True confession: I have said some really hurtful things to people in my life. For instance, I still don’t remember exactly what I said to Sharna Kruse at the ninth grade lunch table that made her dump a 32-ounce Coke on my head and never speak to me again, but a) I’m sure I got what was coming to me, and b) to this day, I am still really sorry I destroyed a meaningful friendship for the sake of what was undoubtedly a very clever and very vicious quip.
Unfortunately, I have a knack for the well-timed, perfectly poisoned phrase (which is why I generally try to avoid arguments with people I care about). Take what I said in a fit of anger to my ex-husband, before he was my ex (he filed for divorce the next day)—I’ll let you use your imagination here, but rest assured, it was something so horrible that all the men who know about it turn pale and say, “He totally had to divorce you. No man could stay married to a woman who said THAT.” Fair enough.
So when people I care about do something that hurts me, I figure it’s probably a pay-it-forward kind of thing, that I should take my licking—deserved or not—with as much grace as I can muster. But it still hurts. I usually manage to sail through my days fairly unscathed by the slings and arrows of others, largely, I’m afraid, because I’m fairly oblivious to them. I love my life—I have four brilliant (albeit slightly crazy), beautiful children, a fun and demanding job, amazing, talented friends, and enough hobbies to last six or seven lifetimes. I suppose that’s made me thick-skinned, and unfortunately, also thick-skulled. I like to tell people that my most redeeming quality is that I don’t take things personally—and that my least redeeming quality is my tendency to say exactly what is on my mind.
Here’s the thing: I have no problem apologizing when I’m wrong. But what really gets me is when I apologize and the person I’ve wronged REFUSES TO ACCEPT my apology! Or even worse, when someone holds a grudge and I have NO IDEA why! I mean, can you believe it? The unmitigated gall…okay, before the keyboard blows up beneath my fingers, I’ll admit that I have had this most unpleasant of experiences not once, not twice, but three times in the past 24 hours. And even though one of my favorite anarchist soccer mom superpowers is the ability to spin virtually any bad news into something positive, the last blow—let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, that it was an email “disinviting” me to my son’s birthday party—drew blood.
Worst of all, as soon as I got the coldly formal email, my suspicions that I have done something wrong were confirmed. But I really have no idea what it was. I’m quite sure, whatever it was, it was horrific—far worse than splitting an infinitive or messing up pronoun/antecedent agreement. I’m quite sure I should have noticed my grave and inexcusable offense when I did it. But the fact of the matter is, I’m completely ignorant, which makes the retaliation all the more painful. Because how can you make something right when the other person won’t even tell you what you’ve done?
The situation reminds me of one of my favorite poems about communication (or the lack thereof), Bill Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” The final stanza implores us to try harder when we talk to each other: “The signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—/should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.” I still remember reading Derrida and realizing, in one of those delightful “Eureka” world-stopping moments that define the college experience, that there is ALWAYS a gap between what I say and what you hear. As a writer, it’s my job to narrow that gap—to communicate these thoughts (the hurt, like overhearing a friend in sixth grade talk about a party you weren’t invited to; the shame, like being the only person dressed in navy blue at a Depeche Mode concert; the remorse, like wishing you had bought that ceramic pig in Tijuana when you were 19) in a way that you can appreciate or understand or relate to.
When I got that email, all of those feelings, both the times I have hurt others, and the times they have hurt me, poured over me like a torrential Texas thunderstorm. I thought of all the wrongs that I can never right—and as I always do, when I feel like this, I resolved once again to do my very best to communicate clearly, to be more sensitive to others’ feelings, and above all, when I am wrong, to apologize. But once I’ve apologized, the matter is out of my hands. If people refuse to accept a sincere apology, that is entirely their problem. In my own life, I’ve found that focusing on the apologies I owe other people, rather than on the ones they owe me, generally makes me a happier person all around.
In case you’re wondering, I will not let this emotional equivalent of a skinned knee ruin my weekend, no matter how much it smarts at the moment! A door closes; a window opens. I guess the sudden block of freedom in a schedule that is usually jam-packed with activities can mean only one thing: it’s really time—no excuses!—to revise my novel. It’s an apology, of sorts, in the ecclesiastical sense of the word—an attempt to explain my reasoning, or perhaps even my raison d’etre. The first words might as well be “I’m sorry.”