I work in a building next to the football practice field, and I've been looking at this figure for weeks. It's a padded dummy--humanoid--presumably for young men to run at and crash into as they make guttural sounds. But why would you want to crash into such a thing? Look at its form: crouched over, protecting itself, bracing itself, and made smaller for having to do so. It's a figure to inspire compassion, not aggression. I want a young man to stop mid-charge, approach gently, and put an arm around this guy, maybe even hug him. I want all the other players to do the same and then to walk off the field. That idea is not so ridiculous as it is to complain about violence in a society and then to celebrate a sport that requires men to punish, rather than embrace, vulnerability.
Yesterday the great Jami Geyer Cayo gave me a massage, and we talked about vulnerability, how crucial it is to getting any work done in her business and in mine and probably in yours. She can't release and realign a muscle, like my Serratus--isn't that a beautiful name?--if I don't let go, let my arm go limp and breathe through the pain because I trust that she won't injure me, that she will, in fact, support me. As we did this work together, I told her that this week four of my students spoke to me about how the reading had touched upon their own experiences, how it had made them see something or understand something or, in one case, remember something important to them. You might think that that kind of thing happens frequently in a literature classroom, but it doesn't, at least not to me. Students may (and probably do) relate to the material, but they rarely tell me about it. Yet in one week I had four of these moments of connection with students, moments of trust, really, theirs in me. Why four, and why this week? Jami and I concluded that I'm embracing my own vulnerability and so creating a space for them to, what? approach? connect? Something.
Where the catharsis happens
The word vulnerable makes me uncomfortable. It's a bit of whipping-boy (or, let's be honest, whipping-girl) in our culture: there's a woo-woo air to it and the taint of association with the feminine. And while I was growing up, my family didn't really do vulnerable because, it seems to me, vulnerability feels really, really bad if you don't have a Jami Cayo there with a firm hold on your arm when you let it go limp. But it has recently occurred to me that I was a kid who might have grown into a different kind of adult if I had been allowed and even encouraged to be vulnerable. (Note: This is not a criticism of you, Mom! I am speaking about any number of forces at play in my life and, really, anyone's life, including yours. Love you!)
So here's the thing: I glimpse my young self in Vivian. I mean, Vivian is Vivian. I understand that she is not me, and I am really into getting to know her as her. I like this kid very much. But in some ways she is so familiar, me but better than me. Could this be in some small part because Alex and Bill and I have allowed her to be vulnerable? Because she is, you know. There are no two ways about it. She has a thin rod attached to her spine by a few hooks and screws. She is shaping an identity out of experiences that include hospitalizations, casts, surgeries, and scars. We don't require her to be brave. Yet--or is it So?--she is brave. While we were at the hospital, I would sometimes end my day by crying in my bed or in a chair next to her bed because, my god, it hurt to allow Vivian to cry, to tell me that she didn't like being in the halo, that she didn't want to have a crooked spine, that she didn't want to look out a window at a brown valley; she wanted gray water and dark green islands, she wanted our small back yard and our pets. There were other things, too, that jarred me, like seeing her take to a walker and a wheelchair and, after the surgery, preferring them to her own two feet because walking was painful and hard; or hurting her when we turned her over in bed; or worrying about her spinal cord because during surgery they found an abnormality in how it functions. I let all of this stuff and more wash over me, into me, through me--choose a preposition!--and, yeah, it was uncomfortable. But I did it. I really did it. When a person you love says, "I am scared," do you say, "Nah. There's nothing to be scared of!" or do you say, "What scares you?" My default is the former. It sounds reassuring, but actually it's not; it says, I don't want to let that in or, I don't think I'm strong enough to handle that or, If I don't acknowledge it, it's not there. I'm teaching myself to respond in the other way because that's where the connection lies. Right in there, that's where Vivian will get the message that she doesn't have to be hunched up like the figure on the practice field. Let her be upright, arms out.
Let me be, too.
Funny, right, that you can read that as "Let me be, too" or as "Let me be," as in, leave me to myself as I am. I think I've written here that while we were in the hospital my focus narrowed. All that existed was in that small room, and Vivian was at the center of it. I became afraid to leave the hospital and, more than that, Vivian's room. I was describing this response to my friend Arianna last night, and we agreed that it is at least part-biological, like when a cat or a dog hides when it's injured or about to have pups. I noticed it happening to me, and I just let it happen. Here was self-acceptance, and isn't that a kind of trust? I also wrote letters, 37 of them, and mailed them in batches and sometimes one by one. I told people what I was experiencing, authentically, no sugar-coating that I can recall. Letters I received in response were remarkable, quite different from any email I've received. Friends told me what they were worried about or what they were working on in themselves or what they might try.
My letter-writing has fallen off. We came back to Tacoma on September 7th. That night at 11pm, I sat upright in bed and said, "I forgot to write my letter!" Bill said, "Why don't you give yourself a break?" I said, "No," and I turned on the light and wrote a letter...to Bill. I wrote to him for the next few days in a row, too; they are short letters, lackluster, tired. And then I remembered what he said, "Why don't you give yourself a break?" and instead of saying, "No," I said--not aloud, but you get the point--"You know what? I think I will." So I did. I have not abandoned my hand-written letter project, but it's been about a month since I've written one a day. I am going to get back to it because I want to, but I needed the break. As I wrote (by hand, in a letter) to my friend Marla, this project was never about achieving perfection. It was about honoring connection.
On that note, I want to say thank you to the many people who reached out to Vivian and me while we were in the hospital. My hope is that this note finds its way to you. I had illusions of thanking each person individually for the cards and gifts they sent, and I kept records like this one, scrawled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper:
But I have not kept track of whom I've written to and emailed and texted and called, and I worry that I will inadvertently leave someone out. Thank you. You did a good thing, a kind thing, for a girl and her family, and my hope is that many good things come to you and yours in return.
I have one last thought on this Saturday morning. Is it a non sequitur, or does it follow? The word vulnerable, adj., used to mean "having power to wound; wounding," but that meaning is now obsolete.