On the Pain of Loving Others

December 9, 2012

Tomorrow I will give this letter to a 26 year old young man who I mentored for 17 years. I wish there was more I could do than write letters like this. It is so hard to love others and want good for them and yet also know that we cannot do it for them. It feels so inadequate yet is the best I can do. Sigh.

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My dearest B,

I hope you’ll take time to read what I have to say here

The first thing is that I love you. I love you deeply and with all my heart, like a family member. I have always seen a spark in you, a wonder, and magic. I have always believed in you. I will always believe in you no matter what, and I will always love you no matter what.

Secondly, I know I cannot know what your life is like. You have faced many many hard things – since you were small and since you have been an adult. This is not fair. No one should have to face the things you have. But, yet, the world is broken and unjust and good people face things they do not deserve. I know I cannot know what this is like.

Third, I’m sorry if you think I lecture you too much or I am too silly or cheerful with you. I somehow thought that you liked this and that this worked well for our relationship. I am happy to stop this, to tone it down. I thought somehow that you appreciated it, as a bit of cheer that you may not have other places in your life and also that you knew that my challenging you came from a place of believing in you and loving you and knowing your great potential. Please feel free to be honest with me and tell me what you need from me. I much prefer an honest real relationship, to a fake relationship like I am some sort of social worker or something.

And, in the spirit of being honest, here is what I have to say. I hope that our relationship over the years lets you know I say it with deep love and respect for you.

You have two dear children and another child that is like a son to you. Their lives have already been too hard. I believe that you, with sweet E, have the ability to give them a better life – the kind of life that you did not have. But, and I know you know this, this is going to involve making hard decisions. No one taught you well how to make hard decisions and I know it is very hard to teach yourself that. In many ways, you’ve succeeded on your own to do better than many from your neighborhood which is amazing and speaks to your spirit and strength.

But, what your boys deserve – and what you deserve – is a stable life. The house on H Street will not provide that sort of stable life – it will not fix everything. But, it is a start. You have the possibility to OWN the house. To get support from me, and from M, and from others that we connect with. I had that sort of support from my family – it was pure luck. Sometimes we get it from our biological families and sometimes we get it from others who love us deeply even if they are not blood family. I have no desire to force you to do anything, but I do want to say that I want you to jump on this opportunity. Sometimes doing the right thing is just very hard and takes several tries. I’m sorry about the challenges with the house the first time, but I want you to give it a second chance. I really believe we can make it beautiful, that you can own it, that you can live in a decent neighborhood and with time get decent jobs where you make more and where life is not as hard. This is what your Mom wanted for you – an easier life, a better life.

I also really want you to go to the job center and get food stamps. I know you don’t like it, but it is there for a reason and would make a difference while you and your family try to get on your feet. I have loaned you a good bit of money which I am happy to do, but I also want you to do whatever you can to get support from other sources too. I would also like you to try to get medical coverage. If you don’t do it for you, I wish you would consider doing it for your boys who need you to be healthy.

I want you to know from the bottom of my heart this is not a lecture. I believe in you more than I think you do and perhaps more than anyone in your life. I KNOW you can be more than someone who plays fucking video games all day. That is such an insult to who you can be and what you can do in this world that longs for good, decent loving people like you. It is a waste of who you can be and who you are. I am never sure how religious you are – and maybe I am not sure how religious I am – but I do believe that you were created and brought into this world for a purpose. That you were made by a God that has plans of goodness for you and your children. I want to find a way to get to that – to live into that Hope and Love that is part of who you are.

I will love you always, no matter what you do. I will believe in you always. At the same time, I think this is turning point in your life. It is a time when you can decide to be another Black kid from the projects who half-asses things. I would love you even if that is what you decide. But I believe you can be more than that. You are one of the most special people I’ve ever known. And I want to see you live into the fullness of who you can be. I was pleased the other day when you told me that I do not over-estimate you. I hope this is the time when you live into the fullness of who you can be. I don’t expect miracles, but over time, deep effort, lots of trying, lots of hard choices will yield a life that is worthy of all of your gifts.

I love you dearly, B. You are an absolute miracle with unlimited potential.

I hope you don’t get too irritated at me for writing this. I hope you read it all.

With deepest care and affection,

Elizabeth

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A Life Lived Well

October 22, 2012

When I was in Kindergarten, I had a bit of a breakdown. I felt like I was not moving through my letter books fast enough. The other children were slow to learn the ABCs and I already knew them and we needed to move it along. I dropped out of Girl Scouts in third grade because I got so preoccupied with getting as.many.badges.as.possible as fast as possible that I could not enjoy it. Or get anything out of it.

It goes on. In seventh grade, it was getting to be the editor of the school newspaper and yearbook. As fast as possible. And making them better. Fast. By high school, it was starting to take college classes. Filling out the resume for college. After a full scholarship to my undergraduate school, it was getting more majors. And more awards. So I could go to the best graduate school. After getting into a graduate program at Harvard, it was getting into the doctoral program at Harvard. Then passing exams. With distinction. Then writing a dissertation. I wouldn’t just be spiritual or religious or involved in my church, I would be ordained. Soon it was getting a job. After getting a tenure track job, the big concern has been the getting a book contract. And being the.best.professor possible. I want my students to love learning, love the class, love me, become good citizens, become good thinkers. Somewhere in there: Get married. Buy a house. Have a baby.

I am tired. If I stop to think about what a good life looks like, I hardly know. When I am with my son, who I want more time with, I am worried about when I can clean the house. Or get back to grading. As the trees change and the air is perfect, I look out the window from Starbucks with my overly sweet drink and write more comments on the papers that my students will probably never read. As I apply for grants and funding, my screen blurs together and I wonder what I am doing. I pour over our budget and wonder how we can make what we do and still come up short at the end of every month. What are we doing all of this for if not to be able to pay our bills and have a good, peaceful life, right? A PEACEFUL LIFE, goddammit.

Sometimes it can feel like we are caught in a hologram… but there is no red pill, no way to step out of it, to snap out of it. I think about what I should do to get out – meditate, go to yoga, take time to be present, make better plans, manage time better, get therapy, read more books or better books, and I just add these things onto my to do list and run from meeting to class to meeting, somehow feeling good about myself as I ease the pain with the balm of doing.

I tell my students there are few important easy choices in our lives – as individuals, as citizens. And there may not even be a choice. We are formed over time and our brains develop little pathways and we do not undo this in a day or a night or by getting saved or by making definitive decisions that we really mean this time. We undo or redo this slowly, the way that we have been done up by our universe. Moment by moment. Dragging ourselves back from the chaos into the memory of what we all long for, aware of the cliche and the unoriginality of our desires.

These things are not changed by quotes we tape to our computer screen or put on our pinterest wall, we know, as we hurriedly find better pithy and inspirational quotes and clearer places to post them.

Perhaps this is my draw to God and grace. The idea that we are loved and ok always. From before time and until after time. No matter what we do. We want to believe it, but like the alcoholic who just has one more drink, and feels that emptiness and pain melting away, we put one more good line on our resume. One more grant or book or job or success. And we are good, right? Doing the right things. Right?