If I remember correctly, “may” indicates possibility, “can” determination, degrees of permission, a grammatical and conversational correctitude dying, like so many refinements in the self-consciously busy world, for lack of air.
The problem with “may” is it so often becomes “should” ie obligation. As with me and the kitchen floor yesterday – I “may” wash the kitchen floor became I “should” wash the kitchen floor and as ever, I am glad I did. While I “may” wash my hair yesterday became an evasion, alongside I “may” get dressed. I didn’t get out of the beat-up cords and sweater I wear up the road to get my papers. Nobody was coming to see me, anyone who did without warning wouldn’t turn a hair at my deshabille, my hair was horrid and I couldn’t be bothered – don’t get excited, I don’t say that often, and I washed it this morning, promise.
Tina (not her real name) couldn’t do “may”. Everything was imperative – she had to, she must and so worried about being out-manoeuvred by events was she, that she thought nothing of getting up in the small hours to prepare herself, so that she could outwit the day. And thus she became more and more anxious, sleepless and twitchy, apparently eccentric behaviour stretched like a skin over unadmitted nasties. Oh the unadmitted nasties ! They are a book all by themselves, but who would want to read it ?
I have a friend who has been anorectic all her life since a family member abused her over a period of about a year and she had no mechanism for telling anybody. Everybody in the family is appalled by the eating disorder but nobody wants to face the abuse that triggered it.
In Tina’s case, the abuse never happened, it was implicit – but it “may”. And what might happen, what could happen, what may happen tortured her. We worked away at her difficulties for two years, while she gradually faced up to what she felt and what it might mean.
A earlier woman who shed me once I had been her witness (not unusual) confided “If I think it may have happened, it may …” Too awful to contemplate.
Tina made it, at least to the next stage. She got through her first job which paved the way to her second and then she went abroad, putting distance between herself and her family – the father with keys to everywhere she lived, who cut copies for her brothers, her mother pickled in drink so she couldn’t see what she didn’t want to acknowledge. Tina did not say goodbye and then when she returned she came to see me and I had a “may” moment.
She wrote to me after four years’ silence. She sent me a book that no-one who knew anything about me would ever have bought for me. I ditched it. I wrote and said something agreeable – but then tore up the card. She arrived at the door. I did not invite her in and I let her talk, not for long, I had people coming for supper. I lied about the book and the note, I said I never received them. I let her tell me how well she was, and how she wanted to see me “just for coffee” and in time I said gently “I don’t think so. I think it will only be a matter of time before I am involved as I was before. That’s what you came for… “ realising as I spoke that I was blocking her entrance, one side of my body against the door, the other against the wall. “You have a job ? “And when she said she had, I suggested “Then go and find yourself a therapist and do the work. It is a journey, sometimes long and not always comfortable but that’s what grownups do. And they pay for it. Now, you must excuse me …” and gently shut the door. I may never make a nice person but neither will I make a doormat. I was still shaking from the depth of my conviction and the discovery of my body language.
I felt I had been offered what I may do and I chose mayn’t.