Darkness & Dreams (a phrase I borrowed from a song by Enya) was a highly condensed version of a journal I had kept for four years, as a way of listening deeply to my life for what I called “the inner voice of love.” It was the first of three autobiographical books I have written, each one following a major transition that left me wondering who I was and where my life was going.
The other two books are Museum of Voices: An Autobiographical Miscellany (2004), and The Secret Sorrow: A Memoir of Mourning the Death of God (2010). They're all on Amazon, in case you're interested.
None of my memoirs have been a commercial success. But that’s not why I wrote them. They’re more like children. I gave birth to each one after a long, painful labor. I love ‘em. They’re also like oracles. I visit them often, when I’m lost, seeking wisdom and guidance. They help me remember something vital.
In Only The Heart Knows How to Find Them, Christopher de Vinck says, “We think we are known by the names we take, by the street addresses we have, by the places we work. But I believe there are things under our beds, in the closet, tucked deep inside a drawer or in the attic, that reveal more about who we are than all the rest.”
By writing my life story, or stories, three times now, I have repeatedly ransacked the closet, the drawer and the attic for the mystery of who I am.
“It is important,” writes Frederick Buechner in Telling Secrets, “to tell, at least from time to time, the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are, and little by little come to accept the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.
“It is important to tell our secrets too,” he goes on, “because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives, and where we are going.”
At each big transition, when I’ve lost my way, I have instinctively looked backward to see if I could discern the general direction of the path I was on. Was it going somewhere important? Should I make a sudden turn, an about-face, or just keep going?
Whenever my next step is uncertain, I pause, and listen to my life.
“Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it,” says Parker J. Palmer in Let Your Life Speak, “listen for what it intends to do with you . . . let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.”
All this came to mind recently as I contemplated Mary Oliver’s poem, “Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness” (A Thousand Mornings, 2012). These words shimmered for me:
“Every year we have been / witness to it: how the / world descends / into a rich mash, in order that / it may resume. / And therefore / who would cry out / to the petals on the ground / to stay, / knowing as we must, / how the vivacity of what was is married / to the vitality of what will be?”
As winter approaches, as I go through another time of transition, Mary Oliver reminds me that while I must let go of the past, must let it die and descend into the fertile soil of memory, I must not forget that my future inevitably arises from this “rich mash.”
By revisiting my life story, I remember who I am and what has been life-giving to me. I recall the apparent purpose of my existence, in its mysterious and glorious singularity. I renew my vision and seek, once again, to become more fully who I am, to do whatever it seems I’m meant to do with whatever time I may have left.
But why write books about it, if it’s all just for me? Why tell the secret to anyone else?
Because, as Buechner adds, that “makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about, and what being human is all about.”
—Jay E. Valusek