Over five years ago I developed a bladder infection that lasted five months. I couldn't do much but lie on the couch. Sitting was too uncomfortable, as was exercise. I was divorced, sick and the book business was a mess, which made my life seem all but over. I often wondered how my life had spiraled so far down. 'How have I gotten here?' I would ask myself. One day, as I slowly walked upstairs to move from couch to bed, I noticed a childhood picture of myself hanging in the hallway. That little girl looked like she wanted to jump out of the frame and begin her life. As I walked by the picture, I thought, "I wish I could get her back." I stopped and stared. Instead of turning into the bedroom, I sat down at the computer in my office and began to type a letter to 'little Nancy.'
By the time I stood up two hours later, I knew I had a book to write. I needed to find that child, or at least understand if I had lost her forever. I wrote every day, which gave me a reason to keep going, and helped ameliorate my depression. Along the way the infection healed, and I began to look forward to getting up each morning. I learned some amazing things. First and foremost, my childhood had not been as unhappy as I had thought. There were four years before my mother had her heart attack, an event that impacted my entire life; we had quality time together before that momentous event. Picturing an outfit I remembered from those days -- navy shorts and a horizontal striped t-shirt -- I suddenly had an image of my mother urging me up the ladder of a slide in the park near our duplex, sitting behind me then pushing us off so we slid down together, gaining momentum as we went. We were both laughing and screaming, at least in my memory.
A few days later I was visiting Portland, Oregon, where my younger daughter lives, and walking through a park near her house. She raced over to the teeter-totter and urged me to climb up onto the other end. My daughter and I had done this when she was little, though obviously I couldn't push off completely or she would have gone flying into the air. Nevertheless, she told me that playing on the teeter-totter was one of her favorite childhood memories and it recalled one of mine: I played on the teeter-totter with my mother as well, in the park with the slide. Isn't it amazing what we pass down the generations without even realizing what we're doing?
Food was another way back into childhood memories. My mother and I often baked together, making pies, cakes and cookies and liberally sampling as we worked. One memory would bring up another, and so the days passed. Before long, I knew I had not lost little Nancy, although she had gone underground quite a number of times during my life: When I was afraid to pursue what I really wanted; When each of my two marriages fell apart, and even before they did, when I tired to be the person each of my husbands seemed to want; When I would stop writing because I didn't have time, or didn't know what market I belonged in -- you get the picture. Of course it was writing my memoir that again brought that free spirit to the surface, delighted to be playing with me again.
When three colleagues read the manuscript to tell me if it would be worth reading for anyone else, they came bursting into our meeting with memories that had surfaced because of reading it. I was completely surprised. We shared stories, laughed and cried. When one of them suggested I add a workbook of chapter-by-chapter questions so that other women could begin a similar journey, it seemed like a great idea to me. Facilitating memoir-writing workshops with both did as well. I wasn't a therapist, but I had taught at both USC and UCLA, and felt confident that I could lead a group of women who wanted to explore their lives through their experiences, both good and bad.
What I've learned from all of this is that if I'm open to change and to the opportunities that appear, often out of the blue. My life expands, as does my joy. Hunkering down may be appealing some of the time, but it usually has limited me if I've stayed locked up for too long. The image that is the most pleasing to me is of myself, outdoors, with arms outstretched welcoming the day and all it has to offer me. That woman will 'end up' in a very exciting place.
Remembering where she came from has gotten her there.