The knowledge of yourself will preserve you from vanity.
-Miguel de Cervantes
When I was in high school, I used to sit and draw pictures of my hands in various positions. I spent hours staring at them, the distance between digits. Especially in AP History. Our teacher was the high school football coach, and he liked his history clearcut. Simple. Dates and event names. No analysis or context. He didn’t care much for Whys.
Since the Whys were all I cared about, I got really familiar with my hands.
And besides, I didn’t have to pay attention much in class since the entire lecture involved one of my classmates reading aloud from the book. Invariably, it was an athlete trying to get on the coach’s good graces.
So while I sat there listening to what amounted to the world’s driest amateur book on tape, I drew my hands. And when each drawing was done, I’d treat the hands as a landscape, a sort of playground for tiny stick figures. This one sitting on a nail. Another on my wrist.
This one holding his own tiny hands up high in victory.
Sometimes I’d wonder: Did the stick figure ever stare at his own hands when he was bored or anxious? And did those hands hold details I was oblivious to? Because I was distant and removed. And viewed him as an accessory to my own self-absorption.
Anxiety and Self-Absorption
Self-absorption can look like vanity to the casual observer. Narcissism. Self-Love Gone Wild. But sometimes it’s a lot different than that. Sometimes it’s a form of drawing in. Retracting back into a shell.
It was that way for me. I looked at myself because I couldn’t bear to look at anyone else. I’d buckle under the weight of their eyes staring back at me. My hands were safer because I knew the viewing was one way. Nothing looked back.
Relationships were the same way, through high school and most of my 20s. We spent time together, sure. Shared space. But we didn’t really see each other. Instead, we saw ourselves.
And I saw my flaws best of all. They were familiar, comforting. They continue to comfort. Most of them are still there.
Burn-In and Projection
It was disorienting and painful the first time I really tried to look at someone. To see them.
I was terrible at it — I kept seeing myself in their place. I superimposed the image I’d developed from self-knowledge onto them, in a sort of clumsy copy + paste. Assigned them all my beliefs and my motivations. Like the burn-in you get from staring directly into a bright light.
And they did it back. “That’s not normal, Page,” Seth would say. “People don’t think like that.”
But I thought like that. I was telling the truth. My truth, anyway.
And I strained under the weight of all those eyes staring back at me. The microexpressions that would flash across their faces, inscrutable, ambiguous. Fleeting.
I wondered constantly what others thought of me. I wanted to isolate all the variables. Solve people like equations.
And I always suspected the worst.
Growth Feels Like Weakness When It’s Happening
I’d like to say that there was a clear point when it got easy. A moment that I suddenly stood tall and strong and could look at other people and really see them (or try to).
But it’s not like that. Just like there isn’t a moment at the gym where you jump directly from wimp to beefcake. And like the gym, growth didn’t feel like strength when it was happening. It often felt like failure. Strain. Weakness. Exhaustion. Like muscles that feel like garbage when you’re challenging yourself.
It was messy. Unglamorous.
But it’s been worth it.
Because my own hands may be comfortable. Familiar. But other people? They’re beautiful. And so much more exciting.
Partialism as a Way of Seeing Less
And yet I’m still the girl who focuses on small details. Part of something, rather than the whole.
Partialism, the attraction to a specific part of the body, is an interesting fetish. A lot of people are into feet. Breasts. Butts.
For me? The specific place varies. But typically, I’ll find myself latching onto a very small part of someone and adoring that. It’s different with each person. With Skyspook, I’m fascinated with a 2-inch area on his right hip. It’s gorgeous. Not the left. Nothing wrong with it; it’s just unremarkable to me.
With one former lover, it was the nape of her neck. Another had a wonderful antecubital fossa (the other side of the elbow).
And sometimes, I wonder if that tendency towards partialism is a holdover from the old days, when I couldn’t bear to really see people. A way of limiting my field of vision so I would see less.
Whatever the case, it’s lovely getting lost in details.
My book its out!