Saturday, May 27, 2017

Time and the Shape of a Life

"How many sessions do we have left?" a woman asks. She's a participant in the life writing workshop I'm teaching. I've asked the group to choose a partner to go through the process of interviewing each other on a topic. A bonding experience as much as the chance to be a storyteller and an active listener. When offered a few choices, they opted to tell stories of travel.

"Nine," says the senior center director. "There are nine sessions left."

The same woman with the question about sessions pulled me aside our first meeting to correct something she said when we wrote a group poem. "I meant lithography when I said etching. You can change it if you want." The detail mattered to her and it had to be right for the record. After the interviewing she told a long story of all her travels that circled around into telling about her children. She felt squeezed for time.

There is never enough time to tell your story. And how can you even see the shape of your story when you are in the middle of it, living?

On my computer is a file I ran across while I was preparing for this residency at the senior center. It's titled "95 Year Plan." I don't remember making it. It's a grid with the left hand vertical column showing my age in five year increments.  I went up to 95, a hopeful thinker, or maybe it was part of the instructions to do so. This must have been a writing exercise from a book I was reading or a workshop I took.

There are three other columns to the right of the age column which read: "Major Event," "What I Learned" and "The Most Amazing Thing I Saw."  I never finished it. I filled out the "Major Event" column up to age 55 and I gave up. I stopped recording "What I Learned" at age 20 when the "Major Event" was "got first real job as a typesetter" and the "What I Learned" was that "most real jobs suck." When I was 15 I learned that I was able to succeed at something I didn't necessarily want to do for the rest of my life.

I can see why I never finished this project. Filling the entire grid out is tempting fate, and reminds me of keeping a ten year plan for my life with clear, achievable goals. I've never operated that way. I like leaving places blank to allow for  the "Not Quite What I Was Planning" column and the "Spontaneous Magic" column and the "Mentor From an Unexpected Place Arrives and Kicks Your Ass" column. Actually, I can't even conceive of my life in a grid or with columns. It isn't a line. It's not a circle, because it will end someday, and I will feel like it's unfinished. I am unsure as to what shape it is at all, or even if it has a shape.

The attempt to record the details of one day, which I do each morning when I journal, can feel like riding the edge of some protoplasmic creature. I catch only moments as the rest of the day slips into another current and I am forced to let go. I always close the journal with a little sense of loss. I'm adding, but I'm losing too. Writing a life can feel deleterious.

How many sessions do we have left? Who knows. You won't catch it all. Create anyway.