Crafting an introductory line for anything is an intimidating venture, but the memoir poses a unique challenge. In a few short sentences, you are attempting to showcase an intimate snapshot into your life to total strangers (never mind that life rarely makes any narrative sense at all) and make it exciting enough to get them to pursue the pages that follow. (Easy.)
There are many stories I could open with. For example, I’ve spent almost every June since I was fourteen serving middle eastern refugees in Greece and nearly died on two separate occasions. The first incident involved a storm about an hour off of the Athenian harbor that almost capsized our schooner. In the second incident, I began suffocating after laughing too hard at my own dirty joke and making the dumb decision to drink water mid-hysterics. Thankfully, we brought a nurse along to give me the Heimlich.
I could discuss the dinner table around which my sisters and I were raised, with diluted wine and Dean Martin albums—we’re Sicilian—as we listen in teary-eyed awe as my mom shares her story: How her parents divorced when she was seven; how her verbally abusive, neglectful mother passed away at forty; how at nineteen, she met my dad, they fell in love, and are still together thirty years later; how three years ago, she brought my grandpa to live with us when his back—and spirit— broke, bearing the weight of his care, and the warning signs of Alzheimer’s. (Let’s be real, hers would be a much more interesting memoir).
I could describe a childhood spent attending—and occasionally volunteering at— far more funerals than weddings and the life lessons I learned from watching mourners. Those particular memories have been on my mind a lot lately. Over the past couple of months, my third gynecologist diagnosed me with both endometriosis (scar tissue that primarily affects the uterus and vaginal canal causing intense pain among other symptoms) and vulvodynia (in which the pain receptors around the vulva and hymen are hyperactive), rendering me unable to use tampons, let alone have intercourse. While not impossible, this makes the odds of having a love life (maybe even kids) pretty damn complicated.
So, here we have the perpetually single, unapologetic feminist with aunt energy, who still wants marriage and children in spite of her asexuality, mourning the suddenly tangible potential that such desires may never happen for her. (Mm, a bit cliché?)
Maybe I should brag about my academic achievements. In 2019, I graduated high school with two associate degrees in psychology (inspired by chronic childhood anxiety). After receiving rejections from every other program I applied to, I attended the University of Oregon Honors College, only to transfer the next year after my first major encounter with Seasonal Affective Disorder and ensuing suicidal ideation. (Thank goodness for Covid! No one is surprised by a mental health crisis anymore; cry “global pandemic” and follow-up questions disappear.)
Speaking of mental illness, I could start with something dark and dramatic, like the sanity-stealing spirals of my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I could discuss how I’ve experienced urges to break the skin on my arm with a hand-sanitized knife (safety first), only to get frustrated for being unable to push down enough to bleed and thinking myself a quitter. How I eventually mustered up the stubbornness to cut across my hand… how curiously dejected I was when no one noticed. How I’ve (albeit imperfectly) found healing—through nature, medication and conversation, journaling and music, and primarily, through faith.
In another draft, I’ll tell a better story—something that grips the heart and stirs the soul. Something that’s organized and less chaotic, that inspires feeling and healing like a good memoir should. In my next draft, I’ll do my best to communicate joy as freely as I delve into pain because there is so much gladness I have to share, be well-assured. Sometimes it’s very difficult to find, but it’s there.
For now, I’ll start with the tattoo on my upper left arm, stick-and-poke (one pain-staking dot at a time), depicting two flowers—Helleborus orientalis— suspended in a river of whimsical light above the inscription Lamentations 3:21-26.
“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”
Why Helleborus orientalis? Simple. They’re resilient. They look upon the oncoming suffering of harsh winters and, seeing its neighboring flora lie dead or dormant beneath blankets of ice and snow, resolve to bloom anyway. Hellebores are small, five-petaled flowers that crawl along concrete walls and blossom in the face of tribulation.
Ultimately, I’ve been less fortunate than some and more fortunate than others. I have faced a lot of loneliness, which I still deal with and reel with. Perhaps I always will. I have a few very dear people who love me well, and others that I have welcomed in and seen walk away (or for my own health, walked away from). I’m becoming ever-presently aware of my lack of control over the circumstances of my life and what will come. But I know this—there is much in my life that I easily could have chosen to run from or leave behind eternally. But God is good. It is because of His gentle and lowly heart, and interceding love, that I’ve lived through it. I’ve grown from it. Perhaps someday I’ll find better words with which to write this opening, something more cohesive, more poetic. For now, I choose not to weep over rough drafts, because that’s much of what life is—a work-in-progress. Instead, I sip from a mug of earl grey in a charming, little studio apartment in San Diego, and hold fast to the words of one of my favorite memoirists:
“For this day, at least, I’m sane, and I’m writing, and that’s a glorious thing.”
– Terri Cheney, Manic