Lanyard: an Essay


When I gave a writing workshop at an engineering firm downtown last year, someone gave me a lanyard with a guest card hanging from it. I love wearing a lanyard.As soon as I hang it around my neck I feel more sure of myself, as if the little emblem of belonging is evidence of some larger process of vetting and assessing, and I’ve passed the test.

Everything Rustles coverIn this case the lanyard was simply to allow me access to the bathroom, which was outside the locked doors. I’ve never been good with keys, and I’m not any better with cards. I hold them too long or not long enough, and then I don’t give the machine time to recover before trying again, so things jam up, and then I’m refused entry. I stand outside these doors (usually glass) looking helpless and flustered, which no doubt undoes much of the work I’ve done to make me look like I belong there.

When I work at places with lanyards, I put on makeup and fuss with my hair. I wear pants that I bought from Superstore (Joe Fresh, $39.99) in a steely corporate-looking grey. They go with the jacket I bought from Value Village and the top from Costco. I am a fraud, obviously, because people who work downtown surely do not shop at box stores and Value Village, and the women do not imagine they can get away with the flat-heeled boots that I wear—expensive, but three years old and scuffed—sensible boots, because who really wants to walk in heels, and what is the point of that at my age? Never mind my age. When I consider heels, my mind flips into hippie mode again, which is never far from the surface, and I want to deliver a polemic on the socio-political, not to mention medical, implications of wearing them, and then I wonder why that particular self and not some of the more useful selves—say those developed in the last twenty years—aren’t more immediately accessible. The other day at a conference the speaker used the line “these aren’t my people,”which has become something of a catchphrase, or at least that’s how it caught my mind, the “my people” business, smacking of high school and being “in” or “cool” or whatever, but I knew exactly what he meant and I knew the moment when I had finally felt myself belonging, and how good that had felt.

When I teach a group of people I’ve never met before, I’m nervous. I know they will be curious about me. They’ll be considering my clothes, my hair, my face, the way I carry myself, the way I speak, and at some level they’ll be deciding whether or not I can do anything for them—while I’ll be considering whether to turn and run.

When you teach you have to maintain an upbeat tone and manner. You have to locate a voice that is appropriate for the job. I think of this as acting because I don’t think this voice is really mine—it’s confident, attached to a person who can stand in front of a room full of people she doesn’t know and pretend it’s fun to be there. This is a search, an experiment, a high-wire dance. I didn’t know I had this voice in me until a few weeks into my first teaching job when I realized that even as I was buying the cup of tea before the class, I was already standing straighter and looking the cashier in the eye as I offered up some cheery word or quip along with my change.

I teach voice in a creative writing class—and I make a joke of it, as in “How do I get one?” And then we look at various writers with their various voices and marvel over the myriad ways that personality can come through words.

On CBC one day, I heard the English writer John Lanchester say he thinks the idea of the “stability and continuity of the self” is exaggerated, and he believes more in the Buddhist idea that there’s a “succession of selves,” and that our feeling of being fixed is a “trick ofmemory.” I love this. A succession of selves. That makes sense when I look back at earlier phases of my life and find it hard to recognize the person in them. I also think we develop a set of selves (or personas or voices) for each of the everyday roles we play: teacher self, writer self, mother self, wife self, friend self. Is it a trick of memory when I walk into a classroom and start with a smile, so everyone thinks I’m happy to be there, or is it a bit of cataloguing acumen—knowing where to look for the appropriate self?

In his essay “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character,” Phillip Lopate says this:

It is an observable fact that most people don’t like themselves, in spite of being, for the most part, decent enough human beings—certainly not war criminals—and in spite of the many self-help books urging us to befriend and think positively about ourselves. Why this self-dislike should be so prevalent is a matter that would require the best sociological and psychoanalytic minds to elucidate; all I can say, from my vantage point as a teacher and anthologist of the personal essay, is that the odor of self-disgust mars many performances in this genre and keeps many would-be practitioners from developing into full-fledged professionals. They exhibit a form of stuttering, of never being able to get past the initial superficial self-presentation and diving into the wreck of one’s personality with gusto.

When Lopate talks about the “wreck of one’s personality” and “gusto,” I fall a little in love, and later in the same piece when he speaks of “the need to go beyond the self ’s quandaries to bring back news of the larger world,” I cheer. In another piece he says something about using the self but going deeper in, and I think of Joe Simpson’s terrifying and riveting book, Touchingthe Void, about falling into a crevasse and having to go deeper into the cleft in the glacier to rescue himself. This idea, not of climbing up and out but going further in, makes me squirm.

I have a feeling the engineers aren’t interested in voice and wrecks and gusto, though I’m pretty sure they care as much as I do about belonging. In a couple of the sessions I’ve taught I had a sense that I was walking into a kind of club, a fairly happy coterie of people who were doing work they loved with people they either respected or enjoyed making fun of. Before one of these sessions, I was even offered a beer. I probably should have taken it. It might have loosened me up and made my lesson on grammar helpful instead of soporific. “Grammar is a piano I play by ear,” Joan Didion said, which I’m not sure the engineers would have appreciated. It’s important, I’m sure I told them. But if I’d said that a sentence is a pipe; it needs to convey something ephemeral but clear and certain as glass—or oil, maybe I would have done better. Or maybe it would have been too obvious. The word “teacher” carries so much baggage with it—the idea that the person at the front of the room knows more than the people in it, for instance—an impossible load to carry.

I taught business writing about five times. Some of it was fun. Some of it reminded me of being on a mountain with nothing but my fingers and the tips of my boots holding me to the earth.

Belonging is about finding the right voice inside yourself, I decide, or maybe it’s knowing your own voice when you hear it. I decided to stop teaching business writing last year, not because I thought it would kill me but because I realized that my pretend business-pants-and-lanyard wearing self was too thin. I haven’t inhabited that self fully. She’s not infused with belief, and I think what I mean by that is that she’s not infused with my real self, which must be the self that loves what she’s teaching so much that she can forget she’s afraid of standing in front of people. This may be part of getting older, this paring down, the sorting and rejection of the not selves—a growing pile. It’s not that I have anything against engineers and business people. It’s that I don’t sufficiently understand what they do, and so I’m in thin air when I stand in front of them, a wide-open empty, lonely place. “Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell famously said. My bliss is a tangle of voice and word and language and mystery. It’s deep inside a sort of crevasse, the walls are dark and warm, and I have so much to learn there.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher from Everything Rustles, by Jane Silcott, Anvil Press, 2013.

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Jane Silcott

Jane Silcott's work has been published widely in Canadian literary magazines and anthologies and been recognized by the CBC Literary Awards, and the National and Western Magazine Awards. She teaches for the Writing Centre at UBC and the Southbank Writing Program at SFU. Everything Rustles is her first book.