Have you ever been to a party and seen those people who glide effortlessly around the room, mingling and conversing with ease with everyone they encounter?
Look around those people, and you’ll see me in the corner avoiding eye contact, babysitting the dip tray like it’s my job.
Supposedly most people’s greatest fear – even over death – is public speaking. I got no problem with that. Put me in a large lecture hall, and let me do my thing. But send me a party invitation, and I would rather pick out my casket.
I used to get anxious over my social anxiety, but this year, I’ve regularly dosed myself with The Bloggess’s twitter feed and read some fabulous books (not even about that topic, but more about accepting who you are and rocking it). The anxiety is still there, but I now own my awkwardness and wear it with pride.
Last night, I attended my neighborhood’s annual Cookie Exchange, my first venture taking that newly-owned awkwardness on the road. (Literally…I walked to the party.)
The invitation came to our mailbox last week with a friendly gingerbread man greeting us from the top right corner. It promised soda, beer, wine, light appetizers, and holiday cheer. Bring 4 dozen cookies if you want to leave with a different 4 dozen assortment…or don’t. Just come and be merry!
Now, I need to note the invitation was an 8.5×11 sheet of paper hand-delivered to our mailbox, addressed to no one in particular. This was my first anxiety-ridden moment.
Clearly, this was a neighborhood tradition, but as the newcomer, I had no prior reference. Was this a family event? It had a smiling gingerbread man and soda. A couples event? It had beer and wine. A must-attend-because-everyone-goes event? It was an annual thing. Or, crap, what if it is an invite that causes everyone to roll their eyes because this neighbor does this EVERY YEAR and NO ONE LIKE COOKIES, SO COME ON, “KAREN,” AND GET THE HINT ALREADY!!!??? (There was nothing in the invitation to suggest “Karen” was a cookie-loving social pariah, but one never knows…)
Since I am now in-tune with my social anxiety, I recognized that a) I could figure this out easily, and b) regardless of what I figured out, I needed to go, if for no other reason than to model for my kids that “Mom can make new friends and do new things just like she’s telling you to do”…even if it killed me. We plan to be in this neighborhood for at least the next 8 years, and I do not want to be known as “that antisocial neighbor who skips the Cookie Exchange every year.” And, having moved from a neighborhood not as congenial, I liked the IDEA of an annual neighborhood gathering…you know, the ABSTRACT CONCEPT of such an event. Plus, I had an AWESOME recipe in mind that would no doubt make me the talk of the cul-de-sacs for at least the next few weeks.
There was both an email and a cell number for the RSVP. Naturally, I chose email to put off actual interaction for as long as possible. On Tuesday at 6 am, I sent:
Thank you for your kind invitation. As people new to the neighborhood this year, we would love to come and meet some neighbors. My husband and son will be at basketball practice, so if kids are allowed, it will be me and my 13-year old daughter. Please let me know if this is more of an adults-only event.
(Lake Forest Dr.)
On Wednesday around 9 am, I received a message saying that the recipient’s email server was a little busy, so the message would be delivered at some unknown point in the future…possibly.
I received this note at work, the invitation and new neighborhood directory in my kitchen at home (yes, we have one of those, listing all residents, children, their ages, and babysitters/pet sitters/house sitters in the immediate area). I had no way of double-checking the address or sending it to another one on file. And now I was getting close to the 24-hours-before-the-event mark, which I am sure is an Emily Post no-no for RSVPing. And, of course, I still had no sense of what type of event this was.
When I got home, there was a different address in the directory, so I resent it to that one, pointing out it was my second RSVP attempt given the email issues with the first, and I hope this one finds its way.
That email got bounced back immediately, address invalid.
I took a deep breath and dialed the cell number, praying for it to go to voicemail. “Karen” answered. I introduced myself, explained the email snafu, and reiterated our family members’ whereabouts for that evening. No, “Karen” said, kids generally didn’t come, but, of course, I could bring my daughter if I wanted.
After I hung up, I said to Avery, “Well, you can come and feel awkward, or I can go solo and feel awkward.” It’s tough being a grown-up. I had to fall on the sword.
So last night, I tried to think of reasons not to go. I had plenty. We are leaving for a long drive first thing on Saturday morning, and I had not packed. I had not wrapped. I had not done laundry. I was ready for bed. If I didn’t show, would they even notice?
But then I would have to tell Avery that her 37-year old mother was too afraid to exchange cookies with the neighbors, and even I recognize that sounds crazy.
So I put a ribbon around a bottle of champagne for a hostess gift. (Is that even an acceptable hostess gift? Shouldn’t it be wine? But I don’t have any wine…that’s not open.) I grabbed my Tupperware and my kickass 7-layer cookies, asked Avery to call me if she had any problems – really – it’s not a bother to call me and need me back home – and I headed out the door and walked the tenth of a mile to one of the most elegantly decorated houses on the street.
If you’re still with me, don’t worry – I am wrapping up. Just like with anxiety, the build-up is always a bigger event than the actual event.
Which was lovely. And attended by about 15-20 of the neighborhood moms, all bearing trays of cookies, not one of them a duplicate recipe.
Sure, I didn’t drink or eat anything, so as to avoid spilling wine on the carpet or seeing I had a remnant of the spinach dip covering my front tooth when I got home.
And, no, I was not magically cured of my inability to engage in small talk. In a shockingly short span of time that surprised even me, I somehow managed to share some real gems, including, but not limited to:
- The fact that my type 1 diabetic dad died almost seven years ago;
- How I recently accused the Vietnam Veterans of theft, but it turns out I was wrong, so now I need to make amends and donate to them; and
- How I backpacked through Europe in college without an itinerary or plan but wasn’t sure my children would be able to do so today given terrorist activity.
Yup. Process that for a moment.
Lest you think that I am now the cookie-loving social pariah of the neighborhood, know that I am pretty sure that all of the above fit into the context of the conversations I had. And sharing those tidbits led me to learn that:
- “Karen’s” oldest son was diagnosed with diabetes when he was 10 months old, and she wants to talk with me later about tips and resources;
- Multiple neighbors have had package mix-ups this holiday season, but I should be assured that no one on the street has ever been broken into; and
- Other mothers are worried not only about letting their children go on the senior trip abroad, but also about crazy movie theater shooters targeting the new Stars Wars movie, which their children are all going to see.
That’s right. Being myself and just running with it led to fruitful, meaningful conversations that generated connection. A true Christmas miracle.
Two hours later, I went home with 4 dozen assorted treats, having successfully masqueraded as a normal human. And for that, I deserve a cookie.