On loneliness and beauty
I felt my life with both my hands
To see if it was there –
I held my spirit to the Glass,
To prove it possibler –
I turned my Being round and round
And paused at every pound
To ask the Owner’s name –
For doubt, that I should know the sound –
I judged my features – jarred my hair –
I pushed my dimples by, and waited –
If they – twinkled back –
Conviction might, of me –
I told myself, “Take Courage, Friend –
That – was a former time –
But we might learn to like the Heaven,
As well as our Old Home”!
Living in the city sometimes feels like living at the bottom of a well. The feeling of being surrounded by so many people, unable to reach any of them, is a similar kind of entrapment. There are always those rotten days when every attempt to feel any sort of genuine connection is met with ambivalence, but lately it seems as though those days are starting to outnumber the days when the world feels kind and honest. I feel most alive when I tuck away with the fictions of people rather than people themselves. Real people can be such a disappointment. (Is this why you preferred solitude over the company of others?) These days, I am learning to cope by seeing myself more as a character than a person.
I think that a part of me has always enjoyed living inside stories. When I was much younger, I secretly believed that fiction spoke of worlds that were real. I hoped that someday, someone would reveal that the reality I had been living in was only half of the complete truth. I thought that in perceiving this other, parallel world, I would find something greater than anything I could have imagined on my own. I wanted, more than anything, to know that someone had been watching over me.
I am still waiting for someone to come along and save me—this is the idealist and the romantic in me. Yet the realist in me fears dependency. I have always believed that this anxiety was rooted in an exceptional event—the sudden loss of a childhood friend—but now I understand that abandonment is not an abnormality, but in fact the very essence of life. You cannot rely on other people to bring you happiness. You have to find it in yourself.
I have been reading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. On the train rides home, I silently weep for how his words so poignantly pierce the truth of my present.
“At the bottom, and just in the deepest and most important things, we are unutterably alone, and for one person to be able to advise or even help another, a lot must happen, a lot must go well, a whole constellation of things must come right in order once to succeed.”
I am at a point where the blocks of my future are shifting rapidly, prohibiting my progress forward. Rilke tells the young poet that he must move towards his solitude in order to write. “You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.” But in the pursuit of beauty, how can we escape our awareness of those outside ourselves? I wonder if the reason why I write is because I want someone to hear me out in full, to meet me eye to eye, instead of seeing me firstly as an object.
Although I was skeptical at first, I admit that I agree with Jean Paul Sartre’s view of the other—that only through the gaze of another can we feel that we are real. I am a deeply wounded person. Deep inside you and me, and within every woman (and every non-woman), there is something dark and ugly and unapologetically vain that greedily wonders, what if I were just a little bit more beautiful? We wonder if then, perhaps, people would love to look at us just that little bit more, and if then we would finally feel alive. We confuse their scopophilia for love itself. I wonder if this is what you also thought as you wrote this poem at your desk, or perhaps in front of a mirror, picking and prodding at your features and hoping to find something beautiful.
I love this photograph by Cindy Sherman: “Untitled Film Still #6.” What do you see in the Lolita-like innocence of her expression, the promiscuity of her costume? What is she imagining? Where does her gaze land? For whom is she performing? She could be looking up at a lover, yes, but the presence of the hand mirror suggests to me that she is alone, performing for herself.
I love this photograph because it feels like a secret between Cindy and me. It exteriorizes the psyche of a young girl who has internalized the male gaze to the point of injury. She cannot imagine herself as beautiful or desirable without it, and yet she is afraid of it, and afraid of the world—so much so that she practices her femininity in secret (it never sees the light of day). She longs to feel powerful in her body, yet as long as she remains chained by this fantasy of the male gaze, she can never be free, because even when she is performing for herself, she is still performing for him.
I feel that I am better suited to be an observer, not a participant of life. I want to create and find peace in solitude, yet I cannot help but feel that all I am and all I make is all for naught if I cannot share it with others. I want to look and I want to be seen, yet I am paralyzed by the gaze of the world. I do not know how to live by the standards of this world. I am afraid that one day I will wake up to the feeling of deep regret, realizing that I could have become anything in the world, but waited too long to act and so missed my chance to make something of myself.
Dear Emily, what did you see when you peered inside yourself? Is there anything to us other than our bodies? Sometimes, in moments when I feel especially alone, I hear nothing within me, and I am frightened.