gaze aversion

I saw on Twitter—of course I saw on Twitter—that sometimes, when babies are really happy, they get overwhelmed and have to look away. It’s not that they don’t like you, it’s that they just can’t handle how much they do. The feelings are too strong, and their bodies are so small. It’s called gaze aversion, that act of looking away. 

I wrote a little piece about gratitude earlier this week, for Gay Mag (1). The managing editor emailed and asked me if I wanted to write something on short notice, and I said, huh, I guess thankfulness has been my beat for a while. So I put something together really quick, with my heart in it. Here are my two favorite lines, which are also the first two lines I wrote in the piece:

Gratitude wrings out my body like a towel. It breaks open my heart like a piece of balsa wood clenched in two fists. 

Not to be like, I’m baby, but I understand how babies must feel. To feel so much, and have no language for it. No way yet to shake it out of the body with a dance, or launch it into the air with a song, a whoop. No wonder babies cry all the time. It’s their only way to be coherent. If I had no language for joy, and sometimes I don’t, I’d look away, too.


I’ve tried to write this section three times, about feeling overwhelmed by the world, and very small. But every time I write it, I end up circling the drain. So what I will say, instead, is that last week I went to see the Hans Haacke show with Santi and Jeesoo. We were pretty hungover, the three of us, so we wandered around the top two floors of the show, not really processing much. It’s a good show; there’s a lot of wall text, but it makes its point: everything is connected, most thoroughly art and capital (2). But I was tired of being beat over the head with a truth I feel too small to even budge on my own—this is what I mean by circling the drain; you always end up there—and when we stepped onto the second floor, we all exhaled in relief.

It was full of Haacke’s kinetic sculptures from the 70s: a rippling sheet of silk that looked like clouds seen from overhead; a long vitrine with a circuit in it that sent a spark zooming back and forth; a blue sail that billowed open and shut like the beat of a heart. This work was interested in systems, too, but systems of the physical—the way objects and sympathetic forces react to each other. It was good to be in that space, surrounded by people who put their faces close to look, giggling with wonder.

It’s not that I don’t want to know—let me know it, and let us unveil it, the ways we are connected and entangled in shadow systems. It is a burden to know, but let me know it. I’ll hold it. But let us also have this: these kinetic movements, this billowing sail, this floating balloon, this cube of water, this mountain of grass.

You still need love of all kinds, I think, to be good, and useful. The gentler systems; the systems that keep us alive. Maybe that’s sentimental. I’m ok if it is.


After the museum, the three of us had dinner together, and then we all went to our homes, feeling hollowed out with some kind of knowledge. We lay on our couches and drank water, and then a couple hours later, wine. Earlier in the weekend, I’d spent some time with the person I’m in love with. There’s something that feels so good about loving someone with your whole heart—you don’t have to think about it. It just flows out of you. And you learn, and you learn, and you let it.

Anyway, so, that happened.

Sometimes, when we’re hanging out together, me and the person I’m in love with, and I feel myself all tremulous with love like a jar heavy with honey, I understand why a baby would want to avert its gaze. I feel the same way, and I’m no longer a baby. There’s so much love, and it takes such vulnerability to be there, it’s overwhelming. Like the billowing of a blue sail, or the ecstasy of unfurling silk held upright by an electric fan. 

Sometimes, in response, I close my eyes. But lately, I’ve tried to keep them open. And I stay there. I stay.



1: You can read my short essay on gratitude here.

2: Here’s a very thoughtful review of the Hans Haacke show, by Aruna D’Souza.

3: And you can see pictures of it here. The show is up until January 26; I recommend going if you can. 

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Hi, you’re reading intimacies, a relaunch of the original, occasional diary letter I sent out from 2016-2018. You’re getting this email because you were previously subscribed to its first iteration, and you got those emails because you were probably subscribed to Cum Shots, my previous letter at Nerve. Thank you for reading. I really appreciate you.