The Authenticity Experiment, the intimacy edition. The North Dakota Music Teacher arrived in Portland recently and almost immediately we began talking about how people build relationships. We dated briefly last fall and became emotionally intimate quickly. Partly, we are wired this way and partly we took a big breath and jumped into the deep end of the emotional pool. Texts, phone calls, and emails. Ten minute cups of coffee because often that was all the time our competing schedules afforded us. And letters—lots and lots of handwritten letters to each other. This remained even when we knew dating wasn’t right for us.
The night she got here, we talked for five-and-a-half hours. Ceaselessly, barely breathing between sentences. Stopping and interrupting each other to make a point and then always circling back around to the story at hand. We sat at the quarter-sawn oak table in my dining room, and we kept slapping it for emphasis, and saying with each new story about our families of origin, each new disclosure about the trials and tribulations we’d faced in our separate cities these past four months, “I mean, how else do you build intimacy except like this, right?” And the other would reply, “Right.”
Last fall when I was driving up and down I-5 reading in Washington, Oregon, and California, and trying to balance book tour with my dwindling resources and my day job, I woke up very early—in the house of an acquaintance who’d put me up after a reading—with an incredibly sore bicep. I’d forgotten that before I’d left Portland, I’d repeatedly lifted my couch with one arm in order to arrange a new blue and burgundy Persian rug with the other arm. But, it is also true that I felt deeply weary and alone—emotionally, existentially. When this angst occurs, I often revert to my childhood fear: weird diseases that can kill or maim. At those times, I need someone to both take me seriously by listening and not interrupting, and to make me laugh at my anxiety, at myself. So, I texted the North Dakota Music Teacher even though we’d only begun dating. Because, as I said, we started by grabbing hands and jumping into the deep end together, so why not.
It’s funny now. Even then I laughed, maybe, after I finished crying hard—alone, in the house of someone I hardly knew, in a freezing cold bedroom, under a pile of blankets that weighed so much they bent my feet back until my arches cramped. I texted the North Dakota Music Teacher that I thought I might have rhabdomyolysis. Exceedingly rare. Highly unlikely. But that’s where my brain went.
She replied kindly, I hold your vulnerabilities, your sharing, and your arm in my heart. No mocking—although when I read her this post, we both laughed loudly when I got to the line, “It’s funny now.” Because it is. All the drama of artists—or maybe this artist in particular. All the ways my brain holds me hostage.
Still, it felt risky, confiding this secret fear of weird diseases so early in our relationship, but I had to trust she would like my most uncurated self—the self we often don’t show on first or second or thirtieth dates. Now, we know so much more about each other and, during her recent visit, she gently chided me about not writing new Authenticity Experiment posts. She asked if it was tiredness, depression, or hiding out that kept me from this task. She said, “What if you were just out there? Vulnerable, I mean really vulnerable, showing all your questions and fears?”
I basically said that would not happen.
Honestly, what isn’t curated now that social media is even more pervasive than when I started this experiment three years ago? For Christ’s sake, even my own pictures are curated. The Grief-Stricken Writer asked once, “Do you ever take a bad picture?” I told her that I did, but I don’t post them. Because, come on, darlings, how much authenticity should one really share over our digital back fence? Or rather, how intimate shall I be? Should I post the picture where my eyes are closed or the camera captured a weird look? Should I show you the one where my fly was down? Or the photo where my gut hangs out? How much authenticity do you want from me? How much am I willing to give you?
Do I tell you that I continually fight depression? That I’m so so scared to write this new book which is—hallelujah—not about Alzheimer’s? Do I tell you that I long for the days when I thought I was avoiding the Alzheimer’s book because that seems easy compared to what I’m trying to do now? How about that I’ve gained six pounds because I seem constitutionally incapable of avoiding gluten free coffee cake?
Does authenticity really lie in telling everything on the Internet? No, of course it doesn’t.
I think it lies where it always has—in the real world, in moment to moment connections. Away from the screen. It lies in the nonstop conversation between two friends who haven’t seen each other in four months; in the manner in which we truly see another and let them know this; in the willingness to be emotionally vulnerable because that’s what it means to be human.
I think that’s why these posts resonate, right? Because they have a thread of the universal and you recognize yourself, or maybe you understand that I see you. We’re all curated and wondering what parts to show, aren’t we? We are all full of questions. We all have some secret shame that will burn less toxic if we only share it with another. If we trust and open. If we say, Can you tell me I’m okay? That I’m not going to lose my arm to rhabdomyolysis? If we say, Is it okay to just rest with you in this feeling of authentic intimacy? If we realize, indeed, that this feeling is more than enough.
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