There Are No Perfect Words: Just Be There

I didn’t sleep last night, so I was tired coming into work, my brain a fuzzy cotton ball. Unfocused thoughts, threads of meaning, half-decisions appearing and disappearing into the grey matter fog. My coworker told me that my eyes looked like they needed pajamas. At dance class last week, it was clear. Why I am doing this, why this work is my work, this blood my blood.

Five years  ago I worked at a fancypants sleepover camp, supervising counselors, delivering Important Messages From Above, making sure beds had (only) the assigned bodies in ’em at night, talking in soothing tones with parents on the phone. It was a walking behind the elephant kind of job, and I relished any time I had with actual campers, with young people, with high schoolers. I can’t help it. I like their angsty, precocious, hopeful, fatalistic awkwardness. I like how they surprise me, make me want to be a better example, call me out when I stray from my own principles.

I was called to talk to a girl who stepped out of class crying and didn’t come back for a while. Ten or 15 minutes maybe. I sat next to her and she wouldn’t tell me what was wrong, said she’d get in trouble. I laid out the usual boundary: only if you plan on hurting yourself or others, maybe I mentioned sharing only up not out. I don’t know how she ended up telling me, because thinking back all I remember is her not looking at me, and crying, her face red and splotchy. Her boyfriend was being hurt by his family and she was far away and can’t help or comfort him. He was in a bad state, and so was she, by extension. What is there, really, to say to that? After going to school to study language and signs and meaning I can safely say that there’s just nothing to say, most of the time. There are no magic words. Later that day, I searched for places he could call and go, gave her a list when no one was looking.

Today in the middle of lunch, my coworker asked me to stop eating and come with her. Could I do a counseling session for a non-native speaker? After some quick thinking we decided that me interpreting for a counselor would be better. The woman had been here prior, with another interpreter, and the decision she had reached then was different than the one she was – adamantly and with much conviction – choosing now. The pressure to translate clearly and unequivocally, combined with the energy of her anxiety and frustration made me shake from nervousness. The mantra I had from camp – be the calmest person in the room – smoothed things out only slightly. I still said “sanitary napkins” instead of um, “pads” about five times. Cringe-worthy translation, my friends. Not my proudest moments as a polyglot.

What a complicated situation to be in, to be in another country with imperfect knowledge of the language, making decisions alone. I wanted to reach out and touch her, hold her hand through the fog and shakiness. Tomorrow I am going in with her, to interpret from the sidelines or maybe just to offer a familiar language, to witness and just be there.

I think sometimes the most we can offer each other is to just be there, to confirm that we are not ever really all alone.


5 thoughts on “There Are No Perfect Words: Just Be There

  1. this is me nodding. you are a very good listener.

  2. There is a technical term for “just being there,” my nursing professors would call it “therapeutic use of self”. Bearing witness is of profound importance, and sometimes it is all we have to offer. Sending you mental hugs to re-charge your batteries.

    • Oh geez. Everything has to be in academicese, otherwise it’s not “real” – right? I prefer just calling things what they are, without the fancy terminology. (Otherwise I lose track of what I’m really saying amidst all the fancypants words.)

      Can’t wait to talk/scheme in January!

  3. Just emerged from under a rock and the 2nd thing I did (after updating my own blog with your encouragement) was to get caught up on yours! Thanks for continuing to share your thoughts and experiences. Being there for people can be messy and it rarely follows the training script. I find it difficult but necessary to keep putting myself in those uncomfortable situations. Thanks for putting yourself out there!

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