On Seeing and Paint Peeling
A few months ago while applying makeup in front of a curved mirror in my family’s home, I noticed a cloudy spot on my right cornea. My usual hazel-green beneath had morphed to milky, and in my usual medical panic, I searched for answers: had I punctured it with my fingernail when wiping sleep from my eyes? Was it evidence of a more serious condition? Had it always been there, and I’d not noticed it until now? The scope of possibilities—of imaginative possibilities—loomed. I saw an opthamologist, who told me it was “benign as it could be,” even if it was evidence of early macular degeneration. Until then, I lived in the space of stories I’d spun for myself. Each narrative was self-controlled: I told them, and I listened in turn.
The cover image of anthropologist and writer Ruth Behar’s book The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart is a photograph of a mural on Miami’s Calle Ocho. The image is perfect for the book, she explained earlier this week in a lecture at the Center for Documentary Studies. It is of a face, perhaps that of a woman, and half of it—the paint, but also the flesh—is peeling. The scrape ranges from the corner of the mouth to the eyeball above. It almost encroaches on the pupil.
It made sense for Behar to reference her book—indeed, the talk (“Ruth Behar and The Vulnerable Observer: After Twenty Years, What Next?”) was specifically about her book, and its evolution in the cultural imaginary since its publication 20 years ago. How does her discourse in Vulnerable Observer—which blends personal essay and ethnography to advocate for a more humanistic anthropology—apply now, given the changing nature of the academy, of the media, of storytelling? Does ethnography still matter? What do we do with the ubiquity of documentation? What do we do with the archives we’re overproducing through our apps, our phones, our computers?
Behar did answer, or tilt toward answering, each of these questions. But perhaps, at one point, before she wrote this lecture, these questions bewildered her—as they bewilder me. Maybe these questions thrummed when her vision field became sprinkled with bright lights during a recent drive. This episode was woven into her lecture. The episode reminded her of her youth—of experiencing migraines vis-à-vis visual “auras.”
So she, like me, went to the doctor. Her current state of bright blinking was diagnosed as retina detachment. It made her anxious. She visited Florida, where she slept by the sea, and suddenly the vastness of the ocean terrified her. She visited an aunt with late-stage macular degeneration. Their ailments found and fondled each other. Behar’s aunt recognized Behar’s pain as she recognized her own—stories openly and evenly told, and received.
Stories—or the blanket concept of story—feels very much in vogue right now. Podcast popularity is suddenly reeling; live storytelling series, such as The Moth and The Monti, are well-attended; new multimedia templates unfold online each week, advertising their features as additive, even formative, bits for our brewing narratives. Just this week, the Franklin Humanities Institute unveiled Story Lab. Stories are sexy, or maybe the feeling they evoke is—in other words, it is now enough to shout “story!” and people will listen.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if people will truly listen. Listening is the ugly work: it feels invisible; it’s highly personal; it requires the investment of (deep) time and (deep) energy. As Leslie Jamison writes, It’s made of exertion—that dowdier cousin of impulse. Can we imagine a “Listening Lab” at Duke? Perhaps— though I think it would shroud itself in other language, dilute its visibility, become something else.
And maybe this, too, is not a bad thing. But how do those “something elses” connect? How can we make listening, as empathetic stance, more visible? Can, and should, it be branded? Can its diverse models be celebrated without being prescribed?
In introducing Ruth Behar, Alex Harris—CDS co-founder, professor, and photographer—described Behar’s ethnographic stance as a paradigm for how to become someone we want to tell stories to. I scribbled this down in my notebook, and underneath it I wrote: How do we become.
When we adjourned to Behar’s reception, I fell in step with an older woman. We walked upstairs into the pre-storm humid breeze, and she remarked that she’d seen me nodding often during the lecture. “Yes,” I said. “I’m trying to become both a writer and a scholar. I haven’t read Behar’s work, but this talk was very affirming for me.”
I wish I had gone on to ask her what she thought of the lecture, but I was caught up in the warm buffer of Behar’s words and the promise of cheese cubes and cauliflower. I left that talk feeling like I could do anything and be anyone. I ate alone and walked off into the dark, conjuring my future story, imagining the permission I would give myself to live it.
When, in the practice of everyday living, these permissions—small, large, sometimes tentative, sometimes exuberant—are given regularly. They must be handled with care, for they are the giving and receiving of stories; they are acts of entrustment; they are, as Behar said, part of “a history of our shared mortality.”
How do we become someone others want to tell stories to? We demonstrate our capacity for listening. We sharpen our ability to see beyond our typical line of vision. We exercise presence even as the paint is peeling.