I have been writing a lot, about hard things lately, diving deep into my history (and by “a lot,” I mean hundreds of pages in a really short time, and by “history,” I mean deep, sad, excruciating, exhilarating, shocking, enlightening, staggering, funny, infuriating, the-adjectives-never-end shit). As if I haven’t done enough of that over the past ten years. But, for all the writing of my past decade, so much has been superficial, a one-dimensional reportage about what I observed my husband enduring when he was battered by cancer. Not what I, personally went through, felt, thought, endured, came through, fell back into, again and again as a result…”jesus, who needs that story?” I told myself. “Tell the good stuff—the survival story (but the short version, please!)—a little gore in to appease the masses, the polished yet edgy, MFA-worthy stuff…” Turns out, that material has a pretty short life expectancy when one’s heart is missing. As my dad used to say, “Either shit or get off the pot, Jen.” He may not have been an eloquent man, but he knew how to call it when he saw it.
This current writing began benignly enough, an homage to my twenty-five years in the Twin Cities.
Back in October, before I moved to Mankato, I drove around and took photos of all the places I’ve lived in in the cities, with the simple idea of writing a few lines of memories about each home, conveniently forgetting that 25 years is a damned long time to live anywhere. A few lines begat a few more and before I knew it, I was writing long, meandering essays about each home. As I wrote, forgotten memories resurfaced, patterns began to emerge, themes of running, hiding, numbing, camouflaging fears and anxieties, surviving, adapting, moving forward, falling back, birth stories and death stories…the more I wrote, the more curious I became and I began to interrogate further—where do these stories contained within these photos really take root?
When I got to Mankato, I drove around and took more photos of all the places I’d lived while I went to college here, from 1987 to 1992. More memories, more stories, more patterns shimmered to the surface. More dots to connect, more truths emerge, more questions to answer, more roots unearthed…more pages to write. What have I done, I wondered, when will this end?
It can be exhausting and heartbreaking, to examine a life like this. No wonder most of us don’t do it. What becomes of this exercise in torture, except torture? The truths uncovered may be startling, not at all like the family lore we might have been told and held tightly to all these years, and how is that reconciled? We can get trapped in the past if we’re not careful, or run screaming from it, if we don’t like what we find. Coming back a space that feels calm between the two is essential and a skill that takes time to develop. (That would have been helpful know ten years ago…) then, the uncovered truths become guides, converging stars, gravitational pulls that entwine past to present, present to movement forward, and suddenly, that abhorrent adage, “everything happens for a reason,” makes blinding sense. Except I’ll still bitch-slap anyone into next month who tells me my husband had to die an excruciating death for me to learn this truth, because so much god-awful work has gone into shaping this truth, it’s so much bigger than a lame adage or I can ever contain.
One enormous truth that has emerged with my current writing, concerns the birth stories of each kid in my family. It was a tradition for my mom to call me on my birthday and share the details of my day of birth—she did this with all five of us kids. I loved these calls because my mom was such a gifted storyteller—the call alone was the best birthday gift. Even though I’d heard my birth story a million times before, every year, she’d tie a new thread to my tapestry in the form of a new detail, a new memory recalled, every year, the fabric of my story grew.
I was born the day after Thanksgiving in 1967, in Mountain Lake, MN, around 6:30 am—”The only time in your life you were ever early, Jen,” she’d laugh. This was in a time where mothers stayed in the hospital for days after giving birth; my mom said every meal she had was a derivative of the turkey dinner that had been served on the holiday—turkey sandwich, turkey casserole, turkey noodle soup…she told me about the little old man in a room down the hall, who would sneak out of his room, his bare backside flashing through the split in his gown as he shuffled down to the nursery to gaze at the little redhead baby that he was determined to steal for his own…that my grandmother showed up with an armload of frilly dresses that she hung on the curtains of my mom’s room, and that my mom felt that maybe she had finally done something right in her mom’s eyes—giving her a granddaughter who might make up for the transgressions she had inflicted upon her parents. Already, my young, tender mom—she was just 19, with two other babies at home (three, if you count my dad, which I sometimes do)—was absorbing far too much blame, shame, unwarranted guilt into her body, that she would carry with her for the rest of her life.
My sister Jill, recently gave me another thread to my birth stories, one that I didn’t know, or maybe had forgotten (the ways my mom’s voice continues talking to us after death is astounding). On Thanksgiving day, the day before my birth, my mom sat at the table of her family’s holiday dinner. Only my dad and my mom’s sister, my Auntie Pat, knew she was pregnant. At one point, my grandma (in other words, my mom’s very own mother) whispered to Pat, “I think Kathy’s pregnant again.” And then, the next day, I was born, like a holiday miracle, except nothing at all like a holiday miracle—that my mom had carried me to term, like a regular human birth, yet her own mother only vaguely guessed at the possibility the day before I was born is unfathomable. This single incident speaks volumes of my mom’s life, how, even in the midst of family, alone she was, so estranged from her now mother that asking for help was never an option, that keeping secrets was the family way. Maybe the miracle is that she learned to adapt, in spite of these family flaws.
Adapting does not always mean an improvement; sometimes it’s simply a means to survive, and sometimes those adaptations are things children inherit and continue to pass on down the line, repeating the cycle, until someone finally says, okay, I’m done with this shit. I’m going in deep, diving into the shit, to see if there’s anything else is hiding in there. And maybe begin shifting, if even ever so slightly, from the family narrative that’s been in control for too long, and adapting has probably been happening since the beginning of time.
For the past ten years, I’ve tried my hand at deep shit-diving, but I did’t have the right tools to help keep me steady or safe as I went in. It’s exhausting, excruciating territory, and if you don’t have some badass self-care tactics in place, the dive will wreck you, and not in a good way. In my past, this act of shit-diving ripped open wounds again and again until they became infected and began spreading to other parts of me. It felt like repeated failed exorcism—for all the writing I was doing, the ghosts not only remained, unfazed by my efforts, they invited all their rowdy friends in, too. I employed all kinds of means to anesthetize the wounds, so I could present myself to the world not as a woman covered with battle scars, but as something less true, more neat and tidy and admirable to the world.
A month or so before my mom died, I sat in her living room and said, “Mom, I think my drinking is becoming a problem.” She looked at me sharply and said, “You? Have a drinking problem? Well, if that’s the case, Jen, then everyone I know has a drinking problem.” How it felt like to be split in two by her words: at once, immeasurably relieved. If my own mom, who knew me better than anyone in the world, does’t think I have a problem, then there’s no problem! At the same time, indescribably devastated. If my own mom, who knew me better than anyone in the world, doesn’t think I have a problem, then there’s a problem. Of course, I went with Door Number 1, the don’t do anything about the problem option, because the familiar is far easier than the unknown, no matter how fucked up it is. And I wondered why the exorcism wasn’t working.
It took another few years to finally decide to stop the insanity, and I stopped drinking almost a year ago, January 1. It was only meant to be an experiment—30 days, alcohol free. Then assess the situation, and see how I feel. 30 days turned into 60, then 90, then six months, then…and suddenly, almost like magic (okay nothing like magic, because this too, was excruciating, this process of actually feeling all the feels, instead of numbing from them, but I’ll tell you a little secret—that pain is where the magic of healing begins), I began to like myself. A lot. Maybe for the first time in a very long time. Maybe ever. And then my writing took off. And then a fucking pandemic began. And I had no one to share this immense transformation with. But I kept at it. I kept writing, and collecting bits of insight and beauty in the midst of the shitshow. And I am learning that people will still do and say things to try to sabotage my hard work, like “Oh that’s right, you don’t drink anymore,” as though the not drinking part is the problem.
I don’t know if this is forever—another magic secret: nothing is forever. Literally nothing. but the magic truth to that is, would we really want it to? I mean, really? For now, this not drinking thing is working a helluva lot better than the alternative, especially as I navigate blindly in unchartered pandemic territory. And because I actually really like liking myself, and I no longer fear writing, but instead, see it as an exploration into new lands, I’ll stick with it for a while. Except if that mofo in the WH keeps up his toddler antics—then my resolve for all the things might soon come to a grinding halt.
All this diving made me pause in my thoughts, as I realized that each of my siblings has an equally heartbreaking story to tell about a profound event in our lives—our birth—that typically is anticipated, celebrated, rejoiced. The heaviness of the truths are layered deep inside of us. Each of us kids have absorbed this legacy, in our profoundly unique ways. But I’ve heard stories of grace appearing in the most unexpected sources, like finding a diamond ring deep in the lines of a clogged sewer, and I’ve known my own stories of grace, like sending a message to a friend that turns into a three-hour solve-the-worlds-problems kind of night…or just going down into the basement, alone, and living in my body in ways that I don’t know I ever have, in all the 53 years of my life. I mean, the movements might look exactly the same from the outside, but the way I feel inside is another-planet different. Like my inside and the outside are moving closer to one another, an inner-body reflection of the outer-body Saturn-Jupiter thing going up in the heavens.
Happy almost winter solstice, everyone. Feel the transforming energy around. It’s everywhere, even in the middle of a never-ending shitshow. xo