Smile lines (a very short story)

Paula was older than everyone, but only chronologically. Sure she’d lived longer than everyone else in the department, but you couldn’t tell by her actions. The only evidence of her greater age was in the deep wrinkles around her eyes. They looked like smile lines, but the smiles had to be for show, or from another period of her life. Perhaps she smiled out of habit, because even when she was telling very personal, very private stories about herself, she smiled her brittle smile at whoever had the misfortune of being stuck at a task that required they stay in the room with her.

The other staff had taken to looking forward to any task that involved being away from the back room after she arrived for the day. Normally these tasks were completed by whoever felt like it, and whenever it was convenient. Now they took turns, working around her shift. Every day one lucky person got the blessed reprieve of not having to listen to her yammering.

She needed a therapist.
Or an exorcist.

She’d been counseled by her temp agency to not share personal details, but she ignored those censures, choosing to run over her coworker of the week (or month), or however long the assignment was (or however long they could stand her) whichever came first, like an 18 wheeler over a kitten. It was merciless and bloody, with no regard for the emotional and psychic carnage she left in her wake.

One employee, unlucky enough to be forced to work with her three days in a row, even considered homicide. This gentle soul, a vegetarian for six years, a person who marched in peace rallies, a weekly volunteer at the domestic crisis shelter, had gotten so overwhelmed with Paula’s incessant complaints and bizarre observations that she started fantasizing about how she would make her be silent. Strychnine in her water bottle was considered. Loosening the lug nuts on her tires was a possibility. Anything that involved a painful end that was preceded by terror and confusion – the same as she had endured but more focused, more compact. That would do nicely.

Asking Paula to be mindful of others didn’t work. Neither did complaining to her supervisors. Flat out telling her to shut up seemed cruel, but perhaps it was the only way to regain peace at work. Mindless blather and too-personal comments was cruel so why not fight fire with fire?

TMJ as a teacher.

I have TMJ problems. My jaw doesn’t line up properly. Overuse, and the ligaments in my neck hurt. The more I talk, the more pain I’m in. It isn’t a large pain. It isn’t terrible. But it is just annoying enough to keep me mindful.

I’ve become very conscious of everything I say. It is as if I have a bank account and I’m being careful of what I spend. Each sentence needs to be worthwhile.

I remember when a teacher in junior high had an assignment that we had to come up with a list of just twenty words. These were (hypothetically) the only words we would be allowed to say for the rest of our lives. This is something like that.

If it hurts to talk a lot, then you have to pick your words carefully or suffer the consequences. What do you have to say? What can be dropped?

This is totally in line with the Buddhist idea of right speech. Every word you say needs to be true, kind, and helpful. Is it necessary? Is it useful? Or is it mindless chatter, meant to fill up the silence? Is it gossip?

There is a great saying that “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.” (Maurice Switzer)

There is a Ghandi quote as well that I’ve also heard attributed to the Quakers. “Speak only if it improves upon the silence.”

We are afraid of silence. We fill our houses and our heads with noise. We have iPods and cell phones attached to our ears constantly. Every store has music playing. The TV blaring on, all the time. When was the last time you were silent for longer than 20 minutes, and not asleep?

This disorder has become my teacher.