The Other Side of the Glass

At what point in one’s life does the impression of being a fish out of water become less awkward or painful? It doesn’t make sense to me that decades after leaving seventh grade, a reasonable activity can trigger such internal reactions. In so many ways, it is irrelevant whether the people or place or activity is brand new or deeply familiar, suffering this awkwardness never gets any easier.


I have “faced the fish” throughout my life, but even more keenly returning to a home I once knew so well. I travel streets I have crossed a million times before, visit places I know intimately, and interact with people with whom I have much in common, but given my 15+ years away from this town, it all feels oddly foreign. Not that I ever, truly, felt I measured up to the criteria of being a “real” Californian.


In my experience, some people seem to enjoy—even relish—their self-imposed “outsider” status. Others have a unique talent for seeming at home wherever they go. But, what about the group of in-betweeners? Those of us who strive to make a place in our world and, yet, mysteriously can’t quite seem to fit in?


These deeply personal assessments often stand in stark contrast to how our neighbors perceive us. Reconciliation of one’s inner and outer selves is a topic about which hundreds of books and plays and poems have been written. In fiction, the hero typically undergoes some Eureka moment that magically merges the two selves, or he learns to live serenely with the anxiety and tension of accepting this contradiction. I’d welcome such wisdom.


The truth is, much of the time I feel like a kid with her nose pressed up against the glass, enviously watching everyone else live their charmed lives. The realistic, intellectual part of me knows good and well that what I see is not a complete picture, but I remain transfixed, wondering what secret everybody else knows that I have missed.


I suppose there is a comfort existing on my side of the glass—it’s quiet and calm and I can enjoy watching the maelstrom without being conscripted. I concede that there is quite a lot about that which is a benefit. Yet it is this ongoing undertow of “fishdom” that refuses to let me forget that what others may lack in calm, I lack in community. After all, we humans are social creatures and there are very few examples of our kind who truly relish isolation.


So, at what point (if any) is there a dreamlike acceptance of this status that is part and parcel of the life of a fish out of water? When will I be able to walk into an art gallery opening or a party where I know only the hosts and not feel fraudulent for showing up? I don’t know as much about art as the other guests; I’m not about to shell out six figures for a framed lithograph, so why am I there? But then there’s the next, unexpected instant when a smiling stranger approaches with a friendly bit of conversation, or a  friend says, “I’ve seen enough of this art, let’s go elsewhere,” and I’m reminded that life vests come in all shapes and sizes.


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