In the forums of The Habit Membership, Carey Christian recently posted an essay she had written about her experience as a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado. She survived by hiding with classmates in a locked and darkened office for three hours. (You can read the whole essay here.)
The heart of the essay, however, is not those three hours of immediate peril, but the fifteen years after. Carey tells how she dealt with her trauma by isolating, going silent, and withdrawing. While others in her community were sharing their grief and bearing one another’s burdens, she chose to be alone, not even attending the memorial services where classmates, teachers, and other members gathered to grieve and start to heal. She writes:
At a time full of confusion, sadness, questions, weeping, brokenness, I was at home lost in my own confusion, convincing myself I had not experienced the tragedy, not really, that I was somehow less.
These choices became a pattern that lasted fifteen years:
Staying silent, staying home, denying others my presence, denying myself the company of others, taught me something about myself that wasn’t true. I was not in a position to care for others then, and I convinced myself that this would always be true of me. Over the years, through college, career, starting a family, I stayed home in my heart and mind, feeling locked up in my silence, seeing only uselessness.
But Carey ultimately came to make a different choice. That change is wrought, at least in part, by the act of writing this essay. She writes:
I’ve been locked in a room with a key for a long time. This is the key. I no longer feel shame. Sadness, yes, but not shame. I turn from this moment and make a new choice. The door is open and on the other side is freedom, light, air. Truth. Alive and well.
Hello, world. It’s been a long time.
Carey wrote this essay seven or eight years ago. When she posted it in The Habit forums, she added this coda:
Since writing the above, a tremendous period of healing was unlocked in my life after the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. In 2019 I walked the halls of the school once more. And once more had the opportunity (and temptation) to stay home from a memorial. But instead I went. Though I had been to the memorial on the 10th anniversary, somehow this one was different. I made the choice to go despite feelings that I didn’t need to. It was after I had written this essay and had begun to understand that one’s presence, even in silence, is a gift. And so, as predicted, I went and stood with my father in silence, I spoke to no one, but I was there. I heard others like me and saw others like me and recognized myself as a member of this incredible community.
I’m always talking about the importance of writing for the sake of your reader, giving the reader something she can’t get for herself. Carey certainly does that in this essay, but can we also take a moment to reflect on what the act of writing does for the writer? I’ve been chewing on the idea that Carey’s essay as she wrote it in 2014 is a function of her processing things she couldn’t process 15 years earlier, and that her presence at the twentieth anniversary memorial in 2019 was a function of her processing the essay she wrote five years earlier, and that last paragraph is a function of her processing all of it. And if Carey chooses to add another paragraph five years hence, it will be different and insightful in even new ways. That’s how the process works. It takes time to know what things mean. Writing and reflecting greatly improves your chances of learning what there is to learn from your life.
When I’ve had college students write personal essays and memoirs, their writing has often seemed thin compared to what adults write, even when the students themselves are brilliant. Is it because of a lack of life experience? Well, no…and yes. I notice that many of the best personal essays and memoirs by adults are about experiences that happened before they were college-age. As Flannery O’Connor said, “Anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” But just because you’ve had an experience, that doesn’t mean you’re fully ready to write about it. The life experience that prepares you to write likely happens in the years after the dramatic experience.
I’m glad Carey didn’t waste her experience. I hope you won’t waste yours either.
Y’all, Youse, Yinz: An Update
I think last week’s episode on the second-person plural got more email responses than any other episode of The Habit Weekly. Who knew people loved their second-person pronouns so much? Here are some things I learned or was reminded of from last week’s responses:
Youse is an Irish and Scottish usage; where it appears in the United States, it most likely was brought by Scots and Irish immigrants. A reader from Northern Ireland wrote:
I was unaware of the Philly use of ‘youse.’ I thought that was unique to Northern Ireland. We however do go one step further in Northern Ireland, not only do we make ‘you’ plural but also ‘one’ can be a plural pronoun. It is not uncommon to hear “youse’uns” literally ‘yous ones’ to refer to a specific group. In the polarised politics it gets better – we support ‘us-uns’ (us ones) and oppose ‘them-uns’ (them ones).
And while we’re on that side of the Atlantic, I loved this note:
I’m Scottish, so we speak a little different. Our plural for you is yous (‘yous are having a laugh’). But if you want a collective yous for the whole group you’re referring to it’s ‘oiyes’ (oi-eez – as in a contraction of ‘aw a yees’ – or ‘all of you’ in the Queen’s Eenglish). Which is easy to miss or be confused by in conversation because it sounds like some strange double vowel noise without any apparent meaning. But we also say yerself for the singular, which I *believe* isn’t really done so much in other places. So you might say ‘Oh, it’s yerself, is it? I was expecting oiyes.’ (I’ve no idea if I’m spelling oiyes right, I’ve never seen it written down, there’s also oiyem – all of them). You’d also say him/herself instead of him/her, usually if the other person knows who you’re referring to (Who’s at the door? Oh, just himself from next door.)
But another interesting thing that people from my city in particular do is refer to *themselves* in the plural. For example, were you to catch someone’s eye they might say (rather threateningly) ‘are you looking at us?’ when there is clearly only one of them and they’re clearly only referring to themselves.
2. I mentioned the use of yinz in Pittsburgh and environs, but I neglected to mention that as you follow the Appalachians south from there, yinzbecomes you uns or yuns throughout those mountain regions. You’re more likely to hear it in more remote areas and among older residents. This also, by the way, seems to be a Scots-Irish construction.
3. In all the emails I received, nobody admitted that they had ever used y’all to refer to a single person. A couple of people reported that they thought people in Texas used the singular y’all, but neither of them were Texans themselves. I’ve been thinking about my exchange with the (singular) plumber in which I asked “When will y’all be back to fix my faucet?” An ornery linguist might jump on that as evidence that people have started using y’all as a singular. But if I had said, “When will you guys be back to fix my faucet,” nobody in their right mind would say that people have started using you guys as a singular. They would say, “Since the speaker used the plural you guys, he clearly was referring to more plumbers than the one who was standing before him.”
Finally, on the subject of the more humble thee/thou and the more respectful you in archaic usage, I thought this note from a reader in the UK was funny:
In the KJV/AV, Thee and Thou are used to refer to God. My Brethren friends growing up used Thee and Thou in their prayers and it sounded very high and mighty. So in an odd twist, the reverent “royal you” was made common, and the common “thee/thou” was elevated to reverence. Funny how these things happen, but then the last shall be first, and the first last.