July 18, 2013
For some reason I only just saw the message you sent me through Facebook, so please excuse this tardy response. I’m writing now to thank you for your brief note of apology for bullying me in grammar school . . . and to thank you for bullying me in grammar school. Yes: I am thanking you for bullying me! You may think this is heading toward some sort of veiled diatribe or condemnation, but I’m actually writing this from a most sincere place, to tell you that being bullied turned out to be a great gift — a powerful engine for achievement that serves me even now, almost forty years later. I’ll explain . . .
Bullying pretty much defined my childhood between the ages of 10 and 13 — basically fifth through eighth grade. After leaving St. John of God grammar school my high school experience was altogether different. But during those last three years at SJG, the daily stream of insults — “palsy,” “nigger lips,” “poor,” “crazy legs,” “crazy red hair” and “greaser” (and the ones directed at my mother, like “turban head”) — were exceedingly hurtful. By seventh grade I was spending all my non-school time at home, alone — not the optimal situation for a 12 year-old. However, all that time alone forced me to turn to something that was already there for solace: rock and roll. As I read the biographies of my favorite musicians, I was amazed to learn that many of those attractive, fabulous and confident-seeming people had gotten bullied as teenagers: Janis Joplin’s high school classmates had scrawled “pig” on her locker, Michael Jackson’s grammar school classmates had jeered, “You’re never gonna get anywhere,” and Patti Smith had been made fun of at work for being skinny and flat-chested — something I could really relate to (as you well know, having called me “flatsy”). In an interview I read back in 1976 (and still remember clearly), Patti had remarked, “Being from a lower middle class background, it was real desirable to have big tits and a big ass.” Reading that was a revelation: being different from everyone else wasn’t my problem; it was everybody else’s problem! And it wasn’t a fault, either; it was actually, as I was discovering, a gift. Kids who are different are gifted, not shrifted, by their imposed loneliness, because loneliness allows them the time to read, listen, ponder, create, find role models, figure things out. It’s a difficult path, but it’s the only path to knowlege of who we really are. St. John of the Cross, a medieval Spanish Carmelite monk and poet, wrote of the “via negativa” — the negative way:
To come to the pleasure you have not
you must go by a way which you enjoy not.
To come to the knowledge you have not
you must go by a way which you know not.
I had no notion back then that I was striving for that kind of illumination; I just wanted to feel like not killing myself. As my reading ranged further, I discovered the innumerable writers, poets, painters and composers who were considered different . . . it seemed like almost everyone that the world recognized as talented and brilliant, as possessing genius even, had been criticized at one time for being different. Once I learned that, I gained the freedom to become myself . . . to let the freak flag fly! Suddenly, I was proud of being different! Who wanted to be normal? Normal people were boring! Since my epiphany occurred in the mid-‘70’s, during the naissance and early popularity of punk music, I embraced punk style and attitude whole-heartedly, and while I sure didn’t fit in on the south side of Chicago (because I was totally ahead of my time, of course!), I fit right in later at Columbia College, among artists and other creative, innovative people, and on the music, literary and fashion scenes of the north side (I modeled for a bit, before I got fed up with all the stupid people in that world, which didn’t take long), and on most every scene I moved in after, including the New York literary scene. The things I’d discovered and explored during those three horrible years at St. John of God had laid a great groundwork for all the things I achieved later. As I got older and continued my explorations, learning about the lives and ideas of well-known people in fields other than the arts, I discovered, happily, that my “weirdness” was only weird alongside boring, normal people, and that great achievement was possible through being weird: Einstein, Tesla, Turing and Edison are the most famous weirdoes that come to mind. There are many, many others. In fact, there seemed to be a direct connection between having been thought of as a weirdo, and achieving great things. Even the Buddha himself was considered weird 2,500 years ago! And he taught, “You are your own refuge.” By the time I’d read that, however, I’d already known it, as I’d had only myself and the information I’d gleaned in loneliness to rely on for so many years. Time and time again, that information still proves to be absolutely correct. By the time I entered college I’d come to treasure those years, feel gratitude for their lessons, and hold them in my heart with great affection.
You might be thinking, and rightly so, that you weren’t the only one who bullied me. That’s absolutely true. But you’re the only one with enough balls to bring it into the light. I admire you for that. But I had ceased holding you accountable many years ago, Lori. Why? For four reasons. The first: if I hope to be forgiven for all the nasty shit I’ve visited upon people, then I have to be willing to forgive people who visited nasty shit upon me. Accepting this has helped me to develop compassion, and I’m hoping that you have developed compassion, too. I’m wondering if you apologized because your son was bullied? Or maybe because kids like Tyler Clementi touched your heart? Or maybe because you’d heard about Angel Greene, the eighth grade girl from Indiana who hung herself this past March at a bus stop because she’d been bullied? (She left a suicide note that read, in part, “Why did I deserve this pain?”) The many tragic incidents of suicides among children because of bullying in the first three months of 2013 alone are staggering, absolutely heartbreaking. I wish I could gather all these kids up in my arms, hold them close to my heart, and tell them what you (and, yes, the other girls from the Class of ‘74) taught me: that being different is a blessing in disguise and not a curse, and that their biggest bullies can be their greatest teachers, if they seek role models among the many creative and successful people who endured bullying simply because they were different and came through — confident and successful — on the other side. Which brings me to the second reason I’m grateful to you.
I still collect stories of talented and successful people who were bullied to share with my New York University and New School students who’ve been bullied. I tell them — and I wish I could tell all kids who have been hurt and humiliated for being different — about Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps who was teased mercilessly for his big ears and ADHD. Nowadays his trainer calls him a “motivation machine” because he channels everything, even negative experiences (especially negative experiences), into gain. I tell them that Chris Rock said that he “ . . . got beat up just about every day. I got called ‘nigger’ every single day.” But he used his experiences to create his successful TV show, “Everybody Hates Chris.” I tell them that Kate Winslet, who was bullied for being fat (her classmates called her “Blubber”; her comeback: “I can lose weight but you’ll always be ugly”), went on to become the youngest person to receive six Oscar nominations, and later an Oscar for Best Actress. She was also appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Plus she’s totally hot! A totally hot Commander of the Order of the British Empire who once got called “Blubber”! (And where are the kids who called her that today? Certainly not winning Oscars or appearing on the covers of American, British, French and Italian Vogue.) I tell them that Lady Gaga said, “It took a long time for me to be okay with myself . . . Sometimes in life you don’t always feel like a winner, but that doesn’t mean you’re not a winner.” And I tell them my three favorite quotes:
“Everything that you get picked on for, or you feel makes you weird, is essentially what’s going to make you sexy as an adult” — Justin Timberlake
“Living well is the best revenge” — George Herbert, 17th century British poet
“If I hadn’t come home from school miserable every day, maybe I wouldn’t have been so motivated to write songs” — Taylor Swift
And here’s something sweet from Yahoo Answers:
If you really think about it bullies help to build great minds and creative talents . . . What bullies don’t know is that sometimes the people they pick on all the time have great ability and their cruelty simply pushes their victims to brilliant achievement later on in life . . . If you don’t dance to the beat of the Mass Mind, you are going to be picked on and made to feel miserable, and it will be a tough road to travel down. We can learn a lot from famous people who did travel down that tough road and used their hard times as a springboard to future achievements.
Amen! I’m so glad this isn’t just information for the few!
The third reason I’m thanking you is that, like you, I witnessed the destruction of our beautiful and beloved St. John of God Church on Facebook, and reconnected with many of our fellow classmates during that emotionally wrenching process. In your note to me you mentioned “that special time and place.” You’re right: there was no place on the planet like Back of the Yards when we lived there . . . the stench from the stockyards alone put it in a category by itself!) Despite the treatment I endured there, I have always considered that place (and our time there) very, very special, and hold it in my heart. How can I not? Back of the Yards is where my great-grandparents settled after coming over from Poland, where my grandparents met and my parents grew up (and met: they lived next door to each other on Racine Avenue), and where my sister and I — and her son, too — grew up. Plus, it’s where I became a writer. In a way, I AM that place. And I share so many wonderful, quirky memories with you and everyone else who grew up there — the conversations on Facebook proved that — it’s almost like we share parts of our brains and hearts, even the invisible atoms of our thoughts. One of my favorite lines of poetry is by T. S. Eliot, from “The Four Quartets”:
The end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
The destruction of St. John of God allowed all of us who’d been scattered by Fate to come together again; it allowed something important to be re-created. I’m sure you know that St. John of God is being rebuilt as St. Raphael the Archangel Church, in a beautiful small town near the Wisconsin border, but did you know that the actual St. John of God, who lived in Granada, Spain, and cared for the poor, sick, and dying, attributed his healings gifts to his patron . . . St. Raphael? Isn’t that an interesting coincidence? In the dome of our church was a painting of St. John of God giving last rites to a dying man, with St. Raphael assisting at the foot of the man’s bed. There certainly is a theme of healing in all this, isn’t there? And a special lesson about how rebirth is ever-present, even in destruction.
As I’m writing this thank you note to you, I’m sitting on the deck of my second home in rural Pennsylvania, looking out on 3,000 acres of state game land. A purple finch has just landed on the bird feeder, a doe and fawn pause in the lush ferns to check me out, three hawk fledglings in a nest high in a tree in our yard are trying their wings, and a bear or two may even stroll by later today (we once had four on our deck in the middle of the night). I’ve enjoyed 21 fabulous years with my soul mate and husband, David Borchart, a cartoonist for The New Yorker magazine and a graphic designer for Deutsche Bank on Wall Street. Four of my poems appear in the just-published (and controversial!) Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry, an assigned textbook in American university literature classes. In 2011 I went to Russia to teach on a Fulbright; the year before I was in Iceland to read my work and give a talk at an international literary conference (and that same year I also had a poem published in The Wall Street Journal — yes, The Wall Street Journal!); the year before I was a guest of the Romanian Writers Union at a resort on the Black Sea for another international conference, and a month before that I received an “Alumna of the Year” award from my alma mater, Columbia College. In 2005 Hachette published a collection of my short fiction in French translation, and in 1997 I traveled to five cities in Japan, all expenses paid, to read my work alongside a Japanese poet. These are just some of the many experiences that have been a source of delight for me. But I must admit to you that every time something wonderful happened I felt deliciously vindicated: I always knew I wasn’t whoever you thought I was, whoever it was you saw in those classrooms, in that church at 8:00 Mass, on the sidewalks of Back of the Yards. The person was just a projection of your own adolescent fears and insecurities (and we are all prey to adolescent fears and insecurities … some of us to this day). But beneath that feeling of vindication is another feeling: true gratitude. Had I not been bullied, had I grown up “normal,” I would never have left the neighborhood, the city, the country, never have seen the sun rise over the Himalayas, or walked through a cloud at 12,000 feet, or witnessed a rainbow arcing out of the Nepalese hills below me; I would have never have lived in Paris, London and Berlin, never been awarded residencies at castles in Scotland and villas in Spain. I probably would never have gravitated toward literature, as so many sensitive (and angry!) people before me, and I would probably never have studied with the great poet Allen Ginsberg at Brooklyn College, and received the prestigious MacArthur Scholarship, given by the college at his nomination. Most importantly, I would have never received the precious gifts of his encouragement, wisdom and humor. A major theme of Allen’s life and work was the eradication of shame about who we are, the bringing of all that we are, even the things we are most ashamed of, into the light of acceptance and transmutation. The last lines of the “Footnote” to his great poem, “Howl” are:
Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith! Holy! Ours! bodies! suffering! magnanimity!
Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!
And his friend and fellow Beat writer Jack Kerouac wrote, in his “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose” (a list of suggestions for writers):
No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge.
The list Kerouac compiled is as much a guideline for writers as it is for anyone who wants to live fully alive. You should check it out. The feeling of having, finally, no fear or shame is incredibly powerful. Intoxicating, even.
Finally, there’s the fourth reason, and the most important thing that I want to share with you, because I truly do share it with you. In 2011 I had a nervous breakdown, precipitated by my sister’s death and a shitload of other things that I apparently had not yet processed. The breakdown coincided with the destruction of our church, and I felt like I, too, was being taken apart piece by piece. As I went through it, I re-read many of the poems and stories that had guided me out of the darkness of adolescence, and I vowed that once I was back in the light I would try to help others through their own darkness by using literature. When I was able to manage my thinking again I proposed a workshop to the director of the Poetry Project here in New York, a workshop called “Cathexis/Catharsis: Writing To/Through Illness and Suffering.” As we all know, suffering is usually thought of as an obstacle to be feared, avoided, rejected at all costs. But my thinking was: what if these difficult experiences could be re-imagined and understood, with the help of poetry, as talismans, thresholds, gateways to illumination? What if suffering could be a language like any other, learned, manipulated and sent back out into the world in a powerful new way? What if I could convey what I had first learned back at St. John of God: that the darkest shadows exist alongside the brightest light? You might think a workshop like that would be horribly depressing, but it wasn’t. We actually laughed a lot! And cried a couple of times, too. The students were working with issues like anxiety and clinical depression, but they were able to kind of stand outside themselves and “witness” their experiences by writing about them, by putting them inside the frame of poetry. And the work they produced was amazing. This past June, two months after the workshop was over, everyone who had participated in all the Project’s workshops (there were three other workshops aside from mine) gave a group reading of their work. One of my students began her reading by saying, “I want to thank Sharon for helping me to not be ashamed of having an illness.” At that moment I knew that my ability to help even that one young girl (whose name, by the way, is Luz — Spanish for “light”) to overcome shame was a direct result of having processed successfully the experience of being bullied. I don’t think there’s any more important work in this world than to help people overcome the things that keep them from manifesting the divine light of who they truly are.
You were my partner in that, Lori. You’ve been my invisible partner in all that I’ve managed to accomplish, and all that I will accomplish in the future. I hold you in my heart. Thank you.