Wednesday, November 11, 2009

this isn't precise, but very vaguely right

I was an only child for the first six years of my life, and one of the many in-my-head games I played with myself when we were on the road--which was often, as I lived in at least twenty different places before I was five--was to pick one little spot, on the pavement or a passing tree or whatever, and tell myself that I was the only person in the whole world that was looking at that particular speck of birdshit or streak of rain discoloration. I presume I did this either to make myself feel special or because I was incredibly bored, although it's hard to remember exactly. Kids are kind of weird. But whatever my childhood reasoning might have been, I think the actual unspoken desire was to connect myself to what was going on around me, to establish a sense of place in a world where I was constantly being displaced.

What I think of as my adult version of this game is neither particularly original or quite as pointless; every few weeks, I find myself engaged in some activity and I think to myself, "Every previous moment of my life has led directly up to this one." Depending on what I'm doing, this thought is either comforting or depressing. If I'm involved in something like playing a really amazing concert or having a personal breakthrough or even just reading a good book I feel like I'm heading in the right direction, but if I'm doing something like cleaning up cat puke or I'm at work unpacking a zillion Christmas ornaments for the third year running it's distinctly less thrilling. But whatever I'm feeling like at the moment I have the thought, I'm still comforted by the connectivity of my life, by the fact that I am someplace and I got here somehow and that I'm alive and mostly happy. It means that even bad things can lead somewhere good, and even if I'm not doing something pleasant right this second it won't matter in the long run; it's just part of the process of life and time, growing older and learning things. I have to be here in order to reach what happens next.

When I was still a student it often seemed like everything was connected. I'd be in a general-education linguistics class when suddenly we'd be talking about the same philosophical theory I was discussing in my second semester music history class earlier that day, and I'd sit and marvel at how the same ideas applied to both fields. It seemed uncanny how often it happened, but since I graduated it's been interesting to see that that particular phenomenon hasn't ended but has instead merely reasserted itself in a wider variety of ways. Right now, for instance, I'm reading two radically different books: Michael Warner's The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, a book about sexual shame and its impact on politics and life, and my own journals from high school, which I unearthed from a box in my closet over the weekend. Both are terrifying in different ways--Michael Warner's in terms of systematic oppression and the impact of the politics of fear and shame and censorship, and my journals in terms of acute embarrassment and late adolescent awkwardness--but there are surprising corollaries between them that I wasn't entirely expecting.

I started thinking about reading my own journals over the summer when I was in Alaska and spent a few evenings watching old episodes of My So-Called Life, but in reality I'd brought them back to Chicago almost a year before as the result of a bad dream in which my diaries were stolen and somehow used against me in some unremembered but totally unexpected way. I saved room for them in my suitcase the next time I went home, but after I brought them here they proceeded to sit unread in my closet because, in all honesty, I afraid to read them. I think most high schoolers experience various degrees of low self-esteem, and even though I realize that my own youthful pangs have been mostly harmless in the long run, I also remember how deeply I had felt self-hatred and I wasn't quite ready to read it in my own hand.

And it's true: my journals have made me cry. But more--or at least equally--often, they have made me laugh hysterically. The underlinings and extraneous capitalization are enough to bring me to tears, and I'm not even ready to get into the song lyrics I felt a need to copy into the blank pages between rambling entries. (A funnier post will follow later, if I can find enough excerpts that don't make me cringe uncontrollably.) My fifteen-year-old self was incredibly melodramatic, and also neglected to either date her entries (at least in volumes one and two) or mention much in the way of specific incidents, and as a result I am usually left guessing about what exactly I may have been ranting about. There's a lot of grey area, which can be irritating, but partially because I was so damn vague there's also an awful lot of what could have been subtext that is very much in the foreground and considerably more interesting to read now than a laundry list of my daily life would be. In fact, I find it somewhat fascinating that I kept a journal without calling it such; I think that the lack of dates is possibly related to a subconscious rejection of the narrative-driven structure that I associated with diaries, a format I had never succeeded in mastering. Instead of blocking myself into "writing in my diary," I chose to ramble, free-form, about existential crises and feelings and reactions. I placed emphasis not on what was happening, but on what I was feeling.

Which was, basically, angsty and uncertain alternating with moments of joy and even, very occasionally, insight. My first cursory readings made me laugh and wonder how that teenager ever became who I am now, but when I go back and look more closely I can sometimes see the very vague ghost of my current self, hidden deep inside of a phrase or word or thought that transcends the miscellany that comprises most of my journals. These moments make me feel better about the rest of it, which mostly horrifies and alarms me: Did I really think those things? Was I ever really this person, who was so uneducated about race and class, sex and sexuality, gender roles? I seemingly desired nothing more at fifteen and sixteen than to be a good girl, to embrace the worst stereotypes of femaleness and conservative values and keep my mouth shut, my legs tight together, to completely reject and even rail against the idea that I might be as smart and lovely and proactive within my own life as I almost certainly was. I also wanted, more than anything, to be "normal", a word that I began using obsessively partway through volume one, perhaps tellingly around the time I turned sixteen and began dating, confronting my own sexualness for the first time.

Normal is a strange word, because its meanings are varied and often misunderstood. As Michael Warner, the author of my other current reading material, notes, nobody is completely normal; if they were, that itself would be somewhat abnormal. Just before I reached the point in my journals where I began consistently referencing a desire to be seen as normal, I read a section of Warner's book that dealt specifically with the origins and cultural constructions of the term and idea, and the way that I consequently saw my own writing reflected through that lens brought things into a new type of focus. The concept of "normal" was influenced by the rise of statistics as a form of social analysis; before we were bombarded with numbers that seemed to represent an ideal way of being, there wasn't such pressure to conform to some sort of standard. Part of the problem is that we often confuse statistical norms, which contain no value judgement and take the form of numerical values, with evaluative norms, which propose to define things in terms of moral or ethical worth. When these two ideas blend together, it's easy to mistake normative behavior as good and anything aberrant as less valuable.

I think the real meaning (or one of the real meanings) of my journals, filled with adolescent blood and guts and tears and desperate attempts to sound like I wanted nothing from life except the Cult of True Womanhood, is that I didn't feel normal and so I considered myself bad. I wanted to be smart, to run wild in the streets like the boys and "bad girls" I knew, to have sex, to read everything in the world and go to college and transcend my life, and none of those things fit into what I had somehow decided was average--thanks, TV, or maybe just Laura Ingalls Wilder and those Little House books that I read obsessively; I think you played a role in that one--and the conflict nearly brought me to my knees.

Connectivity is not a linear thing, as I believe I've been envisioning it. It is a web, a knot, with curves and lines that connect multiple points and ideas that float around waiting to find the spot or spots that they will eventually illuminate. I grew up deeply fearing the potential of my own abnormality. Now, years later, I read and I am comforted by these lines from Warner: "...normal and pathological are not the only options. One of the reasons why so many people have started using the word "queer" is that it is a way of saying: "We're not pathological, but don't think for that reason that we want to be normal." People who are defined by a variant set of norms commit a kind of social suicide when they begin to measure the worth of their relations and their way of life by the yardstick of normalcy. The history of the [gay rights] movement should have taught us to ask: whose norm?"

I no longer want to be normal by any standards except my own, and I am a happier person for it. My high school self is finally, finally giving up the ghost and letting me see her for who she was; I love her, for all of her insecurities and self-deceptions and oddities, just as I love my lonely five-year-old self with her desire for a sense of place and my self of last year, unpacking the same damn Christmas ornaments that I just dug out of the basement at work yesterday. My own particular form of queerness as I understand it is a process instead of a definition, and it is more valuable to me than True Womanhood or average dreams or statistical norms ever had any hope of being. I love all of me, whether I am considered normal or not. I think that's called growth.


pulley-whipped said...

can't wait for the excerpts.

justin said...

Somehow, fortunately, normal was one of the few ideas I never bought into. It sounds horrible...

erica said...

i never tried to be normal...but i tried so hard *not* to be it just got really damn exhausting...
great post--and now you need to support your claims with some directly quoted real teenage angst!

Lauren said...

i agree! You need to post some excerpts. erica did last year. I think I'm going to soon (a year after i planned to!)

I've gone back and read over my journals from high school too and had those same moments like, "Was I really like this?" It's hard, but good, to learn to love that adolescent version of yourself. And to let go of her too.
Fabulous post.