Why I’d love it if you read this but mostly why I’d never ask you to.
Folks on Facebook are roughly divided between those who post incendiary political stuff, and those who post stuff about how they wish “certain people” wouldn’t post incendiary political stuff. If it’s an election year, it’s horrifying. No one is listening. There’s scientific evidence to suggest that we’re wired this way. Even the most reasoned, polite debate — if such a thing were possible — wouldn’t work to sway anyone. It fills me with a very familiar despair, but there it is.
I find it all fascinating, when I’m not crying or gnashing my teeth. We all end up in conversations with people who just aren’t listening, or just don’t care. You’re lucky to get a pat on the head. Thank you, they say. Noted. Point taken. And they do whatever they were going to do anyway. Which is the same as (and often mistaken for) not having listened at all.
I’m told that people speak their minds either because they want to get something off their chest or they want to effect some change. I don’t see the point of unburdening for its own sake. I want it to mean something. How could you tell anyone was listening if nothing happens? But then to expect change just because you’ve spoken? That’s crazy talk. It’s so rare. I just can’t believe these are our only two choices.
This story takes place in New Jersey. A cold winter’s day. Holiday shopping season. I was perhaps 16 years old. We were experiencing some lean times. My dad had started his own graphic design business a few years before. Though we’d been spoiled by a very successful first year or so, things typically were more up-and-down, and truly more down than up. This Christmas was down. Now, any money issues were enough to make my mother slightly more insane than usual, because as an artist she made demands on the finances with only intermittent returns. I don’t hold that against her. She was a brilliant artist, and I believe the investment is well worth it. But it made her crazy. Not crazy enough to change her ways, but she would project all her guilt about that onto us if she thought we were being frivolous with money.
And so we come to this day — that cold winter’s day, during holiday shopping season. My younger sister Elena had gone to the mall with a friend, and took with her fifty dollars my dad gave her, in order to do some shopping of her own. Now, my dad and I drove over to the mall to pick Elena and her friend up, and she and her friend got up from where they were perched and came to the car. None of us noticed the fact that Elena had left her purse behind. The purse — yes! — with the unused fifty dollars still in it.
We were almost to the house when the discovery was made. Though we knew it was probably pointless, it was decided that the three of them would drive back to the mall on the off chance that someone had done the right thing, and that I would stay and tell my mother what had happened.
I approached her lair. I said, “um, just so you know, Elena left her purse behind at the mall. They went back to see if it’s still there.”
“Oh, my GOD,” mom said, “was the fifty dollars in there?”
“Well,” I said, “it wasn’t her fault — “ She cut me off.
“How can you say it wasn’t her fault?”
Here’s where I tried, I really did, to undo the terrible thing I’d done. “Well, yes, it’s her fault, but she didn’t mean to do it, is all I meant.”
“Tell me how this isn’t her fault.”
“I’m not saying it isn’t, I’m just — “
“You just said it’s not her fault.”
“But I added more stuff….” I said. In vain.
Didn’t matter. My mother wondered aloud whose fault I could imagine it was, if not Elena’s, the criminal in question. I again tried to say, “no, no, it’s her fault,” feeling more and more like an idiot. This is the wrong word. It may have been careless, or irresponsible. But it was accidental. She was thirteen.
Things escalated. I truly can’t remember all of it. I did lose some time. But given the round trip distance to the mall, I can only imagine doing this for a while, then stomping up to my room, then boiling over with the urge to go back down there for another bout. And us picking up right where we left off. (This is what comment threads were like in my day. It was like the most boring live-action comment thread you can imagine.) All I can say for sure is that when my father walked in the house, it had to have been at least 40 minutes, and I was screaming,“IT’S HER FAULT, IT’S HER FAULT!” over and over, at capacity volume. I paused for breath, and my mother turned to my dad and said, “Can you believe it? Jenny doesn’t think it’s her fault.”
I don’t know how I lived to tell this tale, or more to the point, how she did, but something broke in me. Not, miraculously, the veins in my neck, or my larynx, but something big. I am still learning how big. I left that house as soon as I could, and I stayed as far away for as long as possible, but I never got anywhere. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot.
It’s been a mystery, I think, even to my most polite friends. What is Jenny’s problem? It’s usually centered around why I don’t submit these essays for publication. It’s easy to think it’s rejection that I’m afraid of, but it isn’t. I don’t care if they read it and don’t like it. I’m worried they won’t even read it. This Medium thing is a huge step for me. How can I be sure you’re giving it your full attention; how can you understand what I’m saying if you can’t hear my voice? A query letter? What, am I supposed to BEG? If you don’t want it/this/me, then you can go screw yourself. I’m not going to ask. What would be the point of that?
Of course, these are often parent/child relationships, aren’t they? We’re put in these situations over and over. Dependent on someone for something they may or may not withhold. It was the same with auditions — and what a word. Audition. The act of hearing. The irony. Trying in vain to get people to see and hear you, even though they are talking or texting, or eating lunch, and anyway have already cast the part. It’s dehumanizing, and I don’t have it in me.
To say that it’s gotten in my way is an understatement. A coworker once expressed an interest in coming to see me read at a show, and I did what I usually do. I gently and persistently discouraged her from coming. “You don’t have to. No pressure! This maybe won’t be the best show for you to see. It’s ten dollars! Parking is really hard. I’ll keep you posted.” Finally, she said, “Stop telling me not to come to your show.” And she was right, that’s exactly what I was doing. I so don’t want you to want to feel you have to come that I won’t even ask, and if by some chance you decide to come anyway, I will test your will to do so. I am about to close a solo show I wrote myself and I could barely bring myself to tell anyone about it. Even a Facebook post was a huge step for me (although I never did send an invite). It’s the biggest hurdle I face.
You know why my favorite Dr. Suess book is Horton Hears a Who? Because Horton HEARS A WHO. Because a person’s a person no matter how small. In that book, that littlest, most reluctant Who finally speaks in the end, and they are all heard because he does. [And what are they yelling? “We are here! We are here! We are here!” The same thing we’re all yelling. Gah! That man was a freaking genius.] But that Who’s little voice is the tipping point. I loved the book, but I fear I took the wrong message to heart. It matters that you speak, of course, but not to everyone. Seldom will it save the world. The world is mostly busy with other things.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. It’s so hard for me to speak the thing. It took years for my solo show to get on stage. Each essay is a difficult birth. It’s a triumph when something finally gets said, but the danger is that I feel like I’m owed something for having spoken. It was so hard, doesn’t that mean people should listen? Understand? Why do they keep on walking? Didn’t you hear? I have spoken.
But they are not required to listen harder, or care, just because something has been torn from me with difficulty. That struggle is my problem, and it doesn’t guarantee anything at all. It’s hugely important, but ultimately only to me. So I write mini rants and post them to what is essentially a secret blog. That’s true. I have a blog I don’t tell anyone about. How about that? Speaking where virtually no one can hear, into a void. Maybe it’s therapeutic. Maybe I’m building up that muscle. If there’s no expectation on my end, there’s no crushing disappointment. And it’s so nice to be stumbled upon. Found. Heard by a total stranger. Where the words would mean something and I as a person will finally be out of the mix entirely. It’s a pure exchange. Because it’s ridiculous to think that my own mother not hearing me didn’t feel personal.
It’s fair to say that it’s my mother’s fault that I write things the hell down. When the only other person in the room cannot hear you, at any decibel, well, then, you must find another way. It’s also why, when asked for directions, or to describe a sequence of events, I will give the most detailed, blow-by-blow account you have ever heard. If you’re really listening, well then, I’ll reward you with all the details you can stand.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I don’t do things — pursue acting jobs, find an agent, publish my writing — and it’s a complicated mix, seemingly insurmountable as far as those particular things go. But there are rewards. I read these essays around town in various settings, and there is nothing that really compares (not surprisingly) to reading something I wrote to people who have elected to hear it. I don’t even know how they heard of the show or why they are there, and I don’t want to. They came, they’re listening, and all I can do is hold up my end of the bargain the best way I know how. It’s a sacred contract for me.
So thank you for clicking, and thank you for listening/reading all the way to the end. It means the world.