The Owl Backpack
Sometimes I suspect, deep down—way, way deep down, for fear of diagnosable narcissism—that I’m in a movie. Because that’s the third time in six weeks I’ve seen that particular owl backpack. The blue one with the red geometric jewel eyes and little ears poking out of the top. All in different neighborhoods, neatly divided among demographics: a drug-addled woman with stooped shoulders out on 72nd, a creepy-cutesy high school girl bouncing along to class.
Finally, long after I forget the backpack, I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack. What am I doing with my life? Am I good enough to be in this program? Am I even a good person? It’s late, and it’s maybe raining, and I’m on campus. And a woman carries a worn-down owl backpack, the same eyes as the others, holding her daughter’s hand as they wander past the street car. It feels like an easter egg of sorts, a wink from the universe to those who pay attention. Like: hey, you, there’s something larger at work and you’re in the thick of it.
But nah. Impossible. Because the idea that I could be the center of a universe, that I’m the protagonist to anyone but my own mind? That’s fucking crazy talk, lady. It’s a fantasy I suspect everyone has, but anyone rarely admits to. Sure, the girl with the selfies and the incessant status updates and the fuckin’ attitude could cop to it, but not me. I read. I go to restaurants alone and write in unlined notebooks. I think about the world. I feel lonely and mean. It’s horrifying to think that I could be the same as that girl.
Or it’s brilliant.
Now, don’t get me wrong: the attitude that the world revolves around you is not something anyone should cultivate by any means. It’s just…my embarrassing selfishness is a way in, so to speak. The idea that there’s something watching you, a universe keeping a finger on your pulse—it’s really just the idea that you matter to someone other than yourself, that maybe you’re not alone in the world. That protagonistic urge is the hope that there’s some kind of connection to others that, even if you can’t see it, is there.
I have wasted so much time trying to figure out ways to mark myself as different, to label myself “unique”—a phrase which makes me cringe because of how utterly dependent it is on external validation—that it’s nice to get these glimpses into everyone’s sameness. I can be so judgmental and wrapped up in my own world: oh, look at her drink her pumpkin spice latte. Look at him wear his flat brim hat. They’re talking about the stupidest things. I forget that beyond those trivial details, we’re all so delicate, so worried about ourselves and the big questions in life.
It’s nothing short of magic that our inner lives are so rich and have so little to do with the images we present to others. The clothes we wear, the music we listen to—those things are such a small piece of the puzzle. That owl backpack came out of nowhere and hit me when I wasn’t ready. I was so consumed by what life could offer me and what about the things that I want and doesn’t anybody fucking care? And then, the owl. That moment of pure selfishness knocked me off my “But me!” pedestal. It reminded me that there’s something bigger than my own wants and needs.
The Luxo ball, Hitchcock on the bus: these easter eggs remind viewers that it’s all make believe, that we’re safe from the harm being done in the universe we’re witnessing, that it’s not real. All of a sudden, the owl backpack put my Möbius strip thought process into context. Those red eyes, carrying through the weeks, were like dew drops on a spider web. There’s something out there connecting everyone and everything. Even if I can’t always see it, it’s there, and I am merely one part.
Being part of something bigger used to scare me—my thoughts and fears, my hopes are not special or unique in any way. It felt like a threat to my existence. But if one piece of the web feels the clawing emptiness, another part must as well. It fortifies. It comforts. We are not alone. It’s easier to reach across the divide and connect with other people.
As I step outside of myself, I also find myself settling into my writing, which, funnily enough, requires me to to think in terms of what about me? in order to understand what about us and it and them and all. I’m becoming more comfortable with myself as a writer because I’m not so desperate to mark myself as the only one to have these desires. I used to feel threatened by other writers—they’re decreasing my chances, lowering my bottom line, encroaching on my territory. I thought I had to be the only one who felt this way in order for my feelings to matter. In order to do what I do.
Screw that. I’m a dime a dozen. There are many people out there as talented as me. More so. Many people who feel the same ache that I do, this existential inability to do anything else and still be happy. And that’s fucking beautiful. The great writers in my program are not my competitors. They are my colleagues, my cohorts—the ones who understand this need to write.
Those people I judge based on the shallowest of factors—they feel what I feel. I feel what they feel. They live in their own movies just trying to fill something. I am not always “I.” I am sometimes “her,” passerby, villain, concept, plot device for someone else to find what he is looking for. It’s crazy. It’s beautiful. Sometimes it makes no sense to my tiny brain that other people feel what I feel. But I can look at them and know that they know.
Being human can be so isolating.
But it doesn’t have to be. Just look for the owl backpack.