Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Checking in: Who am I?

I'm currently seeking representation for a novel in which a professional dancer with body image issues must re-imagine her life after a devastating blow to her career is followed by a mysterious accident that leaves her unable to move. At one point, in the hospital, my protagonist concludes,
The harsh truth: without movement, I didn’t know who I was.

I thought about this, holed up as I was with a fractured ankle in a camp that still echoed with vibrant memory. The running footsteps of my youth (my mother: "You better have washed the pine needles off your feet!") and slamming screen doors (my grandmother, now: "Quick girls, the bats!") had been replaced with an eerie stillness. Although this place had made me feel more "me" than any other setting I'd known in my life, my new immobility allowed the dissociation my character spoke of to set in. Floating free from my writing and editing in a sea of pain medication, as out on the lake other Labor Day kayakers and swimmers reveled in summer's last rays, I felt like driftwood of an unspecified nature.

I have always been sensitive to the way change, especially when unanticipated, can challenge your very sense of who you are. A move to a new state in sixth grade, the loss of a beloved cousin while I was in college, my fertility struggle, my first husband's suicide—in the parlance of story structure these are inciting incidents: unexpected forces that tip a character out of her everyday world and that forge within her a desire to create a new reality.

Why a new reality? If you had a good life, why not just wait things out until I could get it back again? After Ron's suicide, at a meeting of Parents Without Partners, a man asked me just that. "Why are you working so hard at this?" he said, after I'd mentioned the therapy I'd sought. "He did this to you. It's not your fault!" He literally shook with anger, as if my choice to heal implied he might be culpable in his own divorce.

My rationale then was the same as it was fourteen years later, after my ankle fracture: why voluntarily return to a world in which such frightening circumstance was possible? While change is capricious and inevitable, I'd rather hedge my bets and reach for a life with different challenges rather than take another spin through the hell I'd already been through. Otherwise I'd feel as doomed as Sisyphus, rolling that rock back up the hill, over and over.

As a result I'm a rather voracious healer. I do not sit well with a disrupted sense of self; I can't muster the hope that time will knit my soul back together as tidily as it will the bones in my ankle. I'm more proactive than that. But a seeker needs motion. How could I rebuild my sense of self as a lively mid-lifer while stumping through the camp with a walker, each step taking such a toll? I'd hoped that "Kathryn Craft + walker" was a good three or four decades down the road.

The universe offered a grace of timing: by Friday night my sons, ages 22 and 24, already scheduled to spend Labor Day weekend at the lake, were on their way.

Their bed-head appearance late Saturday morning made it seem like the stork himself had dropped them off during the wee hours. At once I knew how much I needed their beautiful familiarity; I was more off-balance than even I had realized.

This was the first summer I'd been at the lake without my dad, whose spirit was evident everywhere but whose physical presence was sorely missed. I'd spent all summer with my mother, with whom I'd always had a trying relationship, but who needed me now that her short-term memory was fluttering to a halt. I'd fractured myself: at the same time struggling to catch up with my own interrupted work, I'd wrapped my life once again around her needs. Her dementia's constant assault on my sense of what was real and true knocked me as far off-balance as Hurricane Irene had, and now I had only one leg with which to right myself.

But in watching Marty glide over the water beside Dave in a vessel my Uncle Bob had bequeathed him, or listening to Jackson and his girlfriend enact the tireless debate on which is the best way to build a fire, the camp sprang to a most familiar life.

When my dad's sister left the lake this year—at 92 the only remaining Graham of that generation—she gave me a check for $50 with the instruction to purchase something for the camp in memory of my father. To that end my mother and I had purchased the Jack Graham Memorial Barbecue Grill to replace its dangerously rusted predecessor, at which my Dad had distractedly lorded over many an overcooked hamburger. On Labor Day I couldn't see, from my perch in the camp, my sons out at the grill. But knowing they were out there with chocolate bars, the old marshmallow forks ("Mom—here's a perfect marshmallow for you, golden brown!"), and my favorite—the graham crackers—I reclaimed a core aspect of self.

I am Kathryn, of the Grahams, and through me, tradition lives on.


Jerry Waxler said...

Dear Lord, Kathryn, who could have known when you named this blog "Healing Through Writing" how true and important that activity would become!? It sounds like writing has been instrumental in your journey through this difficult period, and I think you have put your finger exactly on the pulse that makes good self-reporting so visceral and immediate. This single question "who am I" is at the heart of much of what we do through life, and it's easy when things are going well to pooh-pooh it as existential, but when it hits, it can hit hard, and I can't think of any answer better than "I am this story." Great work! Thanks for sharing it.

Memory Writers Network

Kathryn Craft said...

Thanks, Jerry. Ever since I started Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way--wow, almost 20 years ago now--I knew what power writing held for me. That's the known. Life is the unknown! I appreciate that you truly get what I'm doing. Thanks for your comment.