I recently read Anna Quindlen’s new memoir, “Lots of Cake and Plenty of Candles.” I didn’t get past the first paragraph in the introduction titled “Life in the Fifties” before I stopped reading to think about one of the first things she wrote. “It’s odd when I think of the arc of my life, from child to woman to aging adult. First I was who I was. Then I didn’t know who I was. Then I invented someone and became her. Then I began to like what I’d invented. And finally I was what I was again. It turned out I wasn’t alone in that particular progression.”
I’ve spent a lot of time studying my life’s arc because I’ve written and rewritten a memoir about a million times. (Okay, not a million, but it feels that way.)
It’s not easy charting the arc and story line of your life. You can’t do it with any degree of integrity if you don’t take a thorough and honest look at the inner workings of your life, and sometimes that can be both too revealing, and a little painful.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to write a book about my life. But I’ve fought the inner critic that says it’s downright arrogant to think your life is worthy of a memoir. After all, who would be interested enough to buy it and read it? And could I handle the scrutiny of those readers if I ever really published it?
I talk back to that critic and say there are people in the world that are born to write just like there are people born to make music, paint, quilt, garden, cook, or be accountants and biologists.
While struggling to write my memoir, I spent a lot of time going over old journals to find out who I really was at different times of my life. In journal after journal, I started the first page by writing, “I love starting a new journal and having all these clean pages waiting to be filled.” Then at the end of a journal, I was always wistful about closing another chapter of my life. Sometimes I was happy to close a particularly painful time or excited about what was ahead.
So when I read Quindlen’s introductory paragraph to her book I wondered about the shape of my life and whether I’d made the complete circle that she described. “First, I was who I was.”
As a child, I was probably more authentic and less intentional because my family, friends, community and circumstances were shaping my personality and values. Then when I get a little older, my maturing mind starting wondering who I was and what I wanted in my life. I figured it out a bit at a time, and then set out to be that person. I think Quindlen is right that we all do this. Sometimes we like the person we create and sometimes we don’t. Then, we have to re-evaluate everything and make adjustments or start all over again.
The tragedy is when we don’t like the person we’ve created and we refuse to redo ourselves and become someone better, someone we actually like and respect more. I think this the hardest and longest part of our lives. (In fact, does it ever end?)
Learning who are and who we want to be is hard work because we worry about disappointing ourselves, not meeting our own expectations and goals, and not living up to what others expect of us, even God. I’ve spent my life trying to figure out who God really wants me to be because right when I think I’ve figured it out, He surprises me and puts something I never wanted or expected into my life, and I think, “Really God? Am I that woman? Do you really want me to be that woman?”
I hear my daughters and their friends often say, “I don’t want to be that girl or that person.”
But sometimes, probably more times than not, we get “those lives” – not because we want them, but because they are somehow good for us. They usually come with big, hairy life lessons that we wouldn’t learn without them. It would sure be nice sometimes to learn them without so much pain, wouldn’t it?
I’m generally happy with the woman I’ve created, but I’m still in the “development” stage because I don’t feel fully invented yet. I know there’s always something new just around the corner. I just have to be “that woman” that deals with it, responds well, and becomes better because of it.
The truth is I’m not happy with some of the things that “just are” in my life because I didn’t really get a say about whether they happened or not. (Cancer is always a good example.)
I know I get a say in how I respond but I’ve always wished that some things (like cancer) could have knocked a little more gently on my door and that I’d had a choice of whether to invite it in or slam the door. Of course, none of us get that kind the choice. Unwanted experiences often bully their way in whether we want them or not. Sometimes we can do everything in our power to make them feel unwelcome and go away, but they just lounge around like a bad houseguest that you can’t get rid of.
What I’m trying to figure out is how we live graceful, happy lives when we negatively think we are “that person” with “that life” we didn’t want. I know all about positive thinking, and I try to apply those positive psychology principles but I’m not there yet. I’m not fully “who I was again,” and I’m not sure I’ll ever be.
In many ways, I’m much better than who I was, but I think I’ll always be a work in progress, trying to accept things I can’t change and yearning to be like Anna Quindlen, the one who claims to be quietly, sublimely back to the innocent childhood state of just being comfortable with who she is without feeling any internal or external pressure to be more. I want to be that woman, but now I’m not.
I want to know: Where are you in this process? Are you happy with the person you’ve become? Are you learning from the bad house guest that barged his or her way into your life or are you sublimely happy in your own skin and your current place in life? I’d love to know.
- Review of Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, by Anna Quindlen (sonderbooks.com)
- Lots Of Cake, Plenty Of Candles by Anna Quindlen (bookjourney.wordpress.com)
- ‘Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake so real, so hard to relate (kansascity.com)
- Anna Quindlen talks about her new memoir ‘Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake’ (csmonitor.com)