Friday, July 21, 2017

FREEDOM


This is a word I’ve been thinking about today. I do not know anyone personally who I believe has experienced as much personal freedom as I have. I disconnected from my family mentally and emotionally at a very young age, and physically by age 17. Because of this, I really don’t have a lot of time or patience for “authority figures” or for following a normative path in life. I’ve always lived my life following my own desires and cleared my own path.

Most people I meet are not like this at all. They are the opposite. They are still connected to their families, and this leads them to have very normative, and therefore highly conditional, work and life relationships. It is isolating and lonely to feel like I am the only one traveling on this path. I long for relationships that satisfy me, yet I often feel like the relationships I foster demand a type of compliance to “normalcy” that I am not able to offer. They are based on conditions, not true connection or communion.

When you look at people who have really made a difference in this world, they are often people who lost one or both parents at a young age (or legitimately disconnected from them in some way at a young age). This is true of John Lennon, Barack Obama, and countless others. There is something about that formative break with “authority” that sets people on a different life path.

Often the women I relate to most have had a relationship with their paternal caregiver that was negative enough for them to denounce their given surname and use a different last name, because their given surname was or is their father’s name (I did this). When you grant yourself this type of freedom, it is not an act of rebellion or defiance. It is an act of survival. No young woman WANTS to disown her familial identity, even if it is only at the level of her name. It is not a “fuck you.” It is a “help me.” Changing your name is a big deal. Doing so is indicative of a completely denunciation of a formative aspect of one’s development.

I think people have a terribly difficult time grasping how difficult it is to not have parents, and to feel like you are charting the course of your entire life by yourself. I love my freedom because it means that my choices are mine, and no one else’s. I am living a pure life, and have pure thoughts and experiences as a result. I am educable, and I truly learn, because I don’t have a lot of the resistances that people who “follow” others have. All my interests are mine, all my passions are mine. I am incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to persuade. This quality is not immediately readable in my persona, which is gentle and tends to be misread as docile or impressionable. I am not impressionable.

Often, I think people choose to be followers because it is easy for them, and it allows them to not be responsible for their own lives. Most people want to be told what to do. I DO NOT WANT TO BE TOLD WHAT TO DO, so people assume that I want to create a life where I can’t assimilate or “settle down.” That I am just a rebel who loves to be contrary. I do not want this. I hate watching friendships fall away because I’ve evolved and the other person is still worried about what their parents will think. That’s incredibly painful. It makes me scared to get close to people in the first place. It makes me fear any work situation, because I feel like, at some point, someone will ask me to be less of myself or different than myself in order to make them feel better about themselves.

Being on my own has allowed me one huge advantage. I have experienced ego death countless times (now being another one of those times), and am no longer on an endless quest to fortify my ego. I do not experience a lot of people who have done this, so this is another point of extreme isolation for me.

Often, with friendships and especially with romantic relationships, I feel like I’ve been brought on for the sole purpose of ego fortification. “Make me feel like a good person.” “Make me feel powerful.” If I am continually in the process of understanding my own ego so I can interrogate it and, when necessary, transcend it, it is really impossible for me to exist in service to another person’s ego. Especially when this person has not made his or her internal awakening a primary pursuit, and who is therefore not on the same journey I am. I can’t be a loser to make you feel like a winner. I can’t be ugly to make you feel pretty. I can’t make you feel like you’re a great person if you’re not a great person. I can’t envy your life to make you feel better about your life. I just don’t have that capacity as a human being. I am on a different path.

This is the path of awakening. Every day, I wish I could be a person who could be satisfied purely by her material existence, which honestly has often been quite extraordinary. It is deeply heartbreaking to feel so isolated with my evolving journey. But when I hear people talk, I mostly hear how they are just parroting their parents or their friends or their employers. I just can’t relate. When I listen to them, all I hear is how they’ve (most likely subconsciously) ignored their own evolution and expansion in favor of superficial hierarchical goals—for feeling like they are better than someone else. This just doesn’t connect with me. I can’t pretend that the surface of life is what is important, when I know that we are here for a deeper reason.

We are here to make a difference in this world. I know that I had the childhood I had because I was being prepared to be someone who is capable of independent thought and therefore independent action. I feel that in my bones. I do not want to meet people who cannot or will not connect to that—who like me for the magazine I write for or for what they assume is some level of success or achievement. Or worse, people who like me purely for my intellect (which is honestly mostly a product of being so isolated). It is too heartbreaking.

I have begun to make greater emotional and physical demands on my relationships, and it has been interesting to see what these demands have turned up. If someone needs unconditional love and acceptance—I’m here. I’ve given that to myself, and can now give it to anyone who needs it. That’s my crowning achievement as a human being.

If someone needs ego fortification, they need to look elsewhere. I don’t have it to give, in any respect. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

METAPHYSICAL


Today I am thinking about my physical experiences on this planet, and how they relate to the state I am currently in, which is decidedly less outwardly directed. When I was a little kid, I loved playing outside in the woods behind my house, and I loved swimming in the lake at my grandparents’ house nearby. I had in general a very physical and outdoorsy childhood, at least the early part of it. I learned to ride horses when I was quite young, and I have ridden them on and off ever since. I love the physicality of horsemanship, but I also love the experience (which many horse people talk about) of the union of horse and human consciousness. This is something that happens when you really understand how to ride—at least it happens to me. I’ve had experiences riding horses where all I had to do was think a command—“canter,” “turn left”—and because the horse and I were so in-tune, the horse would automatically respond. That’s the magic of riding, when little you and this big, beautiful, powerful animal are functioning as a single unit. It’s like the connection between humans when they are in love.

The last time I really devoted myself to riding, around 2 ½–4 years ago, I rode a horse, a big thoroughbred, who was really high-strung. This is usually my preferred type of horse to ride, because they are so challenging, and when you get them on your side, they are exciting to ride. They are lively, they are responsive to the slightest cues, and you get to feel a sense of your skill at understanding how to deal with horses. But when they are not on your side they can be really difficult, and their freak-outs can be dangerous. With this horse, I started to tune out what I guess I would call my “ego consciousness,” and instead would go into almost an active meditation. When I could turn off my brain and take on what they call (in yoga) a drishti gaze, I could feel the horse relax and begin to respond to my gentle cues in a very pure, direct way. Horses are reactive to energy, so the trick to dealing with a high-strung horse (for me) is to be the calmer partner. This is not so easy, as I am reactive to energy and high-strung myself, but it is really interesting to be able to get a horse who is nervous to begin to calm and to trust you. When they start to trust you, they start to enjoy the experience, and it’s fun. There is nothing less enjoyable than riding a horse who doesn’t want to be ridden.

I am thinking about this all today because I feel like my life has gotten far less outwardly physical, and I am missing my physical encounters with the world. In the world of spirituality, they say you expand outward before going inward. Basically, you seek externally through travel and new experiences, relationships, etc. before turning inward toward the exploration of your own consciousness. This is definitely true for me. I feel like the first three decades of my life were super adventurous and exploratory. I traveled a lot, cycled through a lot of experiences, relationships, and so forth.

All throughout this time, and after, I always had this little voice that would insist on being heard, even though I really, really, really wanted to tune it out. I would, for example, get a job I was really excited about. Then I would discern this little voice (aka my intuition) telling me: “you don’t really like this job.” I would argue, like, “Of course I like this job. It’s a great job. Look how glamorous it is! Look at all the places I get to go! Look at the people I’m around! How could I possibly not like this job?” And then, soon enough, I would get to the point where I had to leave the job because I hated it so much. The annoying little voice was always right, and I felt great pain when I didn’t listen to it.

This little voice is still with me, but now it is almost as though I have blended with it to the point that it actually is me. I guess this is what people call authenticity. Before, I remember I would really battle with this voice. I would have mentors who I really respected, and they would often push me toward different directions in my life. The little voice would be like, “no, don’t do that—you won’t be happy.” I would tune it out and tune it out. Who could be smarter than my mentor? How could my mentor be wrong? But the little voice was always right. Annoyingly so. And I would experience great pain (sometimes a pain that was almost unbearable) when I would ignore it. And it would tell me some fucked up things. Things I never wanted to deal with. But, eventually, I learned the pain of not listening to the voice was worse than what it was telling me—even at its most horrifying.

I don’t have that pain anymore. But I also don’t really have the voice anymore either, which is frustrating, because I feel lonely without it. I can equate it to riding. When I ride, the horse is always external to me, and no matter how tuned in I am to the horse—and how tuned in the horse is to me—we are always quite obviously two separate entities sharing an experience. That experience is different for both of us. It’s a partnership at a physical and (for me) a metaphysical level, which is what makes it so unique and fun and mind-blowing. But it is always two realities temporarily uniting—not two realities becoming one. Because I have basically become one with my intuition (some people call this the higher self or the eternal self), I can no longer really “hear” it. I just am it. And I feel super lonely! I also feel that because I have spent SO MUCH TIME dealing with my internal dimension, via the metaphysical aspects of my own consciousness, my life has become much less externally motivated. I’m still quite physical and do yoga all the time, etc. But because I’m not seeking externally, I’m not going on adventures. I REALLY miss my adventures. I miss travel, I miss riding, I miss being with new people—I miss the external pleasures of the world.

I recognize that unless you are spiritually awakened what I’m writing here will just sound like a lunatic’s ravings. If you are spiritual you will probably understand what I’m bringing forth. Becoming spiritually awakened has encapsulated the deepest and darkest pain of my life into a nothingness, a teaspoon. As someone who has experienced so much pain and grief, I feel so much gratitude for this. But as a plain old human being, I feel that the last three years have focused so intensely on my internal experience—and my increasing awareness of it—to the point that I feel locked inside myself and desperate to get out. I want to feel the world again.

Friday, July 14, 2017

SENSITIVE


Today I’ve been thinking about different relationships in my life, those that have come and gone, and why that may be the case. Overwhelmingly, I can pinpoint any rupture in a relationship to my having my feelings hurt, and distancing myself as a way to protect myself. I have also hurt other people, and pushed them away. I am not an angel and don’t wish to paint my experience as that of a sensitive victim.

I do think I have different needs relative to many aspects of life. I think it has been hard for many people to understand and accept these needs. It’s been even harder for me to communicate them, and to feel like I actually deserve to have them met. I sometimes feel that people become interested in my company for one reason, and then get put off by who I “really” am. That’s a difficult thing to deal with. I think my life experience with my family and so forth has been tough, but I think what makes it tougher is the fact that I am so sensitive. I can’t just “go with the flow,” most of the time. As much as I enjoy my life, there are several aspects of life that are very overwhelming to me, though completely normal to others. Often the thing that overwhelms me the most is the energy of other people. That’s not most common complaint, and if you are not a very sensitive person, you might not understand what I’m talking about. But I can almost equate it to an allergy. If you can’t eat nuts because you are allergic (versus just thinking they are not tasty), you will alter your life profoundly to avoid consuming them or even being near them. It is life or death for you. I know people with nut allergies who choose not to travel to certain “popular vacation” areas they would otherwise want to visit, because their need to keep themselves feeling safe outweighs their desire to visit a place that they can’t guarantee will offer them a “nut-free” experience.

Similarly, to keep myself happy, I need to make sure that my life it also “nut-free,” though my nuts do not grow on trees. Mostly, my nuts take the form of other humans, or of certain social or work situations. While I have gotten a lot better about being in the moment and not letting situations overwhelm me, I still have a problem being around certain “energies.” Some people and some situations are just too much for me to know what to do with. Since I am in my own little sensitive boat with this particular allergy, it can make me feel very isolated and alone.

We, in our current culture, are not interested in making life easier for sensitive people. Especially the sensitivity I am talking about, which is ambiguous, and could be chalked up to just having an annoying or difficult personality.

Everything in this current life is about forming and accruing hardness and toughness. To be sensitive isn’t a plus. I’ve been told since I was a little kid that I am too sensitive. What that has equated to, in my view, is the sense that my gut feelings are not valid and do not matter.

We are a superficial culture, and this is evident in our abuse of language more than anywhere else (even instagram). If you do something against someone, saying “sorry”—even if it’s not heartfelt—is how you make it better. I equate American society’s current obsession with correct language as a part of this superficiality. Language should change. There are so many terms that would be so hurtful if they still existed in contemporary speech. Hurtful words should be eliminated from our lexicon whenever possible. HOWEVER. What is much more hurtful is the emotion and intention (conscious or subconscious) that drives words and actions. While terms often carry synchronous emotion—they just as often don’t. For example: I usually say “hi guys,” to my students, male and female, when I greet them. In no way am I privileging men or the patriarchy by using the word “guys.” It’s a term of casual-yet-professional affection—I adore my students, and also feel great resonance with the responsibility I have as a teacher to keep my relationship with them mutually respectful. I would never want to hurt anyone by using a gendered term. If someone expressed a problem with me saying “guys,” I would talk to them about it and work through it. But I know that the emotion behind my words is filled with authenticity, kindness and respect (all worked on and hard-won). I feel that this is infinitely more important than searching for a more gender-neutral term that might sound more “correct” to contemporary ears, but lack the immediate expression of love and kindness that I deliver by not thinking so fucking hard about it.

There is knowledge, and then there is intuition. The latter has always felt more true to me. I understand how much words can hurt. I’m a writer, and believe in the power of words. But I think we as a culture focus on the most superficial aspects of human dynamics as a way of trying to “fix” what is broken. I wish, instead of this intense focus on language, there might be a way to see language as merely the symptom of a way bigger problem.

That problem? Essentially: we hate ourselves and each other and we don’t know how to connect. That is so often the energy I experience in social settings, and it is one that makes me want to run and hide. Whether I am for or against a specific politician is beside the point. When all I experience is constant conversation about that politician delivered with an energy I can only describe as venomous, it makes me feel very uncomfortable. Our country is in this position BECAUSE of an opposing venom of the exact same viscosity. 

For once, rather than hearing or seeing it, feel the world around you. I know this sounds totally crazy. Up until 6 years ago, I would have been like, “OK I’ll get right to feeling the world around me. Sounds great.” I know what it is to be purely logical and rational, and to deny your emotional relationship to the world. But we have to admit: the world at large has driven straight past logical and rational. We are not working with that criteria anymore. You may be engaging with capitalism in a way that makes you feel sheltered right now (I, for one, am not), but you are not safe. No one is. When you feel the world right now, it feels amiss. And I am saying this as an optimist. I love the world, and I think humans do want the best for one another. I am not (anymore) reactionary to the factual horrors of environment and politics we are bombarded with on a daily basis. What I am, what I have always been (though I tried for most of my life to block this out), is someone who feels the world deeply. 

We need to change the way we are operating in this world. We need to start listening to sensitive people. We are doing no one any good by constantly complaining about a situation that is not an aberration from the norm, but merely a reflection of the true norm. When you are attracted to anger, venom and bitterness in the name of righteous indignation, ask yourself why true leaders, like MLK Jr., Ghandi, etc. never needed that energy to do what they did. We need our gentle and profound leaders to rise up again. We need a gentle, sensitive and profound world.  

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

SWEET


This is one of the terms that I often find people using to describe me. Do I disagree? No. I think I am sweet. When I walk out the door in the morning, I don’t hate the world, and I don’t look for things to hate in my experience. I look for the sweetness that life has to offer, and I think this perspective naturally gives me a “sweet” demeanor. This has been a hard-won perspective.

HOWEVER. When people call other people sweet, it can often mean that they feel like that person lacks qualities that would make them compelling, intelligent or effective. I remember having a job that I hated. During the time I was there, a man I worked with told me, “You are too sweet for this job.” I would have to be, in this estimate, much more unsweet—or tough, I guess—to be suited for this job.

In NYC, you often see that people gradually, over time, step into two different categories. The first is HARDENED. The second is DEFEATED. The hardened people are the typical cynical types, who have seen it all and done it all. Nothing impresses them, and they are the types who want to gather with their friends to gossip. They feel like they have conquered New York, and have so cemented their position in their community that there is nothing else to do but mock those who aren’t on the inside. They might be very accomplished in their chosen career, but it hasn’t led to a true sense of happiness. It has simply given them satisfaction at their social standing. They are rigorously attuned to the pecking order, and they assume this to be life itself.

In contrast, the DEFEATED feel as if New York (or the world) keeps fucking them over and over and over. Whatever they do, it never works out. Everything depresses them, and they are the types who want to gather with their friends to complain. They try to get “in with the in-crowd,” but instead wind up forever looking through a window at a world they will never belong to. They plod along through life, hoping things will change, but feeling as though they never will.

These two groups egg each other on. The HARDENED need to feel as though their position in life is extraordinarily enviable, in order to feel like they have any value at all, so they exclude the DEFEATED to keep them in their place. The DEFEATED need to feel like they are not good enough to belong (since their perception of belonging or mattering would mean having to really step up to the plate and truly make themselves known, which they are too insecure to do), so they continue to look to the HARDENED for approval, knowing (subconsciously) that they will always fall short.

So when people call me sweet, I always get the feeling that they are trying to push me into the defeated category. Unfortunately, I do not desire to be either hardened or defeated. I desire to push beyond these categories. These categories are nothing more than lame facsimiles of actual connection. Further, they reveal how much the nature of late capitalism has mutated to define the order of life itself.  

I desire to create a world (and perhaps this will never exist in NYC, but I still desire it and will work to create it, perhaps somewhere else) that can think of itself in terms beyond an artificial hierarchy that suppresses objectively necessary qualities like softness, sweetness, caring and most of all femininity. When one thinks of the quality of “sweetness” objectively, one can list its virtues: caring, kind, considerate, helpful, and of a pleasant temperament. These are not weak traits. They do not connote or denote incompetence. Instead, they suggest an individual who does not need to look outside herself (or himself) to find joy and belonging.

There is nothing wrong with desiring a community of like minds to share your life with. That is my primary desire, in fact. But so often, community is not based on this. Community is instead based on negative behaviors, including insularity, exclusion, suppression, exploitation, and rigidity of emotion and thought.

For example: I have known many men in NYC who have revealed to me that they deal with social anxiety. For a time, I seemed to be the flame these types of moths would forever gather around. Socializing and gathering and especially CONNECTING have always come naturally to me. I love talking to people and I literally fantasize about cooking big dinners for lots of people (when I’m not actually cooking big dinners for lots of people). That these guys had social anxiety seemed sort of “sweet,” in fact, like a bit of a chink in their armor that made them human—appealingly so. I was always happy to go out with them, knowing my presence in social gatherings helped them. In general, I really like men and male company, so this never felt like a chore or charity work. But I learned a valuable lesson: never cater to a trait that a man hates about himself.

Here was my biggest discovery: once these social anxiety types found their little patch of green in the community they wanted to belong to, they began to act horribly. I discovered them to be the worst form of excluders, treating the world as though it were an epic and byzantine high school, and every social interaction as though it were some ridiculous popularity contest. They didn’t find comfort or belonging in their social group—they simply found the ability to exclude others and to gossip. This was a really weird thing to discover, a very dark aspect of the male human psyche I had not expected and was deeply disappointed by: poor little Mr. Social Anxiety Disorder was actually just a mean girl in waiting.

But because I am “sweet,” I suppose, I accepted something I should have rejected. The shadow side of sweetness is putting other people’s needs before your own or believing that everyone has purity in their heart. If you are sweet, you need to never, ever do this. This is what pushes sweet into the realm of sucker.

But I want to suggest that the idea of sweetness be dragged from the garbage bin of cast-off qualities, and reinstated as a positive quality. I am not sweet because I am weak, stupid, or lack mental toughness. I am sweet because I see other qualities, like HARDENED and DEFEATED, as being far more unacceptable. I am sweet because it’s more fun to be sweet, and it’s more interesting to be able to gaze into someone’s eyes with a feeling of pleasure and interest and hope, rather than with a feeling of suspicion or envy. We are put on this planet to connect to each other, and when you have an open heart, that comes to you very easily. So please don’t call someone sweet as a subtle indication of their lack. It just reveals your own.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

PANIC ATTACKS AND THE FOURTH WALL


I had an unexpected and (for me) quietly embarrassing panic attack last night, so these are foremost on my mind today, as I am writing. I have something occurring in the future that I fear might also prompt a panic attack, so they are weighing on my mind quite heavily.

I’ve been under a great deal of internal and external stress lately relative to almost every aspect of my life. It has made symptoms that I thought I had somewhat gotten through (like panic) come back into my experience again. This is really challenging for me.

New York is a hard city to live in as an extremely sensitive person. Almost every situation I walk into feels too sensorially and emotionally complex, and it is very hard for me to understand and deal with these experiences. Loud restaurants with lots of people, for example, torture me. I often use friends as buffers or safety blankets, but that comes with its own set of problems.

Teaching was (and sometimes still is) a situation that has often sponsored my panic attacks. My base “trigger” for a panic attack is the expectation of performance, whether direct or indirect. Getting up in front of students causes panic, but so does being in front of people I don’t know (with the social expectation that one performs one’s personality in order to be social). While I love meeting new people and being social, I find that when I am with new people, it can, out of the blue, just be too much of an expectation of a performance.

Teaching is interesting, because I’ve actually been able to cycle through a panic attack by being honest with my students about what is happening. I tell them I’ve suffered from extreme shyness since I was child, that because of this I didn’t believe I could be a teacher. I then tell them that I learned some tools to cope with it, and that I am happy that I can now be a teacher while still dealing with my shyness, panic and anxiousness relative to performance.

I am hoping that this fairly radical honesty and authenticity can be incorporated in other aspects of my life beyond teaching. Years ago, I got absolutely skewered on a blog for my performance moderating a panel discussion. In that situation, I was in the throes of a panic attack that I could not shake off, and I had no idea what to do about it. It caused my performance to suffer greatly.

I love public talks and desire to improve my performance when I am invited to do them. I know that I have many things that I want to talk about in a public way. I also believe that, in my one-to-one conversations, I can communicate these ideas with dexterity and innovation. But it is much harder to break the fourth wall of a public talk than it is to break the fourth wall of a classroom environment. And I think it is even harder to break the fourth wall of a NYC social setting. I’m fully into adulthood, so these panic attacks embarrass me and make me feel like a child again. Which only makes them worse. My behavior becomes erratic, and, in the aftermath, I beat myself up about how I’ve behaved.

From what I understand, few people with completely normal and healthy childhoods deal with panic attacks in adulthood. I don’t have panic attacks because I am insecure or have low self-esteem, or because I haven’t “prepared.” I have them because of a deep physical fear/trauma of putting myself in front of people for approval. I grew up in a chaotic and violent household where hiding meant safety. Staying quiet, being by myself, playing with animals and reading and writing became the way I dealt with life. Staying in those zones forever would obviously severely truncate my existence as a human being. I do believe I deserve a more fulfilling existence. So I want to be able to tell others when I am suffering, rather than just act strangely. I am trying to figure out a way this might work. People are not very compassionate about this subject, I have found. But I am still looking for that compassion, because I believe it exists.

In general, I think the world I operate in needs some radical reinvention with regard to how it deals with authenticity and emotional expression. I feel like people are completely terrified of strong emotion, and this keeps everyone operating at this extremely surface level of expression. In my worlds, this leads to a hyper-focus on intellectual and political conversation (and sometimes just plain old mean gossip). Having, over the past few years, become much more engaged with my emotions and authentic self, I often feel let down by the relative superficiality of conversation in New York. While I like intellectual and political stuff very much, I feel like people’s guardedness around their own emotions keeps those conversations spinning in the same loops.

It is hard to want to be vulnerable, when you feel like you are the only one and you are throwing yourself into the lion’s den. But, at this point, I’m REALLY not sure what else we have to talk about. I’m not sure what else is real. I hate that I had a panic attack last night. For me, however, what is worse is the fact that it was my authentic experience, and I felt (whether correctly or incorrectly) that I could not trust that anyone I was around could truly accept that about me.

THE SOUND THAT THE LOOKING GLASS MAKES (poem commissioned by Miriam Atkin for the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism)

Jungian dreams do come true. Below is an ekphrastic poem I wrote for the Archive for Research in Archetypal Symbolism (ARAS)  at the C.G. Jung Center. It is based on the symbol of the mirror. You may also read it on their site: aras.org

MIRROR
THE SOUND THAT THE LOOKING-GLASS MAKES
by Aimee Walleston
On Sunday, January 29, 1939, Virginia Woolf wrote a diary entry detailing her experience meeting an elderly Sigmund Freud at his home in London. At this, their first and only encounter (he would die this same year), Freud presented Woolf with a single narcissus flower. In the same year, Woolf wrote an autobiographical essay titled “A Sketch of the Past,” in which she describes a feeling state that has been with her since she was a child: “the looking-glass shame.” She writes that she cannot look in the mirror and take pleasure in her own appearance, though she knows she was born to a family admired for its feminine beauty. She describes how difficult it is for her to walk into a room wearing a new dress—how self-conscious this experience makes her feel. In this essay, Woolf also describes being sexually abused as a child, and her “tomboy phase” in the years following. She contemplates an unexplained psychic condition of losing time that she calls the “cotton-wool”—a figure of speech that I believe she has designated for the lingering dissociative states many people experience, particularly those who were abused as children. In a dissociative state, individuals spontaneously “tune out” the world. During abuse, children often involuntarily dissociate to keep their sanity intact, and this becomes a way of negotiating reality after the abuse has ended. I am struck by the names Woolf gave to these sensations, and by her effort to make sense of them. I think about Freud’s potentially symbolic gift of the narcissus, a flower that directly connotes both an obsession with gazing into mirrors and an overvaluation of one’s own reflection. To me, Freud’s narcissus represents a psychological polarity to the looking-glass shame. I wonder what Freud knew, without knowing, about Woolf.
In this poem, I have taken excerpts from Woolf’s essay and her diary entry and reformed them. I wanted to peer into Woolf’s looking-glass shame from a different angle—from my own perspective. I’ve also added in my own lines, to join Woolf as a sister might.  

Every day includes more non-being than being.
What would the looking-glass say, if it could speak? I’m so sorry. Not now.
Immense potential, I mean an old fire now flickering.
There is always too much of me to hate. There is never enough of me to hate.
Dr. Freud gave me a narcissus.
When I stand here I can barely look at you. I can’t think about you looking at me. I can’t look at myself.
I remember how I hoped that he would stop; how I stiffened and wriggled as his hand approached my private parts.
It opened its mouth. It was made all of petals. It did not stop.
I can’t remember the last time I could stop. A mirror that had a mind of its own and could not stop.
I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.
You want it all to make sense. You want to tie it up with ribbons and bows. You want it to have a beginning and an end, like a book. You want it to be all over.
At any rate, the looking-glass shame has lasted all my life, long after the tomboy phase was over.
A mirror that eats people. A mirror that eats itself. A mirror that grows up. A mirror that boys up. A screwed up shrunk very old man: with a monkeys light eyes, paralysed spasmodic movements, inarticulate: but alert.
You know. You can see it.
It doesn’t hide itself from you anymore. It wants you to see it. For now.
As a child then, my days, just as they do now, contained a large proportion of this cotton-wool, this non-being.
Where should we put the mirror? I am hardly aware of myself, but only of the sensation. Where does the mirror belong? A great part of the day is not lived consciously.
Who belongs to the mirror? Who belongs in the mirror?
I could feel ecstasies and raptures spontaneously and intensely and without any shame or the least sense of guilt, so long as they were disconnected with my own body.
Do you find my appearance pleasing? Do I please you? I remember resenting, disliking it—what is the word for so dumb and mixed a feeling?
You can do whatever you want to me. I’m not even here.
Just as I raised my fist to hit him I felt: why hurt another person? I dropped my hand instantly, and stood there, and let him beat me.
I can’t feel you anymore. I don’t care.
I remember the feeling. It was a feeling of hopeless sadness. It was as if I became aware of something terrible; and of my own powerlessness.
I don’t have to see it if I don’t want to. I don’t have to do anything.
I dreamt that I was looking in a glass when a horrible face—the face of an animal—suddenly showed over my shoulder.
Generation before the poison will be worked out. It isn’t even my face.
Bleed the mirror. Pull out all its petals.

AIMEE WALLESTON is a New York City-based essayist and editor who has contributed writing to Art in America, CR Fashion Book, T Magazine, Flash Art and The Brooklyn Rail, among many other publications. She teaches at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and the International Center of Photography. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

ART AS AN EMOTIONAL, PHYSICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPERIENCE (NOT JUST AN INTELLECTUAL EXPERIENCE)



As a person who has dedicated a great portion of her existence to her own intellect, I am curious about bringing other perspectives and dimensions of experience (beyond intellectual thought) to the realm of art.

Whenever I read contemporary art writers declaring their emotional experience with art, I feel it is “emotion” very much strained through the intellect. Or more to the point: I think art writers use emotional terms to describe intellectual experiences. Case in point (from a 2009 review by Jerry Saltz in New York magazine):

Midway through “Martin Kippenberger: The Problem Perspective,” a show I expected to be good but uneven, I found myself stunned. I had just been through several galleries filled with his early work—a painting of a fragmenting Guggenheim Museum, a photo of Kippenberger holding a bomb with the World Trade Center behind him, a brown Ford sprinkled with oat flakes, a mannequin of the artist standing in a corner, and what looks like a self-portrait bearing the title The Mother of Joseph Beuys. Then, in a room packed with The Peter Sculptures, a tremendous installation that looked like a storeroom or a swap meet, I understood. The curators, Ann Goldstein and Ann Temkin, were shutting down the awful academic echo chamber that has tried to turn Kippenberger into one cutout caricature or another: cagey gamesman, aesthetic tinkerer, fun drunk, anti-hero. They let his insurrectionary freedom and radicalism come out.

So here we have an active emotional (and one could argue, physical) term (“I found myself stunned”) being used to qualify an experience of art. But this “stunning” is not literal. It is a hyperbolic use of the term. The true (in my opinion) emotional experience of being stunned is quite different than what Saltz describes (which is really something more akin to having his curiosity piqued). When my mother passed away I was stunned by the news, which I has not anticipated, and I dropped to the ground. That for me is the emotional (and physical) experience of being stunned.

Now, the term “stunning” is misused and hyperbolized constantly. “Her dress was stunning.” I’m not faulting art writers for misusing emotional terms (I’m sure I’ve done it thousands of times myself). I am proposing the idea that the use these emotional terms to describe (or, more likely, to inflate) intellectual experiences does damage to the actual emotional experience of art. Is it possible to have an emotional experience looking at Kippenberger’s work? Yes, I think it is. I personally find deep resonance (both intellectually AND emotionally) with Kippenberger’s work. When I experience it, I feel aesthetic and intellectual curiosity (intellect), I feel a sense of intrigue and charm (intellect/emotion). I feel like I’m experiencing the visual perspective of a richly complex human being (intellect/emotion). Those things, along with the pure sensuous experience of looking at his work (and along with the base-level emotional countenance I had walking into the art venue [i.e., I was having a good day]), have, at times, given me a deep sense of personal joy in the experience of taking in his art (EMOTION). But this tracking and parsing of emotional and intellectual experience is different than simply saying, “I was stunned.” Perhaps Saltz was indeed stunned. I can’t negate his emotional experience if that was indeed the case. I can say that it seems truncated, at best. Ad it reads untrue.

Here’s another example, from a 2012 New Yorker review essay by Peter Schjeldahl (whom I deeply admire):

At Goodman, the sculpture, “6 Standing Glass Panels” (2002/2012), serves as a sentinel for the conundrum of the “strips.” As Richter told me—when, out of mild desperation to know what I was seeing, I reached him by phone at his home, near Cologne—the occasion of the new works was a four-year period of preparing for a retrospective (triumphal, by all accounts) that opened in London last year, travelled to Berlin, and is now at the Centre Pompidou, in Paris. Lacking “the time and quietness” that he needs for painting, he said, he indulged in a mentally relaxing game of chance, which he has documented in a dazzling, text-free book, “Patterns” (Distributed Art Publishers).

So, to be fair, the desperation here is “mild.” This doesn’t bother me quite so much, but it still lurks in my mind as an example of “false emotional syndrome,” which I think infects art writing in general. I’m not saying that Schjeldahl is lying or overinflating. I would say that, as a writer and human being, he’s been in this world for some time. I would find it hard to believe that an encounter with Richter’s work would leave him in such a state. And again, I think he’s using an emotional term to describe an intellectual experience (“mild desperation to know what I was seeing”—he’s talking about an abstract painting that exists in a long line of abstract paintings by Richter). It could have been an emotional experience. It does not ring true to me as such.

What if, when describing the work of a conceptual artist like Christopher Williams, I wrote, “I felt content when I looked at his image of a happy, smiling model with her hair wrapped up in a towel.” With Williams, his work demands that you parse its aesthetic to get to his conceptual agenda. A purely emotional experience of just looking at it would not serve its purpose. Similarly, artwork that conjures an emotional, physical or psychological experience in the person experiencing the work (and I believe a lot of artwork does this, even Williams’) needs true and complex analysis of those experiences. By treating all art experiences as intellectual (yet often using emotional words to describe those experiences) we are neutering art from its deeper ability to affect us.

I would like to propose that we have not yet found a way to actually talk and write about the emotional, physical and psychological experiences we have when experiencing art. I think we use emotional terms as stand-ins for intellectual (not to mention political) experiences—as a way to “grab” the reader. I don’t think it works, and I think it makes a mockery of genuine emotion (which the art world already struggles to genuinely inhabit and express).

So: is it possible to actually write about one’s authentic emotional experience with art? Would anyone care? Is art, in its present tense, so wrapped up in its own intellect that it has cut itself off from its own emotions and physical sensations? Has it become overly rationalist? Has it negated its own humanity? Does that affect how people treat one another in the art world? (spoiler alert: I think it does) Is the emotional, physical and/or psychological perspective valid in art writing? And if so, why aren’t we inhabiting these modalities when writing? (FYI I also need to explore this from a historical perspective, but I have yet to dive into that.)