How To Figure Out Yourself and Your Life in Five Minutes
I do an exercise in my Write or Die classes that I wish I had done when I was a teenager and had then used as my North Star for the rest of my life.
Here it is. (Free!)
I want you to describe to me on paper a photograph of yourself that is most you. It doesn’t have to be an actual photograph, and it can be you at any age. It’s an image of you that would let me see the spirit of who you are. You have five minutes to write out the description of the photograph. Go.
I do this exercise because so many times when people set out to write they actually have no idea who is writing. I think it's helpful to have a mental snapshot of who you are as your truest self when you set out to write. This is not something that is set in stone. Your sense of self can be fluid, but if you can't see it, can't describe it, you may have trouble staying in a consistent voice.
The first time I did this, I described a photograph that someone had taken when I was maybe six years old. We were at the vacation house we always went to with the Morses (my father, years and years and years later now lives with Mrs. Morse, both of their spouses having died not too long ago. Who would have imagined this?!), and I was standing on the first thick rung of the white wooden gate, looking out over the stone driveway and the field to the farm house across the way, the barn, and the chicken coop where the hippies lived.
Alice’s Restaurant had come out in 1967, and my parents and the Morses took all of us kids to the theater, probably in Edgartown, to see it a few years later, and so hippies were on my mind that summer. They were another world, and they were living in the chicken coop within shouting distance from where I was, only that distance felt like infinity. We were barely from the same planet. I watched them and they didn’t watch me. They were long-bodied and elegantly dirty and I imagined they did things I didn’t even have language to name.
I was wearing a yellow nightgown and my hair was a little past my shoulders and tangled. I looked like any thousands of little girls you’d see out in the world.
I have taught Write or Die many, many times and each time I do this exercise, I come up with basically the same picture. Occasionally I have been one of the hippies instead of being the little girl. That was a big surprise the first time it happened. I was a hippie. Huh. I felt settled in my bones when I realized I was the little girl watching the world, mostly. An observer. A pair of young eyes. I was also the world sometimes, the lanky tangled-haired woman who stretched as she stepped out of the narrow door of the chicken coop into a field of waving grass. The person who wasn’t the eyes, the person who was going to go out and engage and do whatever is was that hippies did.
From about 21 years old to last year, I have felt this sense that I am not doing the right thing, that I am supposed to have a job. A job in an office. A 9-5 job under fluorescent lights. A job that gives me a business card and benefits and a regular paycheck. Whenever I have felt floaty or lost, my go-to thought was, I have to get a job.
Never mind that the times I have had an office job I have felt like I was buried alive. Never mind that fluorescent lights give me migraines and that I feel like I am going to die if I have to sit for more than a few hours (okay, minutes). My parents had office jobs for most of their adult lives and so that was what being an adult meant to me, and until I did that, I believed I wasn’t really living.
Except hold on. In that photograph where I am most myself, there isn’t an office space for miles even visible. I’m a kid, taking note of the world, seeing the beauty.
Which is what I do now. I spend hours every day just walking, taking pictures, thinking, so then I can go home and write and talk to other people and encourage them to be themselves. I am both the little girl watching the world and the hippie who is living in a way that allows her to be knee-deep in grass as soon as she gets out of bed.
I didn’t know I could get away with this kind of life, this life of my dreams. Yesterday I was out walking, listening to a podcast, and the interviewer asked, “What would you do if someone gave you a blank check? How would you live your life?” and I realized I would live exactly as I was right now.
It felt so strange after years and years of thinking that the point of life was to be dissatisfied with yourself, with where you were, so you could strive, work to be better, do better, be somewhere else. What if I was there? Wherever there was.
Today I listened to Daniel Larsen give a Moth talk on the idea of being lucky. Larsen’s is a fish market in Menemsha on Martha’s Vineyard. I went there regularly as a kid with my parents to get fish and clams, and I went there two years ago on my bike when I was out looking to connect with the spirit of my mother, only it was a blustery day in March and Larsen’s was closed. I peddled up to the wooden door, got off my bike, put the flat of my hand against the weathered wood, and got back on my bike to head to Edgartown, back to Noepe where I was staying for a week on a writing retreat.
My mother was not in Menemsha. I could not feel her and I had underestimated how tiring it was to ride from Edgartown across the island. The guys at the bike rental shop had told me I could call a taxi if I got tired, but my phone service had dropped miles ago. I’d had this idea that I would go to the house we had rented when I was a kid and sit in the field by the white fence and tell my mom I needed her, that I wanted to sit in her lap and cry about the fact that I was adopted and that she was dead and that I missed her, but the closest I got to her was the door to this fish shack, and that was going to have to do because, while I could not feel her spirit, I could feel my sore butt, and I wanted to get home and eat and shower and take a nap.
I listened to Dan Larsen tell his story three times today. I listened to it twice while I walked along East Cliff in Santa Cruz and then I listened to it at home before I sat down to write. I cried the third time, soft tears, like my body finally just let go and said, Oh, okay. Here you go. Have them.
His voice, that New England accent, was so familiar to me. My maternal grandfather and grandmother were New Englanders, and while my parents were careful not to sound too Boston, and while my mother charged me a quarter every time I dropped an R so I wouldn’t sound like them (who? My best friends? My teachers? Almost everyone on the T headed into town?), my grandparents couldn’t have found the R at the end of a word if you’d given them a torch. I loved my grandparents. They lived in Foxboro, a twenty-minute drive from Westwood, and when I got my license, the first place I went to on my own was to their house. I was safe there, loved. I was myself in a way I wasn’t at home. I was less adopted at my grandparents house. I don’t know how else to say it. Being adopted wasn’t something that was much on my mind when I was a kid, but now that I look back, I can see how my brain had to process these are both my parents and not my parents all the time in a way that didn’t happen with my grandparents. They felt like mine.
Partly I think it had to do with my physical body. Although I actually looked enough like my mom and dad to pass as their biological child, I didn’t see myself in them in a way that resonated in my bones. This didn’t matter with my grandparents because it was more reasonable that the physical stuff had gotten so watered down it didn’t serve as a mirror. What my grandparents did mirror to me was love. When I looked in their eyes what I saw was that they adored me. And this made me feel really, really good, for while I saw a similar thing in my parents’ eyes, it was still a little different, especially with my mother. I saw more of an evaluation, a judging, and a fear please don’t leave, I need you, and, at bottom, a distance: I am not even really seeing you at all.
The day I got married, my grandfather took my face in both his hands and he looked me in the eye and his eyes were teary. “Goddamn you,” he finally said. My grandfather was a fisherman at heart and he did not speak the language of love: he lived it. I felt blessed when he cursed me. I felt seen. Loved.
Dan Larsen talked about his grandfather and his father in his Moth talk. He talked about attending his father’s funeral and about understanding finally, after 65 years, why his grandfather had told him he was lucky to have the family he did. He said that at his father’s funeral he realized it was his flesh and blood that was being buried in the Martha’s Vineyard soil, the land that his grandfather the fisherman had fallen in love with enough to uproot his family in Norway and bring across the sea to this small Massachusetts island, and Dan Larsen realized at his father’s funeral, as he looked around at his family, at his children, his sister, his brothers, his nephews, all standing on this soil his grandfather had decided was home years and years before, that his grandfather had told him he was lucky to have the family that he did because it meant he belonged.
This is what made me cry. I love my family. I love where I grew up in Massachusetts, in Westwood. I especially love Martha’s Vineyard because my family was happy when we were there, because the land resonates with my soul, and because when I see myself, I see myself there, as a child, watching the hippies emerge from the chicken coop. That place, that perch on the fence, is my spirit home. But the fact is that I can’t look around at my family and feel connected on a root level because the roots aren’t connected. My child carries zero blood of my parents or my grandparents. When my mother was buried, I was not burying my flesh and blood even though she was the person I felt most connected to on earth.
Being adopted is both fine and devastating. I have a family who loves me and I can create my own family lines, my own stories of belonging. But there is still the ache for continuity, for generational belonging.
And that’s okay. I can live with ache. It reminds me I am alive. It also can point me in a direction I most want to head, which is home.
So now, at 53, I feel it is my purpose to get back there. I want to live on that island. I want to live the photograph I think is most me and see what happens. I have lived a life mostly trying to be what I thought other people’s photograph of me was. What a waste.
Home can be many things, it is true. Last weekend I got to spend the day with my daughter, and at the end, we lay together in bed and watched an episode of Parks and Rec on her computer. I was at home. The trick is, of course, that I do not live there in Berkeley. My daughter is on the edge of being a grown-up and her home is different from my home.
So I am a hippie, wandering. And I am a child standing on a fence, loving the world with my eyes.
I loved my grandparents so much. And then they died. I loved my mother so much. And then she died. These deaths were hard for me. They were great losses. But they also left me freer, more able to find my own path.
I am grateful for their love, and I miss them. But I look forward to finding my own home and to seeing what happens next.
I listened to Ram Dass talk to Oprah today on her podcast, and so I have also been thinking about acceptance and love.
What if our hearts are peonies? What if life is not about changing or growing so much as about blooming? What if our hearts all bloomed fully when we looked into the eyes of our beloveds, or into the eyes of ourselves?