All summer long, I have been chewing on a story that I wanted to pitch to The Monti, which is a NC-based live storytelling show that invites people in the community to tell personal stories on stage without notes. I hadn’t taken any further steps on it until last week, when my Listen To Your Mother castmates met for our monthly writers’ group, when we get together, share whatever we’re working on and offer feedback. With the meeting coming up, I was finally motivated to commit some of the story to paper so that I could do just that. I scratched it out over the course of about an hour last Tuesday, and that night, five of the seven of us who were able to meet read from pieces we were working on. By the time we got around to me, it was after 10PM, and we’d already spent a fair amount of time at the beginning of the meeting talking about my manuscript, which many of them had very generously agreed to read and edit for me in advance of sending out to agents. I told them I’d read another time, but they insisted that I go ahead, so I did. And how glad I am that I did. Their responses were so encouraging, making me certain I wanted to make the pitch, but I still wasn’t sure what the story was about, how it should begin, how it should end. I went home to see what the theme of the next Monti show was (each show is a collection of five stories that center around one theme), and when I saw it, a light went on: “Bridging Gaps” was exactly what my story was about. I wrote the pitch and submitted it right away– one of the show’s producers responded a few days later that they wanted to move forward with the story.
As I started thinking more about the story, how I wanted to tell it, what kind of backstory I’d need to share, I remembered an almost mean admonishment my mother gave me a long time ago, when I was a teenager trying desperately to figure out where I fit in, with who, how to make and keep friends, how to have meaningful connections with people. I have many, many, many stories I could tell about my family, and while many of them are at least a little funny, most of them are not really all that happy. Even as a young girl, I was keenly aware of the incredible and near-constant tension in our house. This tension revolved around a host of issues, most of which did not directly involve me, but rather my mother’s own long-time personal struggles, my father’s inability to deal with them, and the variety of dramas ongoing in the lives of my much older half-siblings, children from my mother’s first marriage who had a very different gene pool and a very different beginning than I did, but whom I always just thought of as my brothers and sisters.
And I talked about these things. To people I wanted to be friends with. When I told my mother about some of these conversations, she accused me of using my family’s upheaval as a way to get attention from people. At the time, I felt ashamed, because I thought maybe she was right. Maybe I was doing that. Of the many ways I am like my mother, I both crave attention and am also embarrassed by it. I somehow knew that about myself, even at 13.
It seems that my mother thought that things didn’t happen directly to me were not part of my story. But how could it not be part of my story to learn from my 18-year-old sister that she was going to have a baby and marry the man who’d taken her to her senior prom? How could it not be part of my story to discover that, after my parents threw my brother out of the house when he was 17 because he defied their orders not to go on a spring break beach trip, he ended up living in his truck in the woods? How could it not be part of my story to learn from a casual, off-handed remark by my brother that my oldest sister had come out as a lesbian since I saw her last and was now in a committed relationship with another woman? How could it not be part of my story to watch my mother jump up in the middle of a screaming match with my father, grab her keys, storm out the door, and drive off in her car to who knows where? Many times over.
Even now, as I’m writing this, I question my own motives. Why am I saying these things? Who am I trying to impress? Aside from all of these goings-on around me, my childhood was otherwise rather normal, middle-class, and privileged. Where do I get off?
But here’s the thing. These things are part of my story. Even though none of them happened directly to me, even though I am not the first-person narrator of any of these experiences, they are still part of my story. Each of these experiences, and many, many more, left deep and irrevocable impressions upon me, upon my ideas about the person I wanted to become, upon the person I’m still trying to become, upon the person I actually am. These things are part of my story.
It took the death of my daughter to begin to understand the power of telling our stories. And even then, it took another several years before I really, really got it. It actually was not until earlier this spring, when I participated in Listen To Your Mother, a national series of live staged readings of essays about motherhood, that I really got it. For four years, I’d been trying to overcome my feelings of guilt and responsibility for my daughter’s death. But it wasn’t until I got up on stage and tried to explain to a whole bunch of other people that maybe what happens to our children is simply not always in our control, that I actually began to believe my own words.
I’ve begun to understand at least part of where my mother went wrong. I just began reading some of her journals that my dad brought me several years ago–they trace several different periods of her life, but the resounding message of each is one of grief, loss, shame, abandonment, and unworthiness. She wrote her story down, over and over and over again. But she never shared much of it, except in a few short-lived attempts at group or individual therapy. She never really shared it with the people she loved most, or with new people she wanted to befriend, or even with her own husband. Grief needs a witness. Stories build connection. In the saddest of ways, she was redoubling her pain by keeping it to herself. I think she feared sharing it for fear of further rejection, but in doing so, she missed out on her best chances for building relationships with others. When she admonished me against telling our stories, maybe that was her own fear-goggles working their awful magic–maybe she was trying to protect me from the same rejection and loneliness that she herself experienced on a daily basis. I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt, because from what I can tell, not enough people did that when she was alive.
So when I look back on the storytelling I did as a teenager, all the storytelling I’ve done since then, and most importantly, the storytelling I’ve begun to do now, the storytelling that I think may be my life’s work, I understand for the first time that all I was trying to do back then and all I’ve been trying to do ever since is connect–with my family, my friends, my husband, strangers, myself. Some people may very well reject me or think I’m an oversharer, and that’s OK. The people worth connecting with will want to share with me, too, and for me, that’s what it’s all about.
After the Listen To Your Mother show, the producers gave each cast member a handmade piece of jewelry with a charm containing a message for us. Somehow, I failed to grasp the meaning of mine until now. But that’s one of the reasons why I write– to understand things I couldn’t otherwise.
My necklace said this: Live your story.