“When you’re young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You’re your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too—leave them behind. You don’t yet know about the habit they have, of coming back. […] You can never get away from where you’ve been.”~ Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin
In a few days, I’ll shuttle through another birthday, another twirl around the sun. I am almost twice the age of the woman I was in the [above] photograph.
It seems impossible, but it’s true.
I look deeply into that face and wonder how it is possible she felt so useless, so small. When I look at her now, she seems impossibly and incandescently beautiful. How come I never saw that?
My mom and I talked this morning and I mentioned how much happier I’ve been since the age of 40. Adult life before 40, was, for me, pretty miserable. I was happy as a child and teen, but for most of my twenties and thirties, I fell into a deep well of despair. It’s hard to believe, considering all that I accomplished, but it’s true.
I didn’t love my girl. I didn’t love that fundamentally-flawed, fucked-up, fragile, handle-with-care girl.
In my private moments, I seethed. A sloth in love with my couch, I ate myself into oblivion, worked a job I hated (even after getting my master’s degree), and felt isolated by longing and an affinity for sadness that I can’t really explain. Genetics played a role, I’m sure.
I realize, only now, what a lost soul I was in those days.
“But you seemed so sure of yourself then,” my Mom sighed.
“Bullshit and bravado. All sheen and no substance.”
The Road Not Taken
We discussed the limited options my Mom had as a young woman. (Basically, marriage/motherhood, or a career as a nurse, a secretary, or a teacher.) Cha-ching.
“I look at what some of these young women can do now, and I find myself wishing I could’ve had even half of those choices,” she admitted, her voice quiet.
“I know you don’t think so, but options were limited for me, too, Mom. Each generation may gain freedom in one way, but you lose it in another. There’s always a choice.”
And there’s the rub.
We all make choices. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we make them consciously. Sometimes, they feel like they are made for us. Sometimes choices come with the so-called ‘turning of the wheel.’ We decide to go out one night, and therefore, meet our future partner. We fall in love over calamari and beer with slices of lime.
It’s a crap-shoot. Sometimes there’s nothing but a windfall of nothing. And other times, you find yourself in Wonderland.
“Live out of your imagination, not your history.” ~ Stephen R. Covey
So, as I light imaginary candles on my cake later this week (no need to set the house on fire), I know I must continue to choose to be happy.
For many years, I didn’t think it was a choice. I thought happiness just happened. But in the end, our joy and freedom and creativity come from us. We wake up and we choose to love the arch of the sky just as the sun reappears. We rub the leather of our impossibly tiny baby shoes, treated to a physical object that testifies to our power to change. We read old poems over the phone and realize that the agony we felt had a purpose.
If only H.G. Wells had been right. If only we could go back in our time machine and warn ourselves: Danger. Danger, Will Robinson.
But if we did that, we (as we are now) would not exist.
Every wrong turn, every lost opportunity, every moment of red-faced shame, every single one – built us.
I built this life with my own hands. I built this body and this face through what I’ve seen and what I’ve done. I may have bruises and bumps and a few scars, but the house of my spirit is mine. I forged it. I earned it.
I look at my young face and I send as much love as I can muster. Crossing and swirling and marching back in time, I send my regards and my condolences to that younger version of me.
I realize now she’s got a good map; she will find her way.
How do I know for sure?
Every leaf and every feather and every piece of string I left for her along the way.
Shavawn M. Berry’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Huffington Post, elephant journal, Journey of the Heart: Women’s Spiritual Poetry, Olentangy Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Vagina – The Zine, Rebelle Society, The Cancer Poetry Project 2, Kinema Poetics, Kalliope, Poet Lore, Westview – A Journal of Western Oklahoma, Meridian Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, Concho River Review, North Atlantic Review, Synapse, Living Buddhism, Blue Mountain Arts/SPS, and Poetry Seattle. Her technique essay on the dramatic monologue/persona poem is featured in a poetry database published in 2013 by Ebsco Publishing. In 1998, she received her MPW in Professional Writing from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles where she specialized in Creative Nonfiction and Memoir.
Ms. Berry teaches writing at Arizona State University where she just completed a 2013 Lincoln Ethics Teaching Fellowship. You can follow her on Facebook or read more of her work on her blog. A portfolio featuring a selection of her essays, blog postings, and prose is available at Shavawnberry.contently.com.