Everything comes at a price.
This evening, too, will have to be
atoned for, somehow.
The balcony door is open
and the dog watches our neighbors
bicker outside. She’s wagging her tail.
Who knows, they might look up,
notice how patient she is, how
intensely attuned to their drama,
and the next time we run
into them in the street, they might say
good girl and give her a treat.
This is all happening only inside
my head, of course. The dog’s tail
keeps wagging, the balcony door
stays open, the neighbors are loud
and cringy, to use my son’s favorite
word, which means we sit
in the dark, silent for once, listening
to other people air their dirty linen.
No use in hiding from the truth.
It feels good. Pleasure at someone
else’s misery: a commodity like
any other. We choose to pay and pay
and pay, since sadness is free.
But isn’t joy what we pay with?
Isn’t sadness what we deserve?
What if we stepped outside
and leaned over the railing. What if
we called them by their names.
Asked them to join us for dinner.
Would they hear us? Would they be
angry, grateful, ashamed? Does it
matter that one quiet evening
we almost shed our undeserved joy
to peel someone’s sadness away?
Image: “Dog on a balcony” by Freestocks.org, licensed under CC 2.0.
I grew up with a strong guilt complex, the likely outcome of a religious upbringing in a country that had outlawed religion (the former Soviet Union). As a child, I had to hide at school the values instilled at home, while at home, I avoided sharing with my parents the communist ideals inculcated in school. The constant subterfuge created disorientation and self-doubt and resulted in frequent mistakes—for which I felt, of course, guilty. All of this to say that writing poems about instances in which I experienced the feeling of guilt is my way of discerning between the real harm I may have caused someone, even inadvertently, and the imagined harm, of which that person may not even be aware. It made for a lot of vulnerable poems about past trauma but has also helped me come to terms with some of the confusing burden I had been carrying around for years. “Schadenfreude” was tough to write because it focused on a more recent guilt-inducing episode and felt too intimate to share with the world. And yet, not sharing meant allowing guilt and shame to control my actions. I struggled with what I could or was ‘allowed’ to say in the poem until I brought in Willow, my dog, who never suffers from a lack of clarity and is utterly incapable of feeling guilt. She added a lighter note to the poem and guided me away from heavy, self-excoriating musings toward self-compassion. Dogs can do that–serve as the perfect empathy guides for our anxiety-ridden psyche. So can children, with their no-nonsense view of the world. And so can poetry–by getting to the terrifying crux of the matter before the poets themselves are ready to do so. Once we arrive, what else is there left to do but embrace our former selves and tell them that we understand. That we love them as they were. As they are.