A Thin Veneer


The lake remains entirely covered by ice. The commercial fishermen have abandoned their series of netted holes, and more than a few hobbyists have waited too long to pack away their shelters, which now rest dubiously on the lake’s diminishing surface. The wind is in the trees and the lake remains eerily still. How can something so large be so quiet? Migrating seabirds skim over the surface in the morning light as if they can sense the movement of tiny fish still drifting about in the water below. With anticipatory grace they fly so low that it appears they are gliding upon the ice itself. A cloud moves in the opposite direction, and for a moment its shadow negates the flashing white of their bodies until they emerge from the opposite side. And the fish below, having stayed awake all winter, find a brief period of reprieve while the ice becomes too thin to afford the weight of men with poles, but remains thick enough to bar the entry of hungry eagles and eager gulls.


I wrote a letter to two brothers today. We’ve been out of touch. Our lives are now drastically different than when we were boys riding our bikes down the trails at the Dead End, composing forts out of fallen trees, swinging out over the river on the rope that hung from a giant elm, and ending the day at the neighbourhood pool. It’s been years since we came to this same lake on a rainy day and set up a tarp out on the beach. We had the whole stretch of it to ourselves and despite the rain and the cold we went out and stood in the water beside the giant rocks where the sand was soft and pulled at our feet until we had sunk so deep we could no longer move them. We laughed and took turns pulling each other out. We laughed for the feeling of freedom and the sense that the world belonged to us. We’ve been out of touch for a long time, but nothing is lost of our history or our connection. I’d be just as happy doing all of those things with them tomorrow as I was over fifteen years ago.


The shadows now cross the blindingly white lake, clipping along at a tremendous speed. Time passes in immeasurable ways. The seconds forever split into smaller and smaller denominations, never arriving at a final indivisible fragment. It expands forever larger, larger than the years I’ve known, beyond centuries and eons, beyond anything, simply beyond. And here I exist in an infinite moment, as seamlessly tethered to my past as I am to the years that preceded me, as I am to the future when I will not breathe.


I wrote a letter to two brothers today, and in it I recalled my youth as if it were a story I had once read. And they, the two brothers, were characters alongside me. We had our adventures and our misadventures and along the plot we often faltered, and from it we often veered. And now, upon recollection these moments become as real to me as any moment I have had within this past year, or even those I had just this morning. Time stretches out and simultaneously compresses inward without limitation. I exist within it. I always have. Like time, matter cannot be created or destroyed. It can only be reimagined. I look at the delicate lines of the unique patterns imprinted on my fingertips. They are constantly regenerating the same designs, forgeries since before my birth, constantly expiring like every other cell in my body. None of the cells that currently make up my body were there seven years ago. I’m entirely remade, and the skin cells that carefully align to form my fingerprints are composed of matter that may have once belonged to a dinosaur, or an ocean, or a rock buried deep underground. Once, each fragment of my body belonged to a star that expired long ago. I am a composition of used parts. I am a subject of time and space, willing to bend, and in my fluidity I am not so easily defined.


For most of my life, I have called myself an introvert. For most of my life I have acted according to this name. From my family, I often withdrew as a child. Slipping out the door into the backyard, I would climb a tree and sit in the spring air looking out over suburban rooftops, listening for birds, and losing my thoughts to some childish fantasy of living in the woods with a gift for communicating plainly with its creatures. My fantasies were of solitude, and among peers I was quiet and unlikely to take the lead. Aloneness became a part of my identity, and one of which I was often proud. So proud, that at times, I resisted a connection with others for fear of betraying the identity I had begun to depend on, even when the pull to connect was far truer than the imperative to resist it.


My penchant for aloneness remains a cherished aspect of my identity. But with it, comes proclivities of which I must remain keenly aware. When I cling to the thought that I am who I am only by behaving in a certain, carefully bridled way, I miss the opportunity to experience new things. I confine myself to a rigid idea and limit myself from infinite possibilities. Though my pull to solitude is genuine and healthy, my stubbornness in remaining there past my due is entirely selfish. Healthy solitude becomes manipulative aloofness. Even when I have no conscious intention of manipulating those on the periphery of my life, I do so when my solitude is not my genuine need. And, what is perhaps worse, when I remain in solitude beyond my need for solitude, and yet still cleave to the belief that my identity depends on this solitude, I manipulate myself.


Aloneness does not always denote loneliness. But often it does. Afraid to sacrifice my isolation, I have withdrawn from people in my life too aggressively. I’ve done this under the notion that I had to preserve something that I value, but the value of that thing is negated when my separation becomes severe and misanthropic. Solitude is a gift. It allows me to move inward and connect with my soul. It allows me to observe the world from a detached perspective. It allows me a quality of rest that I do not otherwise find. It allows me to remember who I am.


When I make the mistake of seeing solitude not as a gift but as a thing that defines me, when I take it on as a costume to hide myself from the world, I lose its meaning and suffer loneliness and isolation. I contort its purpose so that it offers me an escape, when its true meaning is to teach me how to better connect. In loneliness I begin to believe that I do not deserve to connect. I begin to believe that I am unworthy of love. To cope with this feeling, I withdraw further. I decide that I don’t need other people, a sentiment that bears truth, but which, expressed from this posture, is actually a claim that I am somehow separate from others, which isn’t true. My connection to others is inherent and invulnerable. My awareness of this connection, however, is not so absolute or constant. Only when I embrace the knowledge that my connection cannot be broken will solitude take on its true meaning, which is to provide a refuge in which to raise my own awareness of the interconnectedness of all life. Solitude then does not separate me from the people in my life; it allows me to see that separation is not possible.


Too often, I have waited with an attitude of aloofness for the attention of others. This is rarely a conscious decision, but a behavior I must have learned when I was young. Rather than admitting my desire to connect in real ways, I have withheld myself in the hope that my absence would elicit intrigue. Others might be more controlling, demanding the attention of others, knowing that if they speak loud enough, they will be heard. Others might present themselves as victims knowing that the compassionate will rush to their aid and they will feel loved. We all want to feel connected. Our delusion is that we are not connected and that we are dependant on manipulating others and ourselves in order to experience connection. We lure one another for attention, or we demand it. We present ourselves in careful ways in the hope that we will be accepted. We follow the cues that society offers knowing that others will follow them also, knowing that we need only ascribe to the social norm to know that we will not be alone. We cower to connect. We strain to connect. We contort to connect. We lie to connect. We are desperate to connect.


What I loved most about my relationship with the brothers to whom I wrote a letter today was that with them, I did not confine myself to some idea that I had about my identity. I used to look at my behavior with them as being a side of myself. Now I see that, with them, I was just relaxed. The parts of me that I withheld for fear of judgment, for fear of being seen differently than the avatar I so carefully presented, were finally allowed room to play. These things did not always come out in healthy ways, but with these brothers I was at least safe to blunder, knowing that my connection to them was not dependent on a carefully composed posture. We were ridiculous at times, rarely serious, sometimes irresponsible. I wrote them a letter today with the unveiled intent to connect.


The ice is thin now that separates the birds from the fish. When the ice finally melts, the eagle, patiently soaring above the lake, will swoop down upon the water and from it he will retrieve his prey. His talons will sink into its flesh and he will carry it away from the water where its life will become his own. Seen as violence, this is terrible. The eagle does not appear noble at all but tyrannical. And the fish can be seen only as a victim. But if we can see through the violence inherent in all nature, if these two creatures can be reimagined as ancient friends, this reunion takes on a quality of depth and connection, wherein the fish, trapped for months beneath the ice is at last offered an opportunity to transcend his former identity and become one with the eagle who soars above the earth. The fish – or rather the form of the fish – dies, but his life continues.


Maybe it’s a stretch to suggest that the connection between the eagle and the fish is anything but hostile and terrifying. But when I think back to the moments in my life when I have connected most truly with a friend, something has always had to die in order for this to happen. Something of my ego has to be dropped. Rather than attempting to harness others’ perceptions of me by aloofness, or identifying myself as a victim, or by domination, I can instead offer myself in absolute honesty and know that from that place of vulnerability a true depth of connection can occur. From that place, I can be seen beyond my fabrications.

– C



One comment

  1. I identify with much you have written here. As a gay child growing up in a society ignorant of the the truth of sexual orientation and hesitant to accept children as “sexual beings” I learned at an early age to fear abandonment and felt the savagery of other children toward my “difference”, my love of beauty and disregard for aggression and “toy trucks”. Through that experience I learned to become aloof so as to endure the constant fear of physical danger and alienation and the ever present verbal abuse. I too enjoy solitude and appreciate your journey to acceptance of it’s part in your life. Fear, isolation, manipulation, ego. And then shame:real and undue. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings. I have the portrait of Hamoudi and Suleiman hanging above my piano and every time I look at them I wonder if they are still alive after the events in Syria. And I think of you and your talent. How nice it is to read what surely is expressed in you photography. Best regards, R.

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