(No photo today, so for your listening pleasure a song–and inspiration for the title)
The phone rang on a Saturday afternoon. I was still sweaty from mowing the lawn. My best friend Kim was calling from her car, someone must’ve had a cell phone. It was the nineties and we were in high school and cell phones were still novel in that Zack Morris kind of way. “Someone wants to talk to you,” she said. I heard shuffling and then a guy’s voice on the line. It was Zane and he wanted to know if I would be into seeing a movie, maybe next weekend.
I remember thinking several things at once: Zane was asking me on a date; Zane was asking me on a date in a car full of kids who had better things to do than mow the lawn; my parents were not going to like me going on a date with Zane.
At sixteen, I did not go on dates. I had dates—to homecoming or prom, usually a friend’s boyfriend’s friend, someone to have photos made with. But going on dates required asking. And I was equally terrified of showing someone I liked him, and of being liked by someone I wasn’t into. Needless to say, no one asked.
Zane and I had nothing in common. He smoked cigarettes and rode BMX and had recently run away from home for a month. (Where had he gone, I remember wondering. Where could anyone run to in rural Virginia?) But I liked his silhouette in low-slung jeans and a tank top—the outfit he wore pretty much daily. I liked how his hair hung in his eyes. It seemed like effortlessness was a lifestyle choice he made when he woke up each morning. He wouldn’t try. Trying was not for him.
I had always tried at everything. Not trying seemed exotic, like the idea of running away, like Zane himself.
I said that, yeah, I had next Saturday afternoon free and sure, I’d be into going to movie. He asked if I could drive—this would become a pattern in our brief relationship—and I said it’d be no big deal to come pick him up. I played it very cool. Then he handed the phone back to Kim. “Hey,” she said, also playing it cool but I could hear the grin in her voice. In response, I squealed. It just emerged from my mouth like pent up bird. High-pitched and squawky. She laughed. “Um…everyone just heard that.” I was mortified.
Someone I liked liked me enough to ask me to the movies. It was okay to be happy about that. But I had just squealed in front of a group of kids who spent their weekend smoking weed in an old Ford Bronco while I was at home helping my parents with the yard work.
Recalling this moment, writing it all out, still makes me cringe. Like I can feel my organs drawing inward, my lungs shrinking into my ribcage. The word “shame” is etymologically related to an ancient Greek verb meaning “to cover.” I can feel that impulse for self-protection now as I imagine you, reader, imagining me in my grass-stained tennis shoes and damp, oversized t-shirt squealing in an upstairs bedroom decorated with Foo Fighters posters and pompoms. Gross. I feel gross.
I have always been this way about love, quick to blush, embarrassed by my own affections. In elementary school some kids made a game of it. They would say, “Mandy has a crush on Billy”—or Tim or Jason or Curtis. It didn’t matter whose name they said or if I had a crush, my entire body still went red.
Brené Brown, who researches and writes about shame, defines it as “an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.” She calls it “the swampland of the soul.” Why is my swampland populated with these little moments of affection revealed? Wanting to be loved is unexceptional. It is probably universal. And yet, it has always been this desire that I keep closest to my chest.
When we went to Thanksgiving dinner at Mamaw’s house growing up, my aunts and uncles would ask me about school and ask my sister about boys. Just as I had the right answers to the questions about grades (A, A, A), Casey had a list of boyfriends—even when she was five or six. It included friends, a distant cousin, a couple members of the New Kids on the Block. I thought they avoided asking me about boyfriends because they assumed I wouldn’t have one. It never occurred to me that they knew I would turn pink and sputtery, that not asking was meant to be kind.
It is easy, I think, for a writer to make confessions, to shock or titillate or tell a good story. But it is so hard to talk about shame. Shame is not shocking. It can be a tiny thing, a squeal like a bird, a gesture of revelation.
Maybe shame is connected to love the same way it is connected to sex. We are ashamed of our desire. Desire sounds so ordinary when you write it out, but it never feels ordinary. Cosmo says we can improve our sex lives by talking about what we do and do not like, as if we are deciding which pizza to order. But saying “I’d like to lick your feet” is never the same as saying “I’m not big fan of pepperoni.” There is more at stake. This is the difference between preference and desire. Preferences do not make us want to take cover, to erect a shield against the judgements of others.
If you stop to think about it, shame is perhaps the most illogical of emotional states. Love is irrational, but it is purposeful. It benefits us individually and collectively. Lust is at least procreative, or pro-creation, in support of creativity. Even anger and fear have their functions, pursuing injustice or keeping us safe. But the swampland of shame, only damp, quiet, choking things are growing there.
When J and I started telling people we were moving apart, I was quick to emphasize that it was a mutual decision, that we were still close, and happy—happier!—and maybe we would work things out, maybe not. I didn’t want to be pitied. But more than that, I didn’t want anyone to think of me as rejected, as unloved or maybe even unloveable. For the years we were together, I got to feel that little thrill of wantedness every time I used the words “my boyfriend” or “my partner.” It was a dose of anti-shame. Suddenly living without those words felt uncomfortable.
A few years ago, when I was working on an essay that eventually bulged into this book, a publisher said to me, “I think your story isn’t about love or divorce, it’s about the desire to be chosen.” I was shocked. Of course: to have a love story is to have been chosen. Maybe shame is only shocking when it’s ours, when someone else shows it to us.