Last January first I felt hopeful.
I was searching for a way to be myself again. I felt like I had almost found it.
I keep a picture from one Christmas morning sitting on the bookshelf in my office. It’s of me wearing a pink robe that I had just unwrapped. My dad in the background, sturdy hands holding me in place, directed me to focus on the camera. I don’t remember the exact details of that day, who took the photo, or even which house we were in. I don’t exactly remember, as a kid, what was going on in my mind as I unwrapped a gift more suited for my 32-year old self’s taste. What I do remember is being happy. I was appreciating that exact moment for everything it was. Joy to be alive. For Christmas morning, for warmth and family and the idea that sooner or later that very day, I would be creating something – free inside my own mind. Uninhibited.
The photo is posed, but it’s not one bit fake. That’s what I love about it.
I read somewhere that as we get older and search for ourselves, we’re really just trying to remember who we were before the world changed us. When you ask yourself who you really are, the key is to ask who’s asking in the first place. Then go from there. The qualities that are “me” have always been there, I just buried them. The work is in peeling back the armor and eliminating the noise and distractions so I can hear and see what is revealed. Who was I before I created shells of protection? Layers of padding, coping mechanisms, work, survival, distractions and reactions. Which parts of me can I chop off and toss over the metaphorical cliffs because keeping them no longer serves me and the weight is too much? It’s making me tired.
The moments that begin to take up the majority of our lives start to feel like an out of body experience. A movie. It becomes harder to conjure up a genuine smile even though the happiness is real. Then the moment has passed. Our dopamine receptors in need of a reset, our brains taking constant hits, this keeps us at a comfortable level of numbness. Trapped in a box of everything. No room for ourselves.
I keep that particular photo as a reminder that she is in here somewhere. A daily nod to my ultimate goal: to dig her back out, no matter how painful, because it will be worth it. She feels like a different person entirely, and that’s why I think this next part is easy: I keep her around to remind me to act like someone she’d look up to, someone she’d be proud of. Who can I be today that will help her grow up as her most genuine self? If I met her now, what would she say to me? Why would she say it? Kids are brutally honest.
I wrote my first story before I could write. I had to dictate it to my mom who then wrote it down for me. I still have it. It’s mostly a nonsensical amalgamation of fairy tales – a retelling of stories I’d heard over and over. But the point is that I was creating something, specifically out of ideas and words. There is something inside my brain that begins to malfunction the minute I stop allowing myself to interpret my world this way. I say “malfunction” because I honestly have no other way to describe it. This Elizabeth Gilbert quote always comes to mind:
If I am not actively creating something, then chances are I am probably actively destroying something – myself, a relationship, or my own peace of mind.
I have never read anything that more accurately describes my personality. The challenge is in maintaining that kind of momentum, and realizing that not everything constitutes a type of creating that keeps me from destroying something. And even the things that do don’t keep me satisfied for long. That balance is what I’m searching for now that we’re in January again. If I could talk to Elizabeth Gilbert I’d ask her how she keeps that ball rolling. It’s a strange thing to realize about yourself – I must put something out into the world (even if it’s absolute crap and even if I feel like absolute crap) because if I don’t then my mind starts finding other ways to mix things up. And they’re not always pleasant. Actually most of the time they aren’t. These things that I put out do not need to be seen or read by others, but for some reason throwing them out into the universe separates them from me just enough to where my mind no longer owns them, so I can let many of them go. If I don’t feel like it, too bad. Not doing this is always worse.
On the surface level that seems simple enough to maintain. A “writer” with too many ideas is never good. Write the ideas down, expel them from my brain, and move on to the next idea. Keep myself from going insane. However (and this is a huge however that changes everything) what do I do when I know that at the core of myself and my ability to create is wild imagination, and that imagination is like a book at the very bottom of a hundred boxes of books that won’t work until it’s opened? And every day, digging it out, I have to start at the top of the pile again.
I wake up, I have my coffee and I go up to the attic. After going up and down the stairs a hundred times (this is exhausting work but unfortunately I think it’s something best done alone) my house is filled with boxes. Each one filled with so many books, in no particular order, but I’m looking for that one. I start going through them. I get distracted remembering that time I wanted to learn how to garden, or knit. I get lost looking at fairy tales or old copies of children’s books. I remember reading this one in college, that that one before I got married. I cry looking over inscriptions from Grandma Brown; her handwriting is perfection. Before I know it the sun is going down and I’m tired and this is a mess, so I pack them all back up to the attic and tell myself I’ll try to find it another time.
And so it goes. For years.
For most of my mid to late twenties I simply ignored the attic altogether. Pretending like it wasn’t there, I partook in various self deprecating behaviors to distract myself from realizing that the weight of all those boxes would eventually crack the boards of the weak attic floor and come pouring out onto my head one day, maybe crushing me to death. Who cares? Let them crush me.
Then sometime around thirty or so, I came to the conclusion that rather than wait to be crushed in my sleep I should probably just go up there and see what I could do about it. Maybe start sifting through some things, donating, burning, rereading, keeping. Organizing. Curiosity, more than anything, drove this excavation. And so it began, the daily up and down with peeks and glimpses into what I’m looking for, with the exhaustion always winning before I get to where I need to go. In the meantime, ideas stay inside and I keep destroying things outside.
So, January 2020 I decided to do what ten year old Liz would do and get rid of the distractions and go read on a rock. I mean, seriously, I spent much of my childhood packing books out to dried up creek beds so I could sit in silence and read them unbothered. Simpler times. And I did that, literally and figuratively, for one month, and for the first time in years I created the time and energy to clear out most of the shit in the attic, and I was so close to freeing my imagination I could literally see it behind closed eyes at night. The way those sparkles and swirls move under your eyelids.
And then just like that the world changed and instead of unpacking those last few boxes, I became exhausted again when I saw that the attic filled right back up. Right to the top. With the noise and the work and the expectations. Stress and survival and the beating thump in my throat and chest that never goes away. Like someone had played a trick on me and put the boxes all back while I was sleeping. My work undone. The second time always seems harder than the first time.
So that’s where I am going into this new year, 2021. Aware that the boards are bowing overhead. Feeling in my bones that the girl from the photo would matter of factly say something like “Just go up there and dig it out, because once you have it, all the rest will disappear without any effort at all.” And I’ll be left with what I needed all along: a quiet place to find my ideas sitting neatly on my desk. All the clutter and weight missing. Fragments of my own imagination anyway, hiding itself because the timing wasn’t right.
This year I unboxed a robe for Christmas. From my sister, not requested. It’ the first one I’ve been gifted since that photo.