Stuart Allen, Bubble #8, 2014, pigment print on rag paper, photo courtesy Stuart Allen
My daughter is writing her college essay about the bubble. That’s the name for our area of town. Don’t drive outside the bubble, your ears might pop, people joke.
Here in the bubble, authority comes cloaked in navy and aviators, guarding the peripheries and major thoroughfares. The country club parking lot steams with Escalades and tanned tennis players. A private dining club fills with women who have slipped into heels and flawless clothes, their perfectly lip-sticked lips sipping Chardonnay.
There’s a dollhouse store filled with mini mansions, tiny lamps, and diminutive place settings. It’s next door to a gourmet meat market, where people pack their coolers with prepared food for wild weekends in the country.
The easiness feels like shuffling paper money in Monopoly. It’s incongruous, like the push-start button on the 3-ton suburban. People seem to play at life.
She wants to get out, she says in her essay; she wants to pierce the bubble with the needle she used to embroider her black backpack with two golden stars. Those stars are like her personality, so sunny and vibrant. I could even say bubbly. Effervescent.
I feel a tinge of defensiveness mixed with melancholy. She will be leaving me here, inside the bubble. This comes out in tears after sipping my own glass of Chardonnay.
There’s more to the bubble, I explain to her. Even though we have made fun of it, the bubble is home.
You’re not the reason I want to leave, she tells me. You’re the person who showed me what’s outside and I want more of it. She lists the reasons: the art shows I’ve taken her to, our trips to New York, the books I push her way. The feminist subject of my Master’s thesis.
Good. That’s how I wanted to raise her. I want the inside of her mind to open out like a road, always leading her to new experiences.
One of the pictures I wrote about in my thesis, Untitled Film Still #21, is of Cindy Sherman dressed as a young woman, wearing a straw hat and suit jacket. She stands in the city with tall buildings looming behind her. She has a worried look on her face. The black and white image shows her from the shoulders up, and is taken from an unsettling angle that mirrors her anxiety. The cheerless monochrome enhances the feeling of isolation. I don’t know the encompassing narrative; maybe she just arrived in the city, maybe she has been harassed.
Sherman is the model in all of her photos. She has a chameleon-like ability to play whatever role she has designed for herself with the aids of costume and set. She is acting the part, and the parts she picks seem archetypal, they are vaguely recognizable but no one is able to quite place where they came from because they are original. Their originality is their eponomy.
In character, Sherman appears separate from her background. She is on the inside, looking out, and there is no harmony between them. This displacement is what charges the image; it is the cause of the emotional current that runs through it. The French word depaysement captures her expression: a change of scene, disorientation, culture shock. She’s captured in a single moment in time, one that hinges the shock being damaging, and the shock being challenging in a good way, making her grow.
In a novel, the details of place can create the mood. Setting affects character; we are shaped by what’s around us. Stories about people who emerge from difficult backgrounds to become huge successes are inspiring because they defy fate. People who live under difficult circumstances are often doomed to never emerge from life’s basic struggles. My daughter wants to defy her fate as well, but she isn’t caught in a cycle of poverty, at least not financially.
Here in the bubble, the grass grows mysteriously, eternally green. Floral fiesta wreaths drop decadent rainbows of ribbon down front doors. Pumpkins turn from orange in October to gold in November. Meanwhile through it all, brilliant blue sky glows through the lacework patterns of the Live Oaks. Their curvy branches reach out across streets and yards like generous giants in this kingdom, so peaceable–for some.
My sister and I both have gay friends who moved to New York. When I visited my friend there this summer, we talked about the people on the street: a burned man, a war widow, a cross-dresser, a fashion maven. Yes, he said, it’s not like anywhere else. Here, you are up close and personal with everyone, you see what they are wearing the expressions on their faces. Their energy spills out onto the cityscape, like a jar of marbles moving in every direction. The tourists trudge like cattle down 5th Avenue, gawking at the spectacle of it all; a local woman brags that she can part them like the Red Sea with her stare.
At home, I stop at a red light and watch the cars file in lines of traffic, moving in an orderly procession. People are cocooned in their tiny cells of air-conditioned serenity, the gleam of their eyes shaded by the tint of their windows.
When she gets there, she will learn that she has taken her lens with her. Even if you escape the place, you can’t escape your mind. This is the tiny room that you see everything from, like a virtual tower, positioned on the top of your body, eyes gazing out like Rapunzel. Maybe that’s the extra layer to that fairy tale, this window that I’ve been looking out of it for forty-six years. I am the master of my room. I can lock myself in, and I can let myself out.
Sometimes the key is warm in the palm of my hand and am able to use it; other times I am lonely for the same thing my daughter craves: the alchemy of community; like-minded people who push themselves, effecting change.
I am meditating now, every day, building space around my thoughts. Body like mountain, breathe like wind, mind like sky, I repeat to myself, to keep my thoughts from clogging my mind like a busy sidewalk. My breath comes in and out and I ride it like a surfer. It feels refreshing, like opening windows in the tower for the breeze to blow through.
I open Thomas Merton’s Asian Journal to a random page, where he writes about the hermits in Tibet, and how they believe their solitude is not for themselves but the whole world. Their retreat and abstinence from life builds merit for all humanity. Isolation breeds ignorance, but perhaps these hermits are such wise men, they are already aware; that’s the reason they’re praying.
My own personal retreat is the life of writer. From my office, I watch the ivy grow on the walls outside. There’s something in the soil here that allows the plant to flourish, curling into itself as it deepens its invisible roots. I never see leaves fall or die, they seem to be the same little green faces of life and sunshine, since we moved in when my oldest was an infant, 18 years ago. I am watching a new line grow up the wall now that she is at college. This silent marker of time, each leaf a memento of growth as she learns French, psychology, and the challenges of modernity.
The artist Cecilia Paredes paints her skin the patterns of her surroundings, so the entirety of her body blends into the background, becoming one with the pattern. Then she photographs herself against the background. It’s another chameleon-type performance, but different than Sherman’s. In Paredes’ photos, the patterns are man-made designs, floral, striped, and decorative, speaking to culture and civility, tasteful wealth. The images are haunting, like the narrative of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” where the bedridden woman gets lost in the patterns, her mind wandering the infinite, manic loops of the design.
In the shell I listened into when I was young, I heard the hum of the future within. Our china cabinet catalogs our grandmothers’ propriety, stacked against the years. Antique plates await the future, parties not yet given. The pattern of life echoes the patterns on these plates, but the tangles of toile cover the space with their embellishments. The pattern subsumes the narrative, reading like a one-liner. There is no deep story, only design for the eye to trace, like a maze. I find the beginning and then the ending all over again. This is the pattern my daughter fears most, the one that stirs her urge to leave.
Like a deceptive veil over the abyss, the design is flattened out and two-dimensional, suffocating any viewer’s participation in whatever story they tell. We cannot simply marvel at the marks. We have receptors that yearn for more, we want to get lost in the wilds of life, snag our skin on the thorns.
Is there any one, real world? I string it together in my mind, standing from my little spot in the bubble. Glimpses of the real emerge in the pile of newspaper on my kitchen counter. Through the photographs of actresses, bare-shouldered in evening gowns, peeks a face of a young refugee boy, in tears as his family boards a train in Croatia. How do we bridge this infinite gap?
She is lucky enough to get to leave home, and shape her mind even further. I’m not taking that for granted. I know she can’t appreciate it until she leaves. But the older I get, the more I understand, the shape of her mind matters more than her ticket out of town. When she is gone, I hope the safety that she now finds suffocating will be a touchstone, and that she will carry it with her. It will remain in the background of her psyche, like a noise she never heard before, until one day when she notices it’s there.