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Sensitivity

As my mother grew older, she seemed less invested in some of her former feelings towards people or issues; this new attitude surprised me. She might shrug her shoulders, glance away and let a grievance dissipate. Formerly, and like me, she would hold on to an upset, a slight, and strongly express bitterness, and hurt. And like me, her skin was thin, and the hurt sustained, painful, festering, was not allowed to be released for some time. Whether slow encroaching dementia or just not truly caring about world wariness, I’m not sure. She just seemed to let it go.

I always felt I shared that aspect of her character, sensitive beyond necessity, experiencing the slings and arrows of life way too intensely. In fact, my father’s attitude towards me often shouted, “ Don’t be so sensitive, Pat,” as if being sensitive was reprehensible, like smelly socks not to be exhibited in public places.

But unlike her insouciance, I developed a façade of cynicism and aloofness to battle what was seething inside. Perhaps this defence system began at Forest Hill where not being one of the sheep and demonstrating individuality was a cause for ostracism. Today I might be diagnosed with social anxiety as my discomfort in groups and an inability to converse would be treatable with Paxil. But this inner shyness lead me to pretend I was invisible, particularly later in life at cocktail parties and gatherings, that way insulating myself from pain: silent wallpaper to the tittering groups who laughed and intermingled with delightful ease in the twinkling of wine glasses.

I always desired that I might go to the camps that the rich kids attended in my area. Our summer aways were car excursions, drives to some place for a week and less: what felt like a trip there and then a turn around, a stop for a historical monument or nature reserve, an overnight stay at a Howard Johnson’s hotel and if I was really lucky, a magazine at the check out : the purchase of a Calling All Girls or Jack and Jill magazine.

Many memories are overwhelmed by the smell of vomit as my sister was a poor traveller and the tedium of sitting in the car for hours. So I lusted for those summer camps, imagining they would do for me what the slipper did for Cinderella and I would become the beautiful star of the golden pumpkin, exchanging bon mots with all the other lovely ladies.

As an elementary school student my parents agreed to send me to Mr. Salmon’s ( he was the principal at West Prep in the 50’s) camp. Even then I must have fantasized that camp was a magical place. My mother arranged for two of my cousins to attend with me so I would not be alone. What I remember is this: because I loved pistachios, my parents on visiting day showered me with several pounds of the salty crunchy green treats. But the rule – and I always followed rules- was that we had to share our goods with others. So I turned my luscious pistachios into the camp office and received only three shrivelled morsels. Yes, three single pistachios! Sharing did not displace my disappointment or feelings of stupidity of how I might have savoured those tiny nuts in secret.

But even at that age, I found that camp was no panacea .One of my cousins, Rima, had an incident with ketchup and demanded her parents immediately remove her from those two weeks of torment. With the exception of being put to bed with Nancy Drew stories in my head, I deemed camp all right, but no nirvana.

It was years later when camp again assumed the illusion of a golden holiday where even the nobodies in everyday life might became special, relaxed, happy and I imagined passing through the looking glass of camp that would transform me into a socially acceptable being, complete with manageable hair, no glasses and twirling skirts.

When I was old enough I applied for a summer job at one of the coveted camps. It should have been no surprise that I did not fit. One night as I pretended to sleep I overheard my co-counsellors trash my hair, my body, my behaviour. It was as if I were in attendance at my own funeral where the guests are not your friends but people who truly hate and ridicule you venomously, with such hatred that you feel yourself charred from top to toes.

Eyes tightly clenched, I did not bob up and face them eye to eye. Most likely they surmised that I was listening to every hurtful word, winking at one another and suppressing their laughter. For me, the unraveling of me seemed to continue for hours. Nor did I confront them the next day. I merely plodded on. Every detail that I had tried so hard to make conform had been torched, observed and found wanting in their privileged midst and I would always be the outsider, not a belonger or part of the circle where talk is easy and smiles that glaze over you further amplify your self-confidence.

It was a contest of endurance that summer and although I found other outlets, even the head of the division suggested that perhaps I might prefer the sister camp for disabled kids the next summer.. One campfire night as the cool guy from London strummed his guitar, crooning from the Beatles, “Do you need anybody…?” I loudly and emphatically proclaimed, NO! The camp I had l imagined was certainly not my life raft. Did I hear a giggle close by?

A normal person might have just let the camp incidents go, but they seared my soul, branding me to myself as an outcast. I don’t think I would have gone on line as Amanda Todd did, but the feelings of rejection certainly stayed with me and coloured my actions and interactions with others for some time after. The bullying I received was not outright, subtler: the kind dropped on the naive with looks, smirks and condemnation.

The obsessiveness of my thoughts and the label, particularly from my father of sensitivity seemed to damn me further in my inability to approach or make friends and interact with others. Where I was a slightly shy toddler and friendly little girl, my experiences at school pushed me towards the edge of loneliness so that the discovery of another little girl in the lane next door to my house stood in as a convenient prop to walk with to school so at least I might appear to have a friend, even as she was as ostracized as I.

As I write this I reflect I am again making too much of this, being too sensitive, that perhaps it is only in memory that I felt myself so alone, for I can easily picture myself as a little girl fairly content, involved in art classes, going to the show on Saturdays with my cousins, hanging out with them, being my parents’ daughter. Perhaps too I am overlaying this blog with too much “ sensitivity” , standing back as an adult and sifting through moments that have arisen to enable me to review my years growing up. What do I make of the image of myself as a little girl curled up on the sofa, always troubling with a scab, quiet, not really withdrawn, but quiet and introspective. Or in the blurry photo posed with my only tall and gawky friend in the back lane?

As we recreate these narratives, as we try to piece together who we were, the fiction grows and entwines us with some truths, some imagined , some pure fabrications. Without documenting how we actually felt at a particular moment, we cannot remember every event  or thought,only conjecture the event with what we think we might have felt. Yet I do strongly remember the pistachios and the girls in my cabin. But those were single incidents, not the overall symphony of my life.And in the midst of this, my mother, too, making wise suggestions or planning events to help integrate me into groups. A not always perfect person but an insightful support who tried to smooth out the  awkwardness of growing up.

When I think of my life at this standpoint, I can see in context the rollercoaster ride of adolescent angst, one that thankfully eventually passes as you begin to comprehend the mentality of the herd, the gift of sensitivity that allows you to see deeply and intensely, and light your way to relationships of meaning. The hard part is getting past those teenage years, waiting them out and learning to accept yourself, and discover how your special qualities work or do not work with others, re-evaluating what you once believed important. As Emerson and many others once said, “ Know thyself’- even if it takes years to do so.

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