"Are you comfortable?"
An innocuous question like that left me feeling surprised and somewhat stunned when a friend asked me that at a meeting over coffee.
My emphatic answer and accompanying smile was an attempt to convince her that I was indeed comfortable and our conversation continued. We talked about all our experiences during the intervening years, just like two friends meeting after a very long time would. And yet there was the echo of her remark, ricocheting around my brain..."are you comfortable, are you comfortable?"
Perhaps it hit me because I don't think I ever feel "comfortable". Not around people, not when I am by myself, in a word - never. The balance is almost always tilted toward some strain or some stress. I am always filled with a weird sense of hyper-awareness about my physical boundaries, of the space I take as I move through the world.
I feel a sense of awe at people who sit back on a couch or even on a park bench and look as though they are not feeling any tension in the legs that are extended forward with such ease, the arm that casually rests on the back of the seat, shoulders that find a natural slope of relaxation and are not squared against a hostile world. I am envious of that ability to merge with one's surroundings, to feel at home anywhere.
When I was younger I was always worried about creasing my ironed clothes. As I grew older I never felt certain about stepping in with a segue that would carry a group conversation forward. I was either quiet or tense about making a point in a voice that would be heard before someone steered the conversation away to a place where the point I was nurturing in my brain, for several minutes while someone more voluble was making theirs, would appear like nothing but a non sequitur or a meaningless digression. Some folks would notice and ask me to speak up more often, to put in my two cents, while I smiled and said I was "listening" and "absorbing".
I was also never sure about my hands, I never knew what to do with them when standing around at a party or in a circle of friends. I would worry about whether they should be in my pockets, on my hips, folded across my chest, hanging limply by the sides, clutching something, twirling something? I just didn't know what to do with them. The pockets grew to be quite a comfort zone. So much so that for the longest time I was known to bring tea or water or plates of food to guests at home with one hand, while the other was stuffed in a pocket. I remember feeling very annoyed with relatives and wondering what the big deal was about using two hands where the usage of one sufficed!
I suppose some people are just born square in a world that only accepts round pegs. I sometimes feel like I've spent whole life whittling away the squares, wanting to force a fit, or having accomplished said "fit" finding myself asphyxiated and boxed in, wanting nothing more than the freedom to be my square self, come what may. How is a natural ease with oneself possible when the fight is always so acute?
It makes for quite the duality of existence. The public side where I often succeed in appearing like the person I am forcing myself to be; pretending until it feels natural, pretending until the pretense feels like anything but pretense, and the intensely private side that manifests in the discomfort that some rare, perceptive souls can sense, in something as unnoticeable as the way I am sitting across from someone at a cafe table!
Speaking of "perceptive souls", aren't we all in search of the one that would see and understand that part of us that our layers of pretense have not been successful in masking? I think we spend our whole lives searching for one such. They say love makes the world go round and things like "love is all you need". Not really, unless it's a facetious way of saying what makes the world go round is finding the love who gets to the heart of "your" matter.
I have continued my tradition of listening and absorbing, now through virtual conversations and chats. I notice that as soon as one starts a conversation the responses that come back in reaction to what you said or did, or what went on in your life in the last minute, hour or day, are often detailed ones about how that person would have reacted, what they would have thought or done, had they been in your position. The sounds of wanting to be known, to be heard, to be understood and defined are clamorous. We are all selling clues, offering them up cheap on the social media market, and yet there are no takers, no buyers, only sellers.
All of it just ending in a dissonance that stays unresolved while people try to fit in and stand out all at once.
It was interesting to watch this John Cleese documentary: The Human Face, the other day. It was about facial expressions and how crucial they are to social interactions and communication. The story of a little girl who was born with the Mobius syndrome, a facial paralysis that left her unable to smile, was a cause of serious concern for her parents. They feared the worst for her when she started school. They worried about how other kids would see her, treat her. She underwent surgery that gave her a smile and her world was set right. That is how important smiles are.
The other interesting case in the documentary was of a Cambridge student who had a form of Asperger's syndrome. His problem was an inability to understand and interpret facial cues. He didn't know what a downturned mouth meant, what frowns meant, what it meant when someone was wide eyed. He felt like a misfit because he couldn't tell what people were communicating with their expressions! So he made a study out of it. He prepared a mental inventory of what each expression possibly meant. He taught himself. He "pretended" to know until he really got to know. Now he fit. Now he wasn't isolated.
And so we try, we are social animals, we depend on each other, we seek connections and sometimes the manner in which those connections will be made have to be learnt. They aren't always inborn except in a lucky few. Others have to learn how to compensate for deficits, or add corners or slats in order to fit. Perhaps the person I envy, who looks oh-so-comfortable at a party, or on a park bench or at a cafe, is also just pretending. Or maybe comfort in social situations is not a problem for them but mathematics or spelling is. Together we all add up and fit, I suppose.
Perhaps that's why we've grown up reading so many fairy tales about the princess asleep in some palace tower, asleep and oblivious, or silent while elsewhere in the tale there's a prince or a knight who has to set forth on a quest and find various clues along the way until he finds the key to her heart.
Digression (as if one can digress from nothing): Funny how the Princess is always the passive, sleepy or silent one, awaiting the Knight or Prince who knows what makes her tick.