– LINDSEY BUTTON
I am twenty-three, almost twenty-four. It is strange to think about who I was when I was twenty-one: a very different girl. The past two years have been a concentrated growing period that has left me with a feeling of uncertainty. I often jokingly call Nashville my purgatory. But more accurately, this phase of my life is a purgatory, of sorts. I just happen to be experiencing it in this city—the city I made some of my first best friends in, the city with all of my lovers, the traces of them still seen on this corner and that sidewalk, that house, that street.
At twenty-one, I liked drinking tea and talking about books with the other girls in my classes. My life was very female-driven. All of my closest friends were girls. I didn’t grow up with guy friends and I had never dated a boy and had only kissed a couple of them. The girls I had begun to spend time with in college were similar in these regards. They were extremely intelligent fellow English majors and I found enough fulfillment in these types of platonic friendships and the life I found in literature, that I didn’t think too much about sexual relationships. That’s not to say I wasn’t aware of my sexuality. I always knew there was a deep-seated sexuality that was a vital part of my personality that could, I believed, be tamed by the intellect. So I focused all of my energy, some misplaced sexual energy no doubt, into reading about centuries past and writing about experiences that were not my own.
Above my bed, there is a painting of the Lady of Shalott (the one by John William Waterhouse). I bought this at the time I speak of—a time I like to think was the most Romantic period of my life thus far—when it was only composed of books and friendships with intellectual girls. If you are not familiar with the Tennyson poem, it is about a mysterious woman who weaves in a tower from images she sees in a mirror but is told that if she ever looks out the actual window, towards Camelot, she will be cursed. “And moving thro’ a mirror clear/ That hangs before her all the year,/ shadows of the world appear.” The poem goes on to say, “She hath no loyal knight and true….But in her web she still delights/to weave mirror’s magic sights…” It is a conflict of creating art based on a secondary account of the world vs. participating in the living world at the sake of losing those artistic abilities.
I felt as though I was the Lady of Shalott in some regards. For as long as The Lady of Shalott is weaving the images she sees in the mirror, she is happy, innocent, and the highest form of an artist—one that lives more in her art than in her life. But the moment she gets distracted by an outside force (Sir Lancelot riding by) and cannot resist looking out the window, her weaved image floats apart, the mirror breaks, and the curse is said to be upon her. She has participated in reality and her art has suffered for it. It is a similar concept that is portrayed when Oscar Wilde says, “Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are….But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating….He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize.”
My point in all of this is that I felt I created better art when my life itself was more solitary and uninteresting. My books were my mirror. My writing was my web. But one day I found myself saying, “I am half-sick of shadows,” and my knight appeared (though he was not exactly a Sir Lancelot type). The days since have been that long drift down the river towards Camelot.
When I was twenty-two, I found myself in a relationship, in love for the first time. The short version of this story is that the whole thing confused me and that confusion led me to be a poor participant in the relationship. Thus, the relationship itself was short-lived (though our love for each other was not) and after it was over, I felt like I had looked towards Camelot and that there was no going back to my lonely tower. My schooldays were over; I could no longer hide behind my books. The mirror had broken. I could only move forward.
That leads me to this purgatory of uncertainty I find myself in. After graduating, without the assigned essays, consistent schedules, the novels I must read in a week, and the intense group discussions, I felt lost. I no longer had interest in reading or writing. I would try to write and all that would come out would be about my time spent with my ex-boyfriend and how it all made me feel, as if I could hardly remember what I was doing before I met him. It’s true I was in love with him, but it was perhaps more true that I couldn’t get past the ways he had somehow changed me. It is hard to let go of a person who reshapes the way you think about yourself and life. Having that type of deep emotional and sexual attachment with someone set off a course of changes in life. I became addicted to wanting to have my mind changed. If one person could change me in one way, how could another reshape me? “I hope I am always a different person than I was the month before,” I scratched in a journal once.
But I couldn’t translate my experiences into fiction. And it was hard to write about it in nonfiction without feeling obsessive and then becoming self-loathing about my own self-obsessions. So I stopped writing—except for the articles I was getting paid to write for a magazine and a few feminist essays I wrote for a friend’s zine—but I felt I had lost my intense imaginative abilities that I couldn’t help but have my whole life. No longer was I writing poems everyday or consumed with thoughts of what my characters were doing in their alternate realities (perhaps some would say I had just become more sane). The only books I read that year were The Complete Book of Witchcraft and Lolita, the former helped to open my mind and regain a sense of spirituality, the latter gave me a reference point to my own heartbreak-related nihilism.
As you can imagine, I had gotten very far from the girl that wore floral dresses and drank too much tea. I now perhaps drank too much gin. I wasn’t like a lot of my friends after graduation. I wasn’t networking, I had no interest in a 9-5 job, and I had no interest in being in a relationship that would lead to marriage. I was, what seemed to them, in the midst of a mental breakdown. I had come down from my tower, and I was determined that if I was now subjected to reality and experiencing life, I would experience it in ways I could learn and grow as an individual. I suppose you could call it a cultivation of self, or more simply a time period of personal and sexual exploration. But since I found I could no longer write and read with the passion I had formerly, I focused my energy on making my life an artwork of sorts (in a very Dorian Gray manner), or seeing the story in my own life, since I could no longer seem to create one beyond myself.
The girls that I had once been very close with no longer felt they could connect with me. This resulted in me losing the closeness of a few friendships which, at first, I felt bad about, as if I had done something wrong. But in truth, I felt more looked down upon. I do not believe this was intentional, but there is a type of judgment women receive from other women when they step outside of the boundaries that are expected of them. To some of my friends, I was just “Poor Lindsey, who dated too many people, who was maybe homosexual but maybe not, who maybe drank too much and didn’t have a real job.” In their eyes, I had fallen behind them—I had ceased to grow up in the midst of marriage proposals and “real” jobs.
It is the “in-between” that is terrifying to many—this purgatory I speak of. In Gothic Literature criticism, there is a term called “liminal space.” It is used to describe things that are not here nor there, which is often the source of terror. Take Dracula for instance, he is neither fully dead nor fully alive and his sexuality could easily be questioned. Things we cannot fit into categories are scarier to us. During this time, I began to feel a bit like Dracula. I felt as if my old friends, who I still adored, were somewhat scared of me and the influence I could have on them because they weren’t sure who I was anymore. Like Dracula, I was constantly trapped in some in-between state. “Everything I do is not one or the other,/ but both, and neither./ I have the sharp bone that will plunge/ and the pomegranate lips that will suck the blood,” I tried to explain later on in a mess of a poem I wrote.
This judgment I sometimes feel leads me to the other way I relate to the Lady of Shalott. There are many ways you can read that poem, but one of the more common readings is its representation of the ideal of the Victorian woman (some ideals that are still prevalent in expectations for young women). Judgment is the “curse” that came upon The Lady of Shalott when she made the decision to participate more actively in life. When you decide to live your life differently than what people expect, you are punished for it in one way or another. There was no real curse upon The Lady of Shalott; it was only that people had convinced her there was. The curse was only something constructed by society that she had believed was true about herself.
My friend Lindy, who had once been a fellow fairy-girl with her tea and books beside me in my British literature courses, who has been through far more life-altering changes than I have and who is often the supportive rock for what I begin to worry is my insanity, was reassuring me only two hours before I began this essay, “You’re figuring out who you are and what you like. Never apologize for that.”
The inevitable answer to avoid having an ending like The Lady of Shalott: don’t allow yourself to believe the judgment you are subjected to and learn to embrace the way your creative outlets change. Balancing life and art is a complicated relationship. Seeing the art in one’s own life and blending the two together is even more complicated. I’ve learned that to be a functioning artist within society and not an outsider artist listening to prophecies in the woods, you cannot ignore life, and you cannot become an invisible vessel—you are a human with feelings. Do not condemn yourself for also wanting to live. Do not let others condemn you for changing. As Joni Mitchell once said, “They’re going to crucify you for staying the same. If you change, they’re going to crucify you for changing. But staying the same is boring. And change is interesting.”
Lindsey Button lives in Nashville, TN. Her interest in writing can be attributed to her childhood in the mountains of Tennessee, her interest in mysticism, and reading too much Oscar Wilde at an impressionable age. She enjoys examining issues about the creative process, gender/sexuality, and spirituality in her writing. Her writing can also be found in NATIVE and Esoteric.
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