You and your soul

Do you think I’m a good judge of character?

I do.

I don’t know really how we can know such things about ourselves. But especially since I’ve gotten into a career where I see so very many different kinds of people, from all different walks of life, I feel like I can get a pretty good measure of a person by a first impression. Not a complete dossier, of course. But I’ve had the hair on the back of my neck rise up in wordless warning, with no tangible reason for it. I’ve pried recalcitrant people out of their shells. And I’ve been perfectly at ease around people that society would have you to believe ought to be scorned.

But you really do have to trust me as a judge of character, at least to a certain point. Because sometimes there are just random things that happen to me, where if you trust my sense of character, are just are just a really good story. And if you don’t, the whole story goes from novel-worthy to really kind of skeevy and a little unsettling.

So I went for a walk. I didn’t even really want to, but when I have too many emotions, I need to walk. Preferably over lots of hills. It’s sort of like getting mad and hitting things, except without the violence. And of course there’s no hills here, but still I’m charging down the sidewalk, storming around the park. And some random dude is like, “Hi!”

Seriously? He looks like a college aged guy, out walking himself.

“Do you like to talk while you walk or think to yourself?”

Well, I inform him apologetically, I like to think to myself. Walking is how I sort through the day and get my emotions out.

It turns out it wasn’t really a question, because he tags along anyhow. So earnest about being encouraging and trying to ask me what’s on my mind and cheer me on through it. And if I am a terrible judge of character, then he is just rude and annoying and won’t get a hint. But in my judge of character, he is just pretty crazy, and I kind of just want to laugh at him. He is strange in his own way, but not ill-intentioned.

So I tell him about missing home, about being far from anyone who knows me. And he admits he feels the same way, even though he grew up here. He asks me how many siblings I have, and then he asks me how many have died. And the whole conversation is this strange mix of serious and surreal. He insists on walking on the the side closer to the road, so he’d be hit first. He complains his friends have become cops and he can’t talk to them anymore. He confesses several of his siblings have died and his uncle committed suicide. He chivalrously steps between me and annoying barking dog. He tries to slow me down from walking too fast, talking too fast–he’s the one with the energy drink. He complains that people are suspicious of everyone now, even people walking you home.

And I just want to laugh. It’s broad daylight on a busy street. We’re almost to my residence. There is nothing he can take from me. If I am any judge of character, dude has had a rough, sad life and is tired of people pretending they can’t see each other. Tired of people not even trying to be kind. Maybe–maybe–he would like tears from me and the chance to comfort me like a hero. But I already know he won’t get that, and I think he can tell that’s not who I am. But still he will walk me home, so I won’t get run over by a car. And we continue our random and bizarre conversation, about chickens and goats, and brothers who have too much money and won’t talk to you anymore and would you just slow down and chill out.

And then I say, I’m sorry to end our conversation, but this is the house I’m staying at. So he gives me a casual hug good-bye, and I hug him back. Because this is all so silly. And we both know it. And so he stops and turns,–no, wait–and puts the crowning finish on it all by kissing my hand goodbye. And I would really laugh at him, if he didn’t already know he was being silly, but he already knows. So we wave good-bye as random friends, and I go into the house and he keeps walking off toward the college.

We are still sad. But we can still smile.

There is no reason for it, for any of it. For the heartache of this world and it’s loneliness and it’s brokenness. For the walking and talking with strangers. For walking on the left. But we don’t have to hurt each other, either. We can still be polite. We can still be kind. And sometimes the kindest thing we can do is not pull back. To not be offended by the broken offerings of kindness, to not refuse that a person could have any worth to offer you anything.

You see me walking with a burden, and I–I see you walking with a burden. And we are both already broken enough, and don’t need any more breaking. So kiss my hand; I’ll not pull away. Go in peace, you and your soul.

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Appropriate to what?

I had an academic interview  today.

I got as dressed up as I can, which is not much, and showed up.

All the other girls were so much more classy and sharp and professional in their appearance as I was.

Yet, to the best of my knowledge and observation, I was more confident, more enthusiastic, more able to present myself and my thoughts, and more passionate and committed to the field we were trying to study.

Always, always, always, this sticks in my craw and makes me think. Okay, so I wasn’t wearing some super-crisp jacket and quintessential pearls. So, sue me. Does it really matter?

People keep telling me over and over again that it really does. That first impressions are so important. That it reflects your professionalism.

Yes, I was neat. Yes, I was put together. No, I did not have a high-sheen polish. I was me, okay? Not a thin veneer plied on over who-knows-what. I was just me. I told them about the good and about the bad. I asked questions. I wore sensible, comfortable shoes, and I had cold hands.

I stand on this awkward place between two views: On one hand, I consider how one dresses to be almost an art form, or a communication form. You can tell people a lot by what you wear. On the other hand, I’m really mad that anyone would care more what my shoes looked like than how I looked them in the eye and answered their question.

Perhaps I’m not really so divided, after all. Perhaps what I do hold to first impressions, and I just want my first impressions to be truthful, not over done. The dozen of us were a wash of black and grey, except me. I wore green. Most girls wore tasteful, professional jewelery. I think my necklace probably was, but I know I was the only one who made hers the day before, because it amused her and it went with her outfit.

I want to be valued for who I am, and part of who I am is how I dress. I don’t want to leave you thinking, “My, what a sharp suit.” I want to leave you thinking, “My, she was engaging and passionate, and had some really good thoughts.” If all you remember is my clothes, than I’ve done a poor job dressing. What? you say. Doesn’t that mean you’ve dressed very well? No, because the point of clothes is to showcase the wearer. If the wearer is simply showcasing the clothes, than the cloths have failed–or rather, betrayed you. They stole the show and left you behind.

Did I dress appropriately? I suppose important experts could argue over it. But is that a relevant question? Did I do well at presenting myself to those that were interviewing me? I believe I did. Me, myself and I. You rather wish you were there to see it, don’t you? You’ve seen enough suits and pearls, and you know what they look like. . .

Jane Eyre and the Truth

So I was talking to a friend the other day (and I realize I have a bad habit of starting random sentences with the word ‘so’, as though the topic needs justification) . . . (and now I’ve derailed my thought.)

(Let me try again.)

I was talking to a friend the other day on the topic of love, and was suddenly inspired to explain myself from Jane Eyre. I was telling her she would need to be like Jane, who loved without letting those whom she loved define what her love should be. To truly care about someone is not to be molded by their “If you really loved me, you’d. . .” To love someone is not to give them what they want over regard for what is right. To love someone is not to agree to be conformed to their preconceived images of who you should be. To love someone is to hold to yourself–what you believe is right and what you believe is true. Because otherwise, you aren’t truly giving them your love; you’re giving them a lie, something you don’t really believe in, something that isn’t really you and isn’t really from you. The only way to really love is in truth.

Jane Eyre, as the unrealistic portraiture of piety, nonetheless illustrated the grievous struggle of loving someone, and yet not pleasing them. Of caring profoundly and deeply for them, and yet not doing as was asked–pressured–guilted–bullied– of her to do. It hurt. And when we read it, we hurt, because we know what it’s like to have to make that choice. And when Jane stands firm, we feel such a wash of relief–because, in our hearts of hearts, we know that those kinds of lies can’t lead to happiness. As much as it is a torment, especially in the moment of sudden vulnerability, to say “no” to those we really do care about. . .we really do know how that story ends. And we really don’t want that for Jane. Or for ourselves, even though we’re scared to death that we don’t have the guts to be so resolute. . .or maybe even because we’ve already been there, and failed, and regretted it, and don’t want to see that replayed in ourselves or anyone else.

***

What makes writing worthwhile? Is it “being realistic”? Does it only count if it’s non-fiction, and really-true? Is it only okay if it’s fiction if it’s Inspirational (in your best announcer’s voice)? Does it have to be something you agree with? Is it supposed to be shocking and controversial, in order to be worth anything?

I write. . .sometimes fiction, sometimes non-fiction. Sometimes bluntly, sometimes more obliquely. I want to write well. What does this mean?

In my experience, it means writing the truth.

What does that mean?

My sister paints, and although her talent is already high, you can see her skill improving. The realism she is able to achieve keeps growing. Yet we both sit around and complain about these art instructional books, these books made not by artists but by technicians. Technically, their realism is awesome, but their pictures are dead. There’s no life to them and  no reason to look at them. They’re void of the truth that echos within us all.

My sister–she seems to understand mood. I don’t mean she’s moody (that’s me), I mean that her paintings–even the ones that frustrate her because she got the perspective wrong here and the shape was off over there–compel you from the inside because they grasp ‘the way it makes you feel.’ When you see her skaters on the frozen pond, let’s face it–the painting is too small, the figures indistinct. There isn’t a whole heck of a lot to actually look at.

But it tells the truth.

When you look at it, you know, you remember, you recognize inside of you what it is like on those winter afternoons rapidly fading to evening. You know the feeling of cold air inside of your nose. You know the camaraderie of playing outside with others. You know how exhausting it is to fight the snow and the layers of clothing, but how exhilarating to  actually be outside and alive, and moving.

I don’t know how she does it. With the colors, I guess. (Well, obviously; she’s painting, all she has is color.) With the lighting. I don’t know. It’s this intangible thing that makes everyone say, “Wow!” even while she says “It didn’t come out the way I wanted it too.” And as she explains the flaws she thinks she sees–well, she’s right. She’s not technically perfect. It’s not exactly realistic.  But she captured a piece of the truth, and shares it with you, the viewer. Our ears prick up, because we can hear it resonating within the part of us that can’t be measured.

When I have found good writing, I find the same thing. You don’t look for perfect realism. You don’t insist it can’t be made-up out of someone’s head. What you look for is the truth, the thing that says–“I don’t know how you did this. With words, I guess. Obviously; that was all that you were using. But somehow, you captured something that I thought only I knew. And if we’re finding the same thing, independent of each other, it’s a piece of the truth.”

When I write, I want to write like Jane Eyre was written. No–not a Gothic, Victorian love story. Not a society-challenging critique. Nothing so brave and daring as all of that. Although–actually, maybe more brave and daring than all that. Because, essentially, in order to tell the truth, you have to stop hiding yourself. You can’t proclaim something that will send shivers down the spines of those that hear it and still stay safe inside of your own little shell, where you keep cloistered away who you really are.

You have to have a lot of courage to stand up and firmly say, “This is who I am.” But until then, you really don’t have anything of value to offer. Scraps and facades and pretensions and trying to figure out what people want and how to give it to them. . .it’s bad writing. It’s bad living.

Jane Eyre has helped me explain part of the truth. If any of my writing is ever to be so valuable, I have to learn not to hide. I have to learn to not chicken out and pull back. I have to not listen to the St. John’s and the Mr. Rochesters that would tell me what they want, what I should do. I have to insist on who I am, and not flinch away. It’s the only way that anyone will ever read anything I’ve written–fact or fiction, stark or flowery–and say, “Oh, . . .I don’t know how you did that.”