How do you explain your choices to people? How do you explain yourself to people? It’s hard enough trying to understand yourself. My natural introspection, aided by numerous therapists, dragging me kicking and screaming towards the abyss that is selfhood, had made me internalise others’ questioning of my need to puncture and ink my body.
Tattoos and piercings are usually glamorously associated with rockstars and not so glamorous men of the I’m-overcompensating-for-something-with-my-stereotypical-butchness; men of the ilk that have one hand clasping both braai tongs and a Castle and the other proprietorially clasping his chick’s ass. You know the type – the I’m-sporting-a-mullet-underneath-my-motor-oil-soaked-overalls-and-Harley-Davidson-rip-off-helmet.
My tattoos are a sign, a symbol, a writing on the body, of difference. A statement. Every human being longs to be seen as unique, as different, as noticeable. In essence, we do not want to be invisible. In my more adult moments I realise that this need can be sated in less exhibitionist ways, but the fact is that my piercings and tattoos make me feel more confident about myself, less exposed.
It’s paradoxical, I know, because I’m attracting attention and therefore making myself more vulnerable, but what I’ve realised is that I’m using the very human habit of judging people by their looks to my own advantage. I’ve read that in pre-modern cultures, tattoos were worn to ward off evil spirits, to protect the wearer. Warding off, protection… I cannot allow you to get to know me, so I do the judging the book by its cover trick in reverse and repel people who are not psychologically aware of the implications of my adornments.
People normally assume that freaks who are tattooed and pierced are looking for attention, when in actual fact they are donning a very useful façade: it presents a “fuck you” attitude beneath which I protect myself from other people. Protect me from them getting beneath the outer layer and seeing me for what I am: an innocent, gullible, pre-lapsarian little girl from Welkom who is aching to be touched, loved, known, accepted.
By assuming this persona I repel people who have pre-conceived notions about difference, about what is ‘abnormal.’ In this way I only have people in my life who are emotionally intelligent enough to understand that my piercings and tattoos are only a small part of who I am. That I am contradictory and complicated. That I am innocent and gentle and in need of love.
Of course it also makes me quite lonely. The eternal contradiction that is the human condition: wanting desperately to be loved, accepted and understood, and the utter fear of rejection.
My philosophy is that the whole point of life is to experience as much as possible, to learn and grow as much as possible, to learn about the human condition. I need to believe this because I need it for my writing.
While other people see novels as a form of entertainment, an escape from their dreary reality into a reality custom-made for them by John Grisham or Maeve Binchy, I see literature as a continuing exploration of the human condition, of experience and writing itself as an attempt to capture both the human condition and the experience of it. As a writer trying to accomplish the latter, I am always at war with myself to venture out of the isolation of my little flat and, more importantly, my head.
My clichéd carpe diem attitude to life is not one I’ve adopted simply to be a better writer. It is an attitude that has evolved; an attitude necessary for the ‘survival of the fittest’ aspects of myself. The survival of myself, period.
I don’t know what came first. Them not mattering, or them scaring me. Either way, I managed to get to the age of twenty-three without learning basic social skills, rules or functions. I could approach someone when it was absolutely desperate, but talking to them as an end in itself? I saw no need. So I got through school and university with my distinctions and cum laudes and that was all that mattered.
Until I realised that it wasn’t. Until I realised that I was lonely. Profoundly lonely. That I had nothing outside of my family and my books.
It was, of course, moving out of the family home which precipitated this horrific discovery. I unpacked my belongings into my apartment in Melville during my Honours at RAU, lined my books up on the shelves with books by the same author together, in order of publication, and these books obviously in relation to the period in which they had been published. So once I had worked myself through my collection from Beowulf through the Middle Ages, the Victorians, the Modernists, the Postmodernists, and of course poetry and short stories on their own shelves according to the same system, I sat back on the couch and surveyed my handiwork.
The sense of self-satisfaction and independence was replaced all too soon with a deep sense of loss. A loss that Dostoevsky, Conrad, Hardy and Woolf would never make up for. I realised that I had lost childhood, the teenage years, my early twenties. Yes, I was extremely well-read and well qualified, and would probably go onto become an illustrious academic in one of the top universities, but I had no idea how to relate to anyone outside of my own thoughts. I had vicariously and voyeuristically lived the lives of Clarissa Dalloway, Hercule Poirot, Jane Eyre and Miss Havisham, but outside of their worlds, there was nothing.
I had no memories of my own. No stories or silly anecdotes to discuss over an alcohol-laden table of a restaurant in Melville. No memories, no stories, no experiences. No me.
How do you relate to people, ask them “Do you come here often?” if there is no self to listen to their answer, no self to answer their questions.
I decided that I had had enough of being non-existent, invisible, hollow. I decided to experience. I decided to start collecting stories and anecdotes and memories. And don’t think that it was for some shrink-wrapped Oprah Winfrey-like need to “find out who I am.” It was just so that I could talk. Just so that I could be heard. That I could be interesting and notice-worthy and likeable… and less lonely.
That’s how it started. But as soon as I began making friends I realized that friends did not fill that void, did not make up for the loss. I needed someone to love me.
Along with the pebbles of memories, experiences, anecdotes, stories and love I began feverishly to gather from my path towards that which would fill the void, I also stumbled upon pieces of glittering glass. So beautiful and intriguing, so different and familiar, and yet when picked up would work their way from the safety of my basket, amongst all the stones of experience, through my body until they lodged in that place where the void exists. And instead of filling the void, these beautiful, familiar pieces of glass imbedded themselves into my nerves, serving only as a constant reminder of the infinity of that void which housed itself within the limits of my body.
But you forget. You just keep gathering the pebbles because you just know that you have to be loved. So you forget about those intriguingly beautiful and familiar pieces of glass that you come across that tear you up from the inside.
(The Letters from Selves Pas(t)sed series is drawn from writing created over 10 years ago. I’ve decided to include them as they create context for my journey. Keeping in mind where I come from helps me measure where I am and where I’m going.)