Tag Archives: suffering

Triangle

On this day in 1911, 146 women burned or leaped to their deaths in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory  fire. Without the right to organize to demand  safe working conditions, these immigrant  sweatshop garment workers were locked inside when the building caught fire.  It took until this year for the official record to record all of their names.

The building still stands at 29 Washington Square in Greenwich Village, as part of the NYU campus. I wrote the following poem three years ago, while sitting in that very building.  I post it here to remind myself  that my assurance of reaching fifty, and of having choices, is governed by history, circumstance, privilege and the suffering of women who came before me.


Triangle

When they fell like angels
winged in fire, god was
watching the clock. Gates

locked, he stood by meting out justice:
the mechanical hell of stitch and brown lung
or the hunger. What’s worse now,

to leap or to burn? Some hope of heaven
must have tugged their garments upward,
immodest ohs of mouth and eyes

reflected in grimy windows as they passed.
Others took the long way down dark
chutes for elevated freight. One survived

the passage to America, the Uprising and then
the burning and the falling and the drowning.
Her sister’s bodies held her head afloat.

The bodies are still there, crushed
violets on the lawn. They wait for us
to claim them. Each one has a name.

— Mistinguette Smith



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Now, this is going to hurt a little bit

I’ve never been very good at this part. I have no tolerance for pain, little sufferance for suffering . I was the child who needed the lollipop before I got the shot. Anaesthetic is my favorite Triple Word Score move in Scrabble.  Raised on ibuprofen and OxyContin, discomfort has always been optional in this life. Mostly, it’s an option I’ve not taken.

But for two weeks, I have been sick with the flu. The real influenza, not some 24-hour bug.  As it turns out, the real flu is a debilitating and painful viral infection. What’s worse, it’s one of these $%^&*  Character Building Learning Experiences.

When you are in your latest-possible-forties and have the flu, you get limited sympathy for your troubles. Friends are sorry and offer advice, but they generally expect you to have grown accustomed to a few physical aches and twinges by now.  For a discomfort as temporary as the flu, they expect you to buck up and carry on.

Learning to bear suffering with grace is so … grownup. So dignified. So beyond my ken. Apparently, learning this discipline is part of my transition to this new place in life. Full womanhood includes accepting discomfort and bearing pain while staying focused on my intentions to be  awake and alive.

It seems that to be grown up is to know the difference between analgesia and anesthesia. It’s fine to slug down NyQuil for the flu, but there are no Band-Aids for the boo-boo of discovering a parent is losing his ability to communicate. There are no fizzy tablets that will ease the pain of a sibling’s sudden, but not unexpected, death. It’s undeniably mature to wake up to that old, familiar ache in the ankle or a hip and realize that this morning’s need for pain relief isn’t  a temporary situation, it’s the way you’ll wake up for the rest of your life . Difficulty  becomes an old friend we can count on to show up every day.

Pain is part of the way life is. Its presence does not diminish joy, unless I let it. We’ll never be friends, pain and I, but I’m resigned to learn to walk alongside it. Ignore me if I limp and whine for a little while. I’m only beginning  to learn how to take this in stride.

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