I wake with a wad of hair in my mouth, thinking about perception: its power in defining how we feel about situations and about people; its power in defining how we are perceived by people and how we come across in situations.
I slept hard. I dreamed hard. In one dream, a group of friends and I were asked to pass up and over a large mountain by way of an asphalt path. On the other side was knowledge. The scene was like an apocalyptic version of The Wizard of Oz. Instead of boulders, trees and greenery, we were surrounded by dark, featureless land, save for the mountain we were on. Instead of a yellow brick road, we walked on a path made from the sticky black material found in crude petroleum.
I have a relative who is a petroleum engineer. When I was a child, he gave me two glass bottles filled with oil. One represented the good oil. It was light, almost golden. The other represented the bad oil. It was dark, like blackstrap molasses. He explained what you could do with each type of oil, what they were good for. As he took a drag off his Marlboro, he explained how we wouldn’t have anything without oil, not even roads. Not even Vaseline. It’s in everything, he told me.
It was then that I perceived oil was a miracle, our miracle. We depended on it; society depended on it.
What this relative doesn’t know is how I would hold those bottles after he was gone, tip the liquid this way and that, judging the viscosity of each by how sluggish their movement was. One moved more like my father, darting quickly at any stimulation or in the face of any problem. The other moved more like my mother, who was slow to respond, slow to rise, slow to move across the room, often without pants on. She was also slow to dress.
How could I not marvel at something this relative gave me — these beautiful representations of the world we lived in and walked on and smeared on our chapped faces and the bottoms of babies. These beautiful representations of what, quite literally, allowed us all to move through the world, to float over it. To hover, to speed, to glide, to ride. Our family could not have had our days at the lake without oil. My mother could not have elongated her body on the speedboat for my father’s snapshots if we hadn’t had the gas to ride into the lake’s middle, where water and surrounding land could frame her.
Nothing on that lake was bad. It is the only place my family was a family. That boat was the only place where I had no fear, and saw no suffering. Until we caught a fish. Then the boat was all suffering. I saw something close to love on that boat, torn free from abuse, addiction and pain. In this way, my family depended on oil. We would not have existed as any kind of recognizable unit without it — both the oil needed to get us to the lake by way of car and the oil needed to suspend us above it by boat.
The bottles were marked with the name of my relative’s company, as well as drilling information. They were objects that stood as placeholders for who this relative was in the world, what he did. But they weren’t just that. For me, they represented love. He loved me enough to think of me, and to bring these bottles that represented him home to me. I could look at the bottles and remember who he was, and where he was, in the world. That he was out there, somewhere much safer than my home, and that he loved me, and that the roads I rode on were a way of being connected to him. Someday I, too, would be out there in the world, safe, perhaps loving someone who was trapped somewhere unsafe.
I started reading the labels of products I used, hoping to find “petrolatum” listed, just as he’d taught me to do. Every time I found that word, I would smile, having found another point of connection to him and his love.
The other day, I was with my partner at a poetry reading. The reading took place in an art gallery. There was a human art installation as part of the current show. I felt happy and safe in the space, and I was enjoying being out with my partner. Then I realized one of the women in the art installation — who was dressed in a costume and wearing a wig — is a poet with whom there is a history, and a deep dislike.
I was no longer in the same space. My heart began to race, I felt nauseated. I was ashamed to be there, didn’t want to be there anymore. The rest of the night was extremely uncomfortable. But what had changed? It’s not like this woman walked into the room, and I could argue that her appearance had palpably changed the room’s “vibe.” She had been there all along.
All that changed was my perception. Nothing else. This proved to me the power of perception and what it can do to our minds and bodies. If I could be happy in that space not knowing the woman was also there, I have the potential to be happy even when my perception shifts. But potential is only potential until it is realized.
Perceptions can change markedly over a lifetime, even if the actualities behind them do no shifting. The question is, what do we do with our shifting perceptions? How do we handle them? The relative who works in petroleum must have some reaction to a world whose relationship to oil is increasingly being called into question and in which more and more oil alternatives are being developed, even here in the oil-hungry United States, whose move to alternative fuels and technologies is as slow as a highly viscous crude oil.
As my relative moves along more and more paths over the globe looking for oil, does he still seethe when people make comments about its dangers and destructions, both to human life and the planet? Does he still rail against those who say we are running out of oil, defiantly stating that we will never run out?
My perceptions have changed during my own lifetime. I no longer believe a family is a family because of how it functions on a boat on a lake on the border between Texas and Oklahoma, aptly called Lake Texoma. What we are as a family depends on how we relate to one another every day — and includes what happens when nobody else is there to bear witness or keep our behaviors in check.
In the dream last night, the one where my friends and I were instructed to walk up over the mountain on our way to finding knowledge, I veered from the group and our issued instructions. I walked down and down to the base of the mountain. Around the back, it was open. The way it had been opened up, the mountain resembled a woman’s stomach and thighs. The opening resembled her partially gutted pelvis. It/she glowed red inside, as if the cavity was filled with blood.
I realized the red color was the glow of a giant fire. All around the base of the mountain were piles of trash and environmental waste. Some men were feeding refuse into the fire while other men stoked the flames. I asked one of them where the trash had come from. He gave no answer but instead told me that this was the real seat of knowledge, not the destination the path above the mountain led to, where the group and I were being steered.
Here is where you can learn everything about us, he said. Right here. He continued shoveling waste into the giant burning pelvis.
Suddenly someone appeared and yanked me back up to the path. When I rejoined the group, I tried to explain what I’d seen. They didn’t believe me. It’s just a mountain, they said. What are you talking about, they asked.
But my perception had been changed, and there was no changing it back. Wherever we were going, it had nothing to do with knowledge. We needed to go down, down.
The first time my relative saw The Wizard of Oz, it was on a black-and-white TV. But something magical happened, he says. At the point where the movie turns from black and white to color, it did so on the television. For years, he insisted the movie turned to color, despite the fact that it was technically impossible for that to have happened.
Perception is everything. Perception is everything.
There are on average 2,600 oil spills per year. On average, 726 million gallons of oil are spilled annually. As of July 19, 2010, between 90 million and 170 million gallons of crude oil have been released into the Gulf as a result of the 2010 BP oil spill. But those are just numbers. I should say something about water, what it means to the body. I should say something about the body, how it yields to oil, succumbs.
Dana Guthrie Martin and her partner live in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals. Her chapbooks include The Spare Room (Blood Pudding Press, 2009) and In the Space Where I Was, forthcoming from Slack Buddha Press. She is pursuing a graduate degree in library and information science and hopes to obtain a second master’s in cultural studies. She writes at My Gorgeous Somewhere.