She held herself like a queen, not in a haughty way, just in full possession of her silly 17-year-old self.
Only 4 years older than Velvet myself but nonetheless the teacher of her in my Drama 3/4 class, it took a few weeks to notice there was an additional layer to the usual teenage-girl high business of plots and gossip with her. No matter what foolishness came out of her mouth, there was alway an after-composure, a little enigmatic Mona Lisa-like smile about her face, only merrier, and a knowingness in her eyes, like she was fully aware of her ridiculousness and also in full support of it.
Pretty, with one of those story-book pert noses along with shiny, chin-length sunny brown hair that seemed to naturally curve around her face, Velvet also had the height, but not too much of it. Were it not for her slightly thick middle she would have been the model of all-American girl perfection. It was the thick middle that got me, having one myself. Where did that self-possession come from in consideration of the thick middle? But, more importantly, just in general where did that self-possession come from?
It was my routine back in 2008 while on medical leave to dedicate a daily bit of time to wailing. During one of the wailing sessions, a strange strangling sound came out of my throat, a warm-up to an unrecognizable, guttural voice erupting with an unexpected plea:
“Somebody please love me!”
I looked around. Was that me? What the heck?
It was particularly bizarre because I didn’t know what this voice, clearly coming out of my mouth, was yelling about. I’m surrounded by people who love me and I was mortified at the absurdity of the appeal. The whole thing was embarrassing.
But apparently something deep down wasn’t seeing or feeling all of this love enfolding me despite evidence all over the place, not the least of of which was embodied in Gary, who came home every night steadfastly sticking by his story that I wasn’t crazy, or at least no crazier than anyone else based on his observation of society. I didn’t doubt his love, even if it seemed unreasonable.
And then I got it. The “somebody” this guttural voice was pleading to be loved by was me.
Over the next 10 years as I worked out the practical mechanics of how you go about falling in love with yourself, the image of Velvet’s Mona Lisa half-smile often came back to me, along with some advice I picked up in a writing class with Frank Conroy, author of one of my favorite memoirs, Stop Time. He said good writing was like hiking up a mountain. Put only what you need in your backpack to get to the top, only what good writing can carry without bogging down.
The idea of carrying only what you need to get around with ease would seem to hold for living a good life, as well. Exactly how much baggage is necessary to make it to the top of the mountain? How much self-mortification is useful and how much will wear you out midway? Is it possibly a-okay to just go with being a silly teenager, having a thick middle, and maturing into a confused middle-ager with a susceptible nervous system?
I know Velvet’s mesmerizing half-smile might not be the whole story. I know this from Susan, a person I shared a cabin with for exactly 1 night when I was a teaching assistant at a summer art camp during college. Susan was the first cabin-mate I met when I arrived. She was sitting outside the cabin, peeling an orange. She was like a still-life herself with that orange in her hand, her curly black hair, unbelievably blue eyes and China doll skin, a beatific whisper of a smile finishing the portrait. She looked like a funky/arty angel, so it was even more disorienting to walk past her the next morning on my way to the bathroom where she lay in bed, stretching her sliced-up wrists out to me, whispering, help me.
I did the only thing I could think of, which was to deliver her to the camp clinic. She was taken to a psychiatric hospital back in Cleveland. Later that summer when she got out of the hospital, Susan took herself immediately to the railroad tracks and threw herself in front of an oncoming train. So I know that half smiles don’t necessarily mean that all is well.
I wonder where Velvet is now and whether her half-smile has held up over the past 35 years. She, unbelievably, would now be 52 or 53 — right up here in the mid-50s with me. Of course my immediate hope is that she is still smiling, that her smile is rock-solid, not a sad cover of inner torment and that she was simply privy from the beginning to the bottom line of our essential value, her smile a clue for anyone in need of such information about the infinite threshold of our ultimate worthiness of love.
Still, while I love that Velvet’s threshold seemed so high and I love the power of ultimate and infinite in the abstract, my concerns are immediate and practical so that, like skillful mental health engineers, we can locate the fault lines and get on with the down-to-earth business of usefully reinforcing the load-bearing supports.
And not just the where of the fault lines but also the when and why. Back in our 20s, Patty mentioned a term I’d never heard before but which instantly got my attention: eggshell plaintiff. A person who cracks easily and unpredictably. If you don’t want a legal mess on your hands, you handle these Humpty Dumpties with care. There is something fascinating to learn from these thresholds, these curious points at which someone cracks, water boils, bridges collapse, brains seize, addictions take hold, planes lift off, candy hardens, hearts melt, a concept clicks, or we can’t love ourselves.
I know more about these thresholds now and have come to appreciate the teachings, even the hard ones. And while my immediate hope for Velvet was that she and her wise half-smile maintained without fail through the decades because she was an unlikely Buddha amongst us, my more considered hope is that her smile got tested, that she had the full human experience of falling to her knees and crawling through the fire like every single other person I have known has done in some fashion or another, and that she wasn’t cheated out of finding her way back home to the truth of her infinite worth because I think that’s what we’re here for: we’re supposed to go through the work of figuring out how to come home to our thick middles and be a-okay with ourselves despite — or maybe even because of — the way we mortify ourselves in small daily ways and then occasionally mortify ourselves in dreadful ways, like breaking down….dragging children through step families that never should have been…hurting people in ways, known and unknown, that have changed lives, a few things I know about, for example.
Maybe Velvet didn’t know anything after all, but she must be teaching me something anyway because her smile just keeps showing up in my mind when a threshold starts to go, signaling the need to offload something. But no matter, I like having a silly Buddha leading me up the mountain.
1984/85 – 1985/86: Drama teacher, Stafford High School, Fredericksburg, VA
1983: Teaching assistant at Interlochen Art Academy, Interlochen, MI
2008: The year of the nervous breakdown
Gary: Partner since 2007
Patty: Lifelong friend from high school, and also a lawyer
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same, whatever they were. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out or 50 years out.