“I love wearing sunglasses,” my mother would say, flipping a large brown pair of shades on. “I feel so invisible!”
When I was little, I didn’t know what she meant. How did covering her eyes make her feel invisible? But even more importantly, why was that a good thing?
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I’m sitting in the middle of a seminar on using ancient writings in our own work. My friend, Kate, and I are intrigued by the premise, but neither of us is so sure it applies to what we write. Regardless, the dark-haired, dark-skinned man with the beautiful British accent has us listening attentively to his quiet words. He uses terms I don’t understand, he tries to get us to respond creatively to an upsetting image of a man sitting atop a wreckage that was presumably once his home, and suddenly I am feeling a little anxious. The words I’m choosing to describe the image are not strong. I don’t know Sanskrit or Middle English, or apparently English, as I have to cross-out and write again.
I have so many questions for this man, like how do we use beautiful, interesting words but not sound like intellectual pricks? or, how has this practice informed your own work?, but I am silenced by a young woman in the back. She is perhaps a few years younger than me (or older — at this point, I have no concept of age), and her hand is popping up every few minutes. She is clearly well-educated and articulate (two things we should value), but I bristle against her neediness. I have compassion for her neediness, but I do not want to be associated with it. Her neediness represents my own deep desire to be acknowledged by this writer-thinker man, and now it will never happen.
At the end of the seminar, he leans back in his chair and says he welcomes any questions. Kate and I get up to leave. The young woman from the back hurries forward, eager with even more thoughtful questions, comments. I hear her proclaim herself a Classicist, and I realize why I feel so uncomfortable: this jostling for teacher approval reminds me too much of college, of the constant push and shove of attention-needers and attention-givers. I had chosen not to participate then, and as I leave the tiny room with the loud fan and the thoughtful seminar-goers, my questions and ideas still locked up inside me, I wonder if I missed out, both then and now.
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Saturday, I drove to our day-long choir rehearsal with the top down, a green Red Sox baseball cap on, and a pair of sunglasses. Suddenly, I knew what my mother was talking about. Invisibility, when undesired, can cause pain. Feeling unseen or unknown can pop up eight years later at a writers’ conference in an embarrassing and surprising way.
And yet, invisibility sought is power.
The ability to see but not be seen, to observe unobserved. After all, isn’t that what being a writer is all about? How could one observe the world from a stage? Or the same with artists: the artist observes the subject, not the other way around. As I drove in my unintended disguise along the highway, down the winding streets to rehearsal, I felt as though I saw everything but no one knew what I looked like. I was invisible, it was chosen, and it felt good.
It is strange to me that this same feeling can be so debilitating if not desired. In some ways, I think I imagined myself unnoticed in college, and from there, it became the case. Like I tell my students when they sigh, “No one likes me!”, there is no better way to make sure that is true than to think it. I see them separate themselves at lunch, hide away in their phones or their books, and the self-fulfilling prophecy unfolds before my eyes.
If you behave like no one likes you, no one will.
If you leave a seminar with your questions still bubbling up inside you, no one will be able to engage them.
Maybe your invisibility, then, is always a choice — sometimes desired, sometimes not, but always chosen.