Personal or private?

It’s early morning and some street people are talking directly below my window. They are taking shelter from the rain beneath the green metal awning that surrounds the building. For some reason, Vancouver requires buildings to have awnings at street level - at least in Gastown, where I live. This historic area building regulation may not apply to the rest of the city. Well anyways, these folks were up earlier than me, hidden from view but I hear them. I want to put on my noise-cancelling headphones but they’re out of power, so I move to an interior place in the apartment to write. I need to be more private, secluded.

Of course, that’s astrologically natural for someone of my sign, Cancer the crab, just scuttling sideways in my little shell. James, the Leo, might go down outside and roar.

I found the perfect spot to write about the difference between personal and private. This newsletter is named Personal Papers. Putting out a newsletter is a public action, a form of publication - but it is ultimately private to you as a reader. Is it more private than reading a book or listening to music or podcasts with headphones? Not really, but it is more personal, like your phone.

Maybe privacy is measured by what others know and see of your thoughts and activities? Like the privacy of a tent on a city sidewalk. Or a curtain in a shared hospital room. Or a downward glance on the bus. Our passwords are private, our tracked and monitored browsing activity is not private. We guard our “privacy” and don’t want Alexa overhearing. Is privacy now considered old hat?

Carrie from Homeland turns off the surveillance camera.

Writing to you each week restores some of my own personal mind from the group-thinking overexposure that has eroded privacy. Here I claim, if not privacy, then at least the personal.

I spent my early teen years buried in books, vicariously living innumerable lives. I didn’t know how to make my hair look right no matter how hard I tried, and I only went to the hospital Open House for teens who wanted to take up nursing careers because friends were going. (Spoiler: No one became nurses.) It was spring break and my new trenchcoat (named “The Foreign Intrigue”) was far too thin for the cold.

That person, that girl with almost-right hair, shivering in the wind but acting as if it was okay, had a vast rich personal life as an avid reader. No one touched it. It was private. There was a wall between the private person who I really was (or thought I was) and the one others saw and knew. Except for the very few close friends.

Personal, private, secret. These are all good, they are all levels of the self in relation to the world, and are to be nurtured however we can. We aren’t public people all the time: it isn’t possible. Now we’re too much visible, we’re turned inside out.

There was a time when going out of the privacy of the home into the public sphere meant presenting oneself well. Hats. Dressing for the airport. Even “casual” had a formal meaning. I read somewhere that in the 1950s it was considered extremely attractive and interesting to appear as if you had a secret. Not a full-blown Sylvia Plath secret - but maybe that’s okay too.

Sometimes people feel more comfortable in the costume of fashion, stepping out on purpose, in fine form, making others happy, having a little fun with all this public/private/personal/secret life. No one wants to see the folds of the brain, or the inner organs - so visceral, yucky gooey, soft, unprotected. The brain needs a hard skull. The body needs its skin.

Minding my own business, tending my own garden needn’t separate me from others. I can be open without spilling my guts, but I think it’s too late for me to cultivate personal mystery. I was part of the movement toward full open life, integration and opening of the unconscious into consciousness, opening the superconscious, all that. As Madame Dariaux, author of 1964’s A Guide to Elegance says, “No woman who has been bohemian can ever be truly elegant.”

A fancy hat? Cultivating personal mystery? This may not be a time for such considerations. Canada is in crisis with rail blockades, global heating has been melting Antarctica. What’s private and personal is profoundly impacted by the public sphere. Now public protesters hide their faces, wear bandanas, marks and makeup that disrupt recognition software. The new warpaint. People are wearing face masks and not only in China - a new way of dressing for the airport.


Thanks for reading, and if you like this issue, please click the heart! See you next week :)