What is everyone you know doing right now, and where are they standing and in which direction?
I think a lot about touch. I’m a very tactile person, by which I mean I learn best by methods of physical manipulation, but also that I like to be in direct contact with the people and places that I love. No, not like, need. I’m fed by it in the same way extroverts are fed by emotional interaction. I think a lot about touch, but I no longer do a lot of touching. Somewhere along the line I’ve lost my way to these easy intimacies.
I talk about this a lot with my therapist, how it boils down to having lost the ability to intimate myself. I’m uncomfortable with existing and holding shape. I am suspect of what other people see when they look at me and some days it’s just too much. I want to disappear. It hurts to be looked at, let alone to have to touch someone and be reminded of the fact that I possess a whole, displeasing form.
To alleviate this pain sometimes I sort of just, let go. I wouldn’t characterize it as disassociating so much as I’d characterize it as compartmentalizing my experience, and the compartment where I keep the fact that I inhabit a body in is usually shoved in the back of the closet behind the comforter my mother sent me my first winter in Boston. So while I never stop-or indeed want to stop-existing, I do tend to push pause on the awareness of inhabiting.
But it’s hard to claim a voice and know where you are in the world when there’s no tether between you and it. It’s a thing I wonder about a lot, so it’s a thing that works itself into my writing a lot. In one of my current projects I’ve ended up pulling these things directly from my fear banks and putting them into a character’s mouth, because I don’t know how else to get them out in the open for proper study. “I don’t like having a body,” my snippy gay cyborg says. “It’s never really felt like I belong it.”
So I think a lot what it means to touch someone. What is the emotional impact of being pressed against a stranger on a bus seat for an hour as opposed to the emotional impact of being pressed against someone you know for several minutes? Do the people who step on your feet on the train ever think of you again? Does your face or your indignant grunt get filed into their subconscious so you can show up as unrecognized dream fodder? And what of those people you do know? Is it possible to map a person from the inside out without ever coming into physical contact with them?
Because that’s the problem of dis-inhabiting, isn’t it? You start to evaporate off emotional maps just as surely as demolished structures disappear off physical ones with each new update. The past is a constantly moving and hungry thing. The further away your last encounter with a person gets from the present, the less of an impact it has on them. And the point of dis-inhabiting is to not have to have an impact on the people around you, or indeed at all, if you don’t feel comfortable leaving one. It relieves just a little bit of the stress of existing, for certain meanings of ‘relieve’ and ‘exist’.
And how is each oriented toward the sun? And where is each located in their own mind? That is another map.
A couple weekends ago I and a friend went to a performance of Nichole Canuso’s The Garden. I knew going in that it was interactive and that there would be movement involved. I was a little anxious about the audience size of four, because it’s harder to blend into the background when there are so few people, but mostly I was curious and expectant. I love watching people perform and I love art of all kinds and the conversation that springs up between a person and an object or event. I took the headphones they gave me, followed my fellow audience members into a room surrounded by gauzy curtains and filled with soft light, sat in a random chair, and went about the quick work of turning myself into a receptacle.
The show is, well, it’s delightful and wonderful and all sorts of other adjectives. The show is both a high wire and a net. It asks for your trust and gently pushes at your mental and physical boundaries until suddenly you have a breath of a moment to look down and realize that there’s nothing but air beneath you and it’s your decision whether to float or fall. At one point during the performance I actually gave another one of my fellow audience members a literal gentle push, when prompted to of course. I did a lot of things in the confines of that space that I would never do outside of it with respect to interacting with strangers.
It’s the prompting from the recordings that I’ve most wanted to discuss in the week or so since the event, but I haven’t really been able to find the words to do so. Even this attempt has gone all wriggly and wrong. Every time I feel like I might reach the end of the tether this show turned me into the thought slips away. Every time I think I’ve got it I’m circled by another question and have to stop to consider it some more.
How much should we trust art and, by proxy, the people who make it? Is the intimacy inherent in the artistic conversation a false one? I feel like most people are familiar with the aching feeling of unrequited love. Do some of us learn it from objects and events before we learn it from other people? Is that the destiny of every museum goer and play watcher? How is it different when the art can watch you back?
There’s a portion of the show where I was instructed by the headset to sit on a bench and take the hand of the person in front of me. Earlier in the performance I had been instructed to offer my hand to other people and to let them guide me, but those had been performers, people with whom the social contract between artist and audience was obvious. I stepped into their space and offered my time, attention, body, and trust up to them and in return they molded my experience into something crafted with care. This person in front of me in this moment was not a performer, he was another member of the audience. I looked into this person’s eyes for the first time and then, as I was told, I took his hand and started to softly trace his palm with my finger.
There is nothing in my life as a creator and consumer of art that could have prepared me for that moment. As I touched this man the recording asked me to think about how many hands I knew very well, how many palms I had memorized. The answer is startlingly few. The last hands I knew so well left me close to four years ago now and I have been avoiding getting to know any other hands since. I wondered how many hands most people know and if I was deficient. I thought about all the hands I am afraid of that I should have been comforted by and all the hands I have been avoiding that I so desperately want to know.
I traced and I traced. For a full minute I traced and waited for the recording to let me do anything else. What would this man have done had I refused my instructions and instead sat for a minute staring down into my own hands? I don’t know what his recording was telling him to do or if it warned him about what I was about to do. Would my refusal have made a difference in his experience? Would he have felt annoyance? Guilt? Shame? Did he feel those things anyway? Was he curious about me? Or was he also trying to process how his body had suddenly become an anchor for his spirit instead of something he merely wore around, an incidental artifact of being? I didn’t even notice when all my anxiety and embarrassment fell away. It’s almost as if, when I pushed him off afterwards, he took it with him. I had been worried that he would think I was a crazy person, but I also knew that he had instructions of his own and he too had let himself be made into a receptacle.
This is what life is like, of course. Things happen around and to you and you just do your damnedest to make your choices your own, but sometimes it’s impossible to separate them from circumstance. Sometimes you’re just sitting on a bench, or in a coffee shop, or in a movie theater, staring at another person and waiting for them stop being a stranger. When is the changeover? Is it with the exchange of names? Or laughter? Or physical intimacy, either platonic or romantic? Right this very moment, somewhere in Boston, there is a man who I will probably never see again, but with whom I deliberately shared a small intimacy. I still don’t know if that thought is comforting or stressful.
We talk about the weather as if it is the only thing that has happened to all of us. When really almost everything that has happened to you has happened to someone else who felt they were alone.
Touch can haunt us. Exceedingly good touches and exceedingly bad touches alike leave ripples through our futures, create behaviors, and form emotional mazes we’re not even aware we’re in. When I was seventeen I was forced and coerced into a slew of sexual encounters by a boy I was dating. Someone I had chosen to trust even though I shouldn’t have. The trauma of those encounters taught my body to fear and recoil and want to flee.
Many years later I was in a dissolving long term relationship with another man. What I had once assumed to be solid ground became shaky as he and I both grew and changed. Cracks appeared all over our relationship. In those moments when things became uncertain and I most needed the comfort of physical contact, my body started to dread it in a way my mind was unaware of. The old terror seeped back in, even though this man had never hurt me physically and never would. This showed in many small ways I couldn’t decode at the time, but the most disruptive of them was the night panic.
When a person is asleep they are vulnerable. At the time these panics started I was sleeping in very little clothing if any at all. I would cuddle up next to him, skin to skin, and cling. Sometimes the nights went as one assumes they should. I felt safe with the person I loved and their warmth was a comfort. But sometimes their warmth was a warning and I would wake in the middle of the night in a blind panic, terrified of being touched and used, of my body being improper and shameful as I knew it had become in the months of those initial traumas. I would scramble out of bed to put on clothing, any clothing I could find. I would inevitably wake up fully as I was digging through the dirty laundry basket or wrestling a tank top over my head. Then I’d sit down on the floor and breathe and try to remind myself that I was safe and everything was fine. That this man loved me and wouldn’t hurt me and that my body wasn’t the liability I still feared it was deep down. But for as long as we were together it kept happening, so I guess I never really convinced myself of that.
It’s taken me the better part of eight years to understand that this fear and that trauma are connected. In hindsight it’s really very obvious. One of the terrible first experiences with that other boy that I remember most vividly happened in my own bed in my parents’ home and sleeping has been a gamble of a prospect ever since. Once a vulnerable area proves unsafe we shore it up. These days I sleep lightly if at all. Small noises wake me. I have night terrors. And I’m afraid to get to know someone, to invite them into my bed, for fear that I’m still broken and they’ll see that. I’m afraid to truly and intimately touch people, but I just did in the name of art and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.
Lately my body hasn’t felt as heavy. I don’t want to claim that The Garden is the impetus for this. As I mentioned earlier, I’m seeing a therapist and she’s been trying to get me to acknowledge my physical form and push out all the shame it brings me so that I can feel comfortable in it. It’s been rough going. But I do think that art has always been a vehicle for catharsis and that The Garden was a glimpse around the corner at how simple just existing can be when you open yourself up to it.
There’s a portion of the show, the portion the quotes between these sections was taken from, where you’re asked to think about your place in the world and then think about it in relation to the places in the world where all the people that you love are. It asks you to consider their physical placement and their mental placement. I am often standing on the corner outside my office building, but I’m almost never standing on the corner outside my office building, if you know what I mean. I’m always elsewhere, and so very often those elsewheres are places of fear and shame and escape. I don’t want to be on the corner. I don’t want to be anywhere at all, and this way of thinking isn’t fair to me or the corner.
I moved to this city because to me it vibrates with a positive frequency. It’s true that I no longer wanted to be at home–driving over the same streets and going to the same restaurants and sleeping in the same bed where I once inhabited the world with the ex–but it’s also true that there are a hundred things about this place that make me feel like I could become the truest version of myself. It’s in the quality of light that changes with the seasons and in the city streets that might as well be wind tunnels and reflected in the friends I already had and the ones I’ve made since. I don’t want to compartmentalize my existence. I don’t want to merely inhabit. I don’t want to keep being lonely. I want to live. To live one must be aware of their place in the world. To live one must be an open and willing receptacle. To live one must be tether and anchor and wave all in one.To live one must know where they are, why they are, and how they are.
I don’t want to be afraid of myself and everyone else anymore. I don’t to miss out on contact. I don’t want to view hope and the gazes of others with the same terrified suspicion. I learn best by touching, and if I’m going to continue to grow, I need to take the gentle prompts from within me and outside of me. I must allow the terror to slip away and then turn to the door to watch the dance happening just over the threshold and join the choreography when beckoned. The world is large, the maps are full, and there is always someone beckoning.