Will I ever NOT be plagued by the involuntary “flush” response embarrassment causes? More importantly, will I ever stop being embarrassed about taking up space in the world? Incredibly and positively, “I’m sorry!” is no longer my most common utterance in any given 24-hour period. I’m the kid in school who, when asked to go up to the board to solve a problem, would darn near expire making my way up there – face beet red, sweat beading my brow, the roar of several oceans deafening me to any teacher instructions (but not to other kids in the class saying “Oh my gosh. Look how red she is!”.) Being praised would evoke a similar heart thudding, perspiring blush – not because I was unhappy with the recognition – I just didn’t want anyone to think I was calling attention to myself.
I was shocked to discover in my youth that I could even be intensely embarrassed by/around my family who, I am pretty sure, love me and think I’m a good egg. One afternoon when I was about 8 years old, my older brother (whose attention and approval I craved and whose good opinion I still hope for) laid some new knowledge on me and one of my little sisters. He told us that the phrase “cut the cheese” was another way of referring to “breaking wind”. As we didn’t have a TV and were strongly encouraged to use our God-given imagination and intellect, of course my sister and I found this information revelatory, delightfully wicked and hilarious.
What are the odds that, on that very night, the dinner table would be graced with a big block of cheese on a board? After prayers were said, Dad said to Mom, “Would you like to cut the cheese?” My sister and I started giggling uncontrollably, looking at each other knowingly. When I looked across the table at my brother, his face was impassive. Laughter was not frowned upon during meals, but usually it was a shared experience. A reckoning was coming. My giggling ebbed as I began to panic, mentally running through possible explanations for my lapse in good manners. I couldn’t throw my brother under the bus and certainly could not inform Dad what he really said at the dinner table. Childhood logic expended, when Dad asked “What’s so funny?”, I took the path of least resistance, blurted “I don’t know.” and started crying.
As my sister and I stood on either side of Dad’s chair at the head of the table doing a halting, “sing-songy” rendition of the phrase “cut the cheese”, I occasionally looked up through tears of embarrassment to see some of my siblings looking at me with a mixture of enjoyment, sympathy and relief that they were not me. There was a real physical pain associated with that moment; being on the “outside”, especially relative to family, hurts. This early encounter with semi-public humiliation cemented in me an almost pathological dislike for being the center of attention, good or bad, and heightened my sensitivity to and avoidance of any potential rake lying tines-up in my path.
Interspersed with long stretches of blessed invisibility over the years, I have had my share of awkward moments – spinach in my teeth on a date, the butt seam of my slacks secretly giving way while I was in public feeling pretty good about myself, crossing my legs in a job interview only to have a dryer sheet fall out one of my pant legs… That I survive these catastrophes and continue to leave the house is a testament to the human spirit – sort of. It may not be the brightest strategy to engage in self-talk that includes phrases like “it can’t get worse that this.” I fear that statement may be proven wrong the next time my vigilance wavers.