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Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Only Thing That Matters

Janice Van Cronkhite, Pearl of Great Price
My friend, I am writing to remind you of the only thing that matters.

Look, we all already know: I'm a loser; I'm a failure.

I had a life. I broke it down into its constituent parts and placed it into three piles: give away, recycle, pack into a backpack that can fit on my back and take it with me.

I gave away a couch to a man who carried it off himself, declining my help; he had previously told me he that had a bad back and lived on disability payments. Bitter laughter at that.

I gave away a television set that one of my Polish students had given to me and on which I used to watch daily reruns of "Night Court" and the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour. That's what it was called, back then.

I don't even remember what I slept on in those days but I gave that – a mattress? A futon? – away.

I hadn't planned on giving friends away; I thought I'd be back soon enough to resuscitate the friendships I was leaving, to rescue them from sinking beneath the surface, from expiring from lack of oxygen. But I didn't return soon enough and by the time I returned, weirdly, all my old friends were transformed into old ladies with adult kids.

How the heck did that happen? Especially since I still felt quite young. I wasn't yet married or a mother and I knew that that would happen eventually when I got older … oops. Uh oh.

I hitchhiked to California and went to grad school and I came out of that exile with a PhD, but so what?

Academia killed me.

I was harassed by a powerful professor. I testified against her. I got sick. I went deaf. I couldn't see. I couldn't move. I had an operation and I tried to rejoin the world, but the world had moved on without me during those years of paralysis and vomiting.

And now I am a loser, a failure, a bum. I live in government-subsidized housing in a slum. I fight day and night for really simple things, like a door in my apartment. That isn't a metaphor. I have to fight for a door in my apartment.

Your story is very different from mine. You made six figures. You bought many cars. You promised the moon. You felt it a mere matter of standing on tiptoes in order to reach it.

But lately you, too, have felt the heavy fist of fate.

You, too, are applying for jobs that you know you could do blindfolded, with your hands tied behind your back, better than anyone else. You can't get these jobs. You are rejected. You are crushed.

You are feeling left out by those for whom you sacrificed, and provided, so very much. You are no longer a human ATM. Ka Ching. Suddenly no one likes you.

You submit your writing to editors. It is rejected. You submit your love to your blood relations. It is rejected. You post a message on Facebook. No one clicks "like." You go for a walk. A pigeon shits on your head. A dog pees on your leg. It was sunny when you left the house, but suddenly the skies open to a deluge. You have no umbrella. Weathermen are amazed. You are surrounded by fingers pointing at, blaming, you.

You wonder, "Do I have the word 'loser' tattooed on my forehead?"

Suddenly blunt cliffs suggest a new use to you. Sharp knives. Gun stores. Prescription medicines. It could all be over so fast.

At my end I can say that you have become a difficult person. You are mean to me. You break commitments. You storm off. You embarrass me in front of mutual friends.

I try to share with you something that delights me. You ignore me. I try to converse with you. You call me a "bitch" and say I am difficult. I offer you some homemade baked goods. "I hate sweets." I offer to buy you lunch. "I'm in such a bad mood I wouldn't be good company."

Let me tell you something. Let me share an insight with you.

Yes, I have nothing and I am nothing. But like those motley fools from the Middle Ages. Losers sometimes know things that winners don't know.

I know the only thing that matters. Lean in close. I must whisper. We can't let this news leak out to too many.

Okay, this is it. Listen carefully. Take notes. Memorize this. This is the only thing that matters.

Me, hurt by you, deciding right now to care about you, and to act, however imperfectly and stupidly, on that care. That's the only thing that matters.

You, right now, your ear, listening to me with hope, hoping that the very next minute will be better than this minute of despair. Your decision not to sink down into the mud. Your decision to be your best self right now. That's the only thing that matters.

You and me, two human beings, struggling to get past the fear and distrust and disappointment and built-up gunk we feel for each other. That's the only thing that matters.

This May, not last January, not next September. This May of plump and purple lilacs, of migrating warblers, of the opening of the 9-11 Museum, of my former students graduating, of your kids finishing their school year and looking forward to the future, that's the only thing that matters.

The pleasure you get from writing, from learning new things about obscure topics that no one else has ever heard of – how will you find your audience? The belief that somehow, someday, you will find your audience, you have to, because you love your work so much – that's the only thing that matters.

My decision, in spite of everything, to be the best damn teacher I can be, even though I have no future, even though I face nothing but poverty and isolation, even though I am so low on the totem pole that lichen look down on me from their lofty height – my determination to go into that classroom and teach as if my students were all, every last one of them, on a trajectory to the Nobel Prize committee to pick up their awards, my treating their use of commas and apostrophes as the most important agenda items on the planet at any given moment – that's the only thing that matters.

My taking time after class to look into the eyes of a student who is in pain, my inner turmoil, rolling around inside my head, struggling to find the right words to say, my having no idea what to say but just letting that student's pain wash over me and me absorbing it thoroughly and me finally saying, "May I give you a hug?" and the student accepting that hug and finally breaking into tears and wetting my shoulder so deeply my shoulder is not dry till I walk home and change, but the despair is not so easily removed as the tears – that willingness to connect with one other human being in however confused and clumsy a way – that is the only thing that matters.

The joy I felt when I smelt the new lilacs this year, joy that took me back to being five years old and registering lilacs for the first time as me and my brother Greg hunkered down in a blooming lilac bush and looked up at the blue sky scored by lilac limbs – that is the only thing that matters.

You, knowing full well that when you call me by that little, two-letter nickname that you have for me, knowing that no matter what is going on between us you can touch me beyond words or defenses by speaking that nickname – that is the only thing that matters.

The love you feel for your children, beyond whether or not you can buy them this or that. Your determination to make it better for them than it was for you. That is the only thing that matters.

YES people who are better than we and richer and more powerful and smarter can crush us into dust, define us as without definition because worthless, steal our dreams more thoroughly than Paterson's thieves have stolen my mail, my money, and my sense of security.

But you know what? That doesn't matter. It really, really doesn't.

Our decision to get up every day and to serve something, and to enjoy something, and to be something – in spite of EVERYTHING – that is the only thing that matters.
Magdalena Pasnikowska, who totally understands this blog post. 


  1. In the end what truly matters is that we are human and humans need each other. I think a lot of people can relate to your writing at one point or another in life. Myself I am facing unemployment and get rejection after rejection from employers. I graduate from Rider University today after being first excepted in 1992. Doesn't seem to be a big celebration with me facing job loss in December. But I discovered what you are saying matters years ago on the Appalachian trail. My wife let me hike from NJ to NY on the trail, just me and my black dog named Mika. What I found on the trail was that even though I love being alone at times I craved the opportunity to share the wild flowers along the trail. Or the first time I saw a bobolink bird in an open field somewhere near Bear mountain. I thought I'd love hiking alone but what truly mattered to me was being able to share it with my loved ones and they weren't there. Take refuge in the small things in life like the smell of lilacs or a hot cup of coffee. Neither need to come to you via wealth and riches. 7 eleven coffee or McDonald's coffee is as great as Peaberry coffee from Jamaica if you just savor the experience and remember that your not alone. Every life matters. I weep a little inside each time I see an animal hit on the side of the road. Well I'm off to get ready for graduation. Take care and thank you for your perspective and sharing your writing with us.

    1. William I LOVE what you wrote and I totally identify with that urge to share the bobolink.