December 17, 2008
Let there be peace on earth,
And let it begin with me.
— Jill Jackson, b. 1913, and Sy Miller, 1908-1971
Festivus, that totally bogus, sitcom-generated, manufactured silliness, is coming next week, when I will take an opportunity to air a grievance. I’ve been putting more energy than is healthy into deciding which one. No doubt I have hurt or disappointed someone in the past year (at least in the past year!), and I thought it might be useful to air a regret, to recall a situation where I might have hurt someone and to ask forgiveness. I am choosing this day for my annual “Express a Regret” day because it is the birthday of an old and dear friend. We let too many years of silence go by without airing our grievances as well as expressing our regrets and asking each other’s forgiveness. To honor the healing and the restored friendship, here’s something I did this summer that I regret.
Readers of this space know that I attend the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont every August. On arrival day we receive the workshop packets, and usually have one or two manuscripts to read and respond to before our first meeting the next day. This is the hardest part of the process for me, because I don’t know the workshop leader’s style, I don’t know what he or she might think is important or helpful to discuss, and I don’t know my classmates. When I take my packet back to my house and begin reading, I invariably find that almost everybody else’s work is better than mine.
That’s what happened this year. The first manuscript I read took a stock situation that could easily become as set of clichès and approached it with some twists and some techniques that were edgy and unexpected. The central character was a woman who had been dangerously obese but who, when the story opens, has lost a great deal of weight. The story moves backwards in time in a series of vignettes, each bearing a subhead that begins with a letter of the alphabet, which is also proceeding backwards. The effect is that when the story ends, the alphabet is at the beginning, the central character is at her highest weight, the reader knows the trauma that seems to have made her start gaining weight, and everything that came before makes sense.
I thought it was well-done. My only criticism was that the numbers that indicate the character’s weight did not ring true for me. Her highest weight is given as 175 pounds. If you’re 5’4″ tall (as I am and as the character is) you won’t become a Victoria’s Secret model or be in Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue, but neither will you be taking up two seats on the subway or look so grotesque that people will point at you and make fun of you audibly (well, not a lot of people). Both of those things, as well as other humiliations, happen to the central character.
When I met the author the next day, I could see how she might think 175 pounds is grotesquely and morbidly obese. She weighed about 110 pounds and was very fine-boned. She was maybe early thirties, with long blonde hair and long lithe legs. She wore cigarette jeans, tie-dyed gauzy tops, high-heeled sandals. She was gorgeous.
She was also a very nice person. Her name was Janet, she lived in California, and was away from her children (middle schoolers) for the first time. She was quiet, shy even, and when she read a portion of her manuscript to get the discussion started her voice seemed to waver. When I gave my assessment of her piece I was very careful to emphasize all the things I thought were successful about it, and to question only the numbers. I wondered if there were a way to eliminate the numbers altogether, since weighing 175 pounds means different things to different people. Others, however, were less kind, not about the numbers so much as about other aspects of the work.
My manuscript was addressed at our next meeting (we meet every other day). Of all the years I’ve been to Bread Loaf, this is the year I learned the most and felt the most enthusiastic about the possibilities for revision. Janet’s comments, spoken in class and written in notes to me, were among the most helpful. I sat with her and some others from our group at lunch that day. In the evening I walked by the outdoor phone booth. She was in it, and I knew that she was talking to one of her children. (You have to leave the door open and hang out into the grassy area or you’ll suffocate, even in the cool Vermont evenings.) There was something in her voice, her tone, that made me want to say something nice to her, but I didn’t see her later.
The next morning, a day when our workshop would not be meeting, I went down to breakfast. I don’t live on campus. I stay in a house at the top of the hill above. It’s less than a quarter mile, and unless I’m going to be carrying a lot of books, I walk back and forth. The coffee in the dining hall is good, really (and I am a coffee snob), and they have half-and-half, but it is served in paper cups. I can’t abide a paper cup for my coffee, so I keep a china mug down there (so I don’t have to carry it back and forth), putting it up on the shelf above the coat rack outside the rest rooms. I push it behind whatever box of office supplies or pile of undistributed phone books is there. This year I used one I bought at the Margaret Mitchell house in Georgia in 2006. It has two Ms intertwined on one side, and on the other a picture of the author and her remark “In a weak moment, I have written a book.”
That morning I arrived for breakfast, went to get my mug, and it wasn’t there. This was most disconcerting to me. It was ten after seven, I’d gotten dressed and walked a quarter mile and hadn’t had my coffee yet. And it looked like I was going to have to have it from a paper cup. And what happened to my MM mug, hmm?
I walked out into the sitting area and looked around. Janet was sitting at a table, working at her computer.
And she was using my mug.
I crept up to her. In my memory, I spoke to her gently. “That’s my cup,” I said. “I really need my mug for my coffee.”
She looked up. Her eyes widened. “Oh I am sorry!” she said. “I thought it was just there for anyone.” She jumped up and ran into the women’s bathroom. She must have dumped her tea (I saw the tag of the teabag as she walked past me) and then washed the cup thoroughly. I could hear the water running and many paper towels being pulled out of the dispenser. She emerged from the bathroom and handed me the mug. It was cleaner than I had ever seen it. “Again,” she said. “I am so sorry.”
I felt bad. Really. Did I need coffee from my own mug so desperately that having it from a Middlebury paper cup would ruin my day?
So I had my breakfast, sitting with the friends I see every year, enjoying my coffee from my MM mug. Our workshop didn’t meet that day, and I went on about my business. Except I was careful to put my mug in the bottom drawer of the unused drop-leaf secretary in the hallway outside the office.
The next day, when our workshop assembled, Janet was not among us. The instructor explained that she had withdrawn from the conference and returned home to attend to a personal matter.
I felt worse. Wondered if the whatever-it-was I heard in her voice that night on the phone had anything to do with it. Wondered if the fact that she rarely smiled had anything to do with it. Letting myself wallow for a while in self-absorption, I wondered if I had anything to with it.
I regret that I made a big deal about my mug. I regret that I didn’t take more time to talk to Janet, to draw her out. Some lines from D.H. Lawrence come to mind tonight:
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
And I have something to expiate:
A year ago, I wrote about the sudden death of a friend.
Two years ago, I wrote about the discussion at my party about the origin of povitica.
Three years ago, I did not post.
Four years ago, I expressed annoyance with a woman who claimed she couldn’t find Hannukah items.
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