I was born into a family where keeping to yourself was bad form. My father was a public servant, the mayor of our small town USA. I was one part timid youngest child and one part mascot for the family. When we made our public appearances, I was urged to be “more friendly.” It was something of a fishbowl, living in this very public life. Everyone there knew my father. Consequently, everyone knew me too. For much of my life, I didn’t know the pleasure of anonymity—the world had no meaning to me.
I used to imagine that I lived in a place where no one could see me. I made forts under the giant azalea bushes that bordered our property and set up tea parties with my dolls.
I had an active imagination and would frequently pretend that I was on a raft (the checkered blanket), saving my dolls from the flood. (We lived just a few hundred feet away from Mobile Bay.) I really wanted friends, but I also wanted to be alone.
My mother was clearly perplexed. She couldn’t understand why I preferred being alone. I didn’t want to play games where the goal was to win. It’s not that my parents weren’t loving, but the message was clear: I needed to fix something. As I grew up, I understood that if I wanted to be successful or happy or to gain approval, I needed to try harder. This expectation hung over me like a cloud and made me feel that I would never be able to participate in the larger world. So I retreated, avoided, and sometimes ran away.
However, there came a point when I slowly learned to embrace the quiet I needed to survive. I allowed for my rich imagination. I enjoyed reading and studying without interruptions, and I learned to set aside time for daydreaming. I learned to make careful choices in friends. And eventually, I married someone who not only was an introvert like myself but who also respected me for it and gave me space to be me.
That didn’t mean that there weren’t some missteps along the way. There was a time when I tried living the life of an extrovert. I took some big risks and started my own business—a quirky little flower shop where one could buy antiques and have a cup of tea. The place had flowers everywhere and little vignettes that were, looking back, like the little forts I used to make. Unfortunately, the whole endeavor turned out badly because I had failed to understand that I wasn’t able to be the extrovert who could face customers every day. It’s not that I didn’t like people; I just didn’t have the energy to connect with them all. I constantly felt depleted. I kept pushing myself until one day I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was spiritually paralyzed. Consequently, I retreated into a long depression, limiting my interactions to those with my husband, my daughter, and a couple of good friends. During this period, I did a lot of soul-searching and made a conscious decision to “live quiet.” And as I started reconnecting with myself, I began the slow process of learning how to not just live—but thrive.
Since then, I have been able to offer my daughter a beautiful gift: the freedom to find out who she is on her own and to be that, while knowing that whatever—whoever she is—is a wonderful and perfect thing. Unembellished. Unedited.
I’m 56 now, and I realize that wisdom isn’t something that can be bestowed on someone any more than a personality can be forced on a person. As introverts, we are who we are. We are the observers. The poets. The painterly ones. The Van Goghs, the O’Keefes, and the Rothkos. We see more than a sky full of stars. We see beyond the desert and the flowers. We instantly prehend those giant blocks of color as portals to other worlds. We feel compelled to know every shade of color, and we want to know words. We want quiet. We are nesters. We yearn to be snug. And contrary to what extroverts might believe, we don’t want to be lonely; we just frequently want to be alone.
Alone is where the soulcraft of the introvert is done. It’s where we hear the music that is out of range. Although it’s a place that can’t be found on maps, for us it is where we stop to refuel and to check our compass. And it’s sometimes where rafts are built, ostensibly, for anyone who wishes to dodge the mighty waves of chaos.
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