by Jennifer Paros
One need not be a chamber to be haunted;
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
-- Emily Dickinson
As a kid, I liked Halloween - dressing up, going out, collecting candy - and the experience rarely, if ever, was scary. But Halloween did manage to feel frightening the year my friend and I were trick-or-treating and were joined late, in our neighborhood rounds, by an unfamiliar, tough little boy. With forced friendliness and salesman-like fervor, he latched onto us. We attempted to disengage but he continued tagging along and visiting the same houses. At one point, I knelt down to tie my shoe and set my bag of candy beside me. Quickly it became clear why this boy was with us; he grabbed the bag and ran off.
I found the experience distressing even beyond the hours of Halloween begging and substantial amounts of candy lost. My attention turned to his scheming and lack of caring about me. I saw myself as a victim in an unsafe and unfriendly world, and that thought actually was spooky.
Many people would say I was a victim in that situation. He’d done something to me, something against my consent, something I did not want. But the problem with this thinking is it’s scary and disempowering. So, despite the truth of him having taken an action that affected me, casting myself as the victim would only serve to haunt my thinking – something far worse than having one’s Halloween candy stolen.
Though it seems like Victim is a role forced upon us, it always remains our call as to whether or not we embrace it. There is no point denying the physical reality details of an experience. However, the way we perceive and express those details determines the way in which we live - haunted or not. And the same is true of how we write our stories and the perspective with which we leave our audience.
In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce discusses art as “proper” and “improper.” “Proper art” incites stasis –it holds the viewer still, balanced, taking us beyond desiring or loathing (the activity of the mind), to a place of beholding. “Improper art” incites kinesis – movement. It stimulates loathing or desiring (reaction).
Though defining art as “improper” and “proper” may seem like setting up camps of good and bad, these ideas point to a truth about creative work and its potential either to transform through inspiring a state of balance and beholding or to stimulate reactive thinking. Transformation results from seeing a situation new, in a greater context, that grows naturally from a mind that isn’t busy wanting or rejecting.
“In the haunted house of life, art is the only stair that doesn’t squeak.”
-- Tom Robbins
For my first studio art course, years ago, my drawings were hung as part of a student show. In craft and what’s termed technique, they were a beginner’s. But because my teacher was determined we learn to create and “sustain our own work”(she emphasized and valued themes meaningful to each of us), the pictures still had power. Their power defied the insecure thinking that marinated my personality regarding the rightness or the wrongness, the awkwardness, and the “amateurishness” of the work. The power was there because despite all of my not knowing how to do it, I showed up and brought forth what I felt. I started with left over childhood hauntings and I drew. I didn’t attempt to stamp anything out or escape, memorialize or glorify. I hoped to see beyond the details of my original experiences and reactions.
It’s a powerful moment when we or others look at an experience, even one we’ve all agreed is “bad,” and see it as a part of something more, something never intending harm. In doing so, the perception of life happening to us is elevated to a greater perception and love of life – using these events as portals to such a vision.
Art holds the promise of transposing the frightening to the benevolent. It can end the haunting. The mind, raised above the level of the facts of an experience and its own reactions, knows more and sees more. Out of the worlds of hating something or reactive wanting, we leave behind the role of Victim. And in doing so, it becomes impossible to be haunted; for only the Victim is haunted.
From a still point of awareness, we can behold our stories and share that which haunts and beyond - we can share the experience of the proper art of life.