There’s nothing quite like the feeling when you are deep in a book and you read something that perfectly describes you. I always marvel at the relative ease with which certain authors can nail y0u (figuratively speaking, you dirty bird) on the page. How do they do that?
I just read an excerpt from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott that so perfectly describes who I was as a child. Anne describes how she saw her father, also a writer, when she was a child:
I suspected that [my father] was a child who thought differently than his peers, who may have had serious conversations with grownups, who as a young person, like me, accepted being alone quite a lot. I think that this sort of person often becomes either a writer or a career criminal. Throughout my childhood I believed that what I thought about was different from what other kids thought about. It was not necessarily more profound, but there was a struggle going on inside me to find some sort of creative or spiritual or aesthetic way of seeing the world and organizing it in my head.
I was a different kind of kid, in a lot of ways. I was emotional and considered my feelings very serious. I am able to look back today and see that most of the strange ways I thought and acted which set me apart from my peers, i.e. not being able to sleep over at friends’ homes or checking the patio doors were locked several times a night, were actually signs of an anxiety disorder and not typical childhood stuff. Bargaining with God to let me live until I was at least a Bat Mitzvah (13) is not typical behavior of most American-born, upper middle-class white children.
But it makes for good writing.
I spent a lot of time alone creating stories in my head and acting them out in the front yard. My only sibling was ten years my senior and my parents were old school about parenting. They had me at 40, and unlike many of the kids I teach today, my parents didn’t fill in every moment of my weekend/summer vacation/holiday with activities. They were pretty hands-off when it came to most things and I was expected to take care of myself entertainment-wise. Now, to be fair, they did generously send me to summer camp and I never lacked toys to play with, but as for the agonizing moments of boredom that eventually comes to a child, I was on my own. There was no running off to Lego Land or American Girl shops. When we went to the shore we didn’t go to Ocean City to play on the beach. We went to Atlantic City. Because my mother loved to play slot machines. And I was elated to just have Nickelodeon for a few days (did I mention to you we didn’t get cable until I was thirteen?).
I remember once Andrea, my best friend and neighbor, was over and we had completely exhausted every game and toy and we were so out-of-our-minds-bored that we actually consulted my mom for help. My mother brought us two books, put two kiddy chairs outside on the deck, and said, “You will take turns reading to each other.” We sat in our mini plastic chairs and looked at her like she was crazy. She looked at us and said something to the effect of, “You don’t like it? Well then fine. But that’s all ya getting from me. Don’t ask again.”
They were my parents, there for guidance and (sometimes) love. They were not my day-planner.
I preferred the adult conversation to the kids’ table. I would even tell my cousins to “bug off” so that I could listen to what the adults were saying. I didn’t understand what they were talking about most of the time, but I found their conversation far more superior to the one taking place with the kids (unfortunately, now that I’m older and understand the conversation at the adult table, I realize how boring adults actually are).
Lamott writes about a struggle going on inside her to organize and make sense of the world around her in a creative and spiritual way. I too wanted to make sense of life. Even as a child I knew it was a chance that I received this lucky experience of being alive and I wanted to know if I was living my life, this gift, correctly. I could never have explained to you what living “correctly” meant, only that it required of me a certain amount of awareness and appreciation of my life. I would lie in bed surrounded by stuffed animals, thinking, “Thank you. Thank you for the roof over my head. Thank you for this safe place with my parents and my sister. Thank you for this blanket keeping me warm.”
Around eighth grade I realized that I had a knack for writing my feelings, which is great because I was terrible at art and sports. I wasn’t writing novels, more like poems that rhymed rose with toes, but I was heading somewhere. I felt just like Anne writes in her book,
There was a moment […] when I began to believe that I could do what other writers were doing. I came to believe that I might be able to put a pencil in my hand and make something magical happen.
And once I began, “I wrote some terrible, terrible stories.”