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I was spiritually naked for the first time in summer after my fifteenth birthday. That summer, I was one of fifteen students on a wilderness course; we spent a month kayaking together in the backcountry of the Tongass, pulling ourselves stroke by stroke across two hundred miles of the glassy black water of the Alexander Archipelago. We carried everything we needed in our boats. Sometimes we talked as we paddled; sometimes we sang; sometimes we traveled in silence, listening to the hiss of the rain through the fir and spruce, watching the freshwater bead on the surface of the sea. That summer, for the first time, I spoke softly and solemnly and seriously about my family with a friend.
I know it does not exactly sound like a remarkable feat, but for me it was. I was always shy growing up, and had learned to use humor as a cloak or a shield. When uncomfortable, my cheeks would instantly tighten into a smile. Once, a month before the start of the course, I grinned when a friend told me that his older brother had committed suicide.
I am not sure what I was afraid of, but I suspect it is simply that I did not know myself yet. The thought of standing fully exposed before another person, in the nakedness that comes with solemnity, frightened me not because they might see something bad inside me, but because they might see something small or absent, funny or trite. If, at your most sacred core, you are laughable, then the only defense is to seem intentionally humorous.
I do not know exactly how I overcame it — something about the seriousness of the landscape around me, or living in a world of consequence beyond grades and evaluations — but one day a friend asked me about my family and I told him. We were standing under a tarp out of the rain, facing each other, and we spoke softly and comfortably and with honesty.
It is not, perhaps, the greatest of my achievements, but it was important to me, and close to my heart; and, in spite of that, I have not once felt compelled to joke in relating it to you.
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