Someone to talk to

She needed someone to talk to

I listened, but I knew that these were questions with no answers. If it were anything other than the cruelty of life itself that was the problem, if it were drug addiction, or alcoholism, or abuse there are agencies that might help her. But it wasn’t that. It was just life, and sometimes life sucks. More than anything else, she just needed someone to talk to. But there was a rub; part of her problem was caused by the “system,” so it seemed difficult to tell her that she needed to go into the system for help. I’ve never felt so unqualified to deal with things before.

As is my usual response to unfamiliar things, I decided I could research the system to see if there was a way to cut through some of the crap. Every door in my department was closed. Out of town. No one to talk to. I went by several other campus agencies, hoping to find someone who would know where to go. I got some suggestions. I came home and made some calls. It seemed like it was a dead end. All the right people were going on vacation. I went back to campus, and looked up an old acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a year or more. She teaches in the School of Social Work, and trains the people I was trying to reach.

She made some calls, and got some more answers for me. Six weeks, at least, before I could get this girl someone to talk to who was qualified. I took the numbers, and knew that it wasn’t the golden thread, it was only a realization of the truth. If you’re a normal person with a problem instead of a criminal or a drug addict there is no place to turn. You’re on your own. Get used to it. This isn’t what I want to tell my student. This isn’t what I wanted to tell her at all. I began to become even more traumatized myself, knowing that there wasn’t anything I could do.

I felt oddly displaced as I walked away from the social work offices. My old mentor from the English department shouted out into the hallway in a building I usually don’t pass through anymore. I walked over to the doorway. “We’re talking about your book, Jeff: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” I stood there for a little while, silently while Dr. Yoder passionately conveyed the complexity of Blake’s model to a new crop of students. Looking at the lists of attributes on the board, I was reminded that Blake’s project was to reunify reason and the emotions, to allow them to forgive each other. I remember how long it took for me to really “get it” and understand just how important some of those “simple” passages were. I thought about the way thinking hard about complicated ideas made me feel less alone. It’s been a comfort to have conversations in my head, interrogating these ideas and trying to understand where these long dead voices are coming from. But it’s all inside my head.

As I walked away to teach my next class, I felt scared to realize that I didn’t really have anyone, in the physical world, to talk to either. Sure, I can write my whiney blather here, and often receive consoling e-mails. I’ve got skills, of a sort. But one of those skills isn’t being able to solve life problems, particularly those that are insoluble. For my next class, I tried to lighten myself up a bit by doing what I can do: explaining complicated topics as simply as possible. Today, when I got up I just started trying to get past that feeling of ineffecualness. Surfing on a tangent, deluding myself into thinking that things will be okay, I found a poem that hit me square in the forehead:

The Boat is a Lever

       –after Simone Weil

After my student went to the doctor to
Check out the rash speckling his
Right hand and found out he had
Leukemia, that the cancer had spread
Into his lungs, then where did he go?
I’ve called his number several times.
Flat-bottom boats light in water.
Brown brack and mud smell,
Stumps like chewed-off candles,
Cypress knees, knock and small
Talk floating over water, a motor
Chuffing off, a small blue cloud of excess
Gasoline spreads an ugly
Rainbow on tan water. Every
Thing rests on its proposition
Including smooth isobars along the bay.
Since collective thought cannot exist
As thought it passes into things
Chemo takes a few gray hairs. Mustard
Cruises the bloodstream under a blizzard
Of white cells. Subdued by the arbitrary,
Suspended, the one in the boat still needs
To row it — to direct the muscles, to
Maintain equilibrium with air
And water. If water is waveless
Then the boat reads by leading marks.
There is nothing more beautiful
Than a boat

Ralph Burns, from Swamp Candles

Ralph Burns teaches at my school. I know him, casually. He was trying to recruit me for his classes for a long time. He’s a good man, but I was always a bit to distracted to think about expressing myself in poetry. Poetry is hard work.

But the dedication rang a big bell. I knew I’d read something about Simone Weil this week. I searched until I found it in an entry at If. I dug a little further, and found some interesting quotes:

Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention.

The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, “What are you going through?”

—Simone Weil

It’s not much, but it made me feel a little better.

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