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I’m going to tell on myself.
A once-a-year quirk, a lapse, a moment of ditz: In the excited anticipation of an event, I show up early. Sometimes a week early. Sometimes, as in last year’s Frieze art show in NYC, a whole month.
In the minutes of puzzlement about why nobody else has appeared to attend the event, I learn to laugh at myself. I look for the lemonade in the lemons I’ve handed myself. And it’s okay.
Sometimes, it’s more than okay.
Tapas, I told myself tonight…a way to redeem a gaff from total loss status (not that any redemption was needed.) A few blocks’ walk. A restaurant noisy with an after-work gathering of fellows.
Suddenly, in the willingness to bare myself to myself, the writing comes. Nothing earthshaking. Not the ahahhh lightning bolt that I’ve been waiting for. But instead, that rare place where apartness and honesty come together in something wonderful.
I am alone; separated from the intimacies that other people take for granted. I like it there.
My mind is free to wander without distraction. My own reflection in the restaurant’s mirror tells me a truth about myself that will become part of a character for the next book…a me-in-part, as they all are. The apartness soothes. It embraces. It stings, then kisses the hurt place better.
In the mile-plus walk home—and the choice to walk rather than cab ride the distance—in the milky light between storms, in the reflections that soften the hard glass of tall buildings, in the streets emptied of outliers gone home after the workday, wonder is. And it belongs to me utterly.
I don’t know whether I’d be willing to trade this cherished apartness for the human pairings that seem so normal, so desirable, in everyone else. I exist without the mechanism to shut out the world. In constant companionship my attention is channeled in the direction of The Other; pulled like a tide to an unavoidable shore. I can’t be alone without being alone. And knowing that I have loved ones in the world is made even more sweet by the absence.
I’ve always been apart. And on evenings like this one I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
There comes a moment in my favorite concert film, Stop Making Sense, where David Byrne dances with a lamp. Within that dance is a thing that always makes me smile: David encircles the lamp with his arms and gives it a little kiss. In a song that is, as DB describes it, the only love song he has every written, the embrace and kiss are evidences of a deeply human emotion.
What was so special about that moment? One thing was, I think, the unexpectedness of it. In a career without much use for the sloppy sentimentalities of life—from a man who has made a career out of artful quirkiness—that rare display of pure humanness had an element of child-in-the-man delight.
One of writing’s great gifts is the ability to gather emotional truths onto a story.
And here come the questions….
In writing, we channel the small human moments (and the great honking ones, too) from the Grand Outside to the intimate setting of the page. Do we gather those truths from life and store them in the synaptic filing cabinet of our heads, to dole them out later? Do we synthesize them out of what we’ve seen? Or do we cut those emotions from the whole cloth of personal need?
Are we synthesis machines? Or maker-uppers?
The answers aren’t as clear cut as they might be in a…well, let’s just say a better adjusted being. Born as they are of our overly-active imaginations, human interaction is a dicey territory. Some of us are well aware that our condition of aliens-in-residence leaves us ever in the position of observing “real” people through a perpetually glass: We see the workings of the human world, but we never quite get the knack of how it works or why.
For writerly creatures like us, whose lives are dedicated to capturing big and little moments of humanity, this is a puzzling condition in which to find ourselves. One would think that to represent motivation and response in a genuine way we would have to roll up our personal pant-legs and wade into it; to don real-world garb and view the indigenous beings in their habitat. For some of us, that is hardly an option. Real life is a thing most safely viewed from afar.
So where does that leave us?
Hoping, mostly. Hoping and working hard. Watching and searching and wondering at what real people do, and hoping that we can raise it above the stew of confusion that life so often is.
We feel wonder to share wonder. We imagine love to convey it. We hope, in our unreality, to find a greater truth in a reality that we don’t entirely understand. That people tell us we are keen and insightful observers of people…if only they knew.
Now will somebody please find me a lamp? I feel a dance coming on….