In high school I was told to choose. And each of the tellers told me to chose the thing that was theirs:
Sister Mary Judith said to choose writing
Sister Mary Thomas said to choose music
Sister Mary Dominica said to choose fine art
Sister Josephine said to choose fashion design
You MUST choose this one, each said. This is your gift, each said.
I said no. Was it the best answer? I guess I’ll never know, but I knew in my gut it’s the only answer I could give.
I saw each as one of my children. How do I choose one, and leave the others, orphaned?
How do I nurture one, and leave the others fallow? It was the craziest idea I’d ever heard. But I was just a kid, what did I know? These were brides of Christ telling me to do this. But I couldn’t.
First of all, as I now know, what the creative well is filled with is beyond my control. It is a central space whose energy flows through me. I cannot dictate to the well how it is to express itself. I can only say “yes” to whatever shows up.
I am not the boss of it. I am the steward; the guardian. It is up to me to facilitate, not to dictate.
In my adult life, there are creative threads that have expanded; writing grew to — not only prose or poetry, but a career in songwriting. Design grew to — not just fashion design — but a career in interior design. Music grew to a career as a vocalist. I guess you could say my ‘children’ had ‘children’ of their own.
I sometimes wonder if this is just me, not wanting to “settle down” with something that could organize my life in a way that some would call “adult.” But when that thought comes to mind, the counter argument is always there to ask me, which of your creative ‘children’ would you have abandoned in favor of others?
The answer is, I cannot choose. I have not chosen. They choose me. Even now, in my dotage, I do not regret saying “YES” to all of them.
I was a child of the sixties, and grew up in a household centered around the Holy Catholic Church and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. My parents were children of the Great Depression; they learned that life means do without, stretch a dollar, work hard, and drink harder. I was their first child, born to them when they were still young, tragically beautiful, and very much in love. When I was a little girl I would shyly study my mother’s face … her wide eyes, long eyelashes, full red lips. She was clearly a movie star in hiding. I wondered what she was doing in this little life, in this house on North Marion Street, with its linoleum kitchen floor and one parched sapling in the front yard. Even at five, I knew she’d been miscast. Through the years, five more babies, and alcoholic chaos, it became an undeniable fact: my mother belonged in a different movie.
As the oldest daughter, I took on the job of laugh inducing peacemaker. Lots of oldest daughters have that role. My brother, two years younger, was mother’s tenderhearted caretaker. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. Nothing will bond siblings like friendly fire. It’s a sort of hellish, heartbreaking love that no one else knows. No one. But at the time, it was our family’s brand of ‘normal,’ so imagine my surprise when, years later, I learned that some families have no foxhole at all.
I lurched through the decades, reinventing myself over and over, determined to be whoever those claiming to love me told me I was. It took over forty years, and one spectacular betrayal for me to stop, and turn my attention to the whisper of truth. It was there all along, but I hadn’t heard it before, because I wasn’t ready. Not only had I become ready, I threw up the white flag of surrender. I’d run out of things to try, people to be. And I was exhausted.. All I had left was me. When I finally gave into myself, it felt like declaring bankruptcy.
I remember the date. May 12, 1991. My attorney’s call that morning woke me up. She was calling to let me know the divorce was final. She’d used the word, “Congratulations.” I got off the phone, and laid in bed, waiting. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought surely I would feel … something. Relief? Excitement, maybe? All I got was silence. I threw off the covers, walked into the bathroom, and stared in the mirror. I looked into my own eyes, searching for … someone. Who will I be now? I whispered. I had no idea.
Ever since I was a tiny girl, there’s been … something … like a tiny thread … woven deep inside me. Piled over with years of Catholic school, alcoholic parents, sweet babies, abusive marriage, broken dreams … you’d think that thread would have broken, or suffocated, or disintegrated. It never did.
Like a flower finding its way to the sun through a crack in the stone, that shimmering little strand found its way back to me.
The very thing I feared would be most difficult has become easy, feels natural. Coming home to myself is simple, and honest. I am moving back toward the center of someone I’ve always known. It warms my heart, settles my belly, and brings perspective into sharp focus. I know where home is now. And I see that I was right here all the time.
Things in my life are the way they are, based on every choice I’ve made. They laid a road, end to end, that brought be here to this table today. Good or bad, for better or worse, here I sit; my greasy hair under a ball cap, my thoughts scattered and the censor in my brain telling me that what I’m writing now is not worth a damn.
I get sick of hearing my own voice tell my own stories. Are other people as sick of it as I am? I don’t want to write cute, or clever. As Hemingway says, write real, about what hurts. I’ve kerfed around the edges of the pain for years, never hitting it dead center. I guess that’s real if you’re digging a trench, but I’m sort of stuck down here, looking for truth. And trying to dig my way out.
I could write about birds. But then my brain goes to the parakeet we had at 1135 South Quaker. My mother named it Perry Como. He was blue, with black wing tips, and a spot of lime green between his eyes. Thinking of him now I can smell his birdseed and that cage with the newspapers in the bottom.
When they let Perry out of that cage, he flew up and sat on the curtain rods. Every time he flew his wings made a loud flapping sound that scared my little brother.
Sometimes my mother would open Perry’s cage door, and wait. When my brother came walking through the livingroom, suddenly Perry would swoop down. My brother would scream and dive under the table, clutching the legs and sobbing. My mother raised her eyebrows, took a drag off her cigarette, and laughed. That taught me some pretty twisted things about how people treat those they claim to love. So yeah … count that little nugget as a lob to the center of the pain from the trenches.
Or maybe I could write about being a teenager. And dating.
Maybe I could write about the night a boy came to pick me up, and he had a long fringe of bangs. My little sisters peaked around the door giggling, “It’s a Beatle!” My Dad growled, “Is that your hair, boy, or is that a wig?”
Or I could write about another time my date arrived to take me to the school dance. He drove his car, parked, and my Dad drove us to school in our ’51 two door Pontiac. The two door thing is relevant because my date and my Dad sat in the front, I climbed into the back. In my formal. The thing I’ll never forget is the hood ornament. It was a glowing orange Indian Chief. I locked my eyes on that thing all the way to school, trying to ignore the awkward silence.
Maybe I could write about the faith, and the sense of humor, that have carried me on angel wings through the darkest of days, the brokenest of hearts. How, even in those moments … my date with the Beatles hair, me sitting in the back seat of that car … even then, in the recesses of my mind, I knew: “this is the rich stuff of which stories are made. I will write about this one day.”
Maybe today, sitting here at this table, wearing my ballcap, is that time.
A recent checklist:
Have you locked in on who you were put here to be?
Are you accomplishing all that you were put here to accomplish?
How much longer is your life’s to-do list?
How’s that memoir coming?
Will your work projects pay off?
What will be written on your grave marker?
Will you have a grave marker?
Will your grands know how much you loved them?
Will you have made a difference in any positive way?
What is the one thing, if you had to choose, that you’d want to be remembered for?
How will your children carry on once you’re gone?
What will happen to your writing?
What will happen to your artwork?
What will happen to your design work?
Once you’re gone, will you even care about any of this?
Questions that, once posed, tend to send me into one of two places: a deep and thoughtful period, or a moment of ironic flippancy where I say, “Who cares about that? I can only handle ‘now’.”
And really, those questions generally pop up only when I’m down. And I’m down so seldom that I had to conjure to bring them up at all.
I keep my eyes on the horizon, and my heart in Gilead. My path is my testimony, marked by my feet, which I put one in front of the other each day.
It is a varied, and a beautiful life. Trouble? Yes, we see trouble all around us. But we are not the trouble itself. No one is. We are the very love we seek; we are the center and the stillpoint of this amazing planet. And what we focus on increases. Think about that.
So, as I look back on this list of questions I raise, I can quietly and with blessed assurance say,
“It is too soon to tell. But I’ve read the Book. I know how this ends.
“And it is beautiful.”
Another year has come … and gone. I’m on the fifth day of “next year;” it feels good to have a full tank of gas.
That’s what I call it when a Birthday arrives. The month sliding into my natal day typically finds me “running on fumes.” Through the years I’ve observed that I’m usually a little scatterbrained during that time, forget where I put things or what I’m talking about. Yeah, that can happen any time of year, but it becomes a several-times-daily occurrence during February and most of March. My wheels get loose and jangly, and I careen a bit from side to side. Until March twenty-one.
Somehow I picture myself on that auspicious day, jumping out of bed, backlit. Looking good in spandex. Doesn’t happen quite that way.
This year I spent the entire day in my robe and slippers. It’s a fairly new robe, quite cozy, and the weather was spitting snow in the morning, freezing cold, so … it seemed a good choice. And I thought a lot that day about life, and Birthdays, and what they are. What they mean.
I know some people don’t think Birthdays are a big deal. But I love celebrating other people’s Birthdays. I’m responding to the day they arrived on the planet. I’m saying, “I am cheering that you were born, and that you’re in my life. And every year, on this day, I get to say ‘YAY’ to you!” In this world of automated distance between us all, to me that’s more important than ever.
I saw a story the other day about a man who was celebrating his 105th Birthday. There were people crowded around him as he sat in his chair, wearing his military cap. He was staring at the inferno of a Birthday cake on the table in front of him, and grinning from ear to ear. That man has experienced things I can’t even imagine. He has a lifetime of stories to tell, and I hope there are people he can tell them to. They will be richer for it.
We bear a growing wealth of knowledge, the longer we’re here. None of us know everything. But those of us who pay attention, we know a lot. And much of what we know won’t launch a rocket … but it will settle a fussy child, comfort an old dog, feed a family of eight on one potato and one onion. Plant and tend a garden; use a remedy from that garden to heal a sick one.
It feels good to become “one of those” to whom some turn, seeking comfort, or knowledge, or aid. I have more to give than ever, because I’ve never been here longer than I have today. And with each day that comes, I pray I am open to know more, that I learn new things, and that I have opportunities to share what I know and who I am with any and all who seek it out.
For through wisdom your days will be many, and years will be added to your life. [Proverbs 9:11]
It’s a grey Monday, and I’m ‘working at writing’ in a session with Amy Lyles Wilson, my editor. I say ‘my editor,’ because that sounds very official, doesn’t it? And she is my editor; she’s also a dear, trusted, and longstanding friend. The fact is, I’m not sure how a writer/editor relationship could work otherwise.
It’s a courageous thing, writing. As Hemingway says, ‘There’s nothing to writing; all you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.’ That’s the long and the short if it, right there.
The first draft of my book is finished. Yes, I deliberately “buried the lead” here. Because I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. I’ll tell you this: it was with a weary, a relieved, and an ultimately dispassionate resolve that I finally finished that draft. And I’m a bit nervous about all the soul bearing stuff I wrote down in those 177 pages. I’d like to change my mind about some of it. But that would require a rewriting of my little piece of history. Truth lives on those pages, for better or for worse. Now, all I can do is breathe.
Writing is an excavation of the heart. When it’s about your own life, about how you got to here from there, it is a staunch enterprise. There are days — many — when you’re riddled with the thought that nobody could possibly be interested. Why would they care? Why am I doing this? But you continue on determined to, at the very least, finish what you started.
And so, you do. It might take twenty three years. You might, in 1995, get an official invite-to-submit from a major New York agent and knock yourself out writing enough to send her a sample. You might even get a letter back, saying she loves your work, that it feels “introductory,” and to please send more when your book is further along.
It’s March, 2018. That letter is in my file drawer. Wonder if she’s still interested.
The fact is, we all have stories. Amy’s slugline on her website is, “It’s the sharing of our stories that saves us.” And nothing could be more true. The funny stories, the heartbreaking stories, the stories that, when the readers read them, make their eyes well up or their hair catch fire … the hard stories.
The stories that don’t want to be written; the ones hiding in the shadows. THOSE are the stories we must write. And that’s what I’ve done.
There are more stories from different periods in my life that may need telling, if only for my children. Stories of my own childhood. Stories of my dreams, what they were, when some of them were abandoned, and why. For whom. And the resulting life that came after. The fact that, in this one lifetime, I’ve lived what could be classified as three distinct incarnations.
I’m in the third incarnation now, and closer to the end than I’ve ever been. With each passing day I pray, and wonder, and hope, and love. Even at this age, I feel the same creative passion and zest for life that I felt in my twenties. Those of you reading this who aren’t yet where I am, you’ll be here one day; you’ll think of this passage and realize the truth in what I’m saying to you now.
So yes, it’s a grey day of writing, and we’re here at this table, doing just that. I wouldn’t be here at all if I had no story to tell. The thing is, we all have stories inside us, wanting to be told. Let’s write them down. It may, indeed, be what saves us after all.