Happy New Year! I’ve missed you. Although the holidays have been good (really good, better than they’ve been in quite a long time) I’ve been missing a lot of people lately. People like these two:
A few weeks ago, I read a stunning essay in the New York Times Magazine, with a line that stopped me: “The writer Joy Williams once observed in a novel that children vanish without dying.” Of course, I thought first of my own children, and all the different versions of them that have vanished and that I miss.
But then I was putting together a photo calendar for my parents, filled with pictures of our little family from the days when we were all living and growing together, and I found myself missing those earlier versions of all of us, who have also vanished without dying.
In the swirl of those feelings, and a birthday, and the holidays, and thoughts about love and loss and passing years, I began listening to Erin Morgenstern’s The Starless Sea, a complex, twisty tale that plays with ideas about time and story. Early on, the narrator tells us, “A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.” In the novel, time is sometimes non-linear, and different characters experience it differently, even as their stories intersect. When I had fewer years of living under the belt of my life, I would have seen the idea of non-linear time as one that could exist only in the realm of fantasy, but lately, maybe especially because of the holidays, I’ve been feeling like a bit of a time traveler, living sometimes in the past, sometimes in the future, and sometimes in a time out of time–which makes notions of endings and beginnings fuzzy. Calendar years, with time divided into boxes and categorized by numbers, are full of arbitrary divisions that have meaning–if, indeed, they have meaning–only because we have given it to them.
In important ways, the children in the photos above are as present for me as the adults they have all become, even though I can no longer hold them on my lap and my brother and I are long past any lap-sitting days of our own. I miss all the early versions of all of us even as I still have them with me. The girl who sat on my mother’s lap is the mother who held my daughter on hers, and all three of us–my mother, my daughter, myself–are still able to exist corporeally in the same space, today. The years are both far away and close enough to touch; decades expand and contract depending upon how I am looking at them at any given point in time.
And reality, or truth, or story? Those can be as malleable as time, too. I may not be able to write new chapters in my story with those versions of us that have vanished, but I can revise the ones already lived. Or, maybe, I can write alternate ones.
For years, this was a photo of fault:
That’s me, 5 decades ago. First grade. It is the only school photo my mother didn’t buy the 8×10 version of. She said it was a bad picture because I wasn’t smiling.
Although I don’t remember her blaming me, I remember feeling at fault for her disappointment with the image. I knew I’d made a choice to be unsmiling. I wasn’t sad or incapable of smiling, and I understood that smiling was expected. But I was pissed. And I was damned if I was going to give the photographer who angered me the satisfaction of my smile. I hadn’t understood that denying him satisfaction would also take some from my mother.
Later, when I was able to explain to her why I had been angry, this became a story not about my willful failure to be pleasing, but about the cuteness of my righteousness. I was angry because the photographer combed my hair, even after I’d told him I didn’t want him to. Such a trivial thing to get upset about, right? And so, wasn’t that pouty face of mine cute? The story became a funny one, about a stubborn little girl. There was some admiration of my spunk in the telling of it, but “spunk” isn’t a word we attach to anything very serious.
Now, I look at that photo and I see a girl at the beginning of a story she didn’t know was beginning. I see a girl at the beginning of losing her sense of knowing. She knew that she should get to control who touched her. She knew that if you tell someone you don’t want to be touched, it is a violation if they touch you anyway. She knew that it didn’t matter if the person doing the ignoring and the touching was older or male or in a position of authority. She knew how to express her anger about the violation.
She didn’t know, though, that she was at the beginning of a story of losing her sense of knowing, about so many things, and that it would be decades before enough others would tell stories of their knowing about touch and consent that she would finally believe the truth of her knowing back then, in the beginning.
I miss that vanished girl, but she still lives. She’s still me. Or, at least, she’s still in me. I can still feel what she felt, if I travel back in time, a journey that feels both swift and impossibly long. And her story is still unfolding.
Last week, on the subject of new year’s resolutions, a friend told me that he is more inclined toward affirmations. I wasn’t sure what he meant. I’m still not, but the notion has been rattling around in my head in the form of a question:
What do I want to affirm in the coming year?
Even though I find calendar years an arbitrary marker of time, knowing as I do that stories can and do begin every day, I appreciate the chance that our annual marker of a new year gives us to reflect and set intentions. Last year, I created a vision statement of sorts, a list of things I wanted to keep or bring into my life. This list became something I returned to again and again as the days of the year unfolded. Many times when I found myself feeling conflicted or frustrated or sad or meh, I returned to my list, and it always provided clarity and a direction for moving through the feeling and the events creating it.
It was through the list that I came to a new understanding last fall. In the face of a large disappointment in a situation I’d worked hard to improve, I decided that the only way to have many of the things on my list was to stop doing things because I felt I should and only do things I wanted to do. That felt all kinds of (perhaps) selfish and (potentially) unkind, but I concluded it was what I needed to do if I was going to realize my vision.
That decision immediately raised a question I had to consider over and over again, almost daily:
What do I want to do?
Not, What should I do? or What’s best to do? or What will happen if I…? Or, How will ____ feel if I…? Just, What do I want to do?
Often, I didn’t know. I realized it’s a question I’m not used to asking, and I was so out of practice I didn’t really know how to answer it much of the time. To just inquire about want–and not interrogate the want to determine if it (me) is right, wrong, good, bad, healthy or not, as well as what the likely outcomes of acting on it might be–was something I probably began to stop doing back when I was a little girl and learned that I needed to smile if my image was to be worth keeping large and that my boundaries weren’t important in the face of more powerful others’ determinations of my needs.
The more I began asking the question within the situation that sparked it, the more I began doing it in other ones, too. Although stopping at my answers and never considering any other questions would be a short path to becoming a narcissistic jerk, I think the question is one we all need to center in the process of making decisions about how we will live.
In another book I’m reading right now, Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski’s Burnout, the authors write about the importance of being able to hear the voice inside us that tells us what is right and wrong, harmful and safe, and how difficult it can be for all of us, but especially women, to listen to that voice and act upon it. There are so many other ones clamoring all around us, full of ideas about what it means to have discipline, grit, strength, and faith. About what we need to find and keep acceptance, safety, and love.
It is especially hard, I think, when we don’t have words or frameworks to name what we know in ways that make sense to ourself and others, as it was for the girl I once was who knew it was wrong for a strange man to touch her hair against her wishes.
As we all move past the artificial marker of time that is a new year (a new decade!) I am realizing that what I want to affirm is the question that emerged from me over the past year (what do I want?) and the importance of asking it. I want to affirm that girl who knew what she did (and, maybe more importantly, didn’t) want–and controlled in the situation the only thing she had control over: herself. I want to keep her from vanishing by living my/our way toward a satisfying ending to the story she didn’t know was beginning, one in which she knows without doubt what is right and what she needs.
Wishing all of you who read here a year of stories full of good things that are right and true for you.