Saturday, January 3, 2009

THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS

I Love You in ASL card by Liza Cowan, 1983 (Card created by Liza Cowan in 1983 for her company, White Mare)

My second semester at North Texas State University, I signed up for a speech class to get rid of my "hick" accent. NTSU suffered from an inferiority complex in general, not being part of the UT system, and aside from its music degree and the honors program of which I was a part, every department I encountered there went out of its way to put down anyone seeming too rural or provincial. I'm sorry now I took the speech classes. I think the way I talked was probably lovely, rich and full of colloquialisms which do still come to me. My vocabulary was stellar and my grammar impeccable, thanks to the women in my family. The accent was no indicator of my intelligence or education.


But I was still in the closet about my class background, so speech cleansing it was. As part of that course, we had to learn a "piece" and declaim it with two or three other students -- not really a performance, no sets or props, but still on stage and with all attention focused on pronunciation. Ironically, we were encouraged to select from an assortment of dramatic works, and my little group chose A Streetcar Named Desire, full of florid Williamsesque accents and linguistic contrivance. I was given the part of Blanche Dubois, mostly because the other girl in my group flat-out refused and I was too shy to actually insist I couldn't possibly do it.

It was agony for me, in every regard. I got by, I think, because I had of course memorized my lines and that was half the grade. Also, the boy Tim who had the Stanley Kowalski role was a 90 lb. weakling with long blond hippie hair and a faint voice. What we really should have done is traded roles, me and Tim. Instead, the rest of the class managed to not laugh at us and the bored TA gave me an A mostly because I did shed my accent by the end of the year.

I loathed Blanche. The one line of hers that I appreciated was "I have always relied on the kindness of strangers", with all its lie and misdirected meaning and gender subterfuge. It actually comes up in my head often.

The last few weeks, it's been a mantra. I am relying on the kindness of strangers for survival. No sarcasm and no manipulation here, just frank reality.

It's hard to describe. I'd call it a state of grace, except that's such a christian reference. It does have an awe-some element of fear, and a sense of responsibility whose parameters I cannot completely scribe without encountering shame, still. (I'm working on it.)

I think about the choices I've made along the way which brought me to this place, and try to see the power in it. But there's also circumstances beyond my control -- at least, some of them are, but sorting out which are genuinely random and which are the result of my class training to assume helplessness is another sift I'm having to do.

Some of the changes from last month to now are intense, and mostly expressed in my body. I'm sleeping solidly, and waking up without panic. I'm eating real food, usually two meals a day, with fresh fruit and vegetables and whole grains making the bulk of it, instead of bologna and -- well, I don't want to say. Eating two meals a day instead of one or none has altered my chemistry and energy. I can "afford" to think about certain issues now, afford to do more around the house, afford to let myself cry.

Even more pronounced has been the change in my dreams. For three months before hope came my way, I had been dreaming several times a week that I was living with my family of origin again, one or all of them. I was usually the age I am now, but they were younger, during the years when we were in crisis and crammed together without community or sanctuary. These nightmares revolved around me trying to get space (literally), like a corner of a room to call my own, freedom from hostility, find a door to the outside, get to a phone, land a job, always juggling my needs against those of my mother and little brother (if they were in that dream). I would wake up feeling wretched. I couldn't go right back to sleep, so my sleep cycles had become two and three hours long. A bad cycle to be in.

No more. I have always had strong dreams, full of symbolism and creativity, and these have returned without any appearance of my family. Hallelujah.

Often I've come in, rested and fed, to my computer and begun writing about what I'm feeling and thinking. I haven't been finishing these pieces, because the future still seems open-ended to some extent. Here's one such effort:

"It's been months since we had cat treats in this house. Dinah had given up looking for the canister on the shelf next to my computer monitor. But with the grocery money available last week, I felt it possible to spare $2 and buy some Whisker Lickins. When I pulled the package from the grocery bag in her presence, she didn't register any recognition. However, when I popped the seal, her sense of smell brought her memory back in full force.

Since then, she's been unctuous and abnormally attentive. In fact, night before last, she crawled under my comforter and slept with me -- not in actual physical contact, which would have been strange enough to make me call 911, but still within reach if I so chose. It was startling, and made me realize, once again, how much I miss having a pet who is affectionate. Dinah will Allow Me to stroke her back, and that's it. No cuddling, no adorable reaching out. When she wants my attention, she licks my arm but that's not an expression of love -- she knows full well I don't like it, and it gets me to notice her. Negative feedback is fine with her."


Here's another uncompleted start:

"I just ate a huge bowl of frijoles negritos and brown rice, garnished liberally with garlic, onions, and peppers. And a couple of taquitos on the side. Excellent breakfast -- the only thing I'd add is cantaloupe, but tis not the season, alas.

The rice came out perfect, may I say. I set the timer and did not lift that lid, no matter what. Most days I can't resist a look. Positive reinforcement like this wars continually with a cook's fear of scorched pans. I wondered, how did people make perfect rice before the days of timers or see-through lids? I bet someone out there knows the answer. My best guess was that they set something to bake or rise at the same time which took exactly 45 minutes to look right, and when that was done, they knew the rice was done, too.

I once worked in office of six other women who were all on the no-carb, high-protein diet. Breakfast for them would be a small sirloin and half a pound of bacon. Lunch was equally obscene -- they had permission to avoid apples and carrots, for instance, because of their "carb count". Then, around 2:00, they'd start jonesing and talking feverishly about french fries or pancakes. Eventually pretzels would be sneaked out from someone's desk and they'd all have a few, then whine the rest of the day about how they had failed themselves. Meanwhile, their breath peeled paint from the walls and the gas was ignitable.

I brought in my brown rice, my roasted blue potatoes or Red Bliss, my quinoa and amaranth and stone-ground corn meal with pintos and squash. I tried to explain to them how whole grains are often nearly whole foods, why it was that massive peasant populations worked sun-up to sun-down on nothing more than rice or potatoes or whole wheat bread. But I was fat and refused to feel shame about it, so I was the leper who lived in an unclean hut."


--------------------------------------------------

The plain truth of the matter, I don't know how to thank you all. I really don't. Except to maybe show you (keep showing you) who I am, to keep doing the work I think I was born to do, and to keep holding out hope in the particular way I am able to -- a skill nobody else in my family possessed.

We still have a little way to go before I'm out of serious peril. Jesse is doing miraculous work, over at Group News Blog, raising funds for me -- here's his most recent post. In order to get some of the state-supplied services I must have to be safe, I have to undergo another round of doctor visits (to get documentation) because it's been too long since I had a complete examination. This means funds to pay for it out of pocket, plus transportation, plus assistance. Next month, maybe. Social services in Texas were shredded by Bush and have not been restored since. But I'll find a path through this swamp, now that I can eat and sleep and not fear eviction.

My mind keeps going to all the ways I've done extra for others, all my life. I'm not sure if this is me trying to convince myself I deserve this help, or if it is a way to give me common ground with all you out there who are choosing to send me love in the form of dollars. I had a friend for a few years who had severe environmental illness, such that she could not work, could not do her own dishes or housecleaning (no products safe enough), could not fill her truck with gas, had to wear a mask out in the world. I would go by her house after work and wash her dishes for her, get her car gassed up, go with her on necessary errands out in the world to keep her company and remind her she was not a freak, no matter how people looked at her.

I've wiped adults who've crapped themselves, help change catheter bags, talked people out of suicide, made meals and washed clothes and hauled groceries and been the person you call when you have to put a pet to sleep. I've done none of it for money, all of it for love, and I've done way, way more than my share. When I was mobile and seemingly able-bodied, I never stopped doing a little more than my share, every single day. When I saw someone panhandling, I gave 'em a buck. If it was a woman or someone with a kid or a person of color, I gave 'em half of what I had in my pockets, even if they reeked of booze or huff: So what if they're an addict, half the people I've known have had some form of addiction. That's between them and g*d. I've had people I love become homeless, you don't choose it any more than you choose falling off a cliff. And when I handed them the money, I touched their hand, their arm, I looked them in the eye and said "I hope this helps."

Was I paying it forward, then? Did I know, or suspect, or fear I'd reach where I am now? I honestly can't answer that question, but it keeps coming up.

I have a few memories of being a baby and toddler in India, of walking the streets of Kolkata in the arms of Nilmoni and her friends, the nuns who worked with Mother Teresa. I don't remember meeting Mother Teresa, though Mom told me I did, many times. I do remember feeling happy and safe with these women, that what they/we did was talk to people, all day long. Listen to them and talk back to them as human beings. I was glad to be not just with the sisters but with all the other people, the beggars and lepers and starving -- we were all the same, all good and doing our best. There was never any tension in these street scenes that transmitted itself to me. Life was good, even when it wasn't.

So, perhaps that is the source of my choices, my strength, my commitments. Or maybe, as one energy worker told me, I'm simply unusually strong.

Whatever --I'm glad to be alive. Glad to have found another way to keep writing my letters to the world, even as I live separated from you against my will. Glad you are out there and decided to reach my way. I'll keep writing, letting you know how things are.

Bless you.

2 comments:

Andrew said...

Maggie,
I'm glad things are starting to turn the corner. I have a new friend in Austin (she's a harp player, we met at an opera thingy this summer) who would be more than happy to help you out, if you need a hand with transportation or anything like that.
Do let me know if you'd like her contact info.

love!
kat

kat said...

oops, forgot to log Boyfriend out again.....sorry!