Friday, October 22, 2010

Notes from the periphery

Yet again I am flicking through the real estate guide, looking for something. I watch myself searching, and I wonder at the persistence of illusion. Why, oh why, do I still seek something that I know isn't there?

I often feel like I am not quite living my life, but instead observing it. I watch myself do things, foolish and wise; I stand on the edge of a ring of mums, listening to them talk in the playground; I eavesdrop on conversations in shops and on the tram; I forever watch my friends, my family, even my kids. With all this observing going on, it's hard to get out of my head, to feel unselfconsciously at home.

Instead, I always feel on the edge of things, always outside looking in. And I feel this about where I live. If only our house was closer to the city, or closer to school; or perhaps in a bigger city where more things happened; or perhaps in a smaller town where I could really sink my teeth into things, well, then I might not feel on the periphery. I might feel in the centre instead.

But I've lived in big important cities. I lived in Washington, where I met the Clintons and lunched at the Cosmos Club from time to time. I knew people who worked at the White House and NASA and even the CIA – and I still felt my nose pressed against the glass as those interesting important people swam around the fishbowl that is DC. I realised then that it wouldn't matter where I lived or what I did; if I didn't feel at the centre of things there, I never will.

As for the other end of the scale, I grew up in churches and imagine small towns might be similar. There is no centre in a church, just people who care and people who don't. And those who care, the ones who look like the centre don't feel like the centre; they usually just feel exasperated, and tired.

If I take a moment to think about how people might perceive me – hosting drinks on a summer evening; braying a cheerful if somewhat flat alto in the choir; telling stories in the schoolyard; listening to kids as they share their news; making suggestions and watching in surprise as a church takes them seriously; connecting A, B and C and having them all for dinner; writing pieces which are beginning to appear in this publication and that: I'm not sure many people would think of me as lurking around the periphery.

This feeling of being outside is not about who my friends are, or where I live. It's certainly not worth changing city, suburb or house for; I know by now it won't go away. Instead, the feeling is about me.

We are all alone; and at times when I watch myself on the outside looking in, this self-awareness, this knowledge of our fundamental loneliness, suffocates me.

When it weighs too heavily I get restless, and flip through the real estate guide in an attempt to avoid it; I talk too loudly and drink too much as I try to fill the space; I panic about all the things I have not done; my demons assail me.

But if I accept its weight, let it settle onto me, and sit with it a while, if I let myself fall into the darkness, I find something else: grace, perhaps, in the recognition that this loneliness is a gift.

The observer's stance, the self-awareness that makes it so hard to settle is what enables me to notice and appreciate what is before me. It motivates me to send love letters into the world; it is the distance I need to write.

And for this gift, so elusive and yet so fundamental; this thing for which I live and breathe: for this, I am overwhelmed by gratitude.

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