We are Shaped By our Past

388791_2402860708192_42222893_n copyIn the year I turned eleven, I spent most of the winter and summer locked up in a schoolroom, starving. But late one night, I was finally allowed to return to my room. I stood at the small window, staring out into the darkness at the fences and parked cars of the neighbors. I heard the sound of faraway laughter, floating in from the nearby park, over the rooftops and low apartment buildings. The park was no more than half a block from my window, so close to me but still so far away. The rest of the house was asleep and in the quiet I heard the threads of my resolve breaking. I was filled with a despair so utterly complete that my legs threatened to buckle. A deeply held sob broke free from of my lungs. It was then that these words entered my mind, something I had heard before, a memory from Sunday School.

Whatever is said in the dark will one day be heard in the light, what is whispered in inner rooms will surely be proclaimed upon the housetops.

I was pretty sure this was reference to sinners being called out in the last days but that night I saw a vision of myself standing on the highest roof of the tallest house, holding onto the chimney for support. I heard the sound of my someday voice booming across the sky, calling for the world to hear, shouting out the secrets that had long been harbored in our house. I knew then, that while they could beat me and humiliate me they could not touch what was inside of me. They could force me to obey and to silently endure but I could not be forced to accept. They could work me to exhaustion and starve me into submission but they could not erase what had happened to me, or take away what I felt. They could not make me forget.

I didn’t know that night, that I would someday become a writer. The shape of my life today I owe to the grit and tenacity of that girl holding the darkness, bearing up, under the weight of an unknown future. And that darkness she carried with her has provided me with a lifetime of contrast. My despair was black enough to notice even the smallest flicker of hope. The very absence of joy has created in me, a sharp awareness of it. These days, I continue to write from my small home office, the constant sound of life with my six kids, just outside my door. I can hear their laughter as they play a game around the kitchen table. The hum of the lawnmower reminds me that my husband is home from work. Later we will do the dishes together, homework, and in the evening we will head outside to shoot hoops, play Frisbee or just walk around the neighborhood. It is at these times that my own childhood feels a million miles away.

For many years, the darkness of my unresolved past felt inescapable and the light was too distant to reach. But healing, I discovered, is a paradox. To find the light I had to go deep into the dark. In the pain, I found also mercy and tenderness. Suffering had cultivated compassion and joy. From violence I also learned to be gentle. Limitations had merely fueled my curiosity. Cruelty revealed the true power of kindness. It’s natural to view these things as opposites, to try and separate them to keep them from touching. I too used to try and separate everything, to get rid of the bad and hang on to the good but I have learned that they cannot truly be separated. The moon doesn’t shine in a midday sky but only in the gloom of the night. Writing this memoir has taught me much about the craft, about memory and truth and the power of words to transform. But in writing this book, I have also learned to walk with the shadows of my childhood knowing that without the dark I can never truly walk in the light.