My Narrative is Mine

“A feminist is any woman who tells the truth about her life.”

—Virginia Woolf

Don’t let someone else interpret your narrative. Recently, another writer told me (my apologies for not remembering who it was) that “writing is a way to get the narrative to be your narrative.” I don’t want anyone else to tell my life story. I get to do that. Just like no one else gets to be the main character of my story. You do you and let me do me. 

GOSSIP

This is exactly why writing matters. We all have a story. In my experience, there are many people who believe they have the right to tell the stories of others. That’s called gossip. It also reminds me of the adage that “history is written by the winners.” Let’s tell the truth. Let’s stick with our own stories. 

I need to tell my story because I want to be understood; because I don’t want others to fail the way I failed; because I want to help others in the way I know how; because I want to understand both myself and the larger world. I try to take the ugly parts of life and make something beautiful from them. We all need to tell our own narratives because we are human beings and it is our very essence, sharing stories.

SILENCE & SICKNESS

Too often I have been forced to choose between silence and expending an inordinate amount of energy to be heard. It can be exhausting. Sometimes what takes the most energy is remaining calm, holding my breath, thinking carefully about my words and demanding quiet attention. Too often, I have lacked such self-control. 

As women we are practiced in holding in thoughts, feelings, ideas until they build up and fester into a physical representation of that frustration. In the meantime, our stories are being told for us. Women’s voices are still under-represented meaning we only get half the story. This includes the mundane daily life of humans as well as world events and, well, everything. Story-telling is what makes us human. Taking away that opportunity is an attempt not only to silence us but to make us less than human. 

DON’T

Don’t allow others to speak for you. Don’t allow others to feed you their own fears. Do not allow them to impose their dreams on you. Don’t allow others to interpret your history for you. Be confident, take care of yourself, evaluate your own circumstances. Only you know your own needs and dreams and desires. 

TOOLS

That’s a lot of don’ts. The thing is, throughout history we, women, have allowed others to name us, claim us, shape us. Not me. Not anymore. I want to shape my own sense of self. My entire life I have struggled to make this happen, but I lacked the tools. I struggled in all the wrong ways, only making my situation worse. I know that now. For the remainder of my life, I will seek out those tools and I will use them. I will live my own story, my way. I will tell my own story. My narrative is mine to tell.

Girl in the Snapshot

Looking at old photographs is not something I do much. I live here, after all, in the present tense. Last week, however, I got a jolt. A friend sent me a few old photographs. I wasn’t expecting them. In fact, I didn’t even know these pictures existed until the moment they popped up in a text message—pictures of pictures. 

SNAPSHOTS

She had come across them in a photo album. They came from the time before smart phones, back when taking a picture was an intentional act. You had to have a camera. With film in it. You had to get the film processed. You had to store the pictures, in this case in an album. You had to value them if you were going to hang on to them. She valued these snapshots.

THE OFFICE

One was taken at work. She and I were part of a larger group who were friends because we spent so many long hours together at work. There are ten of us in the picture, all laughing. I wonder about the joke. What is it we find funny as we pose in a conference room of the law firm where we worked? Papers strewn about on the table in the foreground; we must’ve been taking a break in the day, maybe lunch. Someone had a camera. 

WHO’S THAT GIRL?

I recognized others before I recognized myself. In fact, I wondered at first why I wasn’t there. Then I saw someone I couldn’t place; the girl in the middle, in the front, smiling big and laughing. Me! I was shocked. When that snapshot was taken, I was around 25 or 27 years old. Over thirty years ago. 

1988, that’s my guess. Give or take a year or two. Chicago. Married. I look so happy. I don’t remember being quite that happy. I don’t remember feeling so sure of myself, confident like the girl in the picture. Proof that what’s outside is no reflection of the turmoil and doubt surely swallowing her up on the inside. But why? Why such doubt and insecurity? Look at the girl. She sits surrounded by people who like her, care about her. She is dressed in her designer office attire with her hair combed straight and long. Her eyes shine. She is pretty. Why would such a woman be so lacking in self-esteem? Looking back, it makes no sense. 

THAT GIRL NEEDS SOME ADVICE

I would like to talk to that girl, tell her some things.  First of all, I keep referring to her as “girl” when, in fact, she is a woman. 

Stop fighting independence, I would like to tell her, stop wanting to be taken care of and embrace your autonomy. Pragmatism now will lead to time and space for self-expression later. Be kind to yourself and believe in yourself, your dreams. Stop fretting and live your best life. Don’t believe the myth, I’d tell her, the white-picket-fence is not for you and that’s okay! Create the life that works for you. And above all, stop compromising! 

If only I could give her a hug, talk to her and prevent the pain and poor choices that were to come. 

To all young women I say, please be kind to yourselves, listen to your heart, have the confidence to live your dream.

On Being Frail and Mowing Grass

March 4, 2012—I started the mower and mowed the grass today. I am empowered.

To mow the grass may not sound like much but it is. For me it is a physical and social triumph. I grew up with older brothers. They mowed the lawn, not me. When I was married to a rancher, I often assisted in heavy physical labor but I was never wholly responsible for it myself. I helped with building fence, or repairing a water gap. I drove the truck while others hauled hay (my petite daughter included).  I helped with the cattle sometimes. If I thought my husband was asking too much of me, I threw a fit and quit.

But the key word is “helped.” Now, it’s just me. If I don’t do it, it doesn’t get done. It is my responsibility as a renter here to mow the grass. It’s one reason why the rent is so cheap. I’m not good at estimating such things, but I will tell you the yard is very large.  When the yard became tall and weedy, I went into the shed to get the lawn mower, a small and primitive lawn mower with dull blades. I made sure there was gasoline in the little tank and I pulled the cord. I pulled again. And again.  It would not start. I have very little upper arm strength and I’m left-handed. I did the Lucille-Ball-thing. I wrapped one leg around the handle and tried to pull across my body with my left hand. That did not work.  At this point I was dripping with perspiration, breathing heavily and determined not to give up. I cursed. I yelled at God. I begged God. I screamed, “with your help, I can doooooo ittttt!!!” I pulled. The motor began to run and I let out a rebel yell. I mowed.  When the motor stopped I coaxed it sweetly, “come on, baby, you can do it.” I got the job done.

Then it rained and the grass grew. It seemed like the grass was growing faster than I could mow it like a Dr. Seuss character. There is much irony in this considering that we have been suffering from the worst drought in Texas history.  A few weeks later, I pulled the mower out again. Again, it would not start. No matter how hard I tried or cursed or prayed it would not start.  I sat down, covered in dirt and perspiration, and cried. I cried a good cry. I cried loud, and ugly, and childishly. Snot ran down my nose.  I called Vanessa. Rodger asked me about spark plugs. He asked about, I don’t know, other things. He didn’t know and couldn’t fix it over the phone anyway!

A few days later, Maggie and Justin came over. Justin cleaned the spark plugs. He diagnosed the mower as being “a piece of shit.” He started it for me. I mowed the front, leaving the rest since it was a week night and I was tired from the day.

Saturday morning I tried again. It started on the first pull! Don’t ask! It just did. I mowed half of Texas that day (the other half being desert)! I mowed until gasoline started spewing out of the tank like a sprinkler.  Yesterday, Nathan, the landlord showed up with three buddies. Each took a turn trying to start the mower. It wouldn’t start, not even for these big, strong men.  It wasn’t just me being frail and helpless after all. Nathan took it home with him after declaring it a “piece of shit.” I am hoping he returns with a brand new mower so I can mow the world.

Fraudulent Activity

“I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

Meryl Streep

 This is a cold, wet Sunday morning in the hill country. As I lingered in bed reading, I came across a new term. While I tend to steer clear and roll my eyes about anything with the word “syndrome,” this one   got my attention.

 Imposter Syndrome

Po Bronson in What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question tells us that this is the “unqualified feeling of being an imposter at work.”  It is the feeling that you are fooling people into believing that you are qualified to do whatever it is that you do.  In other words, in spite of the fact that everyone around you has faith in what you are doing, you don’t believe in yourself. I know this feeling. I know it too well.

Years ago, I worked as a paralegal in a very large downtown Chicago law firm. I couldn’t believe they hired me. I couldn’t believe I went to work every day and fooled these smart people. I didn’t know what I was doing and they paid me pretty well.  I was just a little southern girl. I didn’t have much of an education (my grades weren’t great but I did graduate from the University of Texas which isn’t exactly “Podunk Community College!” HELLO!), and I did not consider myself to be a success. My perception of myself was not very positive.

Looking back, I see a very different person. I see a young woman just starting out in the world and trying her best in every way. She is quirky but smart. She is pretty and witty. She is determined and surprisingly strong for such a boney little thing. She never gives up. She burns to make a creative mark on the world.  This is a girl who wants a pat on the back of assurance but she never gets it from herself.  Today I give her the biggest hug! I like that girl. If I could travel back in time, I would tell her so.

Even as a mom I always felt like a fraud. I wanted to be the perfect mom. I wanted to get at least this right. I planned the birthday parties. I decorated the girlie bedroom. I took my daughter to church and to the beach, and the museum. I taught her how to sit properly at the dinner table. All the while I was looking over my shoulder wondering who could tell I was making it all up as I went along.

Well, let me tell you something about parenting: we all make it up as we go along. There is no other way to do it. And while my own life may look like a train wreck sometimes, my daughter is doing pretty damn well. She is amazing! I may have felt like an imposter sometimes but I am her mom and no one else in the world can ever be that.

As an educator, both classroom teacher and teacher-librarian, I feel like an imposter. I’m not good enough to be doing this, I often think. I don’t know enough. I’m not smart enough or patient enough.

It is one thing to suffer from this imposter syndrome in your work life or even as a parent, but when you think you are an imposter in your own life—well, that is pretty severe.

Living on my own and learning how to be by myself I often think, “This isn’t me. I’m not like this.”  I am not the kind of woman who mows the lawn, pays the bills, fixes the bathtub drain, remembers to get the car serviced, eats dinner alone, goes days without seeing another soul, depends on herself for everything, the list goes on and on. But I am that woman. I am. I am doing these things. I am independent and I am strong. I am even stronger than that young girl in Chicago.

I have always looked up to my dear friend, Therese. She is like a big sister to me. She personifies what it is to be a strong and independent woman. It always seemed to come so easy to her.  That’s who she was but I didn’t see myself that way at all. Thinking about it now, I not only see that I am, in fact, much like Therese, but she is much like me too. It is really, really hard to know yourself, to become yourself.  It isn’t easy for her either. She just makes it look easy! “Look Ma, no hands!” In the years I have known Therese, for the first time I am beginning to feel like her equal.

In my life I have accomplished some things. I have high hopes of doing so much more. I hope I can learn to play my new roles with confidence and with the knowledge that I am good at what I am doing, whatever that may be. No one should ever feel like a fraud in their own life story.

Today’s Gift

Eighty something degrees and sunshine. Today I walked. Living all alone on I-don’t-know how many acres of ranch, I can walk for a long time. I see no one. I see no cars. I can hear the traffic in the far off distance but only because I live on a hill. I am the only human being.

The only beings as domesticated as myself (and decidedly more domesticated, I might add) are the cattle.  I see the deer and the squirrels and the multitudes of birds daily. When I walk I see different kinds of droppings. I see the prints of animals in the dusty caliche road. I recognize some. I know a turkey print, deer, raccoons.  I see others too—perhaps porcupine, opossum, rabbits, coyote, maybe even mountain lions. I am surrounded by wildlife.  It is impossible to be unaware that they are here.

The birds especially force notice. They are so noisy! They make the funniest, most beautiful and interesting sounds. When I scatter stale bread in the yard the ground moves like water with every kind bird—quail, mockingbirds, cardinals, and doves.  Lots of them.  

Today I should be studying. I should be writing a paper for school. Instead I am living in my present. I am feeling the warm sunshine and fresh air. I’m listening to the birds and allowing butterflies to flutter by.  I prepared a beautiful meal only for myself and now I am playing with words.  The paper will get written. Work always gets done somehow. This moment, however, this day, will not repeat itself. Unless I take it now, embrace this life as it is at this very moment, I’ll miss it. I want to grab as much of it up as I possibly can.

I saw a mockingbird alight a cactus in a sunbeam.  That’s enough of a gift for one day.

Staying Warm

How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold?
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

While I certainly don’t pretend to have ever experienced the magnitude of cold that Solzhenitsyn did, I know I really hate being cold.  When I’m cold, I can’t do anything. I can only think about the cold. From my icy toes to my wet and runny nose, it’s an excuse to do nothing. It could be that I’m just too skinny. I have not an ounce of fat to insulate my bones! But it’s much more than that. Warmth is oh so psychological. Good things warm us—like laughing, and love, and snuggling, and soft wool, and sunshine, and chocolate chip cookies, and holding babies and good wine. When we are wanted we are warm.  When we aren’t lonely, we are warm.

My physical state affects me greatly and I will go to great lengths to maintain a just-right environment. That’s easy to achieve when you live with central air conditioning and heat which I’ve had most of my life. The brief periods that I went without were just that—brief, or so I thought.  I don’t pretend that I have not been spoiled and pampered in many ways.  I’ve never been able to help that, right? It’s what I was born into? Something like that? Whatever.

The first night in my little cabin didn’t feel cold. It was New Year’s Eve and I had been warmed by a bit of champagne and probably exhaustion. Vanessa and Rodger were asleep in the next room providing the emotional warmth we all need. Even though we slept on the floor that night, cold was not an issue.

The second night I froze half to death. Ok, Solzhenitsyn is rolling his eyes now. This is Texas not Siberia, but isn’t it relative? Ok, so I’m spoiled for not living in Siberia. I was cold that night and the little window unit made a lot of noise without making things the least bit toasty. I kept wondering how much electricity it was using to spit cool air into the room.

I had my bed now and began piling on the blankets. For Christmas my brother and his wife had given me silly bunny socks that were thick and soft. My toes felt like popsicles inside them.  I put on my flannel jammies and found my silk long underwear leftover from camping long ago.  I lay under the covers and didn’t even read a book. I lay there. I thought about what a long winter this would be, coming home every night and hurrying to get under the covers. Somehow I survived the night.

The next day, my daughter and her boyfriend came bearing gifts.  They brought me the cutest little portable radiator. It’s electric and has oil running through it. It makes no sound except for an occasional thick, oily drip.  I can pull it by its cord like a toy horse. I wheel it into the bathroom every morning before my shower.  It’s perfect! I’m learning other little tricks too.  I keep cookie dough in the fridge so I can bake on really cold nights—an excuse to turn on the oven.  I close off the extra room so I don’t have to heat it. I’ve learned that I don’t need that room anyway. Funny how I thought this place was so small and now I’m not even using all of it! Sacrifices I once thought to be huge have turned out to be no big deal at all.

Anyway, today reached 83 degrees. What will I do come spring without central air conditioning? Solzhenitsyn knows nothing about Texas heat!

Vanessa and Rodger: Moving Day

“And that’s the only thing I need is this.  I don’t need this or this. Just this ashtray… And this paddle game. – The ashtray and the paddle game and that’s all I need… And this remote control. – The ashtray, the paddle game, and the remote control, and that’s all I need… And these matches. – The ashtray, and these matches, and the remote control, and the paddle ball… And this lamp. – The ashtray, this paddle game, and the remote control, and the lamp, and that’s all I need. And that’s all I need too. I don’t need one other thing, not one… I need this. – The paddle game and the chair, and the remote control, and the matches for sure. “

The Jerk

 

Vanessa and her husband, Rodger, came to visit in the spring of 2011. It was so wonderful to spend time with them.  My boyfriend made margaritas and we had a good time. Actually, I drank far too much that day. Vanessa and Rodger knew something was not right but being the least judgmental people in the world ever, they didn’t say a word.  Their discreet actions led me to know that I had friends and that they would be there for me if I ever wanted to help myself.

Vanessa and I graduated from high school together. We were close. She came from Port Arthur and I was from Biloxi. We were both the youngest in our deeply southern families. We both grew up in yacht clubs around sailing. We shared a silly, goofy sense of humor. We have never agreed on politics but that never got in our way.  She is sensible and I, well, I am not.  We were in touch on and off through the years. Really more off than on.  But we were there. Somewhere.

When I talked to Vanessa, she never judged me or my boyfriend, or the living situation I was in. In fact, she embraced him and liked him. She saw, however, that it wasn’t the healthiest of relationships, that I was not making the best choices. She waited for me to realize that I had to make changes. She never said “this is what you must do,” but when I explained the situation and what I would try to do to solve my problem, she told me she was glad that I saw it that way. The name Vanessa is synonymous with the word supportive.

When I finally found my little cabin the logistics of moving became yet another obstacle in my attempt to fix my life. I was trying so hard not to spend much money. There was no one in the area who I felt comfortable asking for help. I didn’t want to hire movers when I was moving to a tiny place to save on rent. I couldn’t do it alone although me being me I actually thought about it!

So one day while sitting in Starbucks, Vanessa and Rodger gave me a call. It’s just one of those “just calling to see how you are” kinds of calls. No sooner had I told Vanessa that I was moving than Rodger asked if I needed help. I am embarrassed to say that I responded with a very quick “yes!” Probably too quick.  This was just before Christmas.

Vanessa and Rodger are so amazing. New Year’s weekend and their 28th wedding anniversary they drove up from Houston (excuse me, Perland) and helped me move. Rodger even brought a bag filled with good books and music cds for me.  After I spent a week giving away three full car loads of stuff to Goodwill, I packed what I needed and Vanessa and Rodger, and I loaded up a U-Haul truck. They waited patiently while I stood in the front yard of the house I had lived in with my soul mate and cried.

Together we lifted, pushed, pulled, rolled, dropped my large sectional, my awkward-shaped entry table with the large mirror I was sure would break on New Year’s Eve, and a bed made of mesquite and iron.  Together we took the door off the hinges in order to get the washer and dryer out. We drove the 25 miles to my little cabin and unloaded. For all the heavy lifting, packing, and maneuvering, the most important thing they did for me was be there. No hired movers could have understood the meaning behind the move I was making. This wasn’t just a move from one dwelling to another. This was a life changing event and it was intentional. I was taking a bold step in my life and Vanessa and Rodger were there to see me through.  Rodger never once lost his patience and Vanessa kept her sense of humor throughout. This is what friends do.

I am learning that I can’t live this life alone. No one can. We all need each other. Part of learning to take care of yourself is learning when to ask for help. As stubborn as I am, I could not have moved my furniture without help.  Without the help of a long list of friends and family, I would not be living independently and alone in my little cabin. 

We spent New Year’s Eve together, the three of us, sipping champagne under the big Texas sky on the porch of my little cabin. Well, actually Rodger hit the hay pretty early and Vanessa and I caught up on “girl talk.” But the stars were infinite in number and clear and perfect.

How I Came to be Here and Why it Matters

“Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.”
– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

From the time I was a very young girl I had an ideal of living far away from any civilization where I could have solitude and think about things. I had other dreams too; I wanted lots of animals and lots of children. I wanted a man to love who loved me in return.  I wanted family and friends.  I wanted to live in the city and be anonymous. I wanted to live in a small town and be known and loved by everyone.  I wanted it all.

I read Thoreau and Emily Dickinson. I read everything and voraciously. I let the waves of life push me along the beach, sometimes gently, sometimes with more force until I was nearly drowning.

I have been so fortunate in my life to have many experiences. I have attended cocktail parties at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago, I’ve traveled the locks in Amsterdam on my parents’ boat, I’ve hauled hay and mended fence line. I have inoculated pigs and cows.  I have given birth to a perfect child.  I’ve read the best books and speak several languages. I can sew and knit and can pickles.  I’ve danced the two-step (albeit not well); I’ve attended punk rock concerts in Austin and the symphony and opera in Chicago. I’ve walked the streets of Paris and I’ve walked the trails of the Texas Hill Country.

I’ve been beautiful and young. I’ve been ugly and I’ve said things I regretted. I’ve been happy to the point of elation and so sad that I had to be scraped from the very bottom of humanity and put back together. I have loved people and sometimes not loved them enough. I never loved myself enough.

I never stopped to take care of myself, to know myself. For a long time I have been busy trying to make other people happy.  I never really believed that I could have a “room of my own.” In the homes of my failed marriages, I tried to make a space for myself—a corner or room—but it never felt right. It was never truly mine. I realize now, it wasn’t about the physical space. The space in my heart was far too crowded to allow me the “room” to right down my words. I never imagined that it was really possible for me to have a little place all my own just to write, create, and think about things. I never imagined that I deserved it.

I came about having such a place quite by force. A big wave pushed me there and said, “there you are—you asked for it!” So now I am happy counting my pennies to make ends meet, using my little space heater when I must, going to the Laundromat, and heating my food on the stovetop (no microwave). I also watch the sun rise and set, observe the deer and quail, and listen to the funny birds. I am truly so incredibly happy.

I don’t worry so much about money but I am taking care of it.  I’ve given up the man who is my best friend, the love of my life and I miss him terribly but for the first time in my life I have myself.

When I am not at work or attending classes, I can write, I can heal my relationship with my daughter, I can heal myself, and I can make of this life what I was intended to make of it—something very good.

I have no apologies for sounding very selfish. I am being selfish. I also want other women to know that they don’t have to go through an entire life feeling insecure or insignificant. You can learn about yourself and take care of yourself. You can know that all the things you do hold tremendous value in this world.

This blog is intended to be the story of my time alone in my little cabin.