Lucy's Newspaper Columns

Common Ground is a monthly newspaper column appearing in the New Hampshire Seacoast Newspapers.  Professional photographer Lucy also does the accompanying photographs.

Closet Balloonist

This column appeared on November 2, 1999

In a magazine interview Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York, said, "I think I'm a closet American."  She meant this as a compliment to our country.

Being a closet citizen of another country is an intriguing idea.  I think being a "closet" something could be fun.

This is not to make light of the struggles of those who use the word "closet" about pressure to conceal a minority sexual orientation.  Nor do I speak lightly of anyone who carries a heavy personal load of information that he or she believes must be kept under wraps.

We also use the expression lightly, though.  One day when I was exercising on a treadmill at Results, in Exeter, a man on the equipment next to me quipped, "I'm a closet couch potato."

I can imagine myself a closet telemark skier.  In real life I'm an intermediate downhill skier.  But wouldn't it be exciting to be helicoptered onto a remote deep-powdered slope, wearing those long special skis with the free-heel bindings and, as an aficionado might casually say, "do a little telemarking?"  In actuality I'd fall on my face if I tried this, but thinking about it stretches the imagination.

Some people use the word "closet" about harmless but unproductive habits, as in, "I'm a closet soap-opera viewer."  Others use it as Sarah did, for something they admire and would like to be part of. The magazine quoted the red-haired Duchess as saying, "I really do like Americans, and feel more at home here.  Americans are more understanding about people's failures."

How could we expand our thinking with the closet idea?

Wishes.   We could imagine affiliation, as in "closet American," or esoteric achievement, as in "closet equestrian acrobat with the Big Apple Circus."

Self-Improvement.   How about "closet immaculate housekeeper?"  If I were to say that about myself a family member might say, "Come right out of the closet now, Lucy!  We can hardly wait for the results!"

Sharing semi-forgotten skills.   In the computer files of our brains we carry useful information that is latent not from a wish to hide it but rather from disuse.  One day in the workplace I was absent-mindedly watching a person try to duplicate a drawing in a smaller size.  I suddenly remembered that I knew a quick way of doing that, something I hadn't thought about in years, and I shared it.  We all carry information behind mental doors long-closed but easy to reopen.

Empathy.  We can fantasize suffering what others are suffering.  Obviously this should not ever lead us to the blunder of saying, "I know how you feel," when we don't in fact know, but isn't the attempt to understand a basis of empathy?

Humor in unfunny situations.   People suffering serious illness and the indignities of treatment may joke about it, relieving their and others' tension.  An  individual coping with hair loss from chemotherapy might, for example, say, "I'm a closet bald eagle."  Haven't we heard this kind of humor from many people suffering illness, stress, and great loss?

Dreams and future plans.   Advocates of visualization techniques recommend, "Visualize yourself as already having accomplished your goal."  This involves imagining  that we are already closet "whatevers."  Fantasy about desired change is, after all, a necessary precursor to change itself.

Seeing clearly.   We can imagine looking at our city or town from a small plane or hang-glider and seeing it differently.  We attain new vision from psychological distance as well.

I like the airborne image.  For now I'll choose closet hot-air balloonist.  When I was a child I sometimes wished I could fly like a bird, and this comes close.

The three photographs of which I've merged portions to make this composite image, inspired by the work of artist René Magritte, are recent and local:  a Dover sky, an Exeter interior doorway, and a balloon in Kingston.  In August, during Kingston Days, that balloon made short ascensions lifting fair-goers above the Kingston village green.

I may never ride below a hot-air balloon, but imagining it could give a new perspective.  Some of those other "closets" could help make us the understanding Americans that Sarah Ferguson believes that we are.

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