On Caged Birds

I’m not normal.

But I never said I wanted to be either.

Sentence’s as paragraphs aside, I haven’t vomited words in a bit, so let’s get this out here: I have very high empathy, and a conditioned need to love things — all things — unconditionally, even the things which are not worthy of love or affection. It can be a sincere pain.

For example, I’ve been reading Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” and it is, unsurprisingly, some powerful stuff. It hurts and its sentences make me delicate and confused; and I don’t know how to process all the things that are thrown at me with the casual chaos of a good writer. Whose sentences are composed like Jackson Pollock, but have the distinct flavor of intent. And whose smell is that of bread drying on the sidewalk. Hot and gritty and unnatural, but honest.

Man, my attempt at that sucked.

But anyway, I passed the point recently where Maya is working for a Mrs. Cullinan. Mrs. Cullinan is described as functionally awful: overweight, supercilious, punctilious (Double ilious is no bueno), morbid, and borderline psychopathic; and she gives Maya a name that isn’t hers: Mary.

The sequence adequately conveys Angelou’s frustration and disdain for a creature who could change her name willfully and capriciously; for whom this little black girl is just another doll, subject to name changes. The casualness boils the blood.

But then, Maya does something that upset me.

At the suggestion of her brother, to be fired, she breaks Mrs. Cullinan’s fine China. The China belongs to Cullinan’s mother and sends her into a hysterical fit, a paroxysm so violent her grammar fails her. The disdain that most reader’s feel should be just, and fully sated with the kind of sadism that’s culturally acceptable when someone’s awful.

But it fucked me up, so much.

For a moment, instead of seeing what I was supposed to see: the reclaiming of agency by an young black girl and destroying the precious objects of someone so callous;  the reclaiming of a life. All I could hear was someone horrified and heartbroken by the breaking of a piece of fine china.

For most people, that’s stupid, and silly, and there’s no reason to get upset over something so trivial, especially when the person is so utterly repugnant in the story.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about Cullinan’s actual response “Momma I sorry”. I played the imperfect smoky crystal image spun by Angelou’s hand of a fat, old woman, with few close acquaintances seeing a connection to her mother – a precious connection – willfully destroyed to prove some point.

I saw Cullinan at a younger, more graceful age, coveting that china in her youth; I saw her aware over time that she was fat;  I saw an intentional unawareness of the inherent cruelty of her existence, to forestall the truths that she was a bad person. I saw loneliness and misery that accompanies getting older. The progressive realization that you are no longer beautiful, if ever you were, or the progressive realization that you have become uglier.

I saw Cullinan elevate this ugly piece of china because it reminded her of the one thing in life she loved dearly: her mother. And perhaps the only thing that truly loved her. I saw the painful awareness buried deep in punctilious supercilious behavior that kept it from becoming apparent that this woman was miserable.

I saw the abstraction fall apart.

And when I saw that, I saw the actions as painful, and unjust, no matter how just they seem in the context of the narrative. All I could focus on was the sense of utter exhausted pain of Mrs. Cullinan losing that one fragile connection to love.

And sure, that’s all invention. I didn’t know this woman. I don’t  know Maya  Angelou. But whenever someone suffers, when someone commits acts of violence, when someone says something cruel to someone; when someone acts in anger, whoever they vent themselves to is not an abstraction to me. Nor are they an abstraction.

I become filled with the awful realization that people contain a sea within them. A vast universe of desires and experiences, a collection of little arrhythmias and scars, thousands of days stacked on top of each other progressively to make them who they are, and react  how they are.

It’s  why, when I found out that Hinduism – at least the kind I practice – was all about the non-rightness of paths. When I learned that it featured radical acceptance. Unconditional love for people, no matter what they are. It appealed to me deeply. It filled me with a sense of non-truth, and non-rightness, that still felt right.

Because I can’t turn off that pain. Even if I wanted to. I can’t make the suffering of others leave my heart. Even if culture decides they deserve it. I can’t compel myself to suddenly reduce them to objects; to rob them of the rich universe that is inside them. The galaxy of stars that surrounds the supermassive black hole that is the indefinable self, centered in the hearts of all people, around which the light remains unbent.

I can think of nothing crueler than that. And that makes me weird; and that makes me unjust, and a bad person too, to some minds.

But if I didn’t feel the pain of others so deeply, I wouldn’t feel their joys, and happiness either.

And the world would be so much poorer for it.

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