Say sorry

February 28, 2012

I’ve been driving for more than 25 years now (!), and to date my accidents have been few and minor, though the first occurred at the end of my driving test at age 16, when I hit the gas instead of the brake and plowed into a parked car. I didn’t pass (and I’d already flubbed my three-point turn, so I wouldn’t have anyway), but neither was I cited; no one knew how to ticket an unlicensed driver with tacit permission to drive, so they left it alone and my mom’s insurance funded the repairs. I didn’t go back to retest for an entire year, but by then I’d practiced and grown confident from many nights of sneaking out with friends and cruising the deserted streets of Raleigh.

In each of my subsequent three accidents over the next quarter-century, my car was rear-ended, and it was not my fault–I think legally it may never be the fault of the driver who is hit from behind, but I’m saying I didn’t suddenly slam on my brakes and catch the driver behind me unawares; their cars simply slid into mine.

The first time was on a road slick with new rain, and the girl who did it was contrite, though virtually blameless, I felt. The second time the woman pushed my car into the car in front of me as I waited at a red light, crunching both ends, and she was so adamant in denouncing her unresponsive brakes she must have forgotten to apologize, or indeed acknowledge me or my frightened children. In the moment all I registered was elation: we’d been hit and were unhurt! My babies were all right!

But later her failure to offer this courtesy rankled, and I know that has colored my recent collision, which was far less serious, and minus my children in the car. I have wronged and been wronged far wronger than these wrongs–I can barely even call these incidents wrongs. Since redress has been proffered, they’re slights at best. Why do I still want the apology? Why does not getting one feel like the greater injury?

For a long while my older son couldn’t grasp why he was being asked to apologize if he stepped on someone’s foot, say, or played a little too roughly with his little brother and made him cry. “But I didn’t mean to do it!” he would exclaim. “It was an accident!” It seemed to him an affront to have to say sorry under these circumstances, like an admission of guilt. It was as if he’d been advised by corporate counsel to avoid liability and damn the bad PR.

I would explain that the person was still hurt, regardless of his motives, and deserved an apology. I would say that I was sure he would never cause harm deliberately; nonetheless he should still say sorry. I would say we are still responsible for our actions, even when they seem entirely beyond our control. Sometimes it’s just a mistake, and sometimes maybe we needed to have taken more care than we did. It took a while to sink in, but at age seven I think he gets it. His apologies are more often than not sincere and spontaneous. That’s why I don’t mind when the other ones are clearly to stave off my badgering.

We say sorry for things that aren’t at all our fault. When someone dies, we’re sorry for the loss. We’re sorry someone didn’t get a job or that they lost a job or that a relationship ended. Sometimes that’s an irritant–it’s not your fault, the person will shoot back bitterly. But mostly it’s taken in the spirit in which it’s offered. To be told your sadness is shared by someone else, that it is felt chiefly because you feel it, can be deeply comforting.

I walk my younger son through these steps now when someone enters the orbit of his explosive energy and gets a face full of Legos or an errant elbow. Check on your friend. Ask if he’s all right. Say sorry. (And if it’s said inaudibly or with overt hostility, try again.) Try to make things right. Regret that you made the mistake. Resolve to do better. Go through the motions, even if you don’t feel sorry. Empathy may be more of a skill than a trait, but it can be practiced, strengthened. It can become a part of you.

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Nightstand

December 31, 2009

The best thing about Christmas this lean year was the feeling of near decadence when Scott brought home new books for us to enjoy, an unexpected largess when we’d agreed not to exchange gifts. Among them are The Magicians by Lev Grossman and Alice Munro’s new story collection. I’m still reeling from the first Munro story, nearly as much from my own squeamishness as her brilliance since it involves murdered children. I finished the story and set the book down carefully as if it had done me an injury and I feared mishandling it would damage me further. But it’s still on my nightstand, and when my feelings are less raw I’ll take it up again.

Setting the Munro aside spurred me to take up the Grossman novel sooner than I might have. Everyone’s calling it a Harry Potter book for grown-ups, and I suppose that’s apt enough—and if that shorthand encourages a jillion folks to read it, then OK, let it stand. I dove in a few days ago, then took to my bed early last night and finished it around midnight, so it’s probably too soon to articulate what it was exactly I loved about it beyond that delicious pleasure of immersion. 

Perhaps the most important book on my nightstand right now is the bound galleys of Scott’s new book, On the Grid. I’m trying to read it through objectively, which isn’t as hard as you’d think. For a long stretch of its creation I was pretty thoroughly preoccupied with the care and feeding of our younger son, who didn’t sleep more than three hours at a stretch for the first eight months. Scott’s comings and goings from his office-shed out back were for a time peripheral, something I kept the vaguest of tabs on. But now here is all his labor distilled before me, and I can regard and admire in full both his discipline and his shining sentences. Thank you for the books, my love.

Nora Barnacle

December 2, 2009

This past Thanksgiving week was long and and it was low on sleep as we visited out-of-state relatives with a toddler that sleeps fitfully in the best of situations. Add an ear infection and bunk the four of us in one room, and our collective health and wits are near to shattered. I have taken great solace in Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom, a biography of Nora Barnacle, James Joyce’s longtime partner and later, when their children were grown, his wife.

Nora was his “portable Ireland,” the basis for many of his female characters, but most particularly Molly Bloom, whose orgasmic soliloquy at the end of Ulysses (“and yes I said yes I will Yes”) is far more widely known and read than the novel itself. My husband once declared he was officially giving up on reading Ulysses via an essay broadcast on NPR, though he has since recanted. To my great shame I tried and failed to finish it while we were in Dublin for the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, but in my defense, I was newly pregnant and my brain was a muddled stew of hormones, and whenever I sat still for more than ten minutes, I went to sleep. This state of confused exhaustion went on well into the second trimester, and some would contend it persists to this day.

But in Nora, I think I have found my gateway book back into Joyce. I find myself wanting to revisit Dubliners (which I revered in high school and again as a twentysomething) and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, then properly girded, again tackle Ulysses. Even Finnegans Wake seems within reach! (Unlike much of his other work, Nora actually read parts of FW and liked it.)

Reading about the couple’s life of at-times scraping poverty as they bummed around European backwaters (even their Paris was a series of gloomy, unheated pensions) and raised two children is somehow inspiring. OK, sure, one kid went insane and the other one was never what you’d call employable, but that happens in rich, secure families, too. 

Mainly I appreciated how the biographer sought to rescue Nora Barnacle’s reputation. She’s often falsely cast as Joyce’s barely literate Irish peasant muse. This portrayal didn’t exalt her, but defended her for who she truly was: uneducated, yes, but sharp enough for the likes of Joyce, and infinitely more tough-minded. She was not his “enabler” in that modern, twelve-step sense of the word–that label belongs more squarely on the many patrons whose money and goodwill he burned through–yet he could not have written as he did without her. 

And of course, as I read any biography, I am simultaneously imagining how my own will scan. She was a terrible housekeeper. She had a fleeting, squandered talent. She loved her children but could not manage them and so they ran amok. Approaching middle age, she let herself go to seed. And then I start to revise.

Sesame Street and I both turned 40 this year–so where’s my Google logo? There hasn’t been nearly enough fanfare on my part, even when you factor in such highlights as my emerging bunion.

My mother tells me I learned to read from Sesame Street, and I don’t doubt it; I watched it twice a day most days (followed by The Electric Company with Morgan Freeman in the cast), and the second airing was a repeat. When I was given a CD of Sesame Street’s greatest hits at my baby shower, I knew all the songs that predated Elmo. Still, I don’t recall many specifics of the show, only kids cavorting with muppets against the backdrop of an urban landscape á la Ezra Jack Keats.

I do remember certain words becoming legible, like “horse,” which I sometimes mixed up with “house,” and writing my name with the letter n backward again and again on dry brown paper, thick tablets of the cheapest pulp. Though I knew the n was wrong, I could not force my hand to reverse the motion. In kindergarten and first grade, we were issued reading comprehension packets color-coded by level, but oddly, as you progressed, the colors grew more drab, peaking at brown. (My friend Margaret told me she flubbed the assessments on purpose so she could have the lavender one.) 

As my older son makes his first forays into reading, I recall such instances more often; they are among my first coherent memories, or rather, I don’t remember much of my existence before I could read, and certainly none before language, as if the story of my life could only begin once I was at least capable of the simplest narratives: I want that; I didn’t do it; it’s not fair. My great-grandmother said she could remember being a baby in the cradle, wanting someone to come and get her.

I wonder when my son’s life began to gel for him in memories; I suspect it has happened only over the past year or so, as he has been finding his way to the written word. The excitement of identifying “MILK” emblazoned on the truck we were behind on the way to preschool. Sounding out and spelling “Batman.” Slogging valiantly through the opening pages of One Fish, Two Fish. It seems almost incredible that he may not remember much about his life before the cataclysmic event of his brother’s birth, because for his father and me, there are volumes’ worth of the history of just the three of us. But that we can keep for him, and tell him those stories until he makes them his own.

Fox

November 1, 2009

I subscribe to a Web site called One More Story that I sometimes enlist to do the work of reading to my older son; it offers him musical accompaniment and much better voice work than I am capable of. Also, the words turn red as they are spoken aloud, which puts me in mind of the King James Bible, where all of Jesus’ talk is printed in red.

I mostly love to read to my son myself, but I get lazy, and he gets bored, and sometimes his younger brother’s intrusions and demands make reading anything but the simplest board books impossible, so sometimes it’s just better for him to go to this site and be read to. It’s almost as good as TV to him, and I get to feel as if I have enriched him without expending any actual effort.

Recently it was pure laziness that drove us to the site; the toddler was sleeping, so I dozed on the couch with my older son curled up beside me, letting the laptop mother him. I dreamt lightly through the first couple of books, then woke at the beginning of Fox, by Margaret Wild.

I can’t do justice to this story by summarizing it, but I can’t ruin it for you either; it’s that perfect. A dog runs through the woods with an injured magpie in his mouth. Her wing is ruined, and she no longer wants to live if she can’t fly. But Dog convinces her he can be her wings; he runs through the woods with Magpie clinging to his back, and she decides she can go on. 

Sounds like a sweet story, no? But it goes on: A fox takes shelter with them, and at first I think it is normal sort of children’s book danger, that he will simply want to eat Magpie. But Fox is jealous of the love between Dog and Magpie, and he speaks to her in secret, promising that he can run faster than Dog ever could, that with him she will truly take flight. It’s a seduction, and though she insists she will never leave Dog, Fox’s words work their tendrils into her, and she succumbs.

Fox tears though the forest with Magpie, miles out onto desert plains. Then he shucks her off his back and abandons her. I am wide awake at this point, wondering if it was wise to let my kid listen to this tragic story. Then I decide it’s better for him to learn within the safe space of a story that there are people in the world with this malevolence, who want to take something away from you not so they can have it, but so you can feel the terrible loss they live with always; some people are so lonely and damaged, this is their only communion. 

Noting my dismay, my son reassures me, “It’s OK, Mommy. It turns out OK, I think.” Magpie considers just lying down to die in the desert, but instead she begins the long walk home, back to Dog. She’s twice saved by love.