; when this is reciprocated, the resulting intimacy is an antidote to loneliness. So I will press on, knowing I’ll sometimes get caught on the corner with my broken self fluttering in the wind. I’ll reel it in, give it a squeeze, and unfurl it again. There are people on sidewalks everywhere trusting the world with their mottled beauty, and I will always be one of them. And damn, what a tribe.

Photo by Dion Nissenbaum

Great Conversations

The other day I noticed I was feeling really good. What had I done?

Not that I live in perpetual darkness, but let’s just say I’m continually acculturating to joy — when she does a two-step in my heart I like to backtrack just to see what I have done to beckon her arrival.

In this case, it was a great conversation — not with an old friend I hadn’t seen in years but with someone I interact with almost every day. A spontaneous chat turned into a talk that turned into a joy-generating exchange.

What distinguished this particular conversation from the dozens of others I had had that day? I think it was that both of us ended up at a destination neither of us had planned for. Instead of trading quick, static snapshots from our minds, we broadened each other’s views. My experience rolled around with his experience and a universal lesson was born. Heads started to nod, gesticulations became more animated, phrases like “yes! yes!” and “you’re exactly right!” peppered the air. Conversations like these generate the excitement of travel, really, because both people have moved from their point of origin to a new locale where the view is stunning.

I love it when there is a constellation of good conversations. There’s nothing like a dinner party where deep talk clinks across the room. Such moments are in fact what I seek at social gatherings; when small talk reigns, it feels like a shell hardened around the nuggets I want to get to. Why am I even here? I wonder to myself as I bump my head into perfunctory pleasantries. When I have a series of real conversations, on the other hand, I am enlivened by the gathering and the feeling inside lingers long after I’ve returned home. My answer to “Did you have fun at the party?” depends entirely on the conversations I did or didn’t have.

The key ingredient seems to be vulnerability and candor. Sometimes when I’m stuck on the surface with someone, I think, C’mon. Just throw me a few scraps. Dig in and bring up a chunk of your truth. I’m not talking about gushing with all of one’s messy particulars, but good conversation inherently involves risk-taking. What’s worse than being the provocateur while your potential conspirator moves her lips without opening her heart? I feel exposed in these moments — the guy who says too much. But I push forward with the hope that my vulnerability will invite that in the other, and that we will relish the intimacy this brings.

At a party you won’t often find me at the center of the room; I’m more likely standing in some dimly lit corner, trying to engage in what the Sufis call sohbet: a mystical conversation on a mystical subject. The Nigerian writer Ben Okri once wrote that “you can travel the world and still not move an inch.” I’ll stay there all night long if the road to somewhere keeps opening up.