I have two sides, two aspects to my personality that are held uncomfortably together sometimes while other times one pushes into dominance.
I am an introvert AND an extrovert. I can be quite convivial, vivacious even, at social events of a not-too- overwhelming size. Other times I could draw a box around myself perhaps six feet out on all sides and be happy to walk in the world with my privacy intact. Yet other times I remove myself from the game entirely and shut down in my free time, staying in and trying to recharge in solitude.
I tend to gravitate to others who also have this mixed state, who will sometimes become almost hermitic when life becomes overwhelming. Though I understand it, it can also hurt if I am in a reaching- out mode and they in a turning-in mode. We each take our chances.
My oh-so Western desire for privacy and space has been particularly challenged over the years in my forays in to the Asian world. When I was straight out of college off to Taipei, Taiwan for a year, I was fortunately able to kick the social me into hyper gear. A good thing, too, for space and privacy are entirely alien concepts in Asian culture. I took my time there to be some magical adventure and was wide open to it all, the crowds, the cacophony, the pollution, the crazy traffic, the pulsing beat of the city and the astonishing warmth of people. Nearly two decades later I had a very different experience of living in Tianjin, which was one of the most densely populated and most polluted cities in the world. It Then I found the stares and the complete inability to set foot out the door without being gawked at and even followed, whether lacking in malice or not, completely intolerable. Eventually I became nearly agoraphobic.
My ex-husband, who is Chinese, was never able to understand the side of me that sometimes craved privacy and space. I was expected to be open to last-minute company and invasive requests 24/7 and woe to me if I wasn’t, for then I was accused of being “selfish,” the harshest judgment he could bring to bear.
Now, I walk precariously on the tightrope between my interior world and my exterior world. I have worked from home for 13 years now, four of them alone since my son left for college. Most of my work is by email and phone, which sometimes suits me fine and gives me some small measure of control in a very chaotic work environment. Other times I feel painfully isolated. Aware of a tendency to sink into depression if I don’t get out some (though equally possible if I don’t get enough solitude) at one point last summer I became a social butterfly, going to singles events every weekend, and loving it. This summer I feel too easily over-stimulated, and choose my outings more carefully, usually preferring time with close friends that allows for quiet conversation to mob scene happy hours that roll into my email inbox every week. I’m going for quality, not quantity, and planting my roots deep rather than shallow. I don’t enjoy big festivals much don’t like the crowds, but still sometimes have to force myself out.
So here I sit most happily at poolside in my neighborhood on a hot Sunday afternoon, after floating around in the water for an hour, now reading and writing. I’ve seen one of my son’s best friends, which I always like because it connects me to a time gone by (I actually think I see more of him than my own son these days, as he still lives in the neighborhood). Next to me a woman I lived on a cul de sac with—our dogs were friends—has plopped down to read in companionable silence, and another neighbor stops by to catch up. There’s a not-unpleasant background buzz of kids playing and splashing about, and parents who move from joining in the play to flattening onto a chaise for some sun. The sky is blue, blue, blue with just a puff of white cloud here and there. The gorgeous, mature trees around the outer edges create some shade and breeze, but don’t block the sun from the center. The European lifeguards enjoy their last few weeks here before returning to their home countries for the school year.
I am surrounded by people but alone, perfectly at peace, enjoying the summer too soon to come to a close, holding my introvert cum extrovert self, for one afternoon, in balance.