I sit in my garden. It’s late spring, and here in Northern California the baby roses are still in bloom but so is the lavender. My daughter Annie is off at work, the birds twitter, the old dog lies in the shade on the redwood deck. The young dog chases a squirrel running along the fence. I am high. High on my life.
Yesterday was not like this. Yesterday I was miserable, preparing to perform the debut of my first full-length solo show. In twenty-four hours, I fretted, the lights would come up . . . on me alone on stage. For the next hour it would be my job, alone, no costume, no set, nothing on the stage but me and a single folding chair, to entertain, provoke, elicit laughter, and inspire tears. I’d do this by enacting the most intimate relationship and the most tragic moment of my life.
Why did I think this was a good idea? Oh, crap. I have family coming. Friends coming. People who knew Bill, and people who didn’t. People who know me, and people who don’t. My show is a crash course in Ericka. How will people react?
Self-doubt roiled me. Crippling fatigue kept me from running lines, from doing anything at all.
As a writer, I am used to living a semi-public life. Being a semi-public person is challenging, especially when you’re a parent. I want to model honesty and boundaries to my daughter — show her how to share truths yet remain private. It’s hard to write a piece, privately, and have the reader read it, privately. But it’s even harder and more revealing to perform your innermost truths.
No! I love solo performance! It’s a direct communication with the audience! It brings me community! Intellectual, emotional, physical challenges! I tried to remember this as I lay in bed, willing myself to sleep. Yet the downside of exposing myself publicly kept me fretting and antsy.
A couple of months ago I went on a blind date. It seemed too much trouble to do the typical back and forth preliminary exchange of information, so I sent the guy — the guy I would go out to dinner and jazz with — a link to my personal website. On my website are links to my columns, and personal essays, and short fiction.
We met in a restaurant. He was wearing a fedora. He was nice. He’d ordered wine and tapas. We began to get to know each other. Within five minutes, I realized I’d made a mistake. He started right in with the questions. “So, your mother’s name is Karla, with a K. Why does she spell it with a K?”
And, “. . . so when you were in grammar school at McKinley. . .”
“Where did I write that I went to grammar school at McKinley?” I gulped my wine. I honestly didn’t remember.
Then he started asking about my dead husband and my child, before I’d even mentioned them. “So how much older was Bill than you? And how old is Annie now?”
I looked at this stranger. “This feels weird, that you know so much about me, and I don’t know much about you at all,” I said.
“Well, you sent me to your website! But I did feel a little bit stalker-y,” he admitted.
Yes, I had sent him to my website, though if he had googled me he would have found it easily enough. I had invited him into my life, in a way. The same way I invite my audiences.
That date — the first and last with the man with the hat — made me worry about the ramifications of sharing so much about myself. It’s not just the ongoing search for the appropriate line between private and not private; I have so much story in my life, yet the story is only the past. I am so much more than that. I worry that people will know too much about me to try to get to truly know me.
It’s almost showtime. I stand backstage in the dark, listening to the audience chatter as they file to their seats. The lobby lights blink. The audience waits. For the next hour I’ll take them through 22 years of my life, my relationship with my husband, mother, daughter, friends. They’ll laugh and cry. They’ll feel like they know me. Do they know me? Yes. Do they know all of me? No. They know my past, they know a bit about who I am becoming.
This morning, the day after the performance (a success!), I sit in my garden, high on my life. I think about the wonderful notes from people who were there last night, the hearty hugs, the flowers, the woman who said, her eyes still wet, “I was widowed five years ago, and you nailed it.” I’m so fortunate. The more I open to the world, in writing or on stage, the more I tell my stories, practice radical honesty, the more the world opens to me. Sometimes I think that the thing I do best, better than mothering, better than teaching, is living my life and then sharing it.
I’ll try to remember this during those painful “before” hours leading up to my next performance. I’ll think about it as I stretch my body and get ready to go out to my audience.