via LOVING JONI
I love this essay to the moon and back. I love when someone’s writing sparks me to write, especially when it’s something other than what I intended to write.
Last night my husband and I were talking about my spider phobia. He has taken up macrophotography and is excited about photos he took of a tiny spider on a fiddleneck fern. I glanced at one photo and had to immediately look away, as the sight of the severely magnified monster was like a kick to my gut. And yet … after almost 30 years living in Florida, I no longer panic when I see a Golden Silk spider. In fact, I might just walk up to it, as long as the spider is at eye level and not overhead where it might mistake my frizzy gray hair for another web.
I’ve adapted by getting over some of my phobias and dislikes. I eat foods now that I would never eat as a child. I listen to a wider range of music now, instead of only Bruce Springsteen. But what really struck me in Jan’s essay was being “allowed to be ourselves and for that self to be re-framed throughout a long life.” At 61, I often think I should have myself all figured out by now, be as constant as the sun and the moon, be as predictable as my cat Junior waking me up in the wee hours with his lonely cries. And yet I’m not. I’m constantly shifting, and the shifting drives me crazy.
When I visit my family, I see people who haven’t changed much over the decades. They have deep-rooted lives with children and grandchildren; cousins, aunts, and uncles; friends they’ve known since high school. They haven’t wavered (much) with their politics, the foods they like to eat, and the music they like to listen to. They adhere generally to the same cultural codes they always have. I’m not saying this is bad, as I’ve often envied them the ability to so strongly identify with their own people, place, and time.
Salt of the earth.
I’ve seen or heard shifting around the edges of their long-held beliefs and values as the world around them changes and intrudes. I’ve seen or heard them pushing back against injustice, inequality, discrimination, lawlessness. This is growth, but not necessarily a reframing of their lives, individually or collectively.
Since I was a child, I hadn’t felt I belonged. Any effort I made to believe that I was a member of a tribe, that I felt cohesion with a group, quickly failed. The fact that I had to make an effort belies the truth of my belonging. It’s not that I was treated as a foreigner in my own extended family, but that I felt as one which, of course, was in part because I was treated as one. I was always an oddity.
I remember when I was a kid, I wanted to go on a hike with my cousins. Vague memory as all my memories are, but the gist was this: We had been camping and were going to go for a hike up a hillside. I don’t remember my age, but I don’t think I was yet a teenager. I started off on the hike and then, for some reason I can’t remember, I turned around and went back to camp. I changed my mind. I don’t know if I saw something that scared me. I don’t remember if I thought the hike was too hard. Maybe I wasn’t dressed properly for a hike, didn’t have the right shoes. Maybe I was afraid of being left behind, which is something that seemed to happen often enough for me to be afraid of it happening again.
When I was much younger, perhaps 5 or 6, I went to the Fonda Fair with my family. There was a “Mystery House.” You were supposed to go in one end and come out the other, and it was pitch black with scary sounds and maybe ghosts jumping out at you. I was allowed to go providing I hold onto my brother’s hand. It was pitch black. I couldn’t see anything. People were laughing and I didn’t understand why, what was so funny. This was scary! My hand was let go and I found myself blocked by a wall or maybe a door. I couldn’t see anything but I could hear people. Some teenagers moved past me, laughing. Someone noticed me, remarked that a little girl was there and she was crying. But no one offered to help me through the house. I managed to turn around and exit through the entrance. Whenever I think of this event, I recall feeling humiliated. Not only was I embarrassed, but I sensed my family, my mom, was embarrassed too. People thought it was funny that I came out through the entrance, crying. I don’t remember anyone trying to comfort me. I could be wrong, but I’d like to think that if someone had, I would remember.
Back to the hike: I had a well-founded fear of being left behind, and I believe that even though I wanted to go on the hike, it quickly became evident that I would be left behind. No one of my cousins would be interested in lagging behind with me. If I couldn’t keep up, it was my own fault. So I turned around and went back to the camp and never asked to go on a hike again.
Flash forward 20-some years, and I’m visiting my home and family for a few weeks, after having moved to California a couple of years before. One of my cousins is also visiting and she tells me about a hike that she and some other cousins were planning. I tell her I’d like to go and she promises to call me. In the brief time I had been living in California, I had started hiking. I was broke most of the time so hiking and going for long walks was one way to entertain myself without spending money. I was looking forward to hiking with my cousins, being part of a group that I hadn’t been much part of when I lived home. It didn’t matter where we were going as long I belonged.
My cousin didn’t call. By the time she got back in touch with me, the hike had been and gone, and my cousin confessed that she hadn’t taken me seriously.
“Why would I have said I wanted to go on a hike if I really didn’t want to?”
“Well, you never wanted to go before.”
“That was years ago. I’ve been hiking in California. I like to hike now.”
“Well, I didn’t know.”
Right, she was remembering me as I had been, fixing me in a time I was trying to grow out of.
My struggles with growth, with allowing myself to reframe my self as I journey through life, have their origin in my childhood and adolescence. When my mother would jokingly complain that I was so unpredictable as to be predictable. When I go home and the contrast of how family remember me and how I am now is so stark that even I don’t always recognize myself. That might be one good thing about having lived in one place for almost 30 years, especially as an adult, when growth and reframing can be incremental, at worst a slight tremor. Not like the earthquakes of growth when I was a child and adolescent, when one day I was playing with Barbie and Ken and Midget and Skipper and the next day I was no longer a child and let my dolls rot away in an attic. I’ll say this for my mom: She tried to keep up.
My changeability was a source of frustration for my family. I understand that, but I also understand it’s why I could never “go home” again. Going home would mean going back to whoever I was that my family remembered the most, not who I am now. It’s also why I fantasize about leaving Florida and starting anew somewhere else. I want to grow, to reframe. To do that while nothing around me changes is not just hard. It makes me feel odd, like a foreigner in my own country.