Say, for a moment, that you can read everyone’s minds. Before we get too excited, let’s disentangle ourselves from the myriad ways this skill might come in handy and instead, zero in on one. We may be the most educated, interconnected band of humans to walk the planet yet, but we are not doing right by each other. To prove it, take your newfound telepathic talent, set off on a stroll down the street, and ask your neighbors what’s most important to them.
Chances are, the word “family” is going to roll off several tongues.
Mind-blowing, isn’t it? Not really. We organize our lives around the grand societal pillar that family has become in so many cultures, so it isn’t news that Mom and Grandpa are important. Rather, it’s how we then go on to treat these relatives after professing them as such.
We are the generation of busy. We are on the go nonstop, tossing sleep and peace of mind out the window without taking stock of what their loss means. “Busy” has become, as Tim Kreider puts it in The “Busy” Trap, the “default response” for your average greeting. But, while busyness may masquerade as a surface issue, or simply a convention of the time, destined to slowly fade from use, like drive-in movie theatres or bell-bottomed jeans, its roots are deep.
After all, what does “busy” mean? Merriam-Webster dictionary calls it “involved in often constant activity,” which we can boil down to “out of time.” Decrypting that code phrase, you understand it to mean that there was time, it just wasn’t spent on you.
There’s where our interpretation of busyness is distorted. It’s this “you,” or really we, that lies at the heart of the busyness crisis, because just as often as someone is too wrapped up in work to deal with us, we too fail to find time for them. No one bullies us into taking the lead in that group project. Earth will not fizzle into nothingness if we don’t sign up for that 5k, or don’t make dinner from scratch. Like Kreider points out, “it’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed,” which begs us to wonder why, if we can take on more work, can’t we also rid ourselves of it?
We have spent too much time toying with this “why” and postulating “hows”. It’s what I’m doing right now, and maybe you are too, and certainly what Kreider’s article has taken a stab at. What we aren’t talking about is what our “busy” means for our loved ones. Look outside yourself, busy person.
The truth is that as much as being swamped is a “copout” for friends, Mekita Rivas notes that it has become equally commonplace “when doling out reasons for […] neglecting loved ones.” The National Council on Aging has placed family members at fault in 60% of elderly neglect incidents, which is not to say that each of us is the agent of our elders’ distress, but it should be a jab into our subconsciouses. As much as we find the busy excuse to be “a direct slap in the face,” it is equally so to those we release it upon – a category which we have lumped our relatives into. Most of us would affirm the statement “family is important.” Most of us, however, would not be able to avow that we had never postponed a dinner with Dad, rushed through a phone call to finish AP Chemistry homework, or canceled a casual family get-together because work came up.
“Life is too short to be busy” may be Tim Kreider’s way of topping an apparently unsolvable social dilemma with rainbow sprinkles and leaving it be. Or, it might have merit – just not the kind you’re expecting. It’s one thing when the life you’re talking about is your own; it’s something else when that ticking clock belongs to another person. I’ll never be too busy to regret what I missed when I’m no longer here to miss it. So this weekend, I’m going to brunch with my grandmother. Everything else will wait.
This is not to say that you did something wrong, but I think you killed my brother. I’m not sure yet, but once I am, and once you are holding this in your hand, it will hopefully read with firmer conviction.
Again, this is still up in the air.
I’m curious about what happened to you. We saw each other on one of June’s stickiest, most unreasonable days to date. I walked into town for ice cream, because to suffer in the heat is more endurable when you shake up what activity you pair it with. You biked across the street in front of me with some purple flowers in your pocket. I was a speck, a little, moist sack of air with a chocolate cone; you did not see me.
In retrospect, that was the last time I saw you.
So when did we last lay eyes on each other? Interact? Note, here, that I mean to emphasize the mutual nature of ‘we’. Could it, perhaps, have been in one of the four classes that we have shared in the past few years of schooling? Well, that would make sense. One room, discussions bouncing off the walls, partnerships…It really does go on.
Or! An even grander possibility: the Science Team. You are a member, or you were, and so am I. What better place to connect to someone on a more personal level than a (sparsely-populated) room of kids who all share your exact same interest. What better environment to engage in the social norm of “making friends”? Think on that, Leana.
Think on it.
Well, actually, I could be wrong. If we had ever interacted, I would cue your intake of air at my admission of mistake now. I’m hoping you might be starting to get the gist of what I’m telling you.
Jonny was a good kid. He took tough classes but still smiled. Sincerity radiated from his palms like a firework spitting lithium salts at the sky.
On a Tuesday last February I was chewing my pencap and reading over the history of Hannibal when Jonny brought you home. You stayed for the afternoon. You didn’t say hello.
Most days afterwards were borishly identical to that Tuesday.
You were the rudest person I had ever met. That, in itself, is a false statement, because never did I have the displeasure of making your acquaintance.
But I don’t blame you for that.
Several months of The Identical Tuesdays blended together before I caught Jonny fumbling with the latch to his bedroom window at two one morning. He never knew, but I caught him. Just like I did with the you-know-whats in an old framed picture from Little League. Just like I did every morning that he slumped over the kitchen table, looking at his cereal as if it were about to fly out of his bowl and bite his nose.
That I blame you for.
So my truth is that I know what you did. But I still want to know where you went after my brother turned up in the street, ribs broken, no more air in his lungs. Had you been in that car?
Did he save you from what happened to him? Tell me.
What I know is that, before you came home that first Tuesday and chatted with my mother and scraped balls of cookie dough out of the tub in the refrigerator, Jonny had nowhere to be at midnight. And after you, he did.
After you, he died.
Did you put those purple flowers on his grave?
I am still at Lernon Street should you decide to let me know.
Don’t you know I’m not moving?
That’s what I want to say, when I’m with you.
When we ride the train into the city while night beats its wings at our backs.
When there’s a lull in the conversation, or when that second passes when I scramble to reach the door you’ve held for me, arms outstretched.
Don’t you know?
When I think about the moment I stopped, the moment I first heard your voices swims up into my consciousness.
You know, that night I woke up because you were screaming again.
It turned out that you weren’t.
(Maybe that was a trick from slumber?)
Or should I really ask you,
“Do you know?”
Because I peel seconds away from myself, whole minutes where I know that we are clear.
Crystal, in fact.
I won’t ask you, I promise. Even though I’m still not moving.
Even though the fingers at the edge of my mouth make it smile.
Even though I woke up that night and heard you screaming when you weren’t.
I love you, but I promise.
I won’t ask you if you know that I’m not moving.
It feels like a paper weight–
sitting, rustling, biding time–
It eats at my esophagus,
Nestles in the nook of my rib cage.
I don’t like the word “scream,” but I want to.
When the musics fades away, It is back.
It munches on my spare time,
My pure thoughts,
My yellow sandals in the corner.
Unconsciousness is not sublime.
When will It finish with me?
Humanity is a learned species. It can calculate the curvature in the paths of celestial bodies, or decipher the meaning behind wheelbarrows and chickens with scratches of graphite. It goes as far as to explain its own many attributes with the help of karyotyping and Punnett Squares. We, humanity, divide ourselves into the havers of hitchhiker thumbs, the brunettes, the left-handed scissor-strugglers, and the unfortunate sunburners. Every characteristic has a biological explanation; there is no room for interpretation. Still, the nucleic acid in our cells cannot summarize the parade of humans who pass each other by on the street. Our species observes itself and sees what biology has bestowed upon it: curly hair, blue eyes, skin color. What it doesn’t see is what biology cannot explain: the inexplicable beauty in motivation, thought, and dream. Humanity may take one form as a struggling single father of three children, or another as a rags-to-riches businesswoman, and while science can measure their persons using the genetic code, there is no formula to tell the one craving pizza from the one reliving a children memory.
Thus, the human species has taken up the art of “passing;” we have decrypted our chemical makeup, but not our motivations. The ever rapidly-advancing technology that has offered us space travel, internet, and medical breakthroughs just isn’t certain about what goes on in those fantastic, intracranial organs we have. So we may have a disconnect between measurable facts and hypothetical assumptions, science and thought. In that space, passing emerged. Previous American societies, encouraged by humanity’s refusal to be restrained by limits, latched onto passing. The fragmentation of cell bars, bars that extend past biological prisons to include those of social status or wealth, is what passing embodies, and what gives it such enticing potential. It allows any passerby to wear a mask, and by doing so, enlarge their world. While it originally referred only to the subject of race, as it does in Nella Larsen’s Passing, in which antagonist Clare Kendry “passes” as Caucasian, the meaning of American passing has expanded. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby, in his masquerading as a man born from wealth, represents the development of passing’s definition. As American culture gravitated toward self-reinvention, passing, in its expanding forms, took root in our society.
Many of us might argue that we don’t “pass” at all. After all, doesn’t the very concept suggest that we aren’t satisfied with what we are? No, the human species cannot define passing just as a way of creating new identities for itself, because while we do have the power to dictate who we are, passing can be more than just that. Humans, as sentient beings, “pass” every time they tell a lie, keep a brave face, or pretend. We pass not to escape what we are, but to protect it. United States citizens, having lived in a country with an overall upwards trend in divorce rates over the past century, have come to use passing to protect themselves and their loved ones. In this form of passing, which has sprung from crumbled relationships, children of divorce take on the roles of the adults who look after them. While these role-reversals prompt children to mature early, they also represent an alternative form of passing rooted not in personal betterment, but in compassion.
The United States, as well as most of humankind, has only recently in its history become open to divorce. The revolutionary thought and development that makes our country unforgivingly American pulled the illicit subject out of the shadows of disgrace and blanketed it in modern values. Since 1870, national divorce ratings have surged from near-zero to 800,000 per year, a number representative of the fact that more Americans are unwilling to spend their lives dissatisfied with an irreconcilable spouse (Swanson). But, for Americans who are parents, their children remain a permanent obstacle that keeps them from cutting ties with their former spouse. For lucky children (and ex-spouses), parental contact remains cordial enough for the divorce not to disrupt the lives of the children. However, in many cases the “the less you have to do with your ex, the better” mentality takes over and leaves children stranded between two parents harboring negative emotions (Balduf).
When we’re kids, we read storybooks with anthropomorphic tigers that talk to us about prime numbers and how to tie our shoes. Once in a while, we play four-square at recess, or look through I–Spy books, or make domino chains at after-school. We’re children. We’re children, and forty-percent of us have divorced parents (32 Shocking). The most mild, even “pleasant” of divorces impact children. The human species’ brain continues developing into the twenty-fifth, twenty-sixth year of life – or beyond (GLOOM). Unsurprisingly, in comparison, the highly impressionable brains of children are even more succeptible to change, being at earlier stages of development (Hamilton). Children of divorce not only find that their allegiances are tested, but that their parents’ sporadic, unpredictable behavior starts to mirror their own. In place of mac ‘n’ cheese for dinner, children are fed nasty information about their other parent (Sedacca). Innocent and trusting, some find themselves confused when Daddy won’t make friends with Mommy.
Because parents can stoop to a level of adolescent pettiness and discourtesy, children of divorce must pick up the slack. In most cases, that doesn’t quite mean paying taxes or doing the dishes, but sacrificing their innocence and becoming an emotional pillar of support. Exposed to a fragile, even bitter side of adulthood that their parents never intended for them to see, children of divorce tumble out of their protective bubbles. There, in a more honest, shocking environment, they come face-to-face with real-world problems that many of their peers have never imagined. Because of these situations, it’s no surprise that “research has consistently shown that children from divorced families exhibit […] greater maturity and greater independence” (J Am). Children whose parents have divorced see that the world around them does not always lie on stable ground. They know that their parents are hurting, and so they learn not to bring up their other parent, not to show preference, or even – as a form of emotional support – to show preference only to the parent they’re with at the time. They make these sacrifices as they become attuned to the separate wavelengths their parents run on. Just like Robert Weiss suggests, their demonstrated maturity in learning at a young age to cope with problems that they have no tools to solve confirms that “divorce makes children ‘grow up a little faster’” (Kirkpatrick).
The word “divorce” has been circling in my head since I was ten. My dad moved out when I was in fourth grade, and it took a year for me to realize that he wasn’t coming back. There was a final piece of blissful ignorance still holding on inside me, helping me to overlook what I would have seen if I had let myself. I didn’t want change, but we all needed it. In the past eight years that I’ve lived two separate lives, in different homes, as disparate versions of myself, I’ve come to understand that my experience having divorced parents wasn’t unique; we all saw and felt and hurt. For each of us, divorce stained our childhood.
I don’t want to be angry with my mom and dad for what their divorce did to me and my little sister. I don’t want to be angry because I know that it was not meant to hurt us. I don’t want to be angry because I have thirteen years of pent-up anger, and the people around me have already soaked up enough of it. But I also know that a lot of who I am is because of the sacrifices that I made for my parents. When I was nine, I stopped mentioning my parents’ names. I saw a counselor as a part of my parents’ divorce agreement for five years, and each time that I went, I did it with a little voice in the back of my head, whispering to me that if I could set an example for them, maybe they would go too. It seemed crazy to me that they didn’t think they had any issues to solve in counseling, that it was just me. That outrage, of course, stayed quiet and confined in my head.
A lot of me stayed quiet and confined. Fear of a raising a touchy topic became a fear of speaking, and eventually manifested itself as stage fright. I was nine the first time that I danced in the Nutcracker at the Boston Opera House; I quit ballet before the end of elementary school. When I was thirteen, I would wake up at five every morning to bike between my parents houses for school supplies or track uniforms. I had started to notice how much they hated when I asked to be driven between the two homes, how they grimaced at the word “dad” or “mom.” At night, I held my mom’s hand while she cried on our kitchen floor, asking for her own mother. One blistering summer afternoon she told me that she didn’t know if she could do it anymore. Five years have passed since then, and I still don’t know whether she meant fighting in court to keep us in her life, or fighting for a reason to keep her life at all.
My form of passing is one that many people – many children – experience, have experienced, and will continue to experience. But, unlike Clare Kendry’s racial passing to live an upper-class lifestyle, or Jay Gatsby’s form of it to reunite with the love of his life, this type of passing isn’t something I chose. When I heard my parents’ ugly words, I gave up my blind trust in them. When they lashed out at me, I let my reliance on them disintegrate. When I saw them hurting, I disregarded my own problems. When they were small, I promised myself that I would be the bigger person for them. By safeguarding their feelings at the expense of my own, I surrendered the innocence that, as a child, I was owed. Still, while some of my actions may seem voluntary, I never consciously decided them. Even as kid, something in me was programmed to respond. Biology kicked in. The human species – amazing, sentient beings as we are – has an inherent compassion waiting on the sidelines, ready to trigger our protective instincts. The biological prison in which each of us lives may just be our greatest asset. It’s true, humanity is a learned species, but it hasn’t figured out everything. There’s a gap between decoding genes and solving the scientific puzzle behind motivation and thought. When we cross it, we might find that passing was inherent all along.
The girls on the corner gave him a hard time. He dropped his ice cream.
His mom made his brother’s favorite dinner. Saturday Night Live was on, but he didn’t watch.
On the bus ride home, Tommy and Jess pulled up at the same red light in a dark blue SUV. He pretended not to see them.
He slept in to avoid everyone.
He slept. There were birds outside his window in the afternoon.
Five kids in Chemistry raised their hands to talk about the semi-formal dance they had gone to over the weekend.
School skipped him over a day.