The Multitudes of Men

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself.
I am large, I contain multitudes.

Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is treasure of a book. I get something new every time I read it and I try to read it once a year. Rereading a text is an excellent way to chart one’s own journey. The book is static, so any new revelations developed in later encounters is a reflection of the variable in the equation: the reader.

This book used to trigger the worst crying fits and rage hazes within me. Choosing to re-enter Rebecca Wells’s fictional world again and again seemed like a practice in masochism, but I could not stop, so fascinated was I by the self-revelations that resulted from each visit.

A new project I am working on reminded me of a conversation that takes place towards the end of the book. I had to go dig up my well-worn copy and skim until I found the passage. The protagonist, Sidda, is in her cabin in the woods with her mother’s best friends who have just shared with her some essential stories about a dark time in her childhood. The stories were not easy to hear and Sidda tried her best to face the truth that she requested. One of the women held her and comforted her:

“Something just cracked in Vivi. Maybe people are more like the earth than we know. Maybe they have fault lines that sooner or later are going to split open under pressure.

And yes, your your mother was an alcoholic. Is an alcoholic. I admit it. I know that has been hard for you, Sidda. I am not denying one bit of it.

But of all the loony, imperfect souls you’ll ever meet, my friend, Vivi Abbot Walker is one of the most luminous. When she dies, the remaining three of us will ache like part of our body has been cut off.”

The next-to-last sentence brought tears to my eyes. The first few times I read this book, I hated Vivi with all of my heart. I directed all of my unspoken pain and resentment about my own upbringing at her. What I could not find the words to say to or about the people who gave me life, I could unleash on this fictional character. I was disgusted by her intimate friendships and loathed how her daughter spent so much energy on her. She is not worth it, Sidda, I would think. Go on and cut off this deadweight!

What is interesting is that a great deal of the book jumps back in time and the reader is able to get to know Vivi as a girl. There was a disconnect between how I responded to young and old Vivi. Young Vivi delighted me and had my sympathy, but older Vivi brought forth my ire. So selfish and self-centered. My own emotional baggage did not allow me to appreciate how the damage done to young Vivi had manifested itself in Vivi later in life. I was blinded by my immaturity.

I was a lot more self-righteous back then and unwilling to look past my own pain to see the brokenness of others. A friend of mine once took a writing class from a famous writer and the two of them butted heads more often than not. The writer has a massive ego, but is also very insecure – a perfect recipe for drama if there ever was one. My friend is no shrinking violet and her refusal to diminish under the writer’s commentary led to quite a few clashes.

One day, my friend was complaining to me about how the writer could not tolerate any narratives that did not fit with her view of the world. She was always yammering on about her struggles, but could not see how others had those same struggles and worst yet, she was the sometimes the cause of those struggles. “Ugh!” my friend yelled out in disgust as if the teacher were there with us, “Why are you constantly bowing down at the altar of your own hurt?”

I sucked in my breath. How did I manage to gut punched in this venting session? Jesus, is that me? Am I bowing down to the altar of my pain? Some time later, I told my friend how I had felt convicted that day and she tried to assure me that her comment did not apply to me. You are not that kind of person she said, but I knew the truth. I am that kind of person. Maybe not as much now as I used to be, but for awhile – particularly in college when I was struggling to make sense of emotions that I had long ago buried – I was consumed by my hurt and blind to that of others.

I had a lot of rules about what people should  and should not do. When people did not live up to my standards, I did not hesitate to chop them out of my life. My late twenties have found me in a different place. I am not as dramatic. The change was gradual and in some ways, a natural consequence of growing older – I don’t have that same energy or if I do, I don’t want to devote it that kind of drama – but in other ways, a direct result of having spent a great deal of time in the last three years being stripped of distractions and having nothing to do but sit with myself and see me in all of my insecurities, irritations, and inconsistencies. Seeing mess in myself has made more tolerant of mess in other people.

I now return to Vivi and see not a failure of a mother, but an imperfect soul who was doing her best. Her friend’s sharp criticism/praise reminded me of a comment that a different friend made in the weeks following the death of one of our coworkers.

A little over a year ago, one of my former coworkers died suddenly from a very rare strain of cancer. We worked in a small community and it was severely rocked by the tragedy. Only about a month had passed between the moment that she learned she was ill to the time that she was gone. I was living in the States again when I learned that she had passed. I struggled to sort out my feelings. She and I had been better friends my first year in Guatemala. We were barely speaking by the end of the second year.

A couple of months before she took ill, she sent me an email, essentially asking me what had transpired between us. I felt her email was too little too late and my brief response reflected that sentiment. I said something to the effect of, “I just don’t think you and I are meant to occupy the same social sphere, so let’s not.” One day she went to the hospital to investigate the stomach pains. They found tumors and ended up operating on her. I visited her the next day and we sat there for hours, talking as if no time has lapsed in our communication.

I saw her once more at a work event. The day I left Xela, en route back to the States, I planned on stopping by her house to say goodbye, but I was with a friend who was dragging my suitcase down the street and I remembered after she was already down the hill. I did not think it was worth it to have her to haul the suitcase back up, so I kept moving forward and didn’t visit. After I had been back in Boston a couple of weeks, I sent her an email letting her know that I was praying for her and thanking her for all the ways she had been there for me my first year. I don’t know if she read it.

Grieving for her was complicated. We knew each other in Guatemala, so the people I was currently doing life with didn’t know her, so I didn’t have a community to share my memories with. Beyond that, it is difficult for me to mourn with people. When someone dies, there is a tendency to strip the deceased of any complexity (and therefore, his humanity) and deem him a saint. People get amnesia and start creating memories that did not exist or starting spouting nonsense like “Well, it was God’s plan” or “She fulfilled her mission on Earth,” that makes me want to strangle someone.

I need truth like plants need water and there is usually very little room for my type of honesty in periods of grief. When I mourn, I want the freedom to continuing laughing at the quirks, rolling my eyes at the vexations, and smiling at the good intentions. The typical mourning period is very flat; nuance cannot live there.  But, I did have one friend in Guatemala who I knew would be able to give me the support I craved. The problem was, she was still down there and wouldn’t return to the States until later in the summer.

Eventually, she did return and our conversation was everything I had been waiting for. She talked about how her and her family had struggled to process, in light of  the damage that some of the deceased’s actions had caused for them. We talked about the ways that our late co-worker had done really hurtful things, but also about her better qualities.

I shared how I had gone to the funeral and one of her best friends had cornered me in the kitchen to ask how I had known her. I quickly replied that we worked together in Guatemala and she asked me my name. When I told her she said, “Oh! I have heard about you!”

“Really? Well, you can keep that to yourself. I’m sure it wasn’t good.”

“No, no. She said, ‘lots of life, that one.’ Yea, that’s what she said, ‘lots of life.’ And oh, we’ve been praying for you. We were so sorry to hear about your dad.”

My dad? This small-town of individuals have been praying for me, someone they don’t even know? My dad had passed the fall before, long after she and I had stopped speaking. And still, she had lifted my name up to her prayer circle and I was none the wiser. Mercy.

On the phone, my friend and I continued to go back and forth over our experiences with her in the past two years, the ups and the downs, weaving a complicated tapestry of a complicated person. Near the end of the call, my friend exhaled and said, “She was broken, but she tried.”

Those words echoed in my head for weeks. When I was alone, I repeated them to myself. She was broken, but she tried.  Isn’t that everything at the end of the day? When I leave this earth, what more could I ask to be said about myself?

In the past few years, I have gotten to know myself so well. There is no one who can tell you more about Andrea Marie Tyler than the person writing these words. I love her dearly, but she is a mess. She can be mean, selfish, rude, vindictive, and keeps a really strict record of wrongs committed against her. But good Lord, I am trying. I fail often, but I try very hard.

Accepting my messiness has helped me be more empathetic and patient with others. I bristle at harsh one-sided depictions of a person who has fallen out of favor with the speaker. I would never ask someone to deny the truth of anyone’s character because it is unpleasant, but to diminish a person to the worst of him is to do a disservice to both parties. We are all a mixture of devilment and goodness and deserve to be seen in our fullness. When we refuse to hold that complete picture in our hearts and minds, we deny ourselves the rich experience of truly knowing and loving a person.

I want to be like Vivi’s friend. I want to be the one saying, “Yes, this person is all that you say. You are right. That said, she is also a “luminous” being and the world is better because she is in it. And I hope, when it’s all over, the same will be said of me.

 

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