I think I live in perpetual fear of it.
I’ll put on the outfit, the persona, the act, the mask, the loopy force of nature spinning brightly from tangent to tangent in an effort to deflect from what’s actually happening, from who is really under all those tutus and legwarmers and madcap laughter. Because there are times when I’m not sure who that is.
Some days I believe I understand how it felt to be Peter Sellers. There is a film called the life and death of Peter Sellers, starring Geoffrey Rush. It’s not necessarily a comfortable watch, but it is good. He is so convincing in the role, that there were numerous times I forgot it was Geoffrey Rush playing him and not Peter Sellers playing himself.
I did have a moment when I thought ‘how brilliant of a coup it would be to find out that it is him, he didn’t die after filming Being There (which was directed by Hal Ashby who also did Harold and Maude – one of the “will never be moved from my top five movies of all time…) and was just waiting all this time and has now starred in a movie about him played by Geoffrey Rush played by Peter Sellers. It’s a bit like the plot for Victor Victoria (in my top 10) with a few less songs. But no.
At any rate, the focal point of the story is that Peter Sellers was incredible at being anyone (3 roles in Dr Strangelove alone..his phone conversation with the Premier of Russia is not only brilliant, it’s one sided. He didn’t need anyone to prompt him, he’s just that good.) but terrible at being himself. There’s evidence that he wasn’t a very good husband (his second wife called him a monster) or father, perhaps because they were supporting roles in a production he had little control over. I don’t know, it really doesn’t matter much to me. I’m talking about the need to wear hats that disguise the wearer to such an extent that it’s impossible to tell where the character stops and the person begins. Or if there is a person under there at all.
When I was young, I was constantly someone else. I changed my name in grade 4 to Josephine. Insisted that everyone in my class call me that. I think that was right around the time I read little women(the only character I identified with was Jo), the facts of life was probably on tv (again..best character was Jo, a tomboy) and I’m pretty sure it was right around then that I first encountered the larger than life quality of Josephine Baker. I remember seeing the picture of her wearing only a banana skirt and..just so damn sassy. For whatever reason.
Then I wanted to be called Terri. Genevieve. Delilah. Star. There were others…I can’t remember them all. I tried on different names and nicknames like they were hats that would change me into someone different. I incorporated the details of other people’s stories into my own history, attempting to weave an identity that was worldly and interesting, regardless of the fact that it was tight fitting and uncomfortable. Part of it was an endeavor to appear as though I had earned the right to not be fucked with. It must have worked because not many people fucked with me. Or maybe I was just lucky. But however it worked, I had created a ghost who got through some dark spots relatively unscathed.
I used hitchhiking to perfect it.
I read on the road when I was 12 and decided I wanted to do that. Mum reminded me that it’s not 1952 anymore and I might not find the world as open road open heart as Kerouac made it seem. I started when I was 14, hitchhiking to the corner store and back. That’s it. Then to the bus exchange, to catch a bus downtown. Then all the way into town. Then to Vancouver. Then..then..then…I’ve hitched in 9 countries, only 3 that I could speak the language in. (Canada, US and France..the others are Denmark, Holland, Spain, Germany, Czech Republic and Austria if you’re wondering) and I’ve never had a problem that wasn’t fairly easily dealt with. Some girls do that first hitching trip to the corner store and are never seen again. I know exactly how lucky I am and I know exactly how dangerous it is every time I put out my thumb. But every friend I have started out a stranger. Open heart, open mind, open road. So far so good.
Every car I stepped into was another opportunity to create a new facade, or work on an existing one. Sometime I had a scottish accent, Irish, French. I even tried Welsh, south African, British (that one usually fell flat when someone asked me what part of the UK I was from). Some people called me on it and I’m sure that so many knew I was full of shit and just indulged my whimsical notions of wanting to seem international and exotic. There were relatively few I ever told my real name to, and even fewer who knew anything factual about me. I was a wordsmith, a storyteller, sometimes a mendacious mendicant. And I was collecting stories to add to my own. I remember sitting and telling someone an amazing story of something that had happened in Toronto, only to have them respond, ‘isn’t that interesting. I had exactly the same thing happen to me. Remember when I told you about it 6 months ago?’ Oops.
I also discovered, having spent a good portion of my life dressed in a way that might make certain members of the public treat me with disdain, that if I spoke with even the softest hint of an accent, the merest inflection to suggest that I wasn’t from here, the possibility of a civil interaction increased immeasurably. Best foot forward for visitors still applies for a lot of people, even when that visitor looks like someone they might not extend a luncheon invitation to.
I still do it sometimes, especially when asking for something such as directions. Except now, when people ask about an accent, I usually say, ‘oh, it’s not an accent. It’s an affectation.’
I so worry sometimes that someone somewhere will think I’m making fun, but ideally I hope they realize it falls into the imitation-flattery category.
So after all this time, after years of wearing an identity that wasn’t mine, amalgamating experiences I never had, carrying stories of love and pain and life that have blurred to become pieces of a dishonest whole, how do I possibly know who is actually realistically me?
I understand that all memory, or should I say most, is subjective. If I remember a story clearly, definitively, as though it happened to me, does that suggest there’s a realm somewhere that it has? Is that the definition of a storyteller? Does it matter if the story is true? Does it matter if the story is mine? Isn’t the story being carried the most important part? Ironically, I have almost none of my own poetry memorized, which has only recently changed at the encouragement of someone I consider wise in such matters.
So that brings me around to the original statement. It’s not easy being seen. Not only do I have trouble determining that which I might be showing you is authentic, I’m not sure I want anyone to be able to see me that clearly. It opens one up to a level of scrutiny that is just terrifying because, what if I don’t measure up to some perceived yard stick of awesome? A more important question might be, do I need to?
There is a bravery in being famous.
Some certainly seem like constructs, a persona on a stage that has handlers and shields and “people” to keep actual people from ever coming into contact with them, from ever knowing them. There are glimpses via photo spreads of who they are, opulent homes, shiny children, exercise regimes but none of that suggests a whole. None of that allows for fear and doubt and burned dinner and blotchy faced tissue mountain sickness and a chance to identify with another human. Not seen, merely looked at. Perhaps admired, reviled or every point between, but no connection to their humanity. For me, anyway.
If anyone ever reads this and thinks, ‘you’re wrong! Those cameras are giving us an honest insight into the rich and varied lives of the real housewives of who gives a fuck’..um….it’s a lie. Anytime something is filmed and aired, even if it is touted as “news” it’s completely fabricated.
When I was 17 I was kinda homeless. As in, I didn’t live with my parents and I wasn’t paying rent anywhere and I spent a lot of time bumming around on the streets of various cities. I’d been doing this for a couple of years already. I didn’t leave home because my parents were ogres I was fleeing, quite the opposite. I was a precocious creature who, at 15 and uproariously bored with a school that catered to mediocrity, had determined that she had learned all she needed from the system and was perfectly ready to set out into the world and make her way (just for the record, I totally wasn’t. I was too young and way stupider than I thought and definitely should have stayed home at least 2 more years..ahh, the pigheaded arrogance of youth..).
A picture of me showed up in a magazine with the caption “the street is home to too many young people”. I remember the day that picture was taken. A photographer had asked the two people I was sitting next to if he could take their picture. They said yes. Not wanting to be in the picture, I leaned away from them. I guess he liked the look of my picture (the one I didn’t know he took) better. The funny thing is, I don’t look at all like a “street person” in that picture. And must admit, I kind of like it. I’m wearing a long hippy looking shirt that used to be my dad’s, my first pair of docs (12 hole oxblood) and smiling, which if I had known what was happening, seems unlikely.
The picture ended up in a magazine. My mum saw it and wrote a beautifully eloquent letter about how it feels to be a parent of a “good” kid who runs away. She put it better than I ever could. “sometimes they aren’t running from something, they’re running to it…” I had no knowledge this had happened.
Why didn’t they have the cops bring me home? They trusted me. That went leaps and bounds towards my getting my head out of my arrogant teenager ass and working out how to be better. To have someone who loves you enough to trust that you are capable of not completely fucking up your life beyond all repair and lets you make your own mistakes helps a lot.
As a result of that photo and then her letter, a woman got in touch with my mom. Somehow, both a news show and a magazine wanted to do a story on kids who opt to leave home, me being the poster child for the phenomenon. They said, we can’t pay you. I said, I won’t do it unless you do. So they did. And I did. Do I wish I hadn’t? Some days. But what a learning experience. And sadly, it kind of eclipses a lot of my memories of that time of my life. Ironically, when they approached me, I wasn’t homeless anymore. But that didn’t matter much to the story I guess.
Now, I don’t want to suggest that it is easy to shift from a life on the streets to being a (moderately) productive member of society (whatever the fuck that is). A lot of it was pure blind luck I’m sure. Good people looking out for me in moments when I should have been dead. I have friends that are gone, whether to death or drugs or predators or the demons of their own they were never able to quite get the better of. Demons often not of their own making but, in many instances, scenarios that were something necessary to run from. I never had the uphill battle to get level. So I cannot, ever, in any way suggest that my experience with living on the streets and then transitioning away from it is in any way typical. Sometimes when I heard about someone who had died, this might sound horrible, but all I could feel was relief for them. Not because they didn’t deserve to live, in fact completely the opposite, but because me, coming from a place that lacked pain and suffering to any extent, couldn’t understand how they could keep going. It’s a painful dark world out there for some kids and that’s just about the most fucked up thing I can think of.
So anyway, this news show and this magazine decided they wanted to document the plight of a middle classish white girl who is oppressed by nothing but seeks a life free of that which a typical (what is typical?) teenager in her position might find enjoyable. They never quite let me in on what that was though..
At 16, I was mighty pissed that I was oppressed by nothing. What right did I have to be angry and yet there I was, stubbornly filled with angst because of my perception that everything was really really really messed up and needed to change. Somehow. I couldn’t think of anything practical that might help, so I think I tried to step outside of it. If I had a bunch of awards to put in the microwave and start a pirate radio station like in pump up the volume, I totally would have. (Sometimes I think writing this is like being a dj on the radio. I have no idea if anyone is listening, but I’ll keep talking and playing tunes just in case..)
So the “news” show paid me 250 bucks, which I spent on food and drink and friends and it was lovely. Then they followed me for a week, being invasive, trying to talk to my friends who had no interest in talking to them and creating “scenes.” That part is hilarious. Have you ever watched news people create scenes? They film you walking, then they film the same walk from 3 or 4 other angles. And every time they ask you to go back to the spot where you started. If you had your hand in your pocket, they need that hand to be in your pocket. There is nothing real about it. It’s one thing to intrinsically know that, it’s another to see it in action. They left a microphone attached to me, even when I was nowhere near them so they could get candid soundbytes of my talking to other people and lay them overtop of totally unrelated scenes.
When they did the interview they wanted to film it in an alley that was filled with garbage and stank like piss and had ugly looking tags all over it, regardless of the fact that there are many beautiful spray bombed murals all over the city. I asked them, ‘do you honestly think I would hang out here? What do you think this is? Hobo chic?’ Zoolander wouldn’t come out for another 6 or so years, but this is the point where I would have told them to ‘derelict my balls” had I already seen it. (That might be the best part of that movie. Except for David Bowie. He’s the best part of any movie. Even the ones he’s not in.)
I don’t want this to sound like I’m complaining about the experience, though there were multiple times during it I wished I’d said no. But mostly it was hilarious. It was trite and vapid and nowhere near anything resembling real journalism, not that I know what that looks like. I haven’t seen the show since it happened, I couldn’t give a fuck about it. I still have the article, every so often I pull it out and read it for a laugh. Because I don’t recognize the girl that it’s written about. At the time, it was so sad to me that they missed the point completely. Though, to be honest, I have no idea what I hoped the point would be. I was a kid, trying something out. I didn’t consider the consequence and had no real desire to be on television talking about the choices I had made, the life I was living. I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted. Hell, I didn’t even know what I was thinking most of the time. I’m still working on that.
There was a bit of fallout, mostly from strangers, deciding this or that about me from the limited perspective they had been granted, passing moral judgement on my character, my choices, my words. It was a good lesson for me when considering the lives of others, but it also compounded my feeling that there needed to be a division of self, a personality wall of sorts, to keep the real human underneath from being hurt. To protect oneself from the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune‘ as it were. In fact, I took heed from Hamlet’s antics, discovering early on that if people think you are unable to tell a hawk from a handsaw, they are much more likely to leave you alone.
Since this experience, I have had no desire whatsoever to be “famous” in the sense that people get to look at you all the time, rock star style. Perhaps it’s a fear of the responsibility of being true in a slice of reality that thrives on speculation, airbrushing and drama. I’d rather be a half truth in a honest world, reflecting those parts of myself I’ve cultivated and polished. I know that it might seem to be another side of a similar coin, only letting people see the side I’m comfortable with (which includes a dark side, if there’s any curiosity about that) but I’ve always considered it to be ok, since the ripple effect of my stone will only affect a very small pond.
I’m not sure that’s true anymore. I’m don’t think I give the ripples enough credit and have developed a stronger fear for the message carried forward being dishonest, than heard at all. Does that make sense?
I was afraid the message would be heard so I neglected to speak and tried to keep the echoes close. As I get older, I’m discovering a voice that has qualities I didn’t expect and would rather it come from a place that is entirely honest, even if it runs the risk of putting myself in a position of vulnerability.
I think about Amanda Palmer and how she is unabashedly honest about who she is and what she’s doing. She might argue against this, we all have days, but I feel like she is very much her self, whoever that might be (I think we’re all engaged in that masterwork to some extent). I admire the humanity that is not (as far as I can tell) in many ways separate from the celebrity. It’s rare. There have been moments when the media tried to abscond with parts of her (she’s a this! she’s a that!) and she very politely has said..’oh yes, there’s this and that, but you’ve forgotten these. Here, have it all.’ She reminds me of the guy sitting in his room gazing out the window and a thief shows up but there’s nothing to steal. So he says, ‘here, take my clothes. I wouldn’t want you to go away empty handed since you made the effort to come.’ and after the thief leaves looks back out the window and says, “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”
To live an honest unapologetic life seems ideal to me. Not that I wouldn’t say, “I’m sorry”, if I stepped on your foot. Or being Canadian say “I’m sorry”, if you stepped on mine. Not that kind of unapologetic. I’m thinking of a life that is lived without concern for living within the boundaries of someone else’s perspective of what is moral or consistent or true. A take me as I am, but know that what you think of me is none of my business kind of attitude.
Like if someone said(this is also a true story), ‘hey, I found a picture of your boobs on the internet.’ one response might be to write to the owners of the website and ask that they be removed, filled with self-recrimination and loathing and a vow to never go on another 8 month long drinking binge after an emotionally and physically painful experience. Though it was a fun silly time.
Another response might be..’huh. boobs on the internet. there’s a surprise.’ I must admit that my first reaction was a little bit “Aah! What?” But seriously, if you’ve known me for longer than 20 minutes, you’ve probably seen my boobs. You know why? They’re just boobs. It’s really not a big deal.
Also, the argument that if I advocate for self-government and living one’s life according to the dictates of what they consider pleasing, does that mean I’m arguing in favour of people who have the urge to do harm to others to be allowed to follow their bliss, as it were?
If you have the urge to do harm to others..yes well, who doesn’t? The guy who cut you off, the woman at the front of the long line who has never seen or used a debit machine before and has decided that today is the day, the people who capture for zoos and aquariums, trophy hunters, certain members of whatever parliament..the list is probably endless. At some point, most people have a desire to do harm. But to actually act on it? I don’t know that there is any sanity in causing any creature intentional pain. And damages both parties involved. Also, the argument that non human animals don’t feel pain in the same way is totally whackadoodle to my way of thinking.
I am not advocating do what thou wilt when I speak of self-government, I think act with mindfulness and reason comes closer. Actually, I think my point is that I’m not advocating anything for anyone except myself. My truth is broad and crazy and beautiful and overlaps many other truths. But it’s mine. I can’t speak for anyone else. Ever. Except in the instance of some freaky friday consciousness switch happening, there is no way I will be someone else than me, whether I know who she is or not. Regardless of what name I’m using, whose story I’m telling or what tutu I’m wearing.
There is a scene in a movie where a character gives another 5 minutes of uninterrupted eye contact as a reward for whatever. It’s really awkward. I think there’s a collective uncomfortability (is that a word?) with letting people see beyond the facade. Because that’s when judgements and opposing moralities and condescension come in.
Is it because when someone is brave enough to show themselves, vulnerabilities and all, it scares people to bits and they do that thing where they try to kill it? Because…I just searched an antonym for logic and all I got was unreasonableness. Which is exactly apt. Because of rampant unreasonableness.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t want to be afraid to let anyone see me. To recognize the humanity in me. However it looks.
The bad choices, the good hair days, the terrible impulse control after a certain amount of alcohol (yes, there are likely pictures of my butt on the internet too…sorry mum), the way I fall for someone too soon, too completely and then run screaming from commitment if that doesn’t scare them off, my awesome driving skills, my ability to be a humour ninja (you didn’t see the laugh coming until the milk was already flowing from your nose!!!), my inability to do a chinup, my aspiration to become strong enough to do a chinup.
All of it.