SUSAN

I’m trying to see clearer what it is not to have a job, to lose your family, to feel that life has left you behind. I’m trying to feel what it’s like to lose your moorings.

It’s easier to shout political slogans from the rooftops than to face fear and breakdown. I try to remember when I faced those things in my life.

Yesterday I wrote about how people escape depression and self-blame by going into painkillers and alcohol rather than engaging in the political process and changing things. I mentioned France, where political engagement is year-long, not just something you do around election time.

Tea party activists 8 years ago and Bernie Sanders activists now show how much can be done between elections, the working out of priorities and the organizing that, come election years, help them make a difference. Whether I agree with them or not, I admire that stick-with-it philosophy and their ongoing dedication. The Bernie Sanders group is finally making it legitimate to talk of things we could only dream of a few years back: single-payer health insurance, health insurance for all, free higher education, all the things that help level the playing field and make society and government generous forces in our life.

And I recognize that many don’t see it that way, and I try to understand and feel things through their eyes, too.

People say that animals stay away from those who are wounded, sick, or dying because they’re the ones picked off by predators. I feel it’s also a natural thing for all of us, humans and animals, to stay away from those of us that are hurting, as if pain and depression are contagious and we worry we’ll catch them if we’re not careful.

When I was a high school girl I admired my positive and bubbly classmates, the ones who had so much to say and confidence someone would always be there to listen, the ones that chirped about clothes, hair, boys, and plans for the weekend. It was the energy of life, I see now, the energy of growth, flowers waving gaily in a happy wind.

There was someone else in that class I’ll call Susan: a small, mousy girl with glasses, dark, short, curly hair, a bad complexion, and a body like a small phone booth covered every day in a white blouse and an unfashionable skirt. She sat in front of the class, had the best grades for 4 years running, and ended up valedictorian when we graduated.

There was grief in her eyes. There was something at home, I knew, but I can’t remember what it was. A disabled father? A divorce? The Holocaust?

Susan made some tentative gestures towards me, wanting to be friends, and I avoided her like the plague. She found a few friends to hang out with, and I had mine who were louder, wise-cracking, and full of gossip, but often when I stood with them I’d look at Susan from the corner of my eye as though she was the one I should be standing near, she was my true companion.

From early on Susan knew she wanted to be a doctor, a rarity among us girls at that time (our big objective was to get married), and that’s what she became. At our 25th reunion she was there with her husband, as diminutive as her, still quiet but self-assured, and again I watched her from the corner of my eye and wondered how much she healed others, and how much she healed herself.

This is what’s on my plate. Start a revolution and you’ll see me there. It’s time to make changes, to pay more tribute to the we rather than the I, care for the whole rather than just a fragment or two, because—what choice do we have?

But more and more I search for Susan inside, and the many Susans outside.

Who is not Susan among us? Who has not felt deeply flawed, a wrongness that tears us away from others, that plants us on our own invisible island even as we shop for groceries and nod hello to the mailwoman?

Who does not know that deep loneliness, the failure in love and work that’s created a breach between me and the rest of humanity, between me and the rest of me?

Which one of us hasn’t reached for something—a single-malt scotch, an unaffordable new sweater, a one-night stand, a few beers, a piece of chocolate cake—to relieve the isolation?

And who among us has the courage to get up morning after morning, creep out from under that rock and stumble forward, one small step after another, and show ourselves to the world?