A Monday Disguised as a Tuesday and The Wisdom to Know the Difference

I watch from the curb as two people pull out onto the road, just past my broke-down Volkswagen. The passenger forgets that she set her tumbler filled with freshly-brewed coffee on the roof before she got in, shutting the door and putting on her seat belt.

“Ca-plop!”

Screeching to a halt, she pops out of the car and scurries to swoop it up. Realizing I’ve watched the sequence unfold just a few feet away, she tucks her pride in with her shirt before she gets back in the car.

“It’s a Monday disguised as Tuesday,” she quips. “Didn’t you know?”

I did.

I watch the speed-limit break as they pull away down the road toward Starbucks.

 ***

An hour before I watch the tumbler take a tumble, I pop down into my car, finally ready to cruise home and get some much-needed work done. In routine fashion, I slip the key in the ignition, turn around and hug the passenger seat, gazing out the rear-window before I back up.

I turn the key and nothing happens.

I look back and blink twice.

I try again. Nothing. Not a click, or a thud, or a sign of life. In fact, the key won’t even turn all the way. Rather quickly, I deduce that the ignition switch that I just had installed in my 98 Jetta must be frozen and that I won’t have a car for 24 hours. I wiggle the steering wheel; I put the car in gear; I hold down different combinations of clutch and break as I try to get the key to go full-circle.

Still nothing.

Having done this dance all summer—as the proud owner of what will soon be a licensed historic Florida vehicle—I get on the phone to AAA, grateful that I renewed my membership last week.

Not too much later the tow-truck driver arrives in a behemoth. Trucks like the one he’s driving could easily be featured on an episode of Ice Road Truckers and would be good for just about any roadside assistance…

…except for squeezing my car out of the caddy-corner spot on the narrow street it’s stranded on in the middle of rush hour traffic. 30 more minutes snail by and I sit on the curb drinking a Seagram’s Ginger Ale, before I see a smaller truck with a wench pull up, position itself accordingly, and hoist my car to salvation.

 ***

A few hours before the not-starting and hoisting, I’m sitting in Mikey’s Bakery and Café devouring a Reuben and a Diet Cheerwine. Their selection of “Old Timey” soda is second to none — an open invitation for me to make a weekly lunch date with myself. I’ve already finished the kettle chips, which were good, but not as good as the pasta-salad I had asked for.

It’s damn good pasta salad — enough to disappoint you when you don’t get it.

“How is everything,” asks the kid-who-works-there.

“Fine,” I say, with a mouthful of pastrami, too exhausted and worn down by the midday Tampa heat to complain.

 ***

Two hours before I sit down to sip on deliciously rendered cane-sugar soda and unrequested potato chips, I find myself sputtering around the neighborhood, making stops at every-other telephone pole. I’m armed and dangerous with a fist full of fliers and a heavy-duty stapler. Looking for strategic ways to display “Lost Dog” fliers is a sad day to spend an afternoon, particularly because I get acquainted with the other slew of missing pups whose banners, judging by their water-logged and sun bleached condition, have been flying for more than a few days. I start to wonder: who really gets lost when a friend is missing, furry or otherwise?

Telephone poles have to be the most analogue of mediums, seemingly incapable of the kind of feedback that soothes the soul in times of distress, whether by wood or by wire. We’re all lost when we lose a sense of confirmation that’s so vital to our being human in the world.

I get out every so often, leaving the car running in the middle of the road, undoubtedly agitating drivers on their lackadaisical lunch break who would rather not swerve out of the way. I whistle and yell, listening for a response, searching high grass in hope that out of nowhere the pup will show up. The reality is that my yells only beckon to other neighborhood dogs, all to ready to answer back in a language I can’t understand. I stand their clueless, wishing I could ask them if they’ve seen the little guy who went foraging on his own a few hours ago.

Stopping by my colleague’s new house, I ask if she’s seen him but looking at the tears in her eyes I know the answer before the words leave my mouth.

“I feel like I’ve lost a child,” she whispers, sitting on the stoop.

I’m all too familiar with the feeling. I reach out and give her a hug, telling her that everything will be alright, wishing I believed it more than I did. She smiles for a moment and we go back to sitting, staring straight ahead.

 ***

At 5 o’clock the evening before, I get home from school and say hi to Simba, my fuzzy white-and-tan Persian/Maine Coon buddy who greets me by the door every day. Dangling bags and holding books, I flop them on the couch as I reach down to pat his soft head and give him some love behind the ears. He does his usual sashay around my legs, wiggling his tail in excitement, as if to say his ready for treats and some brushing.

“Alright buddy,” I say, loud and in that tone he knows means he’s about to get what he wants. “Come on.” We both walk briskly into my office and he hurls his pantaloon-legs on the table I’ve put there specifically so he can watch me work from across the room. I lay out 5 treats in the corner, which he gobbles up nearly as fast as I devour a sandwich in the 20 minute break I get between classes. I gently scratch his raised back and softly pull his tail through my fingers as I head to the shower.

He follows and moves into his box, so I turn away to give him some privacy and slip under the hot water for a much needed after work-out rinse. A few minutes later, I turn off the water, step out, and see his tail. It’s in the same spot it was in before I got wet. He looks back at me, mixed up in distress and confusion, as if to say, “I don’t know Dad, it just won’t come out.”

In the next 30 minutes he moves back into the box three times, spending all of the time in between nursing the gap below his belly. It’s swollen and seems tender.

“Something’s not right,” I tell myself, grabbing the phone and calling a friend who knows more about illness and animals than I do. She tells me to keep an eye on him and give me the number to a vet.

“If he doesn’t get better in a few hours, you should probably take him in,” she says. “It’ll be expensive—“

“It doesn’t matter,” I tell her, cutting her off, “Simba’s the healthiest cat in the world. I don’t know what I’d do if something happened to him.”

“Well it could be nothing,” she tells me. “So don’t worry just yet. But let me know how it goes, ok?”

I hang up the phone worried and upset. Darting to my computer I find others who describe the exact same symptoms. “Get him to the emergency room right away because you’re cat might die” is the last thing I read before I snatch him into my arms and rush down the steps to my car, heading north and calling the Vet as I drive.

I’m frantic, on the phone, shifting gears and stomping on brakes through what’s left of rush hour traffic. “You’re doing the right thing,” the receptionist says. “We’ll see him as soon as you get here.” I drop the phone on my lap, shift into 4th gear and tear through cars, keeping my hand on Simba’s belly, telling him everything will be fine. Surprisingly he’s not worried, which makes me worry more and realize that I’m really talking to myself.

After a few hours in the emergency room — with the vet techs telling me that he’s the “best looking urine-blocked kitty” they’d ever seen, and me asking the same questions over and over again — I make it home and sleep for a few hours. In the morning I get the call that they’re going to keep him for another day to keep pumping fluids into him and insert a catheter. “Otherwise,” the vet says, “he should be alright.”

For the first time since I walked out of the emergency room I stop thinking about the “Do Not Resuscitate” form I signed before I left. I get off the phone and notice a text message from a colleague asking if I can canvas the neighborhood with fliers. “They’re in your email,” she says.

***

We can’t help what happens to us when bad turns worse. In times of trouble and grief, it seems like we can’t avoid the harrowing “Why” that points a finger at us, charging us to figure out in some narrative order what’s happening, how it’s happening, and what to do next. Most of the time it seems like the mundane everyday sequence of things—which always lead to more things good and bad alike—are nothing more than events that punctuate our experiences, building them up just so we can be let down. Sometimes the interconnectedness of those things that happen appear to be prearranged, unrelenting, or unfair, escalating the pressure we feel to perform the best version of ourselves in the face of uncertainty at the very moment when that best version is something we’re not.

Famous folks like to suggest that we should try to do everything in life, but only ever in moderation. In my experience, that’s an idealist’s version of the way things tend to transpire: Everything happens, and it happens all at once. So yes, we do everything, but moderating that everything is hardly ever a choice. It’s great to be an agent of destiny, which is truly a virtue in the world we live in, but time and time again we find ourselves resigned to a story not of our own making and a world of experience that tries our sense of dignity.

On the worst days—what for lack of more eloquent language constitutes the shittiest of days—we might find ourselves pinned down by an unforgiving universe when the “minor events of daily life [are] unsettled or unsettling” (Zaner, 2004, p. 113). Since we can’t help to make sense of these episodes of our lives as we live them, often times finding meaning in them right before of immediately after they happen, it’s as though we’re dammed to the eternal consequence of the chaos we find ourselves amid. Sometimes it’s unclear whether or not what we wish will happen will or can prevail (p. 122).

I can remember as a little boy, trying to ride a wave in the ocean that was too big for me—way over my head—and finding myself tumbling again and again under a breaking tide, fighting my way up only to grasp the air that would give me the ability to keep fighting through the surf for the rest of the day—or week, for that matter—or however long I had in the water.

That breath of fresh air, in the chaos, among the crashing wave that puts us in distress when one thing after another throws us down and pulls us into the undertow is what can remind us that we’re not totally lost. It’s the grace we find twisted up in circumstances of grief, illness, and escalation that can remind us that an essential part of life is its tragedy. It’s up to us to remember that tragedy is all too certain, just as it’s always starkly unfamiliar when we confront it. It’s up to us to “refuse to give up or get out of the way” (p. 126).

Those times when we live with the constant, face-to-face reminders of ourselves seen by others—of our failings and misfortunes—we don’t have to remain resigned to our seeming fate, despondent yet reaching for dignity. We can look to others and communicate in trust, undergoing a sort-of moral transformation that changes our perspective (p. 139). We hug, have a sincere handshake, or sit side-by-side with another, and it’s their presence that supplies the air we need to keep breathing, fighting through the worst of it so we can go on and struggle through the rest; so we can go on, hoping for the best.

When we find those moments of joy and pleasure—maybe in a day where nothing goes wrong—we can realize in hindsight that everything that happens—good or bad, tragic or comic, awe-filling or gut-wrenching—is proof enough that we live in spite of the persistent possibility that all could be lost at any moment, for any reason, or for no reason at all. Be it the case that we find ourselves completely lost, we won’t be around to know it anyway, so the tragedy is worth all that living it entails.

We need our pain to remind us of what’s good, and that means incurring trouble as it comes. Of course, the most we can ever hope for is a certain realxedness to experience, something someone else famous once said (Becker, 1973).

 ***

Sitting outside at 3 in the morning, I can’t stop the memories from pushing past the nickelodeon in my mind. I see all of the times I can’t recall otherwise, remembering all of the versions of myself that I’ve been, and realizing that Simba’s been the silent observer to it all. He’s never failed to be there at night or in the morning, always by my side, not worried about what I’ve done or what I’m going through, but constant in his resolve to love and be loved back.

I do nothing but hope he’ll be ok. The breeze picks up and the trees shutter for a moment just as I’m reminded of the prayer they teach those people who go to those rooms on Thursday nights, to help each other cope with a life full of trouble:

 Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.

References

Becker, E. (1973). The denial of death. New York: Simon & Schuster

Zaner, R.M. (2004). Conversations of the edge. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press

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A Monday Disguised as a Tuesday and The Wisdom to Know the Difference by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Value in Virtual

You walk out of the gym, satisfied with your work out. You can feel the wear in your arms, still fresh from the swim. The chlorine smell from the pool drips onto the collar of your shirt as your hair dries in the sun. Paced and calm, you enjoy the walk back to the office, taking your time, taking it all in. You love being on campus in the afternoon. Students pass by in fast forward, late for class coming from work. Some are late for work coming from class. They get nearer to the cars passing on the crosswalk—closer than you’re comfortable with. One of them, wearing head phones, holds up a middle finger as a red Sedan passes, which doesn’t  even hesitate to stop, almost hitting him. You sigh in disbelief. The ignorance of Florida drivers. Still, you don’t feel sorry for the guy with the headphones. He wasn’t paying attention, either.

Three black guys coming your way are elated in conversation, smiling and joking, taking up a lot of room and making a ruckus. You smile behind your sunglasses, remembering college and recalling two friends you’ve lost touch with completely. You feel a twist of longful nostalgia, envious of a carefree sensibility that you’ve lost. A feeling of freedom absent in a space leftover from a not-so-distanced youth. You catch a bit of the conversation as they pass: “Nigga, shut up! You don’t know what she said wh-” The words echo in your head. You can’t get past “Nigga” and you think about the power of words that construct reality. You wonder why so many people struggle with difference. You can’t help but think about how some words stay in use long after they should. You know that there’s a cultural identity tied up in certain labels, which have been purposed and re-purposed, but you’re not sure that some will ever be completely free of stigma. Your body gets tense when you hear  certain language and you wonder if other people have the same reaction. You try to recall the last time you let your lack of cultural sensitivity get the best of you but you can’t. You decide to omit the word “gay” from your vocabulary. You’re pretty sure you won’t be completely successful with that. Still, it’s worth trying.

Ahead of you is a series of waist high boards, propped up and lined in a row next to a table. Some sort of campus group set them up in the green, no doubt. Maybe protesters. Maybe street preachers. Who knows. You guess names as you walk up, thinking up possible student groups: Students for Social Change…Young Democrats of Tampa…Occupy USF…Campus Coalition for the Homeless. You hope it isn’t anti-abortion propagandists from last week.

Turning the corner, you see that the boards are yellow with a big, sloppy number painted on the front of each. The first one says “US Total Debt.” The number is in the trillions. Silly. You keep walking. Then you stop, take out your camera and kneel beside the last number, snapping a few pictures, taking a shot of the whole thing. You think about how ridiculous money really is, how the national debt is merely an indicator of a government’s inability to play by their own rules. Laughing, you resist the urge to go ask the student standing at the booth if he realizes that money has become less and less real. You want to know if he sees the irony in the whole display, which uses large, physical objects to, quite literally, make money real for us. Money that is rarely represented by dollar bills. Money that’s no longer in our pockets as much as it’s in our clouds. Money that you can spend on Google Checkout. You realize that you’re probably the only one reading into this so deeply, so you keep moving. You check around, but no one was staring.

You head in the direction of the cafe in the basement of the business building. You don’t even notice that you failed to catch the name of the student group responsible for what turned out to be a clever political statement about capitalism, systems of exchange, and material culture. When you get to the cafe, you order a Tuna sandwich, wondering if it’s healthier than roast beef. You decide that you don’t really care. The workout was a good one. Looking through the pictures on your phone of the giant, wooden numbers, you think about your morning. You see yourself sitting in the communication building performance lab, surrounded by colleagues and mentors, listening intently to Mary Catherine Bateson talk about learning. She’s disarming, almost prophetic.

She leans forward in her seat, sculpting the air with her hands, looking at you, then past you, then next to you, then the other way. She talks about the importance of play and improvisation. You shake your head in agreement. You shift your weight. You lose track of the room as you zero in, focused. She answers questions with adapted lecture notes that come out like mini-seminars, genuinely honest and spontaneous, yet authentically true to her thoughts. Old thoughts. Thoughts  she’s mulled over and adapted for years. You realize this is what she means when she says  “we’re all making it up as we go along.” She says we need to spend more time being reflective—that all wisdom is derived from thinking about thinking. That “thinking about thinking” is the same as “learning.” She insists that we should find a way to dictate our actions as they’re happening, not just talk about them after the fact. If we can do that, we’ll reveal that we don’t really learn in the “now” but that we’re always making reality out of things that we already knew.

Mustard farts out of a bottle. You look at the women behind the counter as you grab your sandwich and ask for a pickle. You decide that Bateson’s “now” has got to be connected to Micheal Heim’s “virtual,” which he says is another word for “as if.” You hand over your card to pay. “$8.50” the cashier tells you, handing it back swiped. You don’t get a chance to process the information but you think that $8.50 is too much for lunch, especially considering the quality of the bread. You try to recall the last time you paid with cash, thinking about how your sense of money and value has shifted in the last decade. When did everyone start paying with plastic? When did  that become normal? You can’t seem to pinpoint it.

Moving toward the plastic silverware, you steal more than your share of knives and take a handful of napkins. You briskly open the door with your back, hands full of food and utensils, hoping no one will yell at you. As you scale the steps of the building, you move toward the sunlight, heading for your building. You talk to yourself out-loud, unaware that someone’s coming down the steps: “Virtual is the moment we reflect on what we think. The moment we make reality in our own words. It’s a reality out of nothing but what we remember from our experience. And our experience is only what we make of it.” You think that’s pretty clever, but know it needs some work.

The woman coming down the steps makes awkward eye contact. You stop talking, not sure if she heard you. You’re pretty sure she speeds up as she passes. You wonder why you’re so weird. You decide that when you get to your office, first things first, you’re going to start writing. Get it all out. At the top of the steps you breathe in the sunny Florida air and you ask yourself: Is all thinking virtual? Is money only a thought? If so, what’s the value in thinking? And what’s the value in virtual?

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PLE's Value in Virtual by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

There but for the Grace of God go I

I’ve been thinking about my grandmother a lot lately. She was a wonderful, God fearing woman who believed in Grace above all things. “There but for the Grace of God go I” she would say, almost as a way of leaving a phrase unfinished; like it was her way of reminding us that life will always continue to challenge, trouble, disrupt, and dismay us, but that we will be required to keep living in spite of our shortcomings and displeasure.

I wish I’d been mature enough when she was still alive to tell her how much I appreciate her—how much I appreciate my memory of her now. The way I remember her coping with life’s small miseries creeps into my thoughts daily, serving as a manual for difficult moments that can only be read after-the-fact. No matter how hard I try, I can never seem to hang on to the lessons indefinitely.

I wasn’t close enough to her at the end of her life.

For some reason my thoughts always drift toward her in my most challenging moments, searching for examples of similar situations where she exemplified a better strategy for coping, or told some story with an important moral lesson, which would act as a guide the next time around.

She had a way with crafting words around caring gestures that warmed a room, never leading to controversy, awkward confrontation, or confusion. There was a pleasantness and serene aura about her, at all times, but not in a naive way; that is, there was a subtle intellectuality about her presence that was truly…

Graceful.

Religion is attractive for the sole reason that it allows us to make real, through parable and meta-narrative, the very fantasies that come to life in our memory. How romantic the Christian notion is that we can speak to the dead, or that metaphysical beings are watching over us, stewarding loved ones left living until their final hour. A Christian might tell me to pray and that the person I am thinking about, dead or alive, will receive my blessing. Or they might tell me that “your grandmother knows” how you feel because “she’s watching over you.”

It’s funny how the ways people talk about religion echo the ways people talk about the Internet.

Regardless, these narrative devices are nice ways to make sense of a confusing world, but they’re not very comforting, at least not to me. Maybe there is some truth in the “up there” and “out there” notion of a Christian spirituality, but the general dogma is much too contradictory and simplistic for me to embrace its romantic notions. In short, religious scriptural naivety ruins the magical moment of romance that most derive from the promise of salvation.

Although, I do admire those who have such firm belief in fantastic notions of life ever-after. I appreciate that they are able to find peace in ritual, study and practice.

My grandmother was this sort of person—a religious person who truly believed in something. I absolutely respect such certainty as a way of being when it is grounded in notions of goodwill, honesty, and faith. Some people, like my grandmother, understand Grace to much deeper degrees than those who constantly question their beliefs and, as a result, struggle to suspend their assumptions when making connections with others that really matter.

I believe in humanity and in goodness, for sure, but can’t rationalize a heaven (in the mono-theistic sense) any better than I can order coffee at a diner speaking Gaelic. As an intellectual, I feel like I’ve distanced myself far from anything that resembles what I used to know as “faith” and that salvation is dish best served cold. As a result, I struggle daily to trust in others, to believe that others will help me, that they will offer some missing piece of a puzzle needed to keep living, or that they’ll help me achieve my goals.

How can I put stock in a mystical universe based on faith when my career is rooted the practice of explaining away complex phenomenon so that I might understand the most confusing aspects of the universe? After a while, I read so much that I begin to realize that everything can be explained, deconstructed, reconstructed, understood, performed, modulated, queered, queried, themed, grounded, compartmentalized, analyzed, translated, or criticized. Before too long, the quest for an all encompassing Truth is easily abandoned, left to drift down the river of yesterdays, where bits and pieces of forgotten selves—religious beliefs, innocence, naivety, skepticism, goofiness, hopes, wishes, magic—collect in pools that straddle the banks of a personal past left behind.

There’s no Grace in my daily life—not usually. It isn’t something that comes easy to me, like it did for my grandmother. It’s something that I have to cultivate by reminding myself to take it easy, to take it slower, to stop and breathe, to cope, and be aware of what’s around me.

Grace is the one thing that my grandmother seamlessly embodied. I know that she had a lifetime of encounters to learn these traits, and that she was probably more willful in her youth, but my memory relentlessly reveals her Graceful prowess. I remember her best as the woman who was inviting, open, joyous, gentle, delighted, and easygoing. These are all qualities that would be useful to me now, more than anything, if they could only be remembered in the moment of stressful encounters with others.

I don’t think I’m alone in this.

I think Grace is a struggle for many, and I warm to people who don’t reflect my willful demeanor. I think most of us—academics especially—critical scholars especially—ought to remember to strive for Grace whilst speaking their minds, making claims, and doing what they’re trained to do.

In I and Thou, Martin Buber says that all actual encounter is by Grace, not by seeking, and that all actual living is encounter. I interpret this to mean that the only way to truly live is to relinquish moments of willfulness so that the other—whomever or whatever the other might be—may be invited to experience oneself fully and wholly, no holds barred. To me, Grace is about finding comfort with one’s own vulnerability so that, when we least expect it, we may trust in a universe that can never be fully comprehended.

This semester has brought work related stress to a whole new level and I’ve been struggling to cope. If all of life is suffering, like the Buddhists say, than I’ve been experiencing an order of it reserved for the busiest, most intensely demanding, and most productive times. It has been hard to be Graceful, much easier to assert my will over the tasks of daily living in order to command, conquer and accomplish everything that I imagine is expected of me.

But there comes a point when all of the willfulness that helps me efficiently check things of my to-do list—the course, protective, power-focused, nerve-centric affect that I carry in my shoulders after 6 cups of black tea and 10 minutes to spare—becomes too much to bear.

 

There comes a point when I no longer recognize I.

I seem more like some one else.

I forget that I am only myself in relation to You.

But without Grace, there is no You—not to me, anyway;

There’s no trust, no vulnerability, and no openness.

Without Grace, there is no I, no actual living.

***

“Nick, I need to see you for a minute before we break off into groups,” she says, throwing he words over a few chatting colleagues sitting near me, already discussing their projects. I skirt the table quickly, weaving through spinning chairs as I near the end of the table.

“Heya” I say, with a certain nonchalance, “What’s up?” I can see that she has notes for me and something pressing to discuss. I’m eager and a bit nervous, but in an expecting way that’s not as much fearful as ready and confident. I see that she has my paper in front of her with notes written on it.

She looks forward in thought as she speaks, crafting the right words, responding in a thoughtful and focused way that senior professors have learned from what seems like thousands of years of experience, in classrooms where they’ve refined professorial wizardry via literary magic.

“That comment I made a minute ago about finding what you are writing about 5 pages into the paper—I hope that you picked up that it was direct toward you.”

I nod.

“I see what you have here, and it’s nice and I get it, but sometimes you get so abstract—I mean, you really let yourself go—that it becomes unclear what you’re getting it. The reader has to know where you are, what you’re doing, where you’re taking us. You’re job is to reign yourself in and tighten it up, or else we’ll be totally lost.”

I’m grateful and I agree, but my face doesn’t show it. I want to be appreciative, but my voice won’t let me. The exact opposite comes out and we grapple in discussion over ideas for my paper. For the next 10 minutes we hash over ideas, rationalizing, mythologizing, tossing out possibilities in search of commonality. Something in the darkest cavern of my mind wants to escape and say “thank you just for reading it and offering feedback,” but waves of intellectual prowess infused with oily pride keep it hidden away, under pressure, unable to reach the surface. In the back of my mind, I’m wondering why I can’t ever accept feedback as it comes—the way it comes—without added expletives, justifications, or defenses. “Why the need to explain yourself?” I ask myself, inaudibly.

We continue to exchange details and get a feel for each other’s needs. Eventually, we reach some common ground but not before I deliver a beautiful rendition of “difficult grad student” for an undeserving customer. “Must I always be such a pain in the ass?” I ask, clinching my teeth to keep my mouth shut and end the conversation.

I walk to my office pleased with the progress that we’ve just made, glad to have more direction, elated that a person with her esteem and sensibility is working with me. Undergirding all of this is an overbearing feeling of shame that I couldn’t show that I was grateful for the time and effort she put into helping me. Embarrassment is out of the question when self-spite like this is in order, and my head gets hot as pride boils on the tip of my tongue. I cuss at myself as I search the halls, turning the corner by the bathroom, wishing that I could be more of the appreciative person that I sense myself to be in actuality.

“Grace” I say out loud, just before I see my colleague coming down the hall. “Where is the Grace?” I ask, in my mind, emphatically searching for a way to change my mode and shift my mood. My colleague comes up beside me and we stride in step as we enter my office to begin collaborating on each other’s work. I feel myself ease into a funk, unable to cope with the failed dialogue I just had and suspecting that I’ll botch this next encounter all the same.

We sit and read for a few moments and then toss around some comments, lightly chatting about each other’s work. Her paper is excellent, written in a voice I only wish I could capture. There is elegance and directness about the way she describes her actions, the way she writes her environment in the story, and the way she illustrates her relationships to other characters that is unique and visual. It’s a style that is second to none in our department. Having read some of her writing a few years ago, I can see that it’s full-bodied and enlivened now. I can already see her paper’s panning out into a publication of some kind that is definitely worth both of our time and effort. I truly believe in collaborative-driven ethos, especially when it comes to writing narrative.

She continues to admire some of the things I’ve written and casts a glance over the pages she’s holding that beckons me to respond to her work. I tell her that I’m pointing out a few things that are really mechanical by nature, no big deals. “Just some things that help invite the reader into the story a bit more.” I say, without urgency.

Her glance changes from an inquisitive hopefulness to a concerned dryness, more worried than ugly. We bicker for the next few minutes about whether or not the details I’ve annotated are really worth editing, arguing over the definition of conversational voice before we notice that we have to get back to the classroom and report back to the rest of the group.

“I’m a better editor than I am a writer” I boast. I think it’s the truth. As we leave I tell her that I’ll work through her paper over night and bring her back some good feedback in the morning. I’m hoping that my willingness to put time and effort into editing will ease her nerves. I love editing because it helps me be a better writer and lets me practice providing solid feedback that might actually be of use. Helping people move in better directions is always fulfilling if they allow you to intervene.

Again, I’m met with what I sense to be distrust and discomfort.

Silence.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I don’t have to edit your paper if you don’t want me to. I’m just trying to help.” It’s awkward, and I can see her struggling with a gentle way of telling me that she’d rather not have my input. I’m struck at this, thinking that we had a fairly collegial relationship until now, and I can’t help but wonder if her eventual “I’d rather you didn’t read it” comes because she doesn’t trust my character in general—or if it has something to do with what’s written in the paper, something I have yet to discover about her that would reveal a tender spot of vulnerability.

I never liked not being allowed to help people. It’s one of the only ways I feel like I can show my true colors and be the more gentle, caring, responsible, compassionate, and well intentioned person I sense myself to be; it’s the only way that the sunken treasure of gratefulness has ever risen to the surface of my everyday experience with others. I know that tenderness breeds tenderness, and I want to show her that I can help, if she’d only give me a chance. I do my very best to block out self-consciousness and doubt in order to reaffirm my commitment help her.

We turn the corner of the classroom without coming to a resolution. Her paper in hand, I engage with her about our brief conversation as we discuss our group meeting with the class. Surprisingly, we’re all at very similar places in our writing and there are a few tense laughs shared by all—a welcome relief to the tensions incurred when writing from the soul and speaking from the hip. There is a general sense of agency and community in the air as we wrap up class.

I look down to pack up my things and see my colleague sitting next to me, a quick maneuver in the adjacent chair after it becomes vacant. She reaches her hand out to grab her paper, a half-hearted attempt to snatch back what is rightfully hers.

“After some thinking about it, I’ve decided that I just don’t want you to read it. I’m just gonna do something else,” she asserts, not wanting a conversation. She’s cautious and slow about her words, indirect and sheepish in a way that furthers my confusion. For the last time, I wonder if she’s suspicious of me as opposed to what’s in her paper.

“Look, it’s just a paper and I don’t really care what’s in here, but I like it so far and I think I can help. You have a wonderful voice and a way with words that I envy. I think if you let me give you some good feedback you might find it helpful. I promise I won’t be mean.” In a joking way, I crack a smile and wryly remark, “I swear that I won’t judge you any differently than I judge you already!”

She whips a quick, stern glance my way. “And lets talk about that!” she says, her voice raising her eyebrows as she turns toward me, ready to grab her paper for good and run. I can tell that I’m at least half-right about her issues trusting my intentions but that the real onus of trust lies in the contents of the text itself. Though I was trying to be witty and dry, a way of alleviating tension, I think I pushed her a bit too hard and put pressure on a sore spot that I didn’t know existed. Sometimes bruises aren’t always apparent. I continue in a plea.

“Look—you can swear me to secrecy. I’ll sign a contract that says I won’t tell a soul what’s in this paper. I think you should let me read it, make some notes, and I’ll put it in your mailbox when I’m done. I’m here to help you, not to hurt you. It will be good in the long run, trust me.” Apprehensively, she deflates in here seat and calmly, quietly agrees, still unsure that she’s made the right decision. As I walk away, either am I.

Moving from the classroom to my office, I try to make sense of the two encounters. Both were about writing; both required a degree of vulnerability that I just couldn’t show; both ended well but left the relationship on an unstable ground. Questions start a race in my mind, unconcerned with a finish line.

Will I ever know Grace? Will I always be this abrasive? Why am I so disconfirming and off putting? Will there come a day when being easy will be easy? When being difficult will catch me off guard? Will the deeper self, the one filled with gratitude and awe, ever find a way to fuse with the surface of my experience? Will people who wade in relation to me ever find something between us worth sustaining?

I just don’t know. I’ve got no answers to fleeting questions.

As I get into my car, a deep breath exits my body, releasing the hyper-tension in my body before I turn over the engine. I press the clutch, turn the key, and throw the stick into reverse  as I turn my head to gaze out the rear window.

“There but for the Grace of God go I” I say out loud, smile, remembering my grandmother, slowly putting the car into gear.

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PLE's There but for the Grace of God go I by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.