Empathy Is A Luxury Item

Rachel Toliver
Aug 4, 2016 · 8 min read

On the second Wednesday it’s halfway decent Kung Pao Chicken at the cafeteria’s Global Café. Then, at 8:00, it’s time for the Politics Panel. This writers’ conference is almost over, a bodiless end-of-camp feeling. Just when we’ve learned the most direct path from the auditorium to the dorms; just when the nighttime darkness of this place — the gapes under trees, the picnic table lit up like a stage — has started to feel like real life. After dinner there’s a reading, after the reading there’s a reception. We move from thing to thing: water heeding gravity, runnels in the lowest channels.

The cafeteria opens excess unto excess: great selection, not only the Global Café but also the salad bar, the pizza bar, the pasta station, the American comfort food with its endless majestic steam. Soft-serve ice cream making an impartial churn — as much as you want, just hold the lever down. And the readings: we’ve seen these names printed on books and now — here — these names embodied, their collarbones, their onyx pendants. We are audience, tiers and tiers of ready ears. We tilt toward the writers, note their haircuts, their lack of haircuts, their looking however they want, that particular volition. Those writers read and boom their voices; they take up space like Grecian pillars. The conference is pricey. We’re paying for the readings but we’re also paying for this: the sense that it’ll be us one day, leaning toward that mic, pausing, sipping Perrier, saying I’m so happy to be here.

I am here, at this conference, because I’m poor. This is how I wanted to explain it, when I was chewing cheese cubes and meeting people, shaking hands with my non-beer hand. But then I’d have to say that I’m here because my grad program paid for everything — everything, travel included — that wasn’t covered by the scholarship. The words grad program, I realize, untie the knots of the word poor. This isn’t true for everyone but it is true, specifically, for me. Nonetheless, I haven’t had a vacation for a few years. I myself find this to be a strange complaint. Most days, I have time to make French press coffee and read whatever I deem necessary — a Times article about Trump’s latest affront, and then another and another because there’s no end to it, plus Daily Kos in my Inbox, headline, You’ll Never Guess What He’s Done Now, and for more details I go to the Washington Post, and sure enough, he’s done it. Then by 11 — and by 11 I mean whenever I quit clicking links — I start my day. Sometimes start my day means changing out of pajamas, into clothes that I could wear outside. Sometimes I wear those clothes outside; sometimes I don’t. I’m not sure what I need a vacation from.

Still: here, I have a room, a window, a soothe of blue-grey mountains.

Still: back home, stolen shopping carts get ditched in my back yard — sometimes empty, sometimes filled with pulpy mops, gaping single sneakers. This is my neighborhood. Not a single grocery store, warped paint-peel porches, lots of gas stations, gasp of lotto, pawn shop, drive-thru liquor. People who get called meth-heads, get called trashy — white trash — because they’re white like us, and so the joke’s on us, right? It’s exactly the type of place that stymies us liberals. Why would they think Trump has their best interests in mind? How could they think he represents them? We just don’t get it.

Anyway: I am on vacation, the first time I’ve gotten on a plane in a few years. I can still find flying stylish, if only because I don’t do it much. Anyway: tonight it’s not a reading, it’s the Politics Panel, and I’m tempted to say Thank god. Plus, the timing is perfect. Our Convention — the one in Philadelphia, does it need to be said? — is right now flying its crisp snapping flags. We’re with her; let’s make it official.

The readings have been great; they really have, lots of important minds gathered in this room, we are reminded of this and I also know it to be true. I’m not angry — not really. But I’ve got this pressure behind my eyes, similar to the pressure that comes from being really really tired, and I’ve noticed — before, not necessarily now — that being really really tired can sometimes feel like low-level anger. It’s not anger, though. Being white myself I guess I’m not in a position to be angry about all of these white readers. It’s more like a boredom, sharded — a boredom that has glass-sharp sides.

I’m so ready for Politics Panel, for the three super-smart guests. I’m here in the auditorium with my JanSport backpack and my settled shorts, my Pashmina for when the AC gets too cold. I have nothing to complain about; when they planned this conference, they planned it for people like me. The readers — self-effacing there up front — are themselves but they’re also a blank template. This is how to be, how to read, how to be a writer in this world. I’m the body that most easily fills that space. I’m not talking talent here, or hard work; I’m talking about how I’m a white woman. I grab scones from the dining hall, grab a coffee to go, write and talk about writing, breathe clean woodsy air that is here just for me, just for my experience.

My view is, perhaps, too limited. Art and intellect — reading, writing, traveling, attending conferences — can be transcendent, right? We’ve been told more than once, in bios and intros, that these writers are way more than just themselves. We’ve been told that they are multitudes and culture — that they’re many voices, nations — polyglot. They are so much more than the bodies we see: more than the good posture in linen, more than the precise dental work making a self-assured smile. And anyway they’ve done research. They’ve traveled places. They’ve gone beyond boundaries, past borders, into territories that I, for one, have never traveled to.

So: tonight’s Politics Panel is a welcome change of pace. They’ve decorated the auditorium with distressed old-timey paper flags — stars, stripes, but not too tacky, not too bright. Two of the panelists wear glasses that could be called funky. The third panelist looks like a normal person — he’s tired, we’re all tired — and is drinking a giant cup of Starbucks coffee. He wears normal glasses, the kind that blend into a face. The panelists are not exactly introduced but we get that they’re important, they’re prepared; they look like athletes at a starting line, if athletes were important public intellectuals. We all agree: this Panel is good for us. We’ve been sitting in the placid quad, craning toward our Macbook screens; we’ve been in the woods, walking plus thinking under the filigree of leaves. We’ve been staring at stanzas, at paragraphs, at sentences — on the level of the sentence, as we say in workshop — and we have strange cramps in our necks.

At the panel the words scary and scared — better synonyms, actually, reeling out like brilliant editorials, hard to believe it’s all extemporaneous — are used. It’s good to hear my own fear there, in those official mouths. All the things I’ve said, they say them better. What an election year, not just any election year, never seen anything like this before. Jesus, who is this guy? And who — this was my question from the beginning — are these people? The ones who plan to vote for him? I’ve made plenty of claims: all of America’s racists emerging from the woodwork, people with sub-par education, Nationalists, gun nuts, folks who don’t know any better.

One of the panelists makes an excellent point. There are two Americas, and these two Americas are not talking to each other. This has been said before, but I’m glad it’s being said here — in this auditorium, with its golden photo-op lighting, and at this conference, where we talk about politics in the cafeteria, sighing and nodding and saying it’s just crazy before getting seconds of Kung Pao chicken, and does anyone else want some? It’s true for me, my chuting news feed, like/ like/ like with very little to dislike, because who are these people anyway?

So I’m glad when someone asks the panelists — their faces waiting for our questions, and one of them, behind the funky glasses, looking oddly like my mom — What do we do? There are two Americas, and we’re not talking to each other, and what do we do? How do we talk to each other? I’m nodding. If I’m honest I nod a lot here. Besides being a sign of accord, nodding is also my secret trick for staying awake when I’m starting to get bored. But right now I’m not bored; right now I’m thinking yes, I’m thinking tell us. I’m thinking empathy — that word leaving my chest like a sigh.

Well, in my experience, one of those panelists says, Travel helps a lot. And now I’m not quite sure what he’s saying, but he mentions International travel; he mentions something like Visiting lots of other countries.

Travel. International travel. Something inside me slips, slices as I mutter Are you serious? I think of my neighborhood, its voiceless American ache. My neighborhood is a floodplain, called The Bottoms, sunk below the level of the river: geography translated into metaphor. I think of my neighbors, most of whom I really don’t know. They feed stray cats and they plant one single sunflower and they inflate baby pools for their kids, plastic to lips, breath by slow breath. They’re waiting for their phones to get turned on so they can apply for that job; they’re thanking god that they didn’t drink today. International travel.

So: empathy is a luxury item. So: empathy has frequent flyer miles. I think of this beautiful place, which I have called my one chance for a vacation. I look at this auditorium’s white walls, its whelming space: a space made for me, a space that I suddenly violently hate.

Later, at the reception, when I complain — Travel? Really? — someone will ask Do you know who he is? Do you know what he does for a living? And no, I don’t know who he is, and yes, I can see why, in his experience, travel is a solution. Then I’ll drink my beer in silence. It’s Politics Panel night; we’ll watch our convention during the reception. Our president will speak — speak with the dignity that comes from words wrenched, standing there on stage, his carriage holding tired candor.

And I’ll remember how, eight years ago, I traveled to another state to see this man, to hear him speak. He wasn’t our president then; he wasn’t even our party’s nominee. It was mid-winter, end of January — and yet for just that day the sun had blown the roof off winter. I wasn’t even wearing gloves; this made the miracle of touching his sleeve all the more miraculous. I don’t remember what he said but I remember the blue sky above me — the blue bluest sky, hinging open to his words. I wanted to raise my hands up into that blue. I wanted to raise my hands, to grasp the thing that I’d found there. I guess it’s called hope, and I guess he used that word, but right then it felt like: we can do better, I can do better, we will do better, we are here, I’ll work on it, I’ll try. We will do better, we will be better. We can do better; we can be better to each other.

Rachel Toliver

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Thinking about cities, cats, public and domestic spaces. New Republic/ Brevity/ TriQuarterly/ American Literary Review. https://www.racheltoliver.com