I spend a lot of time wondering when and how I will turn into my mother. I’m not opposed to this purported inevitability.
I know another matriarch – ten to twenty years older than mine – who is a business owner downtown. When closing her store one night, she encountered a drunken dude in the entryway, who, about to piss in the street, giggled defiantly at her judgmental glare. All it took for this man to zip up his fly and move on, though, was her asking what on earth his mother would think and would he mind giving her his mother’s phone number so she could take and text a picture of his urination.
I will continue to pee in public regardless of what my mother thinks, though I will always seek absorbent surfaces instead of cement and this is not only because that would be her advice to me. An area in which ye olde maternal conscience weighs heavily though, is in my interactions with strangers. Mum is significantly shyer than my sisters and I, and she professes to admire our bravery. Family history has the three of us lecturing pregnant yet wine-drinking women in restaurants; demanding to be wished Happy Channuka at grocery store tills rather than Merry Christmas; informing Hells Angels outside gas stations with Trelawney levels of gravitas that they would die if they didn’t quit smoking. We asked homeless women speaking in tongues on street corners what’s wrong, why are you crying? I think my parents encouraged this behaviour because they figured that it would make us more likely to defend ourselves and our loved ones against more grave injustices as we grew older, and this has certainly been the case: we do not shy from righteousness. Mum, though, was a stringent enforcer of compassion towards strangers, which has left me with an unfortunate penchant for too-quiet interactions with people at whom I would rather thunder.
The first time Mum and I disagreed about whether or not I had been rude with a stranger was in my late teens. I was commuting on public transportation to and from the downtown core for a summer job; my arrival home in the afternoons was, give-or-take five minutes, predictable. On one trip home, on a bus so packed a switch of seats was non-negotiable, someone outside my view began stroking my head and running their fingers through my hair. It turned out to be a giant, who, upon making eye contact with me, told me lovingly and hypnotically that my hair felt like octopi. Because I felt that this person couldn’t handle having their transgressive behaviour obliterated by my usual commitment to retribution, I elected to bow out. I glared witheringly, got off the bus, and waited for the next one.
I was proud of myself for avoiding what might have been a dangerous conflict, because conflict avoidance is not in my nature. Eleven minutes behind schedule, though, I met questioning at home. The story met chiding instead of accolade. Getting off the bus was rude, Mum pointed out, because that person might have just been lonely and looking to start a harmless conversation. I should have instead responded politely that I wished that strangers would ask permission before interfering with my personal space. “You missed a valuable teaching moment, and while it is sometimes brave to avoid conflicts I think it’s even braver to help remind people with mental handicaps of what is and is not appropriate social conduct. That person doesn’t know that stroking people’s hair in public is wrong, and the next time it happens the person he strokes touches might have a knife and then someone will get hurt.” She assumes that everyone who behaves inappropriately is special.
Mum, I think this is hilarious, and mostly fair, but you’ve left me with a very problematic moral paradigm. You would have me stay in situations where I am uncomfortable because you think it would be rude not to show compassion. You want me to be brave enough for the intimacy that a potentially crazed stranger needs to get through the day. If I do so undiscerningly, it will be my undoing. So instead of saying what I think you think I should say, I’m going to say what I’m thinking. The truth is, I love these confrontations with human madness and dejection. And I want to learn to love them even in the moments when I am a little bit scared, because I believe they are inevitable and perpetual and one of the wisest men I know once told me that he thinks I attract crazy people. I feel that the only way to demonstrate how equal I believe we all are is to meet intimacy with intimacy: to confront the violence of strangers’ admissions and their sometimes-bids-for-power via false familiarity with my own intimacies. The compassion will be in the equality of the absurd, and if nothing else I will have more stories.
And so the next time a couple at the library approaches me and compliments my hair and we have a conversation about the miracle of mixed-race genetics but then they ask what colour my nipples are, I will respond that they are purple like my scars and that’s why it’s my favourite colour. And when a woman I meet, within a half-hour, states nonchalantly that hot tubs have been really good for her spina bifida, and asks if I would like to touch her spina bifida, I will tell her that I would love to but my girlfriend has spina bifida too and it is the jealous type and so I’d better not. And when the man who only buys books about how to make relationships work compliments my scarf in a blatant bid for affection, I will tell him it is dyed with lamb’s blood and I can pass on the name of my supplier if he would like. And when the boy who got my number under false pretenses drops bombs like WHAT IF I RANDOMLY CALLED U SOMEDAY CATCH U UNPREPARED TO SAY UR SPECIAL, I will say that I know I am special because I have no fingerprints and I will tell him we can’t work out together anymore because I have interstitial cystitis. And when I am whistled at in the street and asked why I look so serious, I will whisper back wide-eyed that it is because my sister has a canker sore. And when a man asks for my phone number, I will say, you may have it but in my world the giving of a phone number does not mean down-to-fuck unless I say it does and my intention with you is to be platonic acquaintances and maybe even friends until such time that I make a decision about whether I am actually physically attracted to you or not and if you accuse me of being a cock tease for living my life like that then I will kill your family.
And Mum, I know all those things would really embarrass you if you heard them come out of my mouth. I think you would think they were “too much.” But no one will ever know whether they are true or not. Just like pissing on the grass is sort of like watering it, I am all about compassionate reciprocity. Much like you. ♦