quietly in a room

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“All human miseries derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.” –Sepharad, Antonio Muñoz Molina

I have never been one to make grand declarations about my plans or hopes (at least not since reaching the trials of adulthood, watching hopes and plans be beaten like a piñata – what you end up with in life is some of the candies and tchotchkes that fall from the piñata. Pieces of your hopes and moments of sweetness in unexpected flavors that you’ve scrambled to pick up before someone else does), knowing that change will come regardless of what I do. I might be able to guide the changes that occur, making decisions and taking actions that will influence outcomes. But claiming – ‘everything changes and is different from today’ is a dangerous and foolhardy path. And yet, without sometimes taking leaps, if not always the grandest or furthest, palpable change isn’t possible. Sometimes to agitate movement, you have to force things through. Sometimes you have to do things that are uncomfortable or that hurt.

And this week I’ve had to do something that I long ago should have done – something that does hurt, but the longer-term effects of not taking this course of action will hurt much more. The last three years have been a long process of slow change, acceptance and finding contentment. Now, the trick is to move forward with longer, faster strides – and this is not possible with lingering elements grabbing at my ankles and trying to trip me up.

I can and do sit, happily, quietly, in a room alone. I can no longer invite those who cannot into my room with me.

The other day I was thinking about the creation of “victim selfhood”. I know a lot of people who create their own miseries (in a host of different ways). I think and write a lot about this, but reflect also on the fact that it’s not as though I am immune. We can all see our own actions and behaviors through a prism that relieves us of blame or absolves us of responsibility. I try exceptionally hard not to do this now – possibly even to the point of being annoying to the people around me who would rather that I not analyze my own actions and motivations in such detail.

Looking at youth (and this could be anything between childhood and one’s early 20s), in particular, we can, in our naivete and inexperience, really believe we were in the right and not reflect on all the things that we did wrong, excusing them, if acknowledging them at all, with mild self-exculpations: “I was a child. I didn’t know what I was doing.” I’ve written my side of many stories involving my long-ago friends, examining my own feelings and reactions – but not necessarily divining all the details of things I did to set things in motion. Yes, for example, I was competitive with others for the attentions of the one friend we all wanted to love us best; yes, I was messed up and trying to escape in my own way, leading me to slip in and undermine a close friend in a situation neither one of us should have been in at all, and then, to my own detriment, took that situation further, creating a reality that was not real, doing all kinds of things that, while they seemed innocuous to me at the time, still surface and haunt me and make me want to apologize to people 30 years after the fact. (In fact I already have – years ago, even if there is some part of me that realizes as a 40-something woman that children cannot be held accountable for emotional repercussions that they do not have the maturity and experience to understand.)

But on some level, of course we know what we are doing. But being young and inexperienced, I didn’t comprehend the seriousness of the things I did – not just in the moment, how some of my actions could lead to perilous consequences, but also further-reaching repercussions – toying with the psyches of fragile, damaged, middle-aged men (for example), but in truth, despite living with one of the most troubled, damaged people I have ever known and seeing other evidence of it all around me, I somehow didn’t really believe that adults could be that fragile – and felt that the silly games of a bored 13-year-old girl couldn’t possibly wound anyone so very deeply that it would matter and would in fact harm the trust they were able to place in all the future relationships they tried to build. It is almost as though the life I led, that all people led, before adulthood, wasn’t even real life. So much of life during that time felt surreal and out of my hands and control, that the things I could control – as destructive as they might be – were seized, eagerly, giving me a (false) sense of maturity and power.

It’s rather stream of consciousness, this whole thing. I am just coming to terms with finding strength in considering these flaws and mistakes of youth – borne as they were of youthful insecurity (wanting to be liked?), fear and fragility. It’s a strange dawning – daunting, even – to recognize how fragile people are. And how willing they are to put their fragility on display.

“How could she allow herself to break down like that, in front of everybody? Jane had never understood this willingness on the part of these from-aways to peel up the scabs of their emotions and let everyone see their festering sores. They were like children that way. They had no shame and even less self-control.” –Red Hook Road, Ayelet Waldman

Even the strongest ones. But the strongest ones have ways to cope and get through; they have people they can turn to. The weakest, well, they don’t have reserves to deplete. And some of them, like parasites, move on to deplete others of their reserves. Once depleted, though, there is just nothing left. Each experience leaves us empty, feeling as though we will never feel again. Sure, we will feel. We will make long strides. We will sprout a joystick. We will feel enthusiasm and excitement and stirring.

But to get there, we (I) must (know how to) walk away, whatever it costs. And sit alone, quietly, in a room.

the current

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“Most of us believe we are who we are because of the decisions we’ve made, because of events that shaped us, because of the choices of those around us. We rarely consider that we’re also formed by the decisions we didn’t make, by events that could have happened but didn’t, or by our lack of choices, for that matter.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine

“No loss is felt more keenly than the loss of what might have been. No nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed.” –An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine (more or less the same idea as Kierkegaard: “The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”)

My father gave me only one piece of valuable, if obvious, advice in life, and it happened many years ago. Nothing he said before or after that has been useful or indeed true. Long ago I had a friend – a best friend, whom I loved to pieces. But this friend was also, possibly, the most unreliable person I have ever known. Once, after a particularly harrowing series of experiences that tripped over each other in their increasing lunacy and inconvenience, much of which blew up because of this friend’s inability to commit or follow a plan (and these kinds of debacles happened often enough that I found myself exasperated more often than not), I complained about it to my dad. I never have conversations with my father; the fact that I spoke to him about this indicates the level my frustration had reached. Before I got very far into my spiel of disappointment and anger, he stopped me and said, “Look, if you want to continue with that friendship, if you value the good parts more than you are put out by the bad, you have to accept that this is the way it is.”

I think of this frequently because it’s true in almost all cases with people in our lives. I’ve struggled, like all people, not to be judgmental – not just in the sense that I don’t want to judge other people’s flaws, faults, journeys, decisions or lack of decisions – but also in the sense that I don’t want to attach expectations to their lives and ‘progress’. For example, while I don’t judge an alcoholic in my life for being an alcoholic, for struggling with it constantly, and ‘falling off the wagon’ repeatedly, I also have to let go of any idea that change is required in order to care for him. He tries; he makes incremental steps in a positive direction, but this progress is constantly undermined and undone because after a month, or three months, or some period of sobriety, he slips back into old habits, and the drinking begins again and erases not just the sobriety but the stability he achieves on other fronts in his life (the parts I invest a lot of time in helping him with). It’s always back to square one, and this is inevitably disappointing.

But then I realize: this is its own form of judgment. I have to, if I continue to be a support to this person, discontinue all notions of ‘square one’ and ‘progress’ because, for him, it really is literally one day at a time. (“Self-regulation does not refer to “good behavior” but to the capacity of an individual to maintain a reasonably even internal emotional environment.” – Gabor Maté) I can’t hold these ideas about how he was doing ‘so well’ up as a kind of yardstick, measuring how far he has moved forward from last week or last month because it can all be wiped out in minutes. It’s that precarious, and no one hates himself more than he does when it all goes awry.

Life (and its series of relationships) is defined by, as we are aware, our choices. The alcoholic chooses to drink, even if there is something that drives him to do it that is beyond his control. My friend from years ago chose somehow not to be reliable, or at least not to be reliable for me. I choose, for example, to be (hopefully) an enduring friend, even to those who may not ‘deserve’ it (if I were tallying up some sort of score card). I choose to eliminate any notion of a score card or insistence that friendship always be a two-way street. I have written about it many times – there is often an imbalance, but to be a good, compassionate person or friend, it is not about what you get back from the people in your life. In an ideal world, you would not just give and give without getting something back. But it is not an ideal world, and as it happens, you get what you need from other sources.

Life is also defined by our non-choices, which is something we don’t consider much until we get older. I have had many conversations on this topic recently. In my younger years, I actively chose to continue difficult friendships, even when they were painful. I chose to believe in things that I knew were doomed. But each choice concealed a non-choice. I didn’t choose my own comfort at every turn. I didn’t choose to pursue or complete specific actions, which let outcomes float aimlessly toward wherever the current pulled them. I have been carried by life’s current to places I would not have consciously chosen if I were trying to make a plan.

Sometimes this path has been enlightening and joyful, and sometimes quite painful. And often leads to considerations of the paths not taken, by chance or by choice and all the infinite possibilities those paths pose(d).

 

Photo by Gemma Evans on Unsplash

into the friendly fray: uses, excuses and replacements

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Randomness on friendship…

What day passes without my reflecting on friendship and its concomitant challenges? Friendship is not so challenging any more, now that I am a seasoned old lady, but I think back to when every slight felt like a lashing, and I was too insecure or scared to call people out on their bullshit. (And when I did, it was often a disaster.) It is now whatever I decide it is. It’s a little bit like when people tell you that you can’t control other people’s reactions or behavior, but you can control yours.

Not that I put all the bitter bits away when I reached legal adulthood. The game goes on as long as one lets it. But perhaps now that I am this wizened, though not unwise, hag I can more easily accept the frailties and failures of all people. We are, after all, just people, mostly trying to do our best. I can’t count how many times I’d heard and hated this expression in the past, which seemed ready-made and packed with excuses: I did my best. But now, having blinked my way through enough days, enough experiences where I didn’t reach my potential or didn’t fulfill expectations I’d set and thus disappointed others (and how many times have I disappointed others without knowing it?), I feel a certain measure of compassion for those who employ this phrase, even when it is used with nonchalant insincerity.

I do still wonder if people know how to be friends; it seems like the most natural thing in the world, to meet, discover and bond with people, forging strong connections with some and transient or momentary connections with others. Because we don’t formally learn how to be friends, or learn how to treat other people with care, and instead do so by inference, can we ever really say we did the best we could? Or… is that all we can truly say?

Occasionally, vivid memories bubble to the surface; nostalgia burns and makes one long for the ability to cut through the overgrown fields of the past to return to specific moments, which always include the blinding, shining specter of some friend or other. For me, it is almost always one single person, T, a friend about whom I have written at length (which does not even begin to convey the amount of time I’ve spent thinking and dreaming about her). I don’t have any control of how much my subconscious mind dredges her up, even after 19 years passing without a single word or contact. Most days, most moments, she is completely absent from my mind, and the more time passes, and the longer my life, so far removed from that adolescent whirlwind in which we spun together, goes on in some entirely different context, the more remote she becomes.

But those memories we form in youth, so packed and powerful, bursting bright and flavorful, exist so indelibly that very little that has happened since competes in intensity. And the triggers, especially through the increasing sentimentality of age, mine every step, exploding in emotional outbursts. I can’t explain why the heart rate ratchets itself up ever so slightly every time I hear, see or experience something that I wish I could share with her (or could have shared with her). Here I mean everything from the recent TV show Derry Girls, which is something we would have died to watch as girls, to seeing and meeting all these bands and musicians that we adored, to planning St. Patrick’s Day baking and thinking about how insane we became about St. Patrick’s Day (who knows why?). The selectivity of my nostalgia makes me imagine that she’d feel as thrilled at being touched by these memories as I am. But this selectivity censors out the whole ‘drifting apart’ segment of the relationship, and all the empty and silent years that have happened since our last conversation.

A series of events kicked this latest reverie into motion. First, I’d seen the aforementioned Derry Girls. Next, out of nowhere, I got an email from a Polish exchange student (JK) we’d had at our high school. She and I had been friends and had been partnered up on various projects during her stay in the country. I had somehow forgotten that her presence, and my teachers’ enthusiasm about pushing the Polish girl and me together, had irritated T. I suddenly recalled T commenting, “Of course they let you be with JK because you study Russian, but no one else will get a chance to be friends with her” as if it were somehow my fault. (And I know – as if studying Russian has anything to do with the girl being Polish, but I imagine that in my teachers’ minds, it did.) By this point in our friendship, in our lives, in that end-stage of public education, I think T had felt academically blocked by me in so many ways (at least that is the only conclusion I can come up with? Now I am making assumptions), but I still don’t get it. So much of what happened and who we became was formed by what others (i.e. people, friends, teachers) assumed about us, sometimes pushing us together when we did not want to be, and other times creating situations that should not have been remotely adversarial but became that way. T is not the last friend who has tried to subtly undermine me, either out of envy or insecurity or whatever, but she is the only one who has stuck with me emotionally.

That’s not to say that it was surprising. Very early in life, I learned that friends are fickle, and people are often jealous, have a short attention span, or easily grow apart. Does that mean that I accepted those things? No, that came much, much later. All the many times I cried inconsolably as a kid, my mother kept telling me, “This won’t help you now at all, and you won’t believe me, but kids don’t know how to be real friends.” She was mostly right. It didn’t stop me from crying, but it certainly made me feel tougher later on when friendship didn’t withstand time or change.

“She had done it on her own, while I hadn’t even thought about it, and during the summer, the vacation? Would she always do the things I was supposed to do, before and better than me? She eluded me when I followed her and meanwhile stayed close on my heels in order to pass me by?” My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante

I recently read Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which I had long been resisting (always have to buck the popular trend, of course). It was no great literary work, but its ability to slice right to the heart of conflict in female friendships affected me immediately. Ferrante’s ability to convey the teeter-totter nature of our fragile friendships made me surrender my resistance to the book, at least. Most of all, the push-pull feeling of envy we get about our friends’ accomplishments and achievements, their loves and attention they get. That is, we envy them at the same time as being happy for them. We love and seethe at the same time.

We constantly change places – one friend leading the way and the other worrying furiously that she will fall behind. How many times did this happen between T and me? So many times I went off on all kinds of strange and new musical paths, and each time, T felt left behind and left out until she finally “caught up”. How many times did she acquire things and travel places that I could never have afforded to have or to go? I remember when she spent an entire summer abroad, and I was happy for her, but I was filled with envy, knowing that I was not going to be able to go anywhere – in truly, overly dramatic teen fashion, I was sure I was NEVER going to be able to go anywhere. When she sent me a letter telling me she was homesick, unhappy and wished she were home with friends for the summer, I felt a tiny pang of glee that it was not all magical as she had hoped. But the bigger, more gracious part of me, felt my heart ache for her, wanting to do anything in my power to ease her feeling of being out of place. I jumped into action and wrote what I thought was the most brilliant, funny and reassuring letter ever and posted it immediately. And it helped her. It cemented our friendship. But is there that intense a friendship without these stakes?… The taking turns, unwittingly, at being the leader, with all the normal acceptance and suffering that that entails… always with the distractions (other friends, unknowing competition, growing apart). With the fickle way of one minute wanting to spend every waking and sleeping moment together, and the next repelled, finding yourself feeling completely left behind, but not knowing how to voice it without making yourself look weak, unequal and vulnerable.

A tribute to her: she was always a lot better at making her feelings known and clear; when she felt left behind, she said so. And I felt warmer toward her for her honesty and willingness to be vulnerable. I think, at least when it came to her and her alone, I felt a need to maintain some ‘coolness’ – ha! as if I could even pretend to have a shred of that – never admitting until so much later – that I’d felt just as remote at times, that we had both slipped in and out of these roles, always returning (at least back in those early days) to a world of mostly just the two of us – in which we were the most important parts – “I no longer felt that she inhabited a marvelous land without me” (Ferrante). But then, just as Ferrante shrewdly points out, there’s none of that warm togetherness without a pinch of the sense that you’re gaining ground … “Or maybe it was only that I was beginning to feel superior.” That is the delicate balance.

These things have been mummified for so long in me that it was strange to have the tomb reopened without warning by this book and other smaller triggers. I am reminded that things change – I have changed – when I am confronted by a (former-ish) friend I made in adulthood but with whom I’ve had a relationship fraught with ambivalence. It would be fair to say that we are not really friends now. We were once very close, and then everything came to an abrupt end. This end happened to coincide with the end of some rather big needs for her, leading me to believe that I had been convenient and then a casualty once I was no longer needed. For once, maybe because I was by this time an adult, I decided to confront, and she confirmed that she had backed off and regretted that it appeared as though she had used me (but she didn’t deny it, even though I am sure it was unconscious, even if she did). Having the confirmation or closure or whatever you can call it, I felt content – it’s the not knowing that makes things difficult. We have had extremely limited, sporadic contact – very cursory, surface level – over the last decade. Nothing I could call ‘friendship’. And then she turned up recently, asking for a favor. Not a big favor, and nothing really taxing. But all I could do was laugh, comparing how things had been left and how they were, very momentarily and casually, resumed. With need. And now it was up to me to determine how to feel about or interpret that need – do I feel used? Or do I decide that I can be the casual acquaintance I am and happily help?

The funny thing is… it can hurt, but when you figure it out (“it” here being friendship), you can walk away, or you can just accept the form the friendship takes and the role you play (or not).

friends or… work friends?

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In almost every job I’ve had, I gained one of the most valuable possible things: not just a work best friend (along with many nice acquaintances), but lifelong friendships that developed from these close work friendships. When I look at jobs in which I didn’t make friends (particularly close ones), I recognize exactly how empty those jobs were and how much harder it was to feel as motivated. Yes, as a recent HBR article maintains, these friendships can indeed be tricky. And I suppose that is why, as the article posits, only something like 19 percent of those surveyed (Americans, by the way) reported having close friendships with a colleague. This is framed as at least partly cultural (non-Americans may be more trusting, collaborative and less “fiercely independent” or bent on personal privacy?).

I have seen some of this dynamic in action. When a global company in which I worked all came together for a global meetup in Europe, the European and Asian colleagues became a more cohesive group, while the Americans seemed standoffish, less social, more formal and “observational”. That is, two years in a row, the American contingent seemed to stand on the sidelines and make observations about how the activities we were engaged in would never be allowed in the US, how we’d have been required to sign liability waivers (in case of injury, etc.). It may also depend on other demographic features (age, etc.) but the Americans’ uniform reserve always struck me as an interesting given how “loud” and “outgoing” Americans are generally perceived to be.

But this is a diversion.

One of my best friends started off as my “office nemesis”. For a year at least, we disliked each other but eventually ‘warmed up’ to become, incrementally, friends.

Another best friend became a friend almost instantly. We went out for dinner together on her first day working in the company, and we lost track of time until the restaurant owners were staring at us, waiting for us to leave so they could close. It was an immediate and deep connection that has only continued to grow, long after our lives changed, long after we stopped working together. And we have since become colleagues again. I cannot imagine my work life – former or current – or, more importantly, my life at all – without her.

I’ve never experienced the ‘tricky complications’ as outlined in the HBR article, but I can recognize that many of the points made could be issues. I suppose for me the depth of the friendships has always been valuable and deep enough that the relationship mattered so much more than just a job. In that sense, I guess, these friendships transcend the idea of a “work friendship”. I happened to meet these people through work, but our friendships had no real connection to the work itself. And you can feel and see a difference. Another good friend, whom I met through work, is a fabulous and intelligent person, and we are still good friends despite not working together any more. But there is a sense that the piece of the puzzle that bound us together closely and gave us something in common is missing, even if we still have a great time together. The impetus and intensity can be driven by the mutual passion or misery created by a job/project.

Overall it seems interesting because friendships are reportedly difficult to make in adulthood, and I suppose they are – where else can you make them than work? Unless you are involved in activities outside of work, or end up being forced friends with, for example, your kids’ friends’ parents or something, it is not exactly like a social smörgåsbord out there. I am not particularly social but don’t feel like I’ve done too badly…

The Pen Is – the controlled leak

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Fountain pens are like people,” says Richard Binder, a nationally recognized nibmeister, aka a master pen repairer. “Every one has a unique personality.”

Talking briefly with a dear old friend, JEB, I was pleased to hear how many things were glowing brightly for him in 2017: new job, new relationship.

In reference to the relationship, he explains that she is “pretty wacky in a way that’s compatible with my own strangeness”.

I ask: “Do you really have so much strangeness?”

He replies: “Oh yes. Few can appreciate it.”

Me: “I guess that’s a weird question – we all have some strangeness, at least to someone.”

Him: “Yes, but with the right person the strangeness is normalcy. I mean a lot of people find me likable, but I only show the wacky stuff to select few. Like the fact that I obsessively listen to a podcast called The Pen Addict.”

Was this perhaps the third (?) time he’s reminded me about his obsession with pens and the Pen Addict podcast? I knew someone else briefly who was obsessed with pens, and now for the life of me cannot remember if he had ever mentioned this same podcast. I feel like he certainly did, but my memory, which so rarely fails me, has misfired in this case. JEB has apparently turned his girlfriend into a pen addict as well, prompting her to ask him, laughingly “What have you done?” She took him to his first-ever pen show in Barcelona, and I somehow marveled at the fact that there are pen shows. Then, I am not obsessed, so it would not necessarily have occurred to me. My friend assures me that I should try it because it is as addictive… as all the addicts have assured me it is. Not that I doubt it.

He enthuses: “It’s the infinite customizability. You can marry any ink and any pen and have a new experience few have had. I highly recommend it.”

I halfheartedly reply: “I will look into it.” And then remember the years-ago ‘story’ I shared with him about overhearing a Russian lady at the ticket booth of a lecture hall in Iceland, just before a Mikhail Gorbachev event, telling the ticket seller in English, spoken with a thick Russian accent, “I will think about it” before walking away. Naturally I then amended my response to him: “I will think about it.

We laugh, remembering the event and those long-ago Iceland years that we two willing exiles experienced.

the real deal

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If she were a less intoxicating person, it would be easy to envy her. To envy the effortless and easy flirtation that she uses to bend virtually everyone to her will. She is open, gregarious, social, saying everything and anything that comes to her mind, still coming across as hilarious, charming, self-deprecating and beautiful, and she gets her way. But no one ever feels manipulated or put upon, as she flashes a giant smile and peals of her infectious laughter float behind her as she walks away from her every encounter.

It’s in this way that she gets the inside track and makes connections that pay off in one way or another.

I have realized, though I have always suspected, that this “charm offensive” brand can also be a handicap. She can never truly read another person; she can never really get to know them. Me: No one is trying to snow me, get me into bed, impress me or flirt with me. It’s all very business-like and serious. It might not be fun, but I quickly get the real read on the people I meet, talk to and work with. When she comes to me and rhapsodizes about how helpful, nice, smart, funny, “moral” or great someone is, I take it with a grain of salt and have often already got the goods on how they really are. As a team, she and I are unstoppable because I can suss out exactly who we are dealing with and their strengths, weaknesses and what they have to offer, and she can go in for the kill – either with sweetness and light or with her brilliant “I don’t realize I am being bulldozed by this smiling woman, but I am and can’t help it” tactics.

In just minutes, I have seen how weak in the knees some go, melting around her, softening like butter, becoming overly tactile octopi when they had been distant, prim characters only moments earlier. She has that effect on them. But as honest a reaction as they display to her, they certainly do not show her their true colors, real selves or what their intellect offers (or doesn’t). They are always putting on a show for her and rolling out their best. And I get the unvarnished truth.

Dishing it out, ripping it up and taking it

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Lesson du jour: Never write anything down

I learned two things in junior high school that still come back to me in a flash, even as the middle-aged broad I am now:

  1. Never write anything down – at least nothing incriminating. I say I learned this, and I think of it all the time. But it does not always stop me from writing stuff down that I shouldn’t. I am writing here every day, and I am probably capturing stuff I shouldn’t.
  2. Everyone is insecure. This will drive each of us to do things we shouldn’t. Usually it plays out in my own life like so: a friend is devastated by life’s unfairness in some form or another; I heroically decide to take it upon myself to cheer them up; I do this by skewering the objects of the unfairness – usually in writing; someone else intervenes and decides to exploit the situation (and in doing so reveals their own mechanisms for dealing with their insecurities), and my written ‘therapies’ end up in the hands of these aforementioned ‘objects of unfairness’, exposing their insecurities.

Not to be oblique here. An example: It was junior high school (this will set the scene, of course, for how juvenile all of this is). My best friend was torn to pieces because her crush (let’s call him Kangaroo Racer) started dating (inasmuch as junior high kids ‘date’) a girl we already disliked (we shall call her Hurk). Hurk had come to the school as a new student that year and had been so unpleasant when we would actually do everything we could to be nice. But that’s the nature of junior high. People are lashing out left and right. I look back and think, yeah, maybe she was just unpleasant in general, but it’s more likely that she was insecure about being new in school, and while she didn’t give a shit what my nerdy friends and I thought of her, she was petrified about not being cool enough for the popular crowd.

When it came to light that she’d begun dating my friend’s crush (I know – this all sounds so ridiculous), becoming the object of life’s great unfairness, I desperately wanted to console my heartbroken friend, and I wrote a nonsensical caricature-poem about Hurk. I don’t remember exactly what it said any more – it was unflattering, designed as it was to make my friend feel … better? Superior? I don’t really know any more. Having committed this “poem” to paper and handing it off to my friend, it then became someone else’s property and problem. My friend gave it to another friend (the exploiter in point two above), who, through her own insecurity and desperate need to climb at least one rung higher on the popularity ladder, took the poem and gave it to Hurk. (Anyone else hearing the theme song of the original 80s Degrassi Junior High now?)

I was blissfully unaware of these exchanges until later, when Hurk herself confronted me, crying, with a pile of shredded paper in her hands, demanding, “Did you write this?” Of course I immediately knew what it was and was guilty, but I felt somehow like I had to be a sarcastic asshole in this moment, waving my hands in a condescending circle over the little pile as if to indicate that I could not possibly know what a pile of shredded paper had once been, replying casually, “I don’t know. What is it?”

That’s the thing: I first, foremost and foolishly imagined she’d never see the thing. You can never count on this: again, don’t write anything down that you wouldn’t want everyone to see. And secondly, I never imagined, even if this too was me fooling myself, that even if she had seen it that she’d care. I suppose we all do care – we don’t want to be confronted with committed-to-pen-and-paper evidence that anyone finds us that unpleasant. We may consciously know that they do. But we don’t want to see it, feel it and experience it that directly and even clinically. Eventually I admitted that yes, of course, I had written it. I did so, if I recall, clinically. I don’t even know how I excused myself. Did I apologize? Knowing who I was then, I probably even wrote (again, committing shit to paper) an apology to her. Maybe I didn’t. I vaguely recall feeling defiant about this – why should I feel badly about offending or hurting someone who made such hearty meals of being a bitch to everyone around her (at least those whose ‘approval’ she didn’t need)? But that was the adolescent and often petty me. In the years since I have reflected on this event with some shame, thinking of all the ways I tried to justify it. It was 30 years ago, and it still pokes at my conscience sometimes. And, if most of what I know about the world is true, despite how it hurt her at the time, she probably does not even remember it.

In the same vein, and during the same time period, another close friend had been going through life-altering bad times, and the intensity and closeness of our friendship led me to try to cheer her up by writing critical, disparaging, but ostensibly comical, persiflage about people who had been our friends – or people who had peripheral connections to our circle of friends. I had written these things before the “Hurk” poem cited above. Once more foolishly, I had no idea that the friend I was attempting to console with my negative causticity would hang onto those notes, and more than a year later, wheel them out as the centerpiece of a slumber party she hosted, to which she had invited all the characters who had been so maliciously maligned in my letters. The attendees phoned me as a unit to give me a piece of their minds, and strangely, I again felt defiant – I justified it to myself (i.e. all total bullshit – “nothing I said was untrue, even if I did so in the most vicious way possible“) while listening to the slumber party guests. Nothing they said mattered to me. All that mattered to me was that whatever fragile trust I had had left with the friend was gone.

But the point of recounting this now (apart from having ripped up some papers and having my memory triggered by seeing the shredded pile), again more than 30 years after the fact, is that I still realize – perhaps even more than ever – the truth in the fact that we are all insecure. Especially as the raw, dewy not-children, not-adults whose bodies and feverish minds we try to navigate in adolescence. Despite my faulty tactics and hurtful actions (I take the blame there), in some ways, my heart had been in the right place in that I was committed, at all costs, to delivering comfort and pain relief to my friends. It is not that I was not sorry – I was and am. I did all the comforting and consoling entirely the wrong way – at other insecure people’s expense – which always backfired on me in the most instant-karma means possible. But I took the knocks on the chin. I’ve never been someone who can dish it out but not take it in equal measure.

But then, most other people are smart enough, or lazy enough, or both, not to commit their insults to paper.