Her story, my story, our story

Calgary celebrates this year’s flood anniversary with a heavy rain but the river stays in its bed and our alley does not turn into a lake. A friend, away from Ground Zero at work, texts me anxiously. It’s all ok, I tell her—I wonder how many years have to pass before we relax in June—and how many years after that that a flood will come again, catching us off guard?

I am in a very reflective mood—not full-on navel-gazing, because I’m thinking not so much about myself as about story, and not just my story. In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Noah Yuval Harari says, “You are not a story,” and he argues that realizing this fact is one of the ways we will save the world. A funny statement from a historian—one who weaves stories for the present from stories of the past. And, he’s wrong. So wrong. We need stories. Stories is how we make sense of the world. It’s not truth and justice that carry the day. It’s the best story. Whoever has the best story persuades, conquers, wins.

In the many handwritten, unpublished “posts” I have from this year to date, my favourite—and the one that, perhaps, one day I will be able to share with you—is called “The End of Mommy Blogging.” It’s my story of how my children’s sentience and desire for privacy are killing my blog by altering, limiting the stories I can tell. Nowhere is this more blatant than in the largely untold story of the last six months and Flora’s health situation. “Don’t write about it, don’t tell anyone, my life, my story, my disclosure, my refusal to be seen as the disease, to carry a label,” she says, and I nod, I understand, I try to comply—but badly.

I understand her need to control the story, but the story of her illness is also my story, our story, and to not be able to deal with it the way I always deal with shit—to express it as a controlled, structured narrative, to turn suffering and pain and angst into story—into art—that makes some sense of the suffering—not doing that is very hard.

“Write about something else,” Flora commands. But she’s 14 and she doesn’t understand that there is nothing else. Her illness and her suffering touch every other part of my life, external and internal. Nothing exists in separation from it: my relationship to her brothers; my work, such as it is at the moment; my marriage—the best metaphor for which, right now, is me and Sean as two drowning rats, trying to keep their heads above water, each trying to help the other stay afloat, but fuck, it’s hard, would you do all of the work for a while, and also hold me up while you’re doing it? my little rat feet just can’t paddle any more…

My story, his story, her story, our story.

Every once in a  while, I force myself to interact with other people. And I can do it, for a while, so long as they don’t ask me how things are, how I’m doing. I cannot dissemble or evade. I cannot say, “I’m fine.” I’ve tried, and “fine,” in my throat, turns into a wail and comes out as “My daughter is really sick.” But that’s all I can say, because her story, so now, they need to find something else to talk to me about. And they say, “How is everything else?”

And I don’t understand how they don’t understand that there is nothing else.

There is only my child’s suffering. My helplessness. Worse, my ineptitude, resentment, anger.

The anger is getting better. Meditation in not a panacea—I’m pretty sure it does not cure cancer and heart disease, sorry, Buddhist and yoga fanatics—but it does dissolve anger. How can one be angry at gravity, the theory of relativity, electrons, basal ganglia, your right arm? Breathe in and out, wish I could pray, but what sort of asshole god would let this happen to a child, breathe…

“Things could always be worse.” Flora says this every once in a while, and then we all say, “And they have been, let’s not forget, they have been.” And there is so much suffering around us, and so much of it, almost all of it, so much worse. My child will live. And may be—very likely, actually—win a Nobel Prize for research into genetics that will alleviate some of this suffering.

Weirdly enough, telling yourself others have it much worse than you does not alleviate suffering. It just makes you feel guilty for feeling bad.

What I have learned, during the flood, now, is that guilt is a bad motivator.

Flora disagrees. Trots out examples I can’t share with you. But she’s wrong. Guilt makes you ashamed of what you feel, what you want. (“I just want things to be normal, and I’m so tired of all this shit!”) Guilt makes you deny your needs and desires.

Maybe it propels you towards the required action—the action deemed necessary, usually, by others. But it keeps you from peace, acceptance of your shadow, and it keeps you from the action that is truly right for you and the situation.

Meditation, by the way, does not really seem to dissolve guilt. But gratitude does.

So, I practice being grateful for you, even though I can’t really accept your help, because your help comes with obligations I can’t fulfill, do you see that?

Ender’s been sick much of this week, a little lump on the couch in the kitchen, fading in and out of sleep and refusing medicine but demanding cuddles. I give him what I can; Sean stays home from work two days to multi-task, study for his final and cuddle the Ender. We’ve decided, long ago, that children are energy vampires when they are sick. They need you to sit beside them and hold them so they can use your life force to replenish theirs. Hey, it sounds cynical—if you have kids, you know it’s true.

Ender’s illness is simple, easy to care for—my duties, role, responsibility easy to see and fulfill.

“You’re not angry with Ender for being sick!” Flora.

Bam. Guilt. Flare of anger. Fucking ungrateful child, does she not see… Breathe. She probably doesn’t—after all, a loved child should take it for granted that a parent drops everything for her when she has an owie.

I look at all the things I’ve dropped and I wonder how, if I will pick them up again. You are there too, our friendship and our love, the time we used to spend together. And my work. Fuck. Right there, in broken pieces.

In my story, I mourn it more than I mourn you. Can you understand that, and will you forgive it?

We don’t flood yesterday, we probably won’t flood tomorrow. “This is a happy moment.” Gratitude dilutes guilt. Meditation slowly turns anger and resentment into compassion and acceptance.

Breathe.

Flora: Tell me a story.

Jane: Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved stories…

Flora: You’re so lame.

Jane: I’m what you’ve got.

Flora: Tell me a real story.

Jane: One upon a time there was mother who told stories…

Her story, my story, our story.

xoxo

“Jane”

 

 

A Meditation on Purgatory, Stories and Memory

For Tirzah, The Ink Caster

I.

“On a very basic level, you are what you remember — your very identity depends on all of the events, people and places you can recall.

“[E]motional memory [is] when we relive how we felt at moments in the past — elated, sad, depressed, or angry. When we lose emotional memory of our own youth, we find that we no longer understand young people. If this forgetting progresses, we begin to lose touch with ourselves.

“And if we allow our emotional memories to disappear, as happens with Alzheimer’s patients, we will find a stranger staring back at us from the mirror.”

Richard Restak,
The Art of Doing: How Superachievers
Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well

II.

I remember. Do you?

Although sometimes, I think people with crappy, short-term memories must be happier.

My Flora is losing that sharp, endless, flawless memory that exists during childhood. If you have kids, you know what I’m talking about. Your four-year-old remembering exactly what he ate on the day of his third birthday. The two-year-old recognizing the street you visited only once before.

Ender still remembers everything. It’s so annoying.

Adults are always so amazed at the vividity of children’s memories.

Silly adults. All children remember. Most adults forget.

Worse, they overwrite. Reinvent. Remember what never was.

What a tragedy.

(Except, when it’s a blessing…)

III.

“The least contaminated memory might exist in the brain of a patient with amnesia — in the brain of someone who cannot contaminate it by remembering it.”

Sarah Manguso,
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary

I contaminate, by remembering. I change, by re-experiencing.

And then, when I am ready to craft my version of how it really happened: I write it down.

And because you didn’t write it down, I win. My record stands. Your memory, I say, is faulty. Look. I wrote it all down. That’s how it happened.

(Thank you, Winston Churchill.)

The bitch of it is—I know what I’m doing, no one better. And so then, when you ooh-and-aah-and-coo and tell me, “So real, so brave, so authentic” (how I hate that word: Faking Authenticity), I am ashamed, because I know it’s not, it’s always, always performance, interpretation. Every word written, every word withheld: a choice.

The narrative is crafted, controlled.

IV.

In an average year, I write 30-40,000 words on Nothing By The Book. Moments captured, memories reinterpreted. Flora now reads and “remembers” her past in what I write. The responsibility paralyzes me.

“I’m writing me, not you,” I want to tell her. But I’m not sure she will understand.

“Don’t let how I write you affect who you are,” I want to tell her, but is that even possible?

“Don’t let me trap you, bind you, trick you, script a story that isn’t true for you even though it felt at the time true, necessary for me.”

“Are you telling me not to read your blog, your books?” maybe she will ask me.

And I will say… what? I suppose, this: “No. Read if you want to. But remember… it’s all just story.”

V.

“Be careful which stories you expose yourself to.”

Philipa Perry,
How to Stay Sane

VI.

My stories are, sometimes, my purgatory: a path to expiation, forgiveness, through suffering, atonement (a Catholic upbringing, however lukewarm, runs deep).

Sometimes–often–they are pure joy.

Always, the crafting of memory, disguised as preservation.

xoxo

“Jane”

nbtb-purgatory stories memory