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Sunday, October 23, 2005

Words

There are some things that people say that I never forget. Sometimes the words are formative, and sometimes they're destructive. Either way, people's indiscernible fragilities make me cognizant of how frequently I speak, and of how infrequently I think before doing so. Right now I teach 180 high school students - I think about the words that come out of my mouth sometimes when I'm frustrated, and when no one will sit down or agree with my contention that it really is possible for a 10th grader in Baltimore city to stop genocide in Sudan. I told Cortez that I wanted to run him over with my car - what if he becomes an ax murderer as a result of my irresponsible use of hyperbole? What if Cortez, or any of my other students, are like me: ostentatious and ridiculously self-assured yet secretly vulnerable and sensitive to the potentially destructive words of others? I should have studied bugs or worked in a lab training rats.

When I was 16, April, a friend on the track team, told me my stomach was too fat for such a skinny girl. I was 5'10" and weighed 135 pounds, but all of a sudden I was self-conscious about something other than the ferocious zit on my chin. I started doing sit-ups. 11 years later, I gave up because the washboard abs never materialized. I still don't like my stomach, though.

I also remember my high school friend, Selina asking me how I could be so stupid. We were at a friend's house doing math homework my senior year. Some type of trigonometry, I think. I was in 12th grade. I haven't taken a math class or balanced my checkbook since.

In ninth grade I remember Neil telling me I was pretty. He was a curly-haired senior on the cross country team, and I was a gawky long-legged freshman, covered with mud and sweat, topped off by frizzy post-running hair. Still wearing our respective ITHACA cross country mesh tank tops, we were crammed on a yellow school bus on our way from a mid-week meet. I don't remember Neil's last name, nor how I did in the race that day, but I do remember thinking it was some sort of miracle that someone found me pretty. Especially after a cross-country race. People must not have called me "pretty" very often.

Rather than list the innumerable things that I've selectively ingrained into my bizarre memory, I write this to encourage you, when you're breaking up with someone, to choose your words more carefully than one usually does. Sometimes things stick and, like your favorite jeans that you wash with a piece of gum in the pocket, there is no amount of peanut butter or patience that will ever return things to normal. Jeans, post-gum, are always a little bit jacked-up.

When Jim and I broke up, he left quickly. He had to. He was upset, I was upset, and I knew that if he stuck around for more than 8.5 seconds I'd start frothing at the mouth, beating him with my frying pan, or cleaning the toilet with his head. So he packed fast. I was still wearing my pajamas, sitting on the floor, clutching my knees to my chest. Everything around me started to look blurry and the back of the couch was scraping into my backbone and the carpet itched and I couldn't figure out what to do. So, while he packed, I did nothing. I couldn't even think or pray or remember that I was stressed-out about the school year that started in two days. I might have started rocking back and forth a little; that's what crazy people do, I think. I felt like I was going crazy.

A few days later I realized how much stuff he'd left at my apartment. In addition to the mess of what used to be me, he'd forgotten a lot of his crap. CDs. Pictures. Books. A few t-shirts that I'd worn to bed earlier in the summer. Looking for an excuse to call him and hear, "April fools, Kate! I'm coming home, I love you, I never cheated on you etc. etc.", I decided to call him. Since it was August, there was no "April fools!" rather a terse, emotionless conversation which went something like this:

Me: Hey, how are you.
Him: Not great, how are you?
Me: I'm sitting under my desk.
Him: Why?
Me: I just am. Listen, you left a lot of crap here. Do you want me to mail it somewhere, or do you want to come by and pick it up sometime I'm not here?
Him: Neither, don't worry about it.
Me: I'm not going to throw out all of your pictures and books and stuff. Where do you want me to mail it? You left an entire CD of vacation pics here...
Him: Listen Kate, if I left it there, I obviously didn't care that much about it anyway. If it's still in the apartment, sell it on eBay or throw it out - I don't want it back.

Rationally, I knew he was talking about his stuff. Rationally, I knew he probably wanted his books and CDs and pictures back, but felt guilty having me mail them all to his "new" mailing address. Still, the only thing that came out of my mouth was the word, "Clearly." I sucked in a breath of air that tasted like dirt, and the conversation ended shortly thereafter.

I since resolved to throw out most of his stuff. I finished the book that I'd borrowed from him, and gave it to a friend, turned a few of his T-shirts into gym t-shirts and tucked the shoes he'd bought me for my birthday, and the Ray Lewis jersey I'd bought him for his, to the back of my closet, and threw the rest down the garbage chute.

My advice, though, is this: if, while in the process of shredding someone's heart with a rake, you need to move out, please choose your words more wisely if you leave things behind. It's inevitable that you'll forget a few things; material things you can qualify much easier than the mess of a person you leave behind. Speaking from personal experience, though, it's hard enough to think you're dumb at math, or to spend a decade sucking in a non-flat stomach, but it's even harder to be relegated to the status of an over-listened-to CD or a paint-stained t-shirt. Personal resilience only goes so far.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Jenny and Me

Funk

To be honest I've been in a funk lately. I guess I don't really know what that means, but if funk is gunky stuff that ruins something that is otherwise good, then that's where I've been. On Thursday I woke up at 5:45, and for the 14th straight day, the sun wasn't out - nor did it show any signs of emerging. The weather outside was wet and gray, my classroom was so cold that my students took the PSATs wearing gloves, and my somewhat frizzy hair was slowly starting to resemble Don King's. I was in a bad mood. I tried listening to festive music, but happy noises irritated me, I tried to pray and my prayers usually came out as lists of requests for myself and others. Meanwhile I was teaching my students about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, and while the topic should have sparked at least a moderate amount of appreciation regarding my own life, it just depressed me. I decided the world was disgusting, and maybe the best case scenario was contracting the Avian Bird Flu. Our country is entrenched in moral depravity, we're fighting a war that we shouldn't be fighting, people all over are starving to death, the Janjaweed militia is roaming around on camels with M-16 assault rifles killing civilians at a rate of 500 people per day in Darfur, and the "love of my life" cheated on me. Rationally I knew that my own life was fine, but all I wanted to do was eat pint after pint of ice cream and then complain about getting fat. Yes. I was even starting to drive myself nuts.

On Thursday night, after decimating a pint and a half of ice cream and reading about Darfur, I felt heavier. Heavier even than 6 servings of ice cream should make me feel. I sat on the couch to watch TV, but I hate TV. I listened to music, but I'm sick of all my music. I wanted to talk to someone, but I didn't know what to say, and MS stuff is bugging both of my hands, so I didn't even want to write.

I scanned my email inbox and called Jenny - one of my runner friends from Colgate. She's ridiculous and stubborn and filled with magnetism and radiance. She cracks me up. So I called her. I told her I was in a funk and it was absurd and inexplicable and there was nothing wrong, but I needed someone to talk to. She talked. She suggested about 89 things that I know I need to do, but am too lazy to do. I must be insanely annoying to talk to sometimes. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I'm lonely. I live in this stupid apartment nowhere near my friends and it reminds me of my ex.
Jenny: Why don't you move?
Me: I like my couch. But there's still this cheeseburger stain and it reminds me of my ex too.
Jenny: You could sell the couch...
Me: It's really comfortable.
Jenny: Could you talk to someone, you know, just to get some of this out?
Me: I don't have time. My insurance won't pay for it. It won't help - I already know what's bugging me.

(At this point I could almost hear the wrinkles on Jenny's forehead start to form.)

It went on like this until I started hypothesizing that I could die in a car accident and no one would ever find out. Then Jenny, who presumably wanted to flush the phone down the toilet, insisted on coming to Baltimore for the weekend instead. We got off the phone and she said she'd meet me at the train station on Friday night. Begrudgingly I agreed. There is honestly no point in arguing with Jenny once she makes her mind up about something, and even though I'd have to vacuum, I think I needed something to take my mind off of, well, me.

In the meantime, I went to bed, woke up six hours later to another cloud-ridden day, spend my "moment of silence" in homeroom internally calling on God for help, and went about my job of educating the youth of America (I like to sound as important as possible).

Anyway, it was a normal day at City High School. Normal except my 9th and 10th graders passionately assured me that we have a chance to be on Oprah if we continue our endeavors to collectively heighten awareness about Darfur. It was normal until Octavia stayed after school to watch a multimedia presentation about Darfur by the NYT on my archaic laptop, and until perpetually pissy Patricia sent me a rough draft of an email she wrote to the local news station about the genocide in Darfur.

I left school on Friday feeling a little less funky.

Then I went to Giant, the grocery store down the street from my school. I bought an avocado and chips for the weekend, and placed the basket carefully on my lap while I waited in the interminably long line. While not moving, I asked the woman behind me if she knew of any nearby liquor stores where I could actually park and get in with a wheelchair. She didn't, but I could tell she gave my predicament serious thought (more thought than a six-pack of Corona deserves). Then Veronica, the best grocery checker in the Continental United States, poked her head out of a previously-closed line, and saw me. She pointed at me and said, "Hey! I knew I was here for a reason, get over here." I felt bad - I realized I visit the grocery store entirely too often, and I didn't want to cut the line. Before I could protest, though, the woman behind me pushed me, my wheelchair and my avocados forward.

Veronica rang me up. I told her how glad I was to see her, that I'd been in a ferocious mood, and that I loved how she arranged my groceries. Veronica is seriously the most thoughtful checker-outer one can conceive of. She hangs the grocery bags perfectly on the back of my wheelchair, so they never fall off or scrape on the wheels - this is a highly under-appreciated skill.

While she arranged my avocados and chips, she told me that I'd made her think. She told me that bagging groceries really wasn't her calling and she needed to teach or become a nurse. I told her I would find some information for her and that she'd make a fabulous teacher (which she really would). Then the lady behind me told Veronica that she worked at the hospital, and that she too could offer Veronica some career-type help. Veronica looked like she was about to pee her pants. Then, as if this Giant trip wasn't good enough, the nice lady behind me asked Veronica about a nearby wheelchair accessible liquor store. Veronica couldn't think of one either, so I said thanks, acknowledged that this was sign number 895,622 that people with MS shouldn't drink and rolled towards the exit.

Lovely lady behind me stopped me. She said, "I have nothing to do right now, why don't I follow you to the nearest store and I'll go in for you."

"Seriously - this isn't that big of a deal. Don't worry about it."

Suddenly, though, I had a fan base and they were all rallying for me to get beer. Veronica told me to take help when people offered, and that this wasn't a coincidence, and the nice lady behind me continued to insist, and even the older man who looked like he was stoned started waving his fist in the air yelling, "Yes, yes!" And honestly I felt like I was in a movie.

Minutes later, the woman I'd met in Giant followed me to a nearby liquor store where I realized I had no cash. Again, I told her to forget about it. Again, she insisted. So in the middle of a gloomy Friday afternoon, I was suddenly about to accept charity beer from a complete stranger. The woman, whose name was Barb, went into the store and came out with Corona (the perfect compliment to guacamole), and I found my checkbook in my backpack to write her a check. She argued with me about the check, but I gave it to her regardless, and the two of us started talking. I talked to her about my students, and our project on Darfur, and my friend Jenny who was coming in from NYC to rescue me from my self-acclaimed funk. She told me I reminded her of her daughter who'd just died of Cancer two weeks ago. I got out of my car and hugged her and she started to cry.

I still can't think of a solution to genocide or world starvation or the 30,000 people who died in the earthquake last week. I'm still hurt by my ex, I'm still sick of MS and I'm still a little bit lonely. Sometimes I think God is wearing earplugs, and I don't have the patience to wait for a mountain-top experience or a new boyfriend or a cure for my neurological disease, or peace in Africa, but this is what I know:

Veronica shouldn't be working at Giant, but I'm selfishly glad she is.

Barb probably shouldn't have bought me Corona because my liver isn't doing so well, but I really needed her hug and I think she needed mine too.

I had an entirely unfunky, relaxing and cathartic weekend with Jenny and she left in time for me to go to church today.

It's sunny out.

My students want to be on Oprah to save Darfur.

We do what we can with what we have, and sometimes what we have doesn't seem like quite enough. On Friday, though, it did.