>What I Know Now

>Flannery O’Connor said, “I want to discover what I know.” As work on my memoir progresses, her words take on greater meaning. O’Connor was one of the inspirations for The Sweet Carolines, the fiction novel that I spent a year writing and revising before putting it aside last summer to write creative nonfiction. I may get back to the novel some day, but I’m thinking that I’m not up to the task yet. That I haven’t developed what Russell Kirk called the “moral imagination,” which is so necessary for the fiction writer. Thomas Howard says that the moral imagination “refers to the vision of good and evil we find in works of fiction.” Dostoyevsky immediately comes to mind. And authors from my own Southern soil like Eudora Welty and Harper Lee. And just a few miles up the coastline, the brilliant novelist, Pat Conroy and his inspirational wife (and author of The Sunday Wife) Cassandra King Conroy.

Having just finished (today!) a paragraph outline describing all twenty chapters of my memoir, which will become part of the nonfiction book proposal I’ll be sending to an agent soon, I’m more than a little bit stirred up. More than a little bit aware of what I know now about the early years of my life.

Shopping at J Jill, my favorite store, the other day, I found a copy of a book, displayed amongst the jewelry near the checkout counter. Evidently it was a national bestseller in 2006, but I was too engrossed in the fiction world to have noticed it at the time. It’s called, What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self. You can buy it here. The descriptive subtitle, Extraordinary Women Share the Wisdom They Wish They’d Had When They Were Younger, and list of 41 authors drew me in. The name on the list that called out to me first was Elieen Fisher. Probably because I’m using clothing as a narrative frame for my memoir, and Fisher is one of my all-time favorite clothing designers.

Fisher is my age, and is head of one of the largest privately held female-owned businesses in the U.S. Ellyn Spragins, who edited the book about all these women, says of Fisher:

She ignores trends in favor of designs that reflect her personal values…. She shares a minimum of 10 percent of aftertax profits with her six hundred employees, gives each two thousand dollars annually to spend on education and wellness,….. and her company is one of the few in the United States to meet workplace standards set by Social Accountability International, a not-for-profit watchdog group in New York City.

You can read the letter Fisher contributed to the book here. But this is my favorite part:

You know how much you love to dance? You’ve danced for the fun of it from the time you were tiny. You went dancing with your boyfriend in college and rocked out with friends in your dorm. All that joy is going to fall away because you’re going to stop dancing for twenty years—unless you take care to listen to yourself and shepherd all the pieces of who you are through to the future.

Of course her words remind me of Lee Ann Womack’s song, “I Hope You Dance.” But they also remind me of my own journey. Of the years the locust ate. Of the years I allowed others to keep me from dancing.

Flipping through photo albums as “visual research” for my memoir, I found hilarious pictures our some of the members of our “group”—the Jesus cult that was trying to (and finally did, thank God!) become a church—dressed up for pre-karaoke parties in the 1980s. Most of those folks would probably think it was all just foolishness, looking back on it now. Not me. I believe that at some subconscious level, we were escaping the straight-jacket lives that had been defined for us by the collective will, if only for a few evenings of costumes and music.

One of those parties was based on the popular 80s TV Reality show, Puttin’ On the Hits , which featured costumed contestants lip-synching their favorite songs. For my entry, I reinvented myself as Kim Carnes (the real Kim pictured at left) lip-sinching “Crazy in the Night/Barking at Airplanes,” (watch Kim sing it here) with help from my “band” on guitar and organ. (below, left) I paid meticulous attention to Kim’s clothes as I put together my costume for the night. (right)

As I look at the pictures now, (I was 34) twenty-three years later, I wonder what I would say in a “letter to my younger self.”

Would I say, as NBC news commentator, Ann Curry, says in her letter (in What I Know Now),

You’re comforming to what people expect you to look like…. And the real world seems to have no hesitation about judging you on appearance, so you’re changing as fast as you can…. If you can have faith in your real self, you’ll suffer less. You won’t waste valuable time that could be spent on more important things.

When I’m finished writing my memoir, will I be able to write myself a letter and proclaim, as mystery novelist, Lisa Scottoline does:

Your hair matters far, far less than you think. In fact, the way you look matters far less than you think.

Or will I take Olympia Dukakis’s words to heart? The daughter of Greek immigrant parents, she grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts (my mother-in-law’s home town) where she rebelled against the “good Greek daughter” label but later became the “good Greek wife” as she nursed a husband, crippled by a car wreck, while pursuing her acting career with a passion. In her letter she encourages her younger self to:

realize that being strong doesn’t require that you deny yourself pleasures. You don’t have to “earn” them by toiling harder than every other workhorse…. Even now, you have a lot to look forward to…. Purposefully capturing happy moments expands your soul. On your fortieth wedding anniversary, you’ll have an enormous party at your New York City loft with fifty people raising their glasses to you. In time you’ll start to rent a giant house at a different beach every summer and invite the whole family to come. It won’t be a “happily ever after” story—the cycles of darkness and light continue. But have patience. Your most important struggles will be hard-fought but won well.

I’m all for the house on the beach. With lots of room for visiting family and friends. Like our favorite place at Seagrove, Ramsgate townhouse, the green one. And the 40th wedding anniversary party, although it probably won’t be in New York City. Mark your calendars: June 13, 2010.

Hey! Maybe we’ll have the party on the beach—maybe even the one we discovered here, at Seagrove, with Jon and his friends, back in 2006…. Sigh.
I took my best friend, Daphne, there in March of 2007.
And then Beth, in the spring of 2007… here we are, watching for dolphins, which swim just off our deck. Yes. Now if I can just get Jason down there. He claims not to like the beach. But I ask you, what’s not to like? Can you tell I’m craving the beach… with no plans to get there until the middle of May? sigh….

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