In my early childhood, back when there were only three children (instead of the eventual six) in my family, my parents made a photo album for me (as they did for each of their first three kids). It was grandly entitled “And Then There Was Jen”. From my baby announcement through the first pages, it carried a movie theme: roughly “Jen is the best sequel ever”!
I used to love paging through the album, looking at the pictures of myself and my family, reading the humorous captions written in my father’s handwriting. But in my awkward early-teen phase (which lasted about a decade) I began to resent that the album stopped cold around my fourth birthday. Over half of the pages of the scrapbook-style album were empty. Not only that, what struggling middle child (I was definitely in the middle, between the first child and the first boy) wants the movie of their life to be a sequel? Who wants to forever play second-fiddle to the premier event?!
So one day I decided that I would fix it. I laboriously lettered onto one of the empty pages of the album the title: “The Real Me!”. I intended to fill the rest of the pages with photos I selected, and my own commentary. No more of my dad’s supposedly funny comments about dirigibles (here’s how I explained this running gag to childhood friends: “My dad is weird”). However, as I’ve mentioned before, I tend to be easily distracted. I was called away from my project before getting further than the title page. Despite my intention to return to it, I never did.
One day, months or a year later, my sister, brother and I sat down to look at our albums in consecutive order. We paged through Chris’ photo album, snickering at funny pictures and my dad’s cartoon captions. By the time we moved on to mine, we were totally disposed to laugh at the dirigible jokes and were having a great time. Then Chris turned the page and staring up at us was my forgotten title, “The Real Me”. I was immediately mortified. I had intended to keep this a secret, only I had overachieved on that goal by completely forgetting it myself. Too late, I watched as my sister turned the page and discovered…nothing.
“The Real Me” was blank.
Sensitive middle-child that I was, I had totally set myself up for the teasing that followed. Even I eventually saw the humor in it, but that moment when my siblings first discovered my handiwork totally stands out in my memory as a classic example of self-induced mortification.
All of this came back to me when I took a walk one afternoon this week and saw a dilapidated sign deteriorating in an overgrown and weedy field, surrounded by acres of empty lots. It read: “Building for the Future”.
The neighborhood where I saw the sign, and where I now live, was inundated by a flood in 2008. It was a natural disaster of epic proportions – at the time the second-costliest natural disaster in the country’s history. Once, there were homes and streets and people here. There are telltale signs of this past – streets that weirdly wander into grassy spaces and stop, house-shaped depressions in the ground still visible despite several years’ growth of grass and weeds. The empty lots represent both what has been lost to the past, but also what may be possible for the future. I wasn’t sure how I felt – sad for what was lost or intrigued about what could be.
As I walked, I began to feel as if I was walking in myself – a kind of visceral knowing-with-my-body rather than with my head. The landscape of memory is only visible if you know what you are looking for -we may be able to piece together why there are dirigible jokes, or what made them funny. But in truth, that is all gone, the moment has passed. These empty lots are just empty lots, even if you lived and laughed and loved here once.
When we are in a time of change or transition, the landscape of the present appears unfinished, blank, in many ways. The real me? Who knows? Here in the transitional moment, what we see depends to a large extent on what we choose. We can choose to invest emotion in what once was or we can look around and see the landscape of potential. As the sign says, we can “check out the possibilities”.
Here’s the tricky part. Without sustained intention to grow something more, we get stuck in a wasteland of empty, overgrown fields. Without dedicated attention we have a title page followed by…nothing.
For me, the walk through this neighborhood was a wake-up call. I have allowed myself to dwell for too long in the transition. My colleague, Rodney, called it “grief resistance”. Despite feeling called toward change and new horizons, called toward risk and vulnerability, there has been grief – the inevitable leaving behind that happens with forward movement. And I have allowed that grief to linger to the point of wandering off the path I meant to be on. This inattention to my life’s intent has had real, negative, effects: I’ve gained weight, lost energy for things I love (like riding my bike), obsessed anxiously about things over which I have no control. I’ve been saying no to events, to people, to opportunities when a yes was called for. And, if I am honest, my rare yeses have been a bit lackluster, too.
As I walked, I felt oddly lost, though I knew exactly where my feet were planted. In the days since, I’ve begun to think of that walk as a path of demarcation between the time I spent hanging out in an empty field and the time I’ll spend building something here, in this space I’m now occupying. I’m resetting my intentions, and I know I’ll return to them again and again. The real me is not a series of blank pages, no matter what you might find in my childhood photo album. It is about time I started living that way again.