Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Unexpected Cruelty, Typical Kindness.

A couple of days ago I came home to a package on the doorstep. I love packages. Sometimes I buy things online just to have packages shipped to my house, rendering even the dullest day delightful. Nothing like coming home to a brown cardboard box.

This package was unexpected. I could tell it was a book, a small one.  It had been shipped from, and while I order regularly from their site I wasn't anticipating anything. When I opened it I discovered a hardbound George Saunders book, with no indication of who'd sent it. The cover was pleasant—a white background with embossed script of the title in a sort of rainbow of colors.

At first I was delighted. When I began to read the book, however (a commencement speech which implores us all to be a little kinder by recounting vivid memories of childhood cruelty) anxiety flooded my arms and neck. Even though I was alone in the house, I could feel my face warming with shame. What if someone was trying to teach me a lesson? Had I been unkind? Was this some form of retribution for a slight I'd inflicted? Who would employ cruel irony in such a calculating way? What had I done to deserve this insincere gift, these fluctuating surges of pleasure and shame? Clearly, someone wanted me to think about what I had done, to encourage me to be nice from now on. My transgressions were gaining on me. I felt absolutely miserable. 

I stood over the table with my head bowed, thinking about a girl named Gertrude from 6th grade. Her name alone was impetus enough for her classmates to pile on. I don't think I was among her tormenters, but maybe the very human foible of denial was playing tricks on my memory. Even farther back there was the asthmatic kid named Steve, a hulking third grader who stalked me on the playground as inexorably as Frankenstein's monster. I could easily dodge him but my only weapon was my mouth, so we reached what we both sensed was a fair exchange: his physical intimidation vs. my wise-cracking. My mind turned to more current falling outs—ex-lovers and brief flings whose doppelgängers antagonize my conscience in supermarkets and concert halls. Then there are the people I have inevitably offended in my work, with intolerance or disrespect, however unintentional. My mind was awash with dozens of injured faces, all casualties of my callousness. I was so ashamed. I had to stop reading the book. I was beginning to feel sick.

A quick text to my big-hearted friend and former student, Susie Ghahremani, allayed my concerns.  I sent her a photo of the book.

     "Did you send me this?"
     "yep :)"
     "Oh thank God. Thought maybe it was someone I had hurt."
    "No, I love that you introduced me to George Saunders whom I now love and this seemed topical! It's a graduation speech he made, I believe."
    "I had to stop reading until I knew who'd sent it. I began to feel guilty—the way he described his misgivings about not being kinder to "Ellen."
     "lol! haven't read it yet! how funny though!"
     "Bless you Susie—you have the biggest heart of anyone I know."

She and I share an enjoyment of Saunders' fiction, and this was another in a long line of kind and generous gestures that I should have known was from her. She is one of the most deeply feeling people on the planet and despite our nearly 20 year age difference she mothers me warmly and with good humor. I'm so grateful for her kindness and for what was, in a fleeting moment, forgiveness.

End of story.