Friday, November 23, 2007

A Birthday of Self-Absorption

Every time I visit my parents theses days I take a box of my old junk out of their basement to add to the boxes of junk in our basement. Recently I discovered a box packed full of old journals and letters. There was an envelope full of printed-out emails I had sent from our 18 months in China.

I saved the box for my 34th birthday, which was Wednesday. I thought it would be nice to spend a few hours on my birthday reflecting on my past selves captured in writing on the lines of these old notebooks and papers. I'm just now getting close to the bottom of the box.

What did I find? A lot of teen angst of the most boring kind -- agonizing over what various boys probably think of me, willing a certain boy to call, and descriptions of mood swings so deep and wide I got a whiff of hormone poisoning off the 20-year-old paper. The only reason I didn't fall asleep from boredom is that the overall subject was my favorite: me.

I came across a few interesting bits of foreshadowing: One thing that recurred in journals across the decades was the thought and hope of being a parent someday, preferably to a little girl.

In 1993, I wrote that I had a dream that I was expecting a baby and was naming it James. That's the same name Epu and I selected 13 years later as a prospective boy name. The middle name? The same middle name I later gave Nutmeg. Poor Epu, I guess his name suggestions didn't stand a chance. ;-)

In an unsent letter from France to a former boyfriend, I described the "radiant, 3-year-old French girl" who I'd be taking care of. "When you meet her, you'll understand why I had to take the job, even though it's 30 hours a week." Then, to my other boyfriend, who had told me he only ever wanted to have a boy if he had kids, "meeting this kid would show you that little girls can be every bit as cool as boys."

I ended up developing a close relationship with the little girl, although the job was a disaster and I quit after just a couple months. But here's an account of visiting the little girl later as her new au-pair picked her up at school:

"She's still my only real real friend in this country. With who else is seeing each other a little party for both of us?"

Now that I think of it, since Nutmeg was born I have been anxious for her to turn 3, and now I realize that it was because of that little girl and our relationship. The little girl would be 17 years old now, and I wonder what she is like. I've never been good at keeping in touch with people from past stages of my life.

In a folder of poems from a college class, I find a poem about a dream I'd had: Again, about having a baby. This time a toddler girl with dark curly hair. That's how I always pictured my future daughter, which led me to be quite surprised by Nutmeg. Pebbles was closer to what I was expecting. But now that I think of it, the stock image of "child" in my mind all those years had been little Thais from France.

There's also the dramatic irony of knowing the outcome of all my little dramas, while the me who wrote these words did not. In the emails from China, it's amusing to see us slowly figure out what a liar our boss was. At first I'm just glowing from all his praise for the articles I was writing for him -- flattery was a big MO for him. I'm describing things he says he'll do for us, like pay for our flights home when we're done working for him and get us free horseback tours of Mongolia. And he actually did come through on some things -- he arranged an ad-for-healthcare deal and the company ended up paying our rent for months in advance, so we had a place to live well after the business had closed.

We were in China working for this weekly newspaper, and the boss was getting harassed by the authorities and had to stop publishing. He continually told us he was inches away from signing a deal with a state-run newspaper that would end all of these problems. Maybe he was, and maybe he was just stringing us all along, or maybe he believed he was truly close to a deal but was deluded. At the time, we had no reason to doubt him.

We arrived in January 1997, the emails about the problems started in May. By August 1997, I wrote, "(The newspaper) looks hopeless, (our boss) went back to the States to 'raise funds' and we have our doubts about whether he's coming back." We had pretty much caught on to the guy at that point. He did wander back to China eventually, and even got the paper going again, but with a fresh crop of new arrivals from the US who weren't already fed up with him. The rest of us had moved onto other jobs by then.

More on these China e-mails another time.

In general it's been a low-grade thrill to relive episodes of my life that I never remembered, and call up old names and faces I haven't thought of in years. The journal entries from when I was younger mostly describe the scenery inside my head, so those are dull and just serve to remind me never to wish for a return to teenagerdom. My year in France is sort of half that and half describing actual events and places, which is much more interesting. Interspersed with dismal fiction and poetry, but that's ok, at least I was writing and getting things down.

When I begin to realize how many things I've lived and written down that I can't remember, it becomes clear that the person I was is, in some ways, truly a different person from me. I know her intimately, but I don't know everything about her.

And I'd much rather be me than her. I'm happier, for one thing. But more importantly, my spelling is so much better than hers.

3 comments:

Mikaila said...

That is so cool. I've always kept journals and letters and I have a box of them, but at the same time, everything is electronic now. Letters have become e-mails and journals have become blogs... But how cool to look back on your "long ago life" and remember.

margaret said...

How brave of you to revisit those tumultuous times. Your China references brought me back. I remember what Liu Feng said when he first met the boss: That guy's a little yo (3), like "oily." And of course it took us some months to know how much that was true.

Still, I miss living so ... viscerally.

I think it's very cool you always dreamed of having kids and now here you are. And I love hearing how happy you are you. I am, too.

Bert said...

My god, what an amazing way to spend your birthday! And these last two paragraphs made me cry... until the last line made me laugh. You truly are talented, my friend. I suppose it's from all of that practice.