My first memory is one of hiding. Crouching low, trying to keep from being seen. When you grow up in the chaos wrought by addiction, hiding becomes a survival skill. All that disappearing caused a deep dislocation in my sense of self, as if I were watching myself on our scratched up Curtis Mathes television. And if you and I could pick up a remote and skip through scenes of my childhood, we’d find lots of characters who make cameos as my home life churns around the stability of the relationships that form and fracture around my parents.
Some of those characters will do things when they’re alone with me in the dark that aren’t easy to show because they’re the kind of things that make you wonder why no one ever went to jail. So we’ll allude to them with shadows and whispers and crying.
What the scenes will show is 10-year-old me trying to read the cooking directions for spaghetti so I can feed my three younger siblings because my parents are always distracted by their entanglements with these other characters. My mother will chase one all the way to Wyoming and miss an entire season. My father, who spends most of his time at Red’s Lounge and only comes home after 2 a.m., also doesn’t get much screen time.
So, the spaghetti scene works as a vignette to illustrate neglect. I don’t really understand timing, so the noodles aren’t fully cooked, but my sisters and brother spare my feelings.
“It’s really good,” they say, because they’re hungry and because it’s what we have. The noodles crackle as they try to chew them. I’ve put food coloring in their glasses of water so it will feel like something fancy.
These middle seasons take a turn away from darkness into almost Pippi Longstocking-like scenes of ingenuity. I learn to forge each of my parents’ signatures on school documents so my siblings can get vaccinations, school lunches, and other services that require parental permission. I learn how to use a wrench to turn the water back on at the meter after the city shuts it off. An extended scene shows how I deepen my voice to sound like my mother when I call the electric company. Because I like to read, I know how to create stories to explain why the bills aren’t being paid that are compelling enough for them to keep the power on.
And even though the shots are not as dramatic, the scenes of me with teachers are some of the most important. Teachers showed me that books could take me anywhere and that I could literally write myself new endings. This is partly why I became a teacher. Teachers saw me, saw into the deepest part of me and made me feel like someone cared.
It’s easy, now that I’m at Harvard, to want to hide behind that big crimson H. To keep myself sealed off from the world, my brain under the bell jar of academia. But thankfully, I have a cohort of twenty four other people who won’t let me do that.
The first and best lesson I’ve had at Harvard came from them. As a group, we met at the Harvard Business School two weeks ago, the sparkling surroundings contrasting with the internal shadows inside us. It wasn’t until one of us, Cyn, had the courage to speak up and say that she was having trouble being present because of what happened in Charlottesville. That one comment created the rupture in our curated personas. She had made us all see the images of the torches, the car, the fear again.
It’s easy, when you keep your social media feeds free of any disturbing content, to make yourself blind to the pain around you. Increasingly, we’re all invited to blind ourselves to the ugliness of white supremacy, of racism, of poverty by posting “positivity.” By reminding ourselves that “we’re better than this” and “America is not like this.”
But we are.
The danger of this self-imposed blinding is that misery unseen becomes too easy to dismiss. Once dismissed, it is easy to forget.
I began this post with my own pain because it’s what connects me to the pain of others whose suffering is largely obscured. But if we let it, our own pain becomes, in the words of Leonard Cohen, the “crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.” All of us carry wounds that we don’t want to remember, yet they are what tie us to humanity.
Viktor Frankl, using similar light imagery, said “what would give light must endure burning.” And so I’m willing to burn a bit of my social capital, a bit of my professional polish by posting stories, resources, images, messages, and images that connect to social justice.
Every Sunday at 4 p.m. EST, I’m inviting you to join me in a campaign I’m calling Social Media for Social Justice with the hashtag #sm4sj. Choose whichever – or all – of your social media networks you’d like to use to participate. I’ll be posting ideas for how you can use different platforms, like Spotify or Unsplash, to create collections around the theme of social justice.
Thank you for reading this and thank you for letting your light and your life speak.
Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@ninastrehl0