Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly. ~Epictetus
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about closets, both literal and metaphorical. Probably because I started a blog. Writing a blog feels like standing on a subway grate with blast of hot air blowing my dress up over my head. Suddenly, I’m aware of what I must look like standing here, faceless and inside out, revealing every rip, every stain.
It started when my friend Alice let me look in her closet. She invited me over to talk about how to start a blog and, while we chatted, we hung the clean laundry in her closet. Now, you don’t let just anybody rifle through your stuff, and I count it as a token of trust and affection that Alice let me poke around in there. How many people’s closets am I familiar with? Not many. Mostly my family’s, maybe a handful of close friends’.
Because your closet is the most personal room in your house—not only does it smell like you, it’s imprinted with every intimate detail of your body. It reveals your true shape. I vividly remember my grandma Helen’s closet at the Berkeley City Club, a distinguished residence for women that was designed by Julia Morgan, the first famous female architect, who apparently understood the significance of closets for a woman because, although my grandmother’s room was not large, her walk-in closet seemed vast and magical. One peek into her closet at her wonderful collection of high heels (even in her 90s, she refused to wear flats), her “pocketbooks,” and the styrofoam heads sporting wigs on the top shelf—one glance spoke volumes.
But it doesn’t seem right to speak only of other people’s closets. Because that’s not what blogging is all about, is it? In a blog, you’re supposed to air your own dirty laundry. And even if it makes me sort of nervous, it is what writing’s all about, after all—psychological excavations, diggin’ in the dirt. Perhaps the problem with writers is that we think the skeletons in our closet are so interesting it would be selfish not to share them with everyone. Or maybe, after years of writing only for myself, I begin to get paranoid that none of it was real: If only I can see it, then maybe it doesn’t exist. Or perhaps it’s just that I get rather lonely sitting all alone in my little imaginary world.
So I invite you all to rummage through my closet. But first you will have to scramble up the mountain of shoes waiting for room on the already-full shoe rack. I love shoes. Maybe too much. Once, my then-two-year-old daughter, who was mad at me for saying “no” to something or other, toddled over to the closet, looked me right in the eye, and proceeded to pee all over my shoes. Even at two, she knew exactly where to find my soft spot.
My daughters love to play with my hat collection: cowboy hats, sunhats, cloches, berets, with feathers or ribbons or netting. Some people are hat people, some people aren’t. Me? I’m a closeted hat person: I buy fancy hats but never wear them. But my girls are both flagrant, brazen hat girls, and we play together. I find them at Magic Johnson’s Out of the Closet thrift store, right up the street from our house. I’m lucky to live in a city with lots of church-going ladies who wear fabulous outfits with matching hats every Sunday and, when they’re done with them, I can buy them for a song. When I find a good one, I feel the spirit, for sure; I want to throw my hands up in the air and yell, hallelujah!
When I look in my closet, I see much more than a bunch of clothes. Every piece has a story attached, a memory, and an explanation. Some things, like those butt-ugly Frankenstein boots or the decade-old maternity clothes, need a lot more explanation than others, but the stories attached make it very hard for me to get rid of anything. As a consequence, there’s a perpetual pile of stuff spilling out into the bedroom. Look to the left and you will find the emerald green leather handbag I bought for $2 at a yard sale which, I imagine, once belonged to someone who looked exactly like Jackie Kennedy. Don’t trip on the clogs, which happen to be the same ones my girl peed on when she was two (so I can never, ever throw them away). To the right you will find my mod 1960s suitcase by Marimekko with hot pink satin lining.
Every time I pack that bag, I remember an old friend who once insisted that you can tell a lot about a woman’s vagina just by looking at her purse. We all know it goes both ways—we tell stories about our stuff and our stuff tells stories about us. Maybe that’s why I own so many costumes. Look at this beaded Schiaparelli 1940s jacket that once hung in the closet of my fabulously elegant Grandmother, Joan. Coco Chanel once called Elsa Schiaparelli “that Italian artist who makes clothes.” I want to be the kind of woman who wears Schiaparelli—a hat shaped like a lamb chop or a shoe or a lobster, a sweater with an exoskeleton, a dress done with trompe l’oil rips and tears. One day, I will somehow be invited to that kind of party and I will magically find the right pants to wear with the jacket, but until then, it hangs in a plastic bag. I guess you could say I’m a closet glamour girl. Every time I see Lady Gaga, I want to squeeze her hand and whisper, “Go for it, sistah!”
Then there are the costumes I used to wear when I wanted to look intelligent: the blazers and prudent shoes I wore for the ten years I taught high school English. I’m 5’1” and have the voice of a child—on the phone, people regularly mistake me for my kids, and my kids for me—add this to the fact that I was always better on paper, in conversation never as articulate as I could be if you gave me pen and paper and left me alone for awhile, and let’s just say I needed all the help I could get to convince those teenagers I really was the teacher. Once, caught up in a wave of enthusiasm about Saramago or Nabokov, I used the (non)word “irregardless” in front of my AP seniors, and I had to wear tweed suits and my hair in a bun for the rest of the semester.
When I had kids, smart girl and glamour girl were banished to the closet. I don’t have time to read books without pictures or shave my legs, even. Now I wear jeans, a t shirt, and a big floppy hat to protect my sunspotted skin and hide the fact that I have not washed my hair for far too long.
On hard days, when I feel like if I hear that “My Little Pony” song one more time I’ll rip my ears off, when we have run out of milk and cereal so I must get creative for breakfast and serve them the only thing left, my own brain, scrambled on toast, on those days I can go to my closet, put on my grandmother’s Persian lamb coat, and have a good cry. When that’s done, I might go back downstairs singing something catchy to distract us all for a moment: “I Feel Pretty” from West Side Story, maybe. My closet offers hope. It’s the one place where the stories linger and dreams might still come true.
But do I really want my stories to prevail? The scariest story I heard as a child was Perrault’s folktale Bluebeard, the one where the young girl marries a rich, mysterious man who goes off on a trip and leaves her the keys to every room in the chateau, including the key to one closet she is forbidden to enter. She manages to entertain herself like a good little wife for awhile but, of course, curiosity finally wins and she unlocks the closet, where she finds the floor thick with blood and the bodies of all his former wives hanging from hooks.
Most of us are at least mildly curious. Don’t we all have a secret or two? But still, since I started the blog, I keep having the feeling that if I open that door, if I entertain curiosity and expose any flaws or secrets, even fictitious ones, I might die. Probably in some horribly embarrassing manner. At the very least, I will bleed, I will suffer, and my family will pay for my mistake.
A closeted gay person is acutely aware of at least one of the boxes they’re trapped in, while a straight person might spend years trying to figure out what she’s hiding about, or hiding from, herself. But when I write, it all comes to the light. I may or may not know what I’ve exposed but it’s out there, nonetheless. Unlike clothing, prose does not offer much protection—like a flimsy slatted door, you can catch an eyeful of the author between every line.
But if the battle is curiosity vs. the casket, aren’t we rooting for Pandora? Don’t we all yearn to bust the lid open and let in some fresh air? As GB Shaw once said, if you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you’d best teach it to dance.
I keep wondering if perhaps a blog isn’t the right place for fiction. What do you think? Will a weekly chapter of my novel be enough to maintain your interest? If I threw in an odd personal essay like this one, would it distract from or add to your interest? (And what about pictures? Do they distract or add to the experience?)
I welcome any and all comments! Please, let me know what you think, either in a comment here or via email. I’m doing this to improve my writing, after all.