The shape of it

by Jennifer on November 1, 2010

She sits across the table from me, her head bent low, an arm shielding her paper. The top of her marker twirls and swoops like a figure skater carving a pattern in the ice. It’s all I can see for her effort. What she draws is a secret, and I’m bound by solemn vow not to peek.

She sets down her marker and looks over her work, satisfied. And with hands that grow ever closer to mine in size, she turns the drawing so that I can see it. “Look what I made for you, Mommy.”

Her picture is a gift, but it’s beribboned with hope. Do you see it, what I drew? And I do. The girls, their flouncy dresses, the dog. Plain as day. (It wasn’t always so – there were years of toddler and preschool drawings where it could have gone either way. Ohhh, of course that’s a giraffe, baby.)

I thank her and tell her what I like about the drawing. She feels content, validated. Her work was understood.

She does what I’ve been afraid to do lately and it’s the heart of any art – and writing, in particular – that has ever had its way with me. Here, look. Do you see it? Do you recognize the shape of this?

I think I’ve figured out this much, though: It’s not just a writing thing. It’s a telling thing.

Those of you who know me well are familiar with the circumstances that brought me to this point. It’s a basket of crazy that’s loaves-and-fishes in its ability to keep replicating long after you think it you must be at the end of it.

Over the years, I’ve yielded to the pressure not to tell certain things. I’ve bent under the weight of shame, of compromised values, of fear. There were things I have wanted to write; I will probably still hold back a lot of it. My kids might read this someday, so I want to be careful about their privacy. That’s as it should be. The result was that I haven’t written about some of the really difficult things.

But it’s not that. Or it’s not just that. (Bear with me, I’m working this out as I go along.) I’ve stayed away from here for all sorts of reasons. These months have been a logjam (that’s one word) of lawyers and revisions and posturing and wrangling and flat out despair. Of waiting. Waiting. Waiting. We finally worked out a parenting agreement and it should have felt like an enormous relief, but it didn’t. I mean, it is a relief. But that’s like coming out of a boxing match and the judges calling it a draw. I still can’t get over how so many of you find a way to write beautiful words when you’re in the middle of hard times, but I couldn’t find a way to do that. I couldn’t shake the feeling, either, that I should have tried harder. That maybe it would have changed the face of those months, and even more so, might have helped someone else. (I’m hard on myself. I know.)

The fact was, I couldn’t think beyond the paralysis I was feeling.

But here’s the thing: It’s not about what I wrote or didn’t write over these last ten years or ten months. It’s about what I’m going to do next. In a few days, I’ll be 42 years old. Not a milestone, but it feels like a double-dog-dare in some way, especially when echoed by  this big change in my life that I’ve been trying to size up. What are you going to do now? they both seem to say.

I read something a few months ago, something one of my new favorite writers – C. E. Morgan, author of All the Livingsaid in an interview:

“I don’t think of my writing as a job. I think of it as a vocation. . . Vocation is tied up with notions of service, and as a young artist you serve people by giving them your best, the work you produce that you truly believe to be of value.”

Vocation. Service.

As surely as if a needle and thread stitched them there, her words embroidered themselves into my writing self. I’ve gone back many times over the last few months to run my fingers over the shape of those words, memorizing them. I knew there was something I had been missing as I tried to sort out who the hell would care if I did something else instead of writing. I could tend shop or process insurance payments (I’ll have to work at something to pay the rent, in any case) and never write another word and history wouldn’t give a tiny rat’s ass about that.  But. I would care. My hard-wiring makes me care. I need to feel of use, and nothing makes me feel more useful than when I write something and one of you says, “You said what I’ve been feeling.” That’s my turn-on in this life, maybe the biggest one.

In my hesitancy to write, in my doubt, by sitting in the dark with all the lights off, I have been serving exactly no one. Not myself, for sure. And not you. I can make all the excuses I want. I can spread the reasons out on a table and you could pick just one and it would be enough for you to reassure me that I’ve been more than justified to sit quiet.

By nature,  I don’t like drawing attention to myself. At a party, I can hold up this wall quite nicely, thankyouverymuch. If I were to tell you  one of the truest things about me,  it’s that I have always felt a need to apologize for my existence, something that probably goes back as far as my first few years. I don’t want to be any trouble. I don’t want to impose. Which is at odds with using my voice to say true things, things that matter, and loudly enough for them to be heard.

It’s the thing I walk around to get anywhere. It’s the thing I write around when I should write through it, when I should lay it open with all its beautiful scars, all the smooth round stones among the jagged ones. The violets tucked up against the brambles.

It’s  maybe even selfish, how I’ve turned inward, because it denies that I am part of a shared experience with the rest of the world. It closes me off from learning which things about my life look similar to yours. Do you recognize the shape of this? I know that many of you would, or will, and do, when I write it.

Not long after I read the C. E. Morgan interview, I was reading a post by Kyran Pittman* on her blog, Notes to Self. She said something similar, and beautiful (go read the whole post – it’s worth your time):

Writing is a service vocation…It’s about adding something to one person’s day: what author Dan Pink calls “leaving an imprint.” …The beautiful thing–the sling-and-arrow-proof part of it–is that you don’t have to wait on anyone else’s okay to accomplish that. If you have a blog, and you have even a few regular readers, embrace them as your tribe. Write for the people who’ve already given you the honor of their attention. As if they were the most important, influential readership you’ll ever have. As if it were sacred. They are. It is.

That, I get. That matters to me. You matter to me.

I think what’s been trying to work itself up and through the soil, is this: It’s time to get the hell out of my own way and to write what there is to say. The difficult things, the pretty things. It’s time to claim this life (past, present, future) that I have, even if it looks like that one battered suitcase that’s been circling the carousel. It’s mine. Oh, yes, it is.

I’ve carried it around for years. Lord knows what’s inside, but I know where it’s been. And I know the shape of it.

And maybe, when I show you what’s inside, you’ll recognize it, too.

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*Kyran’s memoir, Planting Dandelions: Field Notes From a Semi-Domesticated Life will be published by Riverhead Books next year.

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