The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Final Narrative

The following is my final narrative from my English Senior Seminar class. The assignment was to write a paper on "What I Believe and Why" and then share these thoughts with the class.

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I’ve been avoiding this project for a long time. It’s not that I don’t have opinions; I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone who’s ever met me that I do not suffer from a shortage of passion. On the contrary, I’ve been avoiding this project because the idea of channeling the swirling hurricane of thoughts in my brain into a nice, neat word document makes me panic. Equally terrifying is the prospect of sharing such thoughts with my classmates. I realize that this makes no sense whatsoever. I share far too many thoughts with them every class period, when I don’t even necessarily have the right to monopolize their time. There is something about the idea of getting up in the center of the room, with 10 minutes that you alone are responsible for filling with something (profound? unlikely. poignant? gag. moving? shoot me. funny? impossible) interesting that puts on a lot of pressure. How can I compact myself into 10 easily digestible minutes? I’ve realized now that it’s a cruel game. Talks with my classmates have confirmed this notion: there is a fine line to be walked. One must be honest, or they will not be believable; worse, they will be cheating the assignment. Refusing to say anything meaningful will be transparently fabricated and boring. However, one must not be too honest. The worst possible outcome is an over-share, during which the speaker communicates something uncomfortably emotional and everyone is stranded in a sea of awkwardness, prisoners in their little half-desks, until the next stiff is propped up in the middle of the room. A balance between the two must be achieved, and this requires careful calculation, subterfuge, and coyness. I am good at none of those things, and for this reason I believe I am destined to fail. I am incapable of coming off as cool, and I’m sure everyone already has a well-established idea of who I am. I am also incapable of holding back, as has been witnessed many times. I believe my fate has already been determined: I will overshare, to excruciating new heights of embarrassment, humiliated on one of the last times I will ever see most of my classmates. This, at least, is my principal fear. I want so desperately to be mysterious. Brett and Todd have no idea how good they have it (or do they?). However, I learned a long time ago that I am nowhere near alluring enough to make people interested in me by playing hard to get. If I were to remain silent, I would be ignored and forgotten. When I was fourteen I decided that wasn’t good enough, and started forcing people to notice me. Every time I’ve held back, tried to be passive, accommodating, or reticent, I’ve gotten nowhere. The world is not going to give me anything; I’m going to have to fight to get anywhere. So I will give up on being mysterious, measured, and precise. I will have to be myself, which, according to my father, more resembles a bull in a china shop. The gloves will have to come off… if I was ever wearing any in the first place. I’m not sure I’ve ever owned metaphorical gloves.

Feminism.
I still get angry when people, especially women, refuse to say that they are feminists. I get angry for several reasons. First of all, denying feminism is, to me, the same thing as saying women should not have equal rights with men; images of a barefoot and pregnant woman in the kitchen come to mind. This image has always been particularly disturbing to me not because I never cook (I do), or don’t walk around barefoot in my house (I do), or don’t ever want to be pregnant (I do), but because the proponents of such an image believe that women should ideally be in such a state at all times. I think it’s the barefoot part that I find the scariest, because it implies that the woman is kept barefoot so that she cannot run away. Horrifying. Of course, I realize that most people who are wary of claiming to be feminists do not advocate such backwoods-nightmare-style oppression. Perhaps that is what makes me angrier than anything else; it’s the hypocrisy, the wishy-washiness, the unwillingness to take a stand because the word “feminism” is unpopular. I hate it when educated women, studying at a university and presumably preparing for careers in fields ranging from medicine to architecture to academia, refuse to own the F-word. It’s hard for me to figure out if these women really do believe in feminist ideals (equal pay, shared household chores, general personal respect) and are simply afraid of claiming the F-word, or if they still harbor the ideas of our grandmothers and modern Islamic states: women should be educated for the sake of education, because it makes them higher-quality wives and mothers. I have the sinking feeling that many of my female classmates have the kind of mild aspiration that believes in having a career as long you don’t have anything better (like making babies) to do, and as long as it’s not inconvenient for anyone else in your life. I try to completely banish the thought that there are still women in my classrooms who only went to college to acquire an M.R.S. degree, though I know in my dismayed heart that they exist.
My grandmother, though opinionated as hell ever since my grandfather passed away four years ago, was raised with the idea of male dominance. Her ideals, which came from her parents and which she lived during her nearly 50 years of marriage, remain fixed even though the world has changed so much in her lifetime. Her philosophy never stated that women were worth a stitch less than men, but simply that men and women were “different” and that “everything” is much better if people fulfill their gender roles. She has a sense that women should serve men, in little ways and big ways, and should be happy to do so. She believes that her role in her marriage was to do what her husband wanted her to, and to try to make his life as easy and comfortable as possible. She tells stories of her childhood that reinforce these ideals. Her mother, my great-grandmother, was a formidable woman, who, in addition to raising several children and taking in many others off the street, ironed other people’s laundry in addition to all of her own housework in order to make a little extra money. Her life was the epitome of the famous phrase, “a woman’s work is never done.” The family, though poor, always had enough food on the table, and even indulged in ice cream once a week. Back then, ice cream was sold in square blocks, and one of my grandmother’s favorite stories for reinforcing her patriarchal ideas resides in those blocks of ice cream. She loves to tell me that when the family sat down to their square ice cream, it was cut into three pieces. First, it was cut in half down the middle, and my great-grandfather was given one of the halves for himself. The second half was then split among the other members of the family. She always tells this story with a tone carefully placed to make her meaning clear: this process was both right and good, and was the result of decent people behaving in the most admirable manner; especially (implicitly), her mother. Unconscious or not, she makes every effort to continue this submissive ice cream ritual. Dessert time is when she always orders me into the most un-feminist behaviors. When my mother’s side of the family (all 18 of us) gather at her house on Sunday nights, we have dinner together, which is of course a small ordeal every week. I usually end up in the kitchen, coordinating, setting, moving, cleaning, and doing whatever else is necessary to expedite the meal. I do it because it needs to be done, and I’ve never felt bad about it, however much my male cousins rag me about my “housewife-ish” behavior. It’s the ice cream that gets me. If ice cream is served, her instincts come out. As soon as the (still square!) block of Hiland hits the countertop, she sweetly suggests I take a scoop to my father first. If I don’t protest too much, she’ll usually see if she can get me to serve my brother (who is five and half years my junior) and male cousins. I don’t have any qualms about serving others, ice cream or otherwise; in fact, the truth is serving someone else makes me happier and more fulfilled than anything else in the world. As is always the case with me, it’s just the principle of the thing. She asks me to serve my male relatives because she likes to point out the differences in our philosophies, and take the opportunity to promote her view. She never asks me to serve my mother or my aunt, and she always looks at me when she makes her sneakily innocuous request. Her eyes narrow at me, gauging me, amusedly sizing up how much I’m going to fight about it tonight. She is only teasing me, trying to get a rise out of me just like my cousins. I’m the most irresistible target in the family; caring about something too much, or at all, makes you easy to ridicule.
I know she doesn’t really want me to be a housewife. She tells me, sincerely, each time we have the conversation, that she wants me to go on through school to the highest level, that she wants me to have a career, that she wants me to write. She wants me to pursue all of my aspirations, and I have never heard anything but encouragement from her. Still, she feels the need to defend, often through teasing and humor, the ideas she was raised on. I can’t say that I blame her. She spent her entire life serving my grandfather, deferring to his wishes and opinions at every turn. My grandfather was a wonderful man, with whom I share a passionate nature and penchant for idealism. Still, no matter how good he was, it doesn’t change the fact that my grandmother led a subservient life, in a secondary role. I can’t blame her for defending it; if she stopped believing in its value, or questioned the validity of the principles her worldview is founded on, it would make her life seem meaningless. I know, of course, that it wasn’t, and isn’t, but it would be easy to come to that conclusion if you believe that a “supporter” life just isn’t good enough. Really, I think that’s why many of the women in my family are so afraid of feminism. My cousins and their wives, who are all around the same age I am, advocate the traditional marriage model of man-at-work, wife-at-home, though only one of the couples actually live it. I think they’re afraid that feminism says a homemaker role is not valuable, or at least, not as valuable as other occupations. They might be right. My aunt once told me that feminists want to abolish love. I’m pretty sure she’s not right. Really, it seems to come down to that word and the associations we have with it, which is extremely frustrating. Language is always inadequate. Just like God, America, Beauty, and Love, Feminism is one of those words to which everyone will have attached their own sets of ideas, images, and emotions. How can we communicate when we aren’t even speaking the same language? The word feminism is more of a problem than the idea. How does an idea get anywhere without words? With actions, I suppose. Again, my theory comes around. The only way to know who people really are, and what they really believe is important, is to observe their behavior. Words are empty without action to back them up. If people believe something, they behave as though it is real.

Loss

I feel like my life is dictated by the fear of loss. Maybe everyone’s is. I make decisions based on what I could potentially lose, not on what I could potentially gain. In fact, when a change, such as graduating, occurs in my life, I find it difficult to think about what I’m moving on to. Instead, I dwell on what I’m leaving behind. I’ve always been sentimental, and I become emotionally invested in everything around me. My room is full to bursting with old birthday cards, scraps of paper, and worthless pieces of junk that I feel the need to hold onto because someone gave them to me at some point. I can hardly bring myself to throw away anything with a face. Childhood stories such as The Velveteen Rabbit traumatize me deeply. It doesn’t matter what it is; if something changes or goes away, I feel a sense of loss. This unhealthy attachment to anything and everything keeps me in a fairly constant state of anxiety. The word is constantly changing, and I want to make it static. I don’t know where my fear of change came from, or how it was cultivated into the monster it has become, but for years now it’s been so bad that I’ve actually been afraid of gaining things, because then I’d have more to lose. There is a practical aspect of this sentiment; I hate wearing expensive clothes or jewelry, because them I’m afraid I’ll lose or damage them. Expensive things aren’t practical. This philosophy doesn’t work so well when applied to people. I’m wary about getting to know people if I see our paths diverging anytime soon (which for me is about three years). I don’t date because I’m too afraid of the emotional cataclysm of a potential break-up.

It’s not a very good way to live. I know it’s irrational, and almost every time I’ve stepped up and taken a chance, I find myself loving the new world I discover. I was terrified to leave home and go to live in London for a semester, but I forced myself to do it. I didn’t go to London because I really, really wanted to (though that’s what everyone thought), but because I knew I had to force myself to be a more adventurous person. It worked. When I lived abroad for four months, I acquired a new sense of confidence and familiarity with the world. I now feel very capable when it comes to traveling, though before the flight to England I had never planned a vacation or so much as booked an airline ticket on my own. I’m trying to let these experiences convince me that change is good, that evolution is necessary, and that there really is something good around the corner.

I realize that my fear of change demonstrates bad faith. I am absolutely certain that things will be taken from me, and cling to them with a death grip, but I seem to have no faith that anything will be given. Perhaps it is just a cautious nature, which prefers to stick to the familiar, that causes me to behave this way. Recently, however, I’ve been forced to some major re-arranging of my outlook on life. Last semester I worried myself to death about graduation. I was tormented by the uncertainty that lay beyond the end of school, and convinced that I would wind up working at Barnes & Noble for $8.00 an hour, living in a crappy apartment and eating cat food while I tried to pay off my loans. For an idealist, I’m awfully pessimistic. I wallowed in this sense of impending failure until my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in January. This, of course, devastated me. It was my worst fear confirmed. Someone I loved was sick, could possibly die, and images hospitals, pain, illness, and death swirled through my mind. I languished in a sort of quasi-despair for a month or two, then began to pull myself out of it. I plowed on through my senior semester, completing an overwhelming amount of research work and learning to live with the anxiety of my mom’s disease. Now I have something else to deal with.

In order to understand the significance of what is happening in my life right now, it’s important to know that I’ve always been wary of happiness. Happiness scares me more than sadness does. Sadness is familiar; it seems logical, normal, and self-sustaining. When I’m sad, I don’t really mind it that much, and at least I have the hope of being happier. Happiness is frightening, and that’s why I can never truly accept it. I have a hyperactive sense of the cliché that “all good things must come to an end,” and so when something good happens to me, I regard it with suspicion. I always immediately think, “What’s the catch?” My life is not a sob story. On the contrary, I’ve been raised by a loving family in a safe, boring town with plenty of money and lots of books. I have always had more than I could ever need and most everything I’ve ever wanted, at least in terms of the material. However, I’ve never been good with people, and one of the defining features of my existence is loneliness. Though I have a handful of wonderful friends who know me deeply, which is all I can really ask for, I am still accustomed to feeling isolated. Perhaps it is this lingering melancholy, this nagging sense of separation, that keeps me floating in the eternal purgatory of not-quite-happy but not-too-sad. This even keel is my comfort zone, because when things tick down it’s not fun, and when things tick up I get nervous. I’m always anxious when things are going well because I have the sense that I’m eventually going to have to pay for it. I’ve heard that this is not an uncommon feeling, but it still seems irrational. Or is it? It’s not like I don’t have any evidence for this theory. Besides the fact that all things do come to an end, that happiness is ephemeral, and that everyone I know someday will die, my life so far has had a knack for pounding this idea into my head.

Three days before I graduated high school, my grandfather was killed suddenly in a freak accident. My first cousins were going through major life events as well, and over the course of two weeks we had two graduations, including mine, a wedding, and a funeral. It seemed to mark the end of childhood for me, as much as anything could. What should have been a time of happiness for me suddenly felt absurd. I could hardly stand to suffer through the smiling pictures, the congratulatory party, and all the pats on the back I was receiving. I felt like an ass, demanding people’s good wishes when we were all grieving. I hated feeling like people were being obligated to be happy for my sake, when the truth is that their heart was breaking, and they probably just wanted to curl up in a dark room. I know that’s what I wanted to do. Still, in a horrible way it seemed to mirror the circle of life, and I suppose that’s fitting. I move on from high school, I lose my grandfather. Things change all at once. I learned to be okay with it.
I am not okay with this. Last weekend, my grandfather blew up my grandparents’ house with gasoline. It was an accident, likely spurred on by senility, but now their house is gone and my grandfather is in the hospital with smoke inhalation. My grandmother is fine, and my grandfather was recovering, but now he’s taken a turn for the worse. About an hour ago, my father told the nurse over the phone that should his heart stop, they should leave it that way. He wouldn’t want to be resuscitated. This all seems more than a little ridiculous. I could accept one grandfather’s death right before a graduation, but two? It’s absurd. At least last time my cousins suffered with me; we all had fake-happy events and major life changes happening at the same time then. Now it’s just me. I’m not self-involved enough to think that my grandfather’s death is just about me, but the timing of it all is maddening. It’s too perfect to be a coincidence; it seems hard to ignore the possibility of Fate, or God, pulling the strings here. Whatever or Whoever organized this has some sick sense of humor. I feel like I should be able to look at the puppeteer with a chagrined wink, and, laying a finger on the side of my nose, say good-naturedly, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice…” As if there was anything I could do about either event. It’s enough to make me feel cursed, if I didn’t already. Some might say this dramatic convergence of events is poetic. I say it sucks.

After my dad got off the phone with the nurse, I went to my room and started to undress. I took my cardigan off and hung it up, then found myself breathing heavily. I had to brace myself against the closet’s door frame. My body swayed dangerously forward, and a wave of something that felt like pain and exhaustion washed over me. It was grief. I know it well enough by now to describe my experience of it fairly accurately. It is, primarily, a feeling of absolute mental and emotional fatigue. It is the feeling of being strung out raw, my tender flesh exposed and susceptible to the slightest touch. Every word I’m forced to utter, every movement I have to make, is like a pinprick on swollen skin. A phone call is life a knife. I gripped the door frame and gritted my teeth. Not now, I thought, not yet. I knew I still had to finish my final narrative and do a very long and difficult take-home French exam tonight. I couldn’t succumb to grief yet. I wanted to curl up on the floor of my closet, on top of the bumpy pile of shoes, and breathe, and stare, and feel sorry for myself.

But instead I am writing this. I did not curl up on the floor; rather, I finished undressing, put on an old T-shirt and pajama shorts, and went to my computer. I am completing my assignment, and I will spend the next few hours completing another. Then I will get up tomorrow morning and meet you for lunch, and I will go to class, and I will be there for my family. I will not curl up until the last obligation has been met. I will not default. I will not give up. And maybe my final narrative will end more hopefully than I thought it would. I cannot control the loss. I cut my hair as an act of empowerment, as a way of freeing myself from something I had held onto my entire life, but rarely can I choose the moment of losing as I did in that instance. What I can do is refuse to curl up when life chooses my losses for me. I can brace myself against the doorframe, stand up straight, and go to work.

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