The Nature of Shame

They always say that the cover up is usually worse than the crime. And I believe it’s true. As a child, I grew up in a house brimming with shame. Trying to cover up ‘crimes’ that are so common place now as to hardly warrant a mention. But, back then the cover up, the desperate attempt to appear perfect outside the house, nearly destroyed those who lived inside it. Such is the nature of shame.

It’s probably why when I left home I vowed to be myself, 100% of the time. Let your freak flag fly – that was my mantra. And I have largely lived a life based on that. Am I flawed? More than most. Do I care what other people think of me? Not usually. Growing up, I learned that what other people thought of me was none of my business.

But there are people I know, dear people, who don’t have that luxury. One of many of my friends in Seattle is gay. We were having dinner one evening and he said something I will never forget. ‘All gay people are permanently messed up.’

I was surprised to hear him say this. ‘You’re joking.’

‘No, I’m not. It’s true. When you have to live your entire life in hiding. When you’re taught to be ashamed of who you are, it messes you up. You never come back from that.’

I had never heard him talk this way. ‘But now it’s different. You can be Out and Proud. No one cares anymore. You can love who you want and get married.’

But he was having none of it. ‘Sure, it’s different now. But half the country still thinks we should be locked up. And at work, they don’t want too much of it. You still need to keep it on the down low. Don’t rub it in anyone’s face.’

By ‘It’ he meant being gay. In his 50’s, after all the progress, he was still having to hide his true self. Such is the nature of shame.

I hadn’t really thought about shame in a long time. Living abroad, we are largely outside the gossip of daily life here. And I loathe gossip, so that works just fine for me. But I touched it exactly a year ago when I came to look at this farm and I walked the property with the owner’s grown daughter.

‘I need to tell you something.’ she said as we walked through the pasture. ‘We want to be honest with you.’ This sounded so grave I was more than a little concerned. ‘My mother is divorced.’ She choked it out like she was coughing up poison. It took me by surprise. Not that the woman was divorced. Many of us have tripped over that rock. Sometimes more than once. But it was the daughter’s feelings about this state of affairs, and her shame in having to be the one to tell me. And if this were the only time I had to hear about it, it probably wouldn’t have left such an impression. But when we made the offer our lawyer brought it up, as well. And then, when we went to the bank the first time to see about getting a loan, it came up again.

‘I have called the sellers. And before we proceed, I need to make sure you are aware. The seller is a divorcé.’ She said in a whisper, so the rest of the bank wouldn’t hear.

Jeff looked over his mask at me, then back at the banker. ‘So?’ He didn’t get it.

Our banker responded quietly. ‘I just wanted you to be aware.’

Of course, our loan saga is well documented here on the blog, but then we got to closing and signing at the Notaria. The Notaria sat behind the glass as the bank manager, our loan officer, and Jeff and I sat in front of it. Before he began to read the entire contract outloud to us, shouting behind his mask and the screen, he gravely informed us.

‘Before we begin, I need to know that you understand the seller is divorced.’ He began.

The loan officer turned to us and whispered. ‘Remember. I told you when we met the first time.’

Jeff and I just shook our heads. ‘Yes. We are aware.’ But we still didn’t understand why this was such a big deal.

Then, this week we were having our roof redone. It took them 5 weeks longer than they originally promised, but they did an excellent job. Above and beyond. The house looks new. They pressure washed the entire exterior and the slate patio that surrounds it. We are good to go for winter. After they were finished, one of the guys stuck around to clean everything up. I went out to thank him and he wanted to chat. He speaks pretty good ingles and we didn’t have to wear masks as we were outside and very socially distanced.

‘Finished. It was a mess up there.’ he told me. Which I already knew. ‘The previous owner didn’t maintain the house.’ Again, something I already knew.

‘Well, she is handicapped and living in Coruña. I imagine it was difficult for her.’ I said.

He shook his head. ‘It wasn’t her. It was her husband. He left her 10 years ago. Then he divorced her.’ The next part he whispered. ‘He lives in the village in an apartment with a woman who is not his wife.’

I laughed. But then I realized he was serious. In 2021, after everything, they still care about the fact that this guy is divorced and shacking up with a woman in the village? So I rearranged my face to the appropriate level of seriousness after his surprise at my reaction.

I decided to go another way. ‘Maybe it’s a love story. Perhaps he has loved this woman since they were children and something got in their way. Like Romeo and Juliet. And, as an old man, he decided he wanted to give it one last shot before taking the final dirt nap.’ I was hoping to put some kind of positive spin on it. I don’t really know these people, and even if I did I don’t like gossiping. It’s bad karma.

‘No.’ said the worker, like I was crazy. ‘He’s just a 75 year old scoundrel. And, it’s why the wife had to move to Coruña. To get away from the shame of it.’

So, while she has moved away, clearly the town is on the wife’s team. But, even after ten years, the shame of this has never subsided. For either of them. Note to self – The town has a long memory.

I thought I would put a line in the water and see what I could catch. ‘What do people say about us in town?’ I asked him, putting him on the spot. ‘Do they talk about us?’

He laughed. ‘Oh yes. They talk about you.’

I smiled. ‘That we are the crazy Americans who don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks of us?’ I wear my painting overalls and Doc Martens into town. Sometimes my harem pants, Jeff’s old sweatshirt, and my Birks. The same thing I would wear in Seattle, San Francisco or NY, if I was going to the grocery store. Not something normal 50-something women wear in rural Galicia. I know it causes a stir, and I told him so. He agreed that this has been discussed amongst the locals.

‘Where do you shop?’ he asked.

I told him the grocery store we favor.

‘It’s good you shop there. It is the newest one. It just opened this year. Younger people working there, and I heard the manager told them they should welcome everyone and be friendly.’ It made me wonder if The scoundrel and the fallen lady shop there too. But he went back to our reputation in town. ‘What is a ‘dirt nap’ and ‘a rat’s ass’?

I laughed. ‘A dirt nap means dying. And a rat’s ass means I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks of me. Here, or back in the US.’

He seemed to give this some serious thought. ‘That’s probably good. Don’t worry. I will tell them I met you. And that you are friendly and nice. And that they shouldn’t waste their time.’ Then he laughed. ‘Since you don’t give a rat’s ass anyway.’

I feel sure we were a hot topic at the bar on Friday night. I gave our roofer a couple of new American phrases en ingles to throw around to his friends. And perhaps I have inoculated Jeff and I from the grist mill of town gossip. Yet, somehow I think not. But, I had a bad break up with shame long ago. So, as usual, I have the luxury of not really caring either way.

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