In the Bay Area, we’ve been doing shelter-at-home for more than a month. Staying home all the time has both contracted and expanded my life. The contraction is obvious: I’m a gregarious hugger, but in five weeks the only creatures I’ve touched are my wife and my dog. As someone who’s particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, I’ve left my home three times in the past month. Before the pandemic, I’d go to my neighborhood coffee shop, my friends’ houses, my writing groups, the grocery store, the pharmacy.
Some days, shelter-in-place feels like I’m isolated under an ominous future.
Many of those time commitments have fallen away, leading to an expansion in my sense of time. As a memoir writer, I listen for hidden truths lurking behind my most important memories, and write them down. With a more spacious kind of time, the listening is easier and more rewarding, the writing more honest and satisfying.
For instance, the most dramatic incident of my childhood was when my mom ran me over. I thought my neurotic stoicism began the next day, when I tried to be “all better” so Dad would still love me and would stop being mad at Mom. Though that explanation lacks nuance, it wasn’t until writing memoir demanded a more ruthless, more integrated honesty that I was able to excavate a deeper truth.
The facts are unquestioned: I was playing in the driveway when I fell off my tricycle. Mom backed her car out of the garage and down the driveway, running over my leg, which was pinned beneath my trike. Though nothing was broken I stayed overnight in the hospital and went home the next day. When my father got home from work, I walked nervously over to him, demonstrating that I didn’t limp and therefore I was fine, really.
Yet memoir is not a mere recitation of facts. It’s a story that offers insights into a life, hopefully in the service of universal themes. For that kind of story, I can’t be satisfied with the first truths I find.
This is my original version:
I walked across the freshly vacuumed carpeting to him, working really hard not to limp, not to show that I was still in pain, the day after getting run over.
That’s the way I’ve always told this story: Mom ran me over, but I was desperate for my father to know that I was okay. Over time, it became a story of how it wasn’t acceptable to show pain or weakness in my family, no matter the source. It became a story of how imperfection or even injury branded one as damaged, weak. This trauma grew into the inception of my stoicism, of my insistence that I get back in action way too soon after injury, illness, or surgery.
Under shelter-in-place, it became:
I walked across the freshly vacuumed carpet to him, working really hard not to limp, not to show that I was still in pain the day after getting run over. I had to convince Dad I was as good as new, or… what? What would happen, exactly?
He would scream at Mom again, or worse. A lot worse. But if I were fine, he wouldn’t be angry anymore, right? I had a toddler’s magical thinking: if I were all better, I could erase the accident….
The approval I had sought was not forthcoming. Looking back now as a mother, I realize what I had needed from him was more fundamental, and more complex than approbation: I yearned for my father to be glad for me. I wanted him to have what the Buddhists call “sympathetic joy,” mudita, from the Sanskrit.
This accident was the most dramatic trauma of the years my family was intact, so for a long time I thought my desperate walk across my father’s bedroom carpet was the inception of my stoicism. Actually, I had already absorbed, as if by osmosis, the family culture of repressing imperfection.
My father’s contempt for weakness — real or perceived — led me to conflate pain with with humiliation, which festered into shame. I learned at his knee that if I couldn’t handle pain, illness, or injury without complaining, I would be rejected by those I loved, and by those on whom I depended.
Writing memoir may be cheaper than therapy! Actually, like therapy, it can be iterative: you get to a certain level of understanding and clarity, and a few months later, you return to the piece with greater skill and insight, again and again, until you’ve dug down to bedrock.