Photo of Etta JAMES

I have been working. I have returned to doing work that I felt drawn to when I was much younger, and I have felt very engaged in that work. I have a piece of (heavily edited) journalism that may come out in a few weeks; I have reconnected with my advisor from graduate school and am working with focus and energy on my dissertation again.

The struggle I am having is with community. The people who were my friends in college and graduate school many years ago are now in the middle of tremendously successful careers. They have been working, all of them, with mature, professional focus for decades. They have behaved themselves, and pushed through anxiety, loss, and exhaustion. I admire them, and I often feel bad about myself when I am confronted with the reality of their lives and successes.

But there other communities I can be part of. This one. And the community of the monstrous, who have stopped pretending.

In college a friend, one of those whose careers now makes me feel ashamed of myself, gave me “Tell Mama”, by Etta James. He gave the music to me in the form of a cassette, which I no longer own, although I would have no way of listening to it if I did still have it. But because music is now at our fingertips, I am listening to the song “I would rather go blind” while doing dishes intermittently in our kitchen. Etta James sings of learning that her lover is betraying her:

“Something told me it was over”, she sings. “When I saw you and her talking.”

Something deep down in my soul said ‘Cry, girl’

When I saw you and that girl walking around.

In another room Gwendolyn is going through her many belongings, struggling with a demon of her own— her feeling that she is the keeper of things from her family of origin’s past, things that have a magical power to keep her family happy, alive, and together. She knows that her demon makes her childlike, and that like me she is struggling to be an adult in the way that our peers are adults. But she gets sidetracked by all sorts of things: a painting from her aunt’s garage, or the t-shirt she was wearing when her family went on a picnic when she was in middle school, or a ball of yarn that she wanted to use to knit a scarf for her grandmother. At the end of the day she will have a small bag of paper recycling to throw away, mostly newspapers and mail addressed to people who used to live in our apartment.

How do you turn the way you are damaged into a form that might perk someone else up and make them feel connected? That is what she and I are trying to learn. It seems easy when I listen to Etta James sing:

I would rather- I would rather go blind, boy

than to see you walk away, see you walk away from me.

The strength it takes to simply speak your vulnerability and pain can convey more strength than weakness. I feel no shame in myself when I listen to Etta James: I feel myself straightening in my chair, and I envision walking down the street, greeting people who recognize me and Virgil with warm eyes.

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