Saturday, January 15, 2011
Making a Clean Break
Last night, I had a dream. One of those dreams so vivid and blunt, it's hard to ignore the message. One of those dreams that just feels like a metaphor, even when you're in it.
I dreamt I was a student in college again, engaged in a class discussion led by a wise old professor. Yet this professor seemed to take particular pleasure in setting me up for embarrassment and frustration. As the discussion progressed, he would often interrupt himself or students as they explained their ideas or expounded on theories, and shoot a question at me. Being a dream, I can't now remember even what the subject was — but I do know that, again and again, I felt the frustration rise as I found myself interrupted, torn out of my focus on the ideas of others as they unfolded — forced instead to stand up to prove myself to these peers, to prove myself worthy of being there to learn. It wasn't enough to attend, to listen intently and consider carefully the concepts being shared. But more frustrating was that, each time this professor interrupted the flow of conversation to challenge me to a verbal duel, he allowed only a sentence out of my mouth before he veered back again, leaving me hanging there dumb, my words decontextualized and my thoughts unfinished. It felt for all the world like a goddamned Twitter feed — one hundred forty characters was all I got.
Until at one point, I finally managed to break out of it. The next question he asked me, I found myself speaking in paragraphs. Whole arguments cascaded out of my mouth in point after point, theories backed up by evidence and examples, counter-arguments considered and deconstructed. The professor seemed impressed, asked another question to prompt me... yet I could feel something slipping. The students around me began to talk over me in their own conversations. Someone behind me snickered. Mid-sentence, the professor interrupted me again, this time to tell me, "Well, at least you've finally demonstrated that you're not a complete idiot, which is a bit of a surprise. Some of your ideas were actually pretty sound. Of course, you're horribly boring, so boring that your dullness itself is offensive and detracts from the values of your ideas no matter what they are. You were more attractive when you weren't saying anything."
Frustration, anger and shame overwhelmed me. I sank back and spent the rest of the class in silence, hardly able to concentrate on the continuing bombardment of Twitter-like conversation going on around me. Then, the class was ending and everyone was piling into huge, black SUVs to go on a mandatory class field trip. My boringness clung to me like a nasty odor, so that no one spoke to me or wanted to acknowledge my presence. When the time came for me to squeeze into one of the SUVs, they discovered there wasn't much room left.
So they cut off my arms.
Just a torso with legs, leaking bright red blood from two gaping wounds at each shoulder like some Black Knight from Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail ("It's only a flesh wound!"), I was hustled in and shoved awkwardly into the backseat, unable to balance myself. Soon, of course, the occupants of the car grew annoyed with my bleeding all over everything, so they dropped me off at the front of the local hospital. Nurses ushered me inside, barely masking their annoyance at my light-headedness and disorientation, and jammed an IV needle into the open, jagged tear where my right arm used to be. They pumped new blood in, but did nothing to stop the blood still leaving my body in squirting founts. Soon they grew annoyed at how I seemed to refuse to get better.
Then I woke up. When I told Jeff about this dream, he made sure to hug me comfortingly (checking to see that both arms were still there). He told me, "Oh, well, isn't it obvious? Professor Facebook and Professor Blog. And the arms are a Gemini thing. Gemini rules the arms and the throat and the eyes. The arms represent the Gemini's ability to work, to interact with the world, and to communicate. When they cut off your arms, they made you helpless and impotent. They may as well have ripped out your voice-box."
That dream led me back to this unfinished series about my "Long Goodbye." Months long, as it turns out. In the time since I wrote the first three segments of this series, I've been slowly weaning myself away from both blogging and Facebook. But the final break came just last night, and surely played a part in shaping my metaphorical nightmare. It was yesterday evening that I discovered that a widely respected "Pagan Academic" had, a week or so before, taken the opportunity on his blog to rip into something I had posted on Facebook, misconstruing and misquoting my argument, treating me with deep disdain and mockery, and refusing to refer to me by name but instead using personal insults and casual accusations of "trolling." But what hurt most were the comments of some of his readers, especially one from someone who once referred to himself as my "first official fan" on this blog. He agreed with this Pagan Academic that I was patronizing, hyperbolic and an extremist.
Which is funny. Because I spend most of my time worrying that I am unworthy of the things I care most deeply about, tearing myself up with anxieties that they deserve better than to be associated with me in all my flaws and failures. What if I am not only unable to express them the way they deserve, but I actually do them more harm than good? "I'm an 'extremist' because I'm consistent, because I speak up for peace in every situation?" I ranted at Jeff, shaking with anger as tears and snot squirted out of my orifices and got all over everything. "We don't have time for this! We don't have time for my 'persona'! We don't have time to ignore the need for peace just because people don't like my attitude!"
And that's when I finally understood the third card in my divination reading from weeks ago. The choice-that-was-not-a-choice. The Three of Pentacles.
The Three of Pentacles is a card of beginnings, a resolution of the tension and duality of two in the on-going process of manifestation, especially as an expression of skill and intention in the physical world through craftsmanship or artistic skill. It is also a card of teamwork and joint endeavors, the two working together to create a third as an expression of their union and blending of skills. In my deck, this card depicts a couple in a process of creation: an elfin female lifted upon the shoulders of a male, sliding her fingers along rock which gives way as softly as clay, to carve the stars and interweaving arcs of the pentacles. Here again, there is the hint of the spiritual expressed through the material form, the stained-glass beauty of the stars suspended within the solid rock.
In so many ways, this seems like a positive card, one symbolizing teamwork and harmonious cooperation. Yet there it was, a middling choice that could only lead me inevitably back again to the same situation, the same circumstances that had given rise to my frustration and sense of stagnation. Why might this be?
On the internet, I have a 'persona.' In many ways, I find myself often feeling like I'm back in middle school again. Once upon a time, after years of ratty-looking hair that simply refused to drape in gorgeous waves around my shoulders, in seventh grade I made the mistake of cutting my hair short. I'd seen a picture of a woman with cropped hair — she'd looked so professional and sleek and mature, and I wanted to look like that. But instead, everyone just thought I looked like a lesbian. Mockery and social awkwardness ensued. (It was around the same time that one of my uncles, a husband of twenty years with two kids, finally had the courage to come out of the closet. I was ashamed of the teasing I received, and ashamed that I was ashamed, ashamed that I wanted desperately to fit in, baffled by how such vitriol could be poured out on people who I knew firsthand were just like everyone else, who were family, husbands, fathers, uncles.) But I digress.
The point is, the 'persona' that I have on the unruly interwebs is only partly an artifact of my skills and choices as a writer. It's also the accrued mass of assumptions, off-handed jokes taken out of context, half-read arguments not fully understood and the general cacophonous noise of the medium. Things can so easily get out of hand. Another tarot card that routinely came up during my daily readings around this time depicted a mermaid gazing into her reflection in a pool of water. So concerned with her self-image, so self-conscious about how others perceived her, she was entranced and bound there, perched on the rocky, uncomfortable shore — I imagined that I could hear her pleading, "But my reflection is in the water! So why is the air so cold and dry? Why do I feel so out of my element? Look! I am there, in the water! Why don't they see?" Then she might reach out to touch the sea, her natural home — and the ripples that fled from her fingertips would distort that perfectly still image of herself, twisting it into something unlike her. "No!" she would insist. "That's not me!" And again she would try to engage, try to smooth things out. But every touch led only to more ripples, more distortions, and more frustration. Just like in middle school, where every insistence that, "I am not gay, but even if I was, so what? That's not wrong!" only led to more mockery and isolation.
Just like the comment streams on Facebook and the blogs, veering wildly out of hand, sending distortions running ragged in all directions, giving rise to cascading misunderstandings and conflicts. As the Three of Pentacles reminds me, my 'persona' is not only in my hands to create and shape. It is a social construct, built as much from the ideas of others about who I must be, as from my own (sometimes inaccurate) self-image and what I choose to share. To continue to rely on this social internet persona as the main vehicle for my work would be a choice-that-is-not-a-choice, a choice that would keep me focused too much on the image of myself as writer and how that self-image was interpreted, beyond the realm of my control or influence, by others. But I've reached a point where the "persona" of myself online has grown distorted and disturbed beyond my ability to recognize myself in it. While once it may have provided me at least with the kind of context, perspective and self-critique that is the blessing of real community, it no longer even seems to reflect truth back to me, even uncomfortable or ugly truths — only the indistinguishable noise and anxiety of disconnection and frustration. And every attempt to reign it in or smooth things out only causes more trouble, raises more run-away ripples.
So I'm cutting off my arms.
Because Plotkin says sometimes it's helpful to interpret dreams by asking ourselves what they reveal about the different aspects of our ego and how they interact.... but sometimes it's even more helpful to assume that our ego-dream-self got it wrong. And if there's one thing my dream-self got wrong last night, it was rising to the urge again and again to prove myself to others, to fight against my frustration with reason and intellect as though, if I just worked hard enough, I could prove myself worthy of respect, or at least a place at the table. But the gods themselves could come down, rip out my voice-box, chop off my arms... I could be jostled about feeling utterly impotent and helpless and alienated.... but still, you know, it wouldn't kill me. And yeah, maybe people were annoyed with me, because my insides are all gushy and wet and gross, blood and snot and tears and sweat and brain-mucus. But maybe what my dream-ego got wrong last night was that this was somehow something to be ashamed of. So I am not a disembodied voice online. So I have a body and icky bits. So in the cold, dry winter air, my skin peals and cracks, and I get cranky and don't drink enough water. So maybe that's all right.
So maybe, whether my ego-self likes it or not, I'm making a clean break of things.