It’s luminous, it’s uplifting, it has many layers, but it always comes back to being present, breathing, maintaining eye contact. It’s an amazing journey to be able to experience and participate in the piece.” ~ how one visitor described sitting with Marina Abramović
Her pink pencil was covered in glitter and was topped with a tuft of pink, fuzzy hair. She sat on my right side and stared down at her notebook. I knew what the sloop of her shoulders and averted gaze meant. In her seven-year-old mind, today represented another moment she’d have to suffer through: the embarrassment of not knowing how to read.
We began with her telling me a story that meant the world to her. A story about her cat, and how it came to be her best friend. I took down the story, verbatim, writing in clear, large letters. I read it back to her and asked if I had written it correctly. She nodded.
I then read it aloud to her again and asked her to point to the words she felt would be hard to read. I circled those and wrote each one on an index card. I slid the paper over to her and asked her to read the story to me.
She looked up as if I’d asked her to walk a tightrope across a ravine. Terror.
“I can’t wait to hear this story about your cat again,” I said. “Friendship means everything.”
I pointed to each word as she read them aloud. Her face brightened into delight and surprise as she read. What was this magic?
She finished her story and sat back in her chair, staring at the paper as if she had made fire with the power of her mind. The curved edges of her mouth gave her away…the moment of understanding that she was going to be all right, after all.
When her mom came to pick her up, she flew to the doorway with her story. “Listen! Listen to me, Mom!”
She read her story, occasionally stopping here and there for help with a certain word. Her mom looked over her daughter’s bowed head to me and nearly cried.
The Language Experience Method was one of my favorite teaching tools as the Executive Director of and as a tutor with the Literacy Council of Highlands. As powerful as it was, it paled to the real magic of the tutoring experience…the one on one relationship.
Students would come into my office, look around, and ask, “You mean it’s just me? For the whole hour?”
When I’d nod and smile, invariably the child would sit down empowered. She or he had interpreted this attention as their being special and deserving.
I didn’t understand at first why this was such a common reaction to having undivided attention. Then I wondered how often anyone gets an entire hour of undivided attention. Anyone. Ever.
In 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Marina Abramović engaged in an extended performance called, The Artist Is Present. More than 750,000 people stood in line for the chance to sit across from her and communicate with her nonverbally.
The MoMA website explains, “Seated silently at a wooden table across from an empty chair, she waited as people took turns sitting in the chair and locking eyes with her. Over the course of nearly three months, for eight hours a day, she met the gaze of 1,000 strangers, many of whom were moved to tears.”
“‘Nobody could imagine…that anybody would take time to sit and just engage in mutual gaze with me,” Abramović explained. In fact, the chair was always occupied, and there were continuous lines of people waiting to sit in it. “It was [a] complete surprise…this enormous need of humans to actually have contact.'”
As much as we crave being truly seen and connecting deeply with another, we can scurry out of that light like a cockroach. We have a “push-me pull-you” relationship with visibility’s double-edged sword.
One side is empowerment, affirmation, and soulful belonging. The other is the risk… the fear… of harsh judgment.
As entrepreneurs and creators, this dance with visibility is a thorny challenge. We cannot revel in the rich depths of connection and contact if we aren’t willing to lift our chins and risk an averted gaze, rejection, or criticism.
Go back and watch the video again. This time, watch how we tend to be uncomfortable at first with such focused attention. Then, there comes a moment, the moment of letting go and settling in, when we transcend the fear.
We get over ourselves.
And in the releasing, we lower the bridge and invite the energetic connection. Such a moment is an invitation to love… another and oneself. An opening to see, feel, and be that we tend to keep as rare moments in our protected shells.
In all the hustle of the everyday chase, we forget the offering that the world holds most dear is us…our unvarnished, open, and seated selves. Aware, awake, tuned in, and willing…truly willing…to connect.