Self Portrait

Self Portrait

I met her at a conference. You might recognise her easily because she sits in the front row and asks questions. She has a tinny voice and asks questions that have the ring of the non-sequitor about them. She is of average height, with curly fair hair that must be coloured given her age. Mid fifties you would say, thin and pale skinned. She is friendly in a sometimes over the top way that can be off putting especially for others who might be shy. She thrusts herself forward to introduce herself to complete strangers. Bold, I say.

She is a note taker, the whole way through every talk you see her taking notes as if her life depends upon it. I look over her shoulder from my position in the second row and I see that her handwriting is virtually illegible. I could never read it. I ask her about it at morning tea.
‘I’m a compulsive note taker,’ she says. ‘I have to take everything down; otherwise I fear I will miss out on something. I never know when I might need it.’

She has the feel of someone who is hungry for more. She moves through a room at a fast pace. You do not often see her dawdle. Always in a hurry. Again you wonder what is she running from, or where is she running.

She is good enough with her words but she seems to lack confidence in herself sometimes, at surprising times when you least expect it. She is forever qualifying the things she says, as if she is fearful of offending people.
‘At the risk of generalising,’ she will say. Or, ‘I don’t want to polarise positions,’ or, ‘I know, it’s not exactly like this…’

She turns around from her place in the front row to introduce herself to me. She is the only one in the front row. I could never do that it would bother me too much, stick out like a sore thumb.
‘I sit here so I can hear better,’ she says. ‘But people don’t seem to like the front row. I wonder why?’ she says.
‘Perhaps it’s too close to the speaker,’ I say. ‘Perhaps they like to have some distance between themselves and the other person.’

That is the strange thing about her. She gives the impression of being open, open like a book, and yet I get the sense sometimes that she is a dark horse. She keeps stuff to herself. She will tell you her story all right. She will tell you all these things about her life and her family. But I am not sure I can trust her. There is something about her. Something underhand. Is it dishonest perhaps? I often get the sense that she is sizing me up, sizing the situation up and if I am not careful she will use it somewhere else.

Writers do this all the time I know, but she has the look of a writer who will plunder another person’s deepest secrets, the ones she does not even know herself and put them in a book somewhere. This is scary. It is scary to be with such a person. Nothing you say can be taken for granted. Nothing she says can be said without feeling that you are skating on thin earth. Yet she is okay to be with.

She has blue eyes and she looks at you intently while you speak. She looks at you meaningfully as if she is taking in your words, as if what you say matters to her, though there are times when I see her eyes close over as if she has had enough of me and there are other times, like when I talk about my interest in spirituality, when I sense a shift in her focus as if she does not want to talk about it with me, or she does not take me seriously anymore.

She likes to come across as someone without prejudice, but she is prejudiced all right. You can feel it. The way her shoulders stiffen when someone talks about god and religion, the way her lips come together as if she is trying to press them shut in order to not let anything out, for fear of what she might say. You can feel it in the tension that rises up out of her that she is intolerant here.

Sometimes I imagine she is just bursting with the wish to tell someone else to shut up. Shut up, she would like to say to someone else who has taken the floor for too long. Shut up, give someone else a turn. She is like that. She is into turn taking in a big way. If someone has gone on for a while, she will try to shift the focus onto someone else. She says she hates groups. She tells me as much during our lunchtime break.
‘I’m sixth in line, she says, ‘an ignominious position,’ as if this accounts for everything about her.
‘Groups are dangerous things,’ she tells me. ‘Things happen in groups and sometimes it’s hard to know what’s going on. All these people talking together going in different directions and all these undercurrents that people can’t or won’t talk about it.’

I have noticed this in her. The way she sometimes wants to bring these undercurrents to the surface and sometimes her words come out with a jolt as if she has come from some unexpected tangent of her own, as if she has followed a long windy chain of thought to get to where she is at and suddenly she lets it all out bang plop into the middle of the conversation and it is disturbing like a big wind that picks up suddenly and knocks over chairs and tables in your outside garden, a wind that knocks over anything that is not fixed to the ground.

She seems to know a lot and when she does not know she will ask questions so that she can at least have something to say. If she is not interested, and it happens, her eyes glaze over for a while. Then I catch her casting glances around the room as if she is looking for better company. She is ruthless like that. She does not like to be bored. She does not like to sit with people who do not interest her. She will take herself away rather than sit with people with whom she cannot connect.

I do not know how she sees me. She puts up with me I suppose. She must. I am her mirror image.