The Boy’s taking college writing this fall. I couldn’t be more pleased. For years now I’ve known that he’s an amazing wordsmith and writer. He, on the other hand, sees writing as “Mom’s Thing.” Our life has been filled with moments where I read something he’s written and say, “Look at this, son–just look at it! You’re an amazing writer!” And he just smiles and ducks his head and goes back to playing his video game, or practicing the tuba. Because those are His Things. I know the folly of trying to dictate our children’s choices. I know our children must be free to chart their own destinies. But then I read something he’s written, and I wish that he knew–really knew–how I see his writing.
And now he’s taking College Writing, and not from me. I’m taking a year off. I decided this last year, when I realized that teaching night school and actually Being There for evening school activities are mutually incompatible. Every concert, every conference, I had to choose–would I be a Good Parent, or a Good Teacher? And that was when I still had Leroy to help. I couldn’t be both, and along about this time last year I started thinking about taking this year off from teaching. I knew I wanted to be there for this, The Boy’s senior year. I wanted to be a part of his life while he was still here. By Christmas I’d pretty much made up my mind that it would be a good idea.
And then Leroy had his second heart attack, and suddenly what had seemed like a luxury became a necessity. Losing Leroy reminded us of how very fragile life can be. Losing someone who has been such a huge part of daily life for us has been hard. Really, really, hard. Complicating this is our family predisposition to depression. In the weeks after Leroy left us I realized that for the sake of myself, my students, and The Boy, I needed to give myself and my son time to find our footing–and to really experience his last year in high school.
Money’s tight, but the trade-off is that The Boy and I have time to really focus on the amazing stuff that he’s doing this year. Among other things, he’s taking tuba lessons from a wonderful new teacher (recommended by his last teacher, who felt The Boy needed a specialist). He’s in our school’s elite choir, and is taking a college choir class through Eastern Promise. He’s playing in the Wind Symphony directed by his old tuba teacher at the university just up the road. And he’s taking College Writing through our local community college, from a teacher other than me.
And I’m loving it. His first assignment was writing a critical essay on Amy Tan’s short story, “Fish Cheeks.” His teacher seems both knowledgeable and pleasant, and focused on writing. And that leaves the best part for me–discussing the story with The Boy. We’ve been talking about it a lot–mostly about the question of the speaker. Is the speaker in “Fish Cheeks” Amy Tan herself? There’s some question; the story is classified as fiction, but the speaker and Tan share a cultural heritage, and the speaker in “Fish Cheeks” has a lot in common with the central characters in some of Tan’s other books.
We’ve talked about how important it is to distinguish between a first person narrator and the author. We cannot simply assume that the speaker in “Fish Cheeks” is Tan herself–not without some sort of definitive proof. And suddenly we were talking not about Amy Tan and her works, but about me, and my novels–and the fact that one of them has four first-person narrators, one of whom is a murderess. My books are fiction, but they grow out of my experience (not murdering–nobody needs to report me to the authorities, but my life experiences in general). Authors mine their lives–for characters, settings, themes, and issues.
And this morning, now that the paper has been turned in and it’s too late, I made the crucial connection–“Fish Cheeks” and Robert Burns’ poem “To A Louse” address a crucial part of the human experience–the need to see ourselves as others see us–and the danger of seeing ourselves only as others see us. For those of you who aren’t lit people, the story in “To A Louse” goes like this: The speaker is sitting in church. A pretty society lady sits in the row ahead of him. She wears a beautiful bonnet–it’s got ribbons and flowers and all sorts of things, and it’s just lovely. And there’s a louse crawling along one of her ribbons.
The poem ends with the wish that God would give us the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us. Burns, of course, seems to believe that this would better help us see our flaws. But “Fish Cheeks” raises another possibility. Tan’s speaker is a young Chinese-American girl, plagued with teenage angst and the insecurity of growing up in a family culture that seems alien to the culture at large. The story is about a dinner party–her Chinese-American parents have invited the minister’s family over for Christmas dinner. The speaker has a crush on the minister’s son. We see what Tan’s narrator sees–the object of her love rejecting her culture, scorning what we learn are the speaker’s favorite foods, and by extension, rejecting her. It’s sad, and it’s painful in an all-too-familiar way for any of us who have ever experienced unrequited love, and sought a reason for it.
But I wonder–has the speaker seen the situation clearly? What would the story be like, told from the minister’s son’s perspective? Are we seeing rejection–or have the speaker’s insecurities clouded her observations? Does the minister’s son scorn her culture, or is the speaker herself–in the way of teenagers the world over–grappling with the question of who she is, and whether or not she is worthy?
And that brings us back to Robert Burns, and the louse. Burns wishes the lady could see herself as others see her to better understand her flaws. Tan’s story raises a different possibility. Some of us have no problem whatever seeing our flaws. The louse blinds us. For some of us, seeing ourselves as others see us is validating, uplifting, and comforting. I have been blinded by the louse. I’ve spent a lot of my life wishing I were as strong, as smart, and as financially savvy as my oldest sister, as pretty, as social, and as kind as my youngest sister. I struggle with money and feel guilty because managing money successfully has always been a challenge for me. I feel Less because my soul requires that I create things that I find beautiful, rather than things that sell. I look at the fact that I have never hit the benchmarks of success I was given–husband, big house, enough money, social status–and feel not only that I have failed, but that others see me as a failure. The weedy flower beds and dry lawn become personal condemnation, the clogged bathtub drain becomes a commentary on my soul. There is danger in seeing in ourselves only what others see–or what we think others see.
The truth is, I suspect that I have only failed in my own eyes. I suspect that, like Tan’s speaker, I may be an unreliable narrator. It is true that when I look at my life from the height of my impossible expectations there are few areas where I measure up to anything like a success. But on the other hand, I might say that only one drain in my house in plugged, and if the lawn is dry and the flowerbeds weedy at least the lawn is mowed and the flowerbeds still bloom. The house is far from pristine–but it’s a place where The Boy’s friends like to be. And while I haven’t figured out how I’m going to pay for college for The Boy I can also say that I’m not giving up. If I haven’t written a best-seller I have at least written books of which I can be proud–books that explore issues important to me. And as for money–well, it’s a struggle, but we haven’t lost the house yet, and we still have power.
The louse is there, and it’s real, but it’s not the whole picture. There is also the bonnet. Maybe seeing ourselves as others see us means really seeing that, too.