Sunday, June 4, 2017

Showing Who We Are

A friend of mine shares a Netflix account with her ex-husband.  Their divorce is final, and as they feel their way around new, independent lives, they haven’t gotten around to dealing with some of the things they developed together—a joint account at a food co-op, a gym membership, and a sweet yellow lab they shift back and forth between apartments.   And Netflix.

“It’s fine,” she shrugs.  “Well, all except the Netflix thing.”  It is convenient and certainly financially beneficial—but can get a little awkward.  “I can click on his profile at any time and see what he’s been watching… and he can do the same to me,” she says.  “The other night, I wanted to watch something I never would have watched with him, because he would have hated it and been uncomfortable, and he would have disapproved.”  She laughs, a little bitter.  “Which is why we’re divorced.”  And then, slowly, as if just realizing it, she says, “It’s shocking, really, how intimate it is to share a Netflix account with someone.”

Intimacy creeps up in surprising places.  Working in my office a few days ago, I took some time to clear out some of my files from the school year. I paused to go through my “memories” box, a plastic tub full of photographs, notes and cards I want to keep forever.  The things in this box tell the story of who I am and what I value.  It’s not just work stuff, either; in an effort to streamline my mementos, I’ve tucked some other things into the box, too.  A letter my grandfather wrote to me, years ago, when I tried to patch up an argument between he and my father.  Sonograms of two babies I lost to miscarriage, just weeks after hearing their heartbeats for the first time.  The note that accompanied the flowers my editor sent the day my book came out.  A rejection letter from the only graduate school to which I applied my last year of college—a letter that propelled me into two restless, lost years of silent raging against The System, living in disgusting apartments, and paying the rent as a bartender, slinging cocktails and 32-ounce beer.
As I poked through the box, I felt like we all do when we remember these things—nostalgic, sad, grateful, vulnerable.  Then, this thought flashed at me:  I wonder if anyone else has seen the things in this box?

Because people are in and out of my office all the time when I’m not there.  I don’t mind at all; in fact, when someone needs space to work, or a moment with the door closed, I always offer it up.  It’s a space available to anyone, anytime.  It’s only locked at night, and even then, night custodians could poke around all they wanted, and I’d never know it.  I literally have no idea how many people go in and out of my office over the course of a day, week, or year.

Which made me realize that at any point, anyone could come in and poke around in my stuff.  This box, sure, but also anything else I have strewn about:  My notebook with my to-do list; the bulletin board, pinned with cards and quotes; cards I prop up on my bookshelf.  There is my computer desktop itself, and any application I might accidentally leave open; there’s a stack of papers and emails I’ve printed into a stack to deal with when I get a moment.  My office is like a social media page I can’t control, unless I shred everything and make my work area sterile and empty.  Which I don’t want to do.  So, it offers constant glimpses of what I’m thinking and doing, what I’ve thought and done in the past.

To be clear, none of this bothers me, and I am not ashamed of anything in my memory box, or in my office, or anywhere else, for that matter.  And I genuinely wouldn’t even care if someone saw everything in it.  But, like my friend’s Netflix account, it’s jarringly intimate, the way the things we keep around us serve as a mirror to who we have grown to be—and cannot ever really be ours alone. 

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