I peed at my desk in third grade and now I'm afraid to sing

I know I am different. I know I go for broke. What if my gift is rejected?

By Cary Tennis
November 7, 2007 4:30PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

One day when I was in third grade, while everyone was studying quietly, I had to go to the bathroom. I was too scared to raise my hand and break the silence and speak. Everyone would know that, right then, I had to go pee. Everyone would look at me. I thought another option was for me to quietly get up and walk across the room to the teacher's desk and ask her so that no one else could hear, but I was afraid she would get mad at me for getting out of my seat without asking first. So I just sat and held it as long as I could, but my bladder got the better of me. I peed at my desk. Obviously then, everyone really was looking at me and judging me.


A few months ago my boyfriend of two years and I broke up. I missed him terribly at first, but I've come to realize that all that time I was with him I was too scared of being myself around him that it could have never worked. Now I feel crazed with all this newfound freedom to be me again. I do things that in the past I would have been too scared or embarrassed to do, like buy pink padded bras cause they make me feel sexy, or drink wine and dance at my cousin's wedding. Everyone remarks about how much fresher and happier I seem, and I feel that it's right.

But I am a shy person, so doing new things under my general umbrella of awkwardness at life makes me feel a bit of a spaz. I need to be able to find my center and spend time alone when I should, but I also want to be able to allow myself to guiltlessly do these crazy things I want to do.

Case in point: Recently, a friend of mine expressed interest in playing music with me. I'm a good singer, but as far as instruments go, I'm not very good yet. I told him that, but he still seemed eager to play with me. He asked me what popular songs I like to play and I was embarrassed because I don't know any. I just play whatever comes to me. I don't necessarily feel that's a disadvantage, and it's certainly not when I play by myself, but he has been in bands before and he might not think the same. I've protected the creative part of myself so long from other people out of fear of their judgment or ridicule at what I consider is the best part of me, perhaps at the cost of its own growth, thinking that letting someone hear me sing or play is like letting the person in on my secret. It may not be a big deal to him, but if I let him see this deepest side of myself and he doesn't think it's any good, I'd be crushed.


My ex-boyfriend and I used to play and sing together, and if nothing else, I really miss having that creative outlet. So I worry that I am going to try to substitute this guy for my ex. I find this person attractive and I like hanging out with him, but I've never really learned how to just be friends with guys. His eagerness somewhat befuddles me and adds to my apprehension about being friends with the male sex for fear of unknowing what he may or may not want from me. Why would he want to play with me if I can't play that well? 'Cause I'm a girl? So in that regard I am tempted to just tell him never mind about the whole thing and not chance making a fool out of myself by thinking it means something more than just playing music and being creative together. But I really want to do this.

I am still afraid about silly things, like the fact that maybe even as you're reading this you'll think I'm ridiculous and just pass it off. But I know I am organic and creative. I know when I create things I do it with all of my being. I know I have something good to share if I can just let it out. If I dance, I dance as if to bring down the house. If I sing, I sing as if to drop the moon. I don't want to be afraid to show people who I am anymore. But I am still pretty fucking terrified at times.

~spazzy pee girl (holding it as long as I can)


Dear Spazzy Pee Girl,

When I was in fourth grade, I was the kid who vomited. I was the kid who vomited frequently. I was the spazzy vomit boy. I was a worrier, an anxious boy, a boy full of private visions, terrified of the world. I do not remember much from that period; it seems that much has been erased, or lives in a kind of memory that requires intense emotion to uncover. It was 1962 and there were missiles in Cuba and we would look up at the Florida sky and wonder if death and fire were going to rain down upon us. I do know that. And I know that in my house there were money fears and fights. We were not at war. Still, the skies threatened. There were missiles in Cuba. Perhaps that was why I was so anxious.


I remember squirming in my little desk one time during that period, raising my hand, needing to run to the back of the class but afraid to do so without permission, feeling the heat well up, feeling the cold sweat on my face, feeling utterly alone and abandoned and scorned, no one to help me, no one to run to, afraid to run to the teacher because the look on her face would say that I was not to get the help and warmth that I needed, that I would face only scorn and ridicule.

So I stayed in my desk as long as I could, and then when I was starting to heave, I left my desk and started to run to the back, but of course I didn't make it, and I ended up on my hands and knees in the aisle, vomiting on the linoleum. I remember that linoleum. It was cool to the touch. I remember the stink of the vomit, so near to my face, my hot, shamed, teary face.

The question of course was, Why didn't you raise your hand?


Ha ha. Why didn't you raise your hand? But I did! I was waving my hand! You weren't looking.

Thus the child's humiliation follows him, and tied in with the humiliation of the child is the child's wounded innocence, the feeling that this was not my fault; I was trying to follow the rules, trying to be a good child, and look this is what I get: Scorn, humiliation, incomprehension by adults: Why didn't you cry out! Cry out? And what student has ever gotten a good result by crying out? When has that ever been a good idea? Why didn't you cry out? Indeed, and risk more scorn and humiliation?

Already locked into the authoritarian rows that lack all organic reason and seem strictly regimented to make us into soldiers or businessmen and not into creative souls who might want to turn their desks backward to enjoy listening to the teacher from behind or to the side to enjoy watching the pine trees and the highway, or to sit on the floor instead of in the desk to alleviate the imprisoning influence of the desk, the desk, the desk, every day the desk, the pencils, the paper, the blackboard, the teacher, every day the hands raised, the click-clack of her hard heels, her authoritarian skirt and her authoritarian glasses, her authoritarian ruler slapped on the desk, her authoritarian calves in her authoritarian stockings, her authoritarian farts we were not allowed to comment on or giggle about lest her fury rain down upon us, her authoritarian marching up and down the rows of desks, we children putting our heads down like prisoners in solitary confinement, our tiny joy at our daily release, our enormous sorrow at returning again the next day, my black blinding depression and fear on Sunday Ed Sullivan nights, when tomorrow again there would be the vomitorium of the classroom, the torture chamber, the hellish prison of mechanical restraints, the swirling, blinding heat, the fear of ridicule, the desire for approval, the boredom, the tedium, the feeling that even at 9 my life is passing, passing away, that even at 9 I have nothing to look forward to, that even at 9 this is how it's going to be forever, imprisoned in a tiny desk chair among idiots, subject to the whims of a despot with a ruler who asks every Monday morning how many of us went to church yesterday, and as I do not raise my hand when I feel I am about to vomit, so I do not raise my hand when she asks who went to church.


I was the spazzy atheist vomit boy of small-town Florida.

But that was many years ago. So let me tell you what has happened in the last few hours. Let me show you, if I can, the kind of moral and creative universe I am living in, and ask if you can share this universe with me. So I have published a book and am distributing it myself. So I was at the post office at 9 a.m. filling out customs forms to send books to Adelaide, Australia, and to Singapore. When I left the post office to resume this morning's writing I was driving the convertible in the chilly fog (the car a gift from a friend who has emigrated to Hong Kong), and I received a cellphone call from a friend who wanted to arrange to have a book shipped to his uncle, a Holocaust survivor. So I pull over to talk because when this particular friend calls, we talk. And he says that his uncle the Holocaust survivor wanted to know, what are my spiritual beliefs, and how did I arrive at them, and how can I believe in anything after the Holocaust?

And so sitting in the car on the side of the road in the chilly ocean fog I talked about how it is possible to find belief in a power greater than oneself after such evil, and I thought of his dear uncle, who entered a concentration camp at the age of 11 or 12. I thought of this monstrous evil, this unspeakable crime, which was perpetrated against particular individuals but was also a crime against every person on earth.

So I am thinking about this and I am thinking about you and me, spazzy pee girl and spazzy vomit boy. Our troubles. And then after talking with my friend I do more mundane business in the world: I vote. I talk with someone about subleasing a storefront as a publishing office and writing haven. And then I come home and on the radio a Canadian man is speaking about his extraordinary rendition and torture in Syria at the hands of U.S.-connected torturers; he describes the 3- by 6- by 7-foot "grave" in which he was held for seven months. And I grit my teeth and utter a small scream, and my mouth grows grim and tight about the edges.


I think about you and me and our troubles, spazzy pee girl, spazzy vomit boy, and I see that as creative people, in the scale of things, our own personal difficulties and hurts do not matter -- not in and of themselves: They only matter to the degree that they help us to connect with others. They matter because we use our shame and humiliation to imagine how it feels to be beaten with electrical wires, to be housed in a lightless grave for months on end, to be led to the ovens. Our little suffering is of no importance except where it allows us to connect. If we have something to offer, it is that we can use our small inconveniences to imagine great evil. If people make fun of us, ridicule us, shun us, shame us, that just helps us to imagine, magnified a thousand-fold, the humiliation of being led to the gulag, the humiliation of being stoned in the street, and how, even being stoned in the street, in the physical pain and the agony of approaching death, there is also the incongruous modesty and concern for appearances, how the victim of a public stoning reaches down and attempts to adjust her clothing to preserve her dignity in death.

In the face of that, what are our little sufferings and failures? Why am I publishing and distributing my book myself? Not because I thought it would be a fun idea. Because it failed to find favor with major publishing houses. Do I feel spurned and resentful? Yes. But do I have something to offer? Yes. Will I take the business decisions of major publishing houses as aesthetic judgments on the value of my creative work? No. I will form my own business. I will offer my work in any way I can. In scale and degree, my own difficulties finding a publisher are minuscule. In scale and degree, our suffering as creative people is barely perceptible, compared with the suffering of those who are tortured in gulags and burned in the streets and kept in prisons because of what they dared say, or write, or think, or sing.

At the age of 12 my family moved, and it was a traumatic move, and I was unhappy and wished we could have stayed where we were. Poor me. At the age of 12, my friend's uncle was placed in a concentration camp to face starvation and death. Can we understand the monstrous evil of the Holocaust? Can we understand the haunted dreams of a torture victim? Does my spiritual practice, born of necessity in the depths of a personal hell, have any relevance for a person whose spirituality was forged in the caldron of a world-historical evil against humanity?

I do not know. A person's spiritual beliefs are his own, forged in the smithy of his own conscience. All I know is that my difficulties are small, and my pains are unimportant in and of themselves; their only purpose is to help me connect with people whose suffering is great and whose pains are monumental.


This is the scale. This is the landscape. These are the historical and moral parameters in which a creative person confronts his or her fears and decides how to proceed. There is torture and genocide and evil. And there is personal embarrassment and humiliation.

This is not saintly. There is practical value in it. Considering the sufferings of others helps us forget our own fears as we go onstage or send out our writing. So we take them lightly. They are of no consequence. So bear these things lightly. Think of the greater world. Think of your ancestors and the generations to follow. Think of your gift.

With your gift comes a duty, in both senses of the word: both as an obligation and as a tax -- a special tax levied on something of value brought in from afar.

There is no escaping this, so you might as well accept it now. If you turn away from your creative gift, it will not go away. It will just fester and you will become depressed.


So you might as well face it: It's not about you and how you feel. It's about the gift.

That doesn't mean your gift has to be huge. You don't need world-historical virtuosity to say you have a gift; you may have a modest gift. Still, it is a gift. It is not yours; it is entrusted to you. It is something beyond you, something you didn't cause to come into being, something handed to you. It is a gift, and with it comes a duty. Carry it lightly, but carry it.

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