Current/Recent Reading List

03 August 2008

The Good Tears Were Sad Tears

With all the fun I've been making of the women-folk lately, especially in conjunction with the Writing Project experience, let me give you a small vignette about one day when I didn't mind the tears at all:

As mentioned previously, we were split into peer writing groups of four, and within these groups we read and gave each other feedback about our pieces, both online, and in person. In my group there was one lady in her fifties, one in her mid-thirties, and one in her mid-twenties.

The latter of these is a fifth grade teacher, and to observe her personality - bright, friendly, wholesome, and oh-so-maternal - is immediately to know that elementary education fits her well. Other clues about her cropped up each day during the first week of our institute: she baked breakfast goodies for us twice, she fussed over her hair and clothes when others wanted to take pictures, her necklaces and bracelets always matched her pants, and when she gave her presentation, she wore heels and a fairly formal black dress. She even told us that she and a few friends had started a cooking club together. If I had to pick one person I know who could go back in time and survive, probably thrive, as a stereotypical 1950's-style housewife, it would be her. Her first writing, a childhood memoir, was about the aw-shucks vacations her family always took at a cabin by the lake (yes, they even toasted marshmallows), while all her other friends went to Disney, or Cancun, or Hilton Head. I wondered aloud if she felt a jealous tension over what her friends got to do compared to her, and in total seriousness she said, "Nah." All of this made me privately giggle a bit - which is probably patronizing - but I meant no harm. She was obviously a wonderful person, but a bit of a throwback, and without much life experience yet.

Or so I thought. The next writing assignment was a personal narrative, in which we were to explore a formative event in our lives. We read these in our peer groups, and we were even being recorded as part of a study on peer writing feeback. My young friend waited until last to read hers, and I sensed a different confidence about her this time, like she knew she had something good. From the first couple of paragraphs, it was obvious I was right. Her writing was funny this time, all about her hair: the travails she had as a young girl when her mother wouldn't let her wear it long, and then the absolute self-esteem she had, once she was allowed long hair, from her teen years to the present. Even once she was married and gainfully employed, she occasionally had nightmares that her hair had been all cut off. These were mere dreams, though, and life seemed to be sailing along.

As she read, I knew some turn of fate was coming, but never suspected it would be too bad - perhaps just a mild admonition life brought along to remind her that looks aren't everything. When the turn came, though, we were all unprepared for the gravity and immediacy of it. She read of how, merely a few months ago, she miscarried a baby, and her beloved grandmother died, back to back. She reached this point in the paper so suddenly that I could almost hear my own internal "thud". Concurrently, all the confidence in her voice fell off, and she began sobbing. This was obviously awkward, and one of the other group members offered to read for her, while I dug in my pocket for a tissue to offer. She took the tissue, but wanted to keep reading, and she did, though with difficulty. Turns out, on the day her baby would have been due, she scheduled a hair cut, wanting to take inches off, wanting to feel like she could make a fresh start. When it was over, her feelings of brokeness, alas, had gone nowhere, and she finally had to squarely face herself and her grief.

It was a stunning story, and a stunning effort to finish reading it, all the while fighting back tears. We all eventually tried to offer a few pointers here and there about how to improve the piece, but frankly it needed no improvement - not then, anyway. The best I could tell her, in the end, was, "That was an awesome piece of writing, but I'm so sorry."

Two days later, when it came time to pick one member of the peer group to read to everyone, we told her she was the pick, and crossed our fingers. She read with absolute composure, but absolute conviction, her voice not breaking until the final sentence.

In the face of her bravery, who cares what I was thinking, really, but I'll tell you anyway. What I felt was absolute pride in my young friend, who I know now, better than I did before, will some day be a perfect mom.

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