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In A Field Guide to Getting Lost Rebecca Solnit discusses the captivity narratives of the early American colonizers Cabeza de Vaca, Mary Jemison, and others. She is concerned with the captives who adapted, who created and stayed in the homes and lives they made inside these new cultures. She talks about the psychological and cultural metamorphoses that these transitions required. And, she discusses the way we perform these metamorphoses all the time. We grow, we change, without necessarily noticing.
“Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar, if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment.”
This slow and incremental, every day change she calls a psychological metamorphosis. The captives she describes as having to go through a cultural metamorphoses, which she describes as “something of the anguish of the butterfly, whose body must disintegrate and reform more than once in its life.” The caterpillar doesn’t just magically reform into a butterfly, its body must first disintegrate, decay to feed the emerging creature. Solnit says “We have not much language to appreciate this phase of decay, this withdrawal, this era of ending that must precede beginning. Nor of the violence of the metamorphosis, which is often spoken of as though it were as graceful as a flower blooming.” In this book about getting lost, about losing oneself, I see Solnit’s point about the total transformation necessary to adapt so wholly to a new culture that you can’t return to your old one.
My desks always start out neat, organized, a clear space to work. As that work progresses the piles of things in progress develop, bills to pay, tax documents to be filed, books to be referenced or read, mementos pile up. The pink beanie baby bear a secret admirer gave me before I left my Haggen’s job. The stuffed lamb a dear friend gave me to keep me company during my hospital stay. Pictures I discovered going through my memory shoe boxes. These days three selves stare back at me from those pictures; and I am all of them and none of them.
A card the friend made for me, “The Three Faces of Brandy Brown (Seductress, Seductee, Seduced).” Two of the pictures cannibalized, probably by the ex-DH for one of his last minute birthday projects where sentimentality was supposed to make up for the lack of forethought. The picture of me, the Seductress, the only one remaining. Me hugging a good friend, chin to my shoulder, grinning, looking at the camera as if I’m daring it to try capturing all of me. The moment I thought I had emerged, newly formed, newly named, newly married and ready to unfurl my painted wings.
The photo-booth roll of Ouiser and I on a conference trip to San Francisco: our sunglasses on, laughing, having such a good time. I can’t remember if this would have been before or after our encounter with the Bushman, the street performer, or the one footed pigeon I named Percy. That was a very full day. In the third picture down we are both have our sunglasses up and are captured mid-laugh, and I honestly don’t know that there is a happier picture of me anywhere. This is the moment before, before the decay. Before grad school began the deconstruction and reformation of herself. Before the stroke. Before the unraveling.
Finally, the oldest. The snap shot of me at nine, though even then I looked old for my age, standing up from a picnic table, looking back over my shoulder as my Grandma Nina looks at me. My hair pulled tightly into a pony tail. My bangs the perfect length. I don’t remember the event or where the picture is taken, nothing seems familiar. I remember the shorts set I am wearing being one of my favorites, and that this was probably one of the last times I was able to wear it before outgrowing it. I know I kept the picture partly because of the amazing tan I have. I spend all of my Western Washington high school summers chasing this tan.
Judging from the timing, this picture was probably taken at some kind of going away event before we moved west. Maybe that explains my expression, the sadness in my eyes, though I don’t think that is it exactly. That girl has no idea where she will end up, no idea how far away from that tiny northern Minnesota town she will travel literally and figuratively. All that girl has ever known is growing up in a trailer, then a cabin, finally a house in town, parents who scraped by, aunts, uncles, and cousins babysitting, hotdishes to make meals stretch(tuna noodle, spam, and wild rice), and never really fitting in. Always being too much, too strong willed, too imaginative, too independent, too talkative, too smart. She doesn’t know that this is beginning of a period of decay and withdrawal. She doesn’t know this is where her family changes. This is where she will say goodbye to grandparents, where Aunts, uncles, and cousins will become strangers, where her home will become an awkward place, an outgrown garment.
However, it is also where she will learn to move, to grow, to re-build that family wherever she is at. It is where being too much, too strong willed, too imaginative, too independent, too talkative, too smart are the things that will sustain her. They are the things that will get her out of that west coast version of the Minnesota town. The things that will make her a reader, teach her how to make friends, and help her survive this move and all the rest. Every way that she didn’t fit will help her survive her marriage and divorce, help her earn her Ph.D., and give her the courage to face every new thing: illness, job, town, house. She may have outgrown that northern Minnesota life, but with every metamorphosis she steps further into the life that does fit. A life in which she is no longer too much and always enough.
Recent events led me to think about how much my life has changed in the last three years. Last week I completed my first ever submission review for a journal. Since graduating in May, I think it was one of the first activities to make me really feel like a professional. Yes, there have been other moments, but in many ways I’d settled back to live as usual, so I’d stop feeling the wonder of actually being finished.
The other day I went to the library to pick up a book for a new project. I pulled out my school ID card and, before putting it back, actually looked at the picture. The picture has always been a little dorky. The day before I started work Ouiser’s cat scratched my eye lid, so I had an extra bag or two under one eye. Also, for some reason I wore my hair in a way that I almost never did.
It’s hard to get a decent picture of a picture of an ID card, but I think you get the point. Looking at that picture I was struck by the thought it was taken only three years ago. In many ways the last three years have felt like ten. I hardly recognize this picture.
For comparison, here’s a picture of me from today. It’s my post-hair cut selfie in the car.
The change is more than just the Ph.D. or the haircut. I probably can’t really explain it, because it is all of that and more. It’s the Ph.D., the hair, the tattoo, and even my willingness to take and post after haircut selfies. All of which are probably just expressions of how I’ve become more comfortable with myself.
This week in The Malarkey Bin I followed a link to this article about Why I Can’t Afford Not to Go to Planned Parenthood. It is a powerful, required reading post that also inspired me to tell my own Planned Parenthood story.
In a way my story is a success story. There was a clinic in my home town. It was accessible, and I didn’t have to negotiate protesters or strict security to get to my appointment. It was the early 90s, and the thought that there had been a time when women weren’t able to take control of their health care amazed me. Yes, I was more than a little naive … give an 18 year old a break.
According to Wikipedia in 2010 my hometown had a population of 16, 896 people. Sounds about right, I’d be willing to bet there were a few more when I was growing up, maybe around 18,000? The population isn’t as important as knowing that our town was poor. Built up around an industry that has been dying since before I was born, the town was small, without a lot of diversions for kids. Once you got your license the first thing you did was drive 50 miles east to the State Capital to start hanging out at the mall there, or 20 miles west to the beaches. We may have grown up in the twin shadows of Ted Bundy, he had allegedly tried to pick up a friend’s mom in a bar, and the Green River Killer, still active north and east of us, but I would argue we were the last of a generation of free range kids. From the moment I moved there when I was 10 I was walking all over town. Either 6 blocks from our apartment to the public library, or the longer mile to my elementary school every morning. Before my friends and I got our driver’s licenses, and even after, we would walk all over town.
So, while it wasn’t all terrible, for the purposes of this tale the best image to leave you with is this: when I first heard of the alleged Pregnancy Pact in Gloucester, Ma., the only thing that surprised me about the story was that it happened somewhere other than my home town. Even when I graduated, I’m pretty sure no one got out of our high school without knowing at least one person who had gotten pregnant before graduation. Before I got out of the town for good, the age at which girls were getting pregnant just seemed to be getting lower. My brother, sister, and I joke that the greatest accomplishment in our family was all three of us getting out of that place without having a kid before we were 18. We don’t make that joke at anyone’s expense, many of the young parents we know are some of the best parents we know, and when you are young in our home town there is not a lot to do outside the backseat of a car. If it weren’t for the Planned Parenthood clinic in our town, I don’t think I could even estimate the number of teen pregnancies we would have seen in my high school.
Right now, you are probably imagining a much different story than the mundane one I am about to tell. Although I’d contemplated it for a couple of years before, it wasn’t until I had graduated from high school that I visited our clinic. The funniest part about high school for me was that by the time I graduated I knew that at least twice rumors had spread that I was pregnant, and at least once there was a conflicting rumor that I was a lesbian. It was all amusing to me because I was pretty sure I was the only person I knew not sexually active.
What lead me to Planned Parenthood? I’d read that when a woman turned 18 she needed to have her first Pap Smear, so I made an appointment. I also wanted birth control pills to regulate my periods and alleviate my cramps. My cramps were so bad that I routinely took 3 – 4 Advil at a time just to get through the days that I had them. I was still working part time at a grocery store without health benefits. Planned Parenthood was the only place I could afford to go for standard health care. My story isn’t dramatic, but illustrates a point often lost in the current war on reproductive rights.
Planned Parenthood is essential to all aspects of women’s health care.
What is your Planned Parenthood story?