Here's what: I'm driving down the street...let's call it yesterday. I've got the windows down, and the new mixed CD I just made for the car is playing. The sun is out, it's hot but not too hot, the fan is on, and I don't have any immediate problems. There is no crisis on deck. I'm healthy, my family's good, everybody's hanging in. I'm not in a quarrel with anybody, I don't have any major aches or pains. I'm just out to buy some shoes. I love buying shoes.
By all rights, this should be a golden moment. But we just had a party the day before, and my brain has decided to fuck with this lovely afternoon. I try not to do it, but I keep projecting myself into my guests' brains, planting judgments I think they might have had about our house, my hostessing, the music, the food, etc. My brain throws out stupid questions every two minutes: did _______ think my house was the wrong size? Did __________ like/hate the music? Did ___________ come out of obligation? I wave the questions off like flies over and over. I don't know! Who cares? God, shut up! But the constant re-arrival of the questions and the sour feeling that comes with each one hexes the drive.
Self-consciousness is jive and it ruins everything it touches. I'm talking about that pinching little presence that whispers to you that you're wrong somehow, fundamentally, in your very being. That if you're not currently embarrassed, you should be, and if you're not feeling insecure, you're missing something. Vigilance, dread, all related to who you are. The threat is from within. The call is coming from inside the house.
It does, it ruins everything. Self-consciousness mars performances and auditions and interviews and dates, it sucks all the sex out of sex, and it's hell at school. I remember being the new girl at my junior high, jumping in at 8th grade when everybody already knew each other, and the miasma of self-consciousness I waded through from dawn to dusk. I wore white pants one day in September, and I remember sitting near the front of my history class in a state of terror that my period would arrive and bloom red between my legs, my ears attuned to all the small sounds of my classmates. Was that a snicker? Is it happening? Has the blood crept up to my back pockets? And then my bra suddenly unhooked itself in the back and my hand shot up so I could be excused to go to the bathroom. I ran and dove into a stall, fixed my bra and then shoved my pants down to confront my sea of blood, which of course wasn't there. Everything was pristine. I stayed in the bathroom as long as I could, putting off my return to the battlefield.
An acquaintance of mine wrote a piece for The Stranger recently about a brutal strain of bodily self-consciousness that strikes him every summer, which I imagine at least half of the reading public recognizes themselves in. As a woman with "imperfections"—God, so dumb. We're the only animals that do this shit to ourselves. -That doe has fat thighs. -You call that a bikini body, squirrel? -Fuck that giraffe! He thinks he's such a bigshot! -Yeah, he's successful, but he's going a little soft in the haunch, if you know what I mean.
I'm familiar with this feeling to the point of boredom. I can't keep caring about my arms/ass/knees/whatever. It's too hot and summer is too long. Also I'm old and married and not trying to pick up dudes, which is freeing. Dave already signed the papers. But the essential horror at the center of his piece—we all carry it, or something like it, whether we just got a lucky kernel or we're dragging around mounds of it. And I'm tired of this shit. I'm mad at it, on all our behalves.
I used to collect books about the French. It was a favorite genre of mine, How to Understand/Be Like the French. I have historically been a little obsessed with French people—Parisians in particular—because they have a reputation for being tough to crack, which is catnip to my self-conscious, people-pleasing side. They're like a Rubik's Cube that I was dying to solve. If I can learn to work the French, was my thinking, then I can work anyone. (An old college boyfriend once said he thought I was a little Machiavellian, and I was genuinely like WHAT IS THIS DUDE TALKING ABOUT, but in retrospect I think he was probably on to something.) Anyway, I'm a very smiley, ingratiating person. Annoying or not, that's my autopilot. And in Paris they hate that. They hate it when strangers smile at them; they think it's stupid, unearned, a little crazy, even. Now, my smiling seems pretty innocent to me. I think, let's be temporary sidewalk friends! Why not? But when I unpack it, I think there's a little bit of "If a bomb falls on us all right now, the people I've smiled at will be my allies in the rubble and will be less likely to eat me when we run out of food."
The Parisians aren't buying it. So in one book they said if you're a foreigner in Paris and you get invited, by miracle, to a dinner party, and it's your first time among that group of people (and possibly second or third), expect/plan to be a chair. Nobody is going to talk to you or care about you or engage with you, so pretend to be a chair and make peace with being furniture for the night. Don't take it personally. Just be invisible and pointless and suck it up. This is a self-consciousness exercise that makes my brain explode to contemplate. The worst! But also, and because of that, so fascinating! Probably medicinal as well. And it gets me thinking, where else might this be applicable? Anywhere? Everywhere? Why do we need to be taken in in a certain way all the time? Why do we need to—or even believe we can—control it? Be a chair! Who cares?
I flew to California with my brother a couple of years ago to take a class with him and give him a hand while he traveled, as he's disabled. He's been dealt a rough one in this life, bearing up under loads of physical and psychological pain. And he's also an amazing being, unlike anybody else I've ever met. David is brilliant and always, always, uncompromisingly himself. He has never trimmed or tailored his personality to his surroundings like I have. He doesn't do the opposite thing, either, where you get aggressively individualistic in that kind of defensive way. He just does him, as they say, and he always has, ever since we were kids. Anyway, we were at the airport, and he had his big walking stick with him, with the silver cobra head and ruby eyes. It's a not-fucking-around walking stick that can conceal a sword. It's crackers. (The sword was not traveling with us, naturally.) He also had heavy crystal necklaces around his neck in bunches, along with a bag around his neck with a big, rose quartz crystal ball inside. We're going through security and he's unloading all his stuff, emptying his pockets (equally packed with talismans and dealie-bobbers of all kinds), taking his crystal ball out of the bag, explaining to the security personnel what everything was, all with this perfect, pure, absolute lack of self-consciousness. Total innocence. I watched him with a kind of cringing joy, like, hey! You can't have fifty thousand items at security—especially fifty thousand super magical items! This is adorable and a little embarrassing! But then there he went, and he was so damn pure and sweet, and turns out, why couldn't he? You can! You can. You can bring a crystal ball and a wizard walking stick and eleventy billion doodads through the airport and nobody dies. On the contrary, everyone fell in love with him, as people do wherever he goes. My admiration for him—which was already a pretty unwieldy Macy's-Thanksgiving-Day-Parade-style-balloon-type-deal—soared. What I wouldn't give for that particular kind of unselfconsciousness!
When Dave and I were on our honeymoon in Hawaii nine years ago, I lay on the bed one morning and practiced disappearing. It's a fond memory. I was wearing this diaphanous white cotton nightgown that a friend of the family had given me as a shower present, which felt like nothing on my skin, it was so light. I was gazing up at the ceiling fan, feeling so good. There was a total absence of bummers. Our relationship was blissful, the temperature was perfect and balmy, there was nowhere to be. And it popped into my head to try disappearing, as an experiment. Not in a David Copperfield way, but in a Buddhist, is-the-self-illusory?-then-let's-see-it-go kind of way. Nowhere to be? How about also nobody to be? Let's try it. I didn't intend it to be any kind of meditation, either. I was just curious. I wanted to see what would happen if I let go of my affiliation with my history, my memories, my understanding of myself. What would it feel like? Would it feel as good as this nightgown? Would it feel like taking off a nightgown? It felt interesting and good for the drips and drops I could sustain it for, whatever I was doing or stopping doing. And when I look back now, I know that hell yes, that was meditation. On the money.
That experiment begged the question: does a me always need to be present? Does it need to be so up-front-and center all the time, driving everything? I'm really intrigued by this concept of the self as an illusory thing. (Those Buddhists are always throwing something interesting out there.) The self is, what, a trick of the light? A giant practical joke? As a someone who's frequently experienced the self as a burden, I'm all tell me more. I'm part-horrified, part-fascinated by the idea that this me, this central locus of consciousness, is flimsy or fake, that I can participate in existence without it, even though something might die off in the process.
Because there are two different levels of self-consciousness I'm talking about here. There's painful consciousness of the self, and then there's just plain old consciousness of the presence of the self, an "I" taking it all in. This big display all around us — how often do I take it in without folding a me into it, a me with opinions and memories and fantasies? Like, for example, say I'm driving around again, and there's a song on. At the very least there's an "I like this," or "I don't like this." And I like or don't like the weather, I'm rating it, and if it's a song I love, then it's me singing it, I fantasize that it's me. I wrestle me in there everywhere. Can't I be a chair in my own car for a second, and let music just be music, let the weather just be the weather? Do I have to insert myself all the time?
And so what if my party and I aren't perfect? What if the worst were true, and everybody thought every bad thought I assigned them? So what? It's still a little revolutionary to me, the idea that what other people think of me is irrelevant, that my self-consciousness isn't preempting anything, isn't saving me from anything. Maybe my house is offensive! Maybe my music is objectively, scientifically bad! Maybe who cares! I get a thrill from this, which indicates hope.