>Notes From the Field

>Rumi (as translated by Coleman Barks) wrote:

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right-doing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.

I’ve had this quote in mind while writing the book these last five years, talking about the book, and generally sitting around thinking about the book – doing my imaginary Terry Gross interviews and such.

Those first several weeks after it happened, I had to tell people that, no, I didn’t hate him. Then, years later, at the trial, I had to tell people to stop saying things like “I hope he gets life in jail” unless it was for their own benefit. And even then to please keep it to themselves.

Actually, what I said was, “I don’t.” That usually shut them up.

People ask, “Weren’t you angry?” But this is the funny part: right before I can answer, they make sure to insert “Because I would be.” And then, as if to make sure I still felt naïve enough to think I could safely and honestly answer the question, they’d add “…but that’s just me, I don’t know.”

If this whole ordeal has taught me anything, it’s that if any question requires a “but that’s just me” at the end of it, don’t ask it. Or do, and resist the urge to weigh in. See what happens.

We can learn a lot when we just shut the fuck up.

When I was in eighth grade, I lied about my cousin dying to the attendance lady on the phone, and stayed home. My mom didn’t know because she went directly from her boyfriend’s house to work that day, calling us in the morning to make sure we were awake and heading out the door.

Sure, Mom. A 12-year-old and her 9-year-old brother will, when given the chance, rise up with the dawn and fix themselves a healthy, balanced breakfast, after which brushing their teeth and hair, and making sure to lock the door, get to their separate bus stops on time, and bound joyously into their homeroom right as the bell rings. And also, toucan farts powered the first Brazilian automobiles.

Mom was in no mood for sarcasm when she called me that afternoon, demanding to know why she had to hear it from the attendance office at Marco Forster Junior High that her beloved niece had been killed, and that, by the way, she was late for the funeral.

I had hoped she would see that her irresponsibility allied us in this subterfuge against the school system, but alas, she sold me out. I ended up having to do 6 weeks of after-school detention, and a session with the school counselor, a frumpy, poodle-headed woman whose cheeks had an unfortunate relationship with gravity.

She asked me, at first, why I was skipping so much school. Apparently, they surmised that all the other phone calls – the ones they never checked up on with my mother at work – were bogus, as well. But I was glad she asked why I was skipping school: I was pissed! I was an angry child. I knew some great injustice was being done to me and my brother (actually, I hated his guts and thought he was part of the unique level of hell I’d been assigned to), having to live in a tiny apartment with dirty carpets, never getting to buy Guess jeans, never getting help with my homework or encouragement to join clubs or take ballet, while all the girls around me had ponies and Contempo Casuals outfits and the confident look of people who will be picked up on time after school, and not by a grudging mother’s boyfriend in a 1977 Malibu with no muffler.

But to warm up to sharing such private torments, I started with, “Because this school sucks.”

To be fair, it did pale in comparison to the lovely campus and friendships I’d left behind in Mission Viejo when Dad grew bored of his custody of me after one school year. I had begged and sobbed and screamed at both of them to let me continue junior high there, to not force me to make new friends among the spoiled surfer brats of Dana Point and Laguna Niguel, to not drop me in the midst of those drug-dealing Satanists that roamed the schools in search of perfectly good kids to rape and murder in the public restrooms at Doheny State Beach. I even offered to get up two hours earlier to take a series of public buses that would go the 10 miles farther up the freeway to my old school. For that, I would have gotten up on time and gotten my ass to school. I could even do my homework on the bus! When I think of the schools I could have gotten into had my mother only relented and let me go back there…Harvard? Sure, no problem! Stanford? We’d be glad to have ya! Yale? Allow us to pay, please!

I tried to explain all of this to the guidance counselor, whom I had apparently disgusted to the point where her cheeks swept the desk as she spoke, collecting bits of eraser shavings and fallen flower petals. She narrowed her eyes and said, “You don’t deserve to be here.”

“Yes!” I cried, “You understand exactly!”

She went purple as she listed the wonderful things about this marvelous school that I seemed to have missed, such as the zzzsperbsk and the hrmyjrbylirby, reasons to love Marco Forster Junior High that I didn’t hear at all, for the blood filling my head. All I remember from her rant that day was “You don’t deserve to be here.” And how true it was, and how little we understood each other. But then, it wasn’t my job to understand her, or even to communicate clearly. She had a framed degree on the wall behind her. I was an angry 12-year-old.

I often wonder why she was so ill-equipped to talk to a kid my age about their unhappiness. Why she couldn’t see in front of her was a child who had it pretty bad at home, who had some very legitimate complaints about the way things were, but none of the clarity of experience to know that it didn’t need to be this way, or that I didn’t deserve it. Why she couldn’t see that I was embarrassed to have people over, that I was sick of having to leave friends each year after I’d just start to get close to them, why she couldn’t see that I didn’t enjoy throwing scissors at my brother or having my flesh bitten into by him every single day of our unhappy lives – we just had no one else to take it out on.

Had she shut the fuck up long enough, I would have eventually told her all of this, and then she might have been able to actually use that framed degree on the wall behind her. She might have told me to hang on, to do my best in school, because it would get me free one day – get me where I wanted to go. She might have told me what I needed to hear most, which was: no, you don’t deserve this. She might have told me to keep writing in my journal – to take it to the park after school each day instead of going home to fight with my brother over who got to play Nintendo until mom came home. She might have told me that the world was my wonderful oyster, and that the choices I make have nothing to do with the choices the adults made for me when I was young and powerless. That we are never powerless, so not to be petty or angry or spiteful or jealous.

She wouldn’t have been able to save my mother, but by God, she might have been able to save many, many people from me.

But that’s just me…I don’t know.

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