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Henry Fuseli: Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices (1786)
"I try to remember that they're just as actively making up stories about me …"

When we were in exile, The Muse and I received periodic updates on the ongoing soap opera back home, though we were only rarely cast in any direct role in the performance. We could watch, amused or critical, from our distance and tisk or cheer as each summary inspired us. We lived, I guess, as relative gods there in that we could do little more than sit on our cloud and watch the play unfold beneath us, and we experienced a distinct beneath down there, for we were above those freys. Not that we were any better than any of the direct performers, but we could watch with unavoidable detachment. Of course we imagined that had we been there to exert influence, some of the more tragic outcomes might have been avoided, but we dared not dwell on the guilt we might have felt at missing the performances without sacrificing our already tenuous sanity. Being away's hard. Harboring begrudgement about it, only worse.

Returning, though, we're immediately cast into more active roles in the ongoing passion play.
We still exert remarkably little influence upon any performance, but we're no longer living far away where no gossiping observer can report back on our own performances. We're in spotlight however much we might prefer the shadow. We not only live in a glass house, but within a terrarium, too. Anyone can see if I've cleaned up the front yard or not, and meaning will be associated with whatever's observable, even if only seen in passing from the street. Word quickly slipped out that we were back and our presence seemed to have been immediately written into every subsequent script. Some found fresh reason to keep us clueless lest we come to know too much, but everyone's watching everyone else's business. I consider this feature of hometown life an act of love.

Humberto Maturana, the Chilean systems scientist, defined love as attention. When I notice someone passing me on the street and nod my head as if in greeting even a stranger, Maturana says that nod represents an act of love, even if I've raised my eyebrows in mute critique. Any acknowledgement counts as positive since indifference works as the opposite of love. What more hateful act could anyone perform than to fail to acknowledge another's presence? To render another irrelevant, even in passing, seems to leave this world gasping for air while simply acknowledging injects a vitality into proximity. Notice the difference between walking down a street averting gazes and following the same path while actively noticing and acknowledging others' presences. Notice how the latter feels in your chest. In DC, the natives look each other in the eyes as they pass on the street, and often toss a little greeting, even to strangers. The carpetbaggers who've taken up temporary residence scan their own shoes as they pass and thereby live in self-enforced isolation, and might even feel threatened by their aggressively accepting neighbors. What a curious difference.

I remain a critical observer and can be scathing under the proper circumstances. In exile, I mostly didn't know the current plot line back home and wasn't plugged into the one there, either, only receiving occasional updates covering the latest plot twists. From that distance I could conveniently critique performances I never directly witnessed. Now, I find myself in the thick of the story, which renders me much less omniscient. A certain ambiguity emerges when subsisting upon more than the occasional plot summary to understand the story. Each summary, of course, perhaps better reflected the summarizer's performance than the soap opera's. I feel challenged to become more generous if only because I've long insisted that it's my ethical responsibility to adopt the most generous possible interpretation wherever I'm not party to whatever's going on inside each performer. Nobody's ever sure what's going on inside any performer and only by uncomfortable conversation might one ever come to know, and even then, only if one can somehow muster a belief in the mysterious other and avoid ascribing negative motive to what one merely fails to more properly understand. I understand that this ethic robs much of the drama out of these performances, for one can hardly maintain any decent soap opera without villains and romantic leads. I try to remember that they're just as actively making up stories about me as I'm making up stories about them.

©2021 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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