When I first started blogging—really, I should say when I first started writing for public consumption—I worried incessantly about creating the perfect “About Me” page. I worried so much that I created bad ones haphazardly and didn’t bother attending to crafting a proper profile. Maybe I could talk about Emily Dickinson or Shakespeare and people would automatically find me credible. Yeah, that’s gotta be right—wait, why am I reading this blogger’s profile and becoming infinitely more envious? Why am I reading his work instead of writing anything of my own?
Writing (about) yourself is a multiplicity of genres and a genre unto itself. It’s making sure every line you’ve put on a résumé corresponds to a story you can tell about an achievement. It’s hoping for any measure of attention on dating sites. It’s personal essays which bring a few bucks from sites which purchase longform, or in some rare cases, Pulitzer Prizes; talks for getting essential points across to employees and students; explaining what you bring to a client or immigration official.
It’s so strange such a fundamental task entails overwhelming guilt for some of us, as if we’re being held to account for every atom composing our bodies. I have some insight into this—the way a number of people present themselves, like they’re blameless and could never possibly, um, narc on themselves, pushes the rest of us to stay silent. We’d like to be honest, maybe even confess to a few faults, but we know those glowing with the aura of blamelessness also have a shield bash ability which will dent our skulls. Since presenting yourself is a type of advertising, our advertising obsessed society—where YouTube will gleefully promote neo-Nazis for ad revenue—makes this problem even worse. It isn’t just some bitter colleague trying to make himself feel better by abusing you for your confession. Now the world knows you’re worth ignoring, and it will throw dollars and eyeballs at someone more polished and shinier.
The problem of an “About Me” is getting started. When and how does one get started? Katia Kapovich’s “Painting a Room” depicts what seems a singular event: leaving one’s country, one’s home, for someplace new. The self most conspicuously invites remaking, a writing out. But one might say all attempts to write the self are remaking, a painting over, if you will. Here on a March day in ‘89 I blanch the ceiling and walls with bluish lime…
Painting a Room Katia Kapovich Here on a March day in ‘89 I blanch the ceiling and walls with bluish lime. Drop cloths and old newspapers hide the hardwood floors. All my furniture has been sold, or given away to bohemian friends. There is nothing to eat but bread and wine. An immigration visa in my pocket, I paint the small apartment where I’ve lived for ten years. Taking a break around 4 p.m., I sit on the last chair in the empty kitchen, smoke a cigarette and wipe my tears with the sleeve of my old pullover. I am free from regrets but not from pain. Ten years of fears, unrequited loves, odd jobs, of night phone calls. Now they’ve disconnected the line. I drop the ashes in the sink, pour turpentine into a jar, stirring with a spatula. My heart throbs in my right palm when I pick up the brush again. For ten years the window’s turquoise square has held my eyes in its simple frame. Now, face to face with the darkening sky, what more can I say to the glass but thanks for being transparent, seamless, wide and stretching perspective across the size of the visible. Then I wash the brushes and turn off the light. This is my last night before moving abroad. I lie down on the floor, a rolled-up coat under my head. This is the last night. Freedom smells of a freshly painted room, of wooden floors swept with a willow broom, and of stale raisin bread.
Painting a room resembles writing in the worst way. One exposes oneself to a terrible insecurity. A fresh, even coat of paint should give a room new life; a well-written accounting should help dissipate unnecessary fears and grudges. But one’s worry can center on matters which indulge the trivial. Will the paint mess up the floor and furniture? Will my words make me sound like an idiot? The task can be conceived as sacramental—there is nothing to eat but bread and wine—and maybe that’s what sustains us when we do get through it. We feel our imperfect efforts and failures are reaching for something.
Still. Sacraments demand sacrifice. I am free from regrets but not from pain. If I’m going to write about myself, if I’m going to clear a slate and make it blank, I have to confront the fact that I didn’t make a home. I didn’t get the affirmation and love that I wanted. Maybe I can say that I don’t have any individual regrets, but then I have to admit that my failure looms larger. How can I guarantee anything will be better?
Ten years of fears, unrequited loves, odd jobs, of night phone calls. Now they’ve disconnected the line—Russia in upheaval and America in severe imperial decline have some startling similarities. People can live and not feel like they have achieved anything like a life. No money, no people around us capable of mature love, no time we actually control. Our lives are dictated to us by the whims of corporations, themselves the product of fear: they can never make enough money.
In the face of the unknown, simply surviving can seem a full life. But are we even allowed to think that way? Kapovich quietly describes what sounds like another sacrament: I drop the ashes in the sink, pour turpentine into a jar, stirring with a spatula. My heart throbs in my right palm when I pick up the brush again. I drop ashes; I pour an inhuman substance; I stir. Ashes aside, I create the paint, I resume the cleaning. Every moment of purifying these walls is a heartbeat. “My heart throbs… when I pick up the brush.” Not surviving, but purifying, is living. The sacrament is all that’s left, however it may be done.
What is painting for? What is writing for? Living in an apartment, knowing your place affords a clue. With a place comes a perspective: what more can I say to the glass [of my apartment’s window] but thanks for being transparent, seamless, wide and stretching perspective across the size of the visible. The window is a call to step beyond the apartment, out into another world. The window, though, is not a revelation, a moment like a burning bush. It was years of knowledge and the possibility of knowledge. Transparent, seamless, and wide, it offered clarity and consistency. It stretched perspective, making the visible something not be feared, but witnessed and explored.
The sacrament is the promise of seeing differently. There are so many bullies in this world who don’t want to hear about the existence of other people’s pain. Who would rather people not exist, but if others must exist, they should be targets for anger and abuse. Unsurprisingly, these bullies will take power, because it’s the only thing they understand. Often, they don’t want those abused the most to move anywhere, as they depend on being able to dominate someone. I think it’s useful to think about how many of us have internalized that abuse. Freedom and moving away are scary no matter what. But what a strange world we have, where we can speak credibly about having nothing, no support, and people do not need to stretch their imaginations to relate. We are pretty much a world of immigrants and refugees, the transnational held hostage by a few who can loot their own countries (and much more) at will. A few who never are asked to see differently, and react with rage and violence at the mere asking. Freedom is poor, not Spartan as much as monastic. It’s about creating a space where the self can simply be, can see and reach the multiplicity offered it: Freedom smells of a freshly painted room, of wooden floors swept with a willow broom, and of stale raisin bread.