Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost: May Is the Cruelest Month

It turns out that “¦ danger and noise ““ the perception of danger ““ causes these animals’ heart rates to plummet ““ particularly the juveniles ““ and that really super-slow heart rate keeps them still, and that’s probably protective. It’s an anti-predation response. “¦ It turns out that animals and humans are equipped not with two, but three responses . . . fight, flee, faint.

– from What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing by Dr. Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, on National Public Radio, April 22, 2013.

Many, too many, of the fifty college students I teach, in each of the last sixteen semesters, cry out (albeit by email or with real tears after class) with real excuses:

My family needs me to help with the bills.

I have no money to make copies or buy books.

I’m getting evicted.

I just had to get me some sleep.

I have never done research.

I was home schooled for twelve years.

My grandmother’s foot was amputated.

I have to babysit while they take my daddy to the emergency room.

My girlfriend overdosed.

My boss doesn’t care when I have class. I gotta be there or he’ll fire me.

My car got stolen.

My roommate got arrested.

My kids are sick with fever and throwing up.

One hundred high school students for the last thirty-five years cry with real excuses:

My mama’s boyfriend raped me.

My daddy beat me.

My parents are getting a divorce, but they can’t sell the house so no one can leave.

Oh, we won’t be here next year.

I’ve got to get three prom dates so one’ll show up.

He said that if I give blow jobs I could still be a virgin.

Five tests today.

Everybody yells at my house.

My grandmother and I share a room; she smells and don’t speak English.

This is the tenth school I’ve been to in twelve years.

My parents threw me out cause I’m gay.

All As or nothing.

I hafta get that full ride to Stanford.

My grandmamma says if I bring home a Catholic boy I am dead to her.

These young people are not trying to get out of work. Their wobbly places in the world overwhelm them. From the last Monday night  in January to the first Monday night in May, I have been overwhelmed by their worlds as well as my own.

The pains of the world collided: extremist evil and Bostonian finish lines with Texan explosions, missing first responders, and neglected OSHA reports. News reporters scurried after scoops, real as well as imagined, and the week ended in a train wreck of flaws and errors and omissions and funerals.

When you leave the house at six in the morning and return at 9 p.m. two nights a week for eight years, sometimes the Sisyphean task of watching the trauma rests in your ability to listen: choosing not to want to run away defines your profession and exemplifies your capacity for happiness.

I decided to fight the fatigue, to watch others flee, to help those who feel faint, and to eat pho.

My husband, my crispy-fried-tofu-and-hot-soup-noodle pimp, was at a conference in Tampa this week. We seek the comfort of pho two or three times a week. It is therapy and medicine. It is our passion and our addiction. And our last dog, who did not care for Vietnamese food, died several weeks ago. We received the small wooden box of her ashes last week.

I was jonesing for #22, pho with yellow noodles and fried tofu. I called in one order and drove to pick it up at the restaurant where everyone, and I mean everyone, even the babies, wear perpetual scowls. I didn’t care about walking through the gauntlet of turned-down jowls. I had to have it.

Close to closing time, the growl-infested old women unlocked the door to let me in. I was the only one there.

His daughter lit the incense stick and held it between her palms as she bowed three times to the photograph of him in a sailor’s uniform.

He was my only father. 72.

He die April fifth,

April five. He was my only father.

Go up there to pay.

Yes, I know. I’m so sorry about your father.  Was he the oldest man of your big family?


I bet many people in the Vietnamese community will miss him.

He was my only father.

He stay to himself.

I wanted to ask if her grandmother, who also works in the restaurant, was very sad, but how could anyone tell?

This is what I know: in 2013, a 72-year-old Vietnamese man died in Memphis. In 1972, the man was 31-years old.  Most, if not all, of his children were not yet born.  He fought in the American War as they call it.  He had to flee South Vietnam, his friends, and his family so he could bring his sweet young wife and her sister to America.

I am sure that their resemblance to Flotsam and Jetsam is occidental.

He bought a restaurant so his family could cook and share pho with many folks including a scattered American woman whose patience, this week and last, has been so consumed with trouble (hers, her students’, and the world’s) that she had to find comfort in hot broth made by old women.

We skirt disasters, and we show our disgust towards those who want to share information about the everyday unlucky. We hiss, as does Gertrude, “false Danish dogs,” and we blame the world for reminding us that cruelty exists for those other people, the unwashed and unwanted masses.

Much of the grief from the outside comes to us without our interference. That’s why we embrace it when it happens on our soil, and why, most of the time, when it is far away, like the earthquakes this month in China and Iran, we put it aside and ignore it.  This week the world reminded us we were like everyone else.

To be honest, I am surprised we have been so blessed with so much luck for so long.

Much of our grief we bring on ourselves: pettiness, negativity, criticism, and greed. We fight to have our own way. We use delusion as a weapon, even a sport. We consider trauma an exception, whereas others see trauma as a given and not a surprise: cruelty and neglect exist every day as possibilities whether we notice them or not. The television screen separates us from what bad stuff touches others. With a press of a button, we change the channels. Even our clickers are remote.

Some learn to accept tragedy as a daily possibility, like dying a little every day, like Mithridates who took a little poison every day in order to be immune to the most serious and dire of all treacheries.

We fight to keep IT away, whatever IT is, from creeping towards us. We flee towards delusion, and we try to  fill ourselves up, often with pho.


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talie ho

Natalie Parker-Lawrence’s essays have been published in Slice of Life Magazine, The Palimpsest Journal, The Barefoot Review, Stone Highway Review, The Literary Bohemian, Alimentum, Knee-Jerk Magazine, Unlikely Stories, Southern Indiana Review, Tata Nacho, Orion Magazine, Wildflower Magazine, Prime Number Magazine, Edible Memphis, The Commercial Appeal, World History Bulletin, and The Pinch, with a forthcoming essay in Uneasy Bones. Parker-Lawrence wrote the weekly spirituality column for Wildflower Magazine from December 2011 to February 2013. Natalie earned an MFA (2010) in Creative Writing (creative nonfiction and playwriting) at the University of New Orleans. She earned a B.A. (Comparative Literature), a B.S. (Secondary Education, English/French), an M.A. (Linguistics: Dialect and Literacy), and +45 (Theatre) from the University of Memphis. Producer of the HHS Annual Shakespeare Festival and chair of the English department at Houston High School, she teaches AP English Literature and AP World History. She is an adjunct instructor in the Communication department at the University of Memphis. Natalie lives with her husband in midtown Memphis in a one-hundred-year-old house where her daughter, five stepsons, two daughters-in-law, and one grandchild come and go.

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