To the Lonely and the Shamed

To the lonely and the shamed who have stood in the darkness of a cold stairwell not wanting to go up or down or afraid to emerge from the solitary place, you are not alone. We all have been there at some point and some of us are still there. We avoid people and dodge accusing eyes. There is depth to the pain of shame that reaches deep into our core. Shame is beyond reflection on specific behavior and more private than disgrace. It’s an indictment on the self. It consumes the humanity in a person and brings out the worst in us at the moment we are weakest. Our empathy dissolves into self-pity. Altruism evolves into anger, blame, and transference of shame.

And there’s no easy way out. Of course there’s the potent pill or the blessed booze that offers a brief reprieve from the pain before dragging the tortured soul deeper into shame. For those who choose to endure with the drooped head and slouched posture, there’s isolation, depression, and the ultimate moment when the mind defeats the person.

But the most disgusting thing about shame is not that we feel it, although for anyone who wakes up every day wanting only to crawl into a cave and expire, it truly is awful. What is horrific is that at a societal level, we induce it in others by the way we assign shame-inducing labels, by the way we treat the people who we deem to be below us, or by the way we make snap judgments on character based on skin color, nationality, tattoos, or body size.

No one understands the pain of shame as deeply as the child humiliated for an error and compared to a dog, or a wife belittled and battered for questioning her husband, or an unwed mother who needs the government check and is not lazy, or the person who is taunted and called a fag but is not gay, or the person who is taunted and called a fag and is gay, or the felon applying for a job knowing a background check will immediately disqualify him. The list could go on.

And there are some who feel certain people deserve shame. Judges might expect it from convicted criminals. Family members expect it from a loved one who has fallen off the wagon. There are those who believe some ought to be shamed for their religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or residency status. It’s easy to draw a justification. Shouldn’t a criminal feel shame for a crime committed? Or an addict for destroying their family with their addiction? Or a Guatemalan for crossing our borders illegally…and not speaking English?

If someone truly has transgressed, we should focus on the transgression and spare the man. Allow a guilty person to feel guilt, accept it, and work to make amends. By inducing shame in others, we are actually breeding recurrence of bad behavior because a man who has nothing has nothing to lose.

No one deserves shame.

But this is to the people who feel shame, those who are stuck in the dark stairwell and who feel alone. Shame feels very public and sometimes we do bare the scarlet letter. In reality, however, shame is a prison we build for ourselves. Managing shame is about letting go. It’s about accepting what we’ve done and who we are. It’s not shying away from guilt when we’ve erred, but it’s also acknowledging that we are not forever defined by a single behavior.

If shame is the prison, then pride is the key to freedom. It’s not that we should think that we are inherently exceptional. Perhaps more dangerous than a shamed person is the eternally proud one, the narcissist. Pride is something we are not born with or that we are entitled to. Every day it must be earned by actions, even if they seem small in the grand scheme of life. But every day offers an opportunity to do that thing, that mutually beneficial deed that elevates the perception of self. Civic pride. Perhaps a good place to start is looking to the lonely and the shamed and reminding them that they are not alone and that shame doesn’t need to endure.

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A Simple Note

A simple note is never so simple
There is a draft
a revision
some time for reflection
on the sentence or two
that will carry my sentiments—

Reading it aloud again and again
Sifting through words that might miss their mark
or may be misconstrued as slightly offensive
I question—
Does the occasion call for such careful deliberation?

A simple note?

It’s signed, folded, inserted—
the envelope sealed—
then unsealed, removed, and unfolded before the saliva has dried—
One final inspection for lexical defects
Then refolded, reinserted, resealed with tape—

A simple note—

A congratulations on the birth of your son
And a happy second birthday to him, too.

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The Shells

Feel the crunching of the shells-
Helpless shells!
What a world of broken homes this grind foretells!
How they glitter, glitter, glitter
on the crowded beach tonight!
Gone are displaced crawling critters,
replaced now by piles of litter.
Stereos boom, boom, boom
and drunken parties loom.
Oh, how I long to hear
the ocean swells
from the shells, shells, shells, shells,
shells, shells, shells –
From the murmurs and the echoes of the shells.

Find those perfect, hollowed shells
Ocean shells!
What a barren world their scarcity foretells!
Their tenants ran, consumed with fright.
Plastic ice-chests they could not fight.
Their homes are in ruin,
and in shattered pieces float
On shallow water of a sandcastle’s moat.
On this dune
is not a single well-formed shell.
I begin to feel frustration swell.
Children yell.
Vendors sell
what will be trash! – hear me tell
Consumer greed they do compel.
We’re given things and dreams
but no shells, shells, shells.
But no shells, shells, shells, shells,
Shells, shells, shells –
Lost is the finding and collecting of the shells!

Ah, see the perfect ivory shells,
Pretty shells!
See them! See those shells that Sally sells!
Her booth was hidden by the night.
That big one’s mine– the price is right!
Cash, credit card, or even check
I buy and wear it around my neck.
The time is late.
Except for the few around a midnight fire
the crowds have gone
and to my desire
waves have risen higher, higher, higher.
The ocean is a choir.
I’ll sit here forever and ever
On broken shells or whatever.
Under the light of a brand new moon
On the shells, shells, shells!
On the shells, shells, shells, shells
Shells, shells, shells –
I’m wearing and I’m crushing all the shells.

shells

 

The Whistling Rebel

The other day I found myself in the hallway of the vacant 13th floor of an office building. As I approached the intersection with another hallway, I heard someone whistling Mary Had a Little Lamb. When I turned the corner at the intersection I came face to face with the construction worker who was responsible for the performance. He quickly modified his tune by throwing in some random notes to obscure the original melody.

It didn’t fool me, and I thought about calling him out on it. But then I remembered all the times when I thought I’d been alone and whistled corny songs. I myself had been a victim of music bullying, teased for liking or whistling uncool music or for being clueless to the latest music trends.

In Elementary School, I was a kid unsure of how to defend myself for whistling Eine Kleine Nachtmusik while walking down the hall. I didn’t have enough “street sense” at the time to say, “Oh, I’m just whistling that annoying IHOP song.” Instead, I’d confess that I’d been sharing a Mozart tune with the world and would deal with the subsequent snickers.

Not only was my whistled music ridiculed. Later, in my high school and college years, my mix tapes were always rejected at parties and social gatherings, perhaps for my persistent inclusion of Safety Dance (the most fun song ever) on every mix.

I’m sure we all have a favorite song we’re too ashamed of to admit. Why is this? Why should a particular arrangement of tones be more culturally acceptable than others? I think we would all like to release our inner Carlton Banks, which perhaps is why the Carlton dance resonates with so many people. We would like the opportunity to be happy without fear of derision for the very thing that makes us happy.

What is interesting to me is the whistling phenomenon. What we whistle is normally an unconscious decision. We’re repeating something we’ve recently heard or recalling something close and familiar. We just do it. A melody takes hold and emerges from our pursed lips.  And it always happens when we’re happy or at least solidly content (I’ve never considered whistling Mozart’s Requiem when in a depressed mood). So, if the melodies we whistle are associated with happiness, why would we suppress the other outlets of these songs for the sake of social conformity? Do we value acceptance more than happiness? Should we be ashamed for being a whistling rebel?

What the Guidelines Say

The guidelines say

who and how we may love

what we might say

what a woman should be

            all autonomy

unless she should desire to reject

the rigid role of dutiful wife and sell her appeal for a buck tucked under string

because the guidelines tell us exactly how we are to be free

and the guidelines say

how we should pray

and who we obey

and how it’s okay

to have our own way

as long as we stay

within God We Trust

and celebrate the holy day

of gingerbread men and candy canes

and the guidelines say

on whom we may prey

and whom to blame

when there’s sickness or disease

or murder or pain

and the guidelines say

how much a criminal should pay

and to whom he should write the check

and the guidelines say

we may tweak the guidelines

for those who are close

as long as no one knows.

Mister

(He is well-known so I won’t reveal his name)

I met him when I was young.

He lurked in an unmarked van near the school

and once moved into the vacant house next door.

He was a foreigner –

an intruder to our land.

As I aged

I realized

every night

he entered my home through the screen

and I watched him with suspicious eyes.

I erected walls,

secured locks,

but like a stubborn itch

he always reappeared.

He sat next to me on the airplane

as I quivered in my seat.

He tracked me through the wires,

threatening to steal my life,

and I spent my nights

awaiting the midnight tapping at the door.

 

Eventually

I would surrender to him.

He was my protector,

the one keeping me safe at night.

 

Until the drunken dinner

when I carved him up

soaked him in butter

and ate him

brushing off the parsley and chives

relishing every bite

postponing the certainty

this would later make me sick.

 

And now I am dying

of this terminal disease

called life.

 

Why was he always near?

And who was so cruel

to introduce me to fear.

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