Focused Inquiry 112
In a world where everything must be recorded and ranked, and people are expected to constantly update their social media accounts, it’s hard to find a place where it’s safe to process private emotions and thoughts. The lack of such a place makes reconnecting with ourselves almost impossible. In The Circle by Dave Eggers, we watch anxiously as Mae loses herself when the Circle takes her safe space from her. The recent loss of my own safe space made this painfully relatable for me. Having a place where personal serenity can be realized is important, and when it is taken away, it fundamentally shakes our perception of the world.
Every day, people are graded and ranked in numbers. Numbers are what we’re used to, and what we’re taught from a very young age to appreciate and value. We are taught that numbers are concrete and solid and eliminate subjectivity. From GPAs and grades to the number of friends and followers we have on social media, we are taught that all personal worth has to do with numbers. The Circle reinforces that idea in the minds of its followers, and Mae quickly embraces this belief. As Mercer puts it, Mae “sit[s] at a desk twelve hours a day and [she has] nothing to show for it except for some numbers that won’t exist or be remembered in a week” (262). Even in moments of what should be pure emotional intimacy, statistics invade when Francis coaxes a numerical ranking of his sexual performance out of Mae (384). From a personal to a professional level, Mae is assessed through rankings based on social media use. After being scolded for going off the grid for one weekend as she visited her parents and went on a kayaking trip alone , she felt “ashamed [that] she’d been doing the bare minimum”. (190) Even kayaking is forbidden unless it is shared with everyone, for everyone’s benefit, so that everyone can quantify the quality of Mae’s personal experience.
During Mae’s trips kayaking, however, she comes through in a clear image that is not distorted by useless numbers and quantification. During the first kayaking trip out onto the bay, some of the first thoughts from Mae are about how “cold water washed over her feet,” feeling “so good she…scooped a handful and drenched her face and the back of her neck” and how she noticed “the strong smell of [seals], a cross between tuna and unwashed dog.” (81) There are no numbers, only what Mae is experiencing right then. She isn’t thinking about what other people are going to say, or about making sure that she gets a certain number of “smiles” and views on her posts about the trip. Instead, Mae is raw and in the flesh in a way she isn’t any other place. Soon, genuine emotion surfaces as “Mae found herself sobbing” over her father’s multiple sclerosis and her powerlessness in the situation. (82) Mae is human, vulnerable and confused about what she can and should do. Mae’s emotion and the sensory details of her trip create a character that is not the same Mae found in the rest of the novel.
On her second trip, Mae finds herself “feeling the water beneath her, smooth and undulating like gelatin,” (139) and already her senses bring out the character not seen anywhere besides the bay. As her adventure continues, she ends up boarding a houseboat with an old couple. She doesn’t ask for their names, and they don’t ask for hers. She doesn’t feel the need to look them up on her phone to find out who they are. Instead, the three sit on plastic chairs on the houseboat, spending a large portion of the time “honoring the water’s tranquility with a moment of silence.” (143) Mae’s comfort in the silence shows how she is a completely different person when away from the Circle and all the technological influences of the mainland. In the end, the quiet is broken, but not by Mae. It is the man who starts conversation going, and when it does, everything they talk about has to do with the beauty of the bay and the animals that live there. Nothing is said about the personal lives of any of the three people sitting there. Mae becomes part of a group of people who are perfectly comfortable with enjoying the company of each other with no strings attached. This is the exact opposite of her coworkers, who are offended that she didn’t tell anyone she went kayaking over the weekend because they wanted to join her. Mae is comfortable there, in the bay, around people whom she doesn’t know and whom she will probably never see again. Once again, this Mae is entirely different than the Mae anywhere else.
The third and final kayaking trip Mae takes is not one where she goes out and finds immediate serenity. Instead, she finds herself fueled by some unknown power that drives her to paddle across the bay to a small, uninhabited island in a stolen kayak at night. Part of the excitement stems from her realization that “no one could see her, and no one would even know she was [there].” (269) The Mae at the Circle values transparency and free access to knowledge above all else, which enhances the clear divide between that self and the Mae that exists on a kayak in this bay. This Mae is thrilled at the thought that “most of the drivers and their passengers would not…have the faintest idea of her existence,” a thought which the Mae at the Circle would shudder at. (271) Mae is free and feels the power of freedom here, on this tiny island in the bay, and does not even realize that the privacy is what frees her, and what her power stems from. As the Circle tore kayaking in the bay from Mae, thus taking her safe space, I felt her pain in a very personal way.
About a mile from my house lies a wooded park that I frequent called Horsepen Run. It’s quietly tucked behind a huge hill and an elementary school, and although there are some signs that give facts about the animals in the park in the parking lot right off the gravel road that leads into it, almost no one except for people whose houses back up onto the property knows of its existence. I stumbled upon it on accident one fall afternoon during my junior year of high school. I was taking the three-mile trek home from school and noticed the road, which until then had never crossed my field of vision. I was intrigued, and decided to investigate further. The gravel scraped against itself as I followed the road back onto the park’s grounds. At first, I thought it was just a way for maintenance vehicles to get to the soccer field behind the elementary school, but soon the fields gave way to densely clustered trees. I didn’t have to walk very far before the stresses of my schoolwork and the upcoming history test melted away. The rustling of the wind blowing through the trees and the satisfying crunch of the leaves beneath my feet blocked out any further sounds of civilization. Even my backpack, heavy from the enormous weight of the knowledge and the textbooks stored in it, seemed to lighten up, and I enjoyed the serenity given to me by having nature all around.
After walking for a few minutes, the dirt paths that ran through the forest began to appear. I had so many choices as to which one to take, and I finally decided on one that appeared to run by a creek. The trail was fairly well maintained, but not perfectly groomed, which helped it blend into the forest more. The tall trees and their leaves softened the golden afternoon light and gave the air the crisp, fall smell that I love so much. I was padding along carefully, trying to disturb as little as I could. There seemed to be enormous power in the forest that I drew energy and peace from. I didn’t know what time it was, or what anyone else was doing, or what was going on outside of that little spot of forest, and it was the most beautiful feeling I have ever experienced. I found a huge fallen tree that rested over the creek, and after putting my backpack down where I knew I’d be able to find it later, I climbed up on it and balanced on all fours as I moved towards its center. The trunk was beginning to rot, but the bark was still rough against my hands, and the core of the tree was solid enough that I felt perfectly safe. I finally reached the point at which the tree rested over the middle of the creek, and, slowly and cautiously so as to not fall off, I laid down. The water beneath moved at a steady pace, never stopping but always changing where it flowed within its high dirt walls. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of dirt and trees and fallen leaves. The creek beneath me burbled, and the leaves above me rustled in the wind. Everything about that spot in the forest was perfect and in balance, and for the first time since I started high school, I felt balanced.
Leaving that part of the forest was hard to do, but I came back the next day, and the day after that. Whenever I am home, I go into the forest, only now I go off the trails into parts unknown. There is nowhere else that I find such peace as I do in the hidden little park behind the elementary school, just as there is no place Mae finds serenity as she does kayaking in her bay.
Mae and I have a lot of similarities in our choice of de-stressing activities. Both involve communing and reconnecting with nature; both involve quietude and alone time; and both involve some level of physical activity. Any or all of those three similarities are very important, but a more important similarity is that she and I had our safe spaces taken away from us. In Mae’s case, the Circle took her safe space away. Their insistence on “secrets are lies” and the mantra of “all that happens must be known” leads to Mae’s near-arrest, which prevents her from being able to go back on the bay, and their insistence on documenting would have destroyed the purpose of the trips, which is to get away from everyone and all the stress from the Circle. Still, Mae does not seem to regret her decision. In my case, I chose to go to school in a city far away from home. The lack of nature been one of the harder adjustments for me to make, and it has definitely taken away from my ability to be introspective.
Even within this similarity, there is an important difference to realize. I chose to go somewhere I knew would have little of the quietude I desire. Mae chose to work for the Circle, but at no point does she realize that the Circle is depriving her of her safe space. Mae has her safe space forcibly ripped away from her and yet continues to praise the Circle for all the “good” that they do. This is eerily reminiscent of an abusive relationship. The abuser slowly isolates and takes control over their partner, taking away friends, family, and safe spaces to keep them from realizing that they’re in a bad situation. Abusers want total power and control over the lives of their partners, and will go to any length to achieve it.
The treatment Mae receives at the hands of the Circle is the same treatment millions of people receive every day at the hands of abusive partners, classmates, parents, and friends. Adolescents and other young members of the LGBTQA have safe spaces set up to ensure healthy emotional development, because they often face ridicule or more severe repercussions if they try to express themselves anywhere else. Safe spaces are necessary for healthy emotional growth and management, not just for young people, but for everyone. Having one helps with relaxation and helps prevent anxiety and stress from building up, thus preventing breakdowns. Not having one does the exact opposite, causing everyday anxieties like being late to build up until suddenly crying at two in the morning doesn’t seem too ridiculous of a proposition. People need a place to feel safe and secure, especially with all the uncertainty that comes along with becoming an adult and suddenly being thrown into new situations that seem daunting to someone who has never done them before, like buying a house or filing taxes. Without such a safe place, everything would suddenly fall apart and cause extreme emotional distress.
Safe spaces give people the ability to get through life. They provide a place away from the problems of life to filter through emotions. Without one, Mae loses herself. Without one, I lost an important coping mechanism. Without one, every thread in the great tapestry of life unravels, and we are left distressed and unhappy.