Monday, January 2, 2012

where (wo)men walk without skins

Watching "Downton Abbey" on public broadcasting television last night reminded me that there is a land in which (wo)men walk without skins, a limitless place that becomes most readily apparent in the lands where their skins are most insistent.

"Downton Abbey" is one of those delicious, soothing and utterly horrifying costume dramas that takes place in turn-of-the-20th-century England. The place itself is enormous, a place where the word "opulent" is not an over-statement. There are the to's and fro's of the impeccably-dressed family that owns and runs it. There are the to's and fro's of the servants who make the impeccable lawns and impeccable furniture and impeccable ambiance fit together. It is a world that is whole and steady and constrained by the unspoken fervor with which those who live according to 'standards' assure a seamless life. No one sweats, though some perspire. To speak is to be measured and serene. Next to the Japanese, I think the British are most masterful at not-saying things. Naturally all of this runs head-long into simmering emotion and a yowling humanity that is kept so primly in check, so roped-off by standards.

As I watched the show, I wondered vaguely, "where does the money come from?" The question was not meant as some rebellious, barricade-building criticism. I just wondered. The wherewithal had to come from somewhere. Where was it? Stocks? Factories? Investments? Inheritance? Somewhere, somehow, someone had to sweat in order that others might merely perspire, might uphold standards, might be educated and couth.

But what really wondered me in the midst of all those clean, clean clothes and that ever-so-even-tempered badinage ... what really wondered me was the human willingness -- or is it need? -- to create social bell jars and then allow those bell jars to rule. Anarchist, upper-crust, Buddhist, car salesman, stock broker, house wife, patriot, hooker ... when you're in the midst of some particular world, the utter wholeness of it seems to suggest there is no other world. It is so compelling that neither thinking inside the box nor thinking outside the box has any meaning. It is like air ... not something to consider at any length. This world is the standard and I will dress accordingly. I get up in the morning, put on my standard skin and go forth. It is not a choice or an option. Circumstances rule and I go begging.

And yet the man without the skin, the one who longs to choose and yet doesn't quite dare, finds no place of rest. The standards that create this world are supposed to tame the winds of uncertainty and yet somehow create a greater, if whispered, uncertainty. The man without a skin cowers ... and sometimes weeps.

My grandfather -- my mother's father -- committed suicide. I never knew him well, but my mother described him as a man of fun and laughter ... until he married into a world of wealth and discovered the release that only a pistol might bring. His ever-so-neatly-penned diaries make passing reference to wondering how and when he might speak up and speak out in the places where his heart ached. His conclusion -- in a time when psychology had not yet been accepted -- was that there was no option but to soldier on. No choice, no escape. Opulence and comfort had their price ... and he pulled the trigger.

How does anyone take charge of the standards that rule this life? Not just imagine s/he was in charge, but actually take charge. Dress for dinner ... if you choose. Tell a dirty joke ... if you choose. Play poker until 4 a.m. ... if you choose. Own a luxury car ... if you choose. Be yourself ... if you choose.

Who is the man or woman without a skin? Who is the one whose standards supercede all standards and relies on none of them ... while at the same time, according to others, perhaps, acceding when the choice is made by the (wo)man without a skin?

As a teenager, when the 'Beat Generation' of poets and writers was making its mark, I used to love wandering around Greenwich Village in New York. I wore all black clothes as a mark of my solidarity with the 'non-conformist' world that was my standard. My skinless man would never admit aloud that he thought "On the Road" by Jack Kerouac -- a touchstone novel of the time -- was really not very good. The novel was full of vim and vigor and it encouraged me to hitchhike across the country twice, but still, it wasn't really a very good book.

I guess a part of making peace with the skinless (wo)man is just called "growing up." But I think it is more than that since so much of what passes for "growing up" consists of finding new and improved raiments. And the fact is that there are no raiments that fit this skinless (wo)man, this being that is in charge, this understanding that is content whether dressed or undressed, this laughter. There are no raiments that fit ... but you can put them on if you choose.

Your life, your choice ... so it goes for the (wo)man without a skin.

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