I was invited to a book group to do an author reading and discussion last week (thank you Spine Tinglers, fabulous women and yoginis!). Our conversation ranged all over the place – my favorite kind – and the questions they asked were juicy. The one I’ve been chewing on since our meeting is why I chose to write a book of personal essays. The sub-question there is what compelled me to be vulnerable and open myself up to perfect strangers. Under that question is a deeper one: what changed me, what woke me up?
I have to link it back to my mother’s sudden death when I was in my early thirties. Beyond the grief and devastation and rebuilding, the truth inside this single event shook my foundations. If I could no longer believe that my mother would live to a ripe old age, then its corollary was true as well; I could no longer believe that I would live to a ripe old age.
The future was uncertain. Because I so wanted to slow time, it sped up. It’s not that enjoying my life wasn’t good enough for me. It was, and is, that I felt a gut-level urge to choose my life’s direction instead of following one that was well worn. I made conscious changes. I could not envision a second chapter that was more of the same me doing more of the same, expected things. That vision scared me more than taking a leap into the unknown. Eventually, not writing scared me more than writing. I grabbed onto the first genre I knew, which was my own story.
There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.
But time…how time first grounds us and then confounds us. We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible when we were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things instead of facing them.
– Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending
I say it all the time, and I mean it: we only get one chance to be on this planet. One lifetime. That is a thrilling and overwhelming thought. The most evil and the most saintly among us, the richest and poorest, the most powerful and the most oppressed, and all of us in the middle – we all get just this one shot. I think about this constantly. It is the urgent legacy of heartbreaking loss.
Whether essays or fiction or blog posts, I write because I have to. At one level it’s a way of acknowledging that I’m here for the duration. But also, I believe that if I don’t I will have missed my single chance to figure out who I can be.