I would sleepwalk through this morning. The clouds would hang low in the sky, the air too warm for February. I would see people in the halls, smile and say hi, hold doors open, nod my head during class discussions, squint my eyes into half-moons to indicate inquisitive thoughts. I would stare at my computer screen, google doc after google doc, and I would make three loops to the bathroom to avoid having my face crash into my computer.
But in the middle of today, I was jolted from my somnambulatory haze. Because today, there was a fire alarm. I followed the crowds outside and found a small circle of teachers. We hugged our elbows or stuffed our hands in our pockets to avoid the cold, shuffled back and forth in an awkward dance to adapt our bodies to the brisk February air. We didn’t have our phones and we didn’t have our laptops. The tasks and to-do lists we carried had been left back in the abandoned building, and all we stood outside with was ourselves.
The air woke me up, and so did the other people. It was bright, and I bet they could see the zits on my forehead. They could see the lines around my eyes and I could see theirs. We talked about the weather “it’s supposed to hail tonight” (shuffle shuffle, hands in pockets, more dancing) and we talked about the upcoming afternoon’s obligations. We talked about a project due for gradschool class (sniffle, shuffle, sniffle). And then the bell rang again, indicating that it was safe to return to the building.
Small conversations are kind of revolutionary for me. I am kind of an anxious person. Having your life be governed by bells is actually a glorious thing for a person who dreads small talk. Awkward silence? That’s okay, because the bell will ring in a minute, and it will be time to gather up your laptop and keys. Too many tasks and deadlines? — no need to fret, because after all, fulfilling these duties is something I can control— I can hold my responsibilities in the palm of my hands, carry them in neat, manageable piles; I can master deadlines with to-do lists, check-boxes and hardcore multi-tasking.
But the system controls us by making us believe we can control it. Thankfully, however, a fire alarm rings, the routine is upset, and we’re faced with real people. People who must dance to keep their feet warm, people with zits and wrinkles, with eyes that are hollow or shining. People who have fears and awkward quirks and dreams and maybe some spinach in their teeth.
Any time you are brave enough to look someone in the eye, you lose a little bit of your grip. Because you cannot control a person like you can control a task, you must surrender to what is instead of what could be.
I practiced the art of losing my grip tonight with my birthday girl, Ellie. We sat across from one another at a small table in Dairy Queen, she sipping an Orange Julius, me wolfing-down an oreo blizzard. Kids are the ultimate antidotes to the illusion of control– — they remind me that my incessant attempts to hold their behavior, their feelings, their future in my protective palms is futile. What I can do is be present (which is SO FREAKING DIFFICULT)– I can bear witness to their joy and their sadness and they can bear witness to mine.
“What makes you laugh?” I ask Ellie. “Jokes,” she grins, stealing a bit of my Blizzard. “And what makes you angry?” I question. “When people steal my toys.” “What makes you happy?” She smiles, her mouth wide and her teeth brown from chocolate, her hair stuck out in untamable, staticky wisps. “My family,” she says.
She finds my shining eyes, and I find hers, and we are tired and happy together.