This Year of My Loving
There is an unmistakably strong urge I am forced to fight when teaching my 7th grade creative writing students. It gives rise in me, without fail, every time I read the stories or poems they turn in for assignments. They are earnest works, always wide-eyed, always searching, sometimes fearless, even reckless.
The urge is to speak to them about the love they so often write about. Perhaps scream at them. I imagine myself rolling up sleeves, sitting on a desk with one foot on the floor. In this imagined moment, I am changing their lives. I am saying what do you, at eleven and twelve, know about love? This love — I am holding their papers in my clenched right hand, shaking them — is not the real thing. It is the love you will laugh about in time. You do not know heartache like I know heartache. You will grow old. You will fall in and out of love. You will wonder what that was, what it is. You will discover sex and its beauty and its tragedy and nurse a hundred wounds and keep a place in your mind for each of them and curse yourself again and again with the looking back and the wishing it was.
There are two reasons I never succumb to this urge. The first is that it is not a nice thing to say to thirty eleven- and twelve-year-olds, as their teacher and as a person. The second is that I do not know if I am right. I have been teaching for just a year. I am only twenty-three. I sometimes think far too much of myself. I might be wrong.
“I thought that she didn’t love me anymore since she was asking for another person other than me. It broke my heart and hers. She thought it was obvious that we were in love. This fight broke us apart. It caused us a lot of grief and pain. We didn’t talk to each other for a few months.” – Girl, Age 11
When I was eleven, I spent Wednesday nights stealing cookies and hot chocolate from Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and then proceeding down to a basement room to participate in a support group for children of alcoholics. I leaned my chair against a bookcase, propped my feet on a table, let the crumbs fall down the front of my shirt. My brother sat next to me and sometimes we talked about how we felt our mother had failed us. We memorized the twelve steps, forgot them later. We, like the gathered alcoholics above us, admitted that we, too, were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. We recited the Serenity Prayer as a cool and steady mantra. I harbored a few crushes on fellow derelict children, smiled some chocolate-stained crooked teeth smile their way.
“After that, I had a boyfriend named Roger who stole my mother’s emergency money in her bank account and instead of apologizing for stealing once I found out, threatened to kill my mother. So I broke up with him, and when I did that night, he came to my mother in the apartment with a knife, and left a scar on my mother’s forehead.” – Girl, Age 12
Now, as a 20-something living in New York City, I have found myself thinking back to those basement room moments with some sort of deep-seated yearning. This age fosters a cynicism that does not exist in children, not in a hurtful way, not in a way that turns wide eyes closed. When I speak of love to friends they usher it out of the conversation like a crippled grandmother carried out a church with no handicap ramp. They peg me as an idealist. They say good luck with that.
I do not remember all of the twelve steps, but one has made itself known to me again and again in recent months. It is the fourth one. Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself. As a child, and even still as an adult, it is a scary step, mainly because of the words “moral” and “inventory.” But now it is scary because of what it means, what kind of self-honesty it requires, even self-empathy, what deep genuine flaws it might uncover and make known. It is like undressing in front of a mirror without the glassy sheen of egotism.
The children I teach practice this step in their stories far better than I practice it in reality. Their lived experience shines forth even in fiction. Their hurts, wants, and desires are all made known. Their stories act as inventories for lives they are both hopelessly scared and recklessly happy to be a part of. The cynicism has yet to set in. Their eyes are still wide open, vast and searching. They resist the kind of economy that imposes itself on adulthood, the one that presses down its weight on all the I love yous that come out of our mouths, the one that whispers do you really mean that, and if you do, why are you saying it so much? What we call melodrama, these children call honesty. They strip themselves of the fear of saying something too sentimental and say it anyway and call it truth. This year has been full of teaching moments. Most of those moments usher me back into the role of a student.
“Stay close to love / for what love knows / is more than you know / and more than you suppose.” – Girl, Age 11
“Now I do not wonder how and why / people like the sea and sky / can be attached.” – Girl, Age 12
Just over a year ago, I was on a winter bus to Boston when I first read Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I was 21, almost 22. I had hurt a lot of people. I was a ghost, moving through the lives of others, living in various lies. I was going to see a girl I thought I could love while leaving the girl I said I had loved behind in a state of perpetual unknowing. I convinced myself that I was too good of a person to deliver hurt to others. But I delivered it, hard and fast and so deep it had the potential to break bones. There was some wall preventing me from engaging in any sort of inner penetration into the deep heart of things. Whenever I thought about my own misgivings, I stopped at the white wall that read, in stenciled ink, But I Am a Good Man. It was this white wall, this inner lie of a mantra, that allowed me to tell a girl I loved her and then sneak off into the bed of someone else with the immense comfort that what I was doing was all right. These are the stories I do not tell my students.
It was on the way back from Boston that I finally got to Carver’s title story. I had spent the weekend trying to charm parents and slowly and what seemed honestly falling in love with a girl. Most people know the soul-wrecking lines Carver delivers in that story: “It ought to make us ashamed when we talk like we know what we are talking about when we talk about love.” Those lines made me lash out at the page, defensive, almost hurt. I knew what love was. I could talk true about it. I knew I could love two people at once without consequence, that one love would slowly fade while the other grew and I would float through that viscous in-between with relative ease, my ego intact. I was sitting in a window seat in the back corner of a bus that was near empty, moving through and past snow-capped Connecticut. I kept saying no, no, you’re wrong. I cried. Something broke in me. Some person, not me, was taking a hammer to that white wall, breaking a hole small enough that I could see what darkness existed and grew on the other side. I said yes, you’re right. You’re right.
“But where is the world / where the birds sing / with the sky so blue / where we have to hug / and have to give love.” – Girl, Age 11
I think about those basement rooms of my youth far more than ever, now. In hindsight, they are dustier and more fragrant than before, smelling of old books and chocolate. I cannot give an honest count of how many times I was moved to tears in those rooms, in front of those girls I longed to impress, whimpering things like but she said she loved me or but she’s my mother.
I do not think about those tears now, or even those girls I harbored crushes on. But I think about what I must have said as a child, what kind of truth I assumed with such earnest certainty that love demanded. I do not say things like but she said she loved me anymore. And when I do, I feel pathetic, curled up in the corner of a bed with an invisible finger pointing at me, some voice in my ear laughing Hah! And you thought love meant compassion, tenderness? What do you know?
It is beautiful to approach love with a childlike conviction, to hold it up to its standards and know with some certainty what it demands of the one who is proclaiming it. Who am I as a teacher to call that sentimental? And who am I to say that sentimental is an ugly word?
“I can’t promise you when you’re depressed that I’ll be there to hug you. / I can’t promise you that I will help you get over your obsession. / I can’t promise to always listen to you. I can’t promise you that I’ll stop you from cutting.” – Girl, Age 11
Some things change in an instant, but not all things. I got back to New York from that trip to Boston and still lied. It took me months to come to a point of honesty with the girl I loved, to tell her that I had fallen for someone else while we still sent our love to each other sometimes with our mouths and sometimes with devices. It took over a year to make amends. In that year, this year of my loving, I fell in love with the Boston girl in an honest way. What I mean by an honest way is that I knew, to a science, the exact exorbitant amount of sugar she craved in her tea. Four spoonfuls and an extra pinch. I lived for the moment some mornings where she would kneel before her full-length mirror before painting her face with makeup, before sweeping with one graceful motion her hair around the nape of her neck. I lived in the deep truth of the clichés I cherished as a child, with boyish happiness.
I do not know what sort of self-perceptive empathy is required to break through the walls that separate how we perceive ourselves from how we really are. Before this year of my loving, I can say that my love was no honest thing, that I was living in the ego-swelling relative ease of the lie. It took me time to realize the enormity of what I was doing, what hurt I was ushering in, all baby-faced and good-natured into this world. And even in this year of my loving, I have made mistakes, kept things hidden, built up that wall again only to deflect my own brand of hurt off of it and into the life of the girl I say I love. You can see it still, my egoism, in the way I write things like “made mistakes” and “kept things hidden” instead of admitting to myself and to others what wrongs I have committed — Step Five: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to other human beings the exact nature of our wrongs.
The lie, it seems, is a vicious thing, and whether or not love can exist within its realm is a question that has grown more prominent within me as I have aged. There are enemies to the lie. Critical self-evaluation, deeply personal attempts at empathetic self-analysis, tenderness.
All of this makes me think of my own mother, how growing up I knew only the soft whisper of her love at night and the faint swelling aroma of her coffee and waffles in the morning, and not with what strange secrecy she spent the time in between, addicted to a substance that broke my poor father’s heart and severed my family in two. And how now, sober and forgiven, she is the most beautiful woman I know, still full of coffee but also now of grace, her love an honest thing, almost free of the tempting lure of the lie. But at the same time, nothing exists in that generalized binary. My mother is still capable of mistakes, still lashes out at me about my father while he lashes out to me about her. Some sort of seething thing exists in both of them, welling with the potential for hurt. In this sense, it is not just strange but also painful to think of what we do to others as we age and come to know with both certainty and uncertainty what love is and what love might be.
“Dear Future Me, please don’t forget to love. It is by loving that we truly live. Please don’t forget not to keep your heart locked up. It is feeling everything that makes us human.” – Girl, Age 12
I have spent almost a year with these same children, mostly girls, learning just as much about my moral inventory as theirs. When the urge to veer into some kind of polemic comes, I let it come, pass through me, and then go. I do not know exactly what it is I know. I do not tell them, as Carver told me, that they might know close to nothing about love, because their approach to love is so honest, so fair, so curious. And when I do sit on a desk, with one foot on the floor, I try and speak about empathy, honesty, understanding. I pull out passages from the things they write and read them aloud and tell them not to forget with what earnestness they tackled these subjects at this age. I do not tell them my stories. I do not tell them that I have learned from them, have grown, too, have discovered a love so deep and impossibly old that it creaks its way through the floorboards. And I do not tell them about the girl from Boston, or the girl before her, or the girls I crushed on in the basement rooms of my eleven-year-old childhood. I figure they will come to know in their own right, will at times be dishonest and at other times honest. I figure they will make mistakes and then question what it is they know about love. I figure each face they come to know, to touch, will dust off the memory of another face in another room. But I hope, sincerely, that they do not grow ashamed when this happens, that maybe, in some blue worn folder, they will have kept the stories and poems and earnest self-inventories they wrote in this year of our mutual living, and that they will turn to them and after the self-conscious laughter has subsided, that they will wonder what it is they held so dear at this point in their lives, wonder what wide-eyed reckless searching they embodied, and where it all went, and how they can get it back and learn to love like children again.
And as for me, I’m printing these pages out the moment after finishing, folding them, and sliding them inside the cover of that Carver book, or maybe some other book tucked into my bookshelf, one I know I might pick up ten or twenty years from now, when life has run some course or another. I’d like to know then what I did not know now. And I’d like to be reminded of something, too. I’m not sure exactly what yet, but I have a feeling.
Devin Kelly is an MFA student at Sarah Lawrence College, where he serves as the nonfiction editor of LUMINA. His poetry, fiction, and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Armchair/Shotgun, Meat for Tea, Big Truths, Kindred, Dunes Review, Steel Toe Review, Cleaver Magazine, Passages North, Lines & Stars, and District Lit. He teaches Creative Writing and English classes to 7th graders and high schoolers in Queens, and the occasional children’s poetry workshop at the New York Public Library in Harlem, where he currently lives. You can find him on Twitter @themoneyiowe.
Image by Shuji Moriwaki