The Empath

issue 38 2020 Prize Winners

Stephanie C. Smith, 2020 BLR Nonfiction Prize Honorable Mention

New Orleans—my home from the start. I fit better on streets that sag, where live oaks lay low, where rain falls in sheets all afternoon, where I stay in a shotgun house again. One poor room just like another. 

I’ve stayed in touch with my high school English teacher. Her son has a house in the Mid-City area, a house he Airbnbs to me for a few weeks at a discounted rate for friends of the family. 

But I am no longer a friend with a mother uptown by the river. Not since Katrina. Not since both passed. I am a déjà vu tourist carrying my sequelae, an irregular native who’d moved way out-of-state to North Carolina.

The Airbnb is half a mile from the Saint Louis Cemetery Number Three. Tour buses stop there to show off the way we’ve stacked graves above ground, above our below-sea-level ground so the dead don’t float off. When your roots are in water, it’s tempting to float off.

I have a few detached relatives I never see anymore. There are friends here and there and we talk through the distance to keep a small fire lit. I stay warm enough.

There’s a quote from Pema Chodron in my calendar for the month of May—Usually, we think that brave people have no fear. The truth is they are intimate with fear. 

The truth is I am close to alone. 

Superman said the cure for loneliness is solitude. The Buddha said the cure for sadness is joy. Leonard Cohen said there is no cure for love. The point is to stand on the teeter-totter with a foot on each side and balance. 

A loose dog lies under the house. Chickens and cats are under the shotgun next door. I forgot how many strays live in New Orleans. Our Blessed Mother guards the yard—her flooded past, our humid eyes. One poor girl just like another. We fall in sheets all afternoon.

The days warp with slow-motion heat. The sky is fat with clouds the color of concrete, unmoved by our sweltering below. We’re socked in my mother used to say when a weather front pressed down on us like a sinus infection. Every memory is humid and close.

I’m socked in now, a few feet below sea level, my past infected. I walk around town, my haunts torn down. I walk old on new streets, like a ghost passing through. I lean my back against the trees, thick-skinned and fat with years. Still here. 

Here, I grew up with the odds stacked against me. My mother—single, out looking for love. The stranger—his knife, his truck, his promise to kill me. The way that he did. The way I’m still here. Against all the odds.

  I’ll use what I can to bring my past forward where I can tend to it better. Like the woman who’d been homeless before she’d been to Harvard. Like her answer during a radio show when the interviewer asked her how she made good after what she’d lived through. I don’t waste anything. I use it all, even sadness, even anger. The interviewer went silent. He wasted his best chance to use what she gave him—the very heart of her story.

I’ve come to New Orleans with a small bag of clothes and a backpack of books. I’ll stay for a few weeks, and then head back to work, back to North Carolina. 

Where to start now? Where does a start start? I start with Maggie Nelson’s prose poem “Bluets.” I am in love with how she’s in love with blue. I’m in love with how she writes it out in little paragraphs. Just like me. Am I kin to her? Am I channeling her? Am I friends with her? 

This is what it’s like to be friends with me. You don’t know it. You live far away. I live in a paragraph. I think I am easy to find. You never thought to look.

Maggie breathes blue. I inhale my favorite green, exhale Spanish moss. My run-around mother smoked white sailboats on a menthol-green lake. She leaned forward with a Salem—always somewhere better to go. 

In third grade, I learned that Salem is more than a brand of cigarettes. Salem was a place where women were called witches and sentenced to die. During their trials, the women were thrown in a lake with rocks tied around them. The guilty floated. Then they were burned. The drowned all went free. I’m guilty as hell—with nowhere better to go.

I open the door and call for the loose dog. She needs a good name. Ginger is good. She crawls out from under the house when I call. I love her rust-colored coat marbled with grey. She loves me color-blind. She inhales my scent. I exhale the house. This is what it’s like to love the undrowned. We share what we’ve found. We use everything.

I offer her a bowl of water and plate of peanut butter. She offers me almond eyes and a wide pink smile. She can’t believe her good luck. I pull a beige blanket from the shelf in the closet and twirl it into a nest. Ginger curls into her nest and this makes me feel good.

Sleep is my friend, I tell myself. I don’t believe myself. Not when it’s dark and sleep has abandoned me. Not in a house the shape of a shotgun. I need more friends. What I have is Joni Mitchell songs stuck in my head. I really don’t know love at all. 

I know it’s late. The electric clock is a cold box that glows in the corner—triggered and ticking. Rectangles of windowlight slant across the wall over the foot of my bed like edgy modern art. The whole room is a canvas. Black and white is the medium and the only interpretation. I try to visualize a pink yellow sunrise to wash all the Dada away. What I get is acid reflux and a minor gray headache.

I sit up and stare at the wall without blinking—trying to exhaust my wide-awake eyes, trying to trick them into feeling sleepy. My eyes just feel dry. I blink hard several times. I kind of yawn. A puny yawn. A kitten yawn. A kitten that won’t go to sleep. 

If a black dog is a metaphor for clinical depression, is a wide-awake kitten the same for insomnia? Or is this just my thyroid swinging hyper again, spilling over with thoughts I’d rather not follow? I’ve been here before with this very same kitten.

I lie back down and make shapes with my body under the covers as though I am falling from a plane in the air. A fetus, a windmill, a steak knife. Which shape best survives a long-distance drop? The New York Times said a fetus—survivors fall small. Like an ant, they said, that falls out of tree. Mostly the ant will get up and walk away. A person mostly will not. But I know the advantage any ant has when it falls from a tree is its shiny black armor. The article failed to mention this pertinent fact. 

My third grade teacher taught us science once a week. She’d stand by the sink in the back of the classroom, because science can get messy. Once she held up a dead beetle the size of a pickle pinned to a white cardboard square. Tock Tock she tapped on the back of the beetle with the tip of her nail.

Exoskeleton, she said. The opposite of us. Our bones are on the inside. Our softness is on the outside.

Like decorations? I asked her. Like a Christmas tree

In the morning, I wake like a clock. A helicopter overhead beats the air. But this is New Orleans, not ‘Nam, not Afghanistan. The radio reports cops up above. A man dumped a woman out of his truck onto the avenue that feeds the heart of the city. Or else she jumped to escape the not Nam-Afghanistan war in that truck. The man fled on foot after the chopper caught up to his Chevy Silverado speeding north towards the lake. All day he’s at large, like a storm overhead. All day she’s out cold in a hospital ward. I feel all small how she jumped or was dumped in the shape of a log that rolled across the road that feeds the heart of the city. 

There’s no art in trusting no one. That’s what the burnt-out spy told the young wannabe spy in the movie I watched on Netflix last night. The art of the spy is to find the right one. The one you can trust.

I don’t remember the spies’ names or their missions or any of their spy secrets. I only remember how the burnt-out spy, the best of the lot, wore a tie every day and read books in the evening with his gray tabby cat asleep on his lap. He was ready to retire after years of harassment from the heterosexual spies in the rest of the department. The young spy was skittish—suicidal sometimes, empathic most times. He wore the same clothes scene after scene. He struggled to find the right people to trust. Like all skittish survivors, his antenna was sharp and flooded with feelings that were rarely his own. The art of the spy can be very messy.

I was a pretty good little spy in elementary school. I could feel who were the tyrants and who were their minions in every new school in every new year. In third grade, in Arabi in Saint Bernard Parish, my antenna said “ally” when I crossed paths with Pee Wee. No one much liked him and no one liked me. Because he lived with his family by the levee in a tumble-down shack and I lived in an apartment without any father. Because he couldn’t read, and I couldn’t write cursive. Because I wished I were a boy so I could wear pants to school and play marbles at recess. Because Pee Wee put a towel over his crew cut at night in the bathroom and wished he were a girl prized for his kindness and his long honey hair. We trusted each other with our third-grade secrets. In a year, my mother moved us again and I lost Pee Wee forever.

Sympathy came first. Then Empathy. Then Empath.

In the early 20th century, English-speaking psychologists wanted their own version of the German psychological term Einfühlung that translates literally to feeling-in. Two psychologists from Cornell and Cambridge suggested empathy from the Greek empatheia, which translates literally to in-feeling.

Empath, taken as an agent noun, was first known to be used in 1956. But even before 1956, the good spies have always been empaths. Most empaths are skittish. And the skittish are good at staying alive.

I don’t know if Pee Wee survived long into adulthood. The chances aren’t good. Few of my friends lasted long as adults—even those who came in to this world with way more than Pee Wee. Still, I’d like to think that he made it somehow. If I’d stayed put in Arabi, we’d have looked out for each other. Two spies are better than one sleeper agent left on their own.

These mornings when I lie in bed in my Airbnb, I feel ten friends from here. Mostly gone. Mostly dope. They follow me to the sink like prayers. I cup my hands underwater, wash my face, dress up my past, be here for now. I could keep on going, adopt every state, take on new names, Hope, Mercy, maybe Shame, maybe Eleven. The ten would ride along with me and sing our songs. I stay put for now, write some poems, feed stray animals, my little not disappearing acts.

When I first read about the Great Sparrow Campaign, I thought it said the Great Sorrow Campaign. This would have been the truer name. In China, in 1958, Chairman Mao wanted the small birds dead. He claimed the sparrows were pests who damaged the crops. Three million citizens were commanded to blanket the countryside. They banged pots and made constant noise so that the sparrows had nowhere to rest, nowhere to land. After days of this, the dead fell from the sky. Other sparrows crash-landed in exhaustion and were then stomped dead by soldiers and children. 

The Polish Embassy in Beijing refused to participate in the sorrow. For a while, their grounds became a quiet green refuge full of hushed birds. I imagine Polish diplomats scattering breadcrumbs and setting out bowls of fresh water for their asylum seekers who huddled in the trees. But soon the drummers surrounded the property, beating their pots and pans for days until these birds, too, fell from their hiding and fell to the ground. Everywhere the undrowned learn to live small. Even then, the odds are against us.

The campaign was deemed a success; the sparrows were nearly eradicated from the entire country. But without the sparrows to eat the locusts, the locust population exploded and devastated the crops. Historians today think the Great Sparrow Campaign was one of the major causes of the Great Famine that took over 50 million human lives. 

The species of sparrows defied the odds and returned to China years later. Now it’s the story of the campaign that’s gone missing. Journalist Yang Jisheng documents the Great Sparrow Campaign in his work, Tombstone. The book’s been banned in China, disappeared as a pest. Is it the story that marks us or the telling that does it?

Our history is all fabricated. It’s been covered up, Yang Jisheng said. If a country can’t face its own history, then it has no future.

Bring the story forward—where we can be better. Where we can better tend to the arc and the allegory this time around. 

I may not have a circle of people around me, but I can feel where they’d fit. I can feel Pee Wee close by. I drive the six miles over to Arabi—the other side of the Lower Ninth Ward, down Friscoville Avenue, past the elementary school. Little has changed since my year in third grade. The apartment is there. The corner store full of candy, the bar by the levee. Pee Wee’s shack is gone. I walk around the block. The block missing Pee Wee. A half a dozen trailers sit there instead. Aging in place. Weeds up to my waist.

Pee Wee was called Pee Wee because he stayed small. Smaller than his brothers and the other Arabi boys with their muscular jaws and their long string-bean bodies who practiced spitting and throwing firecrackers at cars that drove by. Who talked about fucking. Who dared one another to fuck one of the animals in the stable by the levee and swore they’d seen men strap the hind legs of sheep into their work boots to keep the sheep still while the men did their dank deed—the deed the string-bean boys were all hungry to do. The dark shock of these stories made me feel like a creature they might strap down next. I stayed close to Pee Wee. And we stayed to ourselves. 

Turns out the stable in Arabi was more of a small stockyard. And the stockyard was a remnant of the old slaughterhouse system. Arabi had slaughtered meat for the fancy in New Orleans since by law they had to keep their own fancy slaughter-free. There’s always a work-around, a cutout, a loophole to be found when dark money’s involved. You can still feel the dirty deal when you walk around Arabi. Old blood traps in back yards. Boys roaming the levee. 

The Emotional Freedom Technique, EFT for short, is supposed to help with sleeplessness, pain, illness, and more. That’s what it says on the EFT website. Our flow of physical energy kinks up when our thought energy gets stuck. This kink keeps us awake. Turns our bodies against us. 

The technique to unkink has something to do with the acupuncture meridians of energy and bilateral balance. The technique disrupts the usual stories filed in the brain, deep in the delta, way undercover, that deny us our good flow. This all makes more sense when you can’t fall asleep. When you lay in the dark with your heart pounding loud on the left side of your cage.

The instructions: tap seven times with your fingertips on the top of the head, above the eyebrow, at the temple, under the eye, under the nose, on the chin, on the collarbone, under the arm while saying—Even though I cannot fall asleep (or whatever other problem the tapper is feeling) I completely and totally accept myself. Then circle the eyes clockwise, then counterclockwise, then close them and sing a song for a few seconds. Open and count to five. Close the eyes and sing again.

What song should I sing?, I ask myself. I don’t want a song that will get stuck in my head. Keep it simple, I tell myself. 

Doe a deer, a female deer…ONE TWO THREE FOUR FIVE…Doe a deer, a female deer. I sing out loud in the black-and-white room. I laugh out loud, wide awake in the black-and-white room. Laughing has to be good for the wide-awake kitten and my bilateral balance. 

Tap Tap on the side of my temple. Tap Tap on the bones of my story.

Even though I cannot fall asleep, I completely and totally accept myself, I tell myself. I don’t completely and totally believe myself. What I have is survival stuck in my head. I really don’t know love at all. 

Extrasensory Perception, ESP for short, was a term more frequently used in the 1960s and 70s, but not so much anymore. Empath is a better fit these days. An empath is a person with an extrasensory antenna. 

There are three ways that people become empaths. Some are simply born as extra-sensitive beings. Some have parents who nurture this trait. For the rest, this extra is born of a trauma. The way your sense of smell changes when you smell your own slaughter. The way you grow an antenna to reach over the border like an agent-noun spy in a fight-or-flight world.

I used to create worlds in shoeboxes that I dug out of the trash. Opposite worlds from the flight-or-fight one. I’d cut out trees, hills, and flowers from Look magazine. I pasted them to the insides of the rectangular world. I drew bright crayon lakes and tall grassy fields on the dull cardboard ground. Pee Wee helped me make bushes from clover we brought in from outside. Together we released my handful of animals into this world. I remember two brown plastic horses I’d found in the school playground, a pale blue bird (that was also a pin my mother gave me to wear on special occasions) with flowers on her wings and a smile on her beak, and a glass mouse whose tail had broken off long ago. The animals came alive in this handcrafted world. They galloped. They sang. They couldn’t believe their good fortune. Pee Wee painted a face on a pebble and set it down by the glass mouse. Some days the pebble was a turtle. Other days a frog. Either way, the creature was the mouse’s small friend, equally tailless and equally happy. Every morning before school, I’d open the box and move the animals out of their bush beds and down to the lake. In the afternoons, Pee Wee and I would bring the world outside to get some fresh air—just on my front steps away from the others. Safe in the margins of marginalized Arabi. That was as far as we could bring anything forward.

When all else fails and I can’t fall asleep, I take my blanket and pillow and sleep hard on the floor with just the rug underneath me. I hum a Joni Mitchell song. I wish I had a river so long it would teach my feet to fly. I feel the shape of my border. My wide-awake thoughts aren’t as vast as they think. I am here on the floor. Not dark in the sky. My endoskeleton tells me so. The shape of discomfort lulls me to sleep. And like a good spy, I give my past the slip and I exhale the night.