Sunday, December 23, 2018

Dec 23: Dorian Rolston: Mirror Me

The best essay is the one that can’t be written. The second best essay, the one that shouldn’t be. Baring that, I guess you’re on your own to find those essays that “need” to be written, but I’m not sure any essays need to be written—ever, or at least now that a lot of essays already exist. I’m not saying that writing them doesn’t provide some psychic benefit to the writer, and in this sense of “need,” then, need to be written, therapeutically speaking or as a kind of memento to the occasion of composition (like one of those Christmas baubles your kids help craft, maybe with a little handprint smeared on the shiny slow-swiveling surface). But this is a very private need, and it’s not for me to say what a general public gets out of one’s private life, apart from—loosely speaking—the privates, the intimacies we’re hungry for, us voyeurs. But what I can say, now that I’ve gotten my little spiel on canonization out of the way, is that something interesting happens when you’re not sure whether the essay you’re writing can’t or shouldn’t or needs to be written. Such is the case with this essay.

I was going to—just about—say this essay about “blank,” where the blank would obviously be filled in, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. This person, like most people in my life I’m close to, doesn’t deserve to be reduced to the subject of an essay, shoved into the spotlight of a thesis statement. This person, though they have a particularly low tolerance for attention, and may even be said to have an aversion to it (unless, as is often the case, they get to control how they’re center of it), has every right to privacy, a bit of stage fright being more than enough reason. On top of that, I have to appreciate how much I know about this person, which I’ll have to selectively leave out in order to preserve the sanctity of our relationship while also somehow doing my due diligence as an essayist and exploring the subject at hand—them—in full. Perhaps that’s some of the gossipy drama of an essay: Just what’ll they say about them next! But I don’t think it’s necessary; I’m more interested in the ideas, which around this time of year tend to revolve around family.

I suppose I could turn my family, and my friends for that matter, into a kind of reality television spectacle, where I get to play man with a movie camera. But for starters, there’s nothing so spectacular about my family, which I realize may make the Rolstons even better fodder for essaying, since it’s the shared human condition we’re after—and, I bet, you could relate. Still, there’d be no real drama, and the show would get cancelled after one season, leaving the cast all the more humiliated for having bared their all-too ordinary souls for all to see (only for you to turn away). And then otherwise the stakes would be so high, to try to keep the show alive, that either the Rolstons would start suddenly acting out of character, doing the most outlandish things just to get your attention (basically the entirety of my angsty teenage years), and thus sacrifice fidelity for intrigue; or the payoff in the end would be so disappointing, a shrug as the credits roll, “Oh, we’re just like them,” that we’d have to wonder why we all went through it in the first place. So I guess what I’m saying is, I’d like to keep my family and friends right where they are, thank you very much: I’m your show for tonight (and also your host).

The trouble is, as soon as I start talking about myself I start talking about those around me, and the spotlight seems to expand, backstage. For instance, I’ve already mentioned family, and those of you who know me know who’s visiting me over the holidays, and thus the family I mean. If I were to then start telling you about, say, the nature of luxury, you’d then know exactly my interlocutor on this long drive on which we passed a state prison, prompting discussion about where I fell on the self-proclaimed Luxury Spectrum: Did I need the five-star resort from which we’d come, with its seeming infinitude of pools and related accouterments (towels and pillows and chairs, oh my), or would three squares a day behind the high-walled concertina do? If this doesn’t seem like a particularly revealing exchange, one neither worth reporting in the abstract (as such) nor recounting in fuller identifying detail (as not), well, I can only say that I respect the wishes of my interlocutor and, frankly, see their point. Why would I need to say who they are to say what’s most interesting about them? Especially when what I want to do is deepen my connection to them, and to the world in general, with the work I do here? I no longer see this as a space for airing grievances or holding grudges; for finger pointing or public shaming (except, granted, when there’s political just cause); for talking, in a way, publicly behind the backs of those we’re closest to. I just want to make myself better.

And so, part of what I’m thinking about this Christmas, is how I can be better in the New Year—and, to that end, use this as a scratch pad for betterness. (Already, those of you who know, again, know what publication I must be writing this for, and which editor there in particular, to whom I have a thesis manuscript due.) If this sounds like the sanctimony of New Year’s Resolutions, bound to fail (but not before making everyone else feel guilty for not doing theirs), fear not! I don’t actually have any high hopes for future self-betterment, no promises to keep; rather, I just want to see how I can change, for the better, right now. Through the writing itself, I want to arrive at some better version of myself, such that I can take back to my various relationships with the people I would’ve otherwise been writing about, likely blaming them for my misfortune. The closest thing I can think of to this is lucid dreaming, which so happens to be another subject I once wrote about where the real subject—subject qua person—didn’t want to appear. Could I have salvaged the ideas, I wonder, and gotten away with insight and the relationship intact? Perhaps I can do so now.

A lucid dream is a dream in which you know you are dreaming. It’s a technical definition, so-defined by actual lab work that became very controversial, whereby sleepers signaled to the scientists that they were dreaming and knew it by gaining control of their rapid eye movements and enacting a kind of Morse code. I guess this sounds fantastical, though I’m sure someone explained to me how the eyes are among the only body parts still potentially under your volition while sleeping; in any case, that’s how they proved lucid dreaming is a thing, more than simply subjective reports, and that’s what a lucid dream is. The point of all this is to say that once you become aware you’re dreaming, you can gain control of the dream itself, somewhat, and begin to shape its content intentionally. One of the first things newly lucid dreamers do—obviously—is try to have sex or take flight, call it fucking or flying (or both). But this excitement apparently wears off after a while, and then the lucidity can be used more productively: for training purposes, most memorably. I remember one guy learned martial arts; another, the cello; a third even used the dream world almost as I intend to use this one, to confront difficult people in their life (without any of the repercussions of actually doing so).

But I don’t mean to suggest any of these lovely people I’m writing about not writing about are difficult (though of course they are), only to use them as prompts to write about my own difficulties. I guess they are like mirrors, and you don’t tend to name your mirrors. (In “Mirror, Mirror, on the wall,” the mirror’s just called Mirror.) Now, there’s an animal I know—and hear the strain of this constraint, like the branches of the Christmas tree weighed down by too much decoration—who has a particularly interesting relationship with mirrors, such that the self is not recognized as such, but neither is it other. You’ve all seen the way dogs approach their face in the glass: not shocking self-consciousness, not barking at the other mutt, but simply approaching the glass as such. This leads me to believe that such an animal would be okay to write about, since lacking the selfhood necessary for protecting with anonymity, but then I also think that’s not quite true either. While the animal wouldn’t be reading this, the fact of their inclusion would be known to me, which would change my relationship with them, such that I began to see them as somehow less than the others I’ve chosen not to identify. Or “less” isn’t quite right, but less self’d. There’s a famous essay about this that speculates about the nature of bat consciousness, to get at the limits of what we can know about it, and I have to believe that’s true: we know more about those limits, and thus about ourselves, than we do the animals. As another famous writer put it: “If the lion could speak, we wouldn’t understand him.” I see how it’s getting a bit tricky, now, to lump animals (the differently sentient) and authors (the mostly dead) together in that same category of unidentifiable; not that there’s an unfortunate equivalency implied between them, which there is, but rather that we have a system of authorial attribution I’m skirting here. I don’t want to be mean to anyone!

But again, if my main aim is to scratch-pad myself better, then I’ve got to think about the relationships I’m trying to be better for. Animals singled out for the permissibility of naming would thereby be reduced in my eyes; authors cited, while in keeping with best practice, would also thereby be reduced, if only because I’d allowed myself to name-drop them in order to sound smart, thus use them. Or is it rather that I’m afraid to identify myself? That my interdependence and interconnectedness, to use that religion’s key tenant, scares me? That I must retreat to find where I end and they—whoever they are—begin?

Perhaps this is all riding off a recent anxiety I developed about my existence at the five-star resort. Indeed, there was something spooky about the nonexistence that five stars implies, such that no matter what you did there was no trace—every towel replaced, the pyramids of white scrolls forever unchanged. (Toweling off with these tabula rasas, you can see why anyone would have a complex!) The service was so good, in other words, as to sustain the illusion of your invincibility (on the upside), and your invisibility (on the down). I wish I could say that I relished this miracle of hospitality, my every need not only met and anticipated but kind of apologized for; every room service person was profusely apologetic to find me there, when in fact it was I who was in their way (of helping me). And moreover if there’s anyone who really ought to be named in this, it’s those who go unnamed in life, such as the already anonymous staff whose living is made to kindly sweep up yours. But then I suppose this is just one of the many areas in which I have to improve, thankfully brought to my attention here by focusing on myself: I should’ve tipped more, been kinder, and not tried so damn hard to shatter the illusion.

This last is particularly painful, as it came to a head over dinner the last night—the last supper indeed, as so much there was religiously inflected, including the flashing “Nativity Scene” sign by which I oriented back to our room at night—when I whispered, but with full awareness of likely being overheard, something about “the illusion of Santa.” (Somehow the whole place had come to seem like one great Christmas hoax to me, and I was onto them--high-minded, even for the hoity-toity.) Two little girls, no more than about four and six respectively, swung round and stared, mouths half-full of fries (maybe one or two even dropped out, like loose baby teeth). The older of the two looked, agape, with dismay, bordering on rather precocious disapproval; but the youngest, I’ll never forget. For she was blank.

Dorian Rolston is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona, where he's nonfiction editor for Sonora Review. He's currently at work on a thesis manuscript, from which this is an excerpt.

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