Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"A Monogrammed Fork"

A passage from Hockenberry's Moving Violations has been on my mind for days now.

Reflecting on his experience of paraplegia and the notion that, having become essentially numb "from the nipples down," he would necessarily contemplate suicide, Hockenberry adamantly dismisses the assumption: "It [suicide] had nothing to do with my new life, though many people had a hard time believing this" (78).

Instead, Hockenberry experiences a new relationship to his body--or, more accurately, a new relationship to the relationship between mind and body:
Far from being a blank wall of misery, my body now presented an intriguing puzzle of great depth and texture.  To rediscover my changed body was to explore the idea of the body and its relationship to the mind in a way no night class, self-help book, or therapist could.  My body may have been capable of less, but virtually all of what it could do was suddenly charged with meaning. (78)
Thus, Hockenberry argues, "I was inside an experience that felt universally human" (78).

I think what Hockenberry is speaking to is, in fact, a "universally human" experience, but one that, for most of us, is not typically played out on the level of our physical embodiment.

We all seek to comprehend the ways in which we move through the world, and I think we are all regularly startled when others choose to believe things about us that are in no way a measure of our own experiences or intentions.

I've felt this particularly strongly lately, and it's something I've encountered more or less consistently over the course of the past five years.

It has never failed to amaze me how determined people are to believe that they "know" my experiences and that they know what I have intended to do, to say, and to feel in response to those experiences.

The measure of their knowledge is always their own assumptions about what I "should" think and feel and do, and it is always based on their assumptions about what they think they "should"--or would-- think and feel and do, in a similar situation.

No number of words and no amount of explanation will convince them: they have to know that they "know," and they have to assert what they know.

In the end, I have had to weigh the possibility of what might pass (for some) as a "friendship" (defined exclusively by them and coupled, for me, with constant annoyances and frustration) against the peace of discontinued contact.

I chose peace and quiet.

If someone isn't listening, hasn't listened, will never listen, but believes that he is and has and deserves your friendship as a result, should you keep speaking the same words over and over, hoping they will, in fact, be heard and understood--eventually?

For a long time, I grappled with this question.  Eventually, I simply got tired of facing the same question, over and over, with every encounter.

Life should bring new things to us, daily.  The people who offer us life's newness, these are the ones we want to keep around.  The ones who want us set in stone are only looking out for themselves.

It had become a broken record: every time I saw or communicated with him, he brought up the past, what I had done, what I had felt, what he had meant, over and over and over.  Always, he returned to some event that had happened months before, stirred up old annoyances, and then encouraged me-- gave me permission, actually-- to "move on," now that I had his understanding of it all in hand.

But what about today, right now, this moment?  What about that?  Where are you in that?

Nowhere to be found, actually.  Just ruminating on something you want to redefine to suit yourself, now that it's all over and done with.

Really, it had nothing to do with me.  It was his own need and his own questions that he was unable to answer, so he became determined to provide an answer and insisted that I should agree with him.

He never heard or saw me, as I actually was, because he was always too busy trying to make me fit what he thought he saw and heard.  He was never comfortable with uncertainty.  He would never address the situation in the moment; he simply waited until it had passed, and then when it was clear that I had moved on, he retrospectively asserted his interpretation of things.

It was totally self-serving and beyond annoying, in the end.

He was a metaphysical control-freak.  Frightened by life's randomness, he fled it in the moment of its occurrence, only to return with a prefabricated "answer" when it seemed "safe" to do so.

Life isn't about staying "safe" when it comes to the people and the things and the interactions that matter.  It's about recognizing and confronting and navigating risk, knowing that you can't possibly-- and therefore won't always-- be "right" in your judgments and assessments of others.

We each have to answer our own questions ourselves; we have to listen to the answers of others, not seek to impose our solutions on their experiences.

I think this is what Hockenberry is speaking to in terms of his own relationship to his newly disabled body.  For most of us, these questions are played out metaphysically--in terms of our loves, our friendships, our careers, etc.--but in Hockenberry's case, the questions became relocated to the realm of physical embodiment itself.

It gave them a reality that so many of us would prefer to ignore or avoid, I think.

There are frustrations--always--in seeking solutions, but there is no greater frustration than coping with someone who believes we can stop seeking because they "know" "the" answer.

Our very questioning frightens them.  But that's not our problem, ultimately.

Like Hockenberry confronting his body, we all face intriguing puzzles of great depth and complexity.  They will never be solved.

Solving them isn't the point.

As Hockenberry argues:
Formulae for change and grief and trauma efface the possibility that we each might discover our own way through difficulty, and by doing so reclaim our own lives from the oppressive forces that tell us who we are and what we should be from the moment we are aware.  Change arrives for each soul in its own way, devoid of pattern.  Each person confronts trauma as though it has never before happened.  It is this which allows the mind and body to fashion a solution unique and appropriate to the identity of a person. (86)
Ultimately, "If the shock of that change, like the death of a loved one or the loss of one's legs, is a fork in the road, it is a monogrammed fork" (86).

A monogram we must each etch with our own symbols and in our own language, to be traced out along our own particular lines. 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."