That was the sentiment my friend Coleen and I left on Mr. Cornelison’s blackboard before his first afternoon religion class. We were high school juniors and his classroom was empty during our lunch break. We’d enter it and write a sentence on the blackboard and sneak out before the bell rang. One time we wrote our interpretation of the Ex Post Facto Law: a crime isn’t a crime until it’s a crime. Another one that sticks out in my mind is “Two is better than one even if that two comes from that one.” We came up with this gem while I was eating a Twix. I was on the last one when Coleen asked if she could have some. I broke it in half, made two pieces out of one and there you have it.
This went on for about two weeks, writing what we thought were brilliant blurbs, hoping he’d discuss them with his sophomore religion class before moving on to the course material. Who knows how long we could have continued coming up with such deep thoughts; alas, we’ll never know because after two weeks we were caught. Mr. Cornelison entered the classroom a few seconds after we did, while we were just finishing our sentence about pain. He invited us to stay and debate our wisdom with his class. With all affection for Mr. Cornelison, he was as much a sarcastic wise-ass as we were. I loved him. Coleen and I wouldn’t have picked his classroom if we didn’t. But he put us on the spot and therefore we had no choice but to take up the challenge.
Back then I was pretty sure Mr. C thought Coleen and I were thinking somewhere along the lines of S&M. He thought he had us cornered, were we really going to go there, and if not, how were we going to get ourselves out of it? Even then I loved playing with the double meaning of a statement. I liked the idea that my words could be interpreted by others as something other than the message I was trying to convey. So after the class had filed in and taken their seats, Mr. C introduced us as the two ladies who have been leaving messages for them on his blackboard. He said today we’d been so kind as to stick around and interpret our latest. “Girls,” he said, with a flourish of his hand. Coleen smirked at me, gestured a’la Vanna White toward the blackboard where she’d written the sentence. I took the floor.
“Pain is the essence of pleasure.” I paused dramatically, letting the sentence sink in. “Just what does that mean? What it means, quite simply, is that there is no pleasure without pain. Without that thing that causes pain, we would have no measure of what feels good. We need pain in order to recognize what it feels like to not have it. Pain and pleasure coexist, surely as night and day. How would we know that we were actually seeing something unless there were times when darkness robbed us of the choice? Following that premise, therefore, pain is the essence of pleasure.” I looked toward Mr. C to let him know I was finished. “Any questions?” He asked his class. A few giggles, some eye rolls, but no questions. Mr. C walked us to the door. “I can assume our lesson is over? Permanently?” he asked pointedly. Yes, we assured him. We were done, party over, oops, out of time.
Let me take a moment to praise my alma mater. It is a testament to both Mr. C and the educational atmosphere of St. Basil Academy that Coleen and I were even able to be involved in something like this. I loved the freedom of that environment; even then I knew I was privileged to be able to attend such a fine school. It–and the girls I met there–has absolutely shaped who I am today. So thank you, Basil’s. And to Mr. C, who has passed on to the world after this one, thanks for the honest religion classes and letting me talk. From the look on your face whenever I opened my mouth, it was my belief that I amused you. I hope so.
Little did I know how profound I was at sixteen. Or how profound the script of a Lifetime movie could be. Yes, that’s right. Those little minxes responsible for the cheesefest Honor Student snuck some wisdom right into the last five minutes of the film. To set up the scene but not give away the plot in case you want to watch this award-winner for yourself, a character, who is a successful writer, is helping another character who is an aspiring writer but just can’t seem to get out a cohesive sentence. So he stands behind her as she sits at the computer, crying and lamenting over how she just can’t do it. You can, you can, he tells her. “No!” she wails. “It’s too painful!” Of course, it’s painful, he screams at her. Writing hurts! Every time you put something on a page you bleed. That’s why not everybody can do it. Because it’s painful. And no one will ever want to read anything you have to say unless it hurt you to say it.
A light went on in me. Yes. Someone gets it. Writing frigging hurts. I thought back to any of the blogs or short stories I’d written that got the most feedback. It was always something that made me cry while I was writing it. The blog on my friend Kurt Estes who committed suicide comes to mind. It still makes me cry just to read it. Yes, Lifetime; people want to read about someone’s pain. Not because they enjoy hearing about someone else suffering, but so they can know they are not alone in their own pain. And therefore it brings pleasure. The pleasure of hope, of community, of knowing we all face the same crap in life and keep on going. I thought of all the comedians out there, finding the funny in their moments of life’s tragedy so we can sit and laugh. I thought of my own friend Lisa, who cuts up her hands and gets finger cramps making cute little whimsical magnets for people to put on their refrigerators as decorations, or attach family photos, fast food menus, their child’s art project. I thought of the actors who dig deep for emotion so we can watch a movie. I thought of the dancers that get callouses and torn muscles and bad hips and knees simply for the glory of interpreting the music with their bodies. I thought of the athletes who exhaust themselves and pull groins and get teeth knocked out so we can cheer them on, so they can hopefully hoist a trophy over their heads. And I thought of all the mamas giving birth, the most painful thing there is, so our species keeps going. The joy of holding the baby for the first time is worth all the pain, ask any mama and that’s what she’ll say. Then there’s the ain of the everyday man who goes to the job he can’t stand for the pleasure of the Friday paycheck.
Could I have known any of this when I was sixteen, writing those words on the blackboard? Perhaps a hint of it. I knew the sentiment, for sure. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to articulate it the way I have here. That took some studying, some observing, some interaction and living myself. Truly the pleasure of being published for the first time took on a whole new level of joy after all the rejections I’d received. So painful for me, flying anywhere for any reason. But when that plane lands, the pure pleasure I feel at being courageous, alive, means so much more than if I just piled off the plane like, “Okay, I’m here, now what.” I get off the plane, take a deep breath and think, “Whew! I’m here!” I look around at all the possibilities in my destination city. “Now what?”