I spent several hours yesterday, writing about my childhood. I practiced with a style of writing about oneself in the third person, finding inspiration from the many books by Alice Hoffman, which I have been listening to as I ride public transit, walk through the forest, and move through the many moments of my day that bring me outside of my home.
I chose different names for my younger sibling and me. I don’t know how or if this made a difference, but I was able to sit quietly at my kitchen table for more than an hour as words poured out of me and onto the written page.
Perhaps, giving myself a different name allowed me some distance between the person sitting at the table writing and the unfolding of childhood events. In some ways, writing in the third person makes perfect sense to me. I feel a kind of detachment when I think about my childhood, as if I am reflecting on the life of another person. I have lived in so many places in my life and done so many things. I don’t quite imagine my one being as the culmination of all of these rippling events, emotions, and relationships. Rather, each époque of my life feels like it belongs to another separate person. That person even looks like someone else when I review my life in photographs from different times and places.
Yesterday, I sat and wrote about Lille and her young sibling, Annie. I wrote for a long time until I wasn’t sure what to write next. I shared the piece my cousin and my husband, anxious for feedback.
Did the story feel authentic? Was it any good? Did the third person perspective draw you in?
It was certainly very visual, my husband replied.
Hmm. Good visual?
Yes, he said. I could feel the tension.
I think you might start with an event, draw the reader in with that tension right away.
Instead of starting with stated facts?
Yeah. Try writing something real.
In the pages that had poured out of me, I had written that I wasn’t even certain if many of my childhood memories were real. My parents had told me so many stories in such vivid detail and I had pored over photographs of me as a child so many times that my memories seemed to belong to someone else; certainly not to me.
As I walked with my white wolf dog through the forest in the quiet, grey Sunday morning, I thought about the events of my childhood.
Something real, I mused.
The first real memory that came to me was one from when I just have been very young; my dad dropping me off at preschool. This memory had been so powerfully embedded in my inner being that I had shared it as my first story that would become a song in my nascent beginnings as a songwriter.
I have a kind of blurred image of being in a basement. I can see the stairs, at least the first few steps before the staircase turned a corner at a hard right angle. I remember looking up to a tiny rectangular window and waiting, heart in my throat. There was pavement just beyond the window. In my memory, I can see the shimmery surface of the blacktop of the parking beside the building that house the preschool. Maybe it had just rained? A parking lot was next to the building. Finally, a figure knelt down by the window, and a hand waved.
I can recall a feeling of relief cascading over me. This feeling quickly dissipated when my dad would stand up and walk away from the window. I have the feeling that I inhaled the moment he left and did not exhale until he reappeared, a few moments later, kneeling down and waving to me once again.
This action was repeated several times until the space beyond the window remained empty. It was only then that I cried as if my heart could not be mended.
I must have survived and carried on with my day, but I don’t remember. I have only snippets of these memories, the real ones that belong to me alone.
Who was that little girl? Was she really me, an earlier version of the same person? Does she even exist outside of that one moment? Since I can hardly remember her – what she looked like and what she saw when she looked at herself in the mirror, what she felt like in her own skin – she doesn’t seem very real. In some ways, she was more real to the adults who watched her grow and change.
Even as an adult, I have this feeling that I am a new person every day. So much happens over the course of a day, week, month, and year. These events, and my responses to them, shape the person I become in their wake.
Like a snake shedding its skin, I peel away layers of myself, which then become part of the energy that comprises a reality outside of my own being, separate but still connected to me in that it holds some essence of who I was in a particular moment in space. If I could hang each shed layer on the wall in a row, a date written beside it, it would be like a personal timeline. No photographs, just my skin.
So there it is. Something real that feels partially imagined. Perhaps, this is the stuff of life itself: real and not real at the same time.
In Buddhism, it is only the present moment that is real. The past and the future serve only to imprison the mind into eternal suffering.
“How long is it going to take us to wake up to the fact that we have nothing but moments, to live?” wrote Jon Kabat-Zinn (2006) in Mindfulness for beginners.
“You’ve never seen this moment before. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one.”
The Buddhists also seem to spend a great deal of time practicing the art of cultivating awareness, of being fully awake. It is through this practice that one is truly able to be present, alive and immersed in each moment.
Perhaps, it is for this reason that so many earlier versions of myself do not seem real. I was not awake, not really. I was going through the motions, working very hard to please other people, ignoring the cries from my inner Self until it had all but disappeared.
Somehow, I was shaken awake. I think it began when I looked into a set of beautiful blue eyes on my first day as a doctoral student. Everything else became possible from that moment, from my realization that to truly create balance and sustainability in the world one needed to begin with the Self to leaving my first husband, quitting many jobs, and moving more than seven times in the span of two years.
I wouldn’t say that I am necessarily happy in this period of awakening, but I am getting there. There is no magical recipe for joy, though my husband does more than hint that happiness is all a mindset. I know this is in response to the many components of our current life in Belgium, which I regularly bemoan.
If you are feeling frustrated about something, try to think of something you are grateful for, he suggested to me the other day when I was complaining about having to wait for 17 minutes in the cold between buses.
Ok, I responded. I am grateful for public transit; I just don’t enjoy it.
That does not sound like gratitude.
The truth is that I really am grateful. I feel moments of deep gratitude every day: the brief glimpse of the sun through the clouds (sometimes less than 10 seconds in this very grey winter we have been experiencing); the quiet of the night in our little corner of Boitsfort by the forest (and the absence of the always loud, oblivious existence of our neighbor in our first apartment in Brussels); the increasing braveness of the cat who lives in our backyard, who has begun to spend nights curled up in a ball on the wicker trunk in our bedroom and has even had the courage to jump up onto the bed while we are “asleep.”
When I sit and meditate each night, if I take a moment to recall all of the gifts in my life, I find that there are many, far more than the difficulties, perhaps. At least, the gifts seem more meaningful and worthwhile to focus on than the other. In truth, I spend far more time noting the discrepancies and annoyances than I do giving thanks for everything else.
It all matters so very much (at least, it sure feels like it matters in the heat of the moment), and none it matters. This is the stuff of life. It’s all as real and important as we make it.
So, my practice is to ground into gratitude and to exist in the present moment as much as possible. The sun has once more come shining through the windows as I bring this piece to a close. Even with the shower of rain falling at the same time (or because of it?) it’s beautiful. Joy that comes on the heels of pain.
Happy Sunday. Happy moment to you all.