21 June 2013

The Tender Heart

My mother called it "hypersensitive." My grandmother called it "tenderhearted." In episodes of unforgettable, excruciating irony, extended family and family "friends" jokingly referred to us as "cry babies."  

As children, my three siblings and I were close, in age and size and temperament. Four little hearts that beat as one:  three huddled together in a closet and cried whenever the fourth was punished. A humiliation or triumph in the life of one was felt by all four. We finished each other's sentences and sometimes dreamed the same dream at night.

With two cars, a three-bedroom house and a garage on a large, well-tended lot, our family was solidly situated economically in the striving middle class of our small town. This made us somewhat unique among American Africans in the town, many of whom lived in small rundown houses on postage-stamp lots or housing projects. Both of my parents were esteemed in the community:  they had "good" jobs; both had graduated from high school; and both were active members of what some saw as the premier Baptist church in town.  We had status. We had reputations to uphold. In our little pond, "the world" was watching.

Making an impeccable public impression was important to my parents, albeit for somewhat different reasons. My mother suffered especially acute mortification on occasions when the family portrait fell short of the ideal. Venturing out into public with four highly-sensitive, prone-to-tears children, there was often a strong possibility that "a scene" would develop.

A straggle of kids outside the drugstore muttering ridicule as we passed...being left in the care of a less-favored relative or served an unusual food at a family gathering...anything might set one or more of us off into inconsolable crying. There was, for us, the universe we inhabited -- and then there was the strange, unpredictable world beyond it in which we were expected to perform flawlessly in a glaring light.

A central task of growing up was growing out of this sensitivity. My mother viewed it as a priority component of our upbringing. I think she believed our survival depended on becoming invulnerable--or at least learning how to pretend invulnerability.

I learned to pretend invulnerability. I learned not to flinch when "bad" kids cursed on the playground. I learned to hide my hands in my pockets when they trembled.  And I learned to always carry myself as though "everyone is watching." Never let them see you sweat (or get mad or embarrassed or excited or confused). Never faint. Never run. Never hit back.

I achieved a remarkable degree of competence at hiding my heart. With one glaring flaw:  I kept crying. As a young woman, I could usually avoid a public outburst (though this sometimes meant holing up in a bathroom stall, stifling sobs with toilet paper); but as I got older this was harder to pull off and most friends soon discovered that I cried easily. A colleague in seminary, observing quiet tears on my cheeks as we talked, said he recognized me as one of The Broken-Hearted. He flattered me "All the great hearts are broken. Love does that when it comes in." 

In my 30s, I came to see it as a problem and began a regimen of anti-depressant medication. The world still bruised me but it didn't hurt as much and I stopped crying.


This week, after months of happily anticipating the opening of Holly Springs' first coffeehouse, hanging hope on the intellectual, financial, social, and artistic benefits my involvement there would bring to my life, I learned that the owner interviewed and hired staff last week. Although he had promised me a position months ago, I was not invited to apply. On an intuitive prompt, I stopped by the shop one afternoon. The young barrista from Oxford, whose role in the enterprise has been pivotal (she led G______ and I in two training sessions) but mysterious (I asked her weeks ago if she would be managing the coffeehouse. "Oh no! I'm just helping unpack and get the kitchen set up," she replied), was there.

"Hey, J______!"
"Hi Alex."
"What's up with completing our training on the machines?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean it's been almost a month since we got together and I understood the plan was for at least twice-a-week sessions til we opened."
"Oh....  Well, you need to talk to C_______ (the owner) about that."
"OK.  Is he here?"

She scurried off without answering and C________ appeared from a back room.

"Hey, Alex!  How's it going?"
"Good.  OK.  I'm still the sky....  Just wondering what's going on with the training."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, last time we were together I was told the next session would be in a few days but it's been weeks since then."

He proceeded to tell me about the complications and challenges of getting the fire door installed. The hassles and added workload of a new project he's taken on in town. Final dramatic, antagonistic run-ins with outgoing city administration. "But I think we have our staff, so that's good," he said at last. 

"Am I part of the staff?" I asked.
"Well, I didn't know if you were still interested. You know G________ has a new job now and...." He was off on a run-down of developments in the employment life of the woman with whom I was to run the shop. "Are you still interested?"

"Yeah. Very much. Nothing's changed for me. Has it changed for you?"
"OK.  I didn't know. OK. We had about 13 people apply. A good group. Hired five folks and ...."

Photographer:  Alexi Mire
We talked for about 15 minutes. And although I learned what I learned only by prying it out of him, little by little, the upshot is that the little barrista is Manager, I am not on staff, and I can maybe check back with him after the shop's been open for "a little while" and see if they need any help.

I felt betrayed. C________ is one of only two or three people I count as friends here. He had assured me I was part of the team. It felt like a punch in the gut. I did not cry until I got home.

I tumbled down down down emotionally for hours afterward, landing, literally, at last, on my bed, escaping for three hours into popcorn, ruby red grapefruit juice and Season 5 of Mad Men on DVD. 

I dragged myself out to buy cigarettes and returned to sit on the back porch and stare.

My thinking turned to silent "People are so ___________!" tirades for awhile. Why can't people say what they mean? Why can't people do what they say they will? Why can't people treat me the way I treat them? 

From there I spiraled into "what does 'friendship' even mean" and "what's wrong with me that I cannot attract honorable relationships?" and "how can I be almost 60 and still not know how to live?" lines of thought for a few hours. I cried some more when I reached this sector of the Galaxy of Despair. I deactivated my Facebook account -- why bother? none of these people are my friends....

Somewhere around 3 a.m. I remembered.
I am the sky.
This is weather.

Nobody's doing anything to me. 

I tell myself
at a kitchen table in a windowless room in the Way Way Back of my mind 
that something is missing and I want It    
from Holly Springs
from the coffeehouse
from C_________          
from my life     
from anyone bold enough to say they are my Friend
"Maybe I'm just like my mother....she's never satisfied" 
I am lifelong familiar with what it sounds like when doves cry


I spent this day in Memphis, making some weather for myself. I did alright. I didn't need a thing. The public library was so damned beautiful and well-designed and cool inside, I actually shed a tear of joy as I left. I sat in the serene garden of The Church of the River, on the banks of the Mississippi, the great river whose complete path I'd just seen etched in the pavement at the entrance to the so damned beautiful public library.  

I have a tender heart. It breaks in all kinds of weather.