Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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My wife once requested we make love in front of an open window. Those were her words as she reclined on the sill and studied her naked body in the light of the sun: Let’s make love. I want my wife with a lunatic desire, but I hesitated before accepting her proposition. It was a Saturday afternoon, and many of our neighbors were working in their yards or relaxing on their porches. Two roofers were laying shingles on a house not far from ours. She repeated the invitation with added urgency. I replied, Someone will see us. Then she touched herself and replied, Maybe they need to. Discourse over. For the rest of the time we lived in that neighborhood, we debated the extent to which our activity had been witnessed. My wife believed we’d gotten away clean; I had doubts. Our neighbors never said a word, but whenever I talked to them, I detected a nearly imperceptible gleam in their eyes, the smallest piece of light. It said, I saw you.
I would rather watch than be watched. Perhaps this is why I’m drawn to the paintings of Edward Hopper. No one is better than Hopper at turning you into a secret spy. No, not a spy, since a spy is too practiced in the art of surveillance. Rather, Hopper’s paintings make you feel like you’ve gone out into the city for a walk, possibly after an argument with someone you love, and you’ve turned a corner and found yourself looking at strangers who, like you, suffer from an unexplainable loneliness. Nighthawks, Pennsylvania Coal Town, Automat — whenever I return to these paintings, I can’t help but impose a narrative on their subjects, and once this happens, I feel two things. First: I don’t belong here. Second: I don’t want to leave. And so I watch.
Childhood could’ve been decent if not for all the people watching me. I didn’t yet know terms like “social anxiety” or “introverted personality.” All I knew was that whenever I went somewhere — school or church or some scrubby little field built to host a barely enjoyable sport — all eyes seemed aimed, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, at me. I hated those eyes. I preferred home. I preferred to be alone and, if possible, reading. When I expressed these preferences, I received an abundance of misguided advice: You’re handsome, well-spoken, and likable, said my mother. I don’t know why you’re not more confident. My sister’s read was even farther off the mark: Girls don’t like snobs. Only my father delivered an opinion in line with reality. It came on the night of my first school dance: I was pacing the street in front of our house, waiting for my date to arrive and looking like a man recently sentenced to death. My father called out from the porch, Relax. No one’s going to be looking at you. He gave me a moment to consider this, then said the most encouraging thing anyone has ever said to me: You’re not that interesting.
Back when I was a teacher, I attended a conference where they made everyone answer one of those icebreaker questions designed to generate baseline familiarity among strangers. The question was this: If you could have any superpower, what would it be? This being a collection of educators, I expected a diversity of replies, but nearly everyone gave the same answer: the power to fly. Outliers included a pair of coaches who chose super strength and a middle-school guidance counselor who said healing. I was the last person to answer. Invisibility, I said, after which the group members stared as if waiting for me to say more. But I just looked at a crack in the linoleum and thought about something I had read earlier that day: the scene from the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus rubs spit into the eyes of a blind man. I would rather do this — think about things I have read — than explain myself to strangers, which is one of the many reasons I got out of teaching. Had I possessed the desire to speak, I would have told my fellow teachers that I’m not overly impressed by super strength, or flight, or even healing. But to move through the world like a ghost nobody sees — there’s no truer form of power. Invisibility. Final answer.
After Jesus spit into the eyes of the blind man at Bethsaida, He asked the man, “Do you see anything?” The man looked around and, still partially blind, replied, “I see people. They look like trees walking around.” Only after Jesus prayed for him a second time did the man fully recover his sight. This is singular. Nowhere else in the Gospels does Jesus have to try twice before delivering a miracle. Why did all other forms of defect — all those crippled legs and possessed minds and even Lazarus, who was four days dead and gone — respond so willingly to Christ’s first word? Why is the eye the only part of us that demands a double miracle? Anyone who tells you they know the answer to this question is a liar. Anyone who tells you there is no answer is a fool.
The first time I faked sick I was eight. I told my mother my stomach hurt, and she believed me. This allowed me to spend the entire day in bed reading. With my parents at work and my siblings at school, our house grew quiet as a monastery. I built a cave out of my covers, crawled into it, and in the muted blue light read from cover to cover an illustrated copy of The Hobbit. It was (and still is) one of the best days of my life. It was so good that when my parents came to check on me that evening, I stayed in the cave and pretended to be asleep. Even when my mother sat down on the bed and said my name, even when she placed her hand on my forehead, I kept my eyes closed, secure in the knowledge that no one, not even she, could see through my performance. The next morning my mother asked if I felt good enough to go to school. I had already built the cave and supplied it with snacks, a flashlight, and a copy of Hatchet. I looked her straight in the eye and said, Absolutely not. I’m even worse than yesterday.
In Hopper’s Pennsylvania Coal Town a man stands alone on a small plot of lawn between two houses. It is late evening, and though he holds a rake as if engaged in yard work, he is not actually working. He has stopped and is staring into the lighted space between the two houses, as if watching someone. But who? We cannot (and never will) see. All we can do is watch him as he watches. As in so many Hopper scenes, the effect is ambiguous. Sometimes I look at the man and think, if I called to him, he would turn to me and smile. We would stand together on that lawn, in the warmest light Hopper ever painted, and we would talk like father and son. Other times I look at him and think that even if I knew his name and called it, the best I could hope for would be the false courtesy he might offer a passing stranger, after which he would turn around again in order to watch someone more interesting. Sometimes you want to be invisible. Sometimes you need a friend.
I once taught across the hall from a conspiracy theorist. His name was Pepper, and, like me, he became a teacher because there isn’t much else to do for someone who dreams of sitting around talking about sentences. Having done extensive research on surveillance capitalism, Pepper was convinced our administrators had bugged his office, his car, and even his personal phone. This meant that on Friday nights, instead of attending the official English-department happy hour, he and I would drive miles into the country to drink beer on the dock of a little no-name lake, a location that made Pepper feel safe, though even in the country he could not escape the feeling that he was being surveilled. I once saw him chase a possum into the woods, and when he returned, sans possum, he told me how spy agencies in India use spider monkeys to gather intel. My friendship with Pepper was fine until the night we drank too much and he said, Tell me the truth — are you working for them? He was not overly convinced by my profession of innocence, and after that night we went our separate ways. Here’s the twist, though: Years later, after both Pepper and I had left the profession, it came out that our administrators had bugged everyone’s phones. In fact the majority of Pepper’s theories ended up being true, including the one about secret cameras being installed in the restrooms. I have tried, ever since, to be gracious with those whose anxieties surpass my own.
I quit teaching on account of a guilty conscience: I loved the books more than I loved the students. The kids knew it, the parents knew it, even the janitors knew it. Friends recommended I apply to graduate school and become a professor. This was sound counsel, so I treated it the way I treat all sound counsel: I ignored it. Instead I secured the most mindless job there is, insurance, where I spent more than half of every workday writing sentences instead of filing claims. I was happy as a monk in his monastery until my boss caught on and fired me. The good news: there was another insurance company less than a mile away. I drove there and was hired immediately, and I now sit in a new cubicle, happy as a monk once more, and write my sentences in utter tranquility. Is any of this behavior ethical? No. Yet I regret none of it. I can’t shake this greed for language, and the world doesn’t need another pretender.
Here is a horror story: I was seven and having dinner with my family when I looked up and saw a face pressed against the bay window behind our table. The face belonged to a white man with bright blue eyes and patches of gray stubble on his sunken cheeks. Dad, I whispered, someone’s watching us. I expected my father to get his gun and confront the intruder, or my mother to call the police, or some kind (any kind!) of terror to be expressed. But what happened instead was my father said, Eat your food. That’s just Mr. Stiles. My mother was equally unconcerned. Don’t look at him, she said, spearing a potato with her fork. He’ll be gone in a minute. And he was gone in a minute, but he didn’t stay gone. Mr. Stiles reappeared several months later, this time after dinner, to stand at the window and watch us watch TV. He showed up one final time — that is, that we noticed — on Christmas Eve, when he stayed for more than an hour while we made a fire, drank hot chocolate, and sang carols. I remember looking up halfway through “Silent Night,” just as my mother, who had a voice like Billie Holiday, sang, All is calm, all is bright. I wanted to believe this, but as long as those eyes were in the window, I struggled simply to breathe.
If you look at Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks long enough, you will feel invited to construct a narrative, not only for the three patrons of the diner, but also for the busboy, and for the sleeping city, and for all the owners of all the cars that should be (but are not) parked on the street outside. This is Hopper’s best trick: to make you feel like you are the only one watching, a privilege that comes with the responsibility to provide these people with a story. This means you can look at the woman in the red dress for as long as you’d like. But first tell me why she’s so damn sad.
No one thinks about watching and being watched more than Christians, who believe in a God who sees all people all of the time. This belief can heighten your sense of accountability, but it can also turn life into a kind of performance. I know this because I was raised a Christian. I was taught there’s not a sparrow on earth who falls outside of God’s sight. I was taught that God’s eye reaches where no one else’s can, down past muscle and bone, down to the very center of your soul. I was six when I asked where God lived. My mother said, Heaven. And when I asked where heaven was, she pointed up, which led me to conclude that the sky was just a window between God’s home and ours. I asked her, Does God sleep? No, my mother replied. Never. For this reason, as a teenager, I had to lower my blinds at night before touching myself — not because I feared that a neighbor would see me, but because I would imagine God’s face pressed up against the pane of the sky, the clouds of His breath fogging up the glass.
Now a breakup story: I dated a girl in college who told me, The eyes are the windows to the soul. Katie was her name. Katie with the blue eyes, who received on a daily basis compliments about how pretty her eyes were. Her blue eyes were pretty, but they were also intense. The moment you entered a room, they locked on to you and did not let go. This was especially true during sex, when, regardless of position, she pursued unflinching eye contact. I am certain that many men would find this arousing, but I dreaded it and eventually confessed to her how uncomfortable it made me. At which point Katie turned those horrible blue peepers on me and said, You have intimacy issues. I said, That’s not untrue, but eyes creep me out, so how about we look somewhere else some of the time, OK? She laughed at this and dispensed that aphorism about eyes being soul-windows. In the fight that followed, she posed this question: Don’t you think it’s important that we have access to each other’s souls? I called her the following day and ended the relationship. In general I believe it’s better to break up with someone in person, but in the case of blue-eyed Katie, I had to forgo such decencies.
Eyes are not windows. They’re actually tiny cameras. Light enters through the cornea, then passes through the lens. After that, the rods configure form and shape, leaving the cones to sort out texture and color. Things get tricky when the light reaches the retina. I can’t pretend to understand it: Something about the rays being refracted and inverted. Something about perceived images being converted into electric signals to be relayed to the brain through the optic nerve. I’m too grossed out to pursue further research, but the takeaway is that something gets lost in the translation of reality to image. By the time your eye converts light into signals, the reality it’s trying to capture has already moved on. Remember this the next time you have an opportunity to have sex with someone you love in front of an open window: Your neighbors aren’t really seeing you. At best they leave with an image of the past.
Plato and his cave. Saint Paul and his dark glass. But also my sophomore-year roommate, who used to smoke copious amounts of weed and say things like You can’t prove that this is not a dream. They’re all correct in a uselessly philosophical kind of way. No one knows what the hell we’re looking at when we look at the world, writers least of all. You see the ground beneath your feet and hope it’s not a trick. You see the faces that you love and hope, phantoms or not, that they’ll still be around tomorrow. You believe but do not know. Living itself is an act of faith.
My wife and I once received a very expensive camera as a Christmas gift. It was only a matter of time before one of us, probably her, proposed that we use the camera to record ourselves making love. And so we did. We made our very own sex tape. The lighting was poor, and, since neither of us bothered to learn the camera’s settings, our video came out strange and grainy. It wouldn’t win any awards; and yet, as time passed, we enjoyed watching it together, saying predictably inane things like Look at how thin we were! and We haven’t tried that in a while, have we? I submit this indecent memory because of what happened the other day: It was our anniversary, and I decided to surprise my wife by coming home early from work. When I arrived, the house was completely quiet. Flowers in hand, I checked room after room until I found her on the bed in our guest room. The television was on, and she was watching our sex tape. She was naked from the waist down and touching herself, so lost in the act that she didn’t register my presence. I did what anyone would have done: I pulled out my phone and recorded her. The original movie doesn’t do much for me, except maybe as nostalgia, but the second movie — the one where I’m watching her watch us — could be the sexiest thing I’ve ever laid eyes on.
Being a Christian is harder than being a writer, since it means the willful acceptance of ideas that are luminous and disturbing. Such as these lines from Psalm 139:
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence? . . .
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
An omniscient eye that sees darkness the same as light? Think on that the next time you’re trapped in a group of cold-eyed strangers asking you to break the ice.
Comic books, fantasy books, books on how to survive being lost in the wilderness — if not for them, I would not have survived the awful staring eyes of childhood. Books were the cure for the eyes. They let you look as long as you wanted but never once looked back. They knew you better than the people whose job it was to know you. No one wants to say it, but it’s true: people, even the best ones, will break your fucking heart. If something must be the window to the soul, let it be books.
Even with books, childhood was still a howling stretch of loneliness. As an expert on the matter, I feel qualified to say there is a misunderstanding about the true nature of loneliness. Most people think loneliness is feeling alone in a crowded room and wishing someone would notice you. It’s not. That feeling is, if anything, a diminished form of hope. That feeling seeks and, in time, usually finds connection. True loneliness is feeling like everyone in the room is looking at you, but even if they looked all night, even if they crossed the room and asked about your favorite band, they still wouldn’t know a single thing about you. Which makes loneliness, more than anything else, the basis for faith: you don’t believe because you need to be seen; you believe because you want to be known.
I take it back. Stick with people, not books. The vast majority will discourage you, but a few might save you.
I lied when I said I want to be invisible. Likely it’s the opposite, since everyone who writes, on some level, craves visibility. Or maybe it’s not the opposite but both. Maybe I write because I want visibility and invisibility, each on my own terms. I want you to accept these paragraphs as photographs from my mind, and I want these photographs to tell you something useful about me. Yet I don’t want you to see me. I want, in the end, for you to have faith that I have something to tell you, something that, when the time is right, will appear to you as a clue. And if you think I’m expecting the same out of you, you’ve guessed correctly. Let’s trade photographs.
My wife and I have a game we use to kill time in restaurants: We begin by watching the other customers and picking the one who looks the most interesting. Then we study our mark until we have enough details to give him or her a name. For instance: The sad-looking young man eating soup in the corner by himself. That’s Malachi. Once the name has been assigned, we begin building a backstory, starting with his reason for being in the restaurant on that particular night: Malachi is here because he’s a PhD candidate at the local seminary — hence the bag under his table swollen with books and the notes he’s scribbling on the napkins from the dispenser. Why all the notes? Good question. Because his thesis defense (which contains a theological argument on transubstantiation that he never truly believed in and that now seems comical in its reliance on third-century mysticism) is less than a week away. But why does he write such notes here, in a mediocre Italian restaurant? Because his wife, a third-shift ambulance driver who has worked doubles for the past year in order to put Malachi through school, requires absolute silence in order to rest. But doesn’t the seminary have a campus library? Now you’ve touched on the true problem. He can’t study at the seminary library because for several months now he has been having an affair with the librarian, a young Methodist woman from a small town in eastern North Carolina who, unbeknownst to Malachi, is carrying his baby, and who, after much prayer and deliberation, has decided to confess the affair — first to the dean of students and then to Malachi’s wife. No wonder Malachi hasn’t touched his soup. No wonder he moves like a man who’s just read his own obituary.
After we’ve tackled the basic backstory, my wife and I move on to the stranger’s childhood wounds and searing regrets, major phobias and minor tics, thoughts on time travel, secrets, favorite movies, theories on extraterrestrial life, things they’re supposed to love but actually hate, things they’re supposed to hate but actually love, fetishes, views on late-stage capitalism, position (if any) in the current political continuum, the song they want played at their wedding and, if there’s time before our food arrives, the song they want played at their funeral. I once explained this game to a friend, a non-writer, who said, You and your wife are really fucking weird. I didn’t much care for his tone, nor for the self-righteousness that flickered so plainly in his eyes, so I told him about the time my wife and I fucked in the window. I spared no detail. He listened to the whole story and left immediately afterward. We have not spoken since. There’s such a thing as too much detail.
An early Hopper painting, Automat features a woman sitting alone at a table with a cup of coffee. Behind her is a night-blackened window that, instead of framing a view of the street, reflects two ghostly rows of light fixtures. What I appreciate about this painting is its impenetrability. Like so many Hopper scenes, this one invites, then denies your narrative speculations. For instance, the woman has removed only one glove. Why just one? This asymmetry has generated a diverse set of banal theories: she is distracted; she is grieving; she is hurried; she is cold; she is in purgatory. All of these are defensible, but none brings us any closer to who she is or, more importantly, why she looks so sad. I bring this up because at some point you will be tempted to ask me how all these photographs are connected. You will say, Why these memories? Why not others? What’s the connection here? Please recall the blank face of the one-gloved woman in Automat as you hear me reply, You tell me.
Last word on childhood: If the eye is a camera, and memories are photographs, then the past is ours to arrange in whatever order best ensures our survival. Which means that the strange man who looked through our window on Christmas Eve might not have been a man at all but rather a play of light against the glass. Or that all the eyes that seemed cold could’ve been just as lonely as mine. Or, finally, that the reason God is always watching is because, when it comes to His children, He refuses to miss a single moment. Look over your shoulder. Is anyone there to advise you against these revisions? We have to remember that all scenes are invitations for narrative, and that whatever doesn’t improve a story can and must be cut.
You have the photograph of my wife naked in the window. You have Pepper and Mr. Stiles and Katie with the blue eyes. I even gave you the photo of me as a kid in the blanket cave. What I’m saying is this: You have enough. Enough to arrange what has been provided into a sequence, or a collage, or even a story. This is what I am inviting you to do, and I would not ask if I did not believe that you are perfect for this job. Although I have looked at these photographs all my life, I know I am missing something. It’s possible that the longer I look, the more hidden the secret becomes. This is why I am reaching out to you. Because I feel certain that you alone can see it and tell me what it is.