personal stories

Hieroglyphs on a Rock

I endured these (childhood) fantasies and premonitions by writing about them. The stories I made up were medicinal. My inner life was barbed, with jagged edges. Left untended, it felt dangerous, like it might turn on me at any moment. Intuitively, I understood that I had to use it. It was all I had. By writing, I was participating in a tradition as old as humanity. I was here. Hieroglyphs on a rock. I was here, and this is my story. Dani Shapiro (Still Writing)

Novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro often writes about the way her childhood influenced her writing. The only child of older parents who “fought constantly” and “whose greatest source of conflict was me," Shapiro says she “felt as if she were navigating the world on a borrowed visa.” She turned to writing as a way of coping, of marking her territory, of staying safe. 

I was here, and this is my story.

I can relate to Shapiro’s sense of danger and unease about her place in the world.  As the cherished only child of over-protective parents and grandparents, I was treated more like a china doll than a normal little girl. Ever fearful of my getting broken, my mother tried her best to keep me in a safe cocoon. In her eyes, disasters lurked around every corner like potential land mines waiting to explode.  I often had bronchitis and asthma, and so many of the activities my friends engaged in were off limits to me. Things like running (which made me short of breath), swimming (chlorine in the pool aggravated my asthma), ice skating (I might fall and break something), overnights with friends (their houses might have too much dust which would set off my allergies) were all verboten.

I developed a sense of fragility about life in general and my own in particular, a belief that I should never put myself in harms way- even if the potential for harm was practically negligible. So I learned to be content with quiet pursuits like writing stories, many of which were potboilers about young girls in dangerous situations - locked in haunted mansions, being pursued by ghosts or kidnapped by gangs of thugs. Interestingly enough, I rarely finished these epic tales, probably because I couldn’t conceive of a way to reach the happy ending I wanted so desperately.

I think I was in fourth grade when I first heard about the cave paintings in Lascaux, those images etched into the walls of a dark cave that appeared to be a form of primitive communication. I remember a chill running down my spine as the teacher explained how scientists believed these drawings to be early man’s first efforts at leaving a message or telling a story. Preserved for eons, these odd images were proof positive that some sentient being existed, one who was compelled to leave a message for posterity.

From that moment on, I became fixated on the idea of using words and images to leave a lasting legacy. My belief in the power of our individual stories was born on that day. No matter what might happen to me  (a fatal asthma attack brought about during a secret playdate in my friend Lisa’s dusty basement!) my mark on the world could be ensured through writing.

I was here, and this is my story.

This year I will publish a book called Life In General, a collection of essays from the past 8 years. These pieces will tell the story of my here and now, my life in this 21st century - what makes me smile and laugh and cringe in fear. They are the compilation of my hopes and dreams, my thoughts about family and home and reading and writing. They are the shared stories of women I know, those of us who struggle to balance our lives with the needs of children and grandchildren, spouses, aging parents, and employers. They are all aspects of my story, each one a hieroglyph on the wall of my cave.

I was here, and this is my story. 

And I’m excited to share it with you.

Loud and Proud

Sunday night I spent some time watching The Golden Globe awards. I'm not really star struck, I  just like to see what everyone is wearing. I know that sounds suspiciously like the old excuse men used to give for having a Playboy magazine in the house. ("I only read the articles, honey!" Right.) Anyway, I wasn't giving the show my entire attention. The other half of my brain was surfing the internet, looking at bracelets on Etsy. (What can I say? It was Sunday night, it was late, I felt like doing something mindless.)

ecda16f7a0fa1ca5_jodie.previewWhen I realized that Jodi Foster was getting some sort of  lifetime achievement award, I started paying closer attention. Jodi Foster is younger than I am. Why were they giving her a lifetime achievement award? I wondered. Did she have some terminal illness I hadn't heard about?

No, it seems the Cecil B. DeMille award is a prize that recognizes "outstanding contributions in entertainment." So not really a "lifetime" achievement, even though she is the second youngest person every to receive the award. Judy Garland was the youngest, receiving it in 1962 at age 39.

I digress. The award isn't the interesting thing here.

Her acceptance speech was the real stunner. Af first it seemed like some rambling stream of consciousness diatribe. But then it took a different tack, although her tone continued in the same satirical and humorous vein. "I guess I have a sudden urge to say something that I’ve never really been able to air in public," she said. "So, a declaration that I’m a little nervous about...but I’m just going to put it out there, right? Loud and proud, right? So I’m going to need your support on this. I am single."

Of course that wasn't the important declaration at all - Foster was talking about the fact that she is gay.  She went on to say she "did her real coming out about a thousand years ago, back in the Stone Age, when a very young girl opened up to trusted friends and family and co-workers and, gradually, proudly, to everyone who knew her and everyone she met. She poked fun at the current trend of celebrity confessionals, but then stated something quite thought provoking. "Seriously, if you had been a public figure from the time that you were a toddler, if you’d had to fight for a life that felt real and honest and normal against all odds, then maybe you too might value privacy above all else. Privacy.”

I have to make a confession of my own. I didn't even GET it until the next day, when I read about it on the internet. While I was watching the speech, my attention must have strayed for a moment (those dang bracelets on Etsy). I missed the "loud and proud" reference, missed the reference to her "real coming-out about a thousand years ago."

Now she's become the center of a little whirlwind, is being both praised and vilified by Gay Rights activists and the general public. Praised for at last verifying what inquiring minds apparently have wanted to know for the past 20 years, vilified for not being more forceful about her declaration, for not be "loud and proud enough" to come out and say the words "I am a lesbian," but only to dance around it with rhetorical humor.

It doesn't matter to me what Foster's sexual orientation is, which is probably why I missed the reference in the first place. I admire her acting, her directing, the classy way she has conducted her long life in show business, but I've never given her private life much consideration because she herself has never made an issue of it (unlike many celebrities whose lives become part of their "brand.")

But I'm wondering (because I'm always all about why people do what they do) if she does indeed "value privacy above all else," why did she feel the need to make that public declaration now, after a lifetime of maintaining at least of modicum of privacy about her personal life. What compulsion led her to jump on the Honey Boo Boo bandwagon and put it all out there in this particular forum?

Because it seems to me she has defeated the decades of privacy she evidently worked so hard to establish.

Perhaps she was simply thumbing her nose at the public or the entire celebrity culture. Or perhaps, as she told  her two sons who were in the audience, "this, this whole song, was all about them," about demonstrating honesty and forthrightness and being proud of who you are.

About being able to tell your story.

I believe so much in the power of stories. They connect us, they equalize us, they inspire us, they provoke us. Telling your story to one person or one million people is a gift to you and to the listener.

But I also believe the way we tell those stories is important, that it should be in kind with type of life you've lived, the type of reaction you want to inspire, and the reason you're telling it in the first place.

And I wish Foster had chosen a different way to tell hers.