Suffice to say that I'm no longer wondering. And I am about to need you guys more than I ever have. So if you've noticed me being especially raggedy-edged over the last few weeks – well, strap in, because here's what's up.
Some of y'all have heard me tell the story about my first day of Latin class in grad school. The professor was explaining the basic declensions to us: nouns work like this, adjectives and adverbs do this.
And I turned to the student next to me and said "what's an adjective?"
|Don't even get me started on the pronouns.|
Until suddenly it didn't. I needed that class to graduate, and there was no way I was going to be able to do a year's worth of Latin AND catch up on English, all in eight weeks.
But that student next to me saved my bacon. She invited me to study with her. We shared colored highlighters and quizzed each other for hours on end. We became great friends. And after I graduated that spring, we moved in together.
|And it was glorious. |
(My photography skills considerably less so.)
Kristen, on the other hand, was a case study in realness. She grew up in North Dakota. Her childhood was dysfunctional, bordering on abusive. She left home at 18 and drove alone to a Catholic college in California that she'd never even visited, because it was her one chance at a better life. She lived in half of a stranger's garage. She changed adult diapers at a camp for the handicapped. And when she graduated, she piled her things in the car and moved again to Texas, chasing her dream of a PhD in literature.
Well, she got it. She also got a kitten from the animal shelter (despite my protests), which she absolutely adores.
|Believe me when I say that the trash can suited her.|
Needless to say, we were DELIGHTED when she was hired by a local charter school – as a classics professor, no less. She was a part-time spring replacement, but they were so happy with her that they had already signed on to make her full time in the fall. She was getting to teach Latin – a rare privilege – to some of the brightest students in our community. She joined the DFW Writers Workshop. She had written a novel. After all her hard work and struggle, she was finally living the dream.
This is a close-up photo of a classroom projector screen casing. It's powdered steel. And when Kristen pulled down the screen on an otherwise-unexceptional Wednesday, she found that out the hard way: when this thing falls, it will crush a human skull.
That was two years ago. Kristen has long since lost her job. She still can't drive, or use a computer, or walk without a cane. She suffers from chronic migraines, spinal compression, and balance issues. Most frustratingly, the vision problems caused by the injury means that she often can't read. I don't have to tell you what that means for a writer.
We are still friends, of course. I take her to vestibular therapy on Wednesday mornings, and sometimes we'll share a frozen pizza from the grocery store afterwards. She can't read my books, but she interrogates me about the triumphs and travails of author-life with passionate, vicarious delight. We crack raunchy jokes together.
Then on the way home from therapy a couple months ago, she turned serious. "Do you think you could help me research no-kill shelters for my cat?" she asked. "I think I'm about to lose my apartment, and I don't want to surrender her somewhere where she might get euthanized."
And guys. I just can't tell you what a gut-check that was.
I mean, for one thing, we're talking about the world's worst cat. She is an objectively terrible animal. She pees on the carpet, attacks children, and looks like Winston Churchill. Literally nobody but Kristen could or will love her.
|Much less throw her cat birthday parties.|
More than that, though, I had not realized just what kind of dire straits she was in. I knew that she couldn't use her own medical insurance to pay for treatment. I knew that workers' comp was giving her the runaround. But there is this gene in our shared American DNA that says you don't talk about money, you don't rely on charity, and if you ask for help, it had better be something you can pay back in kind: a reference for a job application, someone to watch your kids, someone to drive you home from the doctor. No matter what, the checkbook of favors and obligations has to stay balanced.
And for two years, Kristen has done exactly that. She lived off her savings. She lived off her credit cards. She lived off support (practical and financial) from friends and strangers the local Catholic community. And when all that was finally exhausted, she didn't come to me and ask, "can you help me with my rent?" She said "can you help me find a shelter that won't kill my cat?"
And I said, "No."
No, I will not help you find a shelter. No, I will not let you surrender your home. No, I will not let the world do this to you. You are thirty-five years old, and you have earned your 500 square feet of independence.
|"The line must be drawn here. This far - no further."|
I know that Kristen is not special. I know we all know somebody who has worked hard, played by all the rules, and been ground up and pulverized for their trouble. There is a sickness in our system that has grown so deep and pervasive that sometimes it feels hopeless to try and fix it. It is terribly easy to do nothing, because we can't do everything.
So here I am, writing to you in the space between nothing and everything. I have to help my friend. She took care of me when I needed it, and now it's my turn. But my effort alone isn't enough. By myself, I am not enough.
So I'm cashing in my chips – right here, right now. If I've helped you in some way, if I've banked any goodwill with you, if you've ever wanted to do something nice for me – please, please help me help her. Go to her Patreon page and add what you can. A dollar a month. Five dollars a month. Give her anything besides the nothing she has now.
And then do one more thing. After you've become a patron, you will be able to add a "patron post" to her page, where everyone can see it. Write there and tell her about the Kristen in your life – the person who played fair and got the short end of the stick, the person who deserved so much more than they received, the person whose life you would have done anything to fix. Her life is so small right now, and she needs to hear that she's not alone.
|She is mine. Who's yours?|
And when I do, I will read to her every word that you write, about every person you've wanted to help. And we will make it our shared mission to tell the world about them. No, we can't do everything – but every one of us can do something. This is the other, better part of our American DNA, the truth we feel in our bones: if enough of us do something, we can change everything.
Te egero nunc.