December 01, 2010

Open Door Policy

This time of year, in this economy, and especially in this industry, you hear well-meaning, greeting card variety words of encouragement from those still gainfully employed, be it your friends, family, (former) coworkers, or most regrettably, human resource professionals. Amidst the utterances of “I feel your pain,” “Change is good,” “You’ll be fine” and “This is actually a great opportunity,” one cliche always stands out to me: “When one door closes, another one opens.”

Of course, if taken literally, it’s totally not true. If one door closes behind you in a long hallway full of doors, sometimes you’ve got to leave the hallway altogether in order to find another door to open. And whereas someone else closed that door for you (by firing you, laying you off, demoting you or making you feel generally so unwanted and disempowered that you’re forced to leave), the onus is entirely on you to open the next door. Nobody is going to do that for you. If opportunity knocks, it’s probably because you toiled day and night to make sure it knew it was invited over.

And sometimes, when the door slams shut, it encloses you within a room with no other doors. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a big enough window in that room, you’re going to have to go back through that door to go anywhere else.

My mother, raised the youngest of ten children to a farmer on welfare, said that she always felt like she was on the outside looking in, wearing her neighbors’ hand-me-downs and eating government cheese while fellow schoolgirls went on comparatively fancy dinner dates in new dresses. She tells stories – literal or metaphorical, I’m not sure – of pressing her nose against window panes gazing upon scenes of home and hearth, and then returning home to poverty, despair, and alternating violence and neglect.

Perhaps in response to her own upbringing, my mother raised me to feel exactly the opposite: I always felt like I was on the inside, looking out.

My entire childhood, I was trapped inside a sanitized, sealed-off house. No one ever came in. And we rarely were released from it. Strangely, though, all of its interior doors were open all of the time. For reasons I still don’t understand, my sister and I weren’t allowed to close our bedroom door all the way while we slept, beams of light often keeping me awake until my parents finally went to bed, and wafts of cigarette smoke trailing in to rouse me in the morning. For reasons I don’t think I’ll ever understand, we weren’t allowed to use the bathroom in complete privacy, forcibly leaving the door open more than a crack while we sat behind it on the toilet, or worse yet, splashed naked in the bathtub, even as our bodies grew and developed into more womanly forms.

This shattered any sense of bathroom sanctity: anybody could walk in at any time, for any reason. Our bodies clenched when we heard our father approach, necessarily passing the bathroom on his way to the back porch where he was eventually relegated to smoke. Legs crossed, arms folded in, body in half just in case he didn’t avert his eyes well enough, or the opening of the back door released a gust that would blow open the bathroom door entirely.

With all of those open doors, you would think that I would have been able to move freely throughout the house that held me captive from the outside world, but there were many areas within that were also off-limits to me: the kitchen (except to walk through or clean it, but never to eat in unless it was officially mealtime), the pantry (except to clean it, and especially not while my mother was sneaking Twinkies and HoHos in there), and the dining room (which, since being converted into a gallery of crystal figurines and porcelain dolls, we weren’t even allowed to clean). So instead, I sought solace where I could manage a modicum of privacy in the house I shared with a mother who never left: in my father’s den, beneath his dusty stuffed moose head mounted on the wall, amidst his equally-dusty record collection, protected by nicotine-stained wallpaper that was so filthily unpalatable to my mother, it was likely she wouldn’t bother me in there, even with the door open. I understood why my father spent so much time in there.

When I went away to college, I was so used to the embarrassing exposure of every detail of my activity that it didn’t take me long to adjust to shared dormitory bathrooms. I often fell asleep in my single dorm rooms with the door open, for both naps and full nights’ sleep – at first accidentally and then intentionally. There was nothing I wanted more than to awake to one of my classmates standing in my doorway, coming to say hello at any hour of day or night. After years of being exposed and vulnerable, I adopted my own Open Door Policy. And for those times that I had to stay put (to study, or sleep, or whatever), I would make every attempt to let the world in. By senior year, I started hiding my room key outside my door so my friends and neighbors could come and go as they pleased whether I was there or not, eating food out of my fridge, heating up their own in my microwave, and sometimes even taking a nap in my own bed.

Just before moving out of my Manhattan studio, I accidentally fell asleep once with my apartment door open. I woke up to the sound of it being shut, but when I got out of bed to investigate, I only found a closed, unlocked door. A few weeks later, one of my neighbors who I’d never seen or spoken to before stopped me in the stairwell and asked, “Are you OK?” She then explained that she’d passed my open door and had peered into my dark apartment, calling out for me to no response. Afraid of scaring me, she simply shut the door and went on her way, but she’d been concerned about me ever since.

I thanked her and told her I was OK.

“I just didn’t want to scare you…” she repeated.

“Oh, it’s tough to scare me. I’m fine. Thanks.”

Now that I have a roommate, instead of hiding away in my bedroom behind closed doors as I expected to, I find myself sleeping with the door open again – sometimes just a crack, sometimes wide open. I awake to keys crashing onto coffee table, beer bottles clanking, the chatter of friends and girlfriend, and once again to the smell of cigarette smoke. And somehow these disturbances are comforting to me, reminding me that I’m not the only one in the apartment, not the only person in the world.

When I closed the door to my Manhattan studio one final time, I’d already opened the door to my new life in Queens. And for now, I’m keeping it open. You never know what might come knocking.

The difference now is, I decide which doors close, and which ones open.

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