Monday, July 10, 2017

Cruelty of Curiousity

A ragged crew from the neighborhood saddled bicycles pulsing with personality; they announced something undeniable about each of us. Reed’s, a dirt bike, single speed, fire engine red—a testament to just how boy he was. Michael’s, a rusted mountain bike, left outside all winter, the chain loud, the gears no longer easy to shift (he never took care of things). Mine, pink with a banana seat, beads clipped to the spokes, but the paint was scratched and flaking, casualties from trying to keep up with the boys. A five-gallon bucket hung from my handlebars, a fishing net tucked through the back of my shirt like a sword in a sheath.  None of us wore helmets.  Danger wasn’t as dangerous back then.

We raced through alleys, intentionally stirring up the barking dogs and laughing.  We’d zig and zag in front of one another, teasing and taunting. We were headed to the pond and the gaping yawn of the afternoon was open before us.  It was summer and we were free.

Bent precariously along the shoreline, we sloshed water in the bucket.  Reed took the net. I splashed along the edge with the boys, sneakers sopping up the fetid murk of pond water and mud.  We talked like we were experts, but we were only pontificating and no one ever called the other’s bluff.  The slippery frogs with the spotted backs were “leopard frogs.”  They were the hardest to catch, fast and slippery. We slapped one another on the back and cheered each time we caught one. We learned the hard way that they had the determination and the ability to leap from the captive bucket.

Mostly, we caught tiny toads that pooped in our hands, either in self-defense or from the fear alone. We’d wipe our filthy hands on our cut-off jeans and deposit the toads with little care into the bucket.

When the sun began to dip, we’d begin the trek home, proud of ourselves for the day’s haul.  The ride home was quieter.  Reed and Michael rode alongside, peeking into the bucket to check on the tender beings we’d decided were ours.

Once home, we placed the bucket in the shade outside my basement door.  We studied and named the toads, picking favorites and claiming ownership as if choosing a draft. We furnished our captured friends a home, rich with grass and sticks and rocks, and told ourselves they were happy. Against the backdrop of day’s fading light we raced about, preparing a feast of lightning bugs, the glowing bulbs torn from their bodies and dragged across our skin to make rings and geometric designs that glowed, the remainder dumped into the bucket. Mosquitos, slapped and flattened on our forearms, provided dessert. We were monsters, really, capturing and killing as we saw fit, the night echoing with our laughter.

The toads always died. In the morning, we’d pinch the dead between two sticks and dump them in the yard.  A pooping toad in hand breathed.  We knew without needing to be taught that a dead thing required distance. We’d given them food and built them a home.  We’d named them, but we couldn’t keep them alive.  We were 11 and knew very little about what it took to sustain life.

Days later, when only a few survived, my mother would complain of the smell and demand that we get rid of them. Again, we’d climb atop bicycles and return to the pond.  A small handful of toads, each no larger than a dime, spilled forth from the toppled bucket.  Did they remember the marsh, the pond, the grasses?  Had they missed it? Had their families worried?  And once reunited, did they hold vigils for those who didn’t return, those whose lives were sacrificed for our curiosity and indifference and ignorance? We told ourselves we’d given them a wonderful adventure.  We hadn’t yet learned of cruelty.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

My Friend Rejection

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time with someone I grew up with.  I tried for years to hold her at arm’s length.  She’s kind of a bitch, truth be told.  She’s cold and has a cutting tongue, no filter.  She points out all my flaws and shortcomings. She raises the flags of my insecurities, beams piercing spotlights on my most embarrassing qualities. She has this annoying way of pursing her lips into a tight, condescending sneer as she raises her eyebrows to ask: Really? You thought they’d pick you? Why would they ever choose you? You’re so silly! Sometimes she’s a downright liar. But I can’t seem to shake her, so I’ve decided to befriend her.  Her name is Rejection. Ironically, she’s pretty attached to me.

Here’s the thing.  I feel a bit sorry for Rejection, really. She hangs out with people all the time, she’s rarely alone, but nobody actually likes her.  She’s like the kid your mom forces you to invite to your birthday party.  You don’t like the kid at all, she’s a weirdo, mean, irksome.  She has disgusting habits.  Maybe she’s a booger eater. You know she’s going to add a super weird dynamic to the mix.  Everyone will side-eye you, demanding with the cut of their squint, Why is she here? Her presence may begin to color their perspective of you, But you’re forced to invite her because your mom has this rule that she doesn’t raise assholes.  Rejection really only has one friend: Judgement. It’s an incredibly unhealthy and co-dependent relationship that doesn’t nourish either of them.  But Rejection and Judgement are inseparable.  Rejection is mean, but Judgement is a petty bitch.  When you’re the focus of that duo’s attention, the world can feel like a pretty dark place.  Their cruelty has caused me to fold into a metaphorical fetal position countless times. (Once out of the womb, the fetal position offers little protection, FYI.)

This past spring Rejection and Judgement tailed me everywhere I went.  I submitted a piece to a journal I respect and admire.  After waiting weeks, I received this sweet little dismissal: “Although I found the piece to be fairly well-written and amusing at times, I’m afraid I cannot recommend it for publication.”  Ouch.  Fairly well-written?  Really? But I didn’t have to take the blow alone.  I had company: Rejection and Judgement stuck like glue and had all kinds of things to say. In tandem, they reminded me how foolish I was. Judgement chirped in that I was a pretty shitty writer, so I shouldn’t have expected much anyway.  How delusional must I have been to even submit it?  Rejection dredged up all the other times I hadn’t been chosen -- when I fell short of the mark, when I was undesirable, unskilled, unwanted…  Judgement piped in again with a barrage of all the reasons why.  It was a painful spring, but I wasn’t lonesome. Rejection and Judgement aren’t great friends, but they’re always there…

The other day, Rejection took an especially low dig.  She was unrelenting, but Judgement was off doing something else, so I felt more confident confronting her.  I could have lashed out with anger, but, frankly, I didn’t have the energy to fight her.  I’d lose anyway; she’s anything but timid or empathetic and she never holds back.  I took a different approach, one I didn’t even think about.  I put my hand on her shoulder, then asked her sincerely and compassionately, “Rejection, what’s the matter with you?  What happened to you?  What terrible thing have you experienced that has caused you to behave this way?  How can I help you?”  Shockingly, Rejection was silent for the first time in her life.  She was taken aback.  Had Judgement been there, I’m sure we’d have been working with a different outcome, but Rejection seemed to have something of a realization just then.  It took her by surprise, caught her off guard.  She didn’t have an answer, but she didn’t retaliate.  There was deep hurt behind her eyes.  It was clear. She doesn’t’ mean to be cruel; she doesn’t know any other way.

Rejection will never apologize.  I know that. But I’ve learned to see her in a different light. She will likely always behave cruelly, but I’ve decided to treat her as a friend who merely likes to play devil’s advocate.  I’ve decided to let the way she treats me serve as a teacher who coaxes kindly and sincerely: You haven’t been chosen, so now what? What have you learned from this experience?  What will you do next? And as long as I keep my distance from Judgement, I think I can do that.  I think I can use Rejection to help me grow.  Maybe she’s even good for me.

Rejection reminds me of what I’m capable of, what I value, and what I’m willing to work for.  She pushes me to do things that are difficult, to keep trying.  To borrow from Emerson, I can’t build castles in the air without a strong foundation here on Earth.  I won’t know what acceptance feels like without Rejection.  I’ve felt the lash of Rejection’s sharp tongue often enough to know I can weather it, but when I turn Rejection on her head, I might come to see that really, deep down, she only wants what’s best for me.  Maybe she’s a good friend after all.