The human being is a walking label-maker. We with mouths and pens and keyboards love to define things, to dominate them with our nouns and verbs, just so we might make short quick sense of everything. We name our kids and pets, invent acronyms for all our ailments, and have a hundred ways of saying the color green. It’s all part of an ongoing individual and communal effort to find the meaning of life: if we can define enough things in life, then perhaps maybe we can give a name to life itself.
I recently tried to define reality (cue eye-roll, and read about it here) and came up with this list of contradictions: a simultaneous appreciation for the outdoors and the movies, for animals and fake fur, for the homeless and the Donald Trumps.
I tend to breeze over defining big things like this, like “reality”, because really digging into them is hard (again: way easier to name your dog), but defining them via paradox is surprisingly easy. A paradox is a simple way of saying that things aren’t simple, a simple way of encompassing complexity—which ultimately means that things are simple, which I like, and think is real. A sentence—a string of nouns, a set of images, a story or a poem—really is life. The list that follows is my attempt to explain the contradictions that, in some way, define my reality. This is my string of nouns and images and stories, the almost-opposites that mean life to me.
Concerning my appreciation for the outdoors… I like to tell the story of how my family once went on a two-week road trip to the Grand Canyon, and when we finally got there, we just didn’t care. It was hot. It was big. It was whatever. We weren’t going to do anything major like hike across it, camp at the bottom of it, ride donkeys all around the upper rim. What I remember most was that we were playing the license plate game (where you try to find the license plates of all 50 states throughout your trip), and in the hot, crowded, bumper-to-bumper Grand Canyon parking lot, we finally saw Rhode Island. So this is my outdoors life—average and unstellar, but existent nonetheless. We did, as kids, ride our bicycles around the court and go down the street into the empty field to look for lizards. Sometimes we walked along the bike path to the creek, with stalks of fennel looming and the smelly sounds of skunks and neighborhood cats fighting for our ears and hair. It was sort of scummy, but it was our style. It was there for us and we for it. That’s nature, right?
…and the movies: At the height of my fussy, conflicted, too-socially-aware upper-adolescence, I boycotted movie-going after learning about injustice in the world—child soldiers, AIDS, war, etcetera. I was convinced, somehow, that movies were the anti-everything, the big black corporate cloud about to overpower all things good and natural and real. “It costs $10 for every seat in a movie theater, and there’s what, 500 seats in every theater, and 20 theaters at every complex, times how many movies a day?” I would yell, lose track of fingers, sigh, and wait in the car or at a restaurant pouting while everybody else went to see The Hulk and have a nice, normal time together. Together. Remember that. When you can’t live with everything you live alone.
For animals… Like anyone not a sociopath or plagued with allergies I genuinely love animals, which is actually not a very simple thing to do. Some people say if you love animals then don’t kill them or eat them or wear their skin. Others say if you love animals then kill them and have them stuffed and hung up on the wall. These are mutually exclusive options. What’s a girl to do? Some go vegan, others redneck, complete with almond milk or .50 caliber rifles. But me? I buy my steaks at Safeway and catch up with Zooborns on my breaks at work. When you don’t know what to do you can only be yourself, which is different than being by yourself.
…and fake fur: Fake fur means a couple things to me, also contradictory. It can mean a sincere human effort to find a replacement to animal cruelty, or it can mean just another cool material consumer good to buy at the mall and wear all the time. Both of these, however, are actually the same thing: a way to have our cake and eat it too. Whatever we think about animals, we still want them both alive and around our neck. I hope you’re thinking of Cruella de Ville here—if the black and white hair split just down the middle doesn’t scream “identity crisis” or “incapable of decision and/or letting go and/or understanding opportunity cost”, then you need to go rewatch your Disney. Does loving animals—or anything—mean necessarily being so split, or so one-sided? I don’t know, but I don’t want to be Cruella. For the homeless…. In fourth grade my class took a fieldtrip to a homeless shelter in the city, to help serve meals. My dad drove me and this boy I had a crush on, Cameron, and I was in charge of giving the homeless guys butter for their rolls, and it really wrecked me—their dirt, their gruff, the cracks in their skin. I couldn’t go to San Francisco for a really long time, would go see a play with my grandma and come home all in tears. I know now—as I now know that boycotting movies isn’t an efficient social change maneuver—that just wailing about things and/or avoiding them doesn’t do anything for anyone but me, but back then I just couldn’t take it. If I never went to San Francisco, then San Francisco wasn’t real, and homelessness wasn’t either.
…and the Donald Trumps: I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about Donald Trump, but what he means to me is power, TV, money, hair, and society’s attention. What I mean when I say Donald Trump is total world-defined success, which is the opposite of what I talk about when I talk about homeless people, who are completely unsuccessful by most social standards, a symbol of human failure. If we believe we all are human, however—and we should because we are—then we believe we all are successful, or at least capable of success. That gets tricky to say what with trying to judge or decide what human potential is on a general and/or individual level and whether or not any given person is living up to or in light of that and all, but what I think I mean is this: as far as just plain ol’ bein’ alive goes, a homeless guy is as successful as Donald Trump.
So this is my paradox: this big beautiful world to see—in redwood-studded parks, on every dirty corner, in every stuff-filled store, on every size of screen—and still all these problems with and in it. Younger me was uncomfortable with that, didn’t like it, couldn’t sit with it or in it. Me today, me writing this, knows that the answer is simply to put that contradiction in a sentence, to let it be my life. I put these things in a sentence and then they live together—they coexist in a syntactical habitat, if you will. And if they can coexist there then they can coexist in my imagination, and if they can coexist in my imagination then they can coexist in my world.
Because what’s really real about life is that whatever life is, it’s here with us, in all its opposites and extremes. And that’s a kind of love, I think—being everything you are and never leaving. Because what is love but my father at his father’s dying side, or my family cheering at my graduation—the people who refuse to leave you or ignore you at your best or worst? This earth, that won’t stop spinning, no matter what you try to do?
Melissa Gutierrez is a California native with a degree in fiction writing from the University of Arizona. Find her on online @mmgutz and mmgutz.wordpress.com.