“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”I drive the same way home every day. When I emerge from a bend on the freeway, circling on I-280 South past Page Mill, I see a breathtaking view ahead of me. On my left there are the domes of three hills, lush with small blades of grass today, a forlorn deeper green tomorrow, turning brown and patchy another day. On my right there is a towering house hidden behind trees. On an afternoon that blooms as an afterthought to rain, clear and clean, tufts of cottony clouds seem to be hovering above this house. On stormy days, the trees are swaying in front of the topmost tower's topmost windows. In winter, thickets of fog seem to leech on to the ocher exterior of the house and the naked tree limbs. In summer, the house looks bright, the trees full and fat, the sky glitters in the background. It's the same road, the same house, the same age-old trees, but they look different every day. As I merge on to the freeway, I wonder how the house past the bend in the road will look like and how it will make me feel, because it does evoke something different in me every time I see it. These feelings are colored by the successes and set-backs of the day, tinged by the bitterness of failure sometimes, flavored by the aftertaste of disappointment. Sometimes, I am able to find absolute beauty when I look at this house in the heart of the hills, because I bring my happiness with me. It may look like it is crumbling in a winter storm and I may still find it to be a metaphor for resilience, because despite the stony rain and the whipping winds, it stands like it always has, sand-colored with red trimmings around the window glass, peeking through the shivering trees. I find a new story during my drive home this way, and the image of the house makes me bookmark them.
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
There are so many stories I haven't told. Messy stories. Stories of fear and heartbreak and failure and disillusionment and strength and grit and joy. I don't even know where to begin to tell them. It's odd that I feel so full of these stories, but at the same time, I am so distant from writing one down on paper. To talk about just one, I want to shape a poem around an afternoon during my childhood that taught me a hard and menacing lesson about this world. I want to transport myself to that nine-year-old's body with the two pigtails and the new frock, the hammering heart, the small feet running past the iron gates, into the heart of the house, the trembling hands not knowing what to hold on to, the trimmed fingernails finding a sagging wax candle on a pillar near the stairs, scratching it, clawing at it, breaking it down. The mother looking at that nine-year-old girl curiously, pausing on her way downstairs, "What's wrong?" "Nothing," a croak from the child's parched throat, and all the while her soft nails cracking while shredding the candle to pieces.
How much does a writer choose not to tell in her story? How much should she tell? Anne Lamott, in her book Bird by Bird, suggests telling everything, but she also doesn't pretend that it is easy to do so. I can see how telling some stories that I have chosen not to share yet will be therapeutic, but I am afraid of the walls that I will run into over and over. I have built concrete mazes around these stories over the course of many years. How do I start breaking them down, how do I start peeling away the paint that is supposed to hide the ugliness of truth? How do I make myself remember...
Every day, when I come upon that house on the freeway, it makes its way into my story for that day. I package it into memory and put it away. I imagine different people living in it, caring for it, I embellish it in my mind, and sometimes I deface it. Today, having decided to write about the house and about the fear of sharing the other more sinister stories, I kept my eye trained on the hills, but I couldn't find it. One bend after another I searched the landscape, but I could not locate that house or the mounds across from it. I must have simply missed it as I was trying to merge with the oncoming traffic. However, this meant that I had to reach into the recesses of my memory and dig out the images I had filed away, unconsciously, for many days. I closed my eyes and I saw that house again when I began to write this post. I saw it as I had seen it on those wintry days, on rainy evenings, during high summer. I saw it and I wrote about it from memory. I must reach back to that nine-year-old girl. I must touch her bleeding fingers. I must hold her and tell her, It's alright. I can't make her say to her bemused mother, "I am so scared," but I can convince her to breathe, to close her eyes, to remember. I can look into her terrified face and say, Let me tell our story, and then somehow muster the courage to live up to this promise.
Photos by Rebecca McCue