I have been sitting at my desk for the better part of an hour trying to think of her name. The initial spark–the first clumsy glimmer–the awkward stumble down a seemingly endless flight of stairs–the unmoved mover, and in this case, the vague impression whose name I always thought would be a lingering looming shadow. She, the origin of longing’s echo. So much for memory; so much for making a lasting impression, I guess. I don’t know if this means I’m old enough that the names of extinguished flames have overlapped and collaged the walls of my heart to the point of creating a black veneer of wordless indistinction or just that I’m damn fickle and haven’t really grown up.
It was the fourth grade and she was our student teacher. For the life of me, I can’t remember her name. She had blonde–no red–strawberry red hair. And glasses. Thick black plastic frames, almost thicker than my coke bottles. I can’t remember her name, or any details of her face but I remember how she smelled. It was a mix of lilacs and cigarettes. Flowery smoke. It was sweet but with that burning staleness I would learn to recognize years and years later as late nights and too early mornings.
What I remember most, has to do with the last day of school. Everyone in the class was given an award, a little construction paper badge–a star with a blue ribbon stapled to the back. “Math Whiz,” “Reading Whiz,” “Class Clown,” and another twenty or so accolades handed out, one by one, slightly ahead of the “you are a beautiful and unique snowflake” movement. My award? My badge? “Future Poet”? “Music Geek in Training”? “Tallest Asian”? None of the above. I was given a yellow badge with “Friend to All.”
“Friend to All.” Even the unknown, unarticulated schoolboy crush was ready to cast me as Ducky. Okay, maybe not really, and ultimately this wasn’t the point of the award. Until the last handful of months, almost equally lost to me (besides this teacher’s name) has been the title “Friend to All.” It wasn’t even that I was a social butterfly, but I talked to anyone with equal comfort and kindness. Then I grew up. Got jaded. Went inward.
On some level I have overly relied on the lone-writer stereotype to keep the world at arm’s length. It gets easier, the older you get, to become more jaded about leaving your doors and arms open to any and all people. You get your heart broken. Someone cheats on you. You hear gossip and rumors. The grapevine conversations. The reputation of strangers. Second hand stories by third class people you somehow blindly accept. The insecurity. The self-doubt. The twist of jealousy’s steady hand placing a knife between your shoulder blades. The conversation of passing trains and emotionless digital print. The days collecting busy instead of time. The surface chatter of what you like in lieu of what you’re like. A lack of jarring honesty. A fear of conflict for calling friends on their shit. Isolation. Sarcasm. The hairline fractures in the walls of your glass house. It’s so much easier to stay behind locked doors, especially if you have a way with words. You can almost trick yourself into believing how open you really are. Safe risks. Social media. Follows and friends. Likes and clicks.
I hate how guarded I’ve become. The mosaic of scars and disappointment has become a justified melodrama–a self-sustained prophecy of disconnection. The vanishing horizon of the midwest has really begun to clarify this fact and fear. Stranger in a strange land and all you have at times is time and distance–the signposts become less physical geography than the emotional cartography of reflection.
My job has forced me out of this space, and it’s an ongoing process. Clear-eyed and focused, I’ve begun to circle back to being open to connection–not just artistically and professionally but personally–where it really matters. Last night, I had dinner with writers and strangers who are a part of the writing world I want to connect to–not because of the profession, but because they are good people. Engaging. Passionate. Fun. And for the most part, that has been my impression since becoming Managing Editor for Quiddity. I’ve been brought into this community not with a sense of just professional interest, but genuine personal interest.
This morning, my boss gave me a thank you note for sharing some Pinoy home cooking with her family. What’s amazing to me was the level of gratitude and thoughtfulness given to the handwritten note–how much they valued this sharing of a meal. It’s a gesture of kindness that has been indicative of my brief time here–and how truly restorative the last six months have been.
It also has meant mending fences left to rot and wither by hurt and grudges. Letting go has not always meant giving up or moving on or leaving behind. Too many faces and too many good memories have been locked away by my own inability to move past being wounded. It doesn’t mean everything is/has to be reclaimed or restored. It also doesn’t mean I’m handing out hugs like a PEZ dispenser. What it does mean is that reclaiming openness is a willful act. I have been handed the opportunity to build upon the foundation of real community in a place which feels more like home every day, surrounded by people who have been open arms and open hearts in a way I haven’t been ready to receive in so long. I’m ready, perhaps more ready than I was ever aware.
Jim Warner is the Managing Editor of Quiddity International Literary Journal and Public Radio Program at Benedictine University and the author of two poetry collections Too Bad It’s Poetry and Social Studies (Paper Kite Press). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in various journals including The North American Review, The Hawaii Pacific Review, PANK Magazine, The Oyez Review, Five Quarterly, and The Minnesota Review. He wishes he can remember that student teacher’s name. Follow him on twitter @whoismisterjim.