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Good Letters

I’m doing most of my walking after dark these days as night comes a little earlier. Night walking always makes me feel lighter, almost weightless, so it seems like I’m walking faster than I do in daylight, and since the scenery no longer differentiates one day’s walk from another, my thoughts are in a tunnel. I’m ageless and united in memory and feeling with almost every dark walk I’ve ever taken.

Tonight that weightless feeling, which somehow never blesses me in daylight, reminded me of being about fourteen years old, “running away,” barefoot, in the dark. I’d slammed the door on my way out, not taking time to assess my readiness for a new life on the go, nor the environment into which I was fleeing. Turned out it was raining.

But I did succeed literally at running away, up on the balls of my bare feet. I remember feeling like a gazelle, and somehow all the little pebbles that gather on the side of the road didn’t hurt. I ran about three miles, and then I ran back home, pumped up on romance and adrenaline, only to find out that no one had worried about me, which was disappointing.

In hindsight, the experience of no one worrying about me—because I really was always fine—has been one of my life’s hallmarks and great letdowns.

I staged my own suicide once: Having told my parents they would miss me when I was gone, I locked myself in the bathroom, put a razor blade in a strategic place so that it could be seen if someone wanted to look in the crack between the door and the floor. There, they would also find my supine body, my hands limp and lifeless.

I lay there for hours, but no one knocked on my locked door. No eyeballs peered into the crack. I got bored. I cleaned up my mess, wrote a couple death poems, and lived another thirty years.

I never really wanted to die, but for some reason, I needed someone to witness my death in order to make life worth living. Or rather, I needed someone to witness my life, and if they couldn’t see it, maybe they’d pay attention to my death.

No dice.

So, I fabricated the audience I desired.

This summer, there was a pool party for my kids who did summer media club. I went to the pool as well and spent most of the time sitting far away from the media club and reading The New York Times Review of Books. I felt instantly self-conscious reading it in public, especially in my town, which has a reputation for being unlikely to read The New York Times Review of Books.

Actually, I feel self-conscious reading The New York Times Review of Books in private too, always asking myself—Am I up for this? Do I have a right to read this periodical? Because there is a literary audience in my mind and it’s terribly unforgiving, criticizing not only what I write, but how I read.

And I realized, that in general, I prefer a kinder internal audience, one that follows me to church and watches me being an okay mother to my two-year-old who slaps me in the face during the homily. She’s so patient! I like the way she’s learned not to give such negative behaviors too much importance. Or at the grocery store: Look at her smell the cantaloupe stem to discern whether or not it’s ripe. She really knows her melons.

The question I have subconsciously asked myself is not Who will observe this sunset with me? but rather Who will observe me having deep thoughts about the sunset?

Berger says, “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Feminism has given us many tools to help alleviate the pressures of the male gaze. But my problem is something different: a strange triangulation, where I am both object and observer. And in my mind I can be, not only the object ideal, like a very fine vase, but also the ideal critic, the supreme vase aficionado. The fact of the real me doesn’t figure much—until, perchance, I catch sight of myself watching myself, and then Real Me feels like a turd.

The male gaze is one thing, and to be honest, it would be nice if I still had it. For the tyranny of the self-gaze, however, I often find myself at a loss.

Dear God, relieve me of kindly imaginary strangers, and vicious ones too. Relieve me of all thought that anyone anywhere gives a fart about the things I’m doing. But mostly, relieve me of the desire to be seen.

I guess the question is, can I be satisfied to go unobserved in life or in death?

To abandon my internal audience is to consent to the reality of my exile, to how lonely I really am, to how much I cannot do on my own, and to how much suffering is entailed, not only in the solitary nature of most of what I do and think, but also, in being in communion with others who share my frailties.

In reality, I’m not a very patient mother, but I do a good impression of one when I’m in church. There is only one who can know the act, the self-doubt, the guilt of my real parenthood, hidden beneath the soothing affirmations of my imaginary audience. Only God—whatever he is—sees the emotions I’m trying not to feel, the truths about myself I don’t want to acknowledge.

The only way to be free from the false audience—the tyrannical self-gaze—is to let God become more real—consent to let him be the one who sees.


Photo credit: Shannon Kringen, Creative Commons

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Written by: Elizabeth Duffy

Elizabeth Duffy writes at Patheos: Elizabeth Duffy: Perspectives on Catholic Life, Family, and Culture and at She is a contributor to Living Faith/ Daily Catholic Devotions, and has work published or forthcoming from OSV, On Faith, The Catholic Educator, and Image.

1 Comment

  1. Yvonne Hilton on August 29, 2016 at 8:39 am

    So glad I found this piece. Our priest told me recently, “All you need to know is that you are a beloved daughter of God.” It gets me through lots of those “self gazing” moments.

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