by Linda Caradine
Last night I told Klaus that I was thinking of scrapping my memoir. As an elder sibling he should have some insight into this decision, but I had to supply reasons more than it seemed like the right thing to do. I told him there is a sub-genre known as misery lit and I didn’t want to occupy that space. It was not that my agonies weren’t real or my scars not evident. I just wasn’t sure anymore, now that the tome had written itself to completion, that I wanted or needed to air so much laundry.
“Too whiny, huh?” was all Klaus could manage. Terseness, I suppose, can be a gift.
I was sorely neglected as a child and my school years were torture. I was pursued by the deaths of all the people whom I loved as an adult. It would make interesting reading. Some people might even find strength in my experiences. But, somehow, it all seemed to miss the point that life could be glorious despite all my impressions. To some greater or lesser degree, I had managed to overcome the worst of my traumas. If I’m being honest, I should admit that, on a good day, wearing too much lipstick and failing to
lose that final fifteen pounds are among the darkest clouds of times gone by. Like the long shadows that crawl out into the open once a day, there are periodic tears and panic attacks and fretful late-night hours that still plague me. Perhaps most people, or at least most women, have such a story to tell. Did anyone ever really have a happy childhood?
Klaus took my comments under consideration. Or at least I think he did. His coming of age was apparently much more straightforward and prosaic than my own. For me, nothing was ever simple. Nothing followed a hero’s journey. Now it appeared the creation of my memoir was another painful and time-consuming misstep in this writer’s life. Perhaps the exercise of writing it all down was therapeutic. I don’t think so. I believe I just managed to dredge up a load of angry, ugly memories, and brought them back to life just to gnaw at me for a second time. Why was everything so difficult? And why did I feel the need to expose those difficulties all over again? Was this a legitimate use of my talent as a writer? Or was it just, in Klaus’s words, too whiny?
Let us be real. Life is not a picnic. It’s full of grief and disappointment and all manner of monstrous episodes. But among the thorns there are tiny snatches of contentment, beauty and joy. For every epithet that was hurled at me as a fat girl in a thin world, there would come a little light into my
beleaguered life. Maybe a teacher would compliment my composition. Maybe a boy would look my way.
Maybe there would be pizza for lunch. And then the darkness would descend again. As a kid, I came to savor these bright spots and surely that ability helped me to survive. Did I carry a special gene for resiliency or coping that others did not? If so, perhaps that capability should be further developed.
My education faltered. My marriage failed. My career imploded. I visited some of my own emotional demons on my daughter. Almost everyone I cared for had died. But I’ve taken some wild trips, rescued a lot of dogs, and read a lot of great books. Those are the things that buoyed me through the years and those are the things that I should feature when I tell about my life. At least I think so.
The problem is, I don’t want to come across as some Suzy Sunshine who’s never had any challenges. I don’t want to sour the depths of my life by looking at it through those tinted glasses. It’s much more interesting to color my tale with threads of the mental illness that has grown up with me. It’s
so much more fascinating to delve into what formed me into the person I am. And, to be sure, most all of those formative episodes were ugly and painful.
So let us make a deal. I won’t ignore my torment but I won’t overuse it either. A little horror goes a long way.
When I was eight years old, my pet chicken was torn to shreds by an ill-tempered dog. I still cry when I think about that. But do you want to know all about it? Do you need to feel the terror that erupted from my chubby chest when I witnessed the carnage? I don’t think so. I believe that experience was central to my ongoing compassion for the suffering of animals. And that’s a good thing. At least it’s a good thing when channeled into action. And I believe I have done that for a good part of my adult years.
So should I be glad it happened? Meh.
Difficulties. They are learning experiences. There’s no question about it. They are opportunities to make choices. They are platforms from which one can leap off into learning and progress. Years of therapy has taught me that we can all make something good of the raw clay of our misery.
At sixteen, I snuck into a St. Louis dive bar and had a night to remember with forty-something rock and roll legend Chuck Berry. Was I a victim of sexual abuse? The experience stays with me as one of the most fortunate, most edifying nights of my life. I guess one person’s trash is indeed another
I’ve walked the Great Wall of China. I’ve canoed the Amazon. I’ve straddled the equator and visited the Louvre. Some things are just good. No two ways about it. But I find that most of life is made of more ambiguous stuff.
In my forties, I had weight loss surgery and a face lift. More than improving my looks, which those procedures did, they taught me a lot about who I really am. I suppose I could have learned to like myself in a less painful way. But that was my process. That’s how I did it. Did I mention the surgery was botched and came close to killing me? Did I include the fact that the plastic surgery threw me into bankruptcy?
When I was fifty, I went through a nervous breakdown. I couldn’t work any longer. I could scarcely function at all. But that turned out to be the transformative event of my adult years. I wound up ditching my corporate existence and instead pursuing my passions. I started an animal rescue
organization. I reconnected with my writing. Falling apart in a very public forum is not for the faint of heart. But it served its purpose.
I’m giving you a thumbnail sketch of some of my challenges in life. These are some of the things that made me who I am today. And I assure you the same is true in your own life. You might choose to write a memoir and plumb the depths of your difficult issues. I’m choosing to skip the details and get right to the good part. The good part, in my case, is how I emerged from the chaos a better person. The good part is looking back, at the age of sixty-five, and feeling that I’ve accumulated just a little bit of irony.
When Klaus looks to me to make sense of our world and our choices now, I can only shrug my shoulders. I don’t have any answers. I just have what works for me and a solid understanding of lessons learned.
I am a depressive. But I am a depressive with a positive outlook. I have to be that in order to survive. It’s not an attitude so much as it is the dogged knowledge that, whatever happens, no matter how much life hurts, the view will change. That may be the key kernel of insight that I carry with me from day to day walking in this craggy landscape. Ferdinand de Saussure had it right all along: Time changes all words. And life itself is a lot like the language of which he spoke. There are right ways and wrong ways
to do it, there are certainly quirks and dialects specific to different peoples and even different individuals, but the bottom line is to be understood and, more so, to understand oneself.
The next time one of my writing buddies asks me how the memoir is coming along, I will simply tell them that it is complete. I have written it from beginning to end with all its excruciating filler. I have coaxed it and vetted it to a fine portrayal of a life with all its warts. I have placed it lovingly in a drawer unless or until the day comes when I feel the need to share it with the world. It is my reflection on life so far and, to be honest, I feel there are already sections that require revision. It is no longer an encapsulation of the authentic me. It is but a fragment of who I was at one particular time and that slice of life is already, if not obsolete, then blurred and inexact.
Let the years come and change my words, and send in the clowns.
Linda Caradine is a Portland, Oregon based writer whose work has appeared in The Oregonian Newspaper, Down in the Dirt, Animal Wellness and other publications.