NOW THAT MY SON AND DAUGHTER’S BRAINS HAVE LONG-LASTING MEMORY RECORDERS, I CAN FINALLY MAKE FILMS. That is to say that their memories will one day be running intermittent loops of how to act in light of dad, how to think like dad thinks, and what I did wrong that (sorry kids) and possibly forgot about but somehow their little brain dendrites locked onto; they’ll remember what dad was doing when they were busy playing and I thought they weren’t listening, or what it was like to ask me questions, or hold my hand, or my brand of discipline versus their mother’s or teacher’s or grandparents’ or other parents’, or what it was like to constantly walk in on me in the bathroom at any time. Almost all of this can be said for my decade-plus years of students, who were always observing the observer.
The question here is: Who are you when no one else is looking? Aside from asking my parents, wife, students, former roommates, and people in close proximity who I didn’t know were looking, I’m all alone in answering this, fittingly.
As an only child, I had years of practice being myself when no one was looking, and, thanks to great musical and theatre training, plenty of years of also performing on stage and in the classroom, when others were looking. Thankfully I didn’t develop the unique narcissism that plagues many only children, but I did develop a sense that I’m supposed to be great, for some reason, and that odd guilt in part drives me, along with a propensity to perform. That might be generational, however, but it’s a stuck-part of who I am, although I fight hard against such unnatural pressures. “There is nothing you must be, and there is nothing you must do,” goes my favorite Zen saying, which is one of the hardest ideas to grasp and internalize in a world of heavy must-dos and who-be’s. Everyone is someone, right? But everyone can’t be greater than everyone else. So you must be great at being you. Or something like that.
The hardest part of acting on stage is when you’re not delivering lines – so you’re just there, acting like a character – standing like a character – breathing like a character, waiting for lines. The You that is really You is the You who is inside your actions; you are also the sum of your reactions; you are as complex and simple as the next observer and the thoughts you think when you’re reflecting on your performance, either as a character or as your character, whoever that is. You are complex, and multitudinous, and yet you and I are only a little loose dirt.
When no one is looking I’m practicing for when they are, but also trying to enjoy being alone, which I do enjoy. As a writer I’m hoping for an audience who wants to read what I’m thinking about when no one else is looking; as a teacher and coach I want to be observed when no other teacher or administrative person is observing, because that’s when I’m most natural and hopefully most effective and true; as a parent I want to be present at all times, and kind and smart with my kids, even if they aren’t paying any attention (sometimes I can actually leave the room and they don’t notice!); and as a husband I want to be the same loving friend at all times, whether we’re catching a quick conversation while the kids are distracted, or whether we’re hiding from the kids to be alone together, or, on that rare occasion we get to go out, I want to be the ideal and imperfect person my wife wanted to – and did – marry.
But when no one is actually looking, I don’t want to just be preparing to not be alone. I want to be, and I am, hooked into the same channels I’ve been locked into since my memory-making machine first kicked in years ago. “I’m the same as I when I was six years old,” goes the lyric from Modest Mouse, and I agree. I feel the same “me” as I remember feeling at age three and thirteen and thirty-three. There is something – some layered creature that I feel – is – me, all the time, anywhere, with or without another. My wit + intelligence + memories + proclivities + kindness + anger + curiosity + earnestness + ability to function in a group + a bunch of x, y, and z factors = a good base for who I am, and then how I react when no one is looking gives me insight into what I truly am, beyond just being a good and kind person. I actually aim to be the same whether someone is looking or not, and I’m well aware of who might be looking.
But who you are transcends easy Venn diagrams and a whole existence based on one choice.
THE SINGING UNIVERSE – There is a strange occurrence that happens now and then when I’m laying down or my brain is on screensaver, and I’ve felt it since I started making memories. I feel this (and can picture it) sensation of a large index finger and thumb gently rubbing together right above the Earth. I can feel it even now, just thinking about how to describe it. Stridulation is the term for it in insects and birds (it’s what they actually do with their wings and legs), and since forever I will – now and again – get this “zone” feeling which is quite comfortable, akin to deep prayer and meditation. It’s as if I’ve folded into myself and am floating in space while the world’s smallest violin plays.
I only know a few people who have experienced this, and, along with my “natural state” or personality traits I’ve felt since I was a toddler, I feel like this is a specific imprint that I have – a definite part of who or what I am – maybe a left over circadian rhythm stuck inside my chemical process since in utero, or maybe a sensation I developed at the right time for my brain to calm itself by this spaced-out feeling. I will call it the Sound of the Universe, because I imagine this is what it feels like to be sleepily floating toward the edge of the Earth’s exosphere, or on the edge of a Solar Wind, or somewhere, floating, safe, and alone. It is a small, secret part of my identity, and happens mostly when no one is looking. It’s odd, and grand, and part of the me that is me and possibly you, if we have this in common.
Life is full of nobody looking at you, most of the time, most places, even on Google Earth. Everyone needs to be alone as much as possible in order to recharge and center. Sometimes that centering comes when there’s a crowd, and sometimes it happens in the quieter moments of meditation while watching reruns or doing nothing (there’s much to be said for doing nothing, as it were). A third of your life is sleeping and dreaming, when only your own subconscious and unconscious abilities are watching what your other subconscious and unconscious talents are doing or undoing. The other two-thirds of your life are spent with minimal watching, because most people are observing themselves, or the 2D characters on tv or in books. Maybe no one is watching you because there are just too many people to watch. That might be a good thing.
Who you are, in public and private, is a grandiose thing, whatever it is.
And sometimes it happens – a perfect development of who you actually are – only when the children are watching or listening, making films in their perfect little brains.
So who are you when no one else is looking?
This is the first in a series of posts where I answer Official Life Questions in essay form – the same questions I’ve been asking my students for fourteen years. I plan on answering all the OLQs I’ve given my students over the years, and a new blog will soon appear dedicated just to this writing program. Please Share this post and write your own!