Stories from the Road: Chasing Barges and Otherness

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For a brief respite between drab winter and frenzied garden preparations, my family and I headed up to the North Shore on Lake Superior. We visited the local high points: Split Rock Lighthouse, Glensheen Mansion, an aquarium, a maritime museum. It was relaxing and enjoyable when we were together. Alone, I found moments to do what I do best. I recognized my Otherness.

It’s hard not to feel apart and isolated these days. My disconnect from the political those who scramble to represent us, overpower us, quiet us, is becoming palpable. I am scared of many of my fellow voters. I don’t understand your placards or your mindless hooting. These politicians are not your friends. They want power. Stop throwing them parties.

Culturally, all the latest stars look like kids. The celebrities I grew up with are beginning to die, one by one. I have a low tolerance for television shows or commercials these days. It all seems like extraneous noise. Most nights on vacation, I’m down in the lobby reading while my family unwinds to reality TV involving children crying during junior chef competitions or grown men finding out what happens when they crush things.

Hidden behind a column, I sat in a comfortable chair looking out onto the lake. To the right and back of me, a group of young lawyers discussed witness prep for an upcoming trial. Gaiman lost me at that point and the words of my book blurred as I listened with fascination. Everything becomes material. Part of me feels a predatory thrill. To observe without being observed. I am voyeur.

canstockphoto2064089I wake up at 4am every morning, vacation or not. Sometimes I lie there, listening to the soft snuffling of my family. We paid for a view on the lake. I bundled up and sat on the balcony, listening to the waves crash on the shore. When the sun came up, I saw a large ship on the horizon. It was coming towards the aerial lift bridge. I dashed out of the room, down several flights of stairs and out onto the lake boardwalk, walking quickly towards the monolithic barge. It slid into the harbor and out of sight. And then I was alone, feeling slightly foolish.

Otherness came over me. It happens to me more and more frequently, as I get older and slip out of synch with the rushing, constantly updating world. I’m becoming invisible. My otherness is no longer quirky or weird or even interesting. It’s unseen.

canstockphoto0033418Sitting on a bench, I watched the ring-billed gulls doing their acrobatic swoops. A cold wind blew off the lake. Sporadic joggers passed by. I remembered other park benches and rocks and stone walls where my legs dangled. Listening to the bark of sea lions on Monterey Bay, drinking beer on a grassy hill at the Festung Marienberg, sitting on a Mediterranean beach as fishermen gathered up lines and nets, in a park next to a group of WWI German soldiers memorialized in stone, carrying a fallen comrade.

As a child, I spent a lot of time in my head, escaping less than edifying circumstances. I found secret places to be alone – in the back corner of a library, in a tree, on a rock by the lake. I became a watcher. Distance became necessary armor against assaults on hypersensitivity. It was a way to be safe. To heal quickly from the bruising nature of life.

Whether I was already a writer or laying fertile ground for becoming one, I think this is a thing that happens. While life is happening all around me, sentences are being formed, dulling the intensity of the moment. A story emerges. What ifs override what is. Curiosity drives an overwhelming need to chase barges, to see what happens next, to find oneself in the middle of a deserted boardwalk, feeling all at once foolish and delighted.

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41 Comments on “Stories from the Road: Chasing Barges and Otherness

  1. I have always been a voyeur, hopefully unobserved. Sometimes it is difficult not to stare openly. I can’t help myself or stop myself. I’m not even always aware I’m doing it. An ex boyfriend used to complain I wasn’t paying attention to him because I was too busy watching other people. It’s a reflex action, necessary for writers I think, in order to create characters readers can identify with. Sounds like you were in a lovely spot, a perfect escape from a world that is becoming increasingly unfathomable.

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    • I find myself escaping more and more and I’m not sure if that is worrisome or just healthy. I’ve always preferred watching to doing, which is why I often force myself into activities – in search of that elusive balance, I suppose. Still, I do feel it benefits the writing to get away and to have moments of otherness.

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      • I agree. I think escaping is healthy unless you never come back to, or deal with, reality.

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  2. Thanks, Michelle. I hope this time and space has given you renewal and peace. I wonder if your sense of ‘unseen otherness’ may just be a period of rest. Sometimes we just need to get to the edges and look around, uninterrupted, untangled. Being in the thick of things gets tiring and blurs perspective. Knowing what little I have read of you, I suspect there will be movement and energy that draws your engagement back to something… Curious what it would be!
    Have you read/heard _Big Magic_ by Elizabeth Gilbert? I have listened to it a few times now and it inspires me differently each time. I wonder how it would land on you today, and in 6 or 12 months…
    Best wishes to you this spring! 😊

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    • I’ve always felt degrees of Otherness, but in combination with the invisibility of being a middle-aged woman as well as the growing disinterest in pop culture, it seems more prominent. And I think it’s all good, but on occasion I wonder just how eccentric I’m going to become!

      Big Magic is on my audio book request list at the library. Thanks for mentioning it. Spring is also on my request list, but it’s taking its sweet time getting here! Best wishes to you as well, Catherine.

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  3. Really thought-provoking Michelle. I often think about otherness and my place on that spectrum. Sometimes I feel like I fit in with the people I am with, other times, not at all. And I resonate with the increasing of that feeling as you get older. I think sometimes I try too hard to fit. Perhaps I might try taking a leaf out of your book. I hope you feel ok with it, wherever you are.

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    • Thanks, Annie. I actually do feel okay with otherness, but it makes me a little curious about how odd I’m going to get. It seems to be accelerating with age.

      I’ve gone through various phases of trying to fit in, but I also preserved my otherness by offsetting social time with alone time. These days I spend more time alone than not. It’s more natural for me, but I try to stay engaged when I’m with people, knowing that it will be for a limited time.

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    • I’ve been in Minnesota for about 17 years and it’s only the 2nd time I’ve gone up there. For whatever reason, it has been February (for cross country skiing at Gooseberry Falls) or March. Nice for being off-season, but very chilly!

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  4. Evocative, melancholy; I, too, experience what you describe. And I grew up in Minnesota and later lived near Lake Superior, so this land/lakescape has meaning for me, too. Beautifully wrought.

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    • Thanks, Cate. I hadn’t called it melancholy, but it fits. Too much news reading, I think. There is something to be said for finding the biggest topographical features, whether it be lakes or mountains to get some perspective!

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  5. Did you make some subtle changes to the design of your page? It looks good. And what Gaiman are you reading? I have American Gods on deck and am debating starting it, or a Milan Kundera book. Hope you’re doing well. I’ll say this now because I may never get to say it again, but I’m going to Prague tomorrow, just me and my mom, and I’m excited to go back. Haven’t packed yet, kind of cool. Best, Bill

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    • I’m always futzing around with the blog design – any changes that remain are purely accidental. I took a break from Wallace and read “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”. It was the first Gaiman I’d ever read and a bit on the thin side. However, I just picked up “Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances” from the library and am hoping for more of a meaty read.

      Enjoy Prague, Bill! I may never have a chance to say that again and I feel ever so slightly more sophisticated having done so. Here’s wishing you warm socks and good beer. Šťastnou cestu!

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      • I loved “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”, but if you’re looking for something more substantial, read “Neverwhere”, “Coyote Blue”, “Anansi Boys” or “American Gods”. There’s another one – “Starlight”? “Stardust”? Something like that – which I found very unsatisfying, and I absolutely don’t enjoy his graphic novels – I’ve tried and just cannot make sense of them. All that said, he is one of my favorite writers, and one that I most enviously wish I could emulate.

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        • Good to hear from you again! I hope all is well.

          This is not a genre I read a lot of and sometimes my ability to suspend disbelief is hindered by that. I enjoyed the writing, but the story itself, with its child narrator vagueness reminded me very much of “A Wrinkle in Time”. Since all I wanted was some light reading, this was fine. I’ve heard Neil Gaiman in interviews and various video clips and I like what he contributes to the conversation about writing.

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        • Hey there! Yes, things are goodish … Mom not doing so well, and I’ve been struggling with anxiety and depression – SUCH a stupid waste of time and energy! I wish I could just write it all out but I’m just all bunged up… 😦

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        • So sorry to hear your mom is not doing so well and that you are struggling now. You’re giving yourself the double-whammy of feeling like crap and being mad at yourself for feeling like crap. Breathe, my friend. Maybe write a little – you might unbung yourself enough to see a little light.

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        • I’ve just been reading Aussa Lorens’ posts on blogging – do you follow her? She’s hilarious, as well as successful. She writes of the need to blog with a plan and a strategy, so I’ve been doing some thinking about that. My style has been to wing it, relying on a coincidence of inspiration and time, and although that was okay to start with it’s becoming less satisfying. Of course, you’re a born organized type (so says Kiri), so you probably already know that…lol.

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  6. Michelle your posts always touch on things I am feeling. Perhaps it’s our age or our writer’s hearts or the currents of change we feel carrying our country somewhere we are very unsure of…whatever it is, I appreciate your thoughtful posts. I believe there are legions of us out here feeling the same, so while you might feel like an other, you’re otherness is very familiar to me and a lot of other folks. We just don’t express it as well as you do.

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    • Thank, Ilona. I think of that “otherness” feeling as being pretty universal, especially if one spends any time out of sync with the rest of the world and in solitude.
      Of course, a different kind of “otherness” is what is also driving much of the political discourse these days – demonizing all others outside one’s belief group as being wrong or evil or stupid. I find myself wanting to be in a group all by myself, so that I can step out of the fray and not see everything as a binary choice.

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  7. ahhh, insightful and sweet post here! I too can relate, to that “otherness,” always a watcher, looking for the next!
    Thanks for these sentiments, Michelle!
    They hit home!

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    • Thanks, Lisa. Perhaps it’s simply an ability to see things in a broader context, stepping out of the minutiae of the moment we’re in. Not sure. I’ve written this post sufficiently vague enough to mean anything!

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  8. Your otherness captures exactly how I feel these days and appears to be evident as well in many of your commenters. The odd part is I don’t perceive myself as physically older.

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    • I think most of us don’t see ourselves as the age we are. I’ll always be 28 – all that other stuff is just extraneous bells and whistles, if by “bells and whistles” I mean aches and pains and wrinkles and a general level of grumpiness!

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  9. Most of the time, I’m pretty smug about my otherness (let’s just be frank–superiority). And as popular culture passes me by, I wave and mutter, “Good riddance.” But I do miss more clues now on crossword puzzles.

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    • I think I was more arrogant about my sense of alienation when I was younger, but it feels differently now, as if I have an opportunity to see a bigger picture. It might be the dawning of wisdom. That’s on a good day. On a bad day, everyone else is just rubbish and I’m oh-so-special.

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      • Yeah, mostly that last part. I used to feel completely inadequate when I was younger–broken, useless–you know the drill. So, the pendulum swings FAR to the other side. Maybe it will stop swinging in such wide arcs, but I’m okay on this side for now.

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  10. ‘I recognized my Otherness’ is a line that hit me. We’re like magnets. Opposites attract, likes repel. Only connect things being various, to quote Forster and MacNeice. We need the outsider perspective. A few of my current obsessions, in response to your thoughtful post.

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    • I wonder, too, if the outsider perspective is a way of stepping outside of our own egos. If it’s done well, I think it helps us with perspective and empathy. On the opposite end, some people take that sense of alienation and turn it into hatred of all others. What makes the difference? Coming up with vague questions and pondering them is one of my obsessions!

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      • You’re on to something here. I was once told by a friend who was a trainee psychologist that I would have problems with the fact that I didn’t have much of an ego. He was right in the short run, because our society runs on ego – the root of the hatred you mention, perhaps? – but wrong long-term because my life is enriched by the perspective/empathy you speak of. As to vague questions, love ’em, such a refreshing change from soundbites and clichés …

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  11. I ‘liked’ a lot of the comments and your post…very relatable, even if I’m more of a flextrovert than either intro or extro…
    On the light side, here’s a link to a commercial you actually might enjoy: Cookie Monster baking cookies…it brought a smile to my face, hoping it will do the same for you. (now don’t go sayin’ Cookie Monster ‘sold out’ to commercialism, just enjoy the blue guy!)


    peace

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    • oops, had no idea it would present itself fully in the comments, I only intended to send the link for you to click onto….so so sorry 😦

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      • My blog is set up to allow the video in the comments, so no need to apologize. I love Cookie Monster. iPhones, not so much.

        I’m an introvert for sure, who can function as an extrovert when needed. I just work really hard to make sure that it’s not needed!

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  12. Exceptional! Love especially being afraid of voters. Good shot. Also, a thought, not by way of advice, but another angle: when you speak of “otherness,” I find myself wondering about a mindful tension with that. I sometimes think the feeling of otherness is close to the feeling of “oneness.” I remember Thomas Merton’s revelation at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander). He writes about feeling hyper-connected to everybody, but then says that you can’t walk around telling people that they are all “shining like the sun.” Who would understand? Anyway, I ramble. Peace, John

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    • First of all, thank you for mentioning Thomas Merton which led me down a trail of bread crumbs and I’ve now added him to my reading list. And “mindful tension” is a phrase to mull over.

      You’ve opened the door to my own mindful weirdness. If you’re familiar at all with the fictional Dr. Who, a Time Lord who can see all points in time simultaneously (which would, apparently, fry the human brain), then my next thought won’t seem so strange.

      I have moments when I feel like everything is in perspective. Like I can imagine humanity’s entire existence from beginning to end and I see how small and insignificant it all is and I feel a tenderness towards everyone. Instead of feeling nihilistic, it gives all our struggles, all our moments a bittersweet depth. We should comfort and help each other as much as we can. Our time is limited, but our kindness need not be.

      Now I’m rambling, but you got my brain gears turning this morning, John and that’s always a good thing. Have a lovely day!

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  13. I relate to what you’re saying here. I’ve been on the outside of things since the day I was born. I’ve come to learn that otherness is a gift that brings perspective, something much needed in this world.

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