There are moments in life when the proverbial crap hits the fan, when all the world seems out of control, and if you could just pause your life for an instant, slow it down, and watch from the outside, you might actually laugh… at least to keep from crying.
I picture an old college apartment, you know, that dirty “boy” (or girl) who seemed to never clean and just live in the filth. You step into their place with a rather clear mind of perspective and see the chaos swirling, junk splayed out before you in the form of a drab, crowded room: dirty dishes and uncleaned mountains of laundry amidst stacks of files and work that somehow must be done. Brown, stained carpet (didn’t it used to be a lighter shade?). Overturned tray tables. Sad furniture, grey and bleak filing cabinets, cheap shelves sagging in the corners of the room, the oppressive weight of unread papers and unchecked to-do lists, all that was meant to be completed. Such good intentions; disaster in motion. You have a remote in your hand as if in a dream, so you step back a moment and reduce the scene’s speed from real-time to a type of distant slow motion: white paper swirling majestically, floating like so many torn leaves, the fan turning in a dull, fluid whir, caked dust drifting from the tips of the fan blades. You lift the remote gently and punch a button, reducing the room from a pause to a stop. Bewildered, you freeze, furrow your brows, turn on your heel, and walk hastily from the room. You can’t bear to look it this mess any longer.
When was that last moment for you? That day, week, month, year? What was a turning point in your life? When did you have to open your eyes a little (or perhaps very much) when an experience forever changed you? And, when did you find the clarity to look back at that room, that chaos in your life, and see it for what it was – a chasm in your heart and an awful wide-eyed glimpse at your reality?
I posed these questions to my students in response to a short story that we read about losing a piece of our innocence and in turn gaining compassion. This was in October.
Soon after, at the advent of second quarter, we began reading To Kill a Mockingbird and the theme continued: Scout’s childlike, playful demeanor slowly chipped away into a hard look at the world and the evil therein. The stories kept connecting.
Two days ago, a mother and beloved fellow teacher shared a sliver of her own story in a safe space. She explained that recently, there was a day when she was home with her sons, and something terrible had happened. It was something challenging to process and something that could not change. It was out of their control, she and her husband’s. It affected their family in a deep way. And though they had protected and shielded their children from birth, helping each child carefully and age-appropriately deal with the world in a brave way when the time was right…on this day, they couldn’t do much. On this day, she watched her eldest son grow up, and in ways difficult to explain, it broke her heart. Because in certain ways, it had shattered his too.
Within the last few weeks, people I deeply love have shared stories with me on the phone, on restaurant benches, in my classroom, on my couch, and in face-to-face moments of unflinching truth. Words and tears have spilled forth. Prayers have been prayed. Hearts have been splayed out. The aching realization that “I’ve grown up a lot this year,” has been spoken. And for a while, for these last few weeks, I felt deeply. I over-felt. I was at a loss. I couldn’t get a grip. I was stuck in the pain and the horror of it all, of these people who I loved so fiercely and felt connected to who were hurting. It was a type of vicarious bleeding, a slow overdrawn pull that eventually left me dizzy and disoriented. It was glimpsing that torrid room and not having the remote to stop it. Instead, I spun out. Last Saturday was the worst.
But a few days this week have allowed me perspective and a “stepping back.” I’ve been able to slow down my mind and press pause on my remote. I’ve let the days drift past me and just been “in” them but not affected too deeply by them. I’ve been able to see clearly some of the chaos and the ensuing pain. Some of the brokenness. And, I’ve discovered that whether it is criticism or cancer, anxiety or exhaustion, loneliness or longing, there is some relief to be had, some hope to be gained, some truth to be held.
In a separate post (perhaps a part two), I will share some poetry from my students from that October prompt, some eloquent words of wisdom (with their names and stories protected, of course). For now, though, I’m thinking of a different story – the novel in which we just read the final page. Because, sometimes, we really need to bypass our present and fast forward to an ending we know so that we can hang on to what’s in store for our future. And here’s an ending that I know.
By the end of To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout has lost much of her innocence. That can’t change. It still feels awful.
She has wrestled through a difficult trial (literally), attempting to grapple with the idea that a man, though having seemingly done nothing wrong, would have to suffer so much for the sins of others. She has seen ugly parts of the world filled with pain and violence and loss, and yet she also has seen beauty in which shadows stepped out of the darkness to reveal truth behind them, and heroism and protection emerges where she least expects it. The world still feels confusing. She still is filled with questions. The understanding is incomplete and too lofty for her to reach. The pain is still real, and it won’t be rationalized away or sugar-coated. It would be unfair and perhaps even cruel to try to paint it any differently than what it is. It must be dealt with. But perhaps, she can take a break from it.
So, her father reads her a story.
The final scene that we read is a tender one. Scout is in her father’s arms, nestled up, warm and safe. Despite all of the wonderings still on her mind, he quiets her with love. No matter what she has gone through, she or her loved ones have endured to this point. No matter what was broken, it will mend some. No matter how much was lost, more might still be gained. We end on hope. She is still a child, held tightly in the arms of another, and her father will be there with her and with her brother, Jem, when they wake up. Tomorrow will be a new day. And I find great hope in that ending.
Though, some people hate it. Some people want to know the end of the story. What happened to Boo? To Dill? To Jem? How does Scout grow up? What is the final page of the final book of a larger series? Shouldn’t there be a sequel? Why can’t I know what happens, now?
At times, I feel like that too. But, for now, I’m content with that ending. Because when a chapter or a book ends in uncertainty, there’s a real moment of ownership and opportunity that can be bred out of it. There is a sense in which we decide the ending. We decide the fate. We have the choice, as Rafiki shares in Lion King, “to either run from it… or learn from it.” And, that wild, blue-butted baboon is right when he smacks Simba over the head with his wisdom stick and helps Simba realize that it’s not true that “it doesn’t matter” because “it’s in the past” and “yes, the past can hurt…” but what we get to do is pull ourselves out of the past and into the present with a hopeful glimpse into the future. We get to turn what was an awful wide-eyed glimpse into our circumstances into an awe-filled, “awe-ful” (if you will) picture of our reality. That hurt sucks. That growing up is hard. That to peer unflinchingly into the truth of a situation is more than we can bear at times. We’re at a loss for words or feelings or actions to surmount that. But, we do get to decide our future. We do get to keep fighting the battle, one day at a time, and we can emerge as conquerors on the other side of it. That is possible.
So, what was it, your last moment when you felt you hit a turning point? When did you know that you had to grow up and that you had lost some of your innocence? And what will you do about it? That is really the question at this point. What is your choice?
For, in a real, true, empowering way, the rest of the story is quite literally up to you.
You get to decide. Where will you go from here?
And, please, let me know, if you choose.