I have always been a hippie at heart, and my allegiance to the hippie code extended to my wedding attire. My dress was homemade (not by me, at my home, because I couldn’t sew to save my life, but by a friend of my aunt’s, who whipped it up according to my Renaissance specifications- note the lace-up sleeves). The fabric was plain white linen. And yes, those were real wildflowers in my hair. I imagined us all drinking apple wine and dancing in a moonlit meadow, but my parents footed the bill, so concessions were made. A chapel at Yale for the ceremony followed by a reception at my dad’s stuffy social club kind of derailed the flower child vibe, but only temporarily. When we drove off for a weekend honeymoon in a borrowed car, my bare feet were on the dashboard. Cat Stevens was on the radio and all was right with the world.
Every morning a woman delivers newspapers in our neighborhood.
Whatever your newspaper delivery person stereotype might be, I guarantee she defies it. She’s Asian, gorgeous, with ombre’d hair, a lithe build, I’m guessing in her early thirties. She drives a tan Ford Explorer, fast, screeches it to a halt mid-street, then jumps out, papers in hand. She sprints up sidewalks, flies up flights of stairs. Sometimes she wears sweatpants, but mostly she wears party clothes, meaning party as in clubbing clothes, impossibly short skirts and platform shoes and tons of makeup. I wonder who she is and why on earth she would be delivering newspapers.
Because I love the challenge of connecting the dots, I came up with these two narratives. First, she works nights at a massage parlor to make money for the downpayment on a froyo franchise opportunity and delivering newspapers on her way home provides a respectable explanation for tongue-wagging neighbors as to what she’s doing, getting home at 7 am. Second, she’s the mother of a teenage girl who stays up until three every night studying so she can someday get into an Ivy League college, and she figures a newspaper delivery route will look good on her daughter’s application to Harvard.
These story lines have any number of moveable pieces. You can swap out the froyo franchise for a start-up clothing line, the motivated daughter for a special-needs son. The one element that doesn’t change is her aspiration for something better. That’s because we’re in the same boat, readers and writers and newspaper deliverers alike; we’re all of us suckers for hopeful.
Disturb me, compel me. It is not true
That “no man is happy,” but that is not
The sense which guides you. If we are
Unfinished (we are, unless hope is a bad dream),
You are exact. You tug my sleeve
Before I speak, with a shadow’s friendship,
And I remember that we who move
Are moved by clouds that darken midnight.
Delmore Schwartz (1918-1966) epitomized the tortured artist. Brilliant, acclaimed, he was also an alcoholic, addicted to painkillers, and suffered from a variety of mental illnesses. According to the Academy of American Poets, The last years of his life Schwartz was a solitary, disheveled figure in New York. He drank frequently at the White Horse Tavern, and spent his time sitting in parks and collecting bits of work, quotes, and translations in his journal. He died penniless in a cheap Times Square hotel. I tried to find some connection between his tormented existence and soaring body of work but couldn’t. Then I read the last line of this poem. His life was painfully separate from his purpose; to move and be moved.
Ten years ago, Sam and I drove Jake to Moravian, a small college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which is when this photo was taken. I remember being sad, but relieved. We’d made it.
Jake attended a private high school that prided itself on sending all of its graduates to college. The headmaster called me into his office just before graduation to tell me that college wasn’t for everyone, and might not be for Jake, certainly not this year, maybe not ever. I listened, the polite smile on my face belying my ironclad conviction he was wrong. Actually, I was shocked. Here was a guy fronting an institution dedicated to preparing every student for college, which made his position, relative to Jake, an admission of failure.
For the first month or so, Jake loved Moravian. He bought a used recliner for his dorm room and infiltrated frat parties. He got his goody-two shoes RA drunk and subsequently fired. Good times, until his roommate’s video gaming addiction began to annoy him. The frat parties took their toll on early morning classes, which he began skipping before moving on to skipping classes in general.
One thing he did manage was going online, and the website he liked best was CollegeHumor. This didn’t help his GPA, which was 1.4. Moravian put him on academic probation. He came home, worked two jobs, and eventually moved into his own apartment.
We were still wringing our hands about his assuredly dead-end future when Jake decided to go to New York and knock on the door of CollegeHumor. He’d contributed some articles, and he said he’d like to work for them. He got hired. The rest is history.
I guess the headmaster was right about Jake and college, and if only we had listened, none of this would have happened. But on the other hand, had we listened, none of this would have happened.
When it comes to advice, I can dish it out, but I rarely take it. I think this is because I complain because I need to vent but I have limited interest in soliciting guidance. Still, over the years I’ve received some excellent advice that I subsequently ignored.
Here are five standout examples.
- Don’t dye your hair blond. I thought I could pull this off, with my fair complexion and blue eyes, but instead I looked like an aging hooker in a bad Halloween wig.
- Don’t smile before Christmas. This advice was given to me before I started teaching middle school. Still, I smiled from day one, because I don’t know how not to. Classroom management suffered. Often, I would ask myself, did I want to be respected or liked? The answer: I wanted to be loved.
- Don’t drink on an empty stomach. Yeah. And it’s been decades, but for all those affected, sorry about drinking four vodka tonics, locking myself in my brother and sister-in-law’s bathroom, then passing out.
- Don’t wash lights and darks together. The fact I ignore this classic laundry advice is indefensible, unless you consider laziness a defense. My kids grew up thinking underwear came in two colors: pink and gray. Now that they’re older, I like to think my sloth incentivized them to do their own laundry.
- Don’t Let Things Get To You. Wise, indeed, and unlike the previous examples, I tried to follow this advice because I thought it would make things easier. Then I figured out that letting things get to you is how you go about actually living a life.
Micah and I don’t always agree, which leads to debates during which I have a tendency to get emotional. I used to pride myself on passionately sticking to my guns, but through Micah’s use of calm logic, I have discovered that not only I can be swayed, but that being swayed is not a bad thing.
Take last night. I was talking about Kanye West, who apparently stopped his concert in Australia, refusing to continue unless everyone was standing. Two people weren’t so he called them out, only to discover they were in wheelchairs. “Can you believe he’s such a jerk?”
“I’m sure he apologized,” Micah said.
“The article didn’t say.”
“The media likes to portray him as arrogant, because people like to think of him that way.”
“He is arrogant. And since when did you become such a fan?”
“I enjoy his music. And he’s got style. He can wear a pair of shoes and the next day, those shoes will be flying off the shelves. When it comes to fashion, he can drive the market. That’s powerful.”
“Powerful? Seriously? A guy who spends four days of his honeymoon retouching an Instagram photo?”
“The way things look, that matters to him. That’s his thing. I mean, you spend hours trying to find the perfect word, and lots of people would say that’s no big deal. But it’s what matters to you.”
Weirdly, this mild-mannered dismantling of my self-righteousness felt borderline okay. Kanye West may be my polar opposite, but my judgment felt like misplaced energy, energy better spent finding the perfect word, or being grateful for my sweet resident devil’s advocate, his foot in the door to keep my mind from closing.
I’m having a hard time bouncing back from the news of the day these days. Between Ray Rice KO’ing his then fiancée, now wife, in the elevator, Oscar Pistorius shooting girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp four times yet being acquitted of murder, the South Carolina father deemed by Child Protective Services “overwhelmed” who goes on to kill his five kids and stuff their bodies into garbage bags…
Still, I know my shocked disbelief will fade. It has a shelf life rounded by the next horrendous thing that comes along. I used to think this can’t get worse, but then, I’ve learned, it does.
I keep thinking of Anne Frank, who, at age 15, stared down the gaping maw of the Holocaust and wrote, “in spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart.” I used to believe that. But my faith gets worn down one terrible news story at a time.
What I believe now is most people are maybe not so much good at heart but potentially decent. That being said, addiction, untreated mental illness, and ideological fanaticism can obliterate any trace of decency.
But I also have to acknowledge the profound human goodness I see around me every day, in my family, both nuclear and extended, in my beautiful, caring friends. I’ve watched good Samaritans changing tires at the side of the road, and had the guy who owns the corner store put an extra bagel in my bag with a wink and the words, “for you”. Malala survived! And yesterday, when I was standing on my corner, I must have looked confused, because a stranger asked me very gently if I was lost.
I shook my head, though truthfully, I am. But just a little bit. I know I am not Anne Frank, but I also know that in spite of everything, I still want to be.