Episode 11: Within the Wires (Revisited) - Things Worth Caring about (is M one of them?)
Good art allows us to face the worst in ourselves and our world simply because it can do so safely. Or more specifically, it does so in what feels like a safe context. One in which things that are said don’t make us feel attacked or that we are on trial for crimes we never meant to commit. Fictional works are especially good for this likely because their very nature is founded upon an outright break from reality. The idea is that when I engage with a fictional work I am completely stepping away from this world or just from my life for a moment and into this place composed of different pieces and people. And those are the people being condemned for what they have done. Consequently, I don’t need to be on guard or defensive in the same way that I am when I’m living my own life. Fiction is a safe place from the harrowing ordeal of introspection.
Or, at least, this is a very convenient lie we can tell ourselves.
(Music fades out)
Hi. It’s M. Welcome to episode 11.
(Music fades in)
I’ve already talked about Within the Wires in an earlier episode. It was episode 2, in fact. Back when I didn’t fully understand how noise reduction in Audacity works, which left me with an audio file full of mysterious clips and forced me to rerecord the second half of it on the morning it was supposed to be posted. Sigh. Good not good times. I’m still not a great podcaster, but I’ve come a decently long way since then. Sometimes you have to learn by doing.
Or by listening to your favorite audio drama over and over again. Or via forced segues.
Jokes—however bad they are—aside, I have more to say about Within the Wires as well as a WTW related need to satiate until the next season comes out. Wow, I just said “jokes aside” and proceeded to make a terrible joke-slash-almost joke. Great.
If my terrible humor isn’t a clue, this isn’t going to be an easy episode for me to make. Its subject is a topic I don’t like thinking about. Never mind talking about. But at the same time, it feels important to say this: either in the act of saying it or maybe—and it’s a strong maybe—this may be important for someone to hear. But this podcast is a collection of hasty decisions, so at least its thematically appropriate.
The point being, and I do have one, I have a lot to say about Within the Wires that just has to come out in pieces. I guess this could be true of anything if you obsess about it enough. Most of the time we just finish a book, movie, or a podcast and then set it aside, but I’ve never been able to do that with Within the Wires. It seems like every time I do a re-listen of the past seasons, I come away with some other thought or what could almost be considered an epiphany or a revelation. Except this isn’t exactly a revelation. In fact, I think this is something I’ve been sitting with for far too long. As with all fears, I guess, we hoard them far longer than we should just because we don’t know what else to do with them. It’s like the trinkets on my desk whose purpose or character I can’t easily define. This uncertainty makes it so much harder for me to part with them. And fears can be just as ambiguous as random trinkets. For me, this means keeping them around until I have some justification for throwing them out. That’s what I found. Within the Wires just gave me something to anchor it as I consider chucking it out the window or keep it. Now I have words to make an argument about the topic, and I don’t know how I feel about that.
It’s a beautiful show, one that I obsess about, love, and thoroughly enjoy. But it’s also a good mirror, you could say for an aspect of my character I try to otherwise avoid. It’s not so direct as to feel like an attack, but in it, I can see certain aspects of myself that I would otherwise run from. Like I’m being defensive, in the absence of a reason to be defensive. It gave me some sort of vocabulary with which to articulate this thing. But now that I have it, I don’t think I can handle sitting alone with these words. I need to speak them aloud; I need to not be alone.
So here’s the short of it. I see so much of myself in Claudia, and that scares me. Rather, I’m already scared, and now I have an avenue for that fear. But I worry that as it stands, I am Claudia, the mysterious figure who leaves so much uncertainty in my wake, (Music cuts) facing my own Roimata—a greater and more beautiful soul than anything I could ever deserve.
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I’ve never been one for romance. Which to me always seems so obvious. Not so much that everyone should feel that way, but that clearly some if not many people do, and I am one of them. That’s a perspective issue, though. For a while, I thought being moderately disinterested in romance until the right person comes along was the default human setting. Not to be critical of people who didn’t sit at the default. It just gave me validation, I guess, as all my tiny peers in elementary schools had their play weddings or whatever the middle school equivalent is. I’ve blocked out most of that time in my life, and I do not regret that.
Of course, that belief doesn’t hold up to objective criticism or the fact that romance is a critical part of our popular consciousness, but for the longest time, it was still something I believed. That’s just how the human mind bends, I guess. Sometimes, or many times, we lose sight of the forest for the single tree we call home.
But now that I’m a little older and have gathered some vicarious experiences, I’m a little more sympathetic. More than a bit sympathetic, to be honest because now I can call it both objectively beautiful and terrifying. Not usually at the same time, but hey it happens.. It’s the type of wisdom that can only be gained from standing on the sidelines.
All of this isn’t to say that I’ve never had crushes or even outright relationships. I’ve had both with varying degrees of success or comical endings. And this isn’t to say that I’ve never fallen in love with a fictional character. I’ve done way too much of that to be anything less than the equivalent of a gold medalist. But honestly, if you asked me if I’ve ever fallen in love before (a question would only be answered under some sort of duress), I’d probably say that I’ve only ever fallen in love once.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
Now, this isn’t a good love story. This isn’t the tale of two harmonious souls overcoming all obstacles and personal defects to be together. That would be a beautiful story to tell. It’s the kind of story we love, the kind that can serve as a lighthouse in the storm of day to day life. But that’s not what happened here. And I’m not going to spin a tale just to get internet-based gratification. Instead, I’m going to give you the difficult to swallow truth.
As it stands, this seemingly-soul-mate and I never got together and likely never will. This story is about the reason why, which is also the reason why I’m okay with it.
I want to keep this vague, incase seemingly-soul-mate somehow manages to hear this and recognize my voice, which are all things that I doubt could ever. But also, I don’t want anyone to ever know who this person is, and in many ways, this episode isn’t supposed to be about this person, but about me. And really, this could happen with anyone. I’ll feel this way about anyone I’ll fall in love. In that way, this person isn’t special, and I don’t think we should forget that. So let me strip away everything about this person, so that all you can see in your mind’s eye is a space a human body could conceivably occupy. I’ll call this truly amazing and remarkable person V in part because real life me knows literally no potential partner that has that letter in their name.
When I met V a few years ago, V was in a super long-term committed relationship. Not quite a marriage but to bring that up is literally just splitting hairs. I’ve never met this person V chose, but at some point, I’m ready to just trust V’s judgment that this technically-not-competition-guy is a good guy. He certainly made V happy, or at least, I’ve never seen V unhappy. And they are still together, happily. Which is one of the many reasons why I’m motivated to be as vague as possible, so much so as to strip away V’s pronouns. That will lead to its own speculation, but whatever. It will probably just be speculation about me. Nothing like that is capable of bothering me. The point is that V will never know about my feelings, will never hear enough pieces to realize what was going through my head when we spoke, and will never wonder if I was hurt in anyway by how things went down. And thus can never feel any undue guilt for something V never did wrong.
Because I don’t care what people think about me. I care that V is happy. Right now, V is happy, and my word, I don’t want to change that.
I found a song on Spotify recently that is both absolutely beautiful and fitting in this context. Eliza Rickman has this song called “Into My Arms,” which includes the line “I don’t believe in an interventionist god,” which is both sung beautifully and a pretty good fit for what I’m thinking about right now. Right now, it’s not that I share in this disbelief, only that I wish I could. The idea of an intervening force is something I outright fear. Because I don’t want anything to intervene in this, in V’s life. Not some cosmic force, not some interventionist deity, not some person, and obviously not me. (Music finishes) Because V is happy with an amazing partner and with an amazing job opportunity just over the horizon and an intervention will do no more than jeopardize that. V is happy and has so much to be happy about. But none of it involves me.
(Music fades in)
From my perspective, it would be nice if it did. It would mean seeing that smile every day or hearing that life. It would mean basking in the warmth of that presence or hearing that voice muse philosophically about writers that I honestly don’t care about. V and I have very different tastes in books. Yeah, I wish I did fit in V’s life in some capacity, but with my priorities being what they are, I’m content where I am. My main priority is, of course, V’s happiness. It just seems better that way. A world with that smile will always be better than one without it.
And really, I know I can’t or probably can’t make V happy. It’s just not something I’m capable of. Because I’m not good at relationships. All my interpersonal relationships are somewhat strained, just in general, but romantic ones have even more demands that I’m probably not going to be able to follow through on. A romantic relationship requires a greater investment than anything I can offer. It requires a level of communication that I will struggle with. It requires the ability to disclose fears and problems and so much else I want to hide. It requires knowing and being able to act on social nuances, which is a vocabulary I don’t know. It requires a greater ability to accept your own weakness because dwelling on problems ceases to have any sort of validity as a coping mechanism. It requires courage and strength and so much more. It requires the ability to express love and affection, of conveying to your partner that you love and care for them fully and without restraint, without regard for daily struggles or annoyances. It requires the ability to visually be willing to overcome all challenges and waves for that person. It requires the willingness to let them do the same for you. All of these things, I cannot offer.
Consequently, I’m pretty sure I’m incapable of being a good romantic partner. This isn’t to say that I think I’m a bad person, though. I certainly don’t believe that or think that I’m unworthy of affection. Even the best people have their flaws, and this one is mine.
At the heart of all those problems I just described, I’m emotionally distant and overly guarded right until I hit my breaking point and collapse onto the ground beneath emotions I can no longer contain. I’m the type of person who keeps my cards close to my chest in a tight grip. The only thing tighter might be the way I tuck in the covers.
Yeah, I saw a lot of myself in Claudia. Mostly, it was the reserved way with which she conducts herself. The fact that she is not overly expressive even to Roimata, one of her dearest friends or the way she handles her romantic life so nonchalantly and (by some definitions) non-romantically. But there was much more. Too much, by many standards. And maybe I was looking for things that weren’t really there, but my word, the general theme and philosophy are the same.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
I said in my last episode on Within the Wires that while the subject of the series is formally Claudia Atieno, the artist, it’s Roimata’s experiences on full display. It’s the story about how well she is coping with Claudia’s disappearance. Spoilers. Not well. In Episode 2, I raised the question of pay off versus investment, citing that Roimata gives so much of herself to Claudia and to Claudia’ memory that it seems almost detrimental to Roimata’s wellbeing because Claudia isn’t giving her much back. Not in a malicious way, of course. But because that’s all Claudia can seem to muster.
And that’s probably all I could muster, too, which is what I’m afraid of. I worry that I am genuinely incapable of offering much if anything close to what my partner wants or needs. I don’t want to leave someone with the distress that Roimata experiences, but I fear that there is something inevitable about it, until the next therapy breakthrough. I have reasons for fearing this, reasons of varying degrees of rationality. And all to be talked about at some other time.
Do I see a lot of V in Roimata? Unfortunately or fortunately by other standards, I do. They are two artistic, warm souls with a bend towards blind enthusiasm. Moths who have a tendency to stray too close to a flame simply because the flame is beautiful. Suppose I am the flame. Suppose V comes too close to me and is burnt up by the nature I cannot control. But I am also sentient and can put up walls around myself. I can keep all the moths away. I can keep them safe.
Sometimes when I listen to Within the Wires, I wonder if Claudia knows the effect she has on people. And I guess, by that, I mean I wonder if she is as insecure if not outright neurotic about it as I can sometimes be or usually am when this specific issue comes up. The way Roimata portrays her, it’s like she was always so confident, so sure of herself. Claudia was carving out her own way in life, on her terms, and she made it clear that entrance into her sphere would have to be on those terms. It was always a case of informed consent. So maybe she didn’t worry or felt that she had nothing to worry about.
It’s hard to say. For one, we only hear about her from Roimata who wouldn’t be the best source for such things. On the other hand, Claudia likely would have never shared this aloud. She did pursue superficial fame or glory, to Roimata’s dismay, and sometimes, people who pursue the hollowest of accolades do so in order to chase away the gnawing fears and anxietiesabout their own irrelevance and unworthiness. Hey, it’s what I did for a while.
But we can’t know. Chalk another one up for the mystery of Claudia Atieno.
Of what we can know, Claudia brought Roimata deeper into her world, into her orbit, and into her home. The rest of her life may have been largely a revolving door, an inventory of important figures, or anything else, but Roimata was the consistent presence in her life. Almost like a rock. By some standards a literal rock. Friends, confidante, contemporaries, and so much more. But in their dynamic, Claudia always seems to keep the upper hand, not in a controlling or manipulative way. She just had her boundaries, almost hidden beneath her identity as an artist. Roimata seemed to understand and accepted this about her friend, but I don’t know if I could ever ask someone else to do that, knowing how one-sided it would probably be.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
There’s a definition of love that I learned in a Christian theology class that has stuck with me long after the final and long after so much else has faded away. Josef Pieper once said that loving someone meant being able to say or indirectly saying, (quote) “It’s good that you are; how wonderful that you exist.” And frankly, this is something Roimata has nailed down almost perfectly. When it comes to Claudia, she’s patient and understanding. Sure, she does wish for more, but there’s part of her that knows that Claudia is set in her ways and style. And she accepts as beautiful in its own way. And it seems like Claudia knew this and drew strength from it.
Not everyone is great at this part. In fact, this is the focal point upon which a lot of relationships implode. But this seems so much easier for everyone else that isn’t me. I can have this belief about someone. Easily. I can believe that it is good that someone exists, but it’s the act of saying it that’s hard. And having this belief isn’t enough.
In his definition, Josef Pieper goes on to say that the act of being loved is so important in part because it is only through the love of others that we can learn to love ourselves. That we are so aware of our own flaws and insecurities that we need another person to come in and validate that our existence is good, that we are good, or that we are loved. Because we cannot look upon ourselves head on, we need someone to love us, to mirror that we are worth being loved, and then it is through this reflection that we can start to love ourselves. In his philosophy then, self-love cannot easily exist in a vacuum.
Sure, you can’t depend on a romantic partner for your sense of self. Well, it’s within the realm of possibility, but it’s just super ill-advised, problematic, and inevitably destructive. And that’s not what Josef Pieper was arguing for. He was a Catholic theologian back when theology and philosophy were like borderline-synonyms. His argument was closely intertwined with a notion of an all-knowing and all-loving God, but that’s where I will lose a lot of you. And also my point. I’m sympathetic to his idea of love because of the thought he thinks the act of loving communicates. It puts into words how valuable it is and that it can happen outside of a romantic context. But that’s not as comforting as it should be. Because in the case of my partner, there would still be this gaping sink hole in someone’s life where I’m supposed to stand, and I’d just be pushing it down deeper and deeper by my presence and the weight that I refuse to unload from myself. Suppose we live together, and I’m the person at home waiting for V or anyone. Waiting to just make things worse. Waiting just to be silent when the words “it’s good that you exist” should be playing.
We don’t know if this is something Claudia struggled to convey, how restrained she actually was in terms of communicating, or if Roimata and Claudia had their own language. Maybe the standing invitation to live in Claudia’s home was enough. Maybe it conveyed all that Roimata needed to hear. For a while, anyway. I can believe that. It makes sense that someone like her would be so figuratively polylingual.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
And maybe it’s just my insecurity that makes me critical of Claudia in this moment rather something grounded in the source material. Because everything I am saying involves completely disregarding Roimata’s opinions on the subject. Maybe this arrangement did make her happy as long as she had it. So much so that it was the loss of this that she found so distressing. I know that maybe I just zeroed in on something about myself I don’t like and instinctively decreed that in this context it is also bad, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe Claudia managed her reclusive and emotionally distance tendencies better than I do. Maybe she kept her thoughts and feelings locked away, but she could release the figurative valve long before she ran the risk of critical failure. And as a result, it didn’t come out all at once, swallowing up everyone in its wake. Maybe she didn’t carry everything until her back was breaking and someone else had to take the complete load, endangering themselves in the process. Maybe she didn’t feel like it’s prying to ask about someone’s days or their problems. Maybe she didn’t need to be told that it’s okay to ask how someone is or to talk about that person’s life or to talk about her own life.
Which is just another thing I’m worried about. Another part of this larger insecurity. It’s just something else I can’t convey. Not just love but my difficulties or the weights we all carry.
Being distance can be okay. Hey, everything is fine in moderation. But it’s possible to die from drinking too much water. Maybe Claudia knew where that line is, but I don’t. Or I worry that I don’t.
I’ve mentioned a life mentor in past episodes, one who quite literally saved my favorite hobby, who helped me find my voice while so many others were screaming for me to be quiet. And yet, despite how dear he is to me and despite everything we’ve been through, I go long periods of time without talking to him. And often times, what breaks the silence is another crisis in my life. There’s no small talk, no innocent catching up, just fire, silence, fire, and then silence again.
I’ve done this with my friends too, in some cases. In others, I just say nothing and am somehow surprised when that person and I have drifted so far apart that we don’t have anything to say to each other anymore.
In short, I’m not good at lifting my weight in relationships. I’m good at reaping the rewards but not in sowing the seeds. I’m not good at doing my share, only making withdraws from the emotional bank accounts of those around me. Eventually, I fear, everything is going to run dry, and I’ll be alone. Which, look, would be the consequences of my choices, and as horrifying as that thought is, I can live with it. Friends and mentors get lost to the sands of time, all the time. People move forward in their lives and often have to start over anyway. But with a romantic partner, it feels different. The stakes, for both parties, feel so much higher because you are building a life with that person. And when you lose them, it feels like you’re casting the dice if this figurative house is going to keep standing.
It would be harder for my partner to leave me, so I need to be worth staying for. For their sake. I need to make it up to them, but I don’t know how.
Suppose, for a moment, V and I end up together. Forget how impossible it is and needs to be. Or insert any stand-in for V that you would like. What happens to this other person when I start to pull away again? When I start to make myself small out of habit? What happens when they lose sight of me and just assume I’ve left?
I’ve been alone in inconceivably, impossibly large apartments, with only the sound of my own breathing keeping the silence away. It can be horrible. Human beings aren’t meant to be solitary creatures, and sometimes in the emptiness of my apartment, I wonder if this need for social stimulation is an intrinsic one or if it’s because when we are alone the shadows dancing on the walls see fit to take advantage of us. They attack us on the only front they can, seeping into our brains and twisting our thoughts and feelings. They eat us away from the inside out, and we cannot protect ourselves for long.
But I would be there, you might be saying. I wouldn’t be a great romantic partner, but I could protect V or anyone from the shadows. But maybe not. Maybe I pulled away so sharply that V would be left alone with them, and all I could do was watch the shadows work their dastardly magic, watch them destroy the person I purport to love. I’m not strong enough to protect V or anyone. Not from the threat of a loneliness I would be causing.
It’s not just that, I guess. There are many ways too much emotional restraint can damage a relationship. And that’s where Within the Wires comes back in, specifically the implications of its perspective. When I listen to the tapes, when I am confronted with Roimata’s emotions and outright pain, I wonder how much of it is from Claudia’s distant nature. How much of it comes from Roimata not having the closure only Claudia could have given her? A “thank you” or an “I love you.” How many questions go unanswered that Claudia could have answered before she disappeared? What words could Claudia have said that in some way could have eased the parting blow? Obviously, there’s no way of knowing. And grief being such a fickle thing, maybe there is no defense a person can put up before they leave. But if it were me, I know I’d leave a lot of things unsaid. I know that not saying things is one of my greatest talents, however detrimental. In this, I find my desire to pull away validated. Whether it be from V or from anyone else. I don’t want to inflict that pain on anyone. It’s why I struggle so much to connect to other people, I guess. It’s not about them but about my all too familiar tendencies to be silent until I’ve almost reached my breaking point only to dump everything on someone all at once, to not share how much someone means to me, to not share, to not speak, to not… everything.
Everyone has their breaking point. One that can be avoided or kicked back with the help of other people. Which is a social dynamic I am clearly not familiar with. But I wonder if, towards, the end, Roimata was hitting hers. It seems inevitable, from my perspective, considering how much of myself I see in Claudia. It seems possible that Roimata could no longer see Claudia, that she had lost track of her, or any other way of expressing that problem, which made her feel alone. Which left Claudia a choice. She could jump in fully, in a way she never had before. She could jump into Roimata’s world and undertake her language—through whatever means she needed to in order to learn these words—or she could let the end come.
My choice has always been and always will be to accept the end of what never had been, to accept being alone until I’m capable of being in a relationship with minimal inconvenience to a partner, which is a day I can see happening eventually. Yay therapy.
I could jump into a relationship, I guess. I could bring someone into my orbit, into my sphere, or at the very least into my small, city apartment. The one that feels overwhelming large and empty despite the square footage and absurdly large stockpile of books in the corner. Having a voice or a presence even occasionally would help chase away the demons that live in the shadows. But that’s a resolution I can’t make.
Because it would mean jumping into someone else’s world, in the cold water that they love, but then what would happen? Even if they want me there, if I try to go in on my own terms, when I feel ready, is my timing going to be right? If I take that jump off the ledge, off the cliff, what will happen? What if I fall? What if I don’t account for all the variables? No one person can account for all the variables except for the expert, for the person who has made this such an important part of their world, but I’m not inclined to ask. I can’t help but worry about those I’d be leaving behind, about the consequences of the choices I have made on people I care about if not outright love.
All I can say is this…. V, please be happy. I’m okay, and I will stay that way. In fact, I’m always trying to be better, so just be happy. Just keep the world bright with your presence and your work and your smile.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
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