Here I am, as always, writing from the shadows. I am at the furthest edge of the darkest corner of the giant pond of talented storytellers. I have no distinguishing markings. I am not an adorable rainbow trout of a writer like Suzanne Collins or Chuck Wending. Even little kids can see one of them and tell you right away the breed and bearing of such a creative fish. I am not the underwater monster of my hero, Stephen King, monolithic in size and staggering to the mind. Nope. Keep looking deeper and further. I am beneath the silty slime, feeding and breeding with the other bottom-feeders, just looking for a way to get out of the murk and find a patch of water clear enough to really see through.
I read a quote recently that said, “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” Franz Kafka said it, and he would know. He wrote about a dude turning into a giant bug. He also didn’t finish a single full-length novel, preferring instead to burn about 90% of what he wrote.
Us insane monsters sure know how to party.
I have not written for myself for more than 2 months now. Is it any surprise that I find my grip on reality tenuous at best? My husband looks at me sometimes, asks me if I’m okay. I can’t bear to tell him that I am battling the invisible demons that rollick in my brain if I’m not careful and crafty enough to evade them through telling stories.
And then, it might not matter at all. I might just be batshit crazy all the time and I only notice more when I’m not writing than when I am. Activity, even in the wrong direction, can cover a wealth of imperfections, don’t you think? As long as the presentation is good, does it really matter how messed up the truth really is?
And there is the issue: I worry about the presentation of things more than the substance.
I’m the person who spends 10% of my time picking out Christmas presents and 90% of my time wrapping the damn box. Seriously. You might get a pair of plain white socks from me, but you’ll get the shiniest wrapping paper, curliest ribbon and a nametag that sings to you as you open your present.
Anyone truly successful will tell you: presentation is 90% of the battle. In fact, with a good enough package, you might not even notice that there is nothing in the box at all.
I currently feel like a very brightly packaged empty box. Outside, I act smart, I act funny, I act interesting, cute and insightful. Inside, I’m running on fumes and just trying not to lose my shit somewhere completely humiliating.
I did a thought experiment one time when I was younger, called “The Cube.” In it, you were given a scenario that you would create in your mind, based on a narrative given by the person administering the “personality test.” You created an object, including what it was made of and what size it was, and put it in a blank field. It was an elaborate test, and, at the end, the person administering it told you that the object represented you and how you perceived yourself.
What was interesting about this experiment is that I chose a beautiful crystal cube to represent myself. It was colorful, bright, hard and seemingly durable. But, even before I knew what the cube represented, I realized that if you looked close enough, the cube on the inside was warped, as if it had been forged wrong. There was a weakness in the center that made it impossibly fragile. Like a tooth that was rotten from the inside, the cube would hold up to intense pressures, so much so that you might believe it was really as strong as it looked. But, a light tap in the wrong place and the whole thing would shatter in an explosion of shards.
Packaging. That’s what keeps it together. Wrapping paper and bows. You see, if the wrapping paper and bows are bright enough, beautiful enough, you can believe that the package inside is worthwhile or stable.
When I was teaching, it was easier to keep my life wrapped up safe and sound. I had kids to take care of, a boss to impress, colleagues to entertain. I literally had a reason to put on the packaging – the successful makeup, the with-it hair, the super-fun shoes, the on-top-of-it desk organization. All the trimmings of a beautifully managed life.
Even if it wasn’t real, it felt real. And that made it real enough to be true.
Now, there is no need for packaging. I have no use for any of the things I used to keep myself together with before. I look around at my sloppy, cluttered and mismanaged life and can’t convince myself that I’m anything but deeply flawed. My daughter, my husband, my handful of actual friends…they all know the truth – I’m flakey, moderately insane and often over-committed. I wore makeup to my daughter’s school once and her teacher almost didn’t release her to me. She said, “I didn’t recognize you! I thought maybe you sent your sister or something.”
Just me. Just me all wrapped up in some good packaging.
And yet, I feel that there is a place for the shiny outward trappings of normalcy. I miss it. There is a reason why a lot of stay at home moms still dress up when they get up. They spend hours coiffing their hair, even if all they’ll do that day is laundry and bills. When you package yourself as happy and successful, it makes you feel those things. It doesn’t last, obviously, but is there any real harm in presenting yourself as a beautiful, valuable, strong creature, even if it’s just to fool yourself? Even if, deep down, you don’t really believe it?
There’s some value in that.
True, it doesn’t touch the underlying problem. No matter how beautiful that crystal cube is on the outside, it is undeniably (and possibly irrevocably) damaged on the inside. So, you can’t just focus on the outside packaging. A gorgeous present with nothing inside will still disappoint. Better to take care that there is something of worth in there before you wrap it at all.
Or, maybe the problem is not that the package is empty, but that I can’t actually see the worth of the gift that I’m giving. And, because I don’t see it’s worth, I don’t feel the need to wrap it. Like the fabled violin in the auction house, I won’t really understand the gift that I have to give until a master cleans and polishes it so that I can see how beautiful my reflection truly is in the wood.
Then, the problem is not in the packaging at all.
The real problem is that I can’t see my own true worth separate from the packaging that I wrap myself in. I’m not pretending that I’m funnier, smarter or deeper than I actually am. I actually am all those things. Not at the same time, and not all the time, but those things really are me. They are all just facets of an incredibly broken psyche, facets that have the power to steal your breath when they catch the unseen lights and reflect them upon the wall.
Being broken is not the problem. Not seeing my brokenness for the gift that it is – that’s the problem. And when I begin to truly understand how valuable being broken really is, I will stop focusing so much on the packaging of the product that is me, and spend my time reflecting all the light and color that I can find.