Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Someone Else's Shoes

My junior year in high school, I had Mr. Carta for English. At the end of every week, no matter what else was going on in class, Mr. Carta required us to turn in a “writing sample.” This continuous assignment was my most favorite (although the presentation that Brianne and I did on the JFK assassination for Mr. Healy’s U.S. History class would share the top spot). I loved writing samples because they had no rules. We could write a poem, a short story, a rap, a chapter of a novel, or anything else we could think of. We could write about any topic, in any time period, with any voice. After a few weeks of Mr. Carta’s class, I had so many writing samples built up that I could have just stopped there and turned one in every week for the rest of the year. But I didn’t stop writing. Because even back then, although I didn't know it, writing was my therapy.

I kept a binder of all of my high school writing samples, and this past winter when I was searching for inspiration for a town writing contest that I had decided to enter, I returned to that binder. As I flipped through, I was somewhat impressed by my 17-year-old self, but much more than that, I was, at least at first, horrified by her. As I combed through poem after poem of really depressing stuff, I thought to myself, My goodness, I’m surprised Mr. Carta didn’t have me committed to a teenage mental institution!

Almost every poem I wrote in high school was about some horrific or totally depressing real or fictitious event. I wrote about plane crashes, the atomic bomb, mental illness, poverty, and bullies. Goodness gracious. In one of my favorite poems, a son and his father converse about the father pushing the son far too hard to succeed. In another poem, a girl suffers over what she perceives as her own horrendous ugliness. Mr. Carta probably thought these were based in some reality of my own suffering. But they weren't. They were just my way to process so much of the world that I perceived and didn't understand. Those parts of the world that concerned me.

I distinctly remember sitting in my bedroom crying as I wrote about these Debbie Downer topics. Once I finished my writing, I’d typically head out to gymnastics, swimming, or basketball practice, or Brianne and Rachel and I would get together and find something to laugh about. And I’d be just fine. I never dwelled in sadness. I just needed to get my overflowing emotions down on paper. Put them in a safe place. Writing samples were that safe place. Just like this space is now.

Even before high school, I was extremely sensitive, perhaps too sensitive. I remember when my Mom and I went shopping, I would feel so sad for any sales person who stood in an empty store. As a young girl, I would get so upset with worry that that person was lonely and I would be so relieved if my Mom bought something. Perhaps many of the storekeepers didn’t even care that their store wasn’t drawing in customers. But for some reason, I really did.

Brian understands me, because he’s the same way. Even today if we go into a family-owned restaurant and it’s too quiet, we both get blue. We worry that that restaurant is someone’s life dream and that that someone is crunching numbers worried that he or she won’t be able to make ends meet. I’m proud to have this sort of empathy and compassion, and thankful to my parents for somehow very subtly instilling it in me. But at the same time, it can be emotionally draining and physically exhausting. Sometimes I just wish Brian and I could enjoy our Thai food without worrying about a stranger's life dream.

I honestly never dreamed that I’d get cancer. But for a long time, I’ve worried about being hit by a drunk driver. (Man, this post just keeps getting cheerier and cheerier, huh?) So when I flipped through that high school writing binder and found a poem that I wrote about drunk driving, I decided I would re-draft it for the writing contest. For weeks, I worked on the poem almost every day on the train to and from Boston. I ended up re-writing the whole thing. Just for kicks, here it is:

A Chance

Old bulb flickers
Above the street
A city on
The edge of sleep
Windows locked
Stories high
Thick heat rises
Babies cry

Streetlight dies
The night is old
A mother’s hopes
Long been sold
Life a battle
Day by day
Children wander
Beast and prey
Heavy burdens
Anchor dreams
Sudden ends
No good means

On a curb
A lonely street
A child tries
To dodge the heat
Sits and wonders
Looking down
What lies beyond
The haunted town

And while a daring
Young mind soars
A father gulps down
Just one more
Cold dry glass
Eases sorrow
Fills a space
Long been hollow
Laughs and stumbles
Keys in fist
Engine roars
Through sewer mist

A mother drifts
’Til silence breaks
Rubber burns
A dreaded fate
Shadows gasp
A shallow breath
Not surprised
By sudden death
Now trapped beneath
An empty soul
Now filled with grief

Where light was dead
It flickers on
Where silence lead
The sirens’ song
Where everything’s
A shade of grey
Rarely clear
Who’s beast or prey
A child born
With much to give
Ends up begging
Just to live
On a curb
A lonely street
Hopes and dreams
So incomplete
A mother wakes
As blue lights dance
A child dies
Without a chance

When I shared this poem with my Mom and my sister, they both joked about me needing to write about something happy (yes, they complimented it too). I laughed it off, slightly embarrassed that I’d come up with something so depressing. Especially because I’m such a happy person. 

I invented the characters and the events of that poem. But the context is real, and I think about these things all the time – poverty, race, parenthood, education, hope, opportunity, drinking and driving. These issues concern me and writing about them helped.

My poem won third prize in the writing contest, even though for all I know there were only three entries. Teddy and I went to the public library one night to hear all of the winners read their work. We ate chocolate chip cookies in the back and when it was my turn to read, Teddy came up to the front of the room with me. At first, I thought I shouldn’t read about death in front of him. But I watched his body language closely that night and he was far too concerned with everything else in the room to really care about what I said. (Who am I kidding -- he rarely listens to me in public.)

I wrote the poem to be read on paper and not to be read aloud so I wasn't crazy about reading it in public. Plus, I was so happy to be at the event that I tried hard to dull my cheery tone to fit the somber tone of the poem, but I think I failed at that too. When I was done, an older woman sitting next to me asked me in a very low sympathetic voice if I lost a child and I said thank goodness I hadn’t. Teddy and I scooted out quickly after that because it was already far past his bedtime.

I thought a lot about that woman’s question that night. Today, I’m still thinking about it. Because her question has a lot to do with empathy and compassion, and those things have been on my mind lately.

Perhaps to my own detriment, I can’t help but put myself in someone else’s shoes. But in the last few months, I’ve spent so much time writing about my own shoes, that I haven’t thought enough about the shoes on my readers' feet. I’m sure every person reading this now has his or her own unique story; his or her own unique reason for reading what I write. In the last few days, I have had conversations with two different young moms who read what I write and in both cases, I saw something very raw and very real – I saw empathy and compassion. And I saw fear.

I’ve written a lot about my own fears. But I haven’t thought enough about the fear that I may be causing in others. I never, ever intended to do that. And I’m so dumb for only catching onto this now. Of course my story would scare the daylights out of any young mom, or anyone else for that matter. Maybe it's because there’s nothing to explain how this happened to me. I wish I could tell you that I used to add BPA drops to my cereal or that I drank milk from my own personal cow that I pumped with extra powerful hormones. Maybe my story would be less scary if I smoked or had a family history of cancer. If I did anything that could explain how I got this dreaded disease. But I didn’t. And that may be part of why my fear becomes yours. 

The fear I saw in the eyes of two friends made me want to hug them and tell them not to worry, that they will never get this. That my story is just what I have to bear, and they don't. But I have no idea who will get this and who won’t. As Bruce says, “Tomorrow never knows.” So all I can do is write to them that the empathy that I saw in their eyes that day speaks the world to me. It tells me that they have spent time imagining life in my shoes, and that tells me that they are deeply compassionate, good people. It tells me that they have people in their lives that they love more than anything else; that they could never bear to lose. And that tells me they are wonderfully blessed. 

I didn't express any of that to either of these two friends when I spoke to them last week. But I do think I squeaked out in some rambling way what I truly believe -- that they would handle it all just fine if they ever, Heaven forbid, needed to. Because they would. And they'd amaze me with their strength and grace, I'm sure.

It’s not easy to stand in someone else’s shoes, especially when those shoes are trudging down a rocky path. It’d be way easier if we never even bothered to try. But without empathy, we would live in solitude. And solitude would definitely be boring. And lonely. So as one of my favorite movie characters once said, “I’d rather feel too much than not at all.” Yes, that’s from Bandits. Funny movie, especially when it’s time to give my far-too-serious brain a little break.

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