I have always loved definition, the hard lines you can draw around an exact meaning. I was the little girl in Language Arts class who raised her hand all the time and never had to be told to look up words. I can’t solve the simplest mathematical equation, but the act of defining is practically holy.
There are problems, of course, with definition. We say things like: I’m a writer, I’m happy/sad/busy, I’m a runner, I’m a mom/grandmother/committee chair, I’m a (fill in the blank). And then, if you’re like me, the fact you haven’t published your book yet or run a marathon while denying yourself bacon sends you into a mad panic.
Last night I read this essay by my good friend Suzy Vitello and I couldn’t shake the end: all who wander are not lost. Suzy, smart like she is, left it more open-ended than that, but the idea stuck with me throughout he night. Who decided wanderers were lost? WHO?!?! Even Suzy’s title, “Inventing the Truth,” stuck to my skin. What compels us to take a snapshot and give ourselves over to a single image, to say, Yes, okay, that must be who I am.
I’ve spent much of the last week pinning on definitions. I was an insolent daughter; my mother and my stepmother suffered at many men’s hands; my grandmother was a victim of domestic violence, as were all of her 9 children. But even as I write that bulky sentence I balk against letting those few words define who we are, who we were. My mother and I loved the top 40 and knew every word to popular songs, which often made us seem so dorky. My Aunt Mary had the best laugh on planet. And even though I most-often write dark, I am a joyful person living in the light.
I remember the first writing workshop I took where everyone seemed to dress in military boots and slink under their desks. How I felt I didn’t belong. I didn’t belong because I just wasn’t dark enough. My grown daughter has said, “I’m waiting for you to write a happy story!” and, when borrowing a book from me, “Please, don’t give me anything on the Holocaust or Slavery!” The irony being, I’m not that person. I’m the woman who runs up and hugs you when you least expect it and laughs way too loud and calls old friends, “When are we getting together?!” Maybe it’s like the comedian who suffers severe depression: only because I feel joyful can I write what hurts most?
One of my favorite memories of my grandmother — the woman I told my dying mother I hated — is her love of music. Of dancing. We used to dance, hand in hand, on the slick linoleum in her kitchen, to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
That may not be how the neighbors saw her, or how her husband saw her, or how my own mother even saw her. But it’s my best memory because it’s so very clear: there she is, cooking and fun and lively and loving this song and her Winston Salems and her LifeSaver’s Butter Rums.
It’s only now, so many decades later, that I get the LifeSaver’s irony.
All who wander are truly not lost. Never lost. Right Suzy? We are so often the opposite of who we seem to be. We are depressed and spin our comedy. We are joyful and write the darkness. We are mostly not, ever, who we’ve defined ourselves to be. And for that, I’m thankful.
Here’s Brenda Lee for proof.