The Matchbook Diaries


Away

Children and animals are charming because they are themselves.  Animals remain unselfconscious for their lifetime, so, whilst they loose the cuteness that they have in their infancy, they retain their enchanting authenticity forever.  Years and years ago I was in some swanky downtown area of Palm Beach with my Uncle Johnny and Aunt Midge, both blue blooded to the extreme.  I have loved them all of my life, and their only daughter is my oldest friend.  So there we were, eating brunch, of course, and there were an incredibly array of animals, many of them dressed, many in carriages, even, accompanying their privileged masters and mistresses for Bloody Mary’s.  The animals were glamorously decked out in clothes and logo’d merch, but remained pockets of fresh air.  Animals lick what needs licking, scratch what needs scratching, and investigate everything unabashedly and publicly.

Anguished about the loss of any shred of the magic of my childhood, I often cry out, “I want to go AWAY, I want to go AWAY from here!”  I’ve sobbed it, wailed it, thrashed my fists, and cried until I choked, sometimes nearly vomiting.  The pain is eviscerating.  But there is no way out.  There is no Away.  The moment I get there, it becomes Here.  Like all evil, AWAY has the allure of numbness, of escape that, once obtained, instantly is revealed as nothing at all.  There is literally no way around pain, or shame, or fear.

In my brief, wildly unprofessional time as a school teacher in one of the toughest ghetto schools in Los Angeles (I taught redemption; I gave not two shits about teaching English, FFS.) , I taught  (I mostly preached, broke rules….)  girls who were already working as prostitutes and boys who had to steal a certain number of cars each weekend.  These were boys and girls in name only.  None of them ever got to be children.  There was one particular boy who had been on the roll for the entire school year but had never attended class.  One day, late into the final semester, that boy suddenly appeared in my classroom.  He had a face full of acne, a tight ski cap on his head, and a sturdy body that looked terribly sick.  He was a wonder to me, this child, as I fancied him a ghost, having missed like 145 of 180 school days.  I walked up to him, his face nothing but a blur, his eyes wandering through the room in stupefied wonder.  He wore fingerless wool gloves, and as I walked towards him he removed one glove and between each finger was a black circle, bigger than a pea, not like a bruise, darker.  Without thinking I reached out and touched the dark holes between his fingers and said his name, Ivan.  He looked up as if in passing, neither shrunk from, nor responded to, my presence.  He never came back.

I understand.  I know.  I know why someone puts a needle into their vein the first time.  I know.  I know what it is like to be clawing out of your own skin, desperately wanting to not be.  There is an illusion behind that longing, the illusion of safety.  There is never going to be safety in this life; I see no guarantee in any holy text I’ve studied regarding either safety or comfort.  We are guaranteed freedom, not safety.

During my Roman Holiday into the world of public school, I met some extraordinary people who are still my students today.  One boy, my darling Richard, a soldier even as a young man, has had an amazing life despite the entire deck stacked against him.  When he chose to overcome the tradition of poverty in his family by signing up with the army, which, for him, was a dream come true, his mother tried to stop him by hiding his social security card.  Richard, in despair, reached out to me; he had hidden under a bridge all night.  I told him he damn well did have a social security number and that it did not fucking matter if he had a card.  Another of my former students, a genius from the get-go, and handsome as hell to boot, became a professor, as well as the coach for the girls basketball team.  He wrote a book about Thai food married a beautiful woman also from Thailand, and has a near obsessive devotion to the LA Lakers.  His family may have been poor, but they had dignity.  Mark was an exception, though.  When Mark published his book, I gave him a snapshot of one of the only student papers I’d kept from that period of my life – a analysis he’d written.  “Mrs. Steiner,” he wrote to me, “I was already thinking then how I think now.”  Yes.

Of the many children, and they will always be children for me, from Los Angeles that I treasure in my heart and love to this day, the ones who succeeded in overcoming the cycles or conditions of the ghetto, in every single case, those children were brave enough to withstand the withering, daily assault that arrives in puberty and persists for life, the threat, the rejection, the terror and the pressure to give in, to copy, to assimilate.  They stood, alone, too, mostly.  They did not submerge into the countless drug-like and actual drugs that numb.

The ugliest people I have known are the ones who have so utterly abandoned their humanity that they are very nearly nothing at all, wisps, at best, of what might have been.  The most beautiful people I know are the ones who, without a chip on their shoulder, persist, persist in the radical path of being exactly who they are.  One student from that time, whom I shall not name, is just this way, and my God what a magnificent creature he is.  He is Romanian, a place I have spent a great deal of time and love.  He used to smoke cigarettes on the roof of my classroom.  He wrote me as an adult to thank me and I told him the truth – he’d have gotten to where he is no matter who he’d met along the way.

People who know who they are have radical liberty and absolutely dazzling charisma. They have those treasures promised by, but never delivered by, luxury brands.  I’ve got nothing but love for Luis Vuitton, no joke, cuz, damn, and Chanel, darling, don’t EVEN get me started – it’s the only perfume and make-up I wear…..  I’m a daily devotee of Vogue and have studied the leadership techniques of Anna Wintour.  I’m not ashamed of my debutante roots.  However – these brands, they are compelling because at the heart of them is a person who radiates exactly the beauty they know and see and then successfully translates their own beauty.  There is an utter, absolute difference between attaching yourself to something in order to be better or different and using something because it is exactly right for you.

I have no faith in brands.  What endures, what captivates, not just me, but everyone, is that which is real, which is true.  I have utter faith in you, in the glory God pours into each person. But people forget, or never learn their own worth.  They feel cheap and get lost.  The way to that nimble, radiant, personal sanctuary is to agree to stay here, to stay Here when it hurts, when it’s scary, when they laugh at you or ignore you, to stay Here when they hate you and talk trash about you and reject you, lie about you, or work against you, to stay Here with you, trusting you, friending you, believing that you are indeed a son or daughter of the Most High God, made perfectly whole.

We are complete.  We are whole already.  There are no missing pieces, no wrong parts.  What is cumbersome and awkward is not what God made but the crap we add on thinking we’re improving ourselves when really we are impeding our own beauty.  The the only true place, is right here right now.