I used to be a public person, not too long ago. Or, maybe not a “person.” A “figure.” Yes, just like that, a drawing, a quick sketch, five lines and a circle for a head, perhaps a face. I used to be a public figure.
I was a local elected official or a candidate for public office (or both) for most of the past 12 years, but I’m done now. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be up against the one-year anniversary of my most recent electoral loss. The loss taught me a thousand lessons about myself. The loss shoved my face hard into a mirror and said, “Look.”
Here’s what I saw: I’m not a public person. I don’t want that life. I want to influence the world through my words and my art and my actions, but I don’t want to be an elected official. I don’t want constituents; I want an audience and I want a community.
Still, four years after “retiring” from representing the city’s East Side on the school board, I’m still a public figure. People think they know me, for better or for worse, accurately or not. I can see the recognition in their eyes. “Oh, that’s Jennifer Morales.” Whoever they think that is.
I keep wanting to come up with a name for that look. Like this weekend, getting coffee at a shop on Prospect, I could see it in the faces of three different people. “You’re somebody,” it says. “I’ve seen you on the news. I can’t remember if I like you or not.”
If they like me. Being a public figure gives you some ego strokes you can’t get in many other ways in our culture, but I’m not sure they’re good ones.
Last spring, one week post-Loss, I went to a writing conference and met up with some writer friends and just generally immersed myself in my writerness. I spent a long hour or two holed up in a hotel ladies’ room lounge with an MFA program colleague talking writer dreams. Later, I went back to my room and wrote a list of what I want. “To transform people’s thinking” was one item. “To change the energy in the room” was another.
And there was this, the first one that emerged, actually: “To be known and not get broken.”
So, there: Even as a writer, still the yearning for public-ness, for known-ness. What I learned from electoral politics is that I have to govern my exposure in seeking that known-ness. In my happiest, healthiest self, I’ll evoke not that “I’ve seen you on the news” look, but this one, again from my hotel room list:
“I want that moment when people’s eyes get wide and they get it. Not just aha moments, but oh wow moments. I want to point out beauty. I want to be with people when they see it.”