About a week into my first store manager role, my bosses boss flew in town for store visits, and I was her first stop. We were seated in the red adirondack chairs outside my store. The sun was shining on her angelic blonde hair while I had my knees childishly tucked into my chest. I thought for a moment that maybe I should act more professional, but I was drained. My new store was a wreck. My old store was closed. My friend had just died. My then boyfriend didn’t think I was “handling it very well.” In past conversations, I had attempted to put my best foot forward. Today, I spoke with succinct candor. The life wasn’t sucked out of my tone, but the effort was. I couldn’t impress her even if I wanted to. I didn’t have that left in me. Emma, she said to me, This feels like the first time I’ve had a conversation with you – not the song and dance version of Emma, but the real Emma.
Later I darkly joked that of course my friend has to die and my new gig hit rock bottom leaving me near desperation for my authenticity to reveal herself. Calm down, Emma, my friend said. That’s not what she meant. She did mean that in two years of sporadic interactions with me, she hadn’t met the real me. Yes, my friend replied. So maybe that’s something to think about…or maybe not.
When I was about six years old, we built a big house in the suburbs. I didn’t know anyone in these suburbs. No one knew me. When I met my backyard neighbor Erin Ackerman, I told her we had just moved from the city (true), and I had a twin sister in L.A. who was an actress (not true). My new house was just past her backyard (true.) My sister was coming to town any minute (not true). You have a twin sister in L.A. whose an actress? Asked Erin, wide-eyed. Yeah, I said casually. I’ll have her come over when she gets here. Actually, she is probably here now! I exclaimed, turned around and sprinted across the yard, into my house, up the stairs and threw open my closet.
I rummaged through every article of clothing I had looking for something “L.A.” When I found the perfect neon shirt and cut off shorts, I quickly changed. I snuck into my mom’s bathroom and lined my eyes with her blue eye liner. I put on lipstick. I tied my hair into a hight and tight side ponytail. Looking in the mirror, I smacked my lips and put one hand on my hip. Then I ran back down the stairs and threw open the sliding doors to the back yard. But instead of sprinting, I sauntered across the lawn to Erin Ackerman’s. She was still standing where I’d left her on her rusty scooter beside her playhouse. She tilted her head to one side and squinted her eyes as I approached. I’m Kelly! I said in my best valley girl voice. Emma’s sister from L.A.
Song and dance.
The days following my conversation on the adirondack chairs, I woke up early. I quietly crept out onto my then boyfriend’s balcony with my journal hoping to find some answers to the actual reason I do a bit of song and dance. Is it because I want to impress people? Do I think the regular ‘ol me isn’t good enough? But doesn’t everyone do a little of facade-ing? I rationalized. Across the courtyard, a neighbor was just back from his run. He was wearing a sweat stained t-shirt and stretching on his balcony. For a moment he stopped and stared off into space. I sipped my coffee, closed my eyes, and turned inward. When I opened them and looked over, the guy had his shirt off and his hands raised, saluting the sun. His face looked certain, satisfied. He didn’t think anyone was watching. I didn’t think anyone was watching. In these early moments before the day closed in on us, we were ourselves. No frills. No song and dance.
Maybe it is one of the great ironies of life that we are our most real selves when no one else is watching, and thus, few people see our real selves. When we find ourselves engaged not because of the song and dance we do for other’s approval, but because we are intrinsically compelled. When we help others not for a charity to add to our LinkedIn profile, but from our heart. When we pick up garbage because we want our neighborhood to be clean. When we choose the quiet dinner at home over the glitzy social hour.
For me, that person is still lively and energetic. (I once dislocated my shoulder dancing with my dog in the living room.) I’m still a perfectionist, but I’m also more forgiving. I exhibit style, but might let a day with chipped nail polish slide. (But probably not.) But I’m also softer and more purposeful. My boyfriend will tell you that sometimes I’m pensive, and he thinks something is wrong. Actually, I’m just tired of talking. Alone, I need more time to rest, more time to recharge the battery it takes to maintain this omnipresent song and dance.