Tea Break Read
A serialised short story
By Allan Hunter
So this week is easier. The prof (he’s called Malcolm and I suppose I’d better call him that from now on) is really gentle as he hands back our papers from the previous week and asks us about what we wrote about for this week. He gets a few questions from kids who want to know about the key/cup thing. One kid asks about a sea shell and says that has nothing to do with a female symbol. And Malcolm asks her to describe the sea shell and she does and he calls up google images on the overhead and asks was it like this one? Like this one? And she points to a conch shell and says that’s the one, and Jesus, I tell you that opening at the front, it looks a whole lot like a vagina. I mean, I gasp. But she can’t see it. It’s a female symbol, no doubt about that. I think everyone in the class sees it but not her. Malcolm doesn’t insist. He’s good that way. I think I’m starting to like him. He’s not your usual prof. This class isn’t your usual class, come to that. Obviously.
So Malcolm goes on about how we have these pictures in our minds, Unconscious images, and until we bring them to the surface it’s really hard to know what we feel about complex ideas like masculinity and femininity. But our unconscious mind already knows. We just don’t listen to it enough.
I know he’s right. That is, I know it feels right to me. But I don’t say anything.
I mean, what would I say? “Oooh, you’re so right Malcolm. That’s amazing.” Yeah, really. What kind of suck-up crap would that be?
Anyway he looks at me and asks me if I want to say anything. And I ask him why he thinks that. And he says, because you look a bit tense and you’ve screwed up your mouth, so I wondered if there was a reason for that. I didn’t realize I was giving myself away till he said that. So I get out of it by saying how I found the exercise to be a bit demanding and that I didn’t know if I’d done it right. And he just accepts it. Says there’s no way to do these wrong. All you have to do is reflect on what turned up on the page.
I thought that was a pretty cool answer.
Then I figure I’ll ask him something and I say – where do you even get these exercises? And he replies that he’s been using them for years and he finds that they’re a very effective way of getting people to be in touch with the things they need to explore and that it’s a way of opening up our Unconscious to ourselves. And he says that not all exercises work every time or for everyone, but most of them do for most people.
And that gets me thinking.
Because if that’s true then that means there’s a whole class full of people here and they’re almost all getting to this stuff and so that means I’m not the only one who feels a bit turned inside out. So I’m not alone. It’s just that no one is saying much. I can tell from the way they aren’t saying much, though, that there’s stuff they are holding back. When there’s nothing to say in a class, one of those boring classes about science may be, then all you get in class is chit chat and people texting and after awhile you get sarcasm. That’s if the class feels lame. That’s our way of showing it, for the most part. But no one’s doing that here. Well, I mean there’s that kid Mike who sits over by the door and I think he’s out of it most of the time, on another planet, but even he’s not sarcastic. I’ve seen him in another class, one of those core classes we have to take that no one likes, and he’s wicked sarcastic. Not here, though.
So – do I say that a lot? “So”. People say I say it a whole lot and it’s like my warning word that says watch out here comes a bunch of opinion. I guess I do say it a huge lot. Most people say “well” and then get stuck in but I’m not most people so I choose “so”. I’m so sick of people who say “Well…” because you know they’re about to say something that isn’t going to agree with you. Like, “Well, you have a good point but blah blah blah and I think you’re talking crap.” Except there’s usually a couple of sentences there, the blah blah ones, that are truly mealy mouthed. Whenever I think of mealy mouth I think of someone trying to smile while eating oatmeal and the stuff leaking from between their teeth and lips. Yeah. Like that. Fun eh? So I start with “So”. It’s more direct. It’s saying: OK, now, this is how I think it goes.
I mean – think about that. There’s this kid down the hall and every time he has an idea or an opinion he says “Jesus.” I just thought about that. I mean, he’s not even religious. You tell him something like they have genuine tacos in the cafe and he says “Jesus! I hope they do.” Or you ask him what he thinks of a movie or a game and he starts with “Jesus”, like God’s on his side. You can tell it’s a reaction. It’s not a thought out idea. It’s just a reaction. But it’s got all this force that comes with it, like it matters, when it doesn’t. I’m not sure where I’m going with this.
So (see? There I go…) I only started this journal this semester to see if I could keep up with what’s going on. You know, who’s sleeping with who, and that. No, seriously, I wanted to keep track of who was friends with whoever and how that changed, because it gets complicated for some people. Jess and Brady in their suite are always having these feuds with the other people in their suite and then they’re best friends again two days later. Stupid stuff. Someone stole their ice-cream from their fridge (because they have to have their own private fridge) but that means it had to be someone from their suite and so it had to be Maria. No logic there, but what the hell. And, of course, Maria’s always been such a bitch and never shares anything. Except that Maria always gives them rides when they need them and even picked them up from Boston one night when they missed the shuttle and had no money for an Uber. She was their savior then, and they were all besties. Now they’re not talking to each other so their friends can’t talk to their friends, either. It’s amazing how that stuff plays out. But I thought it’d be interesting just to see how the power lines shift over the course of a semester, just as a sociological investigation. An Inquiry of sorts. Then I started but the first thing I did was I started writing about this class and it turns out it’s about all I do, now, for journaling. That other stuff doesn’t seem too interesting now.
So then we start an exercise.
This one turns out to be a short one. He, that’s Malcolm, asks us to think in terms of comparisons. Something is like something else. But that’s hard to do with people, sometimes, he says. So – if you had to compare yourself to a permanent structure or a building then what would that be? I think I get it, but a few people look blank. Would you, says Malcolm, compare yourself to a public library, say? Or a bar? So then we get it. And I think I’m a bit like the Statue of Liberty, but then I change it to the Eiffel tower. Tall, and delicate, spindly looking, but strong on those four great steel legs.
Then he asks us to compare ourselves to a method of transportation. I wonder if I’m like a submarine or perhaps a bike, quiet and unobtrusive but I can pop up somewhere unexpectedly because no one’s heard me arrive. I remember riding down the path behind Amy’s barn on my bike when I was a kid and there were deer there and because I was riding quietly and slowly they didn’t seem to notice me or see that I was a threat, and one even started trotting after me for a bit. Except it didn’t trot, it sort of gave these gentle bounds and small leaps and it was just beautiful the way they moved. So elegant. And I’m pedaling away on that bit of smooth earth trying not to make any noise. I’ve never told anyone about that, and that’s strange because it was a moment filled with beauty and you don’t get that many of those most days. It made me feel light and yet part of something bigger than me, and I thought my heart would burst. When I got back I told Amy there were deer back there and she said her dad sometimes shoots them, and I didn’t feel like saying anything more after that.
Then Malcolm says OK, now if you were to compare yourself to a fruit or a vegetable, what would that be? And for some reason all I can think about is mangos. I’ve no idea why. I like mangos but I don’t crave them or anything.
Then he asks what sort of animal or natural creature I’d compare myself to, and right away I know it’s a wolf. A dragon might have been cooler but for me it’s got to be a wolf.
So we share the results and we get some good ones because they’re all a bit bizarre. There’s Sandie who compares herself to a hospital, an ambulance, a watermelon and an Eagle, and I can see that some of that fits because she’s a nursing major and kind of an All-American girl (that’s the Eagle) so it fits that she’d see a watermelon which is everyone’s favorite summer food, right? Clare compares herself to a commuter train, Halley says she sees a pair of sneakers for her method of transportation. Mike says he’s like a junk-heap Corvette. That draws a few looks.
I can’t remember too much about the others.
So Malcolm says that the permanent building is something rooted, static, that people come to visit and so it might just represent the way you think other people see you. And I get very still when he says that. I do see myself as a stand out kind of person, and I think that’s how people see me. I know they do. But I also notice that people tend to see me as someone special like a monument in a big city. All kinds of people want to know me, and come and see me, but I’m not that interested in them. Like the Eiffel tower. All those tourists every year. Millions of them. And the tower just stands there. And when you get to the top, when you really get to work your way to that top platform, wow. Then I felt a bit sad. Because I’d love for someone to be able to meet me on that platform and see what I see, when most of them’re busy taking selfies and being dorks. So, yeah, the Eiffel tower.
Then the method of transportation, says Malcolm, is different again. Because a vehicle moves under its own power and can change position, so it has personal agency, just as you have personal agency in your own life, therefore (he uses therefore a fair amount. It makes me smile.) it might just suggest the way you see yourself. Now, says M, the way you see yourself might be accurate or it might not be, but it is your way of seeing yourself, just as with the building it’s your impression of how others see you. How you see yourself, and how you think others see you, will determine to a great extent how you run your life.
So he turns to Mike, the Junk Heap Corvette guy, and says that the image is strong, but clearly the car needs some help to get back on the road. And Mike looks a bit sly and says, Yeah, well, that’s the car I have back home beside the house. And we all laugh.
But then I get it. Mike is exactly like that crappy car. He needs some fixing up. I hardly know him but I know that about him because it’s obvious. He needs some work.
Now my heart’s beating fast and hard, but I’m taking notes as quick as I can. The submarine – all the things I think and feel that I keep under the ocean, and then sometimes I pop up. And sometimes I launch a torpedo or two and blow someone out of the water before they know it’s me, because they’re thinking I don’t matter. I’m like a pirate crew – don’t mess with me. And the bike ride, yeah; I’m pedaling, I’m powering my own quiet way forwards and sometimes it’s beautiful, just beautiful, the things I see. And that’s me.
I’m liking this exercise a lot.
I looked across at Mike, with his wrecked corvette. I wondered about that. It seemed so sad, so sorrowful. Unless he was trying to get some pity from the girls in the room. I wouldn’t put that past him. Still, I got the feeling that there was a sorrow in there. If I had to guess I’d say an ex. Now he wants someone to fix his broken American Dream car. Won’t be me.
So then we get to the fruit bit. We had a load of weird answers to that. Several watermelons, a peach, a couple of strawberries, but I’m the only mango. We did have a pumpkin, though. That was Mike, because he always has to be different. I think he listened to what other people said and then altered his response, because I think he’s as soft as a grape. He just thinks he’s something bigger and more important, like a pumpkin.
Anyway, the idea of the fruit was that if the exercise works (and M said it doesn’t always work, although god knows it was working for me, right then) the fruit might indicate how we are in terms of our emotions. So I think about that. And he says a tough outer skin might be an indication that we’re a little hard to “get to”. And I get it. That’s me. I’ve got this tough outer layer and I make people work before I let them near my emotions, but when they’re in, then I’m a bit gushy and very sweet and delicious and even a bit messy. Eating a mango’s not a tidy event. But then I’ve got this hard core to me. I’m not a pushover. And you have to work around that hard core – you can’t pretend it’s not there. And I’m making all these connections before M is even saying anything and I look at him and just blurt it out. “Yes, that’s Me” I say, “to a T”.
I think the class kind of relaxed at that point, or perhaps it was just me, because more people start sharing what they think. And I hear it but I’m wrapped in my own thoughts too much to pay full attention. Because that’s me, that stupid mango. That’s me. And I didn’t even realize it until now. And there’s M saying that it’s hard to describe yourself in words, but often we already have a picture that explains everything to us in one rich image that has it all. He calls it the picture language of the soul, and it’s in your Unconscious. All you have to do is bring it to the surface. And that’s what we did. God alive, that’s what we did.
We’re not finished yet because we still have the animal. Quite a few people said they’d choose a cat, or a dog (retrievers seemed to be popular) and there was a bear and a tiger and my wolf and a couple of others. A whale was one and a dolphin, I think. And M says that by this point in the exercise, with any luck, our Unconscious is coming to the surface pretty strongly, and the animal we choose will have some quality or aspect that we value at the core of our souls. So he focuses on me and he says, a wolf has several aspects. It can be cruel and kill, or it can also be loyal and caring to its clan, and highly intelligent, very loving – and also has the idea of being remote. The “lone wolf” is a figure of speech we use, he says, and everyone knows what it means. And so I connect with it. Yes, I say: I can be alone, and fierce, and yes, I’m totally loyal to the people I care for, and I’ll be fierce in defending them.
I say that before I realize I’ve said it, and I stop. And then it feels good. So I say, “It felt good to say that,” and he smiles. “When we say who we are it always feels good. Because we’re being ourselves, yes?” And I smile. I’m really getting this.
The rest of the class is a bit of a blur because I’m just so contented that I’ve spoken and that it was true. And I think people heard it too. That wolf is my “totem animal” says M, and the attributes I identify in it are the attributes that feel true to my essential nature, the real me. Something like that. I’ll have to tidy that up when I write the paper. I just know I feel amazing about this whole thing.
What a week! I just managed a pass grade for the test in my Urban Life class, thank God; got an A on my Philosophy paper; and GooGoo has a new love interest, and he won’t shut up about that, although I think he’s actually gay except he doesn’t want to be gay. I mean, he’s already light-skinned black and dyes his hair blue and loves that classical music, the stuff from the 30s, but he works out like a madman and has these huge muscles. I can feel he’s gay, but he says he isn’t. He should take Mal’s class, I think. And I tell him but he shrugs.
So why am I so anxious? I’ve no idea why I’m always feeling the old anxiety and panic creep up on me, like it’s waiting in the shadows to get me. Why? Why? I mean, why me, and why now? I just don’t get it. I’m doing better than I usually do in my classes and I have friends. Sure, I get that we’ve got a shitty president and that’s fucking things up good and ugly. My mom’s always kind of bent out of shape because of healthcare and my tuition bills. And her job is pretty shitty too. I know she says it’s fine but I can see how exhausted she is at the end of the day being nice to rich women who treat her like dirt. That’s retail, though. I’ll never go into retail.
Yeah, well I did it once as a summer job, but retail sucks. People act so entitled. They’re just so rude. Just because you have money doesn’t make you a better person than anyone else. You don’t get an extra vote just because you’re obnoxious. But then I see it here all the time. The privilege. I didn’t understand that word until it got discussed in my Soc. Class. It means you have so much support that you take stuff for granted. Yeah, like with me. When I went to that party I nearly got raped. Well, those assholes who nearly did it were rich guys and I know they didn’t go to that party feeling that they’d risk getting raped. And because it wasn’t a threat to them they assumed that doing it was no big deal. Because they’re rich fucking white kids! If they get arrested they’ll get off because their daddies have expensive lawyers who’d destroy the character of anyone who tried to bring charges – as if they even could bring charges. Some cop somewhere would get paid off and it’d all come to nothing. And so those fucking kids, grown up fucking kids who should know a thing or two but don’t, they’ll go through life casually destroying lives around them for no reason except they’re dumb shits. They’ll fire the cleaning crew of undocumented workers because of a little thing, some little chicken shit thing, and never think about what that might mean to those people.
Yeah, well, I’d better get off this. My friend Marisa’s mom was a cleaner and she got fired like that, and no one ever thought what that might mean for her and her family. What did she do wrong? Just this: She wasn’t out of the house fast enough because it was filthy, and it took longer to clean than she thought and the stupid bitch who hired her got all annoyed because she didn’t want her guests to know that she hired illegals. So she fired her. Try your best, do a good job, and get fired anyway.
This is a strange world.
I feel a bit better now I’ve written that. This journal is better than going out and getting smashed. When Linsey feels bad about stuff she goes out and gets smashed and sometimes she gets laid too, but I don’t think it works that well for her, really. Perhaps it did once, but not now. Now she just gets snippy and then depressed. Then she borrows money so she can go and get smashed again. Though lately she just hangs around bars and guys buy her drinks. You get the picture. The crazy thing is she’s not even 18 yet. She’s got a fake ID that wouldn’t fool a blind man but they let her in anyway. She’s basically a prostitute for the price of a few drinks. I’m kind of afraid of anyone who can do that. It disturbs me.
I think I know why I wrote that. In class there’s this girl who’s got a huge mass of brown hair, thick and kind of wavy. I mean really thick. It always looks like she’s been on the beach and it’s got frizzed out, except that’s the way she is all the time. Anyhow she sits with her feet on the desk, and Malcolm doesn’t say anything, he just looks, and you can tell he’s noticing. A couple of classes ago she brought in some knitting (knitting! Who the hell knits?) and he made a comment about how he needed a scarf. She only brought it in that once. I think she was testing him. Well, this class she sort of blurted out that she’d been writing about her boundaries. She said the exercise we took that was a walk visualization had kind of opened her eyes. She said that when she visualized the water she saw a wide puddle completely covering the path ahead, and that she jumped over it. And she said: that’s exactly how I deal with my emotions, I jump over them, but I see them everywhere and I avoid them. And then she said that she didn’t really get emotions, even though she could see them, because she didn’t allow herself to feel them, which is why she always had these flings with guys, like all the time. And then she said that when she was 14 her mom had told her she worked for an escort agency. She sort of stopped for a moment. “She didn’t bring her work into the home”, she said. And I thought, Whoa. Who says that? Who admits that? Who’s got the guts to admit that to a whole class? Either she’s brave or she’s nuts. May be both. But, you know, how would that shape your life if you knew that?
So she went on to say that her mom was very loose and had no boundaries, but that her dad, who divorced her mom years ago, was very strict and controlling. And she always tried to get his good will but she ended up not telling him about her actual life and then lying about it too, just to stay in his good books, to seem like the daughter he would approve of. But that always fell apart and made things worse when he found out. And when she said that I could see why she brought in her knitting and why she put her feet on the table desk thing they have in that shitty classroom. It was some kind of test. She was trying to see how far she could push Malcolm. Like he was a dad and she had to test him. And he knew it. He knew it. Suddenly I got it.
I’m not sure if I hate her or if I feel compassionate, you know, kind of sorry, for her. Perhaps it’s both. Can you feel both at once? Perhaps I just feel sad. I mean, how do you sort yourself out in that kind of situation? Who do you trust? How do you know what’s right? If you decide to sleep with some guy just for the hell of it then can your mom even say anything if she’s basically doing the same thing? Screwy, and scary. The scary part gets to me.
So this got me thinking. There she was, spilling her guts. And here’s me, not saying anything. Even though I want to some times. Perhaps I should speak up.
This class got me thinking. Malcolm says that who we are gets reflected back to us, to some extent, by our early experiences. The trouble is that we don’t know how to understand these early events. So what we think is “normal” because that’s the way our family was, may not be at all “normal” in terms of what mainstream society thinks. If your mom’s a whore (Malcolm didn’t say that. That’s me) and your dad’s a control freak then how do you make sense of that? You split the world up. So you see men as severe and strict and needing to be manipulated, and you see women as kind of lost and slutty. That’s the story you tell yourself about the world and so you start to live that story, like it’s true. But it might not be!
Malcolm goes on about these things as being Unconscious patterns. He says that’s why we’re here. We see them, notice them and then we can decide if we want them running our lives. Otherwise the Unconscious runs you, rather than you being in charge of it.
Got me thinking, I can say.
Malcolm said it may be why so many people keep dating the same loser, time after time. The Unconscious pattern says: “This one” and the sane part of the mind is overwhelmed and gives in. And then no one has much fun.
He is a full professor of Literature at Curry College, a counselor, and his doctoral degree in literature is from Oxford University. British by birth, he traveled extensively in Europe, India, Africa, and India before settling in Boston, Massachusetts.
Three of his books seek to show readers how to use writing as a therapeutic and life-enhancing tool. They are all based in workshops he has taught for over thirty years (The Sanity Manual, Life Passages, and Write Your Memoir). In each case the emphasis is on using writing and story to reach a place a deeper understanding and peace. His other books have explored the way six specific archetypes recur in the 3000 years of the western world’s great literature; Stories We Need to Know, The Six Archetypes of Love, and Princes, Frogs and Ugly Sisters: The Grimm Brothers’ Healing Tales. He concludes that these archetypes are ways for us to contact the deep structures of the psyche.
His tenth book, The Path of Synchronicity, asks us to consider what it is the universe seems to nudge us to do, rather than what we think will make us famous or wealthy. As such times we move into the flow of synchronicity.
He followed this with Spiritual Hunger in which he asks us to consider how we can feed our inner need for relevance in a mass culture, and how we can choose healthy possibilities rather than those sold to us by large corporations.
His most recent work is Gratitude and Beyond – an exploration of how gratitude is just the beginning to the journey of self-discovery. Following a brush with death I describe how I learned, the hard way, lessons I needed to know so that I could live more harmoniously in the world.