There are some days when I’m walking down the street and I wonder whether people can tell that I’m a walking wound. Of course, I’m more than that, but can they see? Can a stranger on the train or sitting in the park or at the grocery store see that my heart is still tender, that it’s raw and bleeding? Can a friend?
Thankfully, those days are happening less and less. But they still happen, because wounds take time to heal, even when you take care of them the best ways you know how.
But six months ago, when I’d first moved to Boston and I was still feeling my way blindly through every day, I think I was mostly wound, even though I tried to prove otherwise. And it was that wound that wrote a letter to my favorite advice columnist, Ask Polly. I’ve read her weekly column for a long time, and her words, always cutting and honest and funny and poignant, resonated with me, no matter what the issue she was addressing. I wanted to know what she would think of my situation. I wanted to know what a stranger would say. I wanted someone to make me feel better, to make me feel less alone and flailing and confused. So I wrote her a letter.
Reading my letter, six months later, was almost as much of a shock as seeing it published. I am not cured. I am still looking for balance, but that balance is not only between anger and sadness. I still have questions that will never be answered and that leaves a gaping hole in me. There is still a part of me that gnaws, the part that shoulders the blame, but I know it’s nothing more than a demon. Mostly.
But if I wrote a letter to Polly today, it would be a very different letter. I’m not sure it would involve Joe at all. Of course, everything does, still, at some level, but it’s not everything.
The whole truth is not the letter, or Polly’s response. She gives some good advice, but a few paragraphs from me couldn’t possibly sum up the whole situation. She’s never met me, and she’s never met Joe. She doesn’t know the particulars, the countless tiny things that added up to the now. Because no one does.
I’m still processing seeing my words on the screen, without warning. I’m still trying to remember the place I was in when I wrote the letter, trying to think about what I was looking for. I’m wondering if he will read it, I’m worrying that he will read it, I’m wanting him to read it. Because when someone you loved the only way you knew how, and then some, cuts you out of their lives completely, there is no response but becoming a wound. But time and friends and family and love and generosity and wisdom and acceptance and words all have healing power, and together, they can start to heal that wound, and I’m so fortunate to have an abundance of all of those things in my life.
There are some parts of Polly’s response I don’t believe are true. There are some things in my own letter I no longer believe are true. But there are true things in both. The most important takeaways, though, for me, are that I am more person than wound. I am stronger and more assured and more hopeful and less scared than I was when I wrote that letter. And in six more months, I will be even better.
I struggled with whether to “go public” with my letter and Polly’s response. But, in the end, I believe that we learn from our mistakes, and my mistakes, as well as my achievements, are all a part of my experience. And I need to write about my experiences in order to fully process them. So I’m owning this experience, claiming this wound. I was there; that happened to me. But I’m not there anymore. I’ve moved on. And there are far better things ahead than those I’ve left behind. (Except Chief–he’ll always be the best.)
I’ll let Polly sum it up:
This tragic turn in your life gouged a big scratch across you. Own that scratch, the anger and the sadness there. Tell the truth about what it did to you. Because it was a gift, this premature exit from a fantasy world. It was your passage to a better life, lived among real people with heart and substance, where tarnished things are good enough, where you are good enough. You are good enough. You are good enough, right now. You are good enough. You are.
With The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison shows with grace, candor, intelligence, and skill, that it’s possible to build an entire essay collection around empathy, a concept many don’t truly understand.
The collection has been a huge success for Graywolf, the small press that published it, and has generated a lot more praise and buzz than most literary essay collections. But I really became curious about it after I read Jamison’s essay “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” online at the Virginia Quarterly Review. In it, she lists some classic examples of female suffering and pain–Miss Havisham, Anna Karenina, Sylvia Plath. Women are fragile and broken–but we are also mythologized for that pain. The pain is all a part of the pleasure–or so the canon would have us believe. Jamison then pushes into her own history of pain–a topography of various scars, some of which were self-inflicted by cutting:
I used to cut. It embarrasses me to admit now, because it feels less like a demonstration of some pain I’ve suffered and more like an admission that I’ve wanted to hurt. But I’m also irritated by my own embarrassment. There was nothing false about my cutting. It was neither horrifying nor productive. I felt like I wanted to cut my skin, and my cutting was an expression of that desire. There is no lie in that, only a tautology and a question: What made me want to cut at all?
And that’s the question–there is a kind of glory in suffering, a kind of pride in pain, but why do we do it? Why do women, in particular, seem to be cast in the role of the sufferer? But on the flip side, there’s a generation of what Jamison calls the “post-wounded,” those jaded women who won’t admit to hurting because to do so would be to admit weakness. An alternate title for the essay could be, “The Double-Edged Sword of Female Pain.”
I bought the book as a treat for myself. I bought it in the bookstore on Bedford Avenue, Williamsburg’s main drag, after a morning of crying and trying not to cry and shaking and hating being back in Brooklyn. It was the first time I’d been back, really, since I’d left, and it was hard and it made me have to confront things I didn’t want to confront. I said goodbye to one friend before she moved across the country, and had difficult conversations with other friends. I realized I’m never going to see Chief again. I dragged my rolling suitcase from the East Village to the Upper East Side to Prospect Heights to Williamsburg to Midtown and finally back to Boston, nearly never happier to be home.
And on that bus ride back to Boston, I read and read. And I thought about empathy, what it means to truly feel for someone else. Empathy is commonly confused with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone else, and while it’s not necessarily a bad emotion, it’s not empathy. Empathy is when you can truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes, can feel someone else’s pain and situation from their perspective. Empathy, when it comes down to it, is a rare bird indeed.
Jamison’s collection ranges from her experiences as a medical actor–a person who pretends to be someone else to demonstrate certain symptoms for medical students; to a “ghetto tour” you can take through the Watts section of Los Angeles; to being punched in the face in Nicaragua; to corresponding and visiting a prison inmate; to an exploration of Morgellon’s Disease, a mysterious ailment that plagues thousands–and no one believes them.
I find myself thinking of the essays a lot this week, reading about what’s happening in Gaza, what’s happening to refugee children on our own borders, what’s happening to people in the Ukraine–the list goes on and on and on, lately. And I wonder if something like empathy is even possible in the face of such tragedy and violence. I’d like to think it is, but most days, I’m not sure.
But the book. The book is stunning in its range, its emotion, its intelligence and honesty. It was precisely what I needed to read on that bus ride from New York to Boston. It was a reminder that there are countless kinds of pain and an equally complicated number of reactions. I can only hope that more of it is met with empathy.
I suggested Eleanor & Park for book club this month because we needed something uplifting, something light. Turns out, Eleanor & Park was not as light and uplifting as I thought, but I loved it anyway.
Park is the only Asian kid in his Nebraska high school in 1986. He wears black and listens to punk music. On the bus, that particular circle of high school hell, he prefers to listen to his headphones and read comic books than hang out with the obnoxious kids in the back of the bus. When Eleanor appears on the bus one day, no one knows her, and because she looks different, no one will let her sit with them. It’s like that scene in Forrest Gump. “Seat’s taken.” Park is so embarrassed for the girl that he lets her sit next to him, but he has no intention of ever talking to her, because that would be a way of drawing attention to himself, which is the last thing Park wants.
Eleanor is bigger than most high school girls. She has long, curly red hair and freckles. She wears oversize men’s clothing and neckties around her wrists like bracelets. She’s unlike anyone else, but just like everyone else in that she feels uncomfortable in her skin.
Eventually, Eleanor and Park form an uneasy friendship, wordlessly reading comics together on the bus until one day, they start talking and don’t stop. They trade comics and cassette tapes. Eleanor is tortured in ways only high school girls are capable of, and meanwhile, her home life is a wreck. Park is the only real comfort in her life.
I loved this book because Eleanor and Park were real people, not just caricatures of high school students in love. They have real problems and real emotions and deal with them in realistic ways for teenagers. Their love isn’t schmaltzy or cheap or based on hormones. They get confused and angry and jealous. Sometimes they do or say the complete wrong thing. And it’s lovely.
One of the hallmarks of the book is that it takes place in the 80s, and the music that Eleanor and Park share is essential. I read most of the book on a flight from Boston to Portland, listening to my 80s playlist I created on Spotify–the Smiths, the Cure, New Order, Joy Division–the music gave the words dimension. I recommend doing the same if you read the book (especially if you’re not familiar with the music of that era!). But Rainbow Rowell doesn’t hit you over the head with too many 80s cultural references. Instead, she lightly peppers the plot with tiny references to the time period, giving us just enough of a sense of the time and place without dating the book or making it seem like their story couldn’t have happened in another time. Because it could–the music might be different, and the kids would be trading mp3′s instead of cassette tapes, but the feelings would be the same.
I thought it would be fun to take a stab at Eleanor’s unique style. Here’s what I came up with:
By most definitions, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation wouldn’t truly be considered a novel. It’s 192 pages long, with little in the way of a traditional plot. It’s told in a series of vignettes, flashes and scenes with no real beginning, middle, or end.
I read the whole book on a red-eye flight from Portland to Boston, my reading light one of the only ones lit in the dark of the plane. The plane rocked and churned and shook all the way across the country and my stomach was doing too many flips to try to sleep, so I read.
Stripped to its bare bones, it’s a story of a woman meeting a man, falling in love, and getting married. They write love letters to one another. The husband writes songs for her. The wife gets pregnant and has a baby, a daughter, and falls in love with her, watches in wonder as she gets older and becomes a “being with a soul.” They live in Brooklyn. They get bed bugs.
When the husband cheats on the wife, my stomach flipped again and I had to put the book away for a little while. There were too many lines that resonated too sharply:
“People say, You must have known. How could you not know? To which she says, Nothing has ever surprised me more in my life.”
“There is a time between being a wife and being a divorcee, but no good word for it. Maybe say what a politician would say. Stateless person. Yes, stateless. Either way it’s going to be terrible for a long time, the shrink says.”
I picked up the book again after I slept for a little bit. By that time, the plane’s motion was calmer and morning light was visible through the windows with raised shades. So I finished.
It’s a not a book with an ending you can spoil, but even so, I won’t say what happens. The pleasure is in the reading, in the sentences and the sentiments. Even if you’ve never been married, maybe especially if you’ve never been married, you should read this book–it’s a well-drawn study in the many different forms human love can take–from lust to adoration to fear to protection to hate and back again. Carve out a couple of hours and sit down and be with this book.
“The thing is this: Even if the husband leaves her in this awful craven way, she will still have to count it as a miracle, all of those happy years she spent with him.”