Ask me again what I offered as a sacrifice to the rooster crowing his betrayal of morning. Forgiveness, what a sharp blade I press my body hard against.”
—Marci Callabretta Cancio-Bello’s “In the Animal Garden of My Body” from the Poem-a-Day series, Academy of American Poets
I’ve been thinking about these last two lines of Cancio-Bello’s poem, mulling forgiveness and the sacrifice it entails—the relinquishment of pride, anger, righteous suffering—and reflecting on forgiveness and pain, that “sharp blade” that so often is a twofold ache, a recollection of the initial external hurt (whatever action entailed forgiveness in the first place) combined with the agony wrought by bringing oneself to forgive.
Forgiveness is hard. About her own poem, Cancio-Bello said, “I have spent a lifetime studying forgiveness and am constantly humbled by how complicated, impossible, and necessary it is to every memory.”
Maybe this poem has been in my head because I recently finished a draft of my latest young adult novel and sense that, in part, it is a work that confronts forgiveness, a state that (especially for my main character, fifteen-year-old Molly Knack) does indeed seem “complicated, impossible, and necessary.”
But I’m also struck by Cancio-Bello’s assertion that forgiveness represents her lifetime study. And this makes me wonder, what is mine? What concept guides and drives me? What complication beckons and consumes me? What theme keeps reappearing in my fiction—the short and the long?
Even though my recent writing project wrestles with forgiveness, I don’t consider forgiveness the “theme song” of my body of work. My agent once said that my writing celebrates community. I love that she sees that. And I would agree that relationships, their messiness and wild beauty, interest me. But the importance of community doesn’t consistently underscore my fiction either.
Shame is something I revisit—in all of its intricacies: humiliation, guilt, self-loathing. The bad shame that stifles personal growth and diminishes the human spirit; the good shame that energizes and spurs internal and external improvements, reparations, generosity, self-sacrifice, change, action.
I can’t say exactly why the feeling/subject of shame (of all things!) teases my imagination and demands my investigation. Maybe it’s because I grew up poor and was made aware of that fact by others in unkind ways. Maybe it’s because so many of my memories sprang from shameful experiences, not only instances when I felt burdened by that feeling but times when I noticed someone else in shame’s glaring spotlight.
Let me give you one such recollection. (Some of you are now thinking, Ugh, I don’t want to read this. I can’t blame you. Shame is uncomfortable.)
The setting: a gymnasium. Students filled the bleachers. At fifteen, I was one of those students. A marking period had begun, and this meant the start of a new gym class. (I bet “gym class” suffices to conjure, for many of you, bad memories. Locker room humiliations, required showers, being picked last for teams, swim class, fumbling a ball at a critical moment, etc.: gym class provides unique and endless opportunities for excruciating shame.) Anyway, at this point in my schooling, at least I had some choice in what kind of phys-ed torture I wanted to pursue. This quarter offered the options of ping-pong and badminton, aerobics, and then two or three more traditional sports. I can’t remember which ones exactly. Basketball? Soccer? They didn’t register. There was no way I’d sign up for one of them. I’d already decided I wanted to take the ping-pong class.
The gym teachers stood on the court, talking and looking at their clipboard lists. Then they began dividing us on the bleachers according to gender. I paid little attention to those standing and shuffling around because I was already sitting with the girls and was busy trying out jokes on my friends. At this stage of my life, I was cultivating my reputation as a ball buster, so my wisecracks happened to be dumb-men jokes. (I still recall a couple. What do a guy and a beer bottle have in common? They’re both empty from the neck up. How many men does it take to screw in a lightbulb? All of them. Men will screw anything.)
One of the gym teachers interrupted my questionable comedy routine. Cutting through the din of many kids talking at once, came his angry, “I said, girls stay here. Boys go over there.”
I looked around, confused, until I spied the source of the teacher’s frustration, sitting red-faced and hunched in a dark hoodie—and not moving a muscle.
Enraged by this apparent insubordination, the teacher shouted, “Girls here! Boys there!”
Still the student didn’t move…but did, however, stammer at last, “I—I am a girl.”
A brief silence greeted this response. Some students scrutinized the student, perhaps searching for evidence of femaleness. Some glanced away, embarrassed.
Then a few kids laughed.
The teacher apologized.
After that, I don’t know. I remember nothing about the rest of that class.
But this moment of chaos, commandments, confusion, clarification: it indelibly seared my memory. I felt sad for this girl. I sympathized with her. No, more than that: I related to her. All during my tween years, I was scrawny and flat-chested, had very short hair—my mother’s solution to both tangles and headlice—and on a regular basis, was mistaken for a boy.
The moment also cracked open my awareness of How Things Are. The gym teachers’ organizing us into separate groups on the bleachers spoke of a system that demanded a strict adherence to predetermined and limited roles (in this case: just two), discouraged ambiguities, identified those ambiguities as transgressions, and then punished the transgressions.
I operated within this system. Indeed, I perpetuated it. Since stereotypical characteristics of males and females were understood as givens, it was a system that could sustain jokes about animalistic, overly sexual men (and countless “bimbo” jokes, too, no doubt, though they—not serving my agenda—didn’t interest me).
This instance’s layers of shame stay with me. My shame, ignited by sympathy for the targeted student and discomfort over the nature of the jokes I’d been telling, and quickened as a result of my remembering the times people mistook me for a boy. The gym teacher’s shame. (I do believe he felt ashamed. Purposely or not, he’d hurt the student’s feelings. I’m glad he apologized.)
Most of all, the girl’s shame. This is the hardest shame to contemplate. By hardest, I mean the most painful: when one is picked on for circumstances beyond one’s control. For looking a particular way. For being born a certain way. For no other reason than being oneself.
I remember feeling angry with those kids who found the situation funny and shamelessly snickered. Shamelessness: isn’t that the real shame? Shamelessly making fun of someone’s appearance, disability, lack of wealth, lack of opportunity, color, beliefs, sexual orientation. That such cruelty is then justified by religion or privilege or tradition? This frightens me.
It should frighten us all.
I suppose, then, that I’m not merely interested in the facets of shame—what accounts for it, what results from it. I am struck by shame’s absence and the lack of humanity that that void suggests.
I mentioned earlier that shame is uncomfortable. Sometimes, it is also like forgiveness—necessary. Perhaps people who are especially susceptible to the experience of shame are the same people who know how to pity, sympathize, apologize. Love.