Almost epistle

by Stephanie on October 13, 2008

The Little Mermaid never marries the Prince. He gets married to another woman, and the Little Mermaid gets a choice: she can kill him, let his blood drip all over her legs and thus turn back into a mermaid, or she can throw herself into the sea at sunrise and turn into foam. But she’s not going to get an immortal soul either way (unless she works tirelessly after death for three hundred years) because a mermaid isn’t allowed an immortal soul unless she can get a guy to fall in love with her. Oh, and her name isn’t Ariel. She’s defined by a diminutive. The Little Mermaid. That’s it.

The first time I fell in love, I learnt the real meaning of this story because I lived it. In academic terms, the traditional romance narrative is a narrative of female self-effacement and dependency. In practical terms for me, it was standing on a beach at midnight while a boy made his choice. I said I understood, that I would be fine, that if it made him happy it was all okay, and when he said he’d still be there for me if ever I needed anything, I took off my clothes and told him I wanted to go swimming instead. It was cold for December. My legs were numb for hours afterwards. When I exiled myself to the other side of the world eight months later, I felt like I’d left half of my body in Melbourne.

When I finally figured out (and it took me long enough) that defining oneself by one’s lovers is unfulfilling and eventually alienating, I moved on to material objects. By wearing this dress, I’ll be more me. By living in this house, by driving this car, by drinking in this bar or listening to this music… In Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, Raphael looks at Anna in her room the size of a thimble and contemplates her life as it is represented by the things around her.

Who is she? This woman who has led him into this medicine cabinet of a room where most of her possessions exist—books, journals, passport, a carefully folded map, archival tapes, even the soap she has brought with her from her other world. As if this orderly collection of things is what she is. So we fall in love with ghosts.

When I actually look at all the material goods I’ve collected—furniture, crockery, cutlery, electronics, bedding, ornaments, the wardrobes overstuffed with clothing and the books, the books, the books—and think about how I stood in front of almost every item and thought, “This is something I need”—I feel a bit uneasy. Sometimes I can feel myself starting to rely on them, as though if I ever lost myself, these things may hold enough memory weight to remind me of who I am. The further I am from home, the tighter my grip becomes. But things are temporary. Things break, get lost, stop working, go out of fashion, fade, unravel, unwind, rip, rust, run out. Things fall apart, so I am trying to let go of them. I have this vague idea that if I can sever my attachment to stuff, then I’ll be free; I’ll feel free.

The truth is I don’t even know what that means. Freedom from what? From responsibility? From guilt, suffering, or the pain of loss? What I really want is to be able to attach without compromise and detach without pain, except that one requires the negation of the other. To attach yourself to something means that you learn to value it. The ability to detach and move at will requires—not things necessarily meaning less in and of themselves, but things being beside the point. Materially, that kind of thinking leads to wastefulness, but when it comes to people, it feels like a disrespectful and opportunistic way to treat someone. And I don’t think it’s possible to care in a vacuum. I can’t live a life emotionally detached from my surroundings, and the fact is, I don’t want to. The world gets under my skin—the colour of the sky at dusk, or the glint of glass in the street, or the smell of midnight, or the rush of leaves spinning out from under the wheels of a car. Buddhism would be a futile pursuit for me. I feel too much. Existence may lead to suffering but it also leads to laughter and hand-holding and cake on birthdays. The cost of resistance is sensation.

The focus that this society has on stuff seems like a distraction from the real issue, anyway. In an attempt to remedy the malaise we turn outwards. But identity isn’t found in inanimate objects or even other people—the world influences us and throws up challenges but it’s up to us how it shapes us. The choices we make are what ultimately define us. We can look outwards and forwards at who we want to be and what we want to do, but eventually we’re going to have to stop and turn inwards, and look at what we are.

The witch didn’t draw the Little Mermaid’s voice out of her throat magically, like a glowing, musical orb: she cut out her tongue. I still have mine, but there were times when I acted as though I didn’t. The words dammed up inside me until I couldn’t hold them any more, and they gushed out all at once, flooding the pages of my notebooks. Sometimes I wonder what I would do if I were confronted with real voicelessness. The possibility scares me. Perhaps I would write on my skin—cover the canvas with soul-scrawl, and when there is no space left, peel it off, layer after layer, before weaving it together again—tongue and all. I would turn myself inside out to get to myself, because that is how much words mean to me. Because that is the closest you can get to me. Words from me. Words on me. Because this is the closest I can get to me.

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