Eight years ago today I headed west. I had no idea what I might do, no idea that I was about to be reborn. In fact, I couldn’t see any kind of future for myself. The only thing I knew for sure was that the life I’d lived up until that moment was no longer bearable.
I left while my then-husband, also a writer, was covering an event several states away. The day before I’d flattened a rear tire in my Chevy Cavalier to keep him from driving it instead of his vehicle. (Mine got better mileage.) After getting the tire repaired, I packed what would fit into the little sedan, put Liz Phair's “The Divorce Song” on the CD player and peeled out.
In less than three days I drove from Chicago to Seattle, a trip made notable by the fact that I somehow managed to get a speeding ticket in Montana.
That sounds glib, but both the marriage and my reasons for leaving were deadly serious. A blog post isn’t the right place to explain them. An editor of mine used to cut the living daylights out of overly long newspaper articles. We whined, but he was implacable: “Save it for the book.”
What I can say is that leaving wasn’t an easy solution — not right away, anyhow. The next two years were tough: the interminable legal gavotte that is divorce, two more moves, my daughter’s continuing health problems, long-term counseling (diagnosis: chronic adjustment disorder with anxiety and depressed mood, and panic attacks thrown in for good measure), the rapid draining of my savings account. Yet slowly I learned to let go of some of the old sorrows and to think about crafting the person I wanted to become.
There was much to appreciate: the freedom of ordering my own days, the kindness of friends, the shocking beauty of a blue jay flashing among winter blackberry vines. That first autumn, a gold leaf on a sidewalk transfixed me because I was seeing it, really seeing it. For years, I had mostly seen gray.
The bus that took me to the therapist’s office went past a community college. Week after week I saw that damned sign both coming and going. I’d managed only one year of college 30 years previously. Now that I had no job, maybe it was time to try again even though I was broke and feared I would have to take math courses. My last math class had been in 1973.
I did have to take math, two quarters of it. But somehow I got through that first year of college, supporting myself (and mostly supporting my daughter) with work-study, freelance writing and several part-time jobs plus the dabs left in the bank account. The only days of school I missed were the two that I needed to fly to Chicago to finalize my divorce.
To inspire, or to make sense of my life?
A few months later I earned a three-year scholarship to the University of Washington, where I majored in the Comparative History of Ideas – a type of humanities degree. When it was time to write an undergraduate thesis, I decided my topic should be “the middle-aged woman in America today.”
It felt wrong from the start. I knew I wanted to address issues such as sexism, patriarchy, poverty, motherhood, work and male-female relationships. But I didn’t want to support these subjects solely with facts and figures. I wanted to write about them from where I stood.
An entry from my CHID thesis class notebook, dated April 24, 2009, indicates the turmoil I felt about structure:
“I cannot write this as a scholarly paper – the subject is too personal. They say the personal is political. In this case, the personal is essential – if I treat my experience as a case study, then I am holding my life at arm’s length and inviting the reader to do so, too.
“Do I write it only to inspire, or do I write to make sense of my life? … Do I write for myself, my mother, my daughter or for all women? My experience is not universal; there are women who faced more abuse, more poverty, fewer options. But I do believe we take inspiration from lives that are dissimilar…by reading past [the] details to the truths contained in another’s experiences.
“Do I put on paper that which I cannot speak?”
In the introduction to her book Trash, the fierce and luminous writer Dorothy Allison notes that she tries to incite specific feelings, “realizations I wanted people to experience” – grief, anger, the need for change.
“I wrote to release indignation and refuse humiliation, to admit fault and the glorify the people I loved who were never celebrated. I wrote to celebrate. I wrote to take a little revenge, and sometimes to make clear that revenge was not what I was doing.”
Allison herself has lived a life steeped in anger, raging against the system that set her family up to fail. She was born to a girl who had just turned 15, born into
“…a condition of poverty that this society finds shameful, contemptible and somehow oddly deserved, [that] has had dominion over me to such an extent that I have spent my life trying to overcome or deny it. … We knew ourselves despised. What was there to work for, to save money for, to fight for or struggle against? We had generations before us to teach us that nothing ever changed, and that those who did try to escape failed.”
She began to write out of anger, “to stop my own rage.” But it’s clear that she was being eaten up by the need not just to testify, but to understand. “If I die tomorrow,” Allison writes, “I want to have gotten this down.”
The essays and short stories in “Trash” are undeniably autobiographical, yet may also be fiction. Its refusal to be one or the other makes it similar to Gloria Anzaldúa’s “Borderlands/La Frontera,” a mix of essays, poetry, history, family stories and maybe-fiction. Both are hybrid artifacts, documents that are not so much autobiography as autobiographical literature: Some things that are absolutely true and some things that represent a particular truth.
Are such stories true, i.e., did they really happen? There is no answer to that question. In this case, to be “truthful” is to be true to the facts as you understand and experience them through your particular politics of location.
What if I hadn’t gone?
That said, the things I write are true – or, rather, my understandings of them are true. I lived them. I experienced them. No doubt the other actors would have their own versions of “truth.” My ex-husband would almost certainly see himself as a victim. And I am frankly afraid to broach certain subjects with my daughter: Because I myself have not yet healed, I do not know how to listen deeply enough.
But I have hope. My studies helped me understand why my life turned out the way it did. It also strengthened my resolve. For far too long I felt powerless. I will not live that way again.
How do I make peace with my past? Perhaps by accepting it while refusing to accept it, i.e., by understanding it and trying to move beyond it. The philosopher Michel Foucault suggests that the past is not immutable, which I take to mean that history can be shaped – that is, its impact on the present day can be changed.
That is why I write: to make sense of my own history, and also to encourage others to examine theirs. I want them to question their lives, and to think about the possibility of living in ways that are rewarding rather than merely tolerable.
Life is not a discrete and unchanging destination, a country that can be mined for a specific, easily extractable resource called “happiness” or, worse, “stability.” Stability is a story that we tell ourselves so we feel good about staying right where we are in our lives. But life is a series of risks. It is our duty, and our responsibility, to embrace those risks.
In the past few years I have undergone significant life changes. None of it was easy, but all of it was worth the effort, the exhaustion and the very real pain that often accompany any major life upheaval.
I can say with some authority that sometimes, change really stinks. But I can also say that while change is scary, it is not the end of the story. Change is the chance to rewrite the story – or, rather, to take it in a new direction.
“Direction” is the operative word. I want to direct the course of the rest of my life, rather than to live as passively and fatalistically as I once did.
Then, I could never have imagined the life I’m living now. And now? I can’t imagine the life I’d be leading if I’d stayed.
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