by Pat Miller
I dreaded the sight of my laptop for roughly the past week and a half. I was told this piece is to be a part of the identity section. And that I should have it finished in two weeks. This is when the fear hit me. My track record of writing about anything with a hint of realism is butchery, at best, and my motivation to try my hand at it again at an all-time low. The concept of sitting down deliberately with the intention to write something with an understandable meaning worth discussing sounded like the quickest way to break me. I was, however, obligated to complete the task. So my keyboard became a desert rattlesnake, settled, nesting comfortably, lying dormant under my desk. It promised at the least a loathsome chore, and at most the possibility of serious impairment.
Therefore, instead of typing anything, I spent at least three-quarters of my allotted writing time trying to observe some tenant of identity in those around me and my surroundings. Given the youthful orientation of this publication, naturally I would proceed to survey those predominantly in my age range. In this method, combined with my growing loathing, I finally arrived at a conclusion. Trying to stitch together an identity, at this age and this time, is a combination of regressing far enough while tempting fate as frequently as possible. I said I didn’t write during the first week and a half — this is not entirely true. Ultimately, I met my idea not by observation, but by rereading the notes I had made in my journal unconnected to my assignment. That said, I have decided that the most succinct way of conveying what I think about identity would be the inclusion of my notes. Scattered throughout these bits of paper were my unprompted thoughts, my own self-portrait. I read them over and over again, until there was no way down.
The first piece I wrote when I woke up
unexplainably early one morning,
and didn’t feel like getting out of bed.
Estes Park is a town in Colorado, some seven-thousand feet high, a ways past Boulder. It is ostensibly a tourist town, but all of its yearly visitors will vitriolically deny this. People come from far and wide to see “the scenery,” then spend the next two weeks trying to think of a reason to stick around. In this way Estes is like Las Vegas: more an idea than something concrete. Months-advance reservations and three-hundred dollar fishing rods are available in both municipalities, at least. The only difference is that each respective city caters to its audience: Vegas is for fast people with a bloody fire inside them, looking for something to break, and Estes Park is for slow people, people who want to “take it all in,” regardless of the price tag. This means the similarity is people want something extreme, polarizing. Something to assign them a character, a stereotype from a sitcom.
My family spends a few weeks out of every summer in Estes Park, so I feel qualified to talk about its branding. I too spent hours desperately trying to bait an unwitting rainbow trout. I can tell an elk’s antlers from pine branches driving through Rocky Mountain National Park. Possessing the information that I do, I can attest that the interior is the same as the exterior. Estes doesn’t hide its snowglobes and magnets, it is what it is. The visitors are the only ones in denial.
The next excerpt I wrote
after I got home from work one night.
I didn’t date it.
I was sitting in the parking lot outside, tired, when this bedraggled girl appeared by my window. She looked like a college student and talked with a slow, loping voice. For a moment, she just stood there. Then finally, apologetically, she asked for a cigarette and a light. I obliged, and she thanked me, said her name was Brie. Answering her with mine, I wondered if I should’ve asked if she needed me to call somebody. If she was a student, she was a few miles from campus. But already she was walking away, meandering towards a streetlight. Concerned but too unsure of myself, I started my car. When I drove away she was walking down the side of the road, in the moonlight.
The following is the only other note I want to include from the past two weeks.
I wrote it over a period of a few days, a period during which I went on a lot of walks at night
and tried to make myself think about something.
My head is fuzzy as I walk. The white of the streetlights isn’t as reassuring to me as the yellow they used to be. They make the neighborhood seem too clinical, like you’re a rat in a maze and following the lights might lead you to the end of the puzzle. But the neighborhood keeps turning around and around. It feels deserted out here. Even during daylight, during the summer, it’s rare to spot someone outside doing something around here. But at night, it’s like its abandoned. The blinds are all drawn tight, and the porch lights have all finally blinked off. Walking past these houses and these white lights, so similar to the houses and white lights I passed a block ago, the feeling sets in that one of these buildings is not actually your home. The feeling sets in that these houses do not belong to people at all, let alone human beings. In fact it’s easy, walking alone at night when the moon has been covered by a blanket of clouds, to catch one of the actual inhabitants off guard. Only one window-shade has to be left open to see curled serpents within. Not like the pet kind, in a little glass case, but a gargantuan python. Its lengths coil in the living room, while the head finds its way upstairs, to perch its eye by the bedroom window. Miles of glittering scales, eyes like desktop globes, gallons upon gallons of cold blood, sleeping. Sometimes too a tv is left on and the snake’s head reflects grainy images and lights, flashing silently to the through the window. No, surely this is not my neighborhood.
I dare to turn another corner, plunging that much further into something I don’t understand. The only way out is through, as it were. Ordinarily the night is loud with frogs and cicadas this time of year, but the cacophony has grown oddly distant. Instead, a careful ear can distinguish wind from great lungs breathing in and out, stretching cold bodies against the floorboard and linoleum of each house. I worry that the slapping of my shoes on the pavement might be too loud. Too close to the sound of prey.
I also jotted down a few quotes from things I read or heard during this time,
and excluding them from the mosaic felt wrong.
They are as follows.
“You can never escape, you can only move south down the coast.”Counting Crows Song
“Lord, I confess, with all these changes, I do not know where I am going.”UnsureSomething religious, I would hazard.
“My approach to life ranges from grossly negligent to merely absent.”Joan Didion
“Next to excellence is the appreciation of it.”William Makepeace Thackeray
“The joke's over.”Ralph Steadman
“But sometimes, Willy, it’s better for a man just to walk away.”Bernardof Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman
“In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.”Charles Bukowski
Taken separately, these pieces of my head don’t make much sense. Taken together, they form something entirely more bizarre. As a whole, they are a tableau of the cusp of summer for me, something I can’t explain to anyone. Even this writing is an example of what I cannot hope to communicate. But it is through my notebook that I came to my discovery. Identity is multifaceted. It’s multifaceted less like a gem, more like a hydra, however. Each head of the beast is a potential, something or someone I could decide to be. The hydra, also, is perilously starved, and alone on a desert island. The only way it can hope to survive is by eating its own spare heads. There is no Hercules to burn the bleeding wound, however, and it seems each time the hydra tries to solidify itself, every time I’ve tried to crystallize my identity, an additional two heads sprout from the nub. My conclusion, being so singular, cannot actually serve as insightful. Though I may do my best to emulate what I perceive and to center myself around a doctrine, I can’t do that for a population. Nor can I throw any assumptions around. I have decided that identity isn’t really a word, because you can’t identify something based off of your standards because everyone and everything has different standards for itself. I could be walking around calling red blue and everyone else might be walking around calling blue red and I’m as powerless as the next guy to try to put into words why a problem like this causes such grief and paranoia. If the heads of the hydra were to be facets on a jewel, then the challenge isn’t settling on a facet. The challenge is determining which gems are real, and which are only ideals.