Unaware of its origin, all I know is that one day when I was little, an antique crate of marbles appeared in our home. I loved those marbles. Such a simple plaything; yet each marble was its own world of swirling green, blue or orange glass. Steelies, vicious little warmongers in their own right, added balance to the colorful box. My most favorite marbles were the chipped ones: those that had been sheared against a rock, a steelie, or even the hammer of a curious child. Like jawbreakers bitten in half, these imperfect marbles revealed the source of their magic. I loved marbles so much I coveted them. When an opportunity came to add another to my collection, I ensured it would be mine: I cheated.
My second grade teacher, a kindly woman who’d be horrified to learn I thought of her as Mrs. Claus, tested the class weekly in spelling. Whoever received a perfect score also won a little gift, such as a sticker or sucker. I became very used to those little gifts. But the week she offered a marble as a prize, there was a word that had stumped me for days. The night before the test, on the smallest piece of paper my overly large childish scrawl would allow, I wrote the spelling words. When the test arrived, I lay the paper on my lap and glanced down when my teacher said the difficult word. Confident I aced the test, I passed my paper forward and quietly folded the cheat sheet and tucked it into my sleeve. Sent out to recess then, I passed the bowl of marbles on the teacher’s desk. I knew which one would be mine: deep reddish orange with a few brown flecks, it looked like autumn compressed into a perfect sphere. It wasn’t the largest but it was the most intriguing.
Recess was a formality. I returned to my seat and my teacher handed me my test. Written in a red circle was -1. Minus one? How could this be? There it was: my nemesis with a red line drawn through it. Even using a cheat sheet, I spelled the word incorrectly…probably because I misspelled it on the cheat sheet itself. I can’t remember the word that gave me so much trouble, but it should have been Karma. It was instant. Filled with pain, shame and a mist of cold fear, I watched as a classmate chose my marble. Okay, his marble.
That lesson was swift. While I never cheated on schoolwork or a test again, I did steal:
When I was about five years old and at the grocery store with my mother, I saw a beautiful bunch of green grapes. I reached out and grabbed one without thinking. I popped it into my mouth only to have my mom’s scolding immediately sour the sweetness.
When I was nineteen years old and in a relationship with a man who used my self-esteem to scrape his muddy boots, I bought him a sweater for Christmas. When I returned home, I discovered that instead of the receipt, the cashier put the check I had written into the bag. I told my boyfriend what happened. Because I intended to return the money, I welcomed in a barrage of abusive words. “If you have such a problem with keeping the money,” he snidely said, “I’ll take it off your hands.” Then he pointed out the stickiness of the situation: if I revealed the cashier’s mistake, I would probably get her fired. Could I live with myself then? I still wanted to return the money. I remember putting the check into an envelope, but I don’t remember mailing it. Despite knowing better, I allowed the pain I was enduring to trump the honorable course of action.
Age twenty-four brought me a stolen stapler. This truly was an accident. My boss sent me to Europe and gave me the stapler to use while there. When I returned, he told me I could use it at home. Two years later, when I moved out-of-state and away from the false identity I was cultivating at my job, the stapler, forgotten and thrown into a box, moved with me.
There it is: my life of crime. A cheat sheet, a grape, a sweater and a stapler. I realize that for many, my infractions may seem mild. Laughable. Even a little on the preachy or self-righteous side. I get that. But I know what I did, how badly I felt and how quickly Karma–in the guise of a lost marble, an angry mother, a prick of a boyfriend, and the wrong job–acted. Realizing this is good enough for me. Even though I also know for many–too damn many–stealing is easy. Everyone does it, from the government to corporations to college students; really, it’s almost the American Way. And if everyone does it, how could it really hurt anyone?
Stealing has been on my mind a lot lately. Obviously. Like a person who’s suffered from poison ivy only to walk barefoot in the same patch of earth, I’ve allowed my mind to re-infect me with the pain of the past. I’ve hit an unwelcome anniversary: a year ago, the workshops I created were stolen. Experiences and words that came from my life, from writing my book, from digging through each painful and joyous moment, were claimed by another. That hurt me. That was a Karma I couldn’t easily assign to my own negative actions. As a creative person with a truly generous spirit, all I did was open the door to someone whose smile hid a black soul. Yes, that hurt. A violation: especially because my experiences, what I’ve learned, and what I teach are meant to add honesty and positive energy into the world. By being taken away, something beautifully personal and universal seemed tainted. And what desecrated it the most is the fact that I lost my naiveté: now, I have to access a coldness I didn’t know I have; I have to protect myself at all costs. There is no doubt I created my workshops–I have five years of proof before I ever met the person–but I am protected to the hilt. Rather than use the money I saved to take a trip on my fortieth birthday, I registered my trademark. My copyright is registered in the Library of Congress. And once my baby was kidnapped, I fought like hell to attach my name, face and words to it: there is no question who the hell I am or what the hell my work is about. It’s a matter of public record.
So why obsess about stealing? Because I realized that even though the experience taught me a lot and blessed me with growth, I’m still pissed off by the audacity of it. What gives anyone the sense of arrogant entitlement to take what someone else has created? Truly, I can understand stealing if a person is starving or dying and needs to steal food or medicines to survive. But what I can’t understand is how, in a society in which most of us have our basic needs and beyond met, people pilfer words, ideas, music, marketing, and designs without compunction. Even with all of the protections in place! Is it really as simple as buying into the bullshit that Everyone does it, so I might as well, too? Is it fear, greed, envy, a game? I don’t know.
I know that no matter which side of the stealing equation you find yourself, it hurts. It hurts being stolen from and it hurts when your better self calls you out…and no matter how deeply hidden, we all have a better self. I know that eventually the renewed anger I feel will blaze out when I allow myself to step back from an old, useless threat. And I know that with the litany of misdeeds–the mortgage crisis, bailouts, plagiarizing of term papers and books, music stolen from the artists who created it, and stolen again in our time through illegal downloads–it does indeed seem like everyone is stealing.
But not everyone is.
Some of us learned firsthand the pain of losing our marbles.
Some of us still need to.
(The clip art used is free)