I know how things look right now. If you go on my Facebook page, or catch a glimpse of me on Twitter, or sit in a crowded bookstore audience where I’m giving a reading, or attend one of my weekend retreats, you might make certain assumptions about me and my life. You might assume, successful author. You might assume, has it made. You therefore might make the leap to: she must feel great. Or even, as in the title of a book and blog I like a lot, I Want To Be Her.
“We love to hate Dani Shapiro,” a radio host recently told me. “You have a perfect life.”
Let me pose a question. Do any of us have perfect lives? Or do we carefully curate our public personas, keeping our true selves safe, hidden from view? Of course, we show only what we want the world to see. In my case, if you were to go on my Facebook page, you would see an author who apparently never has a bad hair day, who happily travels from city to city, occasionally posting announcements about readings, or appearances, or good news about her book, her family, her life. She’ll post a trailer of her husband’s new film, but won’t write about the years of struggle, the sleepless nights, the financial upheaval, of making that film. She’ll post a photo of herself on Oprah, or giving a big reading, but she won’t post a photo from the day before, where only ten people showed up in a bookstore. She’ll put a selfie up on Instagram (is there anything less revealing of self than a selfie?) but only from a good angle, in a place she wants to be seen.
But true vulnerability is an art. It is the art of allowing oneself to be seen. Without putting up our guard. Without pretense. Without all the masks we don in order to get through our days. Vulnerability also requires vigilance. Some days it’s easier than others to simply be our true selves. When I went on Oprah, all I hoped to do — my single task for that hour — was to be myself. I wanted to shed all of my defenses and engage in the most genuine conversation I possibly could. The stakes were high –– by which I don’t mean the public stakes. I mean that my own sense of truth was on the line. Could I enter an arena with lights that bright and still just be me?
I trained for that hour as if it were a marathon I was running. Instead of getting media coaching, I meditated. Instead of trying to get my sound bytes down, I opened my heart. I learned a great deal from that experience, and something within me shifted. I hope that shift is permanent — though I know better. I know that growth is a process, that as we continue to live, we continue to adjust to new circumstances. But within that shift, I have grown less comfortable, more wary, of the idea that how things look is how things are. I mean, yes, sure, I’ve written eight books, my husband made a (beautiful) film, oh, and our kid is photogenic and fabulous (sorry, proud mama moment). All that is true. Here is what is also true. I had nightmares last night — real ones. I am sitting in a dark hotel room at the crack of dawn in the yoga clothes I slept in. That weird dislocated feeling of being in an unfamiliar city (Seattle) is upon me. I’m worried about the future. About my health. My husband’s health. My kid and his happiness. I’m worried that we need to repaint our house this spring, and we’re going to need to re-shingle the roof. I worry about what’s next. That whatever I do next won’t be good enough. I obsess about aging. I know some people just don’t like me and that makes me feel weird. And then, underneath all this, the stuff of nightmares. My sad, dead father. My angry, dead mother. The paucity of relatives. The feeling that often visits me of a profound loneliness.
All of this is true. All of these selves make up one self. The successes, the failures, the losses, the joy, the grief. The triumphs and the fears. These are what I want to bring with me everywhere I go — not just some of the time, but all of the time. So that when I get up there and speak my truth, it isn’t a version of the truth, or just what is smooth, easy, and palatable, but rather, that it begins to touch what it means to be human in all of our complexity, in all our fallibility. That ultimately, it has to be enough to say: this is me.