What Writing Means to Me: Truth Tempered With Love
On the eve of my eleventh birthday, I informed my mother that I wanted to be a writer. I had just finished reading The Sojourner, a novel by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. While the protagonist was man twice my age, from a different place and time, he spoke to me in that secret language of the soul. This was not a child’s book, but my world was not a child’s world. And mother, her Irish eyes, bloodshot, her belly ballooning with the last of six children, sipped her wine succinctly stating, “That’s nice, dear.”
Archie Comics, Shakespeare or the Bible, it made no difference to her. At least, I was reading. No more endless evenings flashing cards in front of my face, turning b’s into d’s, or covering up the pictures to the storybooks I had memorized—verbatim. My mother had enough on her hands, and out of the bunch, I was the oldest, the dependable one, the one she could count on to help with the babies. As she saw it, life crushes us all soon enough, what could it hurt to let me dream? Every girl needs a dream.
So what if I wrote my letters backwards and upside down.
I had graduated from Dr. Seuss to Charles Dickens. Words, no longer tripped me up. Words, no longer intimidated me. Words, I decided, were the key. I couldn’t always sound them out, but with contextual clues, I could see, and in clarity, I discovered an amazing secret. Not in the words themselves, but in the spaces between the words, around the words, within the words, into the world of knowing.
It was in this world of knowing that I began to write. Sporadically. Spasmodically. Illegibly. No one could read what teachers dubbed my “chicken scratch,” yet these efforts served me well for I became adept at plumbing the messages buried deep within the crusty shells of images and words. Things I could comprehend but not explain: the wine stains, like blood, on mother’s closet floor; the frantic quivering of my brother’s chin when he’d wet the bed; the chalky soap scum on my sister’s lips after she called the lady who came to help a nigger.
Most haunting of all, my brother Michael laid out in a tiny coffin, wearing a powder-blue suit with a rosary wrapped in his three-year-old fingers and the gash on his forehead so finely powdered you could hardly notice it after the accident.
Michael is in heaven now. We must not talk about it. Accidents happen.
I was the oldest, the dependable one, the one they could count on to keep quiet. And I did. Along with Michael’s body, I buried my memories, my questions, and my knowing.
Gradually, slowly, I began to forget, until I forgot everything—even who I was. I put down my books, my paper, my pen, and picked up a basketball. The single thing I had a talent for. In high school I made the varsity team and I clung to that ball like a drowning swimmer clings to a life vest; it alone was my ticket out.
Out into the post-Title IX world of women’s sports. Out to a Jesuit University amidst a world of tumbleweeds, new ideas, and an endless array of words. Once again, I picked up my pen and began to write. On the court and on the page I pounded out my pain. Yet, wherever I went, a thin black thread tugged at my soul, as if I’d forgotten something, something important, and I was forever searching for it in the next basket, in the next town, on the next page.
I received a grade for playing basketball. My only “A.” After a year of sleeping in dank hotel rooms and twisting my knee beyond repair, I quit.
“If you want to stay at that fancy school, you pay for it!” My father shouted through the phone. So I did. I took out loans. I landed a job as a resident advisor and during those late night shifts, I wrote and wrote and wrote. By day, I took as many “ology’s” as my schedule would allow: theology, sociology, psychology, and after I graduated with a degree in marketing (less math, more ology’s) I soared off to save the world with a heart that knew the needs of others better than its own.
In California’s San Joaquin Valley, known to the natives as the Grapes of Wrath County, I made solar breadboxes, red-hot tamales and fended off the wild dogs that fed on the scraps of the poor. I learned that poverty had many faces, and that there were those who had little money and those who had little heart. Most importantly, I learned to be alone. On a mattress, on the floor, with the dry breath of night air, the smell of a rotting muskmelons, and the heat pressing down on me. Books silently sung me to sleep—cheap, bent, paperbacks, and moldy Penguin classics. Whatever I could lay my hands on. Harper Lee. Pearl Buck. Flannery O’Connor. Kate Chopin. I loved women writers. Especially, women of color, women who’d tackled tough issues head on, women who taught me what it meant to be a woman—beyond color, class, creed or sexual orientation. Maya Angelou. Alice Walker. Zora Neale Hurston.
Then, came the call that mother had fallen ill from an allergic reaction to the gold salt injections used to treat her rheumatoid arthritis. A solution that washed through her veins with rivers of red wine with whatever blue or pink pills could be had at the time. I was the oldest, the dependable one, the one they could count on. I flew home to cook and care for the youngest boys, ten and twelve. The ones that came after Michael died. At my father’s urging, I joined the family real estate business and began to make money. More money than I knew what to do with.
Never mind dreams.
Never mind the writing. Like other women, I did what was expected of me, I met a man and married. He knew what to do with my money, and it made little difference to me because before long, I held in my arms the most beautiful creature I had ever laid eyes on; a wrinkled brown-skinned boy. But there was a problem— not with my baby, but with me. Every time he cried, the blanched dead bones of my past grew flesh, gathered strength and marched in my mind like a mad, thunderous army of truth. Michaels in heaven. We must not talk about it.
I could not eat.
I could not sleep.
I lost track of what was then and what was now and when I could no longer count the scoops to make my baby’s milk, when I lost even my words, I checked myself in.
“Postpartum depression complicated by PTSD.” The young doctor scrawled on his chart, then, seeing my journal, added, “It helps some people to start at the beginning and write.”
So I did. I wrote and I cried and I wrote. I wrote until my eyes swelled shut, until the sobs shook through my body and the pen slipped from my hand, until I fell into a deep sleep, and it wasn’t until I woke that I fully understood what my writing meant to me—that this desire I had to put words out into the world was as vital to my essence as the air I breathe.
Writing saved my life. Without it, I doubt I would have survived to raise my son. Writing gave me the first glimpse of a “God” I could understand. It taught me that dyslexia was not a disability, but a gift, a leavening agent, like yeast, that would keep me humble enough to ask for help, willing enough to be persistent, and honest enough to remember who I really am. In fact, writing helps me find the fullest expression of who I am. Something I can offer to others. The world. A way I can give back to my Creator.
Writing has healed me.
Journals became paper vessels that cradled my deepest sorrow, my greatest joy and my most excruciating pain. For me, writing has been both a chariot and an untamed horse. It has saved my butt and gotten me into the deepest of trouble, but it has never, ever, betrayed me.
When I write, I cease to be, and there is only an obligation to the power of love, for the purpose of this essay, I shall call that power, God. (Or Dog, depending on the day.)
When I write, I tune into my muses, my angels, who see the world like a dyslexic, from the inside—out, with X-ray eyes that can pierce the walls of any person or character’s heart. No matter how hard or scarred it may be.
My muses are not burdened with burgeoning self-doubt or body pains or endless appetites. They define dyslexia as freedom, a way of seeing things differently and they whisper to me as Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings once did, in that secret language of the soul. Ever-reminding me that good writing is truth tempered with love and that the sacred seeds of my own redemption and that of any character I can conceive, must first be foraged for and found in the forest floor of the human heart. The place where we all connect—our hope and our salvation.