So I’ve spent the last week and a half in the whirlwind that is residency. I am exhausted. And I am inspired. And did I say that I was exhausted? I don’t think I can say that part enough. Physically, emotionally, spiritually exhausted.
Something I have discovered this week is that in order to write stories, I have to write about my own self first. Clear out all the things that are haunting the back of my brain and swirling around in my heart so that I can write what I actually am sitting down to write. In other words, I find that I have to write some things by accident so I can write other things on purpose. And yet I found meaning and beauty in those musings, no matter how odd or painful they may be. They demanded to be heard. So here they are. Apply them to your own life. Take what you will, leave what you wish. They are merely the scribblings of a mind always in motion.
When my appendix burst, I walked through the ER into the hospital hallway. The anesthesiologist, a friend, held my CAT scan in his hands, seeing whatever the nasty stuff I drank lit up as wrong with me. He looked from the sheet to me and back down again. “How are you still standing?” he said. The scan revealed the truth of what was inside, shouting that I should be in intense pain. But there I was, standing. It didn’t mean there hadn’t been pain. But I was still there on my own two feet, the proof of my struggle in his hands.
So many times, this is all I have wished for. For someone to come up to me, and not say “You’ll be okay,” or “I’m sure that was hard,” or “What happened,” or “Doing this will help.” I’m not wanting someone to fix me or tell me how ‘fine’ I will be in the future or listen to me rehash every moment of my intimate experience. I just want someone to look at me and say, “How are you still standing?” I want someone to see right through my skin and bones and muscle and the smiling shield I project or the chatter or the quiet I pull around me like a cloak. I want someone to pierce through all that and just see the location and magnitude of my pain, how it lights me up like a Christmas tree, bright pulsing colors of agony. I want someone to not care what precisely caused it, not compare my pain to someone else’s or their own. Just to look at me and with wonder say, “How are you still standing?” To treat me like something strong and beautiful and fragile and tragic.
Perhaps I want this so much because I so rarely get it, am offered its warm, gentle comfort. Perhaps it is because when I look at myself in the mirror, look deep into my eyes and sometimes find nothing, true seeing masked by love and pain inextricably mixed – perhaps because I look at myself then, and think, “How are you still standing,” both a little proud and a little shocked. How are you still standing.
Perhaps I want to hear someone say it, just because I wonder if anyone else, when they look at me, feels it too.
Missing you is like walking in a tide pool. Wading ankle deep, bare feet, trying to avoid stepping on the memories that are just too sharp to bear. The ones I know will draw blood, cloud the clear blue water with a rusty bloom, salt stinging the curving cut. I can’t avoid all the pointy edges – some camouflage themselves just too well, are too much a part of me to see, and others look innocent and then jump out at me, like the one with purple spikes that sproing out when my toe nudges too close. Other memories are beautiful, like the small, pearly-pink conch shell softly sparkling, or the unassuming sand dollar nestled quiet, precious, in the sand, just waiting for someone to look closely enough to see it. You are like both of those things. Obviously beautiful and a treasure waiting to be uncovered. For someone to just stop long enough and see. You saw me like that too. I love this tide pool, and yet I don’t. I wish all the sharp edges would be gone and everything would be safe to pick up, to turn over and over in my hands, to close my eyes and run my fingers over all the curves and lips, to feel every texture, ridged and scalloped and speckled, to press the smooth egg-like stones into my palms. I wish. I wish. I wish. Tide pools are good places for wishing. So many of my wishes have come true here, a small watery universe of life and color, and yet so many are aching to be reborn. The tide pool is lonely without you. I need your bare toes next to mine, leaving little prints in the white, soft sand, dimples for the friendly water to gentle at the edges, yet never erase.
I realized today I’ve picked up your habit of laughing before everyone else does. Or at least, at a different time. I don’t know how. I don’t know when. It’s like I suddenly ‘get it’ before the rest of them, and I can’t help but laugh. Or the things they think are funny, I don’t. I think other things are funny.
Maybe it’s like how you started saying “Sad day,” and “Oh bother,” just like me, partly because you knew I’d like it, and partly because people pleasantly rub off on each other when they hang around so much. Just like I started quietly “sssshhh”-ing loud noises and loud people under my breath. Because you did. I always loved that. I started doing it because you did. And then I started doing it on instinct. Every once in a while, it’ll just happen, and part of me wants to smile, and part of me wants to cry. I really want to do both.
Maybe it’s like how once in a blue moon, I drink my coffee black. Because it’s just one little step closer to you. One small, pointless connection, that somehow doesn’t feel pointless, even though it’s like a game of pretend. And when I do that, instead of adding the cream and three packets of sugar that I usually do, I actually like it. Don’t ask me how. Maybe because I loved how different we were. We like each other not in spite of that difference, but because we felt a pull to who we truly were.
I still maintain we were better together.
And so I will continue drinking black coffee when the mood hits, shushing random strangers, and laughing before the rest of the world even notices.
Maybe somewhere, a little part of me is still with you, too.
The tree is still there – the tree I climbed in July, the tree that enabled me to climb up and away from all the things that choked me, the atmosphere that grew thicker and thicker until I left the giant chapel lecture hall with its organ and Victorian walls and echoing words and out into the buzzing air and green to find somewhere I could breathe.
Now the ground is covered in snow, snow which has lain there for days and days, no longer new snow, but still somehow white. I walk over to the tree, seeing the animal tracks and footprints indenting the surface, paw prints and boot steps. The thought crosses my mind – if I was the old me, I’d want to touch the snow. I’d want to bend down and feel its coldness between my fingers.
I am at the base of the tree. I touch the low, smooth, textured branch, the one so low to the ground it made a perfect foothold. Last year, there was a little painted rock that someone had placed in the wide crook where branch met trunk. A whimsical surprise for someone to find. I loved that. The rock isn’t there now.
I think about old me’s, new me’s, me’s I liked and me’s I didn’t. I don’t think that’s true, that there’s old me’s and new me’s, not exactly. I think there’s the real me, and not me. I think there’s one true, realest me, and all the different me’s are just varying degrees closer to or farther away from that real me. The me’s I liked were closest to that real me. The me’s I hated being were the ones farthest away. There is no old and new. There is just real and untrue. Untrue things do exist, you know. That’s why they feel so wrong.
As I walk away from the tree, I touch the ground, feel the snow between my fingers, because I feel like I should. That’s what the real me would do.
I would like to call B.S. on something.
We’ve all heard the song that says, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
That’s not true. Not for everybody.
Not all pain makes all people stronger. I would not say that I am stronger. That’s not the right word.
I think pain can make you indifferent.
I think pain can make you deeper.
I think for me, it does both.
But I hope I end up with more ‘deeper’ than more ‘indifferent.’
And sometimes hoping makes all the difference.
I’m sitting in graduation at the end of the marathon that is residency for the MFA in creative writing for children and young adults and boy, am I glad that it’s over.
Something can be incredibly inspiring and terribly exhausting at the same time, and at this point, at this most sentimental and emotionally-charged of all moments in this ten day period, everyone is crying. And I mean, literally, almost everyone.
The graduating class has decided to play a piece of piano and violin music, live, to celebrate their time here. It is meant to symbolize what this school means to all of us, all us writers and students. For most students, this place holds the most magical community they have ever found. This is not true for me. There are many things I appreciate about this place, but it is not ‘my place’ or ‘my people.’ But I have made my peace with that.
So when the music begins to play and steals a bit of my soul from my body, I do not think of school. For the music speaks of home. Loudly, clearly, unmistakably. Resonating in my bones. Carrying me way. Home. I am full of a feeling, and I follow that feeling, and it leads me straight – to you.
Of course it does. For when I think of home, you are what my heart invariably turns to. It does not take effort. It does not take thought. It just does. Home.
You holding me is home.
Or just you. Just you will do. Just you is home.
And in this moment, I realize something that I hadn’t thought of before. I have always known that you have changed me as a person. I am inexpressibly glad for that. But what I didn’t realize is that you have changed my writing too. It is deeper. It ranges farther and wider. It rings truer. Because you are one of the deepest, farthest, widest, truest things I have ever known. And whatever a person treasures will change them.
Martine, the speaker, begins to talk. At first she is funny, and then she is profound. She speaks of why we do what we do as writers for children. About why we are important.
She uses the phrase “radical empathy.” This is our work, our heart, who we are. Radical empathy.
For me, radical empathy means deep knowledge. Knowing something in the deepest way you can know it and feeling a deep love for that thing that you know so very well. Radical empathy is that deep knowing with other people, between people.
I knew you so well. I tried to know you harder than I had tried to know anyone. And it worked. And I felt a love that I hadn’t felt for anyone else. And I think that counts as radical empathy.
And because of that, I think you are now in everything that I write, because you are part of my heart. You are part of the deepest knowing I have ever known. You are part of the deepest desire I have ever had for someone else to know me.
And so much of writing is a keeping on going. Of pushing on when things are hard and long and just plain frustrating. I didn’t know how much “keeping on going” I had in me until this last year. I don’t know how I’ve kept going on, with everything, from the smallest thing to the biggest things, but I have. And inadvertently, you taught me that too. Even when it doesn’t feel like I’m keeping on, even when I don’t think I can keep on another step, I somehow do, only with God’s grace. And here I am, still keeping on. And here I am, still caring about you. I can’t explain it, but I do. And if I can do that, then I can do this. I can write. And keep on writing. And keep on and on and on and on until someone somewhere reads something I write and says wow, I am not alone. I never knew. And they will keep going on. And that will be radical empathy, even if I never know.
So for these things, I thank you. I have many things to thank you for, but I did not know that this may be one of them. Even though I wish I didn’t have to keep on going without you, I do. And so do you. And I hope that one day, just maybe, we won’t have to, and we can have “radical empathy.” Maybe we still have it. Maybe one day, we can have a deep, true knowledge again, and from a distance that can be crossed by the simple, small touch of a hand.