In high school, doctors thought I might have brain cancer. I sat with my dad in an exam room, waiting to see the MRI results. I turned to him, straight-faced, and said, “Well, now I have proof that I have a brain. Do you?”
There it was. That wry, sudden humor.
My dad laughed a little, and I teased him about how the only “real” proof of anything is seeing it. Therefore, I was the only one who for sure had a brain. Really, I had such proof several times over: I’d been through dozens of MRI’s before in my life, since third grade. For all kinds of reasons. Doctors and death-sentences were normal experiences for me. I was not happy about it, not at all, but I could sometimes be hilarious.
I never figured I was funny or witty until college, when I learned that I was – in my own peculiar way – extremely good at it. All the skills ingrained in me from doctors and death had this bright and sudden new use. All my careful, detailed observations of the people around me, a skill learned in the desperate attempt to understand what might please the doctor or soothe my worried parents. The little flickers of emotions on people’s faces. The twitches in their body language. Things like that were, abruptly, funny. Or rather, could be made funny.
Humor is in details. It’s got to be specific, and my affection and terror at the world drenches me in details. I, suffering an anxiety disorder, can be entirely overwhelmed by particulars – so much so that I’ll forget the ones I need.
Humor helps. For example, during my fake little teaching session in front of students during my job interview, I made them laugh. I explained baptism by first explaining the importance of symbols, and to do so I asked them about my shiny shoes. Why the hell would I wear shiny shoes today? Because today was important to me, and the students were important to me. The outfit – esp. the shoes, obviously – was a symbol.
Thank God for those fucking shoes. I should credit them with my job. Wherever the hell they are in my apartment. That’s a detail I don’t know.
Shoes I wear all the time go right by my door. I get home exhausted and shattered, having held myself together all day. Shoes get dropped right at the door. Fuck them. Other shoes: I’d say my closet, but probably under my desk.
What? I’m too busy to care. Too preoccupied with working for my own sanity and the Academy (and these are not at all the same).
I always have a medal of St. Benedict in my pocket. He and his raven have snatched me from the poison of self-inflicted death. I am serious. I am so serious about that. So I carry Saint Benedict with me, and I imagine he protects me, and I hardly know if I mean the medal or the saint. I don’t care to clarify. It’s a confusion I find too Catholic to let go, and definitely too hilarious. All while it is so very, very serious. What Benedict has done, what I have done, and the hours and hours spent struggling to be alive.
What hours, O what black hoürs we have spent
This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
My heart aches, and many times I don’t know if it’s because I’m overwhelmed by hurt or affection. I laugh over it. That terrible unknowing. Whether I trust the person in front of me or just wish I did because I don’t. Whether I am able to be near anything or only able to sit just there an infinity away. And I laugh. The closeness I feel may vanish in a moment, and with laughter I hold on and let go.
I have wondered, sometimes. Is my humor a mechanism to shut out or to welcome? I think both. Even both at once.
I worry, sometimes. Will my (has my) humor lost me some opportunity as a scholar? We are all so damn serious, so very grave. And I will smile. I will be thoroughly endeared and fucking smile about it. Hell, I’m a woman. We’re expected to smile and to be stupid. So why am I smiling? Because for so long I couldn’t, and many days I still can’t. And if I’m betraying the (serious men of the) Academy or my (serious) gender, well: fuck, I lose no matter what, and that’s hilarious.
And I’m told that I’m terrifyingly intelligent sometimes. That’s hilarious. I’m this tiny, scrawny creature. A hundred pounds on a good day. I’d never hurt anyone if I could help it, and I’d definitely never frighten them. I know too well what it’s like. And still I do hurt and frighten. I don’t know if I laugh because I don’t understand or because it hurts to know.
Even the great contradiction of my existence: the scholarly life of the mind and a broken mind. I love the way it upsets expectations. It is my favorite humor: anarchically overthrowing the ordinary. And yet along with it there is this: incredible pain. Long, long years of profound suffering that promise many more. You don’t just get better. People don’t. We don’t do that. I hate to tell you that. It’s not funny, and I’m not smiling.
I will sometimes describe it humorously: I am a toddler, or a stumbling baby fawn. Shakily learning to stand and walk. Smile at it, smile at the image. And try not to think of the years and years, the weary strain.
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
I wish I could say it, whether I laugh or lose. When I walk in a door, or command a classroom, or speak in front of scholars. Just a moment to pause. Perhaps to smile. To say: You, any of you who see me, you cannot really know how very many seas I have crossed to be with you today.