Starting with a Single Word: writing ‘The Measure Of My Powers’

When I first started writing The Measure Of My Powers about 2 years ago, I knew I needed to be alone to do it. I knew that between Beaucoup Bakery, travel writing, The Paris Tours, my media work and my social life, there were enough distractions that in order to finish the first draft, I would need to seclude myself.

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I needed to focus: focus on the story, focus on remembering, remembering the feelings, what it was like to live those memories again. And I imagined that when it came time to recount those painful memories, I would want to avoid the discomfort of them, and needed a space with no plausible excuses for procrastination.

So I did. I holed myself up in the rural High Desert of Central Oregon, a place that was familiar and had been inspiring to me in the past. I had worked on a project there as a designer, years ago, and I remembered the scent of the dry desert air scented with juniper, shale, and woody sagebrush. There was the crisp frost at sunrise mingled with my morning coffee, black. On my hikes, the stones I placed my boots on were covered in a patchwork of lichen in colours of algae. Not the drab brown algae found washed up in a tangled mess, but – for those of us who have kayaked the coasts of British Columbia and Haida Gwaii – the kind thriving on shorelines that evoke colours like ochre, chartreuse, saturated sage and fresh rust.

 

Each day I rose with the sun, spent time in meditation, brewed a pot of coffee and went for a hike along with the deer and jackrabbits. I would return, maybe start a slow braise or loaf of bread and then sit at the kitchen table to write: one chapter a day, two if I could. Weekends off.

I began with a general idea of what I wanted to write…starting with a single word, which would flow into another and then a first sentence. Sometimes I knew immediately what these words would be:

“When I imagine…”
“The morning after…”’
“I’ve heard this thought…”

 

For moments I was stuck, I would randomly open M.F.K Fisher’s book, The Gastronomical Me, (a book that inspired my own) and I would begin with the first word my eyes landed on:

“I…”
“Throughout…”

Though when I began one particularly painful chapter, Tell Me I’m Beautiful, even opening Fisher’s work didn’t help. I was scared, terrified to recall agonizing memories of my marriage, of G, my former husband. I just couldn’t. There was a weight inside me, like a heavy cloud of black exhaust expanding inside my chest and I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think, so I put on my boots and went for a hike. I ran up toward a hill I had made a habit of visiting each morning. There was an ancient twisted juniper tree in the centre of a clearing at the top, and I paced along the stones, running my fingers on the curved bark and looking out at the vista extending far into the Cascade Mountains.

Then, between breaths I heard in my head, “And…”

 

So I walked back to my cabin and when I wrote those three letters, I began to cry. I crouched on the floor, wondering to myself, “What is this? Where is this coming from?” and after some minutes I said to myself, “I’m sorry” and it began to make sense.

You see, it wasn’t recalling the pain of this time in my life that caused the most anxiety. It was not the memories of G, or the sadness we created in our life together. I was avoiding the fact that I hadn’t yet forgiven myself. At that time in my life, I had allowed myself to endure such pain by turning a blind eye to my own needs. And in this moment, I saw that I hadn’t forgiven myself for not showing up for, not speaking up for, and not protecting…me.

 

Let me explain what I mean. Recently, I’ve been reading some online book reviews by readers. The comments were as varied as people are. For the most part, I would say that I see this memoir as an entity outside of me. I understand that most will interact with it, relate to it in their own way, and have their own reactions and opinions about it. To me, it’s like having a child with it’s own life, out in the world making its own friends and having unique interactions with people that I know nothing of. I can’t really control what others think anyway, positive or negative, nor do I believe I should.

I’ve learned that if I simmer in what other people think of me, it doesn’t leave much time or space to decide what I think of myself. But when I read some of the comments, the one thing I was saddened to see was that so many had such a strong negative reaction to G. To some he was perceived as a villain in my story. It wasn’t what I intended at all. He, like I, was human. And he, like I, was in pain when we fought, and in love. He loved me, his wife, very deeply I am sure of it. We were both just flawed, trying to understand each other and ourselves and hurting very much when we couldn’t make the pieces fit.

 

Neither one of us was a slave to each other, whether we knew it or not, we were both adults with the power to choose. And for that time, we both chose to be in that marriage: to laugh, have incredibly tender moments and to cry, as is life. And I firmly believe that the pain we felt was there to grow and to teach us how to choose, instead, the things that give us joy. So no, in my mind he is not terrible or a villain…he was my life’s greatest teacher, and I chose him to be so.

I chose. So when I was overwhelmed in Oregon, by the pain of remembering that chapter of my life, I had unconsciously blamed myself for staying as long as I did, for not listening to my own voice for so many years, for placing myself in hurtful situations, for staying quiet when I could have spoken up and for not protecting myself. I did forgive myself in that moment, knowing I was simply human and doing only the best I could. I summoned the courage to face the sadness once again, to let go and lay each beautiful memory to rest on the page…and I wrote the chapter easily afterward.

 

And even now, I continue to grow. Since writing the book, I’ve realized that there was nothing to apologize for at the time and nothing really to forgive. I see that this blame I placed on myself was as misplaced as blaming G would have been. I only know now how to show up, stand up, and speak up for myself, because I hadn’t for so long. I only know how to nurture and love myself because of the lessons I learned through those very experiences. So in fact, it wasn’t G who was my life’s greatest teacher, my greatest teacher was actually…me. So with I start the next chapter, with the strength of this single word.

 

 

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