I’ve been going through old files on my computer, finding a trail of graduate school work, some of which I’m going to hone for more formal publications and others that read more like academic diaries of a woman trying to figure out who she was and what she was doing. I was, according to these files, very interested in emotion (specifically anger), social class, gender, race, notions of mobility, illness and aging, ethnography, and photography for much of my graduate school experience. Those interests informed my dissertation, but that writing process really forces a bracketing of one’s self, not to mention additional project paths.
Now that graduate school is over, I finally feel like I can bring all my interests back together (particularly through teaching writing and photography as research methods) and the good thing about these “lost” academic pieces is that they have just been sitting on my computer waiting for me to return to them.
Below is one piece that I found and wanted to share. I’m probably not going to develop it, but I like it. It was written for a “Non-Fiction Writing” course taught by a Times journalist. I truly loved that class and look forward to teaching my own version of it at some point.
Sophie Nadowski is dead, although I have no proof of her passing. I have never read her obituary. I never sent flowers to her funeral or condolences to her family. I haven’t even heard her name mentioned in more than fifteen years. I wouldn’t hesitate to call her my friend, but Sofie Nadowski never knew me. She was an old woman when I was sixteen and watching my life and Western Massachusetts move on without me. For a summer we shared the lobby of St. Luke’s Rest Home for Women, where I worked as a receptionist and read romance novels and she stared out the glass doorway and waited “for Ed to take her home.”
From her perch at the door, Sophie didn’t have much of a view. Spring Street had long since lost its bloom and aside from the rest home itself, whose two dark, angular, red brick buildings offered the appeal of a Victorian boarding school to street, Sophie’s view was populated by a parking lot and a couple of run-down tenement buildings. During the day, this part of the city quietly went about its own business of aging in place. At night prostitutes and drug dealers took advantage of the street’s dark loneliness. Occasionally, one of the nurses or residents would claim they heard gunshots and, as safety tends to become a warden, the doors of the nursing home were perpetually locked, which performed the double function of keeping the street out and most of the women inside. Yet, some women, like Sophie, didn’t remember enough of the world outside to care about safety. They never saw the street, just the thought of leaving and whatever vision of home remained in their mind’s eye. If given their chance, they would slip past you and out the front door half conscious of what they were doing or where they were going.
Part of my job that summer was to keep an eye on Sophie Nadowski, whose unintentional cat-like skill had earned her the privilege of “requiring supervision”, as well as a reputation of being a problem among the preoccupied nurses aides who staffed the home. I secretly enjoyed that Sophie Nadowski, with her soft skin and her round pink face and her still very blue eyes, with her cherub-like grey curls that made her looked as though she had slept with soup cans in her hair, with her pastel cardigan and her dark polyester skirt pulled taught across her chubby belly, with her swollen ankles and her nylons and her beige slip-on orthopedics, with her mind dissolving, was a pain the ass to everyone else. No one wanted to be bothered with her and somehow, in the simplicity of her requirement for company, seemed to drive most of the staff crazy. When Tina, a nurse’s aide who was proud of the time she stabbed her boyfriend in the leg with a knife, wagged her overweight finger at Sophie and sneered “you deceptive”, I smiled. Verging on invisibility myself, and as Sophie was fading from a shared reality into an uncharted loneliness of the self, I knew Tina was right. We had no idea where she was going.
Over the course of the summer it became a habit for me to look for Sophie in the doorway of the nursing home as I was parking my car across the street. If, as I entered, she followed me from the door to the small alcove that housed the nursing home’s antiquated punch-clock, I knew she would provide me with sentinel-like company for hours, or at least until one of the nurses came and ushered her off to dinner or bed. In many ways, Sophie was an ideal compliment to the reception job, which was, especially in the evenings, slow and quiet. It was the perfect job for a reader or someone who wanted to be alone with their thoughts. I was both and, given that at home these pursuits seemed to provoke my mother, I appreciated that Sophie would stand in the doorway or sit quietly in one of the politely placed reception chairs while I read.
Sophie’s sole concern, the only thing that could drive her to distraction, was the arrival of her son, Ed. “When?” she would repeat. The answer: “soon.” It was exactly a lie. Ed did visit, but these came and went and since Sophie had long since stopped taking account of calendars and watches, their anticipation or their occurrence provided little comfort. If the perception of time is in the eye of the beholder then, for Sophie, each blink seemed to reset the clock. Occasionally, Sophie’s concern about Ed’s arrival would dominate her and swell past the capacity of her body to contain her anxiety. She would pace back and forth from my desk to the door, to the chair, to the door, fidgeting with her sweater, clenching her hands tightly and then throwing them down exasperatedly. “When? When? When?” she would blurt out almost angrily, but her words were less a demand to know the answer than the expression of a desperate confusion. The real question seemed to be “how did this terrible mess ever occur?”
Western thought rejects the notion that we can truly know another person’s experience, but there is a look we all share when we are lost, a look so full of absence, that it can be felt across a room. Most of the words we have for emotions are already too complicated to capture the simplicity of this exchange of affect and when Sophie’s fits of absence occurred a terrible togetherness was created between us. It was a form of togetherness that I had no experience with and no solution for except to sit with her, to hold her hand, or let her hold mine. In those moments we became pals in desperation. I remember wanting to help her, but truly helping her would have required her complicity, a return on the offering. Instead, Sophie’s blue eyes seem to stand still as her presence of self fell backward beyond us, into a nothing, an un-place, a nowhere.
When I was a child I thought that I could live anywhere—under an underpass, for instance. It did not seem possible to me that a person could be stripped down beyond what seemed obvious. As a child, it seemed that I was merely alive and everything else—the need for clothing, a bed, a family— was extra baggage. So, years after I worked at St. Luke’s, when I was broke and my mother was sick and I was hesitantly coming home, I decided I would take a Greyhound bus from Seattle to New York City. Forty-nine dollars for a four-day bus ride seemed like the right fit and I banked on my childhood fantasy of pure existence to see me through. I even packed copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness in my backpack and hoped for whatever enlightenment was possible to kick in. Somewhere near Cheyenne, Wyoming, however, after too many hours of sitting upright and barely enough space to do anything more than stare out the window, the mental agony of no-thing crashed down on me. On the third day, as my bus pulled into Chicago in the middle of the night, I saw the New York bound bus driving away without me. I knew I was beat. I was caught in the bus station, which had started to swirl around me, and I was filled with a terrible wrongness. There would be another bus in the morning, but that didn’t matter. What filled me was the sense that the world was no longer mine. Whatever it is that animates us, that animates me, had boarded that East Coast bus and what was left, the presence of my body, was a mystery I had no interest in solving. In the starkness of need, I was lost.
When Sophie traveled into the void, there were times when a bit of physical detailing—a stray hair or a crease in my shirt— would grab her attention and redirect the anxiety into a totalizing maternal mission to correct this aberration.
Standing behind me, working her hand across my shoulder and my back, trying with endless effort to perfect the texture of my shirt, Sophie Nadowski gave me the best back rub I’ve ever had.