Friday night. It snowed today – snowed all day, in fact: big, wet, inappropriate flakes, intemperate and out of season. Seems like everybody is in a bad mood, or should be.
The thing – a thing – about this quarantine is that the world has become (necessarily) so incredibly circumscribed; in the day-to-day boredomhorror, it isn’t the idleness so much as the sensation of restriction that brings forward the most difficulty. So much horror – both in the genre and in general – trades in hugenesses, in the expansive terror of the dark sussurating ocean or the unending giant throat of the sky, swallowing trillions of stars. But littleness is frightening too, cruel as claustrophobia, a powerful awareness, and abhorrence of, the walls.
One time in high school a beloved English teacher read to us from his journal. His journal was a big, hardbound book with forest green cloth covers, unembellished otherwise. The pages were unlined and cream-colored, and his nondescript handwriting marched satisfyingly across them in fairly consistent horizontals. He read to us to give us an example of what we might put in our black-and-white mottled composition notebooks, which we had five minutes at the beginning of each class to write whatever we wanted in.
He was an actor; his voice was rich and smooth. He read us a passage in which he considered his own two kids, who also went to our school and who I would sometimes look at when I could, to see if I could see anything of him in them, because this teacher was somebody I looked up to. But there was something in my personality that made me stop at admiration with my role models and move no further; I couldn’t become their friends, or proteges, or even their favorite student; so instead of developing these real intimacies I looked for proxy ones, like reading the books they read, or trying to befriend their kids. I never befriended this teacher’s kids though, only theorycrafted them.
The passage the teacher read ended with a discussion of two different qualities that he saw in his kids, or anticipated seeing in them as they grew older. I don’t remember what the two qualities were, but the sentence ended “…the two pillars on which a human might build his personality.” After reading this sentence the teacher canted his head and smiled and said, “That was a bit pretentious.” But his smile said that he wasn’t entirely unpleased with it either, which is our usual response to our own moments of pretentiousness, because we see the good intentions at the base of them at least, or are otherwise able to cast them in a favorable light.
I didn’t know he was the kind of person I wanted to emulate until I met him. But after being in his class I sought desperately in my own indirect ways to be like him. Not in his particulars, so much, but in general: it was bracing to meet somebody in a position of power with a sensitivity to the arts, with some inclination towards beauty, because even if I were aware of those things then – and I don’t think I completely was – speaking about them to myself would provide no validation. It was the first time I set my own internal course by an external star. Or nearly the first, or maybe coevally the first.
Can you form your own personality without grafting samples onto it from outside, more fully-grown sources? And do we choose these blueprints according to some internal direction already buried within us, or does it come down to a random confluence of factors setting us irrevocably down a particular path?
This striving to incorporate extends beyond people, too. Every interaction seeks to be an integration; we move forward through time, trying to infold every second of experience we pass through into ourselves; sometimes I wonder if the only impetus in life is a consuming adoration for structure, internal accumulation; we’re always mapping everything onto everything else like they were sheaves of transparencies, trying to find correlations and correspondences, trying to reinforce what, who, we think we are. And we rely on external evidence because we can’t believe our own testimony alone; we want corroboration, even if that corroboration is sought, contradictorily, from our own perceptions, which are a thousand times more intimate and personal than any morsel of our meat or bones.
Perhaps relatedly, it might be worth mentioning that, in the grips of a particularly bad of OCD behavior it always felt to me like I was surrounded on all sides by a multi-tiered structure of the most delicate glass, finer and fragiler than spun sugar, that webbed out around me in every direction; and that if I made one wrong mental move, it would bring this entire architecture collapsing around me in a private galaxy of glittering shards. On at least one axis, I think OCD – like most fears – pivots on a crippling anxiety at the loss of definition.
Today, at the store, I watched a woman in a motorized scooter yell at someone at Customer Service because she paid $3.50 for a package of Oreos that was supposed to be $2.99. We look for meaning, which might be a figment. When we don’t find it we settle for order.