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Meditation on Leslie Jamison’s THE EMPATHY EXAMS (and beyond…) (Part Four of Six)

(Continued from Part Three)

When Jamison describes her experience of driving into the state—a moment more crucial than it might initially seem, because this essay, like The Empathy Exams as a whole, is so attentive to the ways we navigate limits and borders—she writes, “Heading south on I-79, I feel the border between Maryland and West Virginia as smooth highway turning to sandpaper” (139).

A simple, beautiful, and (probably inadvertently) provocative description. I have been provoked. I am butting in. Here we go.

First of all, I-79 crosses the border between West Virginia and Pennsylvania—not Maryland. Many roads will take you from Maryland to West Virginia, but I-68 is the route Jamison would have been most likely to take if she were coming from the east. That interstate merges with 79 near my home in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Please understand that I’m embarrassed for myself, not Jamison, to be pointing out this little fact-checking glitch. I’m blushing as I type this. And yet I type on. It’s really no big deal! And yet type on… I probably wouldn’t have even noticed this error if I didn’t have a bit of an obsession with borderlines and other places where abstract concepts can be experienced literally, are made concrete. It’s particularly delicious when they are made asphalt. So, the mention of borderlines puts my senses on high alert, making it impossible for me to overlook the real provocation here, Jamison’s description of “smooth highway turning to sandpaper.”

I am baffled by this sandpaper metaphor. What are we (intended) to make of it? I have crossed that WV-MD border innumerable times throughout my life—three or four times this summer alone, each time turning down the radio and trying to feel the sandpaper that Jamison felt. There is definitely a subtle change in the nature of the asphalt across the border in West Virginia. It sings a higher pitch under my tires. But could I, as an insider—someone to whom this borderline means the difference between being in and out, being home and away—ever have arrived at the simile of “sandpaper”? I’ve entertained the notion that as a West Virginian I would be incapable of the objectivity necessary to arrive at “sandpaper,” but then again, “sandpaper” doesn’t seem particularly objective. There is an edge—many granular edges—in that word. What does Jamison mean?

Indulge me as I belabor this point even longer. Maybe Jamison was driving from Pennsylvania on I-79 instead of Maryland? I know the PA-WV border even better. Indeed, there is a major concrete shift at that borderline; however, the road gets smoother in West Virginia. That section of I-79 in PA has been under construction for as long as I can remember. One time, I was driven across the border while blindfolded (a funny story for another day) and I knew when we entered Pennsylvania because I recognized the ka-thunk of the border, followed by a series of unmistakable nk…nk…nk seams in the road. It’s not sandpaper per se, but it’s also not smooth driving.

While both of these roads are good, it is true that we do have our share of bad roads in West Virginia. You might even call them sandpapery if you were trying to avoid the typical modifiers like gravel and dirt that country singers have sung into the ground. What it is so irresistible about the rough road? It’s easy to grab when you need a metaphor, but so mundane, obvious, unrevealing. That said, when I read references to West Virginia’s roads, I do feel them in my gut. Even on the smoothest of highways, the activity of driving in West Virginia gets your attention; there are unpredictable turns and bends that open up on unexpected beautiful vistas. All the senses are involved. On 79 and 68 especially, the driving is not difficult, but it is a dynamic-enough experience to help one understand the appeal of stock-car racing. Even for unprofessional drivers, there’s something satisfying about taking the turns; like perfectly executing a dance move, handling a winding road affirms your capability. I feel this driving as a sense of roundness between my sternum and diaphragm. I’m not really a car person, but there have been many times while driving in West Virginia that I have actually felt proud of my SUV’s V-8 engine and 4-wheel drive, even though I’m not entirely sure what V-8 actually means. And I will admit that on more than one occasion, I have actually thought the words vroom vroom

Where were we? Back to “sandpaper.” To some extent, I admire the indeterminate nature of the term. I can’t even decide if it is ambiguous. What’s Jamison’s point? To show that this place is not only different, but also abrasive? That you can’t embrace this place without getting hurt? Abraded, scratched, eroded? Indeed, Jamison leaves West Virginia feeling more raw than awe. Her experiences in the state wear down both its façade and her own buffers, and allow her to really touch the place.

I am glad that this essay reveals the dichotomy between perception and reality, and Jamison handles the state’s complexities with generosity and intelligence—both her heart and mind. The word “sandpaper” bothers me because it seems to play the same old song about the place (“Gosh, did you know that place is a little rough around the edges?”), but if I wait patiently for my knee-jerk reaction to subside, I can see the deeper complexities in Jamison’s choice of word—how the metaphor reveals the physical and metaphorical erosion that is wearing on us. West Virginia: at once both abrasive and abraded. A piece of sandpaper working away at itself.

So—I realize, it’s not her, it’s me. What I am actually bothered by is my own botherment.

Both-er. (Both err? One who boths?)
B-other. (Be other, or else!)

(Oh, brother.)]

Continued in Part Five...