Living in a fishbowl

I’ve never been a private person. The only time I ever got called into the bishop’s office as a teenager, it was for mooning a van full of our ward’s young men on the way home from Youth Conference. When Leslie and I were college freshmen, we never closed the shades to our dorm room at Deseret Towers. Years later, driving on 9th East one night we looked up at our old dorm room and realized what a peep show we had given to all of east Provo.

My DH, on the other hand, likes his privacy. He likes to keep his curtains closed and his online identity pseudonymous. Several years ago, his parents built a canyon cabin. They have neighbors, but compared with life in your average American subdivision, it’s pretty quiet up there. The cabin has no blinds or curtains on the back side of the house and the first time we stayed there, the lack of window coverings freaked my DH out. “I can’t relax,” he complained. “Who’s do you think is out there watching us?” I asked, “The deer or the fish?”

We had our house painted last week. I had to remember to close both bathroom doors when I wanted to take a shower, draw the shades when I tried to take a mid-afternoon siesta, or think twice before yelling at my kids. I’d be reading a book to my toddler or baking cookies with my big kids (or once, sitting on the toilet) and suddenly a face would appear in the window.

It was unsettling, to say the least. Since it’s still Christmas break, everyone was home, and I had relaxed my housekeeping standards. But whenever I’d catch a glimpse of Saul or Ramon’s faces in my windows, I’d instantly jump up from the computer desk or the couch and start picking up, as if I didn’t want to be caught watching tv or reading blogs. I worried all week about what they were thinking of me and my family– were we too lazy, too self-indulgent, too unfriendly?

The funny thing is, I’m not sure Saul and Ramon were thinking anything about us (although I know that if I were up on a ladder looking into people’s bedrooms and family rooms for an entire week, I would have constructed an entire fictional life story about them). And if they were, why does my mind automatically leap to them judging us for our weaknesses?

In “Shoulder to Shoulder,” Courtney Miller Santo’s essay in the Summer 2008 issue of Segullah, she writes about how an outsiders’ perspective on her family (specifically her mom and her sister) allowed her to shift her own views on her family to see the strengths that others see.

Maybe Saul and Ramon, if they were thinking about us at all, were impressed by the way my kids played together so creatively (and so messily) or the way I could plow through two or three books during the time they were there. Maybe they were just impressed by the amount of stuff I swept off the kitchen floor on Thursday when I finally couldn’t stand the mess anymore. Either way, maybe I’ve learned that a little privacy isn’t such a bad thing. My DH has been trying to teach me that lesson for the last 15 years, so he’ll be glad that he got both a freshly painted house and a wife who’s more careful about closing the blinds out of the experience.

About Shelah

(Editor-in-Chief) lives in Salt Lake City with her husband and six kids. She has a BA in English Teaching from BYU, an MA in American Culture Studies from Washington University in St. Louis, and an MFA in Creative Writing at BYU. Her work has been published in Dialogue, the Mormon Women Project, Irreantum, BYU Studies, and Segullah. When she’s not writing or wrangling, she can often be found running through the city in the pre-dawn darkness.

8 thoughts on “Living in a fishbowl

  1. I live out in the country; our closest neighbor is 1/4 mile away-too close in my opinion. I put lace curtains in the front picture window after living here for about 2 years. However, the kitchen and bedroom remain curtainlest. It doesn’t bug me. I guess if someone really wants to peep, it will be their own fault when they have a stroke at the horrors of the visual experience!!

  2. I loved the part of Courtney’s essay when her friend speaks so highly of her sister (and mother). I’ve had the same experience with my kids. It’s easy to get mired down in the day-to-day responsibilities of parenting–sometimes I miss the forest for the trees. When teachers or others say something kind about my children (especially the ones I struggle with) it helps give me some perspective.

  3. The view from the outside changes the perspective entirely. We can see I haven’t learned my lessons yet as I’d be content in philip johnson’s glass house.

  4. It is amazing to get a little peek at someone else’s view of you every once in a while.

    We’re in a very shorthanded branch, we need more help all the time. As it is now the Primary president and I (the only active counselor) trade off sharing time and music/opening exercises. We feel perpetually frustrated and run down, wondering if the children feel the spirit at all because things are so crazy. So in trying to decide how to divide and conquer responsibilities we asked the Sunbeam teacher to also lead the music (she has one active child in the class).

    To our surprise she said she couldn’t be as upbeat as we were, that it was just beyond her capabilities. We were both shocked! We put on fake smiles almost every week to get through those last 20 minutes yet the person on the very front row saw something completely different.

    It was a good reminder that we often paint ourselves in a negative light while painting others in a more positive way. In the end I wonder if I ever see things the way they truly are.

  5. Les– the glass house is set well back from the road, so we wouldn’t have to worry about flashing unsuspecting pedestrians from inside. Also, I’m not sure I’d like living there– I’ve heard it’s kind of drafty.

  6. Re: openness, my husband and I are opposites, too, though more in regards to sharing personal information. I put blackout fabric over my shower window so nobody can even know I’m IN there (the window is placed rather inconveniently for someone my height), but I’m completely more open with emotions and such. Anyway, I’ve found it’s good to have each other to balance each other out. He’s becoming more open and I’m learning to be more discreet.

    I remember reading Shoulder to Shoulder when the summer issue came out and really enjoying it. I have definitely experienced changing how I see some family members based on the positive comments of other people. It’s such an interesting transition to make that perspective change.

  7. Okay, I really do live in a fish-bowl. (Huge, HUGE, expansive windows on opposite sides of my house + a very open floor plan. Wasn’t my first choice in homes–but what was available in the area when we moved here suddenly, that could reasonably accommodate our family of seven.) And I’m a fairly private person. (I’m not so mortified if I accidentally flash a stranger, but would DIE if it were my neighbor…)Anyway, even though there are people who are probably watching me, and now I am speaking of life in general-not just in my fishbowl house, I’m sure that more often than not, I have created my own imaginary audience. I’m not that interesting, people probably aren’t watching me as closely as I sometimes think they might be. I have an over-active sense of that. Maybe it comes from being the oldest of 8, and the way I was raised: behave in public, people are watching you. Sometimes I find myself starting to react to a situation with my kids like I think people would expect me to react and I have to stop myself for a moment and decide how I really want to react to it. Does that make any sense?

    That said, people are going to see what they want to see. Too many crumbs on your kitchen floor– or a large happy family eating together; too much time spent on blogs (ahem) or time spent being inspired, taught, uplifted, amused, replenished so one can keep on giving of herself to the ones she loves…

    (And if I were up on a ladder looking in people’s bedrooms for a week-
    I would totally be watching and wondering and creating stories too.) ;)

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