What’s your story?

Narrative. I’ve been thinking about it lately, because I’m taking a narrative workshop that starts this week.In particular, I’ve been thinking about personal narratives.

I had the occasion to shop for a new laptop last month. I asked my recently-retired boss Vance to join me. He’s a Mac user, a math whiz and all-around good guy, so it seemed like a reasonable plan. I worked with Vance for almost 5 years and became familiar with the way he operates. He recognized limitations, challenges or hardships faced by the public schools with which we worked, but he always, invariably,  saw the growth, possibilities and promise of the professionals who were working within those systems.

When we went to the Mac store, I could see Vance looking around, noticing the way business was being conducted. He was impressed by the young man who helped me through my decision process and the information he was able to provide. And then Vance did what he Vance does, he created a narrative of development, hope, progress, and potential that he took with him when he left the store. We joined other GEAR UP folks for dinner and he had that story to tell–the story of how amazing young people are, how technology is changing the world, enabling us to do many complex tasks effortlessly.

It got me thinking about narrative. I mean, a less positive or enlightened person could have told the story of being dragged to the Mac Store as a journey to hell with a woman half-crazed with fear because her PC was dying. Not that Vance knew anyone like that, I am simply making an example of a purely hypothetical, contrasting narrative.

Inspired by the subject, I consulted our friend Wikipedia and discovered another way of thinking about narrative: as a psychological process of creating a sense of personal or cultural identity. There is one school of thought that asserts that the breakdown of a coherent or positive narrative may play a role in the development of mental disorder. Fascinating!

The psychological definition made me think about my Dad. Although he, to my knowledge, was never diagnosed as having depression, I’d really surprised if he couldn’t have been. My Dad’s narrative was the black to Vance’s white. His went something like, “I’ll never get ahead, never have anything. All I do is work, work, work with nothing to show for it. You kids are all grown up and I don’t even know you.” Ouch.

I wonder what his life might have been like if he could have let go of his heavy-hearted narrative. I wonder if he could have re-written the story of his life, if not gaining a few years before his sudden death at 59, then perhaps in making those too-few years a celebration of something that brought him a feeling of hopefulness about this world. Would even a small bit of everyday hopefulness, like the anticipation of seeing the sun rise over his favorite maple tree or the thorough enjoyment of warm oatmeal with raisins for breakfast, have been enough to heal his heart?

It’s worth contemplating, both as a writer going into a character whose narrative may define a story and as a human trying to live authentically, consciously, productively and positively.

Do you have a personal narrative? What is it? Or what do you want it to be?

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Who’s got my back?

How I rue that fateful day at the end of March when my chronic back pain took a turn for the herniated.

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Life changed and it continues on with adjustments to lingering effects from my injury. One of the only positives I could come up with about the situation was that I had a label, a thing I could point to. Instead of being dismissed as a wimpy whiner, I had a condition. See, not making this up, got a trouble, and have photographic evidence to back up the claim.

But then some dear soul, let’s say my beloved husband, got me a book called “Healing Back Pain: The Mind Body Connection.” I harrumphed, and may have mentioned having pictures of herniated discs. But then he threw down the gauntlet, “What do you have to lose?” So the book sat looking at me for a couple months from on top o’ the book pile.

Then another dear soul, my friend Sonia, mentioned she was reading a book by John Sarno on the mind/body connection related to back pain. I believe I responded to her kindness with a snarky bit about the pictures I had of my vertebrae, a verifiably medical condition. I may contemplated making a small photo album of my MRI images.

But I relented a little. I carried the book around the house every now and then, took it on the bus back and forth to work for a week, perhaps even took it on vacation, but it remained unopened, making its silent demands.

Meanwhile, I’ve continued my efforts to maintain some sort of fitness during this interminable healing period. The efforts were proven woefully inadequate recently when I discovered that my fat pants were becoming snug. Dear God, the horror. I put my foot down and joined the Oakland YMCA.

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I must say, this may be one of the nicest gyms. It’s had some updates and has a lot going on, but there’s something more about the place. Maybe they feng shui’ed the heck out of it, because it’s got a positive buzz vibrating through the floors. Somehow this army of sweaty people seems to include my kind of people. I honestly didn’t know there was a gym in the world where I might feel ok. I’m not an athlete, never have been. I work out so I can enjoy eating more than the carrots my metabolism can process without fattening me. I work out so I can stay away from those fat pants…the currently snuggish ones.

First item on the agenda was water aerobics. Despite having to overcome the dread of donning a bathing suit in public, this is a great way for a wounded warrior to get her sword back. Well, maybe her butter knife, but it’s a start. Turns out the older folk flock to water aerobics. Duh! It doesn’t hurt their bones and joints either! I am loving my classes with them–they keep it real, have a good time and have made me feel welcome.

Apparently one of the big selling points at gyms these days is having a person at a desk who helps you identify gym classes and offerings that match your workout needs or goals. At the Y, these cats are called Wellness Counselors, which gets a little of the Y’s philosophy into your subconscious, too, doesn’t it? I signed right up, because I am all about the plan. I need me a plan, a point on the horizon, because otherwise this gimpy back thing is going roll me up like a millipede under a wet leaf.

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I show up to my appointment and the young man waiting to greet me with a smile has a list of questions. I don’t know what I expected, maybe less counseling, but remember he is a Wellness Counselor, right? It definitely felt like a counseling session and I responded…somewhat guardedly. What is it about being questioned? I’ve realized lately that it’s not my favorite thing. I like time to reflect, mull things over, chew on it and respond thoughtfully.

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But here I am being quizzed by this young man who seems more and more like a combination of Yoda and some sort of mercurial messenger, with bits of his hair sticking up like antennae, receiving and transmitting information. And then it happens. He starts to tell me about the mind body connection and how Tai Chi and restorative yoga could help the healing process with my back.

At that moment I waved the white flag. I relent, Universe! I relent!

The journey has to be about integration. Discs are discs, but the pain leading up to them may have had many causes, among them worry, perfectionism, judgement. Ok. I’ll claim these burdens that developed as coping mechanisms but have lost their necessity. I’ll work this healing crisis through with all my pieces and parts.

So the path forks to the left and a new journey begins. At the crack of dawn on Saturday, I’ll be moving my chi downtown. What do I have to lose…except maybe this monkey on my back.

Location, Location, Location

I love it when I have an evening out with my favorite date and I wake up the next day still loving the night before. Last night we had an Alameda evening par excellence. Although we have been island dwellers for three years now and we lovelovelove living here, I don’t feel very well-connected to the community. For starters, I may be the only 40-something year old married woman living on the island who doesn’t have children. Maybe there are one or two others, but we haven’t met.

When I started this blog thing, one of my goals was to connect with other writers. As it is oft said, writing is a solo endeavor and yet I like interacting with people, leaving the house and bumping into familiar faces at the produce stand, being challenged by new ideas while conversing over a watermelon/feta/mint salad. In that sense of writerly friend-seeking I got a little brave; I told one of my favorite bloggers I liked her writing. Gasp! Last night I got to meet her in person. Delightful!

Alice Lewis writes a weekly blog for Alameda Patch. Google her; she comes right up. She’s a lovely story-teller and she’s not afraid to tell the story where she is the comedic main character, to charming effect. She’s a longterm local and connected to local talent by marriage and blood. As a result of one of her recent blogs, we caught a show at the High Street Station last night. Her future son-in-law opened and her nephew-in-law (is that even a thing?), Mike Gibbons played a three-hour set. He should get an artistic endurance award at the very least! The music was so great that three hours passed too quickly and I spent all my money on three CDs and a tee-shirt. Actually I spent some of my date’s money, too. Thanks, babe.

Check this singer out: http://mikegibbons.net/

 

 

Listening to Mike’s songs last night, several of them could only have been written by a Californian. They beat with the pulse of this place in an authentic, intrinsic way.  I felt a pang of homesickness for the very place where I was sitting. Beautiful.

I have a deep and abiding love of the west coast, my chosen home. Better yet, I’m not alone here. My brother Chris moved here six months after I did, fresh out of college. He met and married Cedony, a California desert girl who turns out to be one of my favorite people in the world. And then they got busy having sons who are two of the smartest, cutest, most charming and delightful boys on the planet. I say this as a completely neutral, unbiased observer, of course. I met Michael, my favorite husband, in San Francisco, despite his roots in the Chicago-area. Our little two-family cluster in the west pulls together a wide swath of this big country.

But here’s the thing, when you are born in Maine, to parents whose families have lived in Maine for generations, perhaps even preceding the state’s statehood, that is some serious pull.

When I return to Maine, I am home. I can’t and wouldn’t deny that I have lived much of my life elsewhere, but my roots are as deeply wound around the graves of my ancestors buried in Dover-Foxcroft, Guilford and Sangerville as any Maine-born person’s roots could be. But, I am also “from away.” There is palpable tension in being an outsider in this environment, a place where most of my people don’t aspire to leave.

Last summer I visited Maine. I found some long-lost cousins on my Dad’s side of the family, who I am enjoying getting to know. I re-visited the cemetery where Dad is buried for the first time since he died in 1993. I knew that there was a family plot, that he was buried near his parents and at least one of his brothers. What I didn’t know was that his parents’ extended families were also buried there. It was an old country cemetery full of names that I carry in my heart.

Here’s where this post all comes together: one of Mike’s songs nailed an ongoing conundrum of mine. Where will I have these old bones put when my spirit moves on without them? In his song Kilamanjaro, a father’s last request was that his son scatter his ashes from the top of the mountain, insuring that the boy would make the climb.

Two locations and two sets of nephew/nieces….Hmmm. Is it a law that ones ashes have to be deposited in one spot? I think not. Perhaps I could leverage my influence over my youngest nephews and get them to take my ashes to the family cemetery so beautifully located in the woods of Maine. It is possible that I could convince our Illinois nephews and niece to come sprinkle some ashes in a beloved west coast location. In this way, my remains could be where my heart longs to be and maybe the next generation will come to love these places in a special way, too.

I’m not certain how I got here from having had a delightful Alameda evening. Maybe it’s because we’ll have a blue moon in August and it’s causing a special sort of lunacy related to blogging. Let’s go with that.