Thursday, December 31, 2009

Self Portrait

Self Portrait

I met her at a conference. You might recognise her easily because she sits in the front row and asks questions. She has a tinny voice and asks questions that have the ring of the non-sequitor about them. She is of average height, with curly fair hair that must be coloured given her age. Mid fifties you would say, thin and pale skinned. She is friendly in a sometimes over the top way that can be off putting especially for others who might be shy. She thrusts herself forward to introduce herself to complete strangers. Bold, I say.

She is a note taker, the whole way through every talk you see her taking notes as if her life depends upon it. I look over her shoulder from my position in the second row and I see that her handwriting is virtually illegible. I could never read it. I ask her about it at morning tea.
‘I’m a compulsive note taker,’ she says. ‘I have to take everything down; otherwise I fear I will miss out on something. I never know when I might need it.’

She has the feel of someone who is hungry for more. She moves through a room at a fast pace. You do not often see her dawdle. Always in a hurry. Again you wonder what is she running from, or where is she running.

She is good enough with her words but she seems to lack confidence in herself sometimes, at surprising times when you least expect it. She is forever qualifying the things she says, as if she is fearful of offending people.
‘At the risk of generalising,’ she will say. Or, ‘I don’t want to polarise positions,’ or, ‘I know, it’s not exactly like this…’

She turns around from her place in the front row to introduce herself to me. She is the only one in the front row. I could never do that it would bother me too much, stick out like a sore thumb.
‘I sit here so I can hear better,’ she says. ‘But people don’t seem to like the front row. I wonder why?’ she says.
‘Perhaps it’s too close to the speaker,’ I say. ‘Perhaps they like to have some distance between themselves and the other person.’

That is the strange thing about her. She gives the impression of being open, open like a book, and yet I get the sense sometimes that she is a dark horse. She keeps stuff to herself. She will tell you her story all right. She will tell you all these things about her life and her family. But I am not sure I can trust her. There is something about her. Something underhand. Is it dishonest perhaps? I often get the sense that she is sizing me up, sizing the situation up and if I am not careful she will use it somewhere else.

Writers do this all the time I know, but she has the look of a writer who will plunder another person’s deepest secrets, the ones she does not even know herself and put them in a book somewhere. This is scary. It is scary to be with such a person. Nothing you say can be taken for granted. Nothing she says can be said without feeling that you are skating on thin earth. Yet she is okay to be with.

She has blue eyes and she looks at you intently while you speak. She looks at you meaningfully as if she is taking in your words, as if what you say matters to her, though there are times when I see her eyes close over as if she has had enough of me and there are other times, like when I talk about my interest in spirituality, when I sense a shift in her focus as if she does not want to talk about it with me, or she does not take me seriously anymore.

She likes to come across as someone without prejudice, but she is prejudiced all right. You can feel it. The way her shoulders stiffen when someone talks about god and religion, the way her lips come together as if she is trying to press them shut in order to not let anything out, for fear of what she might say. You can feel it in the tension that rises up out of her that she is intolerant here.

Sometimes I imagine she is just bursting with the wish to tell someone else to shut up. Shut up, she would like to say to someone else who has taken the floor for too long. Shut up, give someone else a turn. She is like that. She is into turn taking in a big way. If someone has gone on for a while, she will try to shift the focus onto someone else. She says she hates groups. She tells me as much during our lunchtime break.
‘I’m sixth in line, she says, 'an ignominious position,' as if this accounts for everything about her.
‘Groups are dangerous things,’ she tells me. 'Things happen in groups and sometimes it’s hard to know what’s going on. All these people talking together going in different directions and all these undercurrents that people can’t or won’t talk about it.’

I have noticed this in her. The way she sometimes wants to bring these undercurrents to the surface and sometimes her words come out with a jolt as if she has come from some unexpected tangent of her own, as if she has followed a long windy chain of thought to get to where she is at and suddenly she lets it all out bang plop into the middle of the conversation and it is disturbing like a big wind that picks up suddenly and knocks over chairs and tables in your outside garden, a wind that knocks over anything that is not fixed to the ground.

She seems to know a lot and when she does not know she will ask questions so that she can at least have something to say. If she is not interested, and it happens, her eyes glaze over for a while. Then I catch her casting glances around the room as if she is looking for better company. She is ruthless like that. She does not like to be bored. She does not like to sit with people who do not interest her. She will take herself away rather than sit with people with whom she cannot connect.

I do not know how she sees me. She puts up with me I suppose. She must. I am her mirror image.


angela simione said...

i'm a front row kinda girl myself! ha!
this is a truly beautiful self-portrait. i love the language, the turns of phrase, the casual manner of it - honest and eloquent and endearing. thank you.

Kass said...

Your self-awareness is brutal and humbling. How did you come up with this? And how long was it in your head before you wrote it? Fascinating. What a great writing exercise. I might try it myself, without publishing it here. I'm not as brave as you.

Akeith Walters said...

What a fascinating article this is. I think 3rd person revelations of ourselves is such a difficult thing to do and is the most interesting and engaging way to do it. I enjoy your blog. I'm glad I discovered it.

Akeith Walters

Conda Douglas said...

Well done, Elisabeth and I, too, saw myself in your portrait. There's something about writers that we are very engaged with others and the world, perhaps sometimes too much so.

Glimmer said...

Oh my God, this is fascinating. You delivered a knockout punch with that last bit, "she is my mirror image." A complete surprise, that.


Elisabeth said...

Thank you all, Angela and Keith and Conda.

I'm so glad you 'got' it. I was worried it might have been a bit cryptic. It came about at Peter Bishop's suggestion. He is the creative director at Varuna, the writers house, in which I spent a week before Christmas.

Peter suggested that it's a useful exercise to write about yourself in the third person.

It is a useful exercise if only that it forces you to imagine how you might come across to others, which of course is weird given you can't actually pitch yourself into the mind of another, hence my reflection at the end.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Kass, for your thoughts. As I said earlier I think it is a useful exerciose. I wondered as I wrote it, was I truly honest.

I certainly tried to be honest but of course it's easy to get into the self-flagellation I sometimes get into, which is not so much s reflection of how others might see me, much more a view of myself I hold in darker moments.

By all means give it ago. You never know, you might decide to publish it on your blog. Surprising things happen when you write.

I'm glad you enjoyed the 'knockout punch', Glimmer. It came to me only then at the end as I wrote the piece.

That's the joy of writing, things come up that you do not anticipate.

Ann ODyne said...

writing like a train ... a steam train ... The Flying fcn Scotsman!
wishing you a fulsome new year too

Mim said...

The tone of itchy annoyance, the energy: well done and risky!

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for your comment, Mim. I wonder, what makes it so risky?

Anonymous said...

Allow me to bow in respect of your writing.

May the new year provide you with joy,health and happiness.

jabblog said...

Somehow I knew it was you before reaching the end, though 'I look over her shoulder' gave me pause for thought. I enjoyed this post very much. Are you really shy?

Ces Adorio said...

Oh this was a very exciting read. I had an air of mystery and I was on edge. This is a great post to get to know you. BTW, I love your beautiful hair! Happy New Year to you and thank you for stopping by my place.

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

What an interesting and well-written reflection. Perhaps we should all take time to do a self-portrait occasionally.

Happy New Year!

melissashook said...

oh, Elizabeth, I found you. I feel so clever. I just left a message on my blog asking for you to give me your blog address...but here it is.....
happy new year...

melissashook said...

I love the idea of going off on a tangent, wanting to bring up the undercurrent of the group dynamic, plopping her thought down....

Heather said...

Thankyou for visiting my blog and leaving me a comment. I enjoyed reading your Self Portrait - I suppose we all have our contradictions and complications, but that's what makes people interesting. Happy New Year.

Manon said...

Hi Elisabeth!!
Thank you for stopping by! I very much enjoy your blog!
My name is French. I'm originally from Canada!!
I so want to go to Australia one day. The people remind me of Canadians..... fun and down to earth!

Elisabeth said...

AnnODyne thanks for your comment. I like the idea of writing like a steam train, even if there are suggestions of lots of hot air, I'm sure that's not your intention, just my occasionally paranoid mind at work.

Robert, thanks for your good wishes for the year ahead and your appreciation of my writing. I value that.

Thanks Jablog, or is it Eileen, for your interest. I'm glad that for a while you wondered. That's the funny thing about 'self portraits': to which self do they allude?

Ces, thanks too. I thought my hair was straight until in my thirties one of my hairdressers told me i had a natural curl. It was well after the 'afro' look had been in fashion, but I have long wanted curly hair and voila, there it was, mine for the taking.

Thanks Jane. Yes, I recommend the attempt at a self portrait for everyone. It's 'character building'. Ho hum.

Hey, Melissa. I'm glad you found my blog. I so enjoy yours.

And finally, Heather, thanks for your thoughts on the contradictions and paradoxes of our multiple selves. As you say, that's what makes us interesting. Imagine how boring it would be if we were each and all one of a piece and totally internally consistent. Doubt and uncertainty are the greatest forces for change.

If we could be certain of everything all of the time, there'd be nothing left to work out, or work on. We'd all seize up, stagnate and die.

What a horrid thought.

Harryn Studios said...

beautiful - i've met this woman - many times, everywhere - or maybe she just mirrored me back to my self ...
i savored this piece of writing ...

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Manon, of the lovely name. I agree with you about the similarity between Canadians and Australians, their friendliness. It's a positive generalisation.

My parents migrated to Australia from Holland in the 1950s. Their first preference was to go to Canada but Canada's quota had been already filled.

I often try to imagine what my life might have been like had I been born in Canada and not in Australia.

Thanks, Harryn, for your kind words. It's good to see yourself in others. It seems we, too, even share the same age.

Rinkly Rimes said...

What a clever way of writing a self-portrait!

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for visiting, Rinkly. My work is not half so clever as your wonderful and witty rhymes.

Jim Murdoch said...

I think this is an interesting exercise. I don’t think I could do it. I hated producing a photo for my website and something like this is far more revealing. I’m very self-conscious although I would shy away from saying I’m actually shy. I suppose if one had enough of my writing you could assemble a kind of photofit, a composite, but then again I don’t choose to write about everything that makes me me. Nor does this self portrait of yours reveal everything. I suspect that’s why visual artists return to their own image time and time again, a) because they age and b) because a person is too complex a thing to adequately translate into a photograph, a painting or a pencil sketch like this. It’s fascinating to stand apart from a photo and know that that’s no longer who we are.

When you have revealed yourself what then? It’s not an end in itself. You can take off your clothes – literal or metaphorical – and say, “Here I am, look at me, this is all there is,” and then what? You can stand there shivering or grab up your things and cover yourself or you can wait to see what the other person will do. The thing is even once you’ve taken everything off, said everything that needs to be said, that’s never it. Because human beings don’t exist simply as memories. So even if you take a photo of me with an Instamatic camera and hand it to me that’s no longer me.

An enjoyable read nevertheless, if not a full exposure then at least a tantalising quick flash.

Have you read Art’s recent post on self-portraiture? I think you might find it of some interest.

Jane Moxey said...

That was so clever -- to write in the third person, yet to draw such a sharp and rather ruthless self-portrait! You seem to know your subject rather well!

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Jim, for your thoughtful and engaging response. Reading it put me in mind of an earlier post I wrote 'Self and other: 'the difference between the inside and the outside' about what happens, as you say, when something that is inside shifts to the outside.

Thanks for alerting me to Art's recent blog on self portraiture. I love it, the idea that 'we are always better looking inside our own minds' appeals, although it's equally possible that at times for some we are far uglier in our minds than we are on the outside. All to do with perspective, which as you say shifts and changes constantly.

I love the way Art talks about the different perspectives of an artist in his self portraits over time.

I wrote the above at a particular time shortly before Christmas at the writers' house. I wrote from the perspective of the things that were preoccupying me then. I imagine at another time I might be caught up with other concerns, although certain universals would remain. I might try this exercise in a year or so. See how it's chaged. why don't you give it a go. you needn't show it to anyone. when i first write this i had no inention of showing it to anyone. It just seemed different once it was out, less me as you say than when I was writing it.

You could do it. I'd be fascinated by the results but don't do it for me or for anyone else. Do it for yourself, like a secret photographic self portrait, rather like Art's images. You might be surprised.

Thanks, Jane. I suppose I do know my subject rather well, but as Jim above says, it's a changing perspective.