On Giving Advice

by Lia Purpura

You didn’t ask me, but someone assumed you wanted to know something and thought to put me in a position to tell you. I am, indeed, honored. You may, in some fashion, be here against your will or better judgment, or only half-listening: no one likes to ask for advice. Maybe your ambition buoyed you forth, or a belief in making plans, getting down an m.o., boot-strapping yourself up in this new year. You didn’t ask me how to live as a writer but maybe you’re hoping I know a thing or two. You wouldn’t ask me anything directly, but you’re listening. Half-listening. I like you. Asking advice always deflates a body. And you have to work hard to keep feeling firm these days, in this line of work, given the hours, the pay and so on . . .Recently, my son dropped a glass microscope slide and said “Mom, I dropped a little glass slide and it broke.” So look for it, I said. Then: hey, what are you doing, it’s late! He looked. “I can’t find it, will it be ok?” You know as much as I do if it’ll be ok, I said. For instance, it’s “ok” unless you step on it.

It’s that I was in bed and didn’t want to get up. It’s that it was way past his bedtime and he got all involved in a project long after lights out, and if it really mattered to him, he’d have gotten the broom or vacuum out and dealt. Or, better yet, a wet paper towel, as he’d seen me do, every single time I’ve broken a glass, since he was born. That’s 12 years of paper toweling he’d had a chance to observe. In other words, he knew what to do. And he didn’t do any of it.

But I like you because you’re not listening either. Not really, because whenever anyone gives advice, it’s usually more complicated than you wanted, or too simple, or not quite accurate, and misses the nuances of your situation, and there’s always that sense of agitation in having to hear it, listen to it, even if you asked, because all those “shoulds” weigh you down, and very often, you have a secret direction you’d like to pursue anyway. Probably you want to stay up later than you ought to on a school night and fuss with a new project and not be told to go to bed for godssake, or that your mistake should be cleaned up in a certain way, and right now, etc. But you’re still sort of compelled to ask. Just for the record. On the off chance that someone else can make broken glass disappear, provide complete absolution, sanction, enthusiastic encouragement for your experiments . . .or maybe one asks just to kick up the kind of resistance necessary for a good start.

I’m just guessing about this because I hated advice, as a kid. I felt I had to sit still with hands folded while listening to it. To this day I can’t sit still. To this day I still hum a little and go lalalala in my head when I hear it coming. As my grandmother used to say, “Would it hurt you to listen for once?”

Back to the scene: it’s even later now, on the evening of impromtu science experiments.

“What are you doing?” I say.

“Looking,” he says

“At what now?”

“Dad’s blood cell from when he was 12.”

“And how are you feeling about that piece of glass.”

“Good! Excellent! Let’s switch up the magnification. You wanna see frog testicles?”

What I said? It’s BEDTIME!

What I thought? That’s my boy!

Author Bio
Lia Purpura is the author of On Looking (essays, Sarabande Books, 2006), King Baby (poems, Alice James Books, 2008), Increase (essays, University of Georgia Press, 2000), Stone Sky Lifting (Ohio State University Press, 2000), The Brighter the Veil (Orchises Press, 1996) and Poems of Grzegorz Musial (translations, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998). Her new collection of essays will be published by Sarabande Books in late 2011. More >

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