Semi-Permeable Self

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I. New Yorkers are more vulnerable than they’re willing to admit. On the surface they are hard, cultured, ambitious and imposing, but just under that surface they’re soft, and like all of us, they long to connect. This was one of the first things I learned about my new city.

When we got here last fall I was unemployed, grumpy, displaced and self-pitying. I spent most of my afternoons in parksreading, writing, job-searching, and sometimes just sitting, watching squirrels, people and pigeons. I was seeking that ironic brand of urban solitude in which the din of sheer population drowns out any possibility of authentic human connection. Or so I thought.

Then I met Oleg.

I was sitting on the lawn in the middle of Union Square, subway rumbling beneath me, reading and eating my lunch when he came up to me and started talking.

“Excuse me,” he said, “but you’re doing it wrong.” I took off my sunglasses and looked up. He was young, handsome, and non-threatening.

“I heard that eating is bad for your reading. Or reading is bad for your digestion. I can’t remember which,” he said, and I smiled. We introduced ourselves.

“People say New York is isolating, that it’s hard to make friends here,” he continued. “But I don’t think that’s true.”

I told him I had been surprised by the number of times a person had walked up to me out of the blue and started a conversation, about books or weather, or art, or music or God.

He asked if I would be his friend for five minutes. He asked it with the look of an idealistic puppy, and I wondered if he were a documentarian or a psych student. I didn’t notice any cameras in my peripheral—no microphones, no students jotting field notes about our interaction—and I was in no state to turn down a friendship. So we talked. For nine minutes.

I was on my first walk down Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Oleg asked me if I used any particular voices in my head when I was reading silently. I wasn’t sure whether I did or not, so it gave us something interesting to talk about. It was a great conversation. Neither of us over-reached or over-shared; when it lost its easy rhythm we shook hands, and he left.

It wasn’t my first, and hasn’t been my last Woody Allen-scripted meet-cute in the park. This sort of ephemeral, impactful meeting happens all the time here. I keep a file of these micro-stories in one of my notebooks. I call it “New York Magic.”

I don’t support what this city asks of you. I can’t get past its speed, its insulated nature, its ignorance of its own history, its line-drive focus on career, status, money, and ambition. I miss wild spaces, biotic mass and more-than-human diversity. But I’m learning things.

New York is teaching me about the boundaries of self, and one cannot discuss boundaries-of-self without addressing the very wild concepts of permeability, adaptability, evolution and inter-being.

Boccadasse, Genova, Italy

II. Marriage is a country. Language is a love affair, and culture—with its rules, codes, rhythms, and place-based vocabularies—is a language. If you really want to test your sense of self, to gauge the extent and solidity of your personal boundaries, taste your way into any one of these three.

A few weeks ago my husband and I traveled to Liguria, the northern Italian province where he was born and raised. He is a true son of Genova, with bits of the sea in his eyes and a desire, always, to live within smelling-distance of open water. His rhythms are Southern, gentler and more land-and-family-connected than is generally encouraged in a place like New York.

My own experience and comfort levels with Italian culture have crested and coasted, parallel with six and a half years of partnership, marriage, and contortions with the Italian language. All three began with infatuation and sensuous consumption. Then came confusion: a reckoning with differences in grammar, and in day-and-night rhythms, pronunciations, values and expectations, personalities, hobbies, senses of style. As my life fused more intimately with his I had to assess how much difference I could handle. How far outside myself could I go before I would stop adapting and evolving, and extinguish myself entirely?

At times I surrendered too much: stayed quiet for fear of making mistakes; failed to speak or defend my needs in attempts to please, or in some sort of punishing pursuit of cultural and linguistic immersion. Most women—most people—have been guilty of this to some degree. A significant line of my thought, study, conversation and reading of late has focused on the importance of personal boundaries: of silence, solitude and contemplation,in order to heal, repair, focus and inspire consciousness, spiritual health, and physical and creative energy. Inter-relational as we are, we cannot extend our creativity into the world if we do not defend its starting point: our selves.

Through time and tears, via the push-and-pull of love and language lessons, and with the help of good hosts and a forgiving sense of humor, I’ve realized that to successfully integrate—to insert myself into a place and culture; to swim with any degree of linguistic fluency; or to love another person, with his own brilliances and desires, in a respectful and empowering way—requires an evaluation of the boundaries of self: a full-on accounting of what I am willing to give up, and what defines me and thus cannot lovingly be surrendered.

In Italy I will always be a stranger. On good days I embrace it. I’m pink-faced and yellow-haired, a big American woman in a sea of sleek, petite brunettes. I love and seek creative solitude in a culture known for its permeating extroversion. I am stubborn, Germanic, and self-punishing in a country that calls for slower pace and sweet reward. I would be lying if I said Italy wasn’t good for me, but I have also had to work, hard, to feel like myself there.

One of the great things about adaptation is that we don’t have to do it alone. Marriage is one of the most sanity-protecting institutions I have ever experienced. My husband and I have blended traditions and neologized each other’s language mistakes. We act for each other as guides, buffers, and sounding boards in uncomfortable spaces.

Adaptation does not occur in a vacuum. We adapt together. We evolve.

III.   To live is to die. To breathe, to exist, is to adapt and change, to die to the self that you were five minutes ago. That can be liberating, or terrifying.

Living also involves managing your own permeability—deciding who, what, and how much from the outside world to let in. For creative types this poses a quandary: if you manage your vulnerability, your surrender, you are no longer truly permeable. You’ve lost that miraculous and enchanting aspect of chaotic penetration. You’ve blocked out the muse.

Real surrender cannot be calculated or predicted. It just happens. The most you can do is to be prepared for it, to ready yourself for a bit of discomfort in the name of creative inspiration.

It is the beguiling trick of a writer, artist, foreigner, activist, seeker, or human-in-the-world to keep an eye on his or her level of surrender at any given moment: to remain soft enough to register pain and kindness, in self and others, yet firm enough to get through the day, perhaps with enough energy and grace to create a thing of beauty.

New York is helping me to negotiate this balance. The city’s noise teaches resistance and discipline. Here my writing feels crisper, sharper, more urgent, less apologetic. I worry about this hardening, the sclerosis of empathy and creative meandering, but I appreciate the assertiveness.

The wild truth of all this is that a human is a semi-permeable being—a soul whose protective veneer will thicken or soften at will, or not at will, and whose “self” is forever adapting and evolving. We all exist in relational space. To live semi-permeably is to acknowledge the “self” both within yourself, and in every other beating, pulsing self in the multiverse: to see soul and intentionality in your lover, your landscape, your lover’s landscape, your courtyard pigeons and subway rats, and in houseplants, winds, walls, chairs, rhythms, thoughts and wild words.


3 thoughts on “Semi-Permeable Self

  1. J

    I wish I had more hands so I could give this triptych more than Two Thumbs Up. You have captured and meaningfully merged several concepts. I am particularly struck by your treatment of the experience of being a newcomer, an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger, and your observations of the intentional (or unintentional, or some of both) ways in which we end up handling that experience. The use of “permeability” in discussing this is something I haven’t seen before, and it is wonderful. Thanks for writing. Many thumbs up 🙂


  2. Thank you, Hilary, for this thoughtful and thought provoking piece. It takes a particular awareness to be able to write about a process as one experiences it. The idea of permeability is very interesting. I’ve thought about relationships in that way, but never any extent….you put words to a feeling I’ve had. Our interior lives are such wild places!


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