Saturday, September 23, 2006

Sunday Scribblings-How to become your own person (a story)

Here is another longish rough draft of a story. I think I need instructions on how to make these shorter. I need instructions for almost everything these days. Well, in my story, my main character gets instructions from an unexpected place. And what she does with it astonishes her.

I got it in the mail the other day, which surprised me. It followed me from dorm room to first apartment to house, always seemingly missing me by one or two steps. Which is as apt a description of our relationship as any. I have not had any contact with her in a long time. To say we were estranged was to imply that at one point we’d been stranged. And honestly, I don’t think that was ever true. I came out of her, true, but I wasn’t really OF her. And I think she knew that.

It was a short list, written in her uneven, girlish hand. It was the sight of her writing that gave me pause—brought back the memory of a thousand lunch box notes and grocery lists. It looked that unassuming.

But this wasn’t any grocery list. No introduction; it read simply, "How to become your own person."

1) Leave that place that stifles you.

The bravest thing my mother ever did was to leave my father; everyone knows this. They had absolutely nothing in common but background—both Boston Brahmins, both youngest children, the period at the end of long Episcoplian sentences. My father was brash, big and handsome. Someone who preferred to do things, usually without much thinking involved. My mother, on the other hand, was the acknowledged beauty of her clan, but someone who suffered from what would have been a century ago as "religious melancholy"...basically clinical depression. So her family was thrilled to marry her off...a family known for "talking only to God" was horrified when one of their members displayed a passion for doing exactly that.

They married in the fall, fashionably, and bells pealed all over Back Bay when they came out of the church. A wind swirled my mother’s cathedral veil around her face like a cloud, and some leaves, in vibrant color, were trapped inside. I love that picture of her, looking like some kind of wood fairy from the cover of my favorite fairy tale book. But she always flipped past that page, muttering something about "death tangled in life on that day."

You can see where I get my sense of humor.

I try to be fair; try to imagine what it must have been like for her after that. Living a role for which she was almost comically ill-suited. My parents must have looked at each other blankly, waiting for the instruction book. My father did the expected thing; he bought her a big house in one of the approved areas of Boston and presented it to her, a living dollhouse. She told me she was unnerved by the emptiness. "Just like the void of nonbeing." She tried to answer his grin with her own and whirled around in the great room. "All I saw was whitewhitewhitewhite. It was like being trapped in a snow storm. All I wanted to do was run."

But she tried—she knew what was expected of her. Basically, me. She focused her energies on the nursery to keep from becoming overwhelmed; spent her time shopping for the perfect crib and changing table. And as the piece de resistance, she hired a muralist to draw a fantasy land motif on the walls and ceiling. No more white for me. But she wanted to paint it herself; wanted to feel like she was doing something concrete to prepare for me. So she paid the muralist extra to create a giant "paint by numbers" mural for her to complete.

That sums my mother up right there.

I wish my birth had brought them some joy—my mother swears it did, but you know what they say about actions. I used to escape their fights by sneaking into their bedroom and reading the books on Daddy’s nightstand. He saw himself as a Benjamin Franklin type, so all of his books were full of pithy inspirational quotes and exhortations for a more moral life. It was hard to avoid that pressure, that relentless pressure to improve, to be better. Mom tried for a time, tried to improve her character, read classics, share the tentative hard-dreamed knowledge beginning to intimate itself into her life.

Daddy didn't understand it, or her. He pulled away, or she moved beyond.

No wonder Mom finally had to give up. She would never find a way to measure up to his books. We were both too close to the ground.

When we left home, we were faced with another set of white walls. Mom went blank herself, for a while. I stood by her, hand on her shoulder, waiting for her to tell me, tell us, what we were going to do. But she never did. She was waiting herself. Not for her family, which had resolutely turned their backs on her, counter-waiting for her to "grow into some sense."

2) Find the right teacher.

It turned out she was waiting for Guru Ma—an unassuming woman who shoved a flyer under the door of our new apartment—a woman who taught Indian meditation classes that were soon being held in our living room. Soon Mother was sitting in blissed out ecstasy in a crowd of 20 or so disciples, fervently repeating the chant over and over.

But all I could hear were my own doubts. Who WERE these people? Who was this woman who I saw increasingly, morning, noon, night? Mom was proud that she was "finally not listening to some man" but who was she listening to instead? These questions marched into my ears like ants.

"You just don’t know until you know." She said things like this all the time—things that sounded profound and you could wrack your brain on them all day. She said that my mind was flat like those old maps of the world—the ones with the dragons at the edges. Not enlightened like her. "I thought once you had found peace, you’d be calmer." She’d grow red, and do some breathing exercises, and mutter something in sanskrit.

I disliked her, Guru Ma. I can admit that now. She was always sweaty, always mopping her forehead with the edge of her sari, as though her meditation was such hard work. I thought people who had become one with the universe were destined to drift effortlessly through the ether. But not Guru Ma. Her prayers were strenuous; her chants were swung pick axes by ditch diggers.

If anything, Mother was the one who seemed like the textbook student—her face swallowed by her smiles, her eyes closed to the world around her. I wondered what she could see behind those eyes. Not me, that’s for sure. She was obviously dancing on the pin with all of the other angels. I wanted that certainty too; wondered why she couldn’t share it with me, her daughter. There I was, floundering through acne and hand me downs grown tight and worn, and she was conversing with Krishna and dancing with Shiva.

3) Let her go.

You know what happened next, don’t you? Guru Ma was taken in by the authorities. Something about tax evasion. I never really wanted the details, and Mother never gave them to me. I just wanted to forget the whole sordid saga. I thought that now we could put that unsavory part of our lives behind us and get to the business of figuring out how to fill the Daddy-shaped space in our home.

But she couldn’t seem to let it go. Sure, we never saw her again, never watched the space around her grow oily with her perspiration. Mother said that Guru Ma was shedding her earthly coil, growing translucent. "But why does she have to do it here? Why do I have to clean up after her?"

Never did get an answer for that one. It made me feel quite smart, to get the last word for once. Of course, now I know that it’s because she wasn’t listening.

I stumbled upon my mother one afternoon after school, meditating alone in the living room now, tears streaming down her cheeks. I’d had enough.

"She was a fraud! Why can’t you see that?"

She sighed, "I’m not like you, Jane. I’m no good out there. I used to think that was a fault in me. Certainly your father and my family thought so. But now I know that in the outside way lies death. Only inside can you find life."

"But...I’m outside of you!" I wanted to clutch her, convince her of something...I’m not sure what.

"Yes." She turned back to her work.

4) Drink in the truth wherever you find it.

That’s when the crack between us grew and the cosmos rushed in. We became like two roommates matched up by an impersonal service. I got more and more involved with school, band, drama, anything to avoid being at home with her. She withdrew completely from the world, ordering everything by catalogue and waiting for me to handle the bills and deposit the checks that came from the family, too embarrassed to see two of their own starve.

Even though I applied to schools as far away as California, I ended up staying right here in Boston. But it was understood that I would live in the dorms, even if I lived next door. And it so happened, I almost did. I wrote a long pleading letter to my Aunt Betty, and was granted permission to board with her.

As I packed, I wondered what I would say to her. Would she see me as a traitor for choosing to live with the family? Nah, why would she choose now to see me at all?

She crept into my room, perched on the bed which was strewn with clothes, books, everything I owned. As always these days, she seemed otherworldly, like she was deigning to visit this world reluctantly, on my behalf. The hair hanging in her eyes made me want to sweep it away.


"Almost." I wasn’t really looking at her, moving piles back and forth.

"I know you don’t agree with the way we live our lives."

"That’s an understatement...and it's the way YOU live your life." I had to correct her.

She blew her hair out of her eyes, exasperated. "Anyway...I want to give you something before you leave."

Silence. I managed to keep myself from extending my hand.

"Sometimes the truth comes from a liar."

I stared at the paper, unwilling to remember what I had been unable to really forget for these past five years. The paper is limp, folded and refolded. I can see the pressed crescents of her fingers on the edges. I slip my finger into one. Of course, it fits.

So here it was. My mother’s legacy—paltry and profound, notable for what was absent as well as present.

What I did next surprised even me. I found a pen, wrote a note on her list. Her instructions don't make a lot of sense to me, yet--her final words to me didn't either. She’d always had a monopoly on illumination, but it turned out the record was full of gaps, vague. Unfinished.

I’m surprised to discover that I want to be the one who expands it for her. I want to be the one who adds to the list.

5) Sometimes you receive the truth in all of its fullness. And people won’t understand. Sometimes the story emerges bit by painful bit, born in struggle. And people won’t understand.

Both are fine.
For more instructions, go here.



Blogger sophie said...

Oh my goodness.
This SPOKE to me as I am somewhat
lost at present so all i can say

is - thankyou.:)

9:38 PM, September 23, 2006  
Blogger sophie said...

oh and thankyou re: Goethe
- i should have known -
i LOVE him!!!:)

10:20 PM, September 23, 2006  
Blogger sophie said...

Back again:)

You are a profoundly gifted
observer and you have the
"voice" to cast light on
the life which exists in the
spaces between the lines.

10:29 PM, September 23, 2006  
Anonymous tinker said...

This kept me riveted to the end.
Great scribbled instructions!

4:14 AM, September 24, 2006  
Blogger paris parfait said...

Definitely worth the read. Keen observations; well done!

7:23 AM, September 24, 2006  
Blogger Verity said...

Absolutely wonderful post, your writing is the most compelling I've come across in a long time, please get a novel published so I can have a whole delicious story to lose myself in!!

8:13 AM, September 24, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think I've gotten to the place in life where both are Fine. I haven't mastered that yet. I still blame and judge my mom an awful lot. I enjoyed the details of this the hand writing...very personal.

11:22 AM, September 24, 2006  
Blogger Michelle said...

This is really good. I enjoyed reading it. I got so into your character that I was convinced that I wasn't reading fiction and had to scroll back up to the top. Bravo!

2:32 PM, September 24, 2006  
Blogger Catherine said...

As always, I loved your interpretation of the prompt - I will be back every Sunday for sure.

3:23 PM, September 24, 2006  
Anonymous Fern said...

Inspiring, insightful and oh-so-wise. Your point of view scares me with it's truth sometimes. Your characters are so vivid, I think I know them.I love how with every sentence I learn more about your characters, your imagery makes them so real to me.

One of your "instructions" really hit home for me- "Leave that place that stifles you" I'm struggling with that now- avoiding it, more like it. Thank you for showing me someone who had the courage to, and for inspiring me to once again think about doing the same.

I spent the first 20 minutes after I read this writing about everything this SS made me think about. Your entries always do that for me- they make me think.


9:39 PM, September 24, 2006  
Blogger Tammy said...

This was a story that captured me to the end. Excellent!

7:48 AM, September 25, 2006  
Blogger ian russell said...

yes, long posts can be off-putting but not in this case; your writing pulled me in from early on and it wasn't long at all. afterwards, i had to check to see if you wrote professionally.

you're really good at this!

8:08 AM, September 25, 2006  
Blogger Tongue in Cheek Antiques said...

Drink in the truth, I like that!

5:06 AM, September 27, 2006  

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