Category Archives: Empathy

Your Familiar

blog_spring_shadowsAnother pseudo-story, based on a common literary motif. I’d call it a 20-minute story, but it took a little (read: a lot) longer to sort out. I’m beginning to wonder how people can be so good at writing those things… because I have longer sneezing fits.

Only in a dream could such a strange meeting take place, and that’s where this encounter between you and future-you occurred.

The sun sat at an odd angle that grazed the tabletop, its thick light hard to distinguish as morning or evening when you didn’t know where the window was. Somehow future-you seemed similar to the table’s shadows, pulled like taffy and attenuated but full and dark too. Naturally you expected future-you to be wise. You had so many questions.

Instead, for some time you and future-you communed, listlessly shifting and turning glasses, plates, and bowls as if they were pieces in a board game of subtle spaces and moves. The sun dimmed appreciably. Your eyes and future-you’s eyes marked its shrinking influence.

Future-you cleared his throat and you nearly jumped, but he had nothing to say and may have been prompting you. You locked stares, and you guessed his meaning—he envied you and wondered when this wisdom you expected left him or whether he left it on the lips of the last woman he kissed or in the swoop of letters never finished, or in everything granted, sold, given away, and lost. His doleful expression said so. He expected comforting. You didn’t anticipate that.

So you advanced your hand toward future-you’s. He drew back, then nodded.

You spoke first. Nothing you might say could be new, you figured, and so your speech rolled out in bursts like beach breakers. You can’t remember any of what you said, just that you recalled you were dreaming. Mostly you paused for interruption and hoped future-you might answer your noise with a greater and graver future voice. That would be enough.

Instead he appeared tickled, pleased to hear you fumble so. You would have mistaken his response for condescension except—of course!—future-you would react so, charmed by everything still fresh in you and spoiling in him. You matched his laughter with your own before catching a whiff of his breath and the unwelcome hints in its smell. You knew and didn’t know future-you, and he, you believed, knew you entirely.

His tears welled slowly at first and just glimmered in failing light. When you recognized his weeping, part of you wanted to console him. The other part desired more—how could you become so leaky, so riddled with age-spots, water stains, and patches of rust? How could all you wanted come to no more?

Perhaps future-you sensed confusion. He scooted his chair back and stood. You couldn’t miss his struggle. He hadn’t seemed old before, and his stoop loomed like death in the room’s near-darkness. He wasn’t angry. He held his dignity up as all he could say about you and him. And he meant to tell you he loved you. Whatever disappointment dwelt in him didn’t reach you.

Seeing that, he left and you woke.

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Getting Together

dinerAnother experiment. I always write fiction in third-person, and, truth is, it seems easier. First person requires more than changing perspective. It needs voice, a distinctive take on everything and an idiosyncratic way of expressing it. For me, writing in first-person makes the same demand as acting—find the foreign reaches of yourself as if they’re familiar territory.

I imagine this piece as the start of a story… though I haven’t conceived the rest yet… and will probably never write it.

The disappearing song of the bird that woke me had me thinking maybe it’d dissolved, the friction of flight whittling it into a sliver of itself that finally dropped from the air like a leaf. Then I thought, “Ah, the true message here is I’m a sliver of myself.”

Maybe she does this too, watching half-thoughts ripen into self-accusation. I could mention it. If she nods and says, “Yes,” I’ll know she isn’t one of those people who pretend to understand and get only as far as acknowledging someone might reach such a conclusion. Dozing and twilight encourage wild ideas. She doesn’t really know me, and I’m so much older.

Every morning, I roll from bed by deliberately repeating the previous day’s method because, some time ago, I decided it’s relatively pain-free. My wife remains settled in sleep like a buried object. Many mornings, she might be awake but won’t speak. Years of rising tell me she appreciates silence and oblivion. I might wish that for myself if pangs of pointless desire didn’t so often wake me.

I think sometimes about clocks’ regulation and about how ordinary it is to be shocked from sleep by shouting sounds and how you forget that other sorts of alarms alert people to fires, earthquakes, nuclear attack, the apocalypse. Starting with idle fantasies ought to be welcome. They at least spare me more noise.

So that day started gently. Though fall had fallen, the windows remained open all night. In our dark bedroom, I’d been conscious of the wash of traffic, the playground voices of twenty-somethings emerging from a bar down the street, the faint breaths of breezes that carried the wet dusty smells of a storm just passed. If I dared to be honest, I’d have acknowledged being too excited to sleep.

Of course I thought about what was next and felt—if not anticipation—then incipient meaning in meeting her. She’d been the one to say we should get together again, and she offered it unbidden. Memories of the first stir of attraction never fade enough, nor does hope, though I often wish they would. Every atom of sense says you’re past some mistakes, and still you don’t believe. I suppose I could have felt guilty too, but that’s the other half of attraction—possibility isn’t transgression.

Not that I had any experience. In my imagination, I’d replayed our conversation forward and backward looking for misread cues. It hardly seemed plausible she’d desire me and, when openings close and so much seems over, you ought to distrust smiles and leaning forward. Desperation reads into everything.

She asked where, and no alternative occurred to me, so we were to have lunch in the same spot again, the same time, the same day, a week later. I didn’t think about being seen. Initially, I didn’t think I had to, and, after that, I considered likely responses. All were quite unlikely, naturally, but delivery was all that mattered. I thought I was prepared, even when I couldn’t be. I’ve only ever misunderstood longing, the dark depths of ignorance…

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And by “You” I mean “I” (or “Me”)

round1To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men—that is genius.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Personal essays require believing you’re a valuable subject. The principle justification for writing about yourself comes from the granddaddy of personal essayists, Michel de Montaigne, who said individual experience is never purely individual. He believed, “Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition.” And—if you accept his premise—the particular, paradoxically, illuminates the universal.

Philip Lopate goes further in his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay by urging confession. Confession garners trust because, “The spectacle of baring the naked soul,” he says, “is meant to awaken the sympathy of the reader, who is apt to forgive the essayist’s self-absorption in return for the warmth of his or her candor.” In indicting yourself, the thinking goes, you must be honest.

If you’re sincere, your “indictment” might include confusion and the hopelessness of ever deciding anything definitively. Admitting you don’t (and maybe can’t) understand could be part of every essay, especially if you undertake issues or questions hoping to resolve them. Montaigne said, “Anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgment this whirring about and this discordancy.” He also says, “There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture.” Yet confusion will likely frustrate your reader as much as you. Sympathy has limits. You’re supposed to say something worthy or why write? Expressing your finite intelligence isn’t helpful or winning or impressive.

What is? You can’t be sure. Personal essays involve inventing a tolerant audience willing to sympathize with tortuous, circular, and equivocal ruminations, fellow feeling that maybe might occur if your thoughts are new, relevant, incisive, clever, amusing. You could be the worst judge though, and not know it. Just as the tone deaf are least qualified to assess the quality of their own voices, you may sing on, missing cues signaling how discordant or flat you are. And any response, even the most muted and mixed, could produce disproportionate effects. Someone smiles or smirks, and you think, “Ah. I’ve said something. I’m communicating. An ear is listening at the other end of this line, after all.”

The high-wire risk of personal essays is faith. You pray you’re perching on insight. Keep going, write enough, and you’re sure to… you think. Life is finite, you think. One life may be different, you think, but, if you try hard enough or long enough, you’ll reach some truth, minor and irrelevant as it might be. Sure, quantity can be the enemy of impact, yet—you think—you’re an exception.

So you tread on. You reach your foot forward praying for something like solid ground or a great uplift of wind to keep you from falling.

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On Being Out of Tune

n02Today is my birthday, and I’m looking around wondering where I’ve landed.

Everything falls into four categories for me these days: things I know, things I guess, things I know I don’t know (and may never), and things of which I’m (still, after all this time) entirely ignorant. Growing older and knowing more should quiet the other categories, but, mostly, I guess. Ignorance may not have diminished a decibel—it’s hard to say. I’m not wise. I’m out of tune.

When I walk I think, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of both. Though we’ve already experienced chilly weather in Chicago, chairs and tables remain outside restaurants, pedestrians crowd sidewalks, and people linger at windows eying what’s inside. Despite congregation, walks leave me lonely. I wouldn’t eat or drink streetside without an occasion. I recognize almost no one else. I can afford little in those stores, and most of what they sell belongs in a different life anyway.

As a younger man I anticipated future confidence and self-assurance, but, on these walks, others’ knowledge seems greater than mine. They look more comfortable and animated as they chat with companions or on their cell phones. Their strides appear purposeful. Clearly, they aren’t walking to think—as I am—but to get somewhere. They don’t guess destinations. When I try to detect our common humanity, they seldom look back, rarely make eye contact, even more rarely smile. I’m so alien I imagine myself invisible, sharing streets with the ghosts asking for money at corners.

I’d say this estrangement is an outdoor phenomenon except that I sense it no less online where, because human contact has no place, social interaction is a shadow play. I like, you like, he or she likes, but without investment or consequence. The volume of such muted and largely impersonal transactions defies recall and creates one continually washed-out present. It’s silly to be nostalgic for general stores or neighborhood pubs or small town main streets, but I think I might accept guessing in more reassuring company. At least we’d know we’re all a touch dissonant. More ordinary lives in my life might assure reality isn’t bigger than any capacity to understand it.

We’re so often outraged—intolerant of deliberation, angry… but too impatient to plan for futures more distant than the present news cycle. We continually urge a response, a decision, some action. Not to be ready is to lack initiative and leadership, to betray weakness. It won’t do to discuss, as words are just words. Musing is absolutely out. Thoughts are immaterial without practical or remunerative applications.

We ought to share more than vehemence.

One of the dog walkers on my block is especially friendly and has a loud voice. Sometimes, when my window is open, I listen in on his conversations with neighbors. They say little really. They verify last night’s roof deck party was loud and late, or they laugh over some poor pooch’s latest mishap. They gossip and make small talk. Yet, though I never participate, these exchanges do more for me than I can say. These aren’t friends meeting, exactly. They won’t settle anything. They’re humans communing, affirming what they know and guess.

At such moments, I’m grateful I have non-Facebook friends in my life, ones who hear and understand my doubts, who appreciate my desire to know more, who might touch my hand or throw an arm over my shoulder and walk with me.

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Jenny

rooney-mara-thomas-whiteside5Another character sketch. Another exercise. This time, I started with this picture of Rooney Mara and then wrote from that. I’m not sure what I’m doing with these yet…

The two hours before dawn passed in half-dreams and worries. A couple of times a voice seemingly outside Jenny’s mind spoke nonsensically—one silly pronouncement, like “It’s too cold for that!”—loud, as if she still shared the room with someone. She took these random pronouncements as signals she’d fall asleep again, but noticing them meant awakening too. Lately inattention required will, effort to elude and escape her thoughts.

Jenny tried not to look ahead to a midday meeting with her boss and instead recalled a high school hayride. One of the boys in her English class, a football player and avowed Christian, asked her out, and, worn down by the many times he’d tried, she agreed. She pictured the truck idling in a scrubby field at twilight. The scene reduced to that openbed truck, and the other couples—they were all couples—huddled under blankets amid hay bales, breathing exhaust. Jenny didn’t know the month exactly, but the chill of winter lay weeks away. During the ride, a sheen of sweat gathered on her legs under the blanket. She remembered that. The boy’s arm over her shoulder felt like wood, like the yoke the oxen wore on the cover of her US history textbook.

Her husband died in spring. At the wake, Jenny’s brothers and sister repeated how mercifully short his illness was. He’d been going to the gym daily before the diagnosis and, even in his final week, his eyes possessed their usual vitality. Up until the end, as frail as his body became, he still seemed young, joking that he’d finally lost those few extra pounds he’d been trying so hard to shed. She laughed because she thought it might make him happy. Just after he’d gone, she left him with his family and went outside to cry, the first light of the pale sky impossible to bear, its ill-timed beauty taunting her.

“You have to be ready,” he’d said the day before.

“I know, but let’s not talk about that.”

“Tell me you’re ready.”

“I am… but don’t want to be.”

This morning, Jenny opened her eyes to light and roused herself. The alarm hadn’t sounded, but an early start meant missing traffic. Her closet seemed spacious since she and his sister cleaned it out. Jenny laid the new blue skirt, a blouse, and her underthings over the rumpled covers of her bed.

She sighed as she turned the shower on. Her work had fallen off—her last review was not nearly as glowing as ones from last year—but her boss would be sympathetic, asking how she was “holding up” before turning to instructions repeated with a pleading expression she’d come to hate. She’d prepared for that day’s meeting until very late the night before, assembling a presentation full of statistics and new marketing plans. She shouldn’t have to bring work home, she knew that, but revising her resume and reaching out to contacts used up hours too. Jenny felt tired of driving, tired of working.

Water met skin like summer rain, tepid and gentle as another day began.

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It Raineth

painting1As I write, it’s rainy—no downpour, but the sky hangs heavy, prematurely as dim as dusk… and deep gray. I have no reason to go out, thankfully.

On days like today, if anyone complained about the weather, a former colleague said, “Into each life, some rain must fall.” He taught English, and at first I assumed the quotation came from Shakespeare, but it’s actually from a poem by Longfellow that, like the weather outside (possibly), seems headed for gloom before it turns toward sunshine instead.

Here’s the last stanza:

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

The poem’s consolation—that “the common fate of all” dictates we suffer a day of rain here or there—balances against that “still shining sun” above the clouds or elsewhere. The last line, “Some days must be dark and dreary,” suggests the necessity of variation, not the prominence of rain or “dark and dreary” days. The metaphoric lesson behind the poem is that, when things look bad, you do well to remember they’re not always so and not for everyone. So “cease repining,” stop complaining, and get going.

That’s harder than it appears. Misfortune isn’t always so rationally and easily explained away. The notions “this too shall pass” and “others have it worse” may make absolute intellectual sense, but suffering people don’t excel at abstraction any more than someone concussed excels at math. Minds are much easier to change than emotions, and rarely does reprimanding someone for being unhappy—no, I’d say never—works.

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the fool Feste sings a song about life, and its reprised line, “For the rain it raineth every day” offers an alternative perspective. Recognizing rain’s frequency adjusts expectations. You would be wise, he implies, to expect rain, to keep it in mind rather than explain it away as variation because, well, it’s going to happen. His last stanza is:

A great while ago the world begun,

With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,

But that’s all one, our play is done,

And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Compensation becomes the focus. “That’s all one,” Feste sings. It is what it is, and so perhaps it’s better to battle what’s inevitable than to live in expectation of relief or in the celebration that other people have sunshine. “We’ll strive to please you every day,” puts emphasis squarely on verbs, striving to please, efforts to answer vicissitudes, not erase them with phony affirmations or life-coaching.

As in most matters, I’m more Shakespearian than Longfellowian. Though it may seem grim to live with daily rain, I prefer an alternative acknowledging humanity and empathy. That the sun shines elsewhere promises statistical solace—well, a lot of other people are doing fine—whereas Feste speaks a blues truth, “it be’s like that sometimes.”

And not just sometimes. Someone somewhere is getting wet. Right now.

I have no reason to go out but don’t rejoice. Many people will be making their way home without umbrellas. I’ve been where they are and wouldn’t presume to remind them of those who checked the forecast or stowed a rain coat. I’d never preach, as many do, that though they are the unfortunate today, if they try harder next time, they may not possibly, if they are lucky, always be.

I’m thankful I’m dry but recall my miseries. It rains. It rains every day.

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