Hold that thought, I’m going to brush my teeth. I’ll be right back...
K, so for whatever reason, I really like talking to, listening to, and helping people. I really like being supportive. I don’t know why. I like to think I’m just a very compassionate and generous person but I know there is some personal gratification involved. I’m trying to figure it out. I don’t think it’s so much that I want to be a hero… I think it’s more that relating to people reminds me that I’m not alone… we all struggle. I also really like seeing the man behind the mask. It’s interesting to study the difference between what a person is and what a person shows… It’s gratifying for me, to really understand someone and why they’ve adopted the habits and character that they have. I guess it’s just a form of learning that I really enjoy. I don’t know. But sometimes it’s really hard. People are usually comfortable being sad with me, letting me know what pains them, what scares them… and that’s hard. When you hear things that make you so sad, you can’t even handle it and you wonder how on earth the person who is dealing with it directly can. It burns. Anyone know what I’m talking about?
For example, I love my grandmother. She’s an inspiring human being. She’s been through so much. I mean even just imagining… She was born in 1920 in Germany. Think about what that entails. There’s surviving the post WWI conditions, the anti-Semitism, then the actual conditions of concentration camp, her brother’s death, her survivors guilt, the her mother’s death, immigration, raising her family, her husband’s death… seriously. The list goes on and on. She is nothing short of a living heroin. But of all the things she could choose to complain about, she lingers on one and only one.
She remarried when my mother was twelve to a very wealthy business man. He had a son who was severely mentally ill. In hasty mumbles my family will sometimes throw in the word schizophrenic. Apparently he was a very difficult child and on top of that he was spoiled by his father and his wealthy family. And now… Now his condition resembles that of an elderly man in a nursing home.
Uncle Steve. I knew him. He disappeared from my life before I hit the double digits and we weren’t exactly close before that. He was strange. He was fat. And as a little girl that was reason enough for me not to like him. But he was nice. I don’t really remember anything he said except for one short dinner conversation where he gave a lecture about not using his drinking water to wash out his shirt-stain because it would just make his shirt more wet. Sounds rational enough. Nothing really loiters in my memory as particularly crazy. But then again, I was young and I wasn’t around him much. I’m told he was functional enough to piss away 2 million dollars in gamboling and “business endeavors”.
He didn’t quite give up on life until one of his oldest and dearest friends was shot and killed. Although I cannot present the facts in their entirety, I know the story goes something like this: His friend owned and managed a well known deli in the east village. He often went to the bank to deposit large sums of money after a night of work. My uncle was there, as he often was, dining on complimentary deli food, when his friend asked him to accompany him to the bank. My grandmother is under the assumption that he wanted my large uncles company for security as he held an envelope stashed with cash in his hand. Anyway my uncle declined for whatever reason and that night his friend was killed.
Since then Uncle Steve has been nothing but a hushed topic and a childhood memory. However. Now that I am older I realize that the pleasure dome of family security is a fallacy; that the promise that there is no pain under family protection is a lie. The reassuring grins are as dishonest as the people who bestow them and the safety net is nothing but a fragile web of secrets.
Still, I am not bitter… on the contrary.
Yes, it was a little shocking at first to reach the point of intellectual awareness that there is no heaven on earth. Safety zones only exist on baseball diamonds or in some juvenile variations of tag. There are no oases, it is my belief they do not exist even under g-d’s protection. I say this because I visited the old city of Jerusalem this past May. Even at the height of my adolescent cynicism, the old city remained the last symbol of true magic in my mind. It stood distantly as subconscious permission to cling to my thread of youthful optimism and Jubilance. But symbolism once again reduced itself to abstraction, as the streets of the old city revealed themselves as sketchy as those of the South Bronx. The definition of faith manifested itself, once and for all, as blind.
I am in some way relieved to be starkly aware of this truth and freed (for the most part) from the confines of immaturity. I am in someway relieved to know that I am my own moral guide, my own parent, and home is where I live. Of course, I still have the comfort of financial dependency which I’m sure will be a whole nother shock to shake me from my infantile ignorance.
Yes it’s scary, but it’s real. And the sooner you come to grips with reality, the sooner you can take charge. Once you know you are not a slave to any person, to any system, to any moral code, you are free. Not saying that I don’t choose to abide by rules, but that is the key, I choose to. And in most instances it is because I believe it is worth it and not because I am afraid not to. Now that I am conscious of this human independence, I am in fact almost completely mentally independent. There is no going back. I think I am in reductionistic reality, alone, and therefore I am- Existentialism.
My grandmother seems grateful that she no longer has to put on a happy face and waste her energy sheltering me from the truth. Instead, she tells me everything. And everything involves things that I’m not sure I’m ready to hear. It’s not so much the holocaust experience, because I am so detatched from that level of suffering. It’s much more so Uncle Steve.
Uncle Steve, her stepson, who is now arthritic and living out each day confined to his mattress. Uncle Steve, who has a slew of infections, diseases, and is living without teeth off ice-cream and mayonnaise. His father, my grandfather, at 94 is still working diligently and though he walks with a walker, he is still equipped with every last molar and k-9. And his step mother, my grandmother , is apparently the sponsor for his misery. She was and is in his schizophrenic self-invented reality, the evil step mother. And she, beneath the protection of disgust and frustration, feels guilty for never being able to love him.
She doesn’t say this. All she does is repeat over and over again the pathos of his circumstance, the inevitability of his psychosis, and the error of his externally placed blame. It’s heavy to hear. But I listen because I know I am one of the only ones that will.
She does not want to burden her immediate family, who is attached to his development, with the truth of his condition. So instead she burdens her two eldest grandchildren; my brother and I. My brother, unlike myself, gets a sense of satisfaction from hearing the stories of Uncle Steve’s adolescence. It thrills my brother to know that there are those who are more hopeless and psychotic than he. However, I don’t think he is made aware of the extent of hopelessness in Steve’s current condition. I don’t think my grandmother would tell him because she too is alert to my brother’s tendencies toward comparison.
So I am left with the burden of this secret. Well, actually now you are too. What is my dilemma is that I don’t so much mind knowing as long as I can share some of the burden with my laptop, but I am left to wonder if the secrets will add up and take their toll. If I am in fact burning myself out. Because it’s not just my grandmother: I invite people to share with me the totality of their pain. I know I do. Why? Well, I’ve been trying to figure it out. I think a lot of it is the sympathy I feel for those living with secrets, which is everybody. Everybody feels like a victim to their own vulnerabilities and childhood shames. Even if that vulnerability is just that there life was too perfect, that they feel like they are too bland and feel some kind of survivor’s guilt. I relate to that feeling too. I relate to and have empathy for most scars and vulnerabilities and I’m scared that will make me weaker. That in trying to understand, to imagine what someone might feel like by tapping into my own emotional memory- I am inviting too much pain into my life. Perhaps there is a way to feel and show compassion without trying to comprehend the extent of a person’s hurt? Maybe in relating I am not actually unconsciously reliving, and so I shouldn’t worry. Maybe I just have a sharp and accessible emotional memory.
It is also possible that I can understand other people’s emotions because I am not afraid of my own. They do not dwell at the bottom of the ocean suppressed under the current agenda. They are with me always, always evoked, in reading, in writing, in listening, in talking… I think they call that sensitivity. And yes, there are times when I give my emotions too much power and there are times when I give it not enough. And that is why life is about balance. Learning to channel your sensitivity when you need it, and learning to close it off when you need not to have it. And I think that to do that you always have to pair your actions and emotions with understanding. You have to take a moment to say “This is why I did this, this why I feel this way; this is what I can do about it…” And after that, you have to shut off the guilt, anxiety, and expectation. You can only go over the same thing so many times in one sitting. Stop, shut it off, and make a note somewhere to come back later if you need too.
It’s not impossible. It’s not. Try it. I shut off my excess emotion by turning my vague sense of experience into a legible literary work. I Shut it off by putting spoken words to the feelings and impressions, therefore redefining puzzling physical and emotional circumstance as a total reality. I Shut off the excess burden mostly by sharing but now I am learning to self-satisfy. I’m learning to clear my head and free my mind. No drugs involved.
I use music often but I’m trying now to shut off my brain using nothing external. They call this mediation. Before you write it off as hokey new age bullshit, know that it is the best way to practice controlling your mind. I mean honestly, have you ever been in a situation where you just didn’t want to feel. Where you just don’t have the experience to cope with reality effectively and you just want to shut down. Well, I have. And I have shut down in many many self-destructive ways. And those are very effective. You can prevent yourself from feeling one pain for a while just by replacing it with another. Or you can stop creating problems for yourself [Sam], and accept that life is uncomfortable, clear your mind, and hop along anyway.