both urgently stirring the pot of achievement and hopelessly confused
by the results. Inside me lived a secret restlessness, a half-crazy feeling
of wanting to change the story, to do the unexpected—to swim underwater across Perdido Bay, carried by silty water and the hard thrust of
my arms from one marshy bank to the other, to put my head down on
my desk and sleep through classes, shushing this life and dreaming another, to say “No” with loud, emphatic naughtiness—but these desires
were suppressed by guilt and a diffuse hope that my path would be refined and recognition inevitable, as if the way to success followed some
natural law. In high school I made As, but not A+s, was slender and
mildly attractive but never pretty, was elected to minor offices but never
the important ones that singled you out as a leader.
“You just never fit!” a classmate announced cheerfully last year as we
sat chatting on one of my visits home. He said this with such affectionate
clarity that I laughed, as if someone had finally grasped my essence.
And yet, growing up, I carefully plucked and pruned myself, desperately wanting to fit, to gain my family’s approval even as I longed to let
down my guard and be let “in” to the tribe for no reason at all.
In truth, it wasn’t until I divorced at age twenty-four, my world gone
dark from failure in love, that my life was upended. Suddenly, I had to put
myself back together again, and I did this with a protracted slowness and
then sudden acceleration by moving across the country to Los Angeles
to begin an MFA in art and design. At age twenty-seven, I’d lived such
a provincial life that my sense of art was little more than living-room
karma. “Now, you make something pretty out there for your mama,”
a neighbor instructed before I left, and I knew that “pretty” meant art
to decorate the living room, something traditional and ornamental to
enhance the aura, complementing the drapes and rugs and adding pleasure. I smiled. Of course.
Inevitably, in my first semester at UCLA such assumptions were assaulted, left gasping in the dirt. In a seminar with Chris Burden, a performance artist, I discovered that he’d once paid an assistant to shoot
him in the arm with a . 22 rifle at a gallery performance as a way to contemplate pain and suffering and perhaps replicate the trauma of surgery
without anesthesia on his left foot at age twelve after his motor-scooter
accident on Elba. When another art student gossiped about how Burden—“Can you believe it?”—had done this shocking, risky art piece
called Shoot, I hesitated, then laughed in astonished embarrassment,
imagining my parents’ alarm if they ever heard such a story.