A conversation, heard almost daily in my house when I was a kid:
Mom: Stacey, you know why they don't send donkeys to college, don't you?
Me (after much eye rolling and shaking of the head for the sheer inanity of the response that was sure to come. And a deep, teen-aged sigh of resigned disdain, which actually preceded most statements that I made between the ages of 12 and, um a lot later in my life).: No, Mom. Why? (sigh)
Mom: Because nobody likes a smart ass.
Ha ha. Said no one, ever - not in response to that joke. And it was a joke. Right? I'm going with yes: it was, if nothing else, an attempt.
Thing is, I was a smart ass. I was cocky, condescending, sometimes downright mean and obnoxious in my know-it-allness. I was way too smart for my own good. No one, least of all my mother, could teach me anything.
I stayed a smart ass for a long time. I thought of it as protective coloring: I lashed out with my tongue, my rapier wit, that cut with laser precision, drawing blood and leaving scars, all as a way to push you away faster than you could hurt me. Because if there was one thing I had learned, in my short decade or so, it was that you would hurt me. You would crush me and leave me in the dust. In a heartbeat. So the extension of that great piece of learning: push everyone away, as fast as you can. Make them hurt as much as you do.
I was so very wise for a ten year old. Fifteen. Twenty-three. And on and on. I was so wise that I learned absolutely nothing.
Don't get me wrong - I learned a lot of facts. I was pretty gifted in school. I went to college for free on a merit scholarship. Got a full fellowship to grad school, to work on a PhD in Early Modern English history. This does not roll off the tongue with any grace or ease. I used that as a wry excuse for quitting the program after a year and a half. That was much easier than admitting another great learning of mine: that I was a fraud - at life, at being a student - at being a human being - and if I didn't quit, and run, and hide, Someone would find out. I have no idea what would have happened if Someone - whomever that was - did "find out;" I just knew it would be bad. Maybe I'd get kicked out of school. Maybe I'd get kicked out of life.
So I did what I had learned to do best. I quit. I left. I hid under a suit of armor that protected me from all the slings and arrows that life had to offer.
I hid for years. Mostly, I hid inside a bottle. Alcohol blotted everything out, but every once in a while, I had to come for air. So I hid inside the armor of a fiery-eyed activist, working for peace, organizing for justice. I hid inside a tailored suit, selling stuff with a silver tongue, using my words to draw pictures of need and desire. Even after I got sober, and crawled out of the bottle and into the light, I still hid - in work, in marriage. In God. Even that - I loved the community, the holiness and the life of the synagogue. I loved the struggle and the dance with God. But I hid there just the same.
I hid, because it was what I had learned. What I knew. What felt safe.
I still hide. It still feels like the safest bet to me, and I am desperate to feel safe. I still wear my protective armor day in and day out. I may be old-plus-three, but all those lessons learned still run deep. Bottomless pit deep. I'm like the broken kid who can only watch everyone else running and playing and just being, only from the sidelines, resigned to loneliness, but oh! so very wistful.
I've noticed though, that there a few cracks in the armor. And God, it is getting so heavy. And I am so weary. And I would love nothing more than to say that, for every crack or fissure in that damned armor, some old lesson dies, or escapes, or maybe gets buried, and I learn something new. I learn a different way to be. I learn to live life unguarded. Unprotected. I fear there is no symmetry in this.
I am no longer the condescending, derisive, smart-assed kid who knows everything and so can learn nothing. Thank God. But I don't trust the other lessons much - the lessons on hope, or kindness or love. I am learning them. Painfully slowly, true, but I am learning.
I learned - am learning - to live a sober life. A life without having to pick up a drink to be able to get through the next hour, the next minute, the next bit of eternity. I learned - am learning - to seek God. I am not promised that I will ever find God, but that is not the point. I am learning that the joy and the grace are found in the quest. I learned - am learning - that love does not have to be (and should not be) conditional. I learned - am learning, and I find I face this lesson again and again - that, broken as I am, weary as I am, lost and hidden as I am - I am (just maybe) enough.
(c) Stacey Zisook Robinson