Peace, Love, and Understanding

The class of 1971 is having a 46-year reunion, next weekend.  They’ll be at the football game against the rival high school.  Go, Bulldogs!!  The soundtrack will include Crosby Stills Nash and Young.  Remember Teach Your Children Well?  I put in a request, even though I can’t be there this year.

I’ve been thinking about those kids I grew up with.  All of us are in our mid-sixties now.  Although if they’re like me, I bet they still hold the delusion they’re sixteen and just got their drivers’ licenses.  The Beatles are still together in our hearts.  How can we have gray hair?

We rallied for peace.  We were mythic in our own minds, righteously vocal against the corrupt establishment, against the war, against the lies of politicians, against oppression.  We were different than those who came before.  But how pure were we really?  Did we sit-in because we wanted to fit in?

 

far out

How much we needed to belong!  At the local hangout—Shirley’s Drive-in—I dropped a quarter in the jukebox one afternoon when the place was swarming with high schoolers.  I played Time of the Season by the Zombies (or was it Incense and Peppermints by the Strawberry Alarm Clock?)  On my way back to my booth, as the beat of psychedelic rock throbbed over the hubbub, one of the jocks gave me such a startled look!  Could I like that music without dropping acid?  I was a goody-two-shoes, not even allowed to go to dances.  I loved those songs.  But my jukebox choice that afternoon tried to send a coded message to my peers that I wanted to be one of them.  An old longing.

I don’t know what secret feelings the cheerleaders and jocks were hiding inside, but I was uneasy in my own skin.  Awkward.   Scared all the time.  An outsider.  I imagine I was obnoxious about what areas of competence I believed I had, in overcompensation for the rest.  Maybe I’m still giving off some of the same vibe.  There is probably some eye-rolling going on here.

However much we evolve even if we’ve had profound healing, isn’t there still that little kid inside, in an old bubble of fear…will anybody like me?  How can I fit?  Did they feel it too?

All the way back to earliest grade school, my tough family life prompted covert acting out.  Those were hard years at home, and I felt unsafe and unlovable.  A kid who feels like that brings it to school with her, to the social milieu.  Because where could she lay it down?  I observed the apparent social ease of the upper tiers of elementary school social strata—an ease that seemed magically bestowed.  Seamlessly, gracefully engaged in by everyone else but me.  I was jealous.

These days I know I was wrong in those assumptions.  I know that even the kids I imagined were living charmed lives had their own painful challenges.  Nobody had it easy.

The next thing I’m going to admit is something I feel ashamed and sad about.

From first grade on, there was Bobby, that everybody liked most, and Susie, the most popular girl.  These are not their real names, because that’s not the point.  One year Bobby liked Susie, or so it was said.  They were both cute, popular, wore nice clothes.  They were innocent friends, and nothing else, but we were all of us playing at being grown up, applying what templates of relationships were demonstrated on TV and movie screens.  We, as a group (Miss Mendoza’s class—and no, that’s not her real name either) were vicariously trying on social roles.  So, we watched with interest, this boy and girl whom we had drafted unawares, into role models without their consent.  The sing-song chant of “Bobby and Susie sittin’ in a tree…. K-I-S-S-I-N-G… was some degree of social harassment.  Or maybe even bullying.  Did it embarrass them?  They had no chance to opt out of our attention, to step out of the glare of our teasing, our jealousy, for their preferred status as our imagined social examples.

 

 

There was a set of girls, and I was among them, who decided that the fault for our own social deprivation could be pinned on Susie.  We were ignorant sexists, blaming the female for the attentions of a male, however innocent all of it was.  There was formed a little mean-girls clique, and while I don’t remember the ringleader, my presence gave consent.  I was responsible for joining in.  We distracted ourselves from the self-loathing we felt for being outside the social limelight.  We called ourselves the “Hate Susie Club.”  The club was an ugly, fleeting invention, probably the length of a single recess period or two.  As far as I know, it evaporated as soon as it was spoken into existence.  It took root in my memory not for its duration, or for any actions that were physically undertaken.  I remembered it for two reasons I can think of, looking back with my adult eyes.  First, it had been a rare moment when I felt included in a kind of membership, which was an experience I was starved for.  And second, my conscience burned me like a bad rash, for aiming hateful thoughts at a girl I only admired and would have wanted to be like.  Neither Bobby nor Susie had ever been unpleasant to me in any way.  Why would I agree to such poisonous energy?  I numbed myself and “forgot” about it.

Decades later, on suddenly encountering Susie at a gathering, I blurted out the beginning of an abrupt confession.  What earthly reason made me open my mouth?  I was seeking, I suppose, to unburden my guilt, apologize, and make amends for the ugly, short-lived meanness of the idea it represented.  Such a terrible impulse, serving only me.  I spoke the name of the “Hate Susie Club” to her, and then stalled out.  As the words left my mouth I froze, aghast at hearing aloud my own complicity in creating a wound that sounded to my own ears more cruel than I had let myself know.  And now I had compounded it by speaking it anew.  Susie’s face was at first friendly and open, then surprised, then wary and masked.  Within a minute, she excused herself and moved away to a cluster of folks across the room.

As an unwitting, needy child I had sinned simply to lend my ears and my voice to a conversation of such hatefulness.  But now as an adult I had compounded the harm.  And what is worse, I pushed it out of mind, and did not try to repair it since then.  I’m realizing in the writing of this post that even now I still had Susie on some kind of social pedestal, and convinced myself she was okay.

I am sorry, Susie.  For listening to hateful speech, and joining into it, for however brief a time.  I am sorry that my adult bumbling so many years later, for only selfish reasons, caused hurt again.  I’m sorry my embarrassment caused me to go silent, for all the time between then and now.  I was wrong.

I think now of the bullying I know is rampant in our schools today, and the lives it maims and destroys.  As an adult I have engaged in conversations, both personal and professional, on the need to instill compassion in our children.  I have presented myself as a compassionate person, and told myself I modeled it.

There are gaps.

But I never saw so clearly that my complicity back then was bullying.  That my failure to own it, or clear it, was hateful.

There’s a saying, that “Hurt people hurt people.”  Surely the children who bully others, are, themselves, hurt.  But I wonder if we turned the camera on ourselves, if we might see that behind our masks of morality, our defended egos, our religious postures, that the festering of our own old wounds maintains ugly blind spots even today.  Are we insensitive to the degree we have not healed?  Are we still bullies?  We may slice open others’ wounds without noticing.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can devastate me.

In our graduating class of 1971, there were more than 500 high school seniors whose lives encompassed personal hopes and dreams, sorrows and fears, pride and shame, promise and despair.  Every one of us carried unspoken burdens, then and now.  We cannot fully know all the experience of another.  46 years post-graduation, might we examine how we live out what values we say we hold?  Might we look for ways to make the world kinder, and more understanding?  That would be better.

We’re the establishment now.

Peace out.

Out of sight, out of mind.

I can go all my life without ever considering the textures of another human life whose heart beats just around the corner from where I live.  Let alone a person, or a people, half a world away.  I don’t think about them.

I’m aware that my toenail polish needs to be re-done, that I forgot to start the dryer, that I have an unheard voicemail.  I’m aware that I feel hungry, when it hasn’t been that long since breakfast, but there’s a craving, maybe to distract myself from boredom or a nagging emotion I’d rather not have, by noshing on something.  What do I want?  Something salty maybe…. 

I am not aware, on the other hand, except in rare, brief moments, if ever at all, of that specific, particular fear in the belly of a child in central Phoenix, homeless with his mother, who slept fitfully next to her, in an alleyway on a piece of cardboard, his hand on her shoulder to reassure himself she’s still there, that she hasn’t left him alone to look for her dealer, even though she said she was never going to do that again, until he jumps awake at the snuffling of a stray mongrel.  Now, even though it’s still dark, he obsesses about making sure to be on time for school, where there will be breakfast, even if the kids look at him funny because he smells bad. 

I am aware of cat hair between the keys of my keyboard, of the prescriptions I forgot to order, of the questionable color combination of my sports bra and yoga pants with this particular tank top, of feeling discouraged and deprived at how slowly the weight is coming off. 

I am not aware of how infectious is the laugh, when she isn’t so consumed with grief, of a twenty-three-year-old woman with two little ones in a refugee camp on the other side of the world, and how attached she was to her mother, who did not escape the dangers the young woman has fled with her husband whose single dimple and shining eyes still make her heart surge, and with her brother who is the cleverest in the family, but they had to leave their older sister behind, because she wasn’t strong, and not quite right in her head since she got hurt so badly, and it would have been more dangerous for the children, although they loved her so, and what will she do now?  I’m not aware of the stories her Papa told her as a little girl, that she carries in her heart. 

I don’t know why they had to leave.  What makes that set of people hate this set of people?  What happened to the wild, favorite cousin, who always won at street games, the best friend who shared her secrets when they were ten, the cranky old woman next door who complained about the noise of their giggling? The teacher who crinkled her eyes when she smiled?  Did they get out?  What sweetness was left behind in the mattresses and the cooking pots they could not bring along to carry on their backs?  What memories did she carry into that unfamiliar place they have found to rest, and what was too terrible to remember, but had to be hidden away in the recesses of her mind, only to spring out in nightmares that make her gasp awake, staring, with tears rolling across the bridge of her nose and down, puddling in the palm cupped under her cheek?

I haven’t paid attention to what is happening to those people, strangers to me, foreigners, wherever they are.  What fills my awareness is the detail of my own narrow life.  I focus on what I want, what I’m afraid to hope for, what I tell myself I shouldn’t try, the things I judge or wonder over.  But I don’t need to question if my front door will lock, or if the air conditioning will kick on to keep me comfortable.   There is food in my freezer and the pantry.  I own a fourteen-year-old car that never fails to start or get me where I want to go, and I have the money to put gas in it, or get it fixed if it breaks.  I don’t have much of an investment portfolio, but I have a home that nobody will drag me out of. 

Those other lives are out of sight, out of mind, for me.  For them, some privileges I call rights cannot be imagined, must not be wished for, and will never be expected because to think of those things only brings on hopelessness, and distracts the attention necessary to find something for the babies to eat today. 

But I don’t think about that.

Killing time

Why do I waste my life?  You never do that, do you?  You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure.  I’m writing about procrastination, because I’m blocked.  Writer’s block.

Stuck

I’m poised on the verge of fulfilling my dreams, if only I can spontaneously blurt out another hundred, or maybe two hundred more pages or so, and I’ll be done.  But I don’t know what words go on the first of those pages.

I can see diverging paths leading into a beautiful green forest of possible choices.  So many ideas fill the forest.  Something stops me from stepping onto any of those paths.

Forest path

It’s like there’s a wall of glass between me and the forest paths.  I’m squinting, trying to make out what’s lurking there, deep in the forest that I haven’t set foot in, that as-yet unknown territory.  And I stand with my nose smushed up against the glass, my breath fogging the surface.  I step back and pace.  I run my hands over the glass, seeking an opening.  I pound in desperation, but then I think someone might hear me getting wild.  That wouldn’t do.  I scan the expanse of glass.  It goes on forever, in all directions.  What to do?

Up against the glass

I don’t like that I’m up against the glass.  It’s not hygienic.  Plus, I feel incompetent, lazy, frustrated, angry, sad.  A failure.  Any of those just make me want to eat a pizza, followed by a pile of chocolate chip cookies.  Maybe I should talk about it at my Weight Watchers’ meeting.  But that’s another day.

Another day.  Therein lies my solution.  Procrastination.  I did not say it is a good solution, or even a conscious one.  I can step back from my view of the glass, with its smeary fingerprints, and the forest beyond.  I eat a snack.  I surf Facebook.  Google celebrities I never heard of.  Take a nap.  Play Solitaire.  Yes.  I was tempted to delete that, before you saw it.  I wanted you to think well of me.

Procrastination

Solitaire is as pure a procrastination as I know of, and I hate to own it.  I don’t mean for you, of course—Solitaire, for you, is a few moments of gentle self-care, a little tender padding between the hard rails of those arduous demands of your fulfilling life.  For me it’s just to go numb.  To kill time.

Now, how abhorrent is that phrase?  Killing time.  I am given 86,400 seconds every day (thanks, Google!)  I can spend them, invest them.  Or I can kill them.  Murder the little buggers.  Play Solitaire, for example.  Either way will get me to the end of the span of time, which I’ll never get back, for writing or anything else.  Then another 86,400 seconds will be shelled out.  There will come a day when the seconds allotted to me personally will run out, but that’s not for years yet.  Maybe.  Could be sooner, I guess.

I’m feeling a little hungry….

Okay, I’m back.

Writer’s block is when I’m moving through the middle of a project, and I stall out and roll to a dead stop.  In the moment, I can’t see why I can’t get going again.  Frustrated, I am prompted to engage in the separate action of procrastination (killing time.)  Which , numbing me, helps me avoid engaging in the meaning of the writer’s block.  Because the writer’s block is trying to tell me something, if only I’m listening.  I haven’t listened.

“You’re going the wrong way!” It says to me.  But I’m too busy admiring my own words, telling myself it’s fine.

The novel I’m writing now is actually a story I tried to tell, starting out twenty years ago.  I fell in love with the characters, and the story that emerged spontaneously.  My writer’s group then, like my new group now, loved my story.  But finding what wasn’t working was tougher.  Back then I stalled out, and rather that figuring out the problem with the writing, I set the story aside, and turned my attention elsewhere.  I avoided facing down my writing dilemma for twenty years.

Coming back to the project now, I love it still.  Writer’s block re-emerges yet again, to focus me on the old problem I never resolved, because maybe it’s the central problem.  It’s the life problem, or my particular version of it.  Writing this is trying to stay honest for today, engaging instead of avoiding, this time.  I’m listening now.

My writer’s block problem was fear.  Fear that my character, Katie, will be revealed as her own messy, flawed self, even though we meet her as a child.  Fear of the exposure of my own unacceptable faults, which in some ways are represented by my fictional character, whose story is not my autobiography, but who has a lot of me at the heart.  I was afraid of readers seeing me, through Katie, as untrustworthy, defective, and human.  Because however empathetic I am to anyone else who naturally has human failings, I still carry around old shame for being just a human being after all     .  Oh, just that again.  My same life dilemma keeps on recurring, presenting the same lesson until I’m ready to learn it.  Just like everybody else.

Yechhhh.  Being human prompts my old shame.

Human

I react by I reverting to old strategies of self-protection.  I want to stop trying.  Stop risking, avoid exposing myself as less than perfect.  My old baggage, lugged from early childhood on.  I set myself the impossible task of perfection and then I get embarrassed that I can’t do the impossible.

Whoever taught us we were supposed to be superheroes?  When reminded that I’m not a superhero, I withdraw in unacknowledged, unspoken defeat, demoralized and disappointed in myself.

Procrastination gives me an intermission, time-out.  I use it unconsciously to delay, to transition to a new, transcendent mask of holiness.

Really?  Who am I kidding?  Like watching internet videos (a killing-time activity) where some guy falls down on camera, but leaps up in a split-second turning a splat into a swagger, suddenly Joe Cool, to say “What are you staring at?”  I’m that guy onscreen.  Trying to distract from shame about the “failure” by nonchalant denial, bluster, and pretense.

Like this:  https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=cool+after+fail&&view=detail&mid=DB79A0DA6112104C9CF1DB79A0DA6112104C9CF1&&FORM=VDRVRV

I don’t expect to conquer this instantly.

Failure at being without flaw is really no failure at all, because flawless doesn’t exist, for any of us.  It’s a myth, a fake-out.  We aim at an inappropriate, unreal target of perfection, which is a setup for precisely the blunder we are so shocked has come to pass.  “What are you staring at?”  Myself.  I’m staring at myself in a mirror, when I watch the clumsy guy try to be Joe Cool.  The only way Joe Cool exists is as a fake to cover up the inner, frightened, little nerd.

So as long as I still clutch this old belief that I should be faultless, I will endlessly cycle through aiming for the impossible, failing to reach it, getting all humiliated that I am human, and trying to pretend it never happened, and it never mattered at all to me.

But I’m just who I am.  A human being of human proportions, and hang-ups.  I’m thoughtless and judgmental, and also forgiving and witty and kind, and angry and bitter.  And compassionate and loving, and selfish and disorganized, brave and fearful, but hopelessly bad at the perfection I often demand of myself.

Hmm.  When I succeed at not being stuck, at writing, at creating, what am I doing differently?  Well, it isn’t that I’ve got it all seamlessly worked out ahead of time, in my head.  What I have to do is start.  With just an idea.  And that will suggest another idea, and I follow that, and pretty soon I’m following a path that shows itself to me, one step at a time.  And looking back, I notice that I didn’t pay any attention to that glass, which was illusion after all.  I ignored whether it was the “right” idea.  It’ll never be flawless.  Once I started something, whatever I could do, then I developed momentum, and covered some ground, backtracked sometimes, but then saw how to move on.  My readers, if I have any, may grumble about what ground I cover, but I’ll be moving.  Or at least practicing discipline.   Being imperfect, exposing the imperfections, because they’re honest, and real.

Oscar Wilde said, “You must write badly first.  Mistakes lead to discovery.  Letting yourself be bad is the best way to become good.”  Anne Lamott is well known for encouraging writers to create “shitty first drafts.”  Not to encourage bad writing, but to scratch and cudgel, wrestle and hoist a draft, any terrible draft, into actual existence.  Make it the rough starting place of the eventual honest expression of who I am.  Being real.

Maybe this practice isn’t only for writers.  Maybe it’s for people who stop themselves from starting anything because they can’t be perfect from the very first step.  Maybe we just have to start, and try.  And be willing to do badly at it, in order to get good eventually.

I guess I’ll never know where those forest paths lead unless I ignore the smudgy glass, and the need for having the answers before I start.  People will think of me as they decide, not what I convince them about who I am.  I will set down one boot onto the grit and hear the sound of my step.  Be where I am.  Breathe.  And then the next step.

One step at a time