Archive | Health RSS feed for this section

Let it All Go

13 Sep
Street Knowledge photo by Lisa Kolanowski

Street Knowledge photo by Lisa Kolanowski

 

I didn’t know David Foster Wallace. Aside from his insightful commencement speech, This is Water, I didn’t know much about his career, his writing, or his lifelong struggle with depression. Yet, on the seventh anniversary of his death, I found myself mourning him in a way that seemed inexplicably personal given the fact that we were complete strangers.

I chalked it up to having picked up my reserved copy of The David Foster Wallace Reader from the library and started, not at the beginning, but three-quarters of the way through the massive tome with his teaching syllabi. This left me feeling nostalgic because, as a composition instructor who has witnessed the trans-formative power of writing, I knew exactly what had gone into crafting those deeply personal pieces of administrative ephemera.

I nodded as I read his description of English 170R and the various course requirements and grading standards. The best teachers strive to create syllabi that not only provide substantial structure, but also give students the ability to exercise freewill and make mistakes. It’s a tough job because, as a teacher, you also have to anticipate the loopholes and be one step ahead of those students who might try to outwit the system. I burst out laughing when I read Wallace’s footnote warning about what constitutes college-level writing, which states, “Written work with excessive typos, misspellings, or basic errors in usage/grammar will not be accepted for credit. At the very least, you’ll have to redo the work and incur a penalty. If you believe this is just the usual start-of-the-term-saber-rattling, be advised that some of the students in this course have had me as an instructor before—ask them whether I’m serious” (611).

When in doubt, leverage your past history to ensure compliance—especially if you have witnesses.

There’s a tenderness in Wallace’s syllabi; a kind of vulnerability that all of the best teachers offer their students (even when they’re desperately trying to be hard asses). It stems from the fact that all the most creative teachers have a healthy respect for rules and, yet, also take great joy in casting them aside once learned.  These teachers walk the wire and invite students to stroll along with them; safety net at the ready.

As I moved on in the anthology and read more of his work, I was struck by how deeply affected Wallace was by everything around him, and how much researching, learning and thinking he must have done to process all of the information he took in before he turned it into cogent, yet seemingly conflicted analyses of tennis, state fairs, and lobsters. Wallace doesn’t openly label things as good or bad, right or wrong, rather he gently leads the reader toward his thesis until they are uncomfortably unable to look away from the reality of what’s been pulled apart and laid before them (the best example of this is his essay “Consider the Lobster”).

I began considering that maybe a teacher’s love for their students isn’t that different from a writer’s love for their readers–and maybe simply for humanity, in general. I recalled a Wallace quote I’d read (while browsing Maria Popova’s brilliant Brain Pickings website) in which he discussed the desperate need for vulnerability in art:

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow. Even now I’m scared about how sappy this’ll look in print, saying this. And the effort actually to do it, not just talk about it, requires a kind of courage I don’t seem to have yet. … Maybe it’s as simple as trying to make the writing more generous and less ego-driven.”

And suddenly it became clear as to why I was mourning the death of a man I’d never met.

We are currently living in a time in which fear (and loathing) drives a great deal of expression, and those who are truly willing to take risks and make themselves vulnerable—in any arena—are often attacked, ridiculed and written off as naive and/or unrealistic. Yet despite attempts to suppress these voices, those who are intent on finding ways to remind us that we are all deeply connected, refuse to be silenced.

I mourn the death of David Foster Wallace because, as I struggle to create a world that reflects more kindness, understanding, and human connections, his silence is deafening.

 

Advertisements

There is a Light that Never Goes Out

26 Mar
Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

Chicago Winter. Photo by MAG

The first time I’d seen him, he was bundled in a camel overcoat, fast asleep.

I thought I was extremely lucky when I hopped on the almost empty El car at the Chicago stop and grabbed a seat during rush hour, but once the doors closed, I quickly realized why the car was deserted.  The stench coming from the corner made my eyes water and I followed the lead of the man next to me and pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to filter the air enough to be able to make it to the Clark/Division stop where I quickly changed cars.

I didn’t really think much about it after that.  Over the past year, I’ve become acclimated to riding public transport and have learned to adjust to the inevitable clash of cultures, and this brutal Chicago winter has made me even more aware of the challenges faced by the city’s poor and homeless residents.   The CTA became a refuge from the subzero temperatures, and to their credit, the CTA employees who run the trains did their best to shepherd the all-day riders onto one car in order to keep an eye on people and make sure no one froze to death.

Last week, I saw him again.

I recognized the tattered camel overcoat, and the smell.  As he walked the platform the crowd of people parted and gave him a wide berth.  When he found a bench to settle down on, the man sitting there got up and moved ten feet away.  Everyone on the platform turned their backs and looked away as if not looking would make the man – and the smell – disappear.  I wanted to look away, too, but I’d just written my last blog entry about how I was going to smile at strangers and help when I could, so I looked.

The man sat on the bench fiddling with a pair of ripped gloves that barely covered his fingers, a tattered black plastic bag at his feet.  He stared at the ground as he tugged his coat, pulling it more tightly around his body, as I debated about what I should do.  And then in an instant, I knew.

I walked over and leaned down close enough to say, “Good morning, sir.”  Startled, the man looked up and then looked away quickly.

Taking a deep breath, I continued, “Have you had breakfast?”

He looked back up, confused for a moment, and asked, “What?”

I repeated, “Have you had breakfast yet?”

He ducked his head and gestured toward the black bag, “Not yet, but I’m going to have a bite soon.”

I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out the PBJ sandwich that I’d packed before I left the apartment that morning and offered it to him, saying, “It’s just PBJ, but you’re more than welcome to it.”

He smiled a little and replied, “Oh no, ma’am, I’m fine.  I’ve got breakfast in this here bag. But thank you.”

My first impulse was to press further and make him take the sandwich, but I quickly understood what he was saying and backed off, tucking the sandwich back into my bag.

Sometimes preserving one’s dignity trumps hunger.

I smiled at him, and asked a question that I would spend the next few days kicking myself for asking, “Do you need anything else, sir?”

What kind of idiot question was that?  Of course he needing something else.  He needed a lot of things, but since he’d refused the sandwich I didn’t know what else to offer and I didn’t want to insult him by assuming I did.

He smiled back at me, and replied, “Oh no, I’m fine, ma’am.  Thank you.”

As I looked at him and nodded, he lifted his head and looked right into my eyes as he smiled in a way that could only be described as serene and said, “And God bless you, ma’am.  God bless you.”

I returned his smile and his blessing, and then stepped on the train leaving him sitting on the bench.

As the car sped down the tracks I felt sad for a moment because I hadn’t been able to do anything for the man.  I hadn’t been able to give him anything or help in any measurable way.

And then I thought about the way he’d looked me in the eye, raising his head and smiling as he blessed me.

Maybe the greatest gift we can offer another person is the dignity of being seen.

Pompeii

21 Mar
Chicago Night. Photo by MAG

Chicago Night. Photo by MAG

I can’t stop thinking about L’Wren Scott.

I didn’t exactly run in her social circle. I never met her, wore her fashion designs or even followed her career, other than to take note of her name in fashion magazines.  I didn’t even know that she was Mick Jagger’s partner.

What haunts me is that at 49, for reasons unclear to those closest to her, she chose to end her life, and, according to news reports, she did it in a way that reflected her well-mannered reputation – by asking her assistant to drop by in the morning rather than “bothering” or “inconveniencing” anyone.

By all accounts, Ms. Scott had a happy relationship with Mr. Jagger, and her business, though going through the normal ups and downs of all burgeoning businesses, seemed to be heading for success with the signing of a $250,000 contract to collaborate with Banana Republic.  This week her friend, reporter Cathryn Horyn, wrote in a New York Times tribute entitled “Memories of a Friend, a Teacher, and a Fighter” that Scott was under a great deal of pressure to make her clothing line successful, and that in a tense conversation Horyn told Scott she needed to “give herself a time limit to resolve matters or get out. Putting her health in jeopardy because of stress was not worth it…” Scott did not like – or heed – the advice, and continued to strive for success.

It’s this – and more – that makes me grieve for a woman I don’t know.

There’s no way of knowing what was going through her mind at the moment she decided to end her life, but I understand why she might have felt like it was the only solution, and that deeply disturbs me.

It’s scary to be a strong, intelligent, ambitious, aging woman in this society.  So many people depend on you, and if you are successful, it’s usually because your over-achieving perfectionist tendencies have pushed you past your fears to the point where you jump in and make it work – at all costs.  Whether it’s being successful in your education, your career, your health, your marriage, your child rearing, your athletic achievements, or your hobbies and interests, the drive toward excellence can leave even the strongest of women questioning their abilities.

Age makes it even more difficult because at a certain point you start to question all of your choices – past and present.

I say this because at 47, I find myself very far away from what I was educated to do and facing a number of health issues that never even crossed my mind at 27 or even 37.  My salary is far below the level of what I should be making, given my education level (and student loan debt) and abilities, and I’m paying off debts that I accrued for living expenses and health insurance in my past life.  I’ve managed to put my massive student loans in forbearance as I have tried to land jobs with pay that would allow me to afford to pay the $958.00 a month that the loan company is asking for, but those days are soon coming to an end – even if I haven’t landed a job with an adequate salary.  These new health challenges add a whole new level of stress to the money mix, but there’s no way to avoid them because right now they’re not terribly serious but if I ignore them, they’ll cost me much more in the long run, both financially and physically.

And it all reminds me that I’m not getting any younger

Only my family and a few close friends know what’s weighing on me – until now.

I say this, not because I am looking for sympathy or a handout or an excuse, I say this because even though her life is none of my business, I think I understand what might have been going through L’Wren Scott’s mind that night, and I have to wonder if maybe we should be making these thoughts other people’s business.

I understand how wonderful and scary it feels to be someone who other people look to for support and stability.  It’s a lot of responsibility.  I understand the weight of trying to be a cheerful role model and avoid showing how scared and alone you feel because other people are relying on you to be the strong one.  I understand how humiliating and shameful it feels to wonder how your finances, health, [or fill in the blank] have gotten so out of your control, and to be afraid to ask for help because then everyone will definitely know what a failure you really are.  They’ll know you’re a fraud and that everything you’ve accomplished has been nothing but accidental luck.  And I know many, many other women feel like this, as well.

But here’s where Ms. Scott and I differ.

I hear this message, but I don’t buy into it because I’m fortunate that I have people in my life who I can let down my guard with and show all the ugly unlovable parts of myself to.  I’m fortunate that they love me and offer help even when I’m at my absolute most stubborn (because I’m positive that I am a total failure, that everyone else is doing it “right,” and that if I would stop being so damn lazy and just work a little harder I could overcome all the obstacles and manage everything my own big self),  and I’m so very, very fortunate that they step forward and offer it despite my incredibly high walls and fierce defenses.

It makes me deeply sad and unbelievably angry that the world lost yet another generous, loving, kind, intelligent, creative woman this week because in that one brief moment, she didn’t believe she could ask for help, and because no one was able to reach out and offer in time.

In their recent Top 40 pop hit, Pompeii, the British group Bastille asks, “How am I gonna be an optimist about this?”

Here’s how…

I’m going to use this as an opportunity to reach out to others and let them know I’m available.  I’m going to pay attention to the people close to me, and I’m going to let them know how much they mean to me on a more regular basis.  I’m going to smile at strangers and offer to help when I can.  In other words, I’m going to try harder to be the change I want to see in the world.

And maybe by helping others, I’ll remind myself that I’m worthy of being helped, too.

%d bloggers like this: