So much of my academic study has been focused on telling the story of oneself, ie autobiography. Some critics would go as far to say that autobiography occurs every day when we get out of bed, brush our teeth, and say hello to the world. Our every move is a telegraph pole on the road of self-expression. Or a blade of grass, if you’re a poet.
So the moments that fascinate me in my more maudlin seasons are the opposite moments – the hours I spend alone, on the bus, among a crowd of strangers, the “in-between”, the moment before the moment you step into the foyer of someone’s house and say your hellos, begin to say yourself. The moment you stand there on the front step, just about to ring the bell or knock on the door. No one knows you have arrived yet. You could just walk away into the quiet, unnoticed.
Or as Zadie Smith describes it so beautifully in her novel, On Beauty:
“She found it difficult, this thing of being alone…when she was not in company it didn’t seem to her that she had a face at all…”
I don’t know why there are days I feel more untethered than others. Ungrounded, perhaps. A rift in the valley of my heart often follows a period of great encouragement and success, or, in my current state, a new risky opportunity. That rift grows wider the more I hear nice things being said, people asking me to be someone they assume I am, while my insides churn out all the reasons why I am not that person. I tend to get quiet, stop answering the phone, feel the weight of such an elaborate fraud on my shoulders. I want to go out onto the street and yell, “I’m just a person! And not a very nice one! You really don’t want me as a friend!”
When I was younger, I counted myself among the lovers of George Eliot’s main character, Dorothea, a young woman with wide eyes and a longing to fall upon the grand theory of everything. I still share her love of thematic thinking, finding, as my husband ruefully reminding me, connections everywhere. Give me a map of the world and I’ll draw you a spiderweb of absolute coherency where others see chance and coincidence. Give me a room full of people, and I’ll start to map every gesture onto a story of that gathering, and more dangerously, what it all means.
I was an absolute terror while taking psychology courses – suddenly, I had some language to describe the underlying currents of unspoken conversations, stories of each other’s lives being communicated through conflict, silence, seemingly insignificant actions. I have learned since then that there is a great difference between theory and diagnosis, and I still have to keep close reign on my urge to label behaviour as “co-dependent” or blah, blah, blah. We’ve all heard that ironic cellphone conversation on the bus, haven’t we? “Oh, yes…her. I just can’t be around toxic people like that – she’s sooo judgemental.”
I guess I should just admit that I am uncomfortable with post-modernity – I dislike, on a gut level, the notion that a billion things happen every day that mean nothing. I much prefer living in a world where everything is illuminated, categorized, understood, or at least, placed in some kind of context, even if that context is cloaked in grand mystery. At least I can place the unknowable in a spot neatly labelled “mysterious.”
But I both crave and reject being labelled myself: a label, like “writer” is so much easier to work with when moving through the world than “woman who writes sometimes when she’s in the mood but also is incredibly insecure about it and prone to dramatic fits of self-pity as well as moments of good-sentence making who has a regular job that tends to impede the flow of creativity.” Whew.
So here I am, extending a toe into the waters again of the wider world outside myself, saying, “I’m still here!”
Or perhaps, standing in the digital street and yelling at the grinding quiet of the last month that threatens to convince me that I’m faceless and have nothing to offer.
The quiet is where we all do battle for ourselves, I think. Not in the moments when we are surrounded by people we love and dislike, working in a noisy world or spinning our thoughts into dreams and actions through conversation and company.
The quiet is the place, where, sometimes, you have to stand up and say simply, “I’m still here.”
I think perhaps that’s why any of us who accept the label of ‘writer’ bother to write. We want to communicate. Sometimes we do it clumsily, other times vainly, and most times, ineffectually. But the heart of that desire to communicate is to be seen. To have a face.
But simply wishing to be seen can lead to a life of selfish ambition ie reality star style, or whatever the latest inventions one can acquire to make a self with. I think the more time I battle the quiet, the way forward is not to keep making monuments to oneself. It is, rather, to communicate in the holiest sense of the word: to see the faces of others and nod in recognition. To listen to the stories of others, whether they are painful or pretty and say lovingly, “Yes. I see. I hear you, too.”
Which is why, after a day of suffocating quiet, I’m getting back on my feet, going out into the chilly evening to a friend’s place, despite my absolute desire to stay in. I’m going to practice what I attempt to preach here.