Monday, March 10, 2014

Exile and Sound, by chavisory

If I were young, as once I was
And dreams and death more distant then,
I would not split my soul in two,
And leave half in the world of men.
-Neil Gaiman, The Fairy Reel

I read Eli Clare’s Exile & Pride for the first time recently, and it was one of my favorite books before I was even halfway done reading it.
Clare writes about loss of place and loss of home in a rural place as a result of embracing a queer identity.  And I didn’t think that part applied to me, initially—I’m not so much visibly, apparently genderbent.  I’m not often overtly read as queer and don’t have to expend energy either in concealment for physical safety, or in making sure I present in a certain way so as not to be misgendered; I’m very unlikely to be in danger that way.  At this point I consider myself unlikely enough to wind up with a partner of any stripe, anywhere, that that’s not such a harsh consideration.  It’s not really the primary identity marker that’s most impacted my life.  I didn’t feel that I had to leave home to be safe in that way, or to find a queer community; I didn’t realize that I really was until after I had already moved away for college, and by that time I was deeply involved in the theater world.  So.
Yet I had never really thought before I was rereading that chapter recently, to connect a similar variety of exile not to being queer, but to being autistic.  But it’s true.
Far less so in the sense of avoiding overt violence or ostracism—in which regard a smaller place might even be safer, but in terms of employment possibilities and avoiding isolation.  To be able to work and to have a certain kind of community, and to maintain the kind of freedom of movement that I need, I practically have to live in a city.
Despite my skill set, I can’t work in just any industry that I might choose.  The social language is opaque.  The social and aesthetic expectations of women are impossible.  People call me articulate and yet don’t understand a thing I say.  Contrary to the pronouncements of my teachers in grade school, I can’t in fact do anything I might want to do…not for lack of ability to learn and teach myself, but because it’s nowhere near that simple.
There was a time when I believed that isolating myself as far from most of humanity as possible was going to be the only way I could maintain control over my own life.  With the added advantage of being always close to the natural world.  Now that I’ve experienced that as not being true, the easy community of a city with a large performing arts industry is a terribly hard thing to consider giving up.  But that doesn’t make it easier to do without the aspects of rural life that I need and crave.
The place where I grew up—aside from the ongoing decimation of its landscape by persistent development of new strip malls—is a place where, as a teenager, I could see I would never, ever, have unquestioned control of my own life.  Where I would never be free of having to defend my own judgment and boundaries, my own space and time.  Where my choices and knowledge of my capabilities were ever, ever going to be good enough to be left alone.
For other reasons it’s easier and safer to live here, too:  this city has, compared to a lot of other places, an immensely clear and simplistic social code.  Public transit available 24/7 means I have far fewer meltdowns, because I can always escape a situation without the anxiety of depending on the whims, or sobriety, of other people for a ride home.
But my heart will never truly belong here.
I need wild places.  I need open space and stars in the night sky and forest to wander in.  I miss the night songs of owls and freight trains and the wind over open fields.
I’ve been realizing how much I need and miss the influence of natural sound in my life.  It’s like the cadences of those things are the language that my emotional concept of the universe was wired in.  I need it in a way so deep I don’t even know where to begin or how to describe.
It’s strange to think of being starved for sound in New York City, but it can feel that way.  The city is so abundant in every other variety of overstimulation imaginable, but incredibly poor in that one, although there’s plenty of noise.  It’s not the same thing.
I remember a morning when I was about five years old, waking up to the sound of birdsong—a ridiculous density of birdsong, even for semi-rural Missouri in the springtime—and it sounded like a perfectly coherent composition, with melody and orchestration.  And I was certain that they were singing just to me.
I was visiting a friend in Georgia recently and stood alone out on the porch one night, listening to the night for a bit.  I had nearly forgotten that nighttime sounded so alive, so powerfully conscious, and I felt despair at the thought of going back to the traffic and horns and sirens and constant grinding drone of window air conditioning units.
One of my recent productions took place largely in a wooded clearing in the forest; the sound design had a lot of birds and forest sounds.  At the first day of tech, while I was setting up my station at the tech table, the sound designer unleashed a test cue of a thicket of springtime birdsong, and I nearly cried with relief at hearing such a thing, never mind we were really still just in a dark, stuffy theater in midtown Manhattan in the middle of winter.  I started playing the birdsong cues for the duration of the time it took me to sweep and mop the stage every night.
Lying exhausted in bed, the thickness of the silence in my room is oppressive.  Not true silence, of course—there’s still the hum of hot water running through the building, of electrical things, of my roommate still awake in her room down the hall.  But the thick, claustrophobic lack of movement of air, of living things, of tree branches in the wind and falling snow, keep me tense and awake and feeling trapped and isolated, from some important aspect of creation itself.
This is why I feel homeless.  There’s practically nowhere I can live without lacking something as essential as breathing to me.  Either connection to people, a social network that I’ve come to love and depend on, and the ability to work consistently and therefore support myself and maintain my autonomy.  Or connection to my emotional and spiritual sense of the world.
I know that there are people in other cities, that there are theater communities in less densely urban places, but the prospect of starting over is daunting, to say the least.  Because having a safety net isn’t something I ever get to take for granted.  Because there are people who know me, at least a little, and trust my work here.  Because I have a lot of friends here, but I have a couple of people here who…we can go get a drink and just talk and just understand in a way that I spent about 30 years looking for in another person.  It’s hard to think of being farther from that than just being able to say “Want to go to Bettibar tonight?” even if we don’t get to do it very often.
If I go down to the pond in Central Park in the evenings sometimes, I can hear the little clicking sounds that the bats use for echolocation.
I don’t know where I can be without this sense of aching loss.  It’s like, if I’m whole, I have to long eternally for one or the other.

[Photograph is a close-up of a robin in early spring, perched on a fence in Central Park, against a powder-blue sky with clouds.]


  1. I can relate. I am tremendously grateful that I live in a quieter part of town, on a quieter side of my building, so that if I leave my window cracked a little at night, I can hear the birds in the early morning hours and smell the trees, dew, and other slightly damp things in the Seattle morning. I think most people crave greenery, the out doors, animal and bird noises, and quiet from the noises of the city, even NTs, but most people have to make due with what little wildlife exists in the city.

  2. You reminded me how much I miss being surrounded by nature in Arcata where I went for graduate school.