From WTP Vol. VI #6
The Shut Door
By Lynn Casteel Harper
Sylvia entered my office and shut the door. As the chaplain at a retirement community, I’d grown accustomed to the closed door, to discussing life, death, doubt, suffering in hushed tones. She sat in the chair directly in front of my desk. She appeared composed—not a dyed red hair out of place—and deadly serious. I had known Sylvia, a longtime resident, only from a distance. I spent most of my days with the sick and frail, and Sylvia was neither. She was among the “young old” and had recently published a book on romantic love among older adults. Perhaps she had trekked to my office in a remote corner of the community because she had received a diagnosis, or her partner Samuel had fallen ill, or one of her children was in crisis. A Rolodex of tragic conclusions is never far from a chaplain’s thoughts.
Sylvia did not mince words: “I need your help.” My heart sank, as the Rolodex of afflictions flipped faster. She continued: “I want to reach a larger audience with my book. I want young people to know that there is love when they get old. I need help using social media.” She had heard about these platforms but felt tentative about properly employing them. This was not the personal crisis I had expected, but I was not entirely relieved. I sensed she felt a grave responsibility.
I confessed to her that my knowledge of social media was limited (even though it was 2010, I was not on Facebook or Twitter; I didn’t even have internet access at my home), but she could not be dissuaded. I heard myself list the standard-issue knowledge of my generation: send out speaking engagements and information about her book over e-mail and on Facebook, and start “friending” lots of people. She hesitated, shifted uncomfortably, leaned forward, lowered her voice and said, “But what if people aren’t interested? I don’t want to impose on them.” She voiced suspicion about making people her “friends” (air quotes) who weren’t really her friends (dropping air quotes). She worried about the implications of such undiscerning self-promotion. She considered the possibility that the content and concerns of her life might encroach on others, and, conversely, she did not wish for others to relate to her so indiscriminately.
In a word, she valued modesty, but to play best by the rules of social media, reticence must recede. To broadcast one’s interests, life details, personal opinions, and intimate feelings requires minimizing one’s consideration for those who receive the airing unwanted. Collateral damage is to be expected and ignored. The quaintness of Sylvia’s concerns (and the fact I can so condescendingly describe them as “quaint”) strikes a chord of cultural loss; reticence increasingly has become a liability in these social spaces. In most substantive relationships, we care about appealing to one another’s interests; we care about what we share and what we do not. We feel obliged to respond to what friends share with us. If a friend tells me about a book she wrote, I rightly feel obligated to buy it. No wonder Sylvia squirmed at the thought of new media: it meant a new constitution of relationship, one in which the parties are confused about obligation. She cared about balancing disclosure with withholding. I hesitated, shifted uncomfortably, leaned forward—but could make no response.
We are “flat-out drowning in privacy,” Jonathan Franzen declared in a 1998 essay in The New Yorker. We inhabit private worlds on our cell phones while we are in public; we don’t know our neighbors; large suburban homes grant inhabitants their own rooms and their own bathrooms. Confused about public and private spaces, Americans are increasingly unable to discern the difference between the bedroom and the boardroom. Franzen lamented that reticence had become an “obsolete virtue.” “People now readily name their diseases, rents, antidepressants. Sexual histories get spilled on first dates…” Franzen’s critique appeared before blogs, iPhones, live streaming, omnipresent WI-FI, Facebook and its spin-off progeny, before reticence turned from an obsolete virtue into an active anti-virtue. If you do not share, then how will people know you, how will they like you, how will they know to like you? What do you have to hide?
Reticence resists easy definition—the ancient art of self-reservation; the protecting of one’s inner world and its hidden flourishing; pointed coyness; diffidence in the service of mystery; caginess; the mark of contemplative life; an obsolete virtue. Virtues, always linked to an aesthetic of voluntary restraint, have never been popular as such. However, in recent decades, the practice of restraint as an expression of the good has fallen on especially hard times. The subtlety of art, the practice of singular meditation and repetitive motions, the rigor of fashioning insight, require uninterrupted time and a corner of quiet space—commodities we claim we just don’t have. Our devices and their limitless portals of accessibility invite, entice—nay, demand—endless indulgence. Box scores, movie clips, pictures of a co-worker’s baby, bank statements, a remote cousin’s chemo update, reposted political rants and Bible verses, pass through the portals of our awareness, splintering our attention into a thousand faint and dulling impressions. I think I saw something about that on Facebook? We are oblivious to how the day was spent; it disappears amidst the techno-cognitive clutter, settles into a vague hollow feeling that accompanies what we are told is connection. That reticence fails to register as anything like a virtue signals just how right Franzen may be.
My mother sent me a box of my old school papers and grade-school memorabilia—after my thirty-fourth birthday, after I had made my seventh move in twelve years. She was tired of storing it and had given up the idea that I would ever live in a place with the storage space of, say, an attic or basement. I’ve always been a historian of myself. I try to save everything. A more pejorative term for this behavior is hoarding; I prefer the term archiving. Amidst the box’s cheap souvenirs, honor roll certificates, and tennis plaques, I unearthed an unmarked blue folder. It contained the minutes of the girls-only club I formed in the sixth grade. I sifted through the papers. I half-remembered some of the content, but most of the material felt novel and foreign to me. My present self had uncovered some pearl of great price that a nearly-forgotten former self had hidden.
The club’s name was SAS, which stood for Secret And Selective. We had three members: I was President, Leslie was Vice-President, and Brooke was Secretary. I crafted the by-laws with Brooke, a preacher’s kid and an ambitious girl who had moved recently from the Deep South to our small Midwestern town. I wrote a club pledge that we recited at the beginning of each of our three meetings:
I (your name) am part of an organized club called SAS. I will withhold club secrets and attend club meetings and activities. I will go with the majority of the vote. Lastly, I will respect the other club members. I know if I break these rules I will be impeached from the club.
Judging by the pledge, our mission entailed getting together (in secret), and only inviting trustworthy (secret-keeping) girls to be a part (good attendance required), and exacting harsh consequences for transgressions of these tenets (impeachment, which I must have thought meant “expulsion”). Combing through our minutes, which Brooke meticulously kept, I could discern no secrets—no things that even appeared worthy of secrecy. We collected dues—twenty-five cents each—that we designated as our “trip fund.” At our first meeting, we proposed forming a summer play group, planning community service activities, and walking home from school on Earth Day 1993. The confidential idea we generated in our second meeting was organizing a neighborhood recycle day. In this meeting, we also made up a secret code. We encrypted key words we considered vital to the club into a series of icons: SAS, meeting, club, house, and money. The minutes indicate that the symbols were approved. If others knew about the existence of the club or its contents, it is unclear what this information would garner them, or how they might sabotage us, or what sabotage would even mean. Nevertheless, border-control was a clear priority.
I uncovered an entire single-spaced typed document dedicated to defining a special category of member called “Associate Member.” Unlike Core Members, these part-time members could participate in activities but did not have voting privileges. They had to relay their ideas to their assigned Core Member who would represent them at club meetings. They could attend only their “ordainment” meeting. The last line of the “Associate Members” document reads: “We would like to keep the Associates informed of club news, but keep other club business within the Core. In fear of the club being unconfidential.” There were no Associate Members, however. It was hard enough for Leslie, Brooke, and me to gather, let alone legions of others who, ostensibly, were not even aware of our club. The document reflects a seemingly unfounded worry about hypothetical outsiders who wished to become insiders. I sense we were trying to create a semi-permeable membrane, to somehow balance secrecy and selectivity with democratic impulses. We wrestled with how to include others, given our fear of being compromised, of “unconfidentiality.”
The small tour group I was a part of stepped into an upstairs room bathed in natural light: the bedroom of Emily Dickinson. There sat her little desk. There was the dresser drawer where she kept her little self-bound collections of poems discovered by her sister after her death. Our Amherst-sophomore guide, not saying a word, shut the door behind us and recounted a story. Dickinson’s niece Martha came to visit her aunt who lived and worked primarily in this one room where she penned over 1,800 poems—poems that were deemed (apart from a small few) too unconventional to be published in her lifetime. When Martha entered the bedroom, her Aunt Emily pretended to lock the door with an imaginary key, turned to her niece, and said, “Matty: here’s freedom.”
The contemporary mind, trained to eschew limits and to suspect obscurity, would doubtful grasp this story’s import. Adrienne Rich grasps it: “Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed.” The contemporary disposition that equates seclusion with mental pathology has scarce resources for appreciating concealment as liberation. Needing companionship, I toted a thick Dickinson volume with me to a family holiday gathering. When my brother-in-law saw the book, he declared, simply, “She’s weird.” Rich disagrees: “Given her vocation, she was neither eccentric nor quaint; she was determined to survive, to use her powers, to practice necessary economies.” She understood how selective the soul must be to thrive. She was no recluse; she had friends, visitors, and correspondences. Rather she enforced freedom through the limitations she placed around her space, her relationships, and her time. Sometimes, you simply must shut the door.
“Even if I were able to say more I would not now.”
I copied the line down by hand from the fourteenth-century guide to contemplation, The Cloud of Unknowing. The writer is sizing up the timing. The writer is measuring the weight of words. The writer is trusting the reader, despite the fact the reader may not, will not understand. The writer is hedging. Has the hour come? Perhaps not yet. The writer is talking of god. The writer insists on anonymity.
I cannot pretend to say much about contemplative prayer. My hard-baked Protestant mind easily mistrusts anything not directly tied to work. I hold very few memories from my childhood of my parents sitting down. Perhaps precisely because the mystics’ occupation is so obscure to me, I am drawn to them as a source of challenge and strange delight. I have a hunch they silently have kept the world afloat. While we have bustled about the deck, they have been down in the hold plugging holes.
“Even if I were able to say more I would not now.” The writer must traverse both via positiva and via negativa. The writer must say and not say. The writer must decide what to burn, what to bind, and what to tuck in a drawer for later.
We consciously organized as an underground society; our name was the homophone of sass, meaning “back talk.” Sass connotes insolence. Planning a neighborhood recycle day hardly seems impudent; organizing a summer playgroup hardly registers as brazen. I scoured my SAS file for hints of rebellion, but, much to my disappointment, I could discern nothing audacious or subversive in any of the minutes. Our optimism about organizing community and environmental activities in an intensely privatized region, while high-minded and politically atypical, did not warrant grand secrecy or smack of full-blown sass. So to whom or what were we talking back?
Perhaps, I need to come at this slant. It wasn’t the content of our meetings as such that needed secrecy and selectivity—it was the gathering itself. SAS was not the silly play of little girls but rather a performance of power. Outsiders—not because they were necessarily bent on doing some kind of specific harm—were nevertheless a threat to the intimacy of the group. Little girls form secret societies because they know in their bones that the world is dangerous for them. They must carve out zones of safety for themselves; they need trusted others. They need room to live, breathe, and have their being—all firmly outside the coercions of powerful others who cannot be trusted with the treasured secrets of their budding bodies and souls.
By enacting guarded borders, we were talking back to a society bent on undermining our integrity. To the forces that conspired to distract us from ourselves, to diffuse our creative energies, to deny our moral development—planning a neighborhood recycle day in secret was, in fact, talking back. Not everyone could be trusted with our pearls; swine can’t keep confidence. Holding to secrecy and granting access to others selectively were acts of self-definition, exercises in coalition building, and practices of necessary reticence. There isn’t a word in the minutes about selection or exclusion based on any specific traits—intellectual, economic, racial, or otherwise—with the exception that members must possess the ability to keep confidence, attend activities, and respect group decisions and the other members—and presumably be female. We intuited that boundaries were foundational for any sanctuary. I will withhold club secrets. Matty: here’s freedom.
A bright and exacting little girl of stern fundamentalist parents, Brooke grew into a cruel and deceptive teenager. I distanced myself from her in high school when her callousness grew oppressive to me and took on a bullying quality. She was demeaning to her peers (or anyone she deemed powerless) but charming to teachers or coaches or popular older kids (or anyone she reckoned could get her something). My friend Lindsay came to Trigonometry one day, threw herself in her chair, obviously rattled, and whispered to me in desperation, “I just don’t know what to do about her.” She had befriended Brooke only to find herself now subjected to her merciless manipulation.
In high school one of Brooke’s ex-boyfriends blabbed to the school that Brooke wore granny panties. (If she wore the same underwear in high school that she wore when I was friends with her, then her ex was correct.) The violation was mortifying—material revealed in secret and spurted into the imagination of an immature public like a poisonous dart. I felt embarrassed for her, but I also felt gratified—her meanness finally matched by another. What only now comes into view is that such a breach for her, for all of us, signifies a symptom of a larger disease—the slow and total extermination of trust.
Brooke killed herself when she was 30. I wish freedom could have come another way.
Hypocrites love demonstrative and public prayer, but Jesus offered an alternate vision of piety—lock the door and do your holy business obscurely; the one who sees in secret rewards in secret. We live in times that love demonstrative and public everything. (Well, everything that is self-stylized for consumption and garners fleeting attention.) Most emblematic of this everything: It is nothing, nothing at all, to circulate photos of the inside of your uterus. Ultrasound images, grainy and indeterminate, appear in in-boxes and on feeds alongside Macy’s coupons. The prevalence with which we have all been exposed to other people’s intra-uterine photographs—and with which we have so readily offered up pictures of our own wombs to multitudes of mostly voyeurs—surely signals a miscarriage of reticence; it is curled in fetal position, gasping its last breaths. But, can we say no? No, high school math teacher—No, acquaintance from church—No, co-worker—Even: No, dear family, dear friends—No, you are not allowed a peek inside of my body. You do have access to my inward knitting. I do not need or want you to have an opinion on—to “like”—what is happening within me. And I do not wish for you to give me free access to your innards either. To close the valves of our attention is to practice freedom. Even if I were able to say more I would not now.
I do not want people to go back in closets; I do not want transgressions tucked back under suffocating rugs. Secrecy has become equated with scandals, cover-ups, gross injustices. However, we’ve jettisoned all secrecy—confusing reticence with shame. As a false remedy to oppression, we have encouraged exposure, no matter how unexamined, no matter how oblivious to motive, or consequence, or the disassembly of virtue. Some confession, no matter how grisly and true, is calculated, thinly-veiled boasting. When the pit in the belly rumbles loneliness, instead of sitting with its aching truth, we douse it with the junk food of rapid and fleeting contact with “friends.” Sharing without intimacy cannot bring healing, because healing without real relationships is impotent. Gospel secrecy is concealment grounded in intimacy, not a conspiracy to silence injustice. Gospel reticence is predicated on knowing and being known in such a personal way that to bandy about this knowledge violates the mystery of the relationship. A friend confided: Sometimes I look at my wife and this feeling comes up in me of such intense love that to say something feels cheap. I hold it in me like the best secret. At times, to remain true to the ineffable is to refrain from words. It’s not about keeping dirty secrets; it’s about guarding a sacred trust.
Ours is a culture intent on flinging open shut doors. We get nervous about what goes on in there, out of view. We childishly protest that we have the right to know: How does mine compare; am I repressed; is it better over there? Our endless curiosity about sexual practice and partner configuration points to a juvenile fixation on such affairs as the criteria for virtue. We are weirdly worried about mechanics, obsessing about technique and implements and the morality of part placement. We are suspicious of obscured flesh. Covered women must be oppressed by their husbands. Such reasoning reveals the impotence of our own imaginations. We split open every veil, forgetting that the exposed face of god will kill us. All intimates know a shut door can enhance pleasure. To see in secret is to reward in secret.
The minutes of SAS’s final recorded meeting included a comprehensive list of ideas:
Save money for trip
Adopt a child from another country
Adopt a highway
Put up babysitting advertising signs
Make commercials on made-up projects
Pet sit advertisement
Earth Day Group walk to school
Moment of Silence
I paused and smiled that the Secretary struck through “SAS Sign.” Clearly, these little girls deemed making a sign that advertised the club’s existence not in keeping with the club’s pledge. And “Moment of Silence?” Typically, moments of silence connote reverence and sorrow to honor the victims of a tragedy. Was this some sort of religious ritual they hoped to facilitate? Was the moment intended to remember some event or person? (On the cusp of adolescence, shedding the pretense of innocence, these girls had much to mourn.) “Garden” piqued my interest. This was well before the trend of community gardening. What had they planned to grow, where did they think it would go, why did they reckon it a good and necessary idea to garden? Wisdom resides in the annals of little girls’ secret lists, but the meanings and intentions remain veiled. The Secretary did not say more; I cannot ask her now. Even if she were able to say more, perhaps she would not. Such knowledge is hidden for the time being.
Reticence is not about keeping silent—that is quietism. Reticence is holding silence in the service of mystery. What is unspeakable remains so despite all attempts, despite the constant rapping and pulling at shut doors, despite mad exposure. Seeds take darkness and hiddenness to flourish. Garden rightly comes after Moment of Silence. Shut the door, and ripen in secret.
Lynn Casteel Harper’s work has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Catapult, The Huffington Post, North American Review, Tiferet, New Delta Review, CALYX, the Journal of Religion and Abuse, and elsewhere. A Barbara Deming fund recipient, she won the New Delta Review Nonfiction Prize in 2013 and the Orison Anthology’s 2017 Nonfiction Award. She was named runner up for the Torch Prize in 2016. Her forthcoming nonfiction book, On Vanishing (Catapult, 2019), explores dimensions of dementia, social justice, and spirituality. Originally from southeast Missouri, Lynn lives in New York City where she serves as the associate minister of Parish Care at The Riverside Church.