Observance

In Wyoming you can drive for two hours without passing through a town. Maybe even without passing another car. In Wyoming there are almost twice as many cows as people. In Wyoming I knew everyone who might be looking through my window. In Wyoming I knew no one was. As an only child with a single mother and no T.V., I did not grow up in solitary confinement, but I grew up solitary.

***

Sometimes, in middle school, I’d watch the boys I crushed on. Sometimes they’d look back. Watching them watch me—the moment of eye contact—was thrilling and intimate. It felt a lot like getting to know someone. But sometimes I would imagine they were watching me when they definitely couldn’t, when I was at home, twenty miles outside of town. My mother had warned me against keeping my curtains open at night: Though I couldn’t see into the dark outside, anyone would be able to look easily into our little squares of light. So my boys would appear for me in the evenings, once the sun had sunk behind the mountains and our house glowed warmly.

***

I have never believed in a god, but I understand the desire, even how certainty could bloom: Walking home under vast Wyoming sky I hear no sound other than the snow squealing under my feet. The Milky Way smears the sky above me. I am so small in this vastness. It makes no sense for me to be here if there is no one to confirm it—if there is no one to see me walk, do I really walk? But yes, I walk: My breath flushes white in the cold, my heels hit the ground as I stride, and the off-beat echoes through my legs, my lower back. I am, and I am alone in this cold corner of Wyoming. But I can’t let go of the tingling that someone must be watching me. Or else none of this is real.

***

But what about when there is no possibility of being seen? In 2011, Juan E. Mendez, a United Nations expert on torture, called for all countries to ban solitary confinement in prisons. Mendez cited different scientific studies that have shown there is frequently lasting mental damage even after a few days of social isolation. 1 People held in solitary confinement suffer from bouts of paranoia, claustrophobia, panic attacks, hallucinations, insomnia, depression.2 None of these symptoms are surprising; any aspect of the punishment could induce them. I talk to myself when I’m alone cooking my breakfast; I’m confident I would talk to myself in solitary confinement, too, if I were ever placed in such a situation. But my words would be attempting to establish false contact with a fake other. What am I if there is no you?

***

I say my mother warned me about my curtains and I mean it. Even now, on trips home from college, I’ll be changing in my room and she’ll call through the house: Are your curtains shut? Sometimes she’ll hurry into the room herself, yanking the white swatches closed as I stand with my hands over my breasts. Before she enters, I am loose and oblivious, flinging pants on the floor, standing bare-chested and carefree. But she brings with her the insistence of shame. Her worried eyes remind me there is always the possibility that someone really is watching.

***

Observation is inseparable from judgment. Colloquially, we say “I see you,” to mean “I understand.” Literally, “I see where you’re coming from. I understand your perspective.” We have leagues of pithy aphorisms that express the need for thoughtful consideration, to remind that seeing does not always equate to understanding. Think twice before you act; don’t judge a book by its cover. The power in observation comes of course, almost completely, from the observer. And if the observer reacts incorrectly, what atrocities will be committed through misunderstanding?

***

Sometimes observation becomes too much. The boys would occasionally watch me fall asleep, but they were never there when I woke up. They only watched when I wanted to be seen, and they departed when I wanted my privacy.

***

When the Arabian Nights gained European readership upon its translation into French by Galland, a new mode of thought was released upon the world. Orientalism, though based in naiveté, began as a desire to establish oneself by establishing an other. In a complicated series of chance occurrences, viewpoints established by European powers and propped up through colonialism became history: As Eva Sallis says in her book Sheherazade through the Looking Glass, “the Orient could be exotic only with a Westerner observing it. What Europeans collectively observed, was, so therefore the European viewpoint was objective fact.”3

***

Though I was careless about my curtains in Wyoming, when I lived with my father in a Colorado city I was much more attentive. Every night, I lowered my plastic blinds before changing into my pajamas. Every morning, my father raised them to let the light wake me. In Denver, I could see into other squares of light well enough to trace the contours of my neighbor’s dimples when he laughed, seemingly soundlessly. I did not like to imagine him tracing mine.

***

In a Pew Research Study from 2015, 54% of Americans disapproved of the US government’s collection of personal information as part of anti-terrorism efforts.4 We all want to be safe, and though privacy and safety are not one in the same, they are inherently related. In some cases, privacy can even negate the need for safety: Safety means you are protected, but if you have true privacy, there is very little that you need to protect. Or be protected from.

***

What do we mean when we say we want to be seen? I think we want what we ask for when we say it colloquially. Watch me carefully. See me honestly. Give me purpose. But there’s a lot of seeing without understanding in the world.

***

When my crushes watched me, I tried to enthrall them. I took care to sit straight at the dinner table, to laugh warmly, to look up from my evening book and stare thoughtfully into the distance. I was curating the me they’d see, but it was also my most honest self: If they could observe me at my most solitary, they would also see me at my most comfortable, my most unfiltered. After observing my truest self, they would love me. Not because my true self was exceptionally spectacular. But because sincere observation creates deep understanding. And if you deeply understand something, you can accept it. You can give it love.

  1. “Solitary confinement should be banned in most cases, UN expert says.” UN News Center. 18 October 2011. Web. 21 February 2016.
  2.  “Solitary Confinement Facts.” American Friends Service Committee. Web. 21 February 2016.
  3. Sallis, Eva. Sheherazade through the Looking Glass: The Metamorphosis of the Thousand and One Nights. New York and London: Routledge, 1999.
  4. Gao, George. “What Americans think about NSA surveillance, national security and privacy.” Pew Research Center. Web. 5 May 2016.