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.


Fern J. Hill said...

Beautifully expressed metaphor, Kathryn. I found it inciteful.
Fern J. Hill

Author of Charley's Choice: The Life
and Times of Charley Parkhurst a
fictional biography about a well-respected,
one-eyed stagecoach driver during the
California gold rush era who, upon death,
was found to be a woman and one-time mother.

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Amy said...

Kathryn, I'm speachless from this entry. So so beautiful. :)