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Of Mice and Men and the Lennie inside of you

“Do you remember Lennie from Of Mice and Men,” Nida asked me, “the one who loved his mouse so much that he petted it to death? Is it possible that you have some of Lennie inside of you?”

Silence. The kind that seemed like it was for minutes, but was probably only seconds. Silence to respect whatever self-delusion inside of me had just died. Silence to fill the space where I had been holding a hand of cards that was now clearly laid out on the table. Silence to see if there was anything consequential in the cards. Silence when we realized that there wasn’t, that apparently I had been bluffing this whole time.

“Yes, yes it’s very possible,” I finally said, without any cards left to play. We had been talking about trying to create (translation: force) depth in conversations and relationships where it might be missing. But Nida knew we were also talking about much more than that — about work, about friendships, about family, about love.

Last week, I was at a coffee shop in Auburn, the small town in Northern California that I grew up in. “Oh my god!” the girl sipping a double-espresso next to me shouted to her family. “So my friend just texted me that Auburn is the city where Lennie and George grew up in Of Mice and Men. How crazy is that?”

It was crazy. Like, really crazy. I’ve known Auburn for 26 years — I went on my first hike here, learned how to swim in case I fell in the NID ditch here, had my first first-day-of-school here, read my first novel here, read Steinbeck and Of Mice and Men for the first time here — and yet I had no idea Lennie was also from here. Which means that when I told Nida, “Yes, yes it’s possible,” I had no idea just how possible it really was.

Nida isn’t just a friend or a colleague, she’s my therapist. And one of the things psychologists say is that the past isn’t just the past, it’s right here with us. That we carry with us the people and experiences from throughout our lives, but especially from our childhoods. And that these experiences and people form into things called scripts and schemas — filters through which we see the world. “Dating is useless unless it leads to marriage, don’t start something unless you have a plan to finish it, if you can’t do it perfectly than don’t bother doing it, if it doesn’t reach thousands of people than it’s not worth building.”

Apparently these schemas also affect the way we hold the mice in our world. Which is why it’s “crazy” that I grew up in the same town as Lennie, but also why it’s not at all crazy. “Yes, yes it’s very possible” that there’s a Lennie inside me, because the schemas that shaped Lennie are also some of the same schemas that shaped me.

The other crazy thing about this double-espresso epiphany is that the double-espresso woman wasn’t actually from Auburn, she was just passing through. She was a traveler, which helped her see things fresh. Things that the person who is not a traveler in Auburn — a person like me — might not be able to see. Things that might have been under our noses, in our backyards, in between our hands, or tucked away on page 40, for almost 26 years.

On my last visit home to Auburn, I found a garage-box of old books and papers I had read and written in college. Books like Beloved, Mama Day, Native Son, Invisible Man, and papers about identity, the color line, double consciousness, belonging. Fantastic books and powerful ideas, but as I went through that garage-box, I couldn’t remember writing or reading any of them. So many of the insights were lessons I went on to learn the hard way — or am still learning the hard way — even though they’ve been there all along, even though they have actually gone through my head and through my pen.

Why didn’t they stick? Maybe I wasn’t ready? Maybe I just didn’t have the traveler’s mindset, maybe I just wasn’t open to that type of exploration and discovery?

Immediately after the double-espresso epiphany, I texted my family to see if they knew about Lennie and Auburn: no one did. And yet, when I got home that night I found a well-loved copy of Of Mice and Men in our bookshelf, complete with highlights and notations of places like the Sacramento River and the California Sycamore. But the reference to Auburn on the top left hand side of page 40 was completely untouched, perhaps even completely unnoticed. Maybe none of us had been ready? Maybe none of us had been looking?

What about you, are you ready, are you looking? Is there a Lennie inside of you? A Lennie that you haven’t noticed yet. How do you hold the mice inside of your hands? The mice in your worlds, the people you love deeply, the organizations you’ve given so much for, the future you want so badly? Are you you pressing them so hard that they might die? Or are you giving them the air they need to breathe, to come alive, to ignite into fire and light?

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