Sunday, February 21, 2010

My Most Embarrassing Typo

Admittedly, my boss's handwriting could be hard to read, but I'd been working for him for over a year when I made the typo. I was 26; my ordinary job felt like a big deal. I was self-supporting for the first time in the choppy wake of a hellacious marriage of 8 years.

My boss’s title was the Assistant to the Bishop for Congregations, and I was his secretary in the diocesan office of the Episcopal Church in Philadelphia.

And I was in love. Except that part wasn't going so well. The light of my eyes, tall, dark, and Zen-gentle, was, as I saw him, committo-phobic. I’d known Steve as a friend for about half of my married life, and since my view of ‘normal’ involved my husband throwing glasses of beer around the apartment, I needed gentleness. The most I'd been able to pry out of my— ? boyfriend ?— was this koan: "I'm not not in love with you."

I mean, we were the real deal! We’d kissed under a streetlight at two in the morning, as well as lots of other venues, our religious values preventing further exploration—in which case, kissing can be amazingly hot. I announced my intentions with every glance of my eyes; we were always together. If he wasn’t in love with me, I was a wombat. Only he wouldn’t out with it. I churned up all the air around us trying to persuade him to admit that he knew what I knew he knew. I was so persuasive, in fact, that he rarely had a chance to say anything.

I was good in a crisis; if one didn’t exist, I would create it. Greetings from the State of Anxiety read a postcard I’d taped on a cabinet in my work cubicle.

Back to my boss; he was a priest, and later, a bishop. I believe he was the first African-American graduate of Yale Divinity School. He was good to me, and I was happy to do the occasional personal task for him. After a particularly gnawing weekend of Boyfriend Angst, Father Turner brought me a letter he’d handwritten to a nursing home in North Carolina, where his mother resided, and I proceeded to type it. The pertinent line read, “…and every time I visit my mother, and I might add unannounced, I am impressed with the quality of her care.”

I was in a tizzy of distraction, to put it mildly. My hands typed while my fraught mind layered another story over my own obsession, and I envisioned Father Turner and his mother, bravely enduring an atmosphere of chronic racism in a nursing home in the deep South of North Carolina. I brought my boss’s letter to life on that creamy Episcopal Church paper with the classy insignia. …”every time I visit my mother,” I typed, “and I might add, unarmed”…

With perky efficiency, I knocked on Father Turner’s door and gave him the letter. A few minutes later, he came back to my desk. “’Unarmed!? What is this?’”

I began to cry. “I’m so sorry. Boyfriend,” I blubbered. “Not. He won’t—but I—but he”—

“Come into my office,” my boss said, from where he regarded me with calm eyes across his desk. I spilled my story. Silence followed. I felt unzipped and raw, as if Father Turner could see, as if the whole planet could see, that I was the kind of person who would invite an older man to abuse me but that any young, good-looking man within a few strokes of normal would guess how fucked up I was and keep one eye on the exit door.

But Father Turner came to what must have seemed the logical conclusion. “Is your boyfriend gay?”

“No,” I howled, all over again. That was another thing I did know about him.

My boss must have had some parting, pastoral words for me—this was his job, after all—but I don’t remember them. I went back to my desk and typed the best spankin’ thank-you letter ever sent to a nursing home in North Carolina.
A typo betrayed me. I was the one who needed to be armed, not Father Turner, not his mother, but I didn’t know it. It took time, years; but I learned that to be vulnerable, and to admit you’re broken, is not an admission of failure. I laid aside my armor and gradually discovered the weakness that finds its own strength.

And what of Steve, my Zen hottie? I was actually relieved when he suggested we take a break from each other for two months. Whatever the outcome, I knew I could trust him. And I had to stop announcing myself…

In the end, I don’t think we lasted the entire eight weeks…and Father Turner gave us some very nice wine glasses as a wedding gift.

Friday, February 19, 2010

NOCTURNES: FIVE STORIES OF MUSIC AND NIGHTFALL

I couldn't resist. This is my review of Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall.  You may remember him as the author of Remains of the Day and the way creepy Never Let Me Go.  These stories have his restrained voice and ice-simple diction, but they also have...Slapstick!

http://fictionwritersreview.com/reviews/nocturnes-five-stories-of-music-and-nightfall-by-kazuo-ishiguro

Sunday, February 7, 2010

A QUAKER CHILD REPUDIATES ALMOST EVERYTHING

Under normal circumstances, an almost-grown kid doesn't leave home thinking he or she may never see her family again.  On Sunday, my oldest child flew off into the sky today for 6 months' study in Turkey. Momentous, but not a final severance.  He sent a text prior to takeoff: Thanks mom just got on the plane. At dinner the night before he left, I cried a little: Four years from now, we'll be looking to send our youngest child to college.  Of course, the two kids thought my sudden tears were silly--or maybe they didn't quite know what to do about them.

Some day, they'll understand.

A few days after my 18th birthday, I packed up a suitcase, crying.  Really crying. I was listening to The Band's Whispering Pines, a hymn of loss and slim hope and the sea.  My soon-to-be husband sat waiting outside on the street in his Chevy Impala.  I wasn't thinking Quakerism, or the stronghold of tradition, or the future. I was thinking of that consuming relationship and the four walls of my husband's dark apartment,which in the back of my mind, I already knew I didn't know how to keep clean.  I thought of my parents, distressingly silent two floors down, having cocktails in the living room, with my father's cousin present to keep the lid on things until I left. 

I expected to be disinherited, but I wasn't  leaving only my family.  I was forsaking a world of unraveling social structures; a world of servants and class differenes, quiet racism, and old family portraits; of large, well-kept stone houses on shady streets along which large oak trees sent pungent acorns cracking to the sidewalk in the fall.  I was forsaking, not Philadelphia's almost tropical summer heat, but the lushly forested Northwestern neighborhoods of the city.  That world was already being transformed by the social cataclysms of the late 1960's, but I wasn't waiting around for the sun to set. 

It seemed easy to shuck off Quakerism: A lot of sitting in silence and thirteen years at the same Friends school that had been a self-contained universe.  You might think you're leaving everthing behind, but the familiar air slips into the suitcase with your belongings. 

One lesson I keep needing to learn is that I should trust my kids.  Far more than I did, they want to find their way in the world. They want to learn and grow and create valid lives in connection to the greater world.  The risks they take are different than the risks I took, yet in every generation the dance is the same.  Parents release control.  Children fly into the future, or perhaps they cling to familiar branches.  Parents hope for movement, improvement, sanity.  Children feel they are discovering the breakaway flight for the first time in history.
We're both right. It's all new to us. So my oldest child is off to discover a world my that present husband--my real husband--and I have never seen.  My anxiety is there.  But if I came back after a lengthy detour in the wilderness, I've got to trust that my kids will find their own paths.

Bon voyage, PFM!