by Jean Roberta
Writing this post has been a challenge. Maybe it’s because I always post after Annabeth, whose posts tend to express startling but authentic emotions in carefully-chosen words. How to follow that?
Connecting with other people has also been a challenge for me, although some of them (including my spouse, Mirtha, who has known me intimately for over 25 years) tell me I have a knack for it, especially at social gatherings. Small talk: I do that.
Maybe it’s because, according to some schools of astrology, I have a “cuspal” personality: born early in the sign of Virgo and therefore an introvert, I show traces of Leo, the performer of the zodiac. I do like performing, and therefore my long teaching career hasn’t felt like torture, as one of my fellow graduate students described it to me some time in the early 1980s.
This person was one of those with whom I didn’t really connect. I could sense her anguish at feeling pressured to perform for an audience of students when she only wanted to be a lifelong scholar doing research, and writing articles on literature. I wished I could have found a way for her to do that exclusively and get paid for it, but alas, I was not in charge of the Ivory Tower or any other corner of the world.
I understand that most people have a wound of some sort, whether hidden or openly displayed, and that I usually can’t help anyone else beyond acknowledging what they have shown me. In several cases, I’ve been aghast when the person I’ve been trying to console decides that their pain is my fault, or the fault of a whole demographic to which I belong (women, old women, mothers/parents, white folks, Americans by any definition, queers, feminists, leftists, the smart-ass, phony, intellectual class).
In too many cases, I have tried to move the earth while standing on it. An angry person in my life (my late ex-husband, each of my blood relatives, to various degrees) has demanded acknowledgement, an apology or some help from me. They have demanded that I make amends by confessing to something I didn’t do, as far as I know (which means that if I did it, I must be really delusional). They have pointed out how selfish, dishonest and unreasonable I am. To keep the peace, I have vaguely admitted that I have been self-centred, like all other people I have ever met. I have apologized for giving the wrong impression. This confession is never enough.
I suspect that after I have left this world, some of the people who thought they knew me will feel cheated: I have escaped without paying for my crimes, once again. They will still be in pain, and they will still believe I am the perpetrator. How could I get my work published, so many times, when they haven’t? How could I be relatively healthy when they aren’t? How did I hang onto a job that pays a living wage when so many others are chronically unemployed? Why am I not being roasted over a slow fire in Hell? (I assume that a fundamentalist Christian version of the afterlife for sinners is not real. I could get a rude awakening in my eternal sleep.)
In a recent guest appearance on OWN (the Oprah Winfrey television channel), Susan Sarandon tactfully discussed several of her failed past relationships by saying that some people, including herself, try in their innocent youth to overlook huge differences between themselves and their Significant Others, but such deal-breakers always destroy the relationship, sooner or later.
I had some great sex with men when I was younger, and I remember the thrilling discovery that this is one service that most men are happy to provide for women – and most of the men I knew were more generous and considerate in bed than anywhere else. Unfortunately, every live person has to get out of bed some time, and that was when the double-binds began closing in. If I didn’t keep a clean-enough apartment (or I wasn’t willing to clean the digs of the guy who had invited me in), I was considered a slob. If I immediately began cooking and cleaning, I was apparently trying to manipulate him into a suffocating domestic arrangement. If I was attending university, I was pretentious. And in any case, I was a girl, so in the eyes of a male observer, my plumbing gave me a kind of biological stupidity which I could never overcome.
If I had just had mind-blowing sex with my current partner, I was a pathological slut. And when the criticism began driving me away, I was told that I was fickle, unstable, prudish, frigid. And an ugly dog on whom the guy should never have wasted his time.
Like Susan Sarandon, I think I have developed some common sense re other people since I was young and unreasonably hopeful. I no longer expect to get along well with people who have nothing in common with me, and especially with those who express a grudge against my “type,” however they define it, and expect me to agree with them.
In the past few years, I have been overwhelmed by the compliments I get from anonymous students on the evaluation forms that are always handed out at the end of a semester. I am overwhelmed because – no matter how many compliments I’ve had from students before – I always find them irrational to some degree. Most of the courses I teach are mandatory for most students, and many of them have learned (are learning) English as adults. Many students dread the class, and with reason. I teach grammar and poetry, both of which are unpopular with undergraduates in general. Yet I have been told, over and over, that I am hugely popular with students. At the same time, I never feel a cool breeze from any of my colleagues, who sometimes invite me to lunch and ask for my advice. It seems I was born to be a star in a small corner of the sky.