I woke up this morning without a single idea about what to write for this week’s blog.
What can I write when I have nothing to write?
Monday 23 January 2017
Early in my teaching career, I wrote a course I called “The Hebrew Bible as Literature.” I taught that course until the day I retired and I always spent a long time on the Book of Job. It is a harrowing story of an apparently righteous man who loses everything–his possessions, his family, his friends, and his health. Finally, plagued by nightmares and deprived even of sleep, Job cries out to God,
“When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me,
my couch will ease my complaint,’ then you scare me with dreams” (7:13-14).
One is reminded of Hamlet who says, when accused of being “ambitious,”
“I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself the king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams” (II, 2).
I am thinking here, not so much of nightmares, as of a question I always put to my students after we had finished reading Job.
“Who are you when everything that defines you—friends, family, possessions, work, religious faith—is taken away?”
This question almost always took us first to another question: What exactly are the things by which we identify ourselves? If I am introducing myself, what do I say? Of all the things about me, what do I include? What is it that makes me, me. There are, of course, the possessions–what we have, whether items on student lists ranging from a good stereo system to a t-shirt from a long-ago summer at camp, or the photographs of four generations of my family that cover my walls. Then comes what we do–for students everything from sports to drama to working in soup kitchens; for me, the years of political activism, the years of teaching, my religious quest, and the care I currently give my grandson. For many, work tops the list–I am a teacher. As I have grown older, the list by which I remind myself of who I am, sometimes remind myself that I exist in any worthwhile way, has grown.
I am a mother, a grandmother, a teacher, a friend, a recovering alcoholic, a Southerner, a cat owner, a former llama owner and bee keeper, a country girl, a small-town girl, a liberal, a political activist, a solitary woman. It is, as I said, a long list. These things are how I have always thought of myself; they make me real–to myself and to others.
What then if they were taken away? If I no longer had the old photographs and the antiques that belonged to my mother and my aunts? What if I were no longer a retired teacher, no longer a mother or a grandmother, no longer a country girl? What if all that history disappeared? What if my health collapsed? What if I lost my home? And what if, after all that, I found I could no longer sleep because when I drifted off the terrible nightmares began?
What if . . .
In that moment, who would be left? Who would I be? If I lose everything by which I identify myself,
“Who Am I?”
For a very long time now I have been able to rely on various categories within which I could always find material for a blog post. When I first started blogging, I had just published a book, and I could write about writing and book signings. Early in 2016 I made an offer to a few small groups on Facebook and Goodreads to write book reviews for any of my fellow authors who would like one. So far I have reviewed over twenty books. Suddenly I find myself without even one book in the queue. Then I decided that, since I included a great deal of personal information in those book reviews, I could start writing what I call “Portraits” of interesting people, not necessarily writers. Right this minute, I have two prospective subjects of portraits in mind, but I am waiting for more information from them. There have been a few events in the news that have inspired me to just sit down and start writing–the shootings in Charleston; Julian Bond’s death; the recent election; Friday’s inauguration. I have written about grief in the wake of too many deaths; I have written about Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, the Winter Solstice, and Easter. I have written in various ways about family. I am a writer.
And the question came to mind: if I have run out of ideas to hang a blog on, what is there to write about? If I have run out of things by which to identify myself, who is left?
Emily Dickinson wrote, in her usual cryptic style,
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?”
One of those names by which I call myself is “writer,” and so on this Monday, six days before my usual Sunday Blog is due, I sit down to begin.
Tuesday 24 January 2017
I begin today, as I often do, on the telephone, reading some kind of spiritual literature aloud and discussing it.
Today I am a sponsor to other women in recovery from alcoholism. I am a person with a large number and variety of friends. A phone call reminds me I am a cousin many times over. I work hard to be a good sponsor, friend, and family member.
Wednesday 25 January 2017
I am a daughter. January 25 was my mother’s birthday. She died in 1994 at the age of 80. Today she would have been 103 years old. We had a rocky relationship which we spent the last year of her life mending. She died in her small bedroom, holding my hand, breathing quietly.
I am, unexpectedly, a grandmother. I spent part of yesterday and a good portion of today putting together a set of train tracks for my grandson, who will be two this year, and rearranging the furniture in my small co-op to make more useable space for his train, his books, his toys, clothes, and crib. I am a grandmother.
This evening my cousin, Colleen, called, having what we all now call a “come-apart,” about the election, about the laundry, about putting clean sheets on her bed, about life without her sister. We both seem to cry about everything and nothing. We both only really cry because Edie Bates is dead and life without her is insupportable. I am a cousin.
Thursday 26 January 2017, Friday 27 January 2017
Today I am awake early as usual. In the morning I will be on the phone. I will walk down the street for physical therapy. I will shop for groceries, rearrange a few things at home, read, wait for a good friend to arrive with dinner and some talk about a documentary we have both just watched on Netflix. It is called “Inside Job” and is a detailed history of the bank failures of 2009 and what led up to them. It is more than a little alarming.
I am a woman whose body is aging. I am a nester. I am a politically curious person. I am a friend.
On Friday, after my morning rituals, I will go to a noon meeting then come home for what I hope will be a peaceful afternoon and evening.
I am an introvert.
On Saturday and Sunday my grandson will be here.
I try to think about–not the labels: mother, grandmother, daughter, friend, cousin, teacher, student, reader, writer, householder, seventy-year-old woman, mentor–but about the qualities that attach to those identities, the values and character traits that exist independent of them.
If everything by which I identify myself were taken away, who would I be?
I hope I would be compassionate, curious, empathetic, loyal, honest, eager to learn and eager to teach, patient, kind, true to myself, willing to take risks.
I know I would also be unkind, frightened, rigid, dishonest, impatient, and stubborn.
Who would I be? Can I see myself as that person who, like Job, sits on the ash-heap and cries out for God to explain the suffering that, in fact, God has inflicted? More importantly, would I–like Job–everything lost–hold fast to my faith?
Who am I when I am nobody I thought I was?
What can I write when I no longer have anything to write?