—Dallas, Texas - Early 2000’s—
The thickly matted industrial carpet shifted underneath my brown leather clogs, or “potato shoes”, as the kids in my school called these impossibly trendy and simultaneously hideous slides; I concentrated on the way the ground beneath my feet shifted ever so slightly as my flat soles sat on its surface, and evenly pulled forward. The walls around me were made of a thin, cushioned material, divided into three-foot-wide panels, slid across a channel in the ceiling, creating classrooms of any desired size or shape. Each one of these rooms had a doorway with a circular button for a handle, which made a satisfying thunk sound each time it was opened. I looked forward to opening it again. To going outside, to feeling the hot evening breeze on this north Texan weeknight.
Our beloved youth minister stood at the front of the classroom, speaking to our smallish group of preteens and young adults who made up the church youth group of that time. We sat in uncomfortable, cold chairs with molded plastic seats and stackable metal frames. Everything in that room, and in that building at large, was cold. I wore socks inside my clogs.
The man we all loved and listened to spoke:
“I teach my daughter to never say two things; I suggest you all do the same.”
He never spoke with a direct command, but with an inherent promise of shame and disapproval if his guidance went unfollowed, which was somehow so much worse.
“I teach my girl to never say the two “S” words,” he said with all sincerity.
S? I thought, wracking my brain. What are these hip new cuss words I’ve never heard of?
Even then, sitting in that unyielding icicle of a chair, I momentarily lifted out of my teenage blasé to latch on to those words, searching for meaning. All I could muster was my usual, But, why?
“You should never call anyone stupid. It’s an ugly, terrible word. You make them feel terrible, and that’s not the way Christians should act. It’s just as bad as any other bad word in my mind,” he continued. “And shut up, well, that’s disrespectful; and it shows how little you care about the other person. It’s just not the example we want to set. And it won’t win you any popularity contests, either.”
Some of the other kids nodded obediently, and I probably did too. But I still continued to wrestle with why those two words had been added to the lexicon of things I shouldn’t say, when I had heard them so many other times before now, and they inflicted no damage when last I had encountered them. But still, I took the greater meaning to heart, and it stayed with me for a very long time after that night. Keep those thoughts to yourself, or don’t have them at all. And just like me, I began to wonder, and obsessively run circles around in my potato shoes, if all those people around me, at any given time, were calling me stupid or wishing I would shut up inside their heads, never for me to find out or rectify my standing. Thus began an unending wheel of preemptive attacks and compulsive overcorrections in my life and in my relationships.
—Last Saturday, 2019—
C and I glided together through an awakening Lausanne under mid-morning spring sunlight. It was a beautiful, breezy day, and we had nothing much to do other than go to get groceries from a new organic food store, Fooby, who just so happen to have the greatest pastries in town. We both had pain au chocolat, which are basically like rectangularly-shaped croissants filled with a thin ribbon of dark chocolate; and they were absolutely magical. In fact, as I write this to you now, my mouth is watering.
A shopping trip, a stop off at our apartment to unload the groceries, and a browse through Globus later, it was then time for lunch, and we headed down towards Flon, the neighborhood I call the “Vegan District.” Ironically, we stopped off at an American burger joint (I call it the vegan district not for the food, but for all of the hipster college kids who hang around in that area). We stepped through the door and into a cloud of grill juices and freshly-cut French fries, excitedly ordered a meat mountain for each of us, and found a spot near the door in the sun.
It had been an excellent morning; C even made the point of saying so as he smiled at me from across the table. It was shortly after that the pain started.
About halfway through my burger, my right flank (why is it always my right?) zinged dully, threateningly, halfway between my lungs and my intestines down my back. It was kidney pain, but normally the bad ones had always started up higher. The pain would then slowly crawl across my skin and eventually take over my entire back in a matter of ten to twenty minutes. I knew searching for a clear answer as to what would happen would be a moot point; all I could do at this particular moment, there in the burger joint, was to alert C and to drink as many fluids as I possibly could within the next five minutes.
C’s demeanor immediately changed with the news; his eyes flashed back to a memory, his brow furrowing and shoulders slightly raising like a threatened cat. He ate his last bite of burger, and silently watched me drink an entire liter of the establishment’s unsweetened house iced tea (which was pretty good). I eyed the beer tap at the drink station, weighing my options. Instead, I chose to retreat to the ladies’ restroom and see if my attempts at staving off a pretty terrible day had succeeded.
Slowly, over the course of ten minutes, the pain eventually subsided.
I made my way back to C and told him the news. We then donned our jackets and sunglasses and left, but I could tell C was nowhere close to the upbeat, oh-what-a-beautiful-morning countenance he had inhabited just an hour before. I felt a wave of guilt and regret for what had just happened.
“I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to worry you. I just never know if it’s going to be something really bad or not.”
He nodded, but didn’t offer much of a response. I could tell he wasn’t angry with me, but my desire to restore the mood from before ate at me like an angry itch.
“What can we do,” I asked him, “to make things like before? I want things to be good.”
This was when he became visibly frustrated. He turned to me, replying:
“We don’t have to do anything! Why do you feel like we need to ‘make things like they were before’? I was having a great time, but now I feel like you’re making an issue where there is no issue. I love you more than anything. You have to stop deciding there is something wrong and then obsessively trying to fix it.”
Of course, he was right. I’d decided that I’d ruined our day with my kidney pain, when in reality he had just been concerned, and nothing more. Here I was, thinking that my actions alone decided whether we would have a good day or not. I realized how much hallucinated power I had given myself without even realizing it.
It was the same feeling I’d experienced earlier in the week, during my French lessons. After a hard workout, I was feeling drained and fatigued, and my tutor was extra challenging with our lesson plans, insisting that I answer her questions entirely in French, and also in the past tense. At some point, I just caved. I nearly lost the will to hold up my neck and would have whacked my head on the kitchen table if I hadn’t said something. Instead, I told her I needed a break. I needed to step away for a minute. She looked at me disappointedly, with the slightest hint of frustration, but nothing overt. We finished the lesson, and I even went out the next morning to purchase a French grammar book to try and help me catch up. But I still thought about that look in my teacher’s eyes, postulating on how I could make it up to her, or if I had ruined our good rapport.
Thankfully, I then remembered a lesson I learned after spending all of those nights each week, hour after our, performing requests at Tartufo for a multitude of nameless strangers. Some nights I would bomb, people would look annoyed or disappointed. Some people would ask to move out of my section and into the next room. I had hecklers, belligerent drunkards, and American Idol contestants unseating me at the piano to derail my set and steal my limelight. Sometimes I forgot the tune to someone’s wedding song and watched their faces fall midway through the first chorus. There were nights I played for just one large table in my room, long after my show was scheduled to be over, playing request after request, only to stare through the glass of my empty tip jar at closing time.
I learned, rather inelegantly, that people. don’t. care.
It was a freeing sentiment for me, personally, that changed my view on life and on my self esteem forever. Now that I’ve spent nearly six months away from Nashville, and nearly a year has passed since my last gig playing for tips, the lesson fades away from me from time to time. It’s not bored into me as cleanly and repeatedly as it was one year ago.
Nobody cares. They don’t care about me, and they don’t care about anyone else. Nothing I can do or say can make anyone else like me, or have a good time. So much of my life was spent wringing my sweaty hands over whether someone liked me as a person, and/or as a performer. I agonized over whether a new friend might see enough of me and decide I wasn’t worth his or her time; or I obsessed over each new acquaintance, or date, wondering if this could be someone I could successfully charm.
In the end, the most healthy thing I could internalize was that no one cared about what I say or what I do. At least not as much as I gave them credit for. It resulted in the awakening of the person I had always stifled, the inner me that had been censored and obscured. All at once, the loneliness brought on by a life of trying to trick people into liking me disappeared; it was then replaced by a solidity made up of all the pieces of myself I for so long had hidden away. It doesn’t work for everyone, but to know that no one was that enthralled with what I’ve got going on, and just like me, are more concerned with their own thoughts, feelings, and desires, was the beginning of a new, freer life for me.
For now, because I don’t have a restaurant to help me retain my mental acuity, I’ll have to settle for the content I post online, and eventually the mixes I make public, no matter how far from my desired result they will start off being. And if some folks are mean; there will always be one more video to post, and one more song to play.
-On The Street-
I was walking up the hill towards my gym, and I passed an elderly man traveling up my same sidewalk, using ski poles to help him along as he ascended the steep incline. I arrived at the light just as it turned red again, which gave me time to look down, back at the man, who was now facing me. Every five or six shuffled steps, he would stop, straightening his back from his slightly stooped climbing stance, and stare off into the morning sky. His eye would scan the passing cars, the moving clouds, and the birds flittering to and fro between the trees and the bushes. This man didn’t care if someone thought his poles looked stupid. This man didn’t mind if people thought he walked too slow. And If some young cretin were to roll down his or her window and yell at him to give up the ghost, to turn around and go home, I’m positive that this old man would not heed that advice. He would just continue on to wherever he was going, perhaps thinking of nothing at all, but the simple motion of putting one foot slowly in front of the other, feeling the warmth of the sun crawling up his neck, the crisp Swiss air, and the sound of the birds around him taking flight.