risking exposure

When I was in the fourth grade, we moved from rural southern Arkansas to Escondido, California, near San Diego, and my teacher was Miss Devlin, whom I adored. She had us writing stories that our classmates illustrated, and generally made it very fun to be in school.

What I remember most fondly about Miss Devlin is that she invited us, her students, to her wedding. I went with my parents to watch her walk down the aisle and become Mrs. Hughes. As we walked into the chapel, we were each handed a white daisy. I watched the proceedings of the wedding with rapt, joyous attention, clutching my daisy with heart-swelling pride.

I loved Mrs. Hughes because she included me in her life. She helped me so much in so many ways. By minimizing the distance between us, she brought forth from me a gushing eagerness to learn. She was kind and inclusive, and I opened like a flower tuned to her sun.

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Why do we exclude people from our personal lives? We do it to be safe, to protect ourselves physically or emotionally, to hide. But sometimes exclusion is only a habit, an unchallenged unwillingness to risk exposure. Giving that habit some time off, as an experiment in calculated risk, can shake things up and bring surprising connections.

Sharing what’s personal, what’s important at the core, what’s heartbreaking or unexpectedly true or totally messed up, makes us human to others, believable and accessible. I’m so attracted to people’s willingness to risk exposure. The readout on my genuineness detector flies upward into the double digits, and I can’t help but want to open and be genuine in response.

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Some years after I’d bid Mrs. Hughes farewell, I sat in a big classroom at a community college in Tulsa, Oklahoma, trying and failing to pay attention in Chemistry 101, taught by a woman whose name I’ve thankfully forgotten. She persists in my memory as a two-dimensional cut-out with a blurry face. I was alternately bored by her dull teaching style and scared by her insistent rigidity. Though I remember nothing of the chemistry she was charged with teaching us, I vividly remember her shoes.

She wore the exact same style of shoes with every outfit, but the shoe colour precisely matched the colour of the outfit. Every time she bought a new outfit, she must have had another pair of shoes expertly dyed to match. It was scary, like she was a scientist robot whose strict exactitude extended to her wardrobe. (Imagine her kitchen! Matching bins of food marching along the cabinet shelves, precisely placed and neatly labelled: “Shredded Wheat Cereal,” “Oats,” “Prunes,” “Metamucil.”)

That chemistry teacher’s inability or unwillingness to appear before us in human form activated a repelling force field. Even though I really wanted to like her (I’ve retained an unquenchable eagerness to love my teachers), I kept slipping off her slick, impersonal surface. I couldn’t find a way in.

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Think about the writers you most adore, the ones whose books you clutch to your breast after turning the last page, reluctant to pass out of their spell. How did they reach down inside you? How did they open you up to receive them so deeply and matter to you so much?

I invite you to view the writing you love as your teacher, beckoning you to learn about yourself through your response, calling you to learn about your own way of writing by noticing the chords their writing strikes in you.

Send what you learn back out into the world through your own creations, risking exposure from the solid ground of self-acceptance. Your act of creative daring could be exactly the example someone else needs to risk a revealing leap of their own.

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Related reading: reading to dogs

 

6 comments to risking exposure

  • I think this is one reason I love Anne Lamott’s writing so much, because she shows us everything, including the dirty, unlovely sides of her self. Her writing makes her totally human and accessible. When I read this quote in Operating Instructions I thought, “Yes! She gets me.” Perfectly described the combination of love/loathing you can feel for your baby.

    “I wish he could take longer naps in the afternoon. He falls asleep and I feel I could die of love when I watch him, and I think to myself that he is what angels look like. Then I doze off, too, and it’s like heaven, but sometimes only twenty minutes later he wakes up and begins to make his gritchy rodent noises, scanning the room wildly. I look blearily over at him in the bassinet, and think, with great hostility. ‘Oh God, he’s raising his loathsome reptilian head again.'”

    • Annie is the bee’s knees when it comes to risking exposure.

      I like Tim Moore’s travel writing for the same reason, especially his book French Revolutions, where he shows us his hilariously wimpy attitude toward a multi-day bike trip, and many other blunders. He says things like this:

      “I hope I am not alone in harbouring a mild obsession with the excretory habits of professional sportsmen.”

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