“She felt like a puzzle piece that got put away in the wrong box, floating along with all the people around her, never understanding what the final picture should look like, only knowing she wasn’t a part of it. “
Jane approached the entrance to her office building, eyes down, watching her feet. The wet leaves that cluttered the walkway clung to her shoes, leaving damp stains. A finger of wind groped her, pulling up on the edge of her coat, letting in the cold, making her shiver. Reaching the door, she stopped, her image reflected at her in the glass. She clutched a security badge in her gloved hand and waved it at the square black box to the left of the door. A green light on the box flashed briefly and she heard the click of the door unlocking itself. Jane tugged at the handle fighting not only against the weight of the heavy glass and metal but also the breeze which had, at that moment, turned into a gale, pushing the door closed, not allowing her to enter.
Maybe the wind was trying to tell her something. The familiar churning in her stomach surged beyond normal levels and she let go of the handle. She heard the second click, the door locking, as she stood there frozen in her own uncertainty. But then, wildly, she made a decision. A flicker of hope crossed her heart, started it beating. She started to turn, to walk back to her car, to leave this place, when someone pushed the door open from the inside.
“Having trouble with your badge?” the older, bespectacled gentleman inquired. She looked down at the badge in her hand, her own smiling face staring up at her, the seeming happiness mocking her. She nodded, because he expected her to, because she didn’t know what else she could do, she nodded and smiled and murmured thanks as she passed by him, and the moment, to enter the building.
The noise of a hundred voices in quiet conversation was the first thing she sensed as she left the entryway behind. She imagined floating above the huge room, looking down on the source of the noise, to see rows upon rows of identical cubicles, the occupants of which busily scurrying around, talking. Talking to each other, talking on the phones, talking to themselves, always talking, always making noise as if silence was something to avoid. As if to stop and think for a moment would bring the grinding, heartless machinery of Corporate America to a halt.
She twisted her way in a daze though invisible hallways and corridors towards her own cubicle, a feeling of despair filling her mind, surpassing the usual numbness, forcing tears. She automatically blinked them away, embarrassed by her lack of control despite knowing that no one would notice. Everyone ignored her. She felt like a puzzle piece that got put away in the wrong box. She floated along with all the people around her, never understanding what the final picture should look like; only knowing she wasn’t a part of it. The moment of potential freedom had passed and left in its wake a complete hopelessness.
Jane sat down in front of a desk that had her name attached to it, but otherwise looked exactly the same as all the other cubicles. A monitor sat on the desk with its keyboard and mouse. She reached under the desk and turned the computer on. An action of habit, done without thought.
Something in her mind clicked off as the computer clicked on.
A notebook sat on the desk, full of notes that she had taken without knowing why. She opened it and slowly turned the pages, staring at the familiar handwriting. She could see the letters and the words but they made no sense to her. Panicking, she flipped through the pages, frantically searching for one phrase, one word that she could understand. But there was no meaning in any of it. Nothing related to anything she was feeling now. It was useless. She flung the notebook away from her into the cubicle wall.
A certain kind of silence emanated around her as people stopped talking and started watching her. Tears ran, streaming down her face, following the creases of anguish and pain and frustration. The letters on the keyboard lost their meaning and the blinking cursor on the monitor waited for her to do something but she didn’t know what it wanted. The screen grew, looming over her; the mouse turned into its namesake and crawled towards her. She searched for a weapon. The off-white, flat rectangular thing with the buttons seemed adequate and she used it to smash the creature with the long white tail. Smashing and smashing, trying to kill the thing – but all she managed to do was destroy her weapon. She reached for the rectangular glass thing, but hands grabbed her from behind, restraining her arms. She kicked her legs, jabbed with elbows and knees but soon they were held too… and… then… stillness…
Jane felt each heartbeat, each breath and the long space between. People in orange jackets hovered over her. Their mouths were moving, they were asking her questions. They were talking at her body, at her face, at her eyes, but her mind was not connected to those things anymore. She huddled inside herself, unaware that her body was defending her still, kicking and screaming.
The last thing she felt was a painful prick on her arm and the last thing she saw was her reflection in the glasses of the old man above her. The same man who so kindly, so wrongly, let her in the building. He opened the door that destroyed her. As she drifted off to sleep, she wondered if he regretted it as much as she did.
“Aww, Jill, I love how empathetic you are. It’s a wonderful gift.”
-a comment from a dear friend
My feelings mirror yours. I have no idea what is happening in your mind, but I see your tears and I cry, I hear your pain and I cringe. Your smile is my smile. If you laugh, I will laugh, even if I don’t get the joke.
Empathy is a curse and a blessing.
My highly empathetic nephew refuses to watch movies. In order to simulate drama, most movies, even movies intended for his seven-year-old demographic, show their characters experiencing mental pain or sorrow. Movies require a sustained emotional connection, a willingness to travel the emotional journey the movie-makers create. For my nephew, movies represent the potential to feel something he doesn’t want to feel. His empathy for other’s pain is so strong, he avoids the experience completely. He’ll run out of the room even if a cartoon shows too much anger or sadness. Joy and laughter are fine, and so is obviously-fake pain (like the Three Stooges), but the intense storytelling found in movies is generally too much for him.
I will also walk away from the TV if a story is making me uncomfortable, but only if other people are in the room with me. The non-native emotions do not frighten me, but my inability to hide my reaction to those emotions (tears) is mortifying. (I watched an episode of Holmes on Homes with my brother-in-law two weeks ago and had to run out of the room when my tears became sobs.) Unlike my nephew, I don’t laugh when I see someone trip and fall, instead I blush with contagious embarrassment. I also don’t find situational comedy funny – misunderstandings simply upset me.
Empathy is learned.
Having said all that, and despite the fact that my nephew shares my extreme empathy, I’m not convinced it is something I was born with. I learned to read at three years old, as did he, and I’ve read a lot about the connection between empathy and reading. Here is a study that shows literary fiction promotes understanding others’ mental states. Another asks, Does reading enhance or even promote empathy? Or do you need to have empathy in order to be a good reader? There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer, but there is certainly a correlation.
But here is where it gets tricky: I can be extraordinarily insensitive to other’s feelings in real life. I am often so overwhelmed by my own concerns that in a face-to-face situation, I will say something unbelievably hurtful without consideration for my conversational partner’s feelings. Most of the time, once my foot-in-mouth faux pas is obvious, I’ll feel awful and make amends. But sometimes, even after I realized I hurt you, I may not apologize if I think the pain is due to your own misunderstanding. I just can’t because I don’t feel like I did anything wrong.
Empathy is situational.
In situations where I have turned off my own feelings – watching a movie, reading a book, listening to an engaging speech – I allow the projected emotions to pummel my brain. But in situations when I have my “head up my own ass” so to speak, I don’t feel a thing.
An Empathetic Conclusion
What I need to do is learn to balance. To imagine my empathy as a knob in my mind, a dial I can turn. Turn it down from eleven so I can reduce my tendency to sob at sentimental, manipulative media, and turn it up from zero to increase my empathy in real life, when it really matters.
Ah well… Just another idea to add to my ever-growing “how to be perfect” list. I’ll finish it two seconds before I die. =)
I stay in a lot of hotels. Mostly nice ones. For an average of three nights per trip. I am very, very aware of the effort made to keep my room clean. I also have a pretty good imagination. On the list of all the jobs I could ever want to have, cleaning hotel rooms is not there. The only thing worse I can think of would be working in a hospital. Or teaching high-school.
Anyway, I get paid a lot, and the housekeeping staff get paid crap. They clean up other people’s grossness and they get half minimum wage (http://www.dol.gov/whd/state/tipped.htm) just like the wait staff in a restaurant. They make my room a clean, comfortable place to collapse in after 14 hours hunched over a computer in a frigid ballroom. The very least I can do is pick my clothes up off the floor, wipe the hair out of the sink and leave a tiny bit of cash on the dresser.
So, I tip five dollars a day, every day that they clean my room. (I hang the do-not-disturb sign every other day when it is a long stay. I imagine the next best thing to an extra five bucks in your pocket is not having to clean a room at all.) I also leave a note – nothing fancy, just a simple, “For the housekeeper, Thank You!” Just so that it is clear. And I leave the money every day because I don’t know if the person cleaning my room at the end of the stay is the person who cleaned the rest of the time.
Why am I sharing my hotel-tipping practices? Simple. Because I think the world would be a better place if everyone tipped more.
And that is all I have to say about that.
I wrote this story about a year ago… got me my first freshly pressed nod!
What the hell are you listening to? There is disdain in the voice, laughing preemptively at some assumed forthcoming joke. But there is no humor in me or my ears or my listening brain. There is only shame over my apparently bad taste in music. I turn it off and wait for the spewer of scorn to go away before I plug-in uncomfortable ear buds and strain to recover previous pleasure. But it is no use. The joy in the music is gone, replaced with the sick sensation of contempt. At myself? At the creator of such drivel? Both, I think. The innocence of a moment ago has aged and withered. Hunch-backed and bitter, it wanders off to join the other deathly figments of a lost age. My childish joys, gnarled and rotted from neglect and abuse, absorb their new companion. Their gain is my loss.
“Cynthia lived in a large, two bedroom apartment on the top floor of a skyscraper on the upper east side of Manhattan. From her living room window she had a view of the East River and whatever was on the other side of it, and from her bedroom she could see all the way downtown to the financial district, if she bothered to look. The views only interested her when there was someone else in the room to admire them.
“The furnishings purposely reflected her tastes. A firm bed, a dark leather couch, neither overly large nor plush, a genuine Oriental rug. Subtle light came from floor lamps which were never too bright, and on the walls hung original works of art by obscure, foreign, and frightfully poor artists. It was not a comfortable living space, more a group of perfectly staged rooms that no one, not even Cynthia, actually lived in.
“[…] but many people thought Cynthia could use a few extra pounds on her slender frame. She only ate at restaurants, and she didn’t like to eat alone. She didn’t keep anything in her refrigerator except cream for her coffee. She liked the look of an empty refrigerator: a clean, white space in cold light. She kept the cream on the door.”
About ten years ago I shopped a finished manuscript around half a dozen New York City literary agencies and received half a dozen rejection letters in return. They were well deserved. With the hindsight of ten years of haphazard writing practice, and ten years of life experience, I can tell you my first complete attempt at writing a book sucked.
Today, with the creation of my new fiction only blog, I thought maybe I’d dust off that old manuscript and give it new life. Then I started reading it…. SNORE. Seriously, it is really boring (and I am one of those writers who really likes to read her own words. I go back and read (and edit!) my old posts all the time, for fun. )
However… I did enjoy re-discovering my old characters. If there are any gems to pluck from this pile before I set it on fire – they might be the scattered character studies I did for a few of the supporting cast.
This got me to thinking – are there any books out there that are purely made of character studies? No real plot or action… just the thoughts and quirky personality traits that make for fascinating, and readable, people? I thought of Jennifer Egan’s book, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Because while things do happen in that book, her characters do interact with each other, what you gain from the book isn’t a bunch of exciting ‘whats,’ it is a bunch of fascinating ‘whos.’
I also thought of some of my favorite short stories, from authors like Pam Houston, which are less short stories than they are long, inner monologues. Like the story, Janus by Ann Beattie. A woman places a bowl inside a house she is selling – the story is in the thoughts and memories and feelings she has that surround the bowl. It is, really, just a character sketch. Told so well that I knew this fictional person, inside and out, after only ten or so minutes of moving eyes across lines of words on paper.
To me, character development is the most important part of a story. It is that part that I remember the best later on. It is the part I put the most effort into in my own work. It is probably why I haven’t actually finished another full-length manuscript in the last ten years. Plot? What plot? Look at the clever way I described her aversion to eyelash hair! Who needs plot?!?
I lifted that bit of a character sketch at the top of this page from my old, dusty manuscript. Of course I tweaked it a bit, but it is still the same person I created all those years ago, and I still find her fascinating, if not quite likeable. I’m wondering what I might do with her… I might just pull all the bits that have her in it from the manuscript and see what comes of it.
It won’t be a novel, but it might be something worth reading…
Something wonderful happened today.
Today I received a comment from a fellow blogger asking my permission to translate one of my stories into Spanish and repost it on her own blog. Of course, I said, si!
(If you are curious, and can read Spanish, here is a link to the story: http://parapalabras.com/2013/10/23/mirando-el-reloj-de-jill-schmehl/ )
What makes this wonderful?
Here I am, a person sitting at a computer the USA, and I write a story. The story imagines what it is like for a mother to watch her son growing up.
And there is a person in Spain, also sitting at a computer, and she reads my story and it resonates with her. A total stranger from a far away land. We’ve never met and know nothing about each other, but she understands the feelings I expressed in my story and liked it enough to translate it and share it with her readers.
We live almost 3800 miles apart, separated by a vast ocean, but we can both understand the changing relationship between a mother and son. Because we are both human beings, living on the same planet, at the same time.
I have interacted with so many people from all over our planet in my short time with this blog. I look at the long list in the ‘Views by Country’ section of the stats page, and it awes me every time.
When I was a child, I watched a show called ‘The Big Blue Marble’ on PBS. I don’t remember much about the content, but I do remember they hosted a pen-pal service. They connected children from all over the planet, anywhere their show could reach, I imagine. Through that service, I had pen-pals from South Africa and the UK and New Zealand and other countries I can’t remember now. (I know for some of the girls, English was a language they were leaning in school and having an English-speaking pen pal was an assignment.) In our letters we talked about the silly things children talk about, our favorite songs or colors or subjects in school. It was all rather meaningless, and made for some really boring letters, but the foreign stamps and odd envelopes were cool.
But what I took for granted then, and what is so amazing to me now, is that we were all the same. It didn’t matter where we were born, or what language we spoke at home: we were all girls, about ten years old, on the planet Earth, in the year 1981, writing letters to each other about our favorite colors in a language we could all understand.
And here I am still, all these years later, conversing with you. You could live anywhere on the planet, you could be any age, any gender, and yet we reading each others words without a thought for the separations of borders or distance or culture. Because we are both human beings, living on the same planet, at the same time.
And that is wonderful.
Thank you, María, for sharing my story and for your work of translating it into Spanish. And thank you for reminding me of how alike we all are and how wonderfully small our big blue marble is.
A long time ago, I got off the phone with a recruiter, marched boldly down the hall to my boss/friend’s office and told her I thought I should quit and become a consultant because apparently I was worth $30,000 more a year elsewhere.
My boss/friend spent the next 10 minutes telling me, in many, many more words: “You suck at this job and the only reason you haven’t been fired is because I am your friend and I protect you.”
I didn’t believe her. I thought she was just mean, or stressed out about things going on in her personal life, or taking out her own frustration with her lack of prospects on me.
The truth is, I had NO IDEA how bad I was at that job.
My performance reviews were always positive, I kept getting raises every year, nobody asked me to leave… All signs that I was worth paying, right? Apparently not.
I have a sneaking suspicion that if I hadn’t eventually quit, I’d still be there. Doing a terrible job, and getting paid lots of money for it.
This was all a very long time ago, back when I was in my twenties, still thinking I was a genius…. Look out world, I’m gonna be running things, ALL the things, before I’m thirty.
Well, thirty came and went… and there goes forty… Still not running anything, except this blog… wooo hoo!
You see, with the big 3-0 came the realisation that my boss/friend was right. By then I had taken that consulting job… and left it after only nine months. Why? Because I was terrible at that job.
Terrible. Awful. No good. BAD.
If I ever saw that boss/friend again, I would ask her why she didn’t fire me and why she kept giving me raises. I’m guessing she would say it would have something to do with her ideas of friendship and loyalty.
But if she were a true friend, (and I have no idea where she is or what she’s doing now) I think she should have fired me, or better yet, helped find be a better job within the corporation.
Because the first time a friend got me a job I wasn’t qualified for, it worked out differently….
In college, my best friend got me a job as a short order cook at the diner she’d been working at for many years. As you can guess, I turned out to be a terrible cook.
Terrible. Awful. No good. BAD.
But this is what happened: Instead of just letting me go along, thinking, ‘I’m great!’ she told me the truth. Sat me down and said, you suck, please quit, now. The owner of the restaurant hadn’t fired me or said anything other than encouraging words to me because of her loyalty to her best waitress: my best friend.
So I quit. My best friend from college is still my best friend today. True friends tell the truth.
Moral of the story – listening to and accepting honestly meant criticism is the best way to learn what you are bad at, so that you can move on and find the thing you are good at.