We’re standing outside, the last day of the summer school. Most people are inside the restaurant, talking, taking advantage of the bar, and we’re only a little ways away at the entrance. Our friends pass us occasionally, as they drift in and out, people sometimes saying hi, but mostly leaving us alone, not wanting to interrupt. He moves underneath an overhead lamp, and I follow him. Weaving back and forth to look at him without the overhead glare, shifting when I look down and away.
He’s telling me about dancers.
“When you date one… to make it work, you have no choice to try to mix into their own mind, to live their experience. It won’t work otherwise; they live in their own space, and it’s so different from the ones we’re familiar with, the ones similar to the people here. But it’s beautiful. Non-linear, non-consistent, they are experts in how they live, how they experience the world.”
I’m listening. I know what I’m looking for, I can gesture at it—there’s a space I haven’t explored, some way of experiencing the world that I know exists and I don’t have. He’s giving it to me. Different language, different concepts, underneath the street light.
He spreads his hands out, makes small chopping motions, and I can clearly see the idea he’s outlining: “Their truth is in the now,” he says, “not some line spreading from the future to the past, each point an observation that you reason into conclusions. That’s not their truth. Their truth is in everything they’re experiencing. Non-linear and non-consistent.”
I’m listening. My own experience, how I process the world, how I draw conclusions about myself, echoes in those chopping motions of his hands. I don’t feel attacked, though. Rather, like the world is opening.
“I’d recommend you date one,” he says, smiling.
“Yes. Also, you should try dancing. Ecstatic dance, in Oakland.”
I shudder, looking down and away. Twist uncomfortably. Look at his face, see he isn’t budging. I express more nervousness, uncomfortableness, but he’s unmovable.
I stand up straight, look him in the eye. “You do know that’s terrifying.”
He laughs. “Of course!” He says. “It took me years, and I thought ‘fuck that noise’ for a long time; I had to do it at Burning Man two years in a row before I starting going. And then all of a sudden when I wanted to see friends, I went to dance.”
(Internally, I throw up my hands, exasperated. One of my other friends engages this mode of communication as well: me struggling, him not giving an inch, and when I confront him about it, him admitting that actually it’s a hard problem and that hey, he empathizes. It’s a build-and-release, calculated, a slow, eye-contact stare with a smile, establishing power, making me dig, pushing. Fascinating, in its own way, and over fast enough that I only have that brief sense of really? before we move on, that feeling swept away under the general progression, connection, sense of moving and expanding.)
He’s bright-eyed, focused, continues to answer my questions, shape them in his own light. “It’s beautiful. This whole other way of being, you can see it in them. That there’s no such thing as simple emotions anymore, all of it is nuance, complexity.”
I tell him a story one of my other friends has about me, that I’ve gained a pixel into my emotions, but that an entire screen exists, expanding ocean of sparkling lights. I tell him what he’s telling me is consistent with what I’ve heard from others. He says that story feels true to him too.
(He shifts, and I keep an eye on him, wary, nervous—he’s sharing, he’s not pulling any information from me, he’s not receiving anything from me, he’s teaching, I could lose his attention at any time. He moves back into the light again, and I settle, follow.)
Dancers, eh? And someone’s full attention, full experience, sharing knowledge with me in the darkness, answers shaped by my interests and his, filtered through us both.
I can take that; I can find that beautiful.
I shudder, look away, look back.
I’m sitting on the counter of the kitchen, thirty other people crammed in the small room around me, beers in hand. It’s loud, and bright, and the window is open behind me, keeping the air cool, and I’m comfortable where I am, back against the windows, on the counter. I reach over for the box of school supplies, and a friend pushes it towards me, me stuttering a thanks, rapidly reassuring them that I only want a post-it, really, I don’t need the whole thing, thank you, before the interaction completes and I have my post-it, everyone in their spots again, on their way.
I pull a pen out from my pocket, which I’d picked up from the floor. Start writing on the post-it, around the corners, around the edges, silent in this busy room, people in a loose semicircle around the counters talking.
Someone comes over, smiles at me. “I hope you’re not working,” she says.
“Nope,” I say, looking up immediately, grinning. “Though Heather caught me earlier.”
She frowns, does a disapproving face, asks me how long it took her.
“Five minutes or so. I knew I’d get in trouble for it,” I reply, easy smile mirroring hers. She shakes her head, faux stern, and leaves me to it.
I’ve filled up the front of the post-it note, and am frowning at the little space I have on the back, when another peer comes over, sits down on the counter next to me.
“What’re you working on?” he asks, and I think he’s the third. (Isn’t it special, I think, in that brief felt-sense, isn’t it special that if I’m writing in a room with people, at least three people in five minutes will come over, engage me, ask me what I’m working on, check in, see if I’m okay, make sure everything’s good. Isn’t it special, I think, and a burst of gratefulness and awe and wonder sweep through me, and isn’t it special that it’s fine for me to write in a crowded room, fine in my mind for me to be artificially by myself, in my own head, not pushing myself to do anything else: isn’t that special.)
I look at the post-it note, decide I have enough of the basics written down that I can talk with other people without losing the thoughts completely. I turn to him.
“Just had a really good conversation with someone, so I’m writing down notes.”
“We were talking about different ways of experiencing life, and how there’s a mode that I want to get into, something like experiencing life in the now, fully experiencing emotions. He recommended I date a dancer.”
My counter-mate laughs. “That seems over-specific.”
I shrug, grinning. “Point stands. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for while, this mode of living I’m missing, and it was a very nice conversation. Anyway, how are you?”
“Good,” he says, and goes on. He’s thoughtful, this peer of mine, I can tell almost immediately from how he listens. He tells me that he’s glad I’m introspecting on this kind of thing. Why? I ask. It’s been a good experience for him, he says.
I’m easy, now, relaxed. I was unsettled before, jittery before my earlier conversation, searching for some kind of connection with people, but I’ve already gotten all I needed out of the evening. I move some helmets out of the way to not bend over awkwardly to talk to him, and mirror his posture. He’s easy to engage with, moreover—he’s obviously thought down these lines before, isn’t confused or encountering new territory. It’s always easier to connect with people who know the space of introspection, know why they do it, where it goes. Less to talk about, less questions, often, but easier, calm, and that interaction is layered over with the green of his eyes and the bright noise of the room.
“I actually read your blog,” she says, and I gape, because I know that if I hadn’t been talking about it she wouldn’t have brought it up.
“Did you!” I exclaim. “What’d you think?”
She smiles, looks down, gives a far fuller answer than I’m used to. “I read the one about your old lab; I didn’t know you did electrophysiology work. It was actually really interesting, the discrepancy between meeting you and then reading about your internal life, on the blog. There’s just such a difference.”
I grin—I love when people give me comments like this, honest and observational, just her thoughts, and she just goes on.
“I enjoyed the arc of the story. And you get to this part about your labmates not liking you, because they thought you were arrogant, and I could see that,” she says.
I’m trying to figure out whether to be offended or not. “What do you mean?”
She shrugs, still smiling, and I’m mentally whipping through all of my previous interactions with her over the summer school. She’s a postdoc, and just prior to this I’ve asked her for advice on something unrelated, and her hair is flyaway and eyes are warm.
I try again, flustered. “Do you think I come across that way? What should I do to not?”
She tilts her head, considering. “Doesn’t matter,” she says finally, firmly. “It’s a good thing, you know? And fights against the gender stereotype. Plus, everyone goes around sounding overconfident these days, I think it’s a good way to be.”
I blink, astonished. No one has told me anything like that in recent memory.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I say, getting with the program, joining in with the evidence I’ve accumulated on that front, though I haven’t accessed it with this lens.
Internally, I feel something astonished, something close, and something solid and firm.
Thank you, I mouth to her in my mind. Thanks.
He’s put an arm around my shoulder, and is pulling me into a half-hug, in front of others in this conversation. I’ve seen him do this with other people tonight, and I’ve implicitly granted him permission, earlier in the evening.
GAH, my mental voice screams, looking at people looking at me looking at him making this gesture.
Somewhere inside, I smirk internally, because this is hardly the first time. I always have strong, blinking-question-mark reactions to public displays of affection.
It’s warm and nice and my mental voice is sounding a blaring alarm.
We might have to work on this, I tell it, amused. There are obviously some serious emotions going on here, probably worth sorting through.
It might be nice not to try so hard, a part of me suggests. To just feel what we feel and let it be.
Fair, is as far as the dialogue gets before the next interaction sweeps it along. That would be nice. But we’re protecting something, too, and we’ll get the full story, but let’s keep this feeling, this warm, violated, swirl of a tension of a special of a fighting feeling—let’s keep that, keep that closeness, because it’s ours.
“Smirk,” he blurts at me, smirking.
“What?” I demand, turning to look at him.
“Smirk,” he repeats, smug look on his face.
I frown. “What, you mean I was smirking?”
He just continues to look at me, smugly.
“I was not! I didn’t mean anything bad,” I protest.
“I didn’t say you meant anything bad, I just said you were smirking. You’re over here, hand in front of your mouth, just this smirk behind it…”
I shake my head, sigh. I could have been doing it.
…I was probably doing it.
(If I didn’t think this particular guy was amazing, with powerful view on the world and how to improve it and how to survive and so many beautiful ideas about science, I’d probably be annoyed at him. But he’d complimented me on having an organized internal mind the first conversation I’d had with him, he spent hours telling me about what he cares about and why, he’s inspirational and brilliant and asks great questions, and I’ll embrace that he was looking at me from the right sideways angle to see whatever my face was doing that I wasn’t aware of :)).
“Monica,” she says warmly. “I remember what a weird relationship we had in college.”
“Was it?” I ask, smiling.
She tells me about some memories of us debating before the class, and everyone staring at us like “what the fuck are these two people doing”.
I don’t remember, but I can see us doing that, and also me not noticing. It’s nice to see old people again, see how we’ve changed and remain the same.
“Just hold on a bit longer, I promise it’s worth it,” he says, scrolling through his phone, and I shrug, laughing, assure him it’s fine.
“Here,” he says, holding it out. “By Marcus Aurelius of all people.”
“Remember that to change thy opinion and to follow him who corrects thy error is as consistent with freedom as it is to persist in thy error. Book VIII, 16.” We read.
“I think it’s important,” he says, leaning forward on the countertop. “The idea that it’s as much becoming a person to listen to what other people are telling you, and do it, than to not change.”
I nod, surprised that I like it as much as I do.
“Where’d you find it?”
“Well, I started Googling Marcus Aurelius, and the search term is “freedom” within the Wikipedia page…”
I’m sitting on the steps on the first day, and one of my new strangers comes over, slumps down next to me.
“Hey, Monica. You going to the social after the lecture?” she asks.
“There’s a social?”
“Are you on the WhatsApp group?”
She adjusts her glasses, pulls out her phone, messes around with it for the five minutes it takes for us to troubleshoot the process.
Another new stranger wanders over, also remembers my name, casually sits down, pulls me into a conversation.
They head off to the social, I walk them partway and turn around for bed, them bidding me goodbye.
People are nice, you know?
Just really nice.
We’re sitting in a circle, and playing a social game. When it’s each person’s 2-3 minute turn, the whole circle can ask them questions they’re genuinely curious about, and the person has to answer in 10 seconds, or pass if they don’t feel like answering the question.
I fix my eyes on the person, full attention.
“What’s beautiful?” I ask.
“So much,” they say, staring straight back. “So much is fucking beautiful. And sometimes I forget that, and that’s a tragedy.”
Nailed you. I think. Nailed you.
It’s my turn in the social game, and people are asking me questions.
“What’s wrong with people?”
I don’t even have to think, which is the point of the game—instinctive, immediate, what’s on your mind, right now.
“People have too strong opinions, and they defend them too much.”
“What do you want to fix?”
“I want to stop feeling so uncertain all the time. It feels unnecessary.”
Two of them frown across the circle at each other, pause, speak simultaneously. “Is it contradictory to want other people to not have strong opinions and you not be uncertain?”
“Yeah, that’s what I was going to ask.”
I frown, collecting my thoughts, and spread my hands a little, making two squares and expanding them. “It’s graded. Like, other people need to come WAY down in confidence.”
They let me get away with that, which surprises me. Making agreeing noises even before I’ve finished talking, just after I’ve made the gestures. At this point in my life, given the people who are around me in work and in play, I’m used to having to struggle a bit.
“Do you take in opinions too easily and defend them too easily?”
My response is almost instantaneous. “I take in opinions too quickly but I don’t defend them.”
(There’s no time to think, but in retrospect they’re spectacular questions. And I admire myself, now, for how far I’ve come, that I’m able to produce answers that feel true, without social censoring, immediately. I was not able to do this several months ago.)
“And now for the question: how often do you masturbate in a week?”
I grin—there’s always some sort of running joke in these types of circles, and this seems to be the one chosen in this one, and it’s innocent enough. I answer the question.
(Note: for this game, the questions vary wildly with who’s playing. ‘What’s wrong with people’ / ‘what’s beautiful’ / etc. are my preferred vein of questions, but everyone I play with has their own favorites, and the composition and norms of the circle influences the play.)
It’s a new circle, and I’ve been playing for the last three, but we have a new group this time. The person sitting next to me is up, and as I look at them, they make strong eye contact with me, very socially-attentive.
“What are you uncommonly good at?” I ask.
They start, surprised, in recognition of the unusualness / value of the question. I don’t respond—I’ve asked this same question before in a previous circle, and though it’s new for them, we’re in a circle of people who have seen me ask it, so I can’t match them emotionally. They recover, gather their thoughts, speak thoughtfully.
“Not changing my opinions. Holding my own opinions strongly—it can have its drawbacks, but it’s not something I see a lot in other people.”
I smile, completely in the space they’re inhabiting. That does seem like something lovely.
(In retrospect, I look back and laugh.)
I’m in a lecture, and I’m fed up with the speaker. I should be able to push through it—I always have in the past, or rather I didn’t get this angry in the past—but he’s just making me furious, and the annoyance is pulsing through me, almost every sentence he utters.
It feels like betrayal, which is way too strong of a reaction, but he’s doing something, and it’s related to the idea of violating the social order, then using the social order and politeness to enforce that we don’t retaliate.
I’m furious and feel like doing something more productive. Very quietly, during the next pause, I sneak out of the room, sit on a table outside the hall, and work on programming until everyone comes out an hour later.
The day four professors I adore come to speak, I’m dancing around the whole day. They expand the universe and mind and science, some of these people.
“Thank you,” he tells me emphatically. “This was exactly what I wanted, I’m so glad you organized it. I’m going to organize these circle things at home, this was perfect.”
“Yeah?” I say, happy. “You enjoyed it?”
“It was perfect; I hadn’t heard of this before either.”
“Well, thanks for participating! I love this game, it’s the best.”
“I’ll play social games with you,” she says before dinner, easy as anything.
“Really?” I ask, surprised and pleased.
“Yeah. And we can get some other people, too.”
“Really, you’ll play?”
“We can meet up at the lab, do it after dinner.”
Social games would literally not have happened without her. I just need one person, and I can plan and organize, but I need one. Thank you.
“Yeah, I remember you were chill, before.”
“Whaaattt?” I respond, turning to her. We’d met four years ago at a previous summer school, and I’d always liked her. So much spirit.
She backs down, defends herself. “I mean, you never went to parties at night, seemed to keep to yourself.”
I laugh, surprised at the different perspectives. “I’m way more chill than I was four years ago, but it’s true I’ve never partied much. I like small group settings, especially one-on-ones.”
She nods, agreeably, and the table stops sending their gazes ping-ponging back and forth between us. The conversation easily turns back to science before someone’s phone slips out of their pocket and into the water below, and then we’re wrapped up in conspiracy theories regarding the merits of putting phones in rice.
“I wanted to work with you because you seemed like you got things done.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Really?”
My partner on this project is one of the kindest people I’ve met, so thoughtlessly, default caring, and of course incredibly smart and driven and well-spoken and energetic in addition to being considerate.
She’s kind of effortlessly cool and during circling, tells us she bought her bright pink sweater when she was wandering around in a Costco in a bathing suit in Hawaii, got cold, bought it for $20, and has had it ever since. She keeps on asking me if I’ve enjoyed working with her on the project, because I was internally struggling at the beginning (we can’t do everything my way if we’re working with a partner) but she has been incredible, and had better ideas that I did a lot of the time. Plus, ruthless competence was the name of the game at this summer school, which is always lovely.
But I see it, what she’s saying. I led a bunch of circles, and was enforcing rules and telling people to go away and come back later, and I always forget that this is a part I have and a part that people like, because people’s eyebrows always go way up when I jump in with: “Okay, here’s what I understood, what’s the action plan.”
I forget sometimes, how… I don’t have a word for it, but a long thin blue shine, quiet and beautiful, iridescent green, tinge of warmth, more of sunlight, lovely and a touch nostalgic, barest of awe, the shudder-bubble of appreciation… of living my life, of being the person I am, of the love around me. Of late-night conversations and people who care and ideas that span the world and generations and truth-seekers and curiosity and caring about people outside….
It’s cheating, but it’s fucking beautiful, you know? It’s fucking beautiful.