As a dying hurricane flings gusty winds at Seattle, and with them, tree limbs, power lines and a pantheon of multi-colored leaves, everything feels off-kilter. Daylight savings time is about to fall back, autumn has us wriggling in her damp, chilly grasp, and Renée Zellweger is sporting a new face that no one can stop tweeting about. This last turn has emerged between the paparazzi’s cooing over George Clooney’s long-awaited wedding, something I admittedly find irresistible to read about in People.
To the media, I think it mattered little that it was any one particular bride, though she seems lovely, intelligent and spirited, but only that someone, anyone, finally, presented a complete enough package (in Clooney’s eyes, at least) that he might commit. (While it may be true love, my cynicism says that Clooney is a betting man, and at 53, he sees the wisdom of leaving the singles scene on a high note.)
About Zellweger, the host of blog posts, op-eds and commentaries blowing through the media recall the red, yellow and orange leaves cascading outside my window like giant Technicolor snowflakes. Some writers insist that it’s no one’s business what a person does with her face while others use her plastic surgery to lambaste society, suggesting that Zellweger, under emotional pressure to remain beautiful, succumbed to what she believes we demand of her. If she doesn’t, she won’t get work in Hollywood, some say. Certain journalists criticize her for being weak, some take pot shots at both the publishers and readers of magazines for perpetuating the cult of impossible youthfulness, and yet others see Zellweger’s actions as a strike for feminism, both pro and con. A piece in the New York Times sums up what I believe is at the heart of this disturbance, no matter the point of view: “Ms. Zellweger looks beautiful but she does not look like Ms. Zellweger.”
We come to believe that we know a person based on labels: her name, appearance and attire, what she eats and reads, where she lives and works, the vehicle she drives (or doesn’t), her associates, and certainly, her words and beliefs. Over time, we amass enough data points that, as a collective, appear to form a definition of identity. Zellweger’s transformation shows how much we rely on sensory information as a definition of character, but it also shows that these definitions are by no means stable, and that no one views herself the same way that she is perceived by others.
On the drive home just after midnight last night, we spotted a large tree downed by the storm, not yet understanding that the tree had taken down the power in our neighborhood. We pulled up to our parking garage, pressing the button for the gate to no effect. Idling in the driveway, we were told by a man walking his dog that the building had lost power, so we parked on the street and navigated our footpath home by the flashlight app of my iPhone. The streets and buildings were eerily dark, the wind whipping wildly about. With each step, I anticipated cry of hounds in the distance. As we approached home, I felt relieved to see the red glow of the digital lock on the back gate, which meant that we could gain access to our building, but the hallways and stairs were completely dark. It felt like we were the lone survivors of an apocalypse.
Our apartment held an unearthly quiet in the darkness –true darkness– and, for some reason, I expected to find people inside looting our things. What would I do? There was so little that I’d fight for besides life and love; if they wanted my clothes or the red decorative bowl I bought at Pier One ten years ago, they could have it. But my unease, thankfully unfounded, wasn’t really about being robbed. It came from a change in my sensory perception of a place I’ve come to know well. Remove the visual means with which I encounter my home –extinguish the light– and I begin to question its definition as a safe retreat. Fear creeps in. I begin to wonder if there is any place in the world that is truly safe. On the outside, a homeless man shuffles by and looks up at my building, a new apartment complex, as a lush fortress, secure against theft and the wild weather. Which of us is right?
Earlier that evening, I paused in the powder room to look at my face in the mirror. I thought of Zellweger’s surgery and doubted that I would ever consider doing the same. Perhaps that’s because my forehead is still mainly unlined and the crepe paper creases beneath my eyes are superficial, but it’s also because I’ve always pictured myself on the edges. My self-perception of the figure I cut in the world is a quiet and blurry one, maybe even elusive –I don’t believe that I lead with my looks– but this is not necessarily how others perceive me. Whose perception is true?
As a concept, point-of-view has taken center stage as I prepare for National Novel Writing Month, which begins next Saturday, November 1. On that day, and for the 29 thereafter, I’ll appear in the Central Library downtown as I attempt to pen 50,000 words by 11:59 pm on November 30. After a major snag this week, I realized that my perception of what I’m about to do –write a novel as public performance– no longer appears to me as a feat of writing, but one of art installation. This process of planning, designing and implementing A Novel Performance has not been easy, nor has it been as enjoyable as I thought it would be. With a story, I can create, demolish or remodel a given world as I wish it to appear, but in the physical world, I am powerless without the consensus and approval of others. (One might suggest that what I don’t enjoy is the lack of absolute control, or at least, the perception of it…) Nevertheless, as November 1 nears, I must shift my focus once again, this time from installation back writing. Whether I am actually able to effect change in that world is yet another question of perception. Who’s story is it? Who is in control? The performance begins…
Perhaps after all this, Zellweger’s physical appearance is now aligned with a self-perception that she’s long held inside. We squawk about how different she looks, but in her mind, she finally looks right. She’s as relieved about her reflection as the rest of us are about Clooney’s nuptials, sighing as if we are exhausted matchmakers. (At last, we’ve married him off!) At once, the skies clear and turn blue, the winds draw back the carpet of leaves from the sidewalks and we get the opportunity to reassess the world around us, which we believe that we can know.
This week, amidst the swirling leaves and celebrity upheavals, my eye doctor gave me toric contact lenses to try. The visual haloes I’ve become used to, caused by astigmatism, have disappeared. Every word I read appears crisp in ways that words never have before in my left eye. Is this how vision is meant to be, only I didn’t know it? Until now, everything has appeared with a blurry aura that seemed to belong there. This is what sight was for me until a clear circle of plastic, thinned at the top and bottom, changed everything. Now, I’m forced to ask how accurately any of us envision anything, including ourselves.
Last night after dinner, six of us gathered in our friends’ living room to let a homemade Greek meal settle along with the wine we had just enjoyed. As a group, we daydreamed in a way that felt like the dinner parties of my mid-twenties: we talked exuberantly about future plans, what we hoped we’d become, the adventures we hoped to have, places that we wanted to see. Peppered with laugher, our conversation was energetic, full of promise, like the last amber sunset before the blue-gray rain clouds of fall set in.
Spontaneously, one friend said, “When I think about you, the first thing that comes to mind is a writer,” to which another agreed. I paused. This is something I’ve tried to make happen my whole life, in spite of every title I’ve held that has not contained the word writer. As they spent the next minute agreeing with this assessment, I wondered how long my self-perception has been outdated. When had I achieved this? That’s the thing about setting your eyes on a goal, be it beauty, marriage or accomplishment; your vision can become so obscured that you don’t realize when you’ve arrived at the very destination you set out for. You have to look up from the trail markers every once in a while to assess your actual location, and it may look different than it once appeared from far away.
Often, we only know that change has occurred in our lives when someone else alerts us to it — Zellweger looks different and somehow I’ve become a writer. Just because we’re on the inside doesn’t mean that we know everything about who we are or all that we’re capable of. We can look up, down and out, but it is sometimes hard to see clearly within. With that, it’s time to get down to business.
By all means, if you’re near the library next month, please stop by and sit with me a spell; writing implements encouraged but not required. (See A Novel Performance for hours.) If you’d like to talk about writing, stop by on Mondays when I’ll be hosting conversations from 5 to 6 pm in the Chocolati Cafe on Level 3. In the spirit of my friend’s generous and timely observation, the sign next to me will read, “The Writer is IN.”