The Joy of Playing It Un-Safe: Going It Alone

One woman on the rewards of breaking out of your comfort zone

By Daphne Merkin
risk image
Photograph: Phil Toledano

I’VE ALWAYS HAD a complicated relationship with risk. Like many people, I admire those intrepid souls who strike out for uncharted territory while most others hew to the road well traveled. For one thing, it’s interesting to watch how the “delicate calculus of human fate,” to borrow Vladimir Nabokov’s phrase, plays out when someone appears to take a more active hand in its outcome by veering off in an unexpected or less safe direction. For another, risk takers appeal to the imagination, allowing one to live vicariously, to experience secondhand an audacious life choice, be it in the form of a mate, a profession or other arrangements.

Taking risks, of course, requires courage or even a kind of foolhardiness, a determination not to assess the odds. In some ways I have that kind of blind instinct to jump in and not worry about where the current will take me. I have it, that is, when it comes to my writing, where I have often expressed thoughts and ideas that are provocative. Indeed, you could say I am the go-to person where candor is concerned, whether about sex, money, mental illness or various other freighted topics. I can’t count the number of times people have come up to tell me how “brave” they found an article of mine to be. I always smile and choose to accept this comment as a compliment, although I can never forget something my former literary agent once told me: “When they say you’re brave, they mean crazy.”

You could say, then, that I have always exhibited a sort of existential adventurousness, a willingness to go places other people might not dare and to articulate fears or wishes that are usually left unsaid. Early on I must have decided that speaking up—pointing out the elephant in the room or the skeletons in the closet—was for me a matter of psychic survival, a way of living within a difficult family situation. From where I was sitting, I didn’t see any point in not telling tales out of school; I didn’t see where keeping unpleasant truths to oneself made things any better. In fact, I felt more isolated in my unhappiness when I kept it under wraps; I found a kind of relief in airing it. Secrets, it seemed to me, only benefited those in power, when something substantial in terms of self-interest was at stake. For a desperado like me, there was nothing to be gained by zipping my lips, and there was always the possibility that the things I refused to be reticent about would resonate with other people, however uneasily.

Yet for all my ostensible fearlessness as a writer, in all these years I have been somewhat wary of taking risks when it comes to my personal life, to doing rather than thinking. As a divorced woman with a daughter, now 22, I have always been keenly aware—perhaps overaware—of my lack of social “cover.” I feel vulnerable to the appraisal of others and fear looking forlorn, like the girl who wasn’t picked for the volleyball team, rather than admirably on my own. What I fear, I suppose, is the very condition I inhabit on a daily basis: that of a woman alone. Instead of feeling invigorated by the freedom this gives me, I feel constricted by a sense of, well, not quite shame but something close to that, a sense of having failed at the coupling game. Although I travel alone for the sake of work, I usually end up ordering room service rather than venturing out to sit by myself in a restaurant. I feel similarly inhibited about going to the movies without a companion. I recognize that this sounds uncontemporary, if not downright retrograde, especially for a woman who has disclosed her erotic preferences in the pages of the New Yorker, but there you have it.

Things, however, appear to be loosening up on this front of late, perhaps as a result of growing older and realizing that no one’s watching you live your life with quite the judgmental attitude that you yourself bring to it. This past summer, for the first time, I rented a weekend house, overcoming my many doubts as to how I’d fare without someone else to fix things or to remember to close the windows before leaving for the week. This was in itself a herculean step, although, truth be told, I was scared to stay overnight in the house by myself and arranged to have friends or family go up with me whenever I went.

First Published September 14, 2011

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