Keep your distance – don’t assume familiarity


I, decent with the seasons, move
Different or with a different love,
Nor question overmuch the nod,
The stone smile of this country god
That never was more reticent,
Always afraid to say more than it meant.

-WH Auden from “The Letter

For most of the last several years, vivid memories of an endless (well, it was endless for as long as it lasted anyway) correspondence, marked by a repeated violation of character and word limits, keep exceeding my capacity for endurance. A long correspondence, a brief, intense meeting and a cut-and-run final act – followed by years of agonizing, wondering and questioning ever since.

I could not handle the intensity of it – or the directness. It had been pointed out to me early on all the little “added things” I throw in at the end of various statements. Like when I said I would be inclined to meet “if we ever wanted to” — this is classic me. I have trouble making a definitive statement without any qualifiers: “I would like to meet you.” And leave it at that. I always add some caveat to the ends, non-committal, that leaves an open ending or an out for the other person because I don’t like the idea of imposing my will or wishes (even if they are individuals strong enough to just say they are not interested). There is something unsavory to me about assuming too much familiarity with anyone, ever, which extends sometimes to not expressing my own feelings and wishes because I don’t want to put any undue pressure on someone else. Unfortunately I can take this to extremes. It is so second nature for me now that I don’t even realize I am doing it. I always feel like I am being more polite this way, but a few people have pointed out that this just comes across as though I am just not interested. (It does not help that I apparently give people this harsh, serious, aloof impression in general.)

All my little addenda ending sentences, offering ways out or at least options, made it seem that I was not invested in the outcome, that I did not care what happened either way and that I had no real feelings. To me, it’s clear that this is ultimately a defense mechanism, as anyone with a history of shyness can certainly understand.

It is surprising, in any case, to have traveled through this correspondence. It could have been such a disaster – pen pals and online communications and trying to “meet” people in this fashion can be such a disaster. What is surprising to me in particular is that there are so many people out there trying to do this online thing but who are not at all good or expressive writers. I prefer people who can convey something real and substantial in writing and don’t think I would get along very well with people who are not at least trying to write coherently. I would in fact overlook people because of their bad writing or lack of effort in the same shallow way someone would discount another simply for how they look. This is probably informed by my whole life as a writer, my history as a pen pal and basing whole friendships solely on the written word. And yet even my obsession with precision in communication, I created a complete disaster in this story.

The way I handled the aftermath of the correspondence and meeting is nothing short of shameful. I ran (so far away). All this time I have contemplated whether I should do something about it – reach out, apologize, clear the air – but I have also grappled with whether I would be doing this just to assuage my own guilt and conscience. I never wanted to do it to make myself feel better – I was tempted to do it to have a clean slate – but if regret and apologetic explanation would only open a door best left closed, what would be the point of that? I have tried to learn in recent years to let go and let closed doors stay that way – one of life’s hardest lessons for ever-curious me. That said, not a day has gone by that this correspondence and the upheaval of its influence did not weigh on me.

One thought on “Keep your distance – don’t assume familiarity

  1. Anonymous

    ‘That said, not a day has gone by that this correspondence and the upheaval of its influence did not weigh on me.’

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