Wednesday night was my twice-monthly creative process writing group. This is a group in which we do no critique, and bring no finished material. We write based on prompts and read them aloud to each other. Sounds so benign, doesn't it? Well it isn't. The group has been together with variations over three years. I took two of those three years off to attend graduate school, but not only did they welcome me back when it was time, the group had deepened with flavor and intimacy and creativity in that time and I came back to something truly magnificent. I honestly have never had a group that was so profoundly nurturing and closely knit. I would trust any of those women with my secrets, and turn to them in a time of need.
This week we wrote about traditions and family mottos, many writing about the little brass angels and glow in the dark holy family creche's of their youth. We wrote about family secrets, surprising compassion and undeserved abuse. About choosing our own punishment, about leading separate lives. We wrote about how the very accoutrements of our family's religious holidays, whether Christmas or otherwise, made magic of our childhoods, the twinkling lights and holly wreaths temporarily suspending the pain.
I haven't been so moved in a long, long time.
This is what I wrote, under the prompt, "what would your family motto have been if you had one?"
“Honestly, the first thing that arose was, ‘each man for himself.’ But I didn’t like that, partly because, as much as I cling to the idea that I am orphaned on some emotional level, there were comforts, there were routines.
When it comes to traditions, I find, in my usual self-pitying way, that I was the only one who did not bake Christmas cookies or go caroling or have a special brass angel thing that spun.
So perhaps my family motto is more akin to…well see, I can’t think of one. That’s because I lived in two families: Dad’s, half of the time—the haven of safety and order and corn/noodles/hotdogs every night for dinner (or so it seemed). A place of regular bedtime and strictly observed rules. For us, Dad and I, in those years when we were each other’s family before stepmother and siblings, our motto might have been, “All for one, and one for all.”
At Mom’s, things were in disarray due to alcohol, but also perfumed by her love of essential oils, dazzled by her magic with make-up and made exciting by spontaneous trips for ice cream and random visits to colorful (if not drug-addled) friends. Maybe for us, the motto was, “sink or swim.”
I am noticeably charged writing about my separate lives, as if I was my own twin leading two lives at once rather than one child bouncing back and forth.
There’s a lot of sadness to these years and no matter how my magic wand—this pen I’m holding—wants to prettily transform the past into something tolerable and normal, when I dip into the well, it comes up full and heavy, tinged dark around the edges.
I think much of this darkness was my parents’ and I learned to integrate it into my cells and thoughts and feelings, but now it is all mine and sometimes I don’t know where to put it. I throw it into things like Christmas, because it’s hard to be sad with so much extra light and bright colors and surprises to unwrap. But I wonder…what was it really like for her, the child I was, always grasping for permanence?
Probably like any life. It just seems heavier because it was mine.
I think I’d like to adopt a motto worth living up to, like, “Because we’re worth it,” or “Getting better with age.” Or maybe just, “We’re doing our best.”