Durham News: Opinion

Coloring outside the lines

Little known fact: if you text “x-rays” without the hyphen, an iPhone will autocorrect it to “crayons.” Which is why I texted my children, “I’m at urgent care getting crayons.”

My son responded, “Awesome???”

To which I texted: “No, not crayons – Crayons!”

Because that’s what we do. Repeat the same action without thinking but more vehemently, as if that were the problem. But, of course, autocorrect intervenes and you’re once again at Urgent Care because you had a hankering to do some coloring.

My mother saw the broken arm on Facebook and phoned. As I described my accident she grew silent. Except for muffled snickers. Probably because most such injuries involve backing into moving objects, such as the family dog, rather than stationary items such as paint cans, woodpiles and chopping blocks.

Afterward, Mama suggested I might not want to tell anyone, due to the whole thing sounding so – what’s that word? Oh, yes, redneck.

The morning after my acrobatic fling, the orthopedist invited me to review the crayons – I mean, x-rays –as he dispensed jargon that included distal and radius, which at the time sounded either like an automotive problem or maybe an artisanal whiskey. He offered a removable cast on the condition that I “behave.” When I inquired what that meant precisely, he raised his eyebrows and said, “It’s not a good sign that you’re asking.”

I mentioned to my mother that the medical staff was insistently inquisitive as to whether I had been in any way light-headed or dizzy. She replied, “I hope you told them, no, that you were just clumsy.”

My children were equally supportive. The first several days they amused themselves by phoning with comments such as, “We’ve been talking and think maybe you need one of those Life Alerts.” Gales of laughter from the other end. “You know, so we’ll get a message: Help, I’ve fallen and cannot get up.”

What lies behind us often goes unnoticed till we step backward. We’re constructed face-forward and linear-minded. Life opens before us. But if we aren’t aware of how the conglomeration behind us is actually present and participating in the now, odds are good that we will step right back into whatever we didn’t notice was there. Are we clumsy? Or has autocorrect just tripped us up?

A friend wrote recently:

Before I was born, my father was sent to federal prison for trafficking heroin. When I was five, my step-Dad died from alcohol-related convulsions right before my eyes. I can remember my aunt trying desperately to find a vein for her heroin filled syringe, a belt clinched tightly between her teeth. My mother sold marijuana or as she called it, “reefer.” I would watch her stuff little brown envelopes with enough reefer to roll three nice size joints which she called nickel bags. Soon she graduated to dime bars and twenty-cent pieces. I knew them all, and could distinguish which was which as I watched her weigh and measure them out in sandwich bags. She kept the ready-to-sell merchandise in the kitchen cabinet right behind the coffee. Sometimes when a customer came to the house, she would send me to get the bags so she wouldn’t leave the customer unattended. I liked getting those bags because it made me feel a sense of responsibility and importance. It made me feel like an adult, and showed me that I was considered competent and intelligent and my mother trusted me.

Who hasn’t longed for their mother’s love and trust? Wanted to feel responsible and important?

It’s tempting to lull ourselves with the story that we are where and who we are because of us. We made the right choices. We behaved. So much of our culture is built on the easy story of right choice, whether deodorant or religion. It’s a story that keeps us constrained and fixated and fearful, trying to perfect life and each other rather than accept that the mess behind us, the unknowable before us, and the bond between us are all pretty much a mystery.

Here’s a Life Alert! Our story is simply what we tell ourselves. It isn’t who we are. I could be another story entirely. Heck, I am another story entirely. All stories are true. But no story is the whole truth.

My friend murdered someone. He is a kind man.

His mother was dealing drugs on a wing and prayer of saving enough cash to move her family out of the projects. She succeeded. But my friend stepped backward into the story behind him and tumbled into twenty years in prison.

Falls are pretty effortless. But where we are doesn’t define us, anymore than where we are not. Intelligent. Competent. Trustworthy. I invite my friend to know that this is who he is. I invite you to do the same. Color outside the lines of your story till you can’t see them anymore. Color the largest picture you can and then share it, maybe even with your mother.

Lynden Harris is the founder and director of Hidden Voices. Contact her at lharris@hiddenvoices.org