Ran into a friend Tuesday at the bookstore. The place was Christmas busy and coming upon her suddenly, I was happy to have her name come to mind and smiled as we said hello. We used to teach together. I transferred out of that program before she retired, but was happy when I heard that she retired a few years later. She was a good teacher, dedicated and wanting the best for kids, but the admins had it out for her and made a difficult job horrendous. It wore her down. I remember thinking a person her age ought not work in an at-risk school.
Seeing her in the bookstore, I smiled, said hello, and just kept myself from saying, you look unbelievably good. It shocked me how young she is now that she’s out. She was fit, energetic, happy. It showed all over her. She seemed to glow. I told her she looked happy and well. She smiled. Everyone who leaves our school looks that way. She smiled, tilted her head, and nodded.
She asked about me. I said, I’m still here. I may have said stuck there, I’m not sure. But I smiled and said I’ve been teaching at the colleges, working on a way forward. I may have said a way out, but I’m not sure. I introduced her to my daughter, a delight who made us both smile. No matter the job, I’ve got my girls and wife. These ought to make me happy enough, but maybe I’m greedy.
The next day I got a message from another friend saying she had talked with the woman from the bookstore and heard I looked gaunt. Gaunt? It’s a word with which I’ve never been associated. It sent me to the dictionary.
gaunt: lean and haggard, especially because of suffering, hunger, or age.
I have lost some weight and there’s every chance I forgot that morning to shave, but I’m not lean and it takes more than a day without shaving to look haggard. Suffering seems too strong a word for what I feel on the job. Way too strong. Hunger for a new job, for a new kind of life, yeah, I feel that. And age, well, I’m no youngun any more. Still, gaunt?
The thing about both these friends is that I trust their perceptions. They’re smart and have wisdom and experience beyond mine. If they described someone else as looking gaunt I’d believe he was in trouble. Am I?
I’m wary of falling into self-pity and depression. The first doesn’t get me anywhere and the second scares me. I have the habit of overthinking (and over-writing) instead of just moving forward. Lately, I’ve struggled with mental, emotional, and physical fitness as opportunities have failed to work out. My father died almost two years ago and I worry about how much more he accomplished by the time he was my age, than by my grief. I thought I was keeping up appearances, but I seem to be gaunt.
There are probably a hundred things I could and should be doing. I could at least shave and cut my hair. This moment, however, I’m just going to breathe and keep writing. It’s the last school day before the Christmas and who knows what I might receive. I may open something within me that moves me forward. I don’t want to be gaunt. But for the moment, it seems that’s what I am.