Wednesday, February 18, 2009

22 Essential Things

I am trying to be a good modern networker and get into this Facebook thing. Frankly, while I love interpersonal conversation and even public speaking, I'm having trouble with the "public chatting" aspect. The only thing I've liked about it so far is reading my friends' lists of 25 Random Things. I find the randomness amusing and the vicarious experience thrilling and I love to try to locate the unexpressed thread that ties this person's life together. Even the mode of expression tells a lot: I've seen lists peter out in the teens and run past 25; single-word entries and little stories; right-brained entries numbered haphazardly and left-brained entries cross-referenced. Each feels like a gift of self.

Not everyone accepts gifts as graciously. A friend just forwarded me an e-mail from a "humorist" who has 25 reasons not to read them, and finds such lists to be a flagrant form of self-aggrandizement. This person is clearly not a student of the human condition. Perhaps this person's willful personality was indulged in childhood, and now has little empathy for those a little more broken who enjoy the game of grasping for self. In addition I'd guess this person has worked in the same job for a couple of decades and has never suffered the type of identity-rattling trauma that leaves you desperate to cry out: See me. I am here.

Near the end of my first marriage, when my husband would not seek help for either his alcohol problem or our ailing relationship, I sought out therapy on my own. The second week I came home with the assignment answer to the question: "What defines who you are?" 

I hardly knew how to begin. For so long I had wrapped myself around my children's and husband's needs. Yet a self had been starting to emerge; it was the cracking of my outgrown facade that had led me to therapy to begin with. Once I started writing I had trouble stopping: I came up with 22 essential aspects of self. Take any one away, I determined, and I would not be the same person. I was surprised by this evidence of my maturing dimensionality. Reading the list made me own these aspects and grow in personal power.

I soon realized, sadly, that of these 22 essential attributes, Ron either failed to support, ignored, or actively abused 15 of them. This is the power of listing: it led quickly to my decision to divorce, to Ron's first suicide threat and hospitalization, and to his death six weeks later. Yet it also gave me the will to survive the guilt traps Ron's actions had laid. For someone with an artistic bent, self is not something that can be denied forever. 

Listing can be powerful medicine; it's the most healing writing I've done in my life. It can pierce through the way we think things are to reach the way things are. Such a weapon should not be wielded by the weak of heart. Perhaps the humorist was right to step aside.

Now that I know who I am and have adjusted my life's activities accordingly, I enjoy a purposeful, happy, and confident life. Some people misread this confidence as egocentrism. I'm pretty sure that humorist would. Like the Facebook lists, the humorist probably wouldn't have much use for me. And get this for self-aggrandizement: I blog AND I'm writing a memoir.

Others like me who want to keep growing and adapting and reinventing ourselves enjoy re-interviewing for the job of self every few years. Want to try? Write a new resume, write the story of your life, re-connect with old friends, or touch back with your therapist. Or make it easy, and share a list of 25 random things with your friends to see where your thoughts take you.

I'll gladly read your lists, and celebrate the person you continue to become.

Because I am here. And I see you.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Origami Memories

I knew that writing a memoir would be a healing experience. The notion of fashioning chaotic detail into a beginning, middle and end sounded soothing already.  Plus there's the forward thrust: a memoir is a survival story, after all. But I have already journaled the story of my first husband's choice to shoot himself and my choice to stay and raise our sons on the same farm where he committed this act, and I have told it verbally time and again through the past 11 years. Is there added magic in writing a book about it?

There is for me. To show what the writing has been like for me, I must switch to the present tense; it is an ongoing process.


Ron's suicide feels as though I've been pushed from an airplane. I'd first boarded this plane to reach a destination; I had never intended to bail. Just as Ron's death is not entirely without foreshadowing, neither is my exit. I have heard the whisper: "I might soon push you out that door." But even though I know it might happen I have no idea what it will be like until I am falling and the air rushing past extracts all that was "me." 

I hit hard and plunge into a deep river. My first thought: I am alive! Second thought: I can do this, I know how to swim. But I can't find the surface; I am submerged and surrounded by bubbles and I can't tell which way is up. The only thing I can think to do is kick fiercely. I finally break through to the surface, where at last I can draw huge gulps of life-sustaining air. I tread with my legs and scream my story for all to hear, over and over, it's all I can do. "I am here!" The river is icy cold but at this point I don't even feel it, I'm numb, and while I can now tell up from down I cannot see the shore. The current tugs at me. What I've been through is bad enough, what if there's a waterfall ahead? I don't know where I'm heading but I set off anyway, across the current, intuiting that swimming is exactly what I should be doing.

The river is so wide I am swimming for years, but each stroke is purposeful and my body is growing strong and I have a new sense of who I am. I am one who swims.

Eventually the water is shallow enough that I can touch bottom. It feels strange to once again stand on my feet, although I know I am not yet healed; full immersion in this water is still necessary to hold me up. But I find others here, in the shallows, including a new mate who doesn't care that my hair is slick with river scum and that I still take to shivering. I can enjoy his company while understanding the journey is still mine to complete. Through the water I continue, sometimes swimming, sometimes slogging on foot, occasionally tossing in a playful dive. I am closing in on shore.

Now that I've reached the edge I am sometimes able to leave the water for days at a time. As much as I'd love to forget about the river I sense a danger in doing so, so I am never far from the shore. I will always return to wade in, or at least dip a toe.

After years of flirting with the water's edge it is time to write. For this I must go down to the river and sit on its bottom, immersing myself in the shallows. Here I recall the cold wet slap of experience at the same time the rhythmic lapping of the water against my legs soothes me. I feel the pull of the water and must remind myself: I am alive, I am strong, and I am free. To create this memoir I need only sit here for a few hours each day, I can dip in for another swim if I need a deeper taste or I can leave altogether; I am well acquainted with this shore and can do as I please. What I choose to do is to set the story I know so well onto paper. 

The first-this-then-that of it soon drains me; I've been here before. I don't want to tell again in the same way, I want to write-and-build, create something new. I start to pull my narrative apart and create little scenes. Honing them requires that I take a few steps back to see a bigger picture (I could not have done this while swimming). I fold the story this way and that, its surfaces creating new pairings, new pairings suggesting new meanings. As I perfect each scene I inch out of the water until I am standing at the very edge of the river, almost detached from that part of my experience. How freeing! I need not bore my reader with my journal entries, or drag her to the middle of the river to drown in my experience. My story is pliable; I can hold it in my hand and work it to create depth and breadth until its scenes build something new and just as true. Like an origami boat fashioned from the pages of my story it will be independent of me. And when it's finished, I'll be able to take this new rendering down to the river and set it afloat, where I can send it out to others.

Only then, having wrought all possible meaning out of my unintended nosedive, will I be free to stand, choose a new direction, and walk away.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Whole World in My Hands

I hadn't intended to get an ultrasound, but my fertility doctor was in an impish mood and the equipment was free.

After a few minutes of sliding the doppler around my belly he said, "There we go, see that?" and the nurse smiled and nodded. "Well Kathryn, do you want to know whether it's a boy or girl?"


Ron and I had talked about it; it didn't feel natural to us to know. We would be surprised, as were most of the women who came before me in time.

We drove home. Over the next 24 hours, though, it started to bug me: I was 30 and impatient and someone else knew more about my baby than I did. Something seemed wrong with that.

So the next day I got in my car and drove the 40 minutes back up to the doctor's office. The waiting room was empty and when the smell of pizza hit me I almost turned around to make sure I'd walked into the right pace. But even fertility doctors need to eat lunch. The staff was in the office behind the little glass doors gathered around an open pizza box, chatting happily with grease on their fingers and faces. I startled them when I knocked on the window.

I slid open the window and pushed my ultrasound photo toward Dr. Lang. "I can't stand it. I have to know." He smiled; he knew I'd break.

After he pointed out the gender evidence I managed to thank him and leave the office with some dignity before completely breaking down in the hallway. I mean, I collapsed onto a bench and sobbed. It wasn't that I didn't want a boy; a boy would be wonderful! But now that I knew, I'd suffered a loss: my child could no longer be both boy and girl.

Sweet anticipation. I've been thinking about this lately. We hear a lot about people in our society who suffer from an inability to delay gratification—they want something, and they want it now. One imagines holiday gatherings across America that last all of five minutes, with wrappings ripped open and cast aside en masse so that the contents can be revealed.

Not me. My favorite moments in life are just before the knowing. The moment when the mail could offer a contract instead of a rejection. The moment just before you taste, when it is still possible this is the best meal you've ever cooked in your life. The moment just after you answer the phone and that same sweet baby, fully male and fully grown, just might be calling to say he got the lead in the musical or straight A's instead of "my bumper fell off" or "I lost my iPhone." The instant right before you walk through the door that may or may not change your life.

If this makes me sound like a hopeless dreamer, I've given the wrong impression. I want to live in the real world. I treasure the nitty-gritty, down-and-dirty. I want to be there for my kids when they suffer setbacks, and am grateful they have a clear gender identity. I can handle the fact that every single meal will not be the best I've ever tasted.

But I am sensitive to the joy in moments that are pregnant with possibility, in which many potential outcomes co-exist. In those moments, which are among the sweetest in my life, I've got the whole world in my hands.

So now that I've laid the appropriate groundwork, I'm going to...

[Who knows? Only in retrospect will my actions be limited by fact. Until then, the sky's the limit!]