A short story about short stories
picture taken from the cover book Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall
Note: some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals
I finished reading This is The Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett. It pains me to say that I hadn’t heard about Ann’s books until I read Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic. To say that I fell in love with Ann’s writing is a gross understatement, before finishing her book I had already ordered another one plus her best friend’s memoir. The way I see it Ann and I are now friends, therefore her friends are my friends too.
I finished the book feeling the way one feels after a restful nap: calm, full of good energy, and a little bit dizzy, craving more. Surprisingly, neither the book I finished or the one I ordered are novels. Ann Patchett is a fiction writer, and a delightful one at that, but I began getting to know her through her short stories.
If short stories were a band, I would be the fan president, the cheerleader, and roadie. Short stories are, and have always been the way to my heart. For this reason I also purchased Essays after Eighty by Don Hall, who recently passed away. Hall was an exquisite poet and essayist, but I must admit that part of the appeal of this particular book was its cover; a picture of himself, aged, wrinkled, with gray hair and piercing eyes. Something in him felt warm and familiar. He reminded me of my therapist.
A decade ago I hit my own proverbial rock bottom, ridden with anxiety and depression, I was in poor health and one mistake away from returning to live with my parents. A friend -whose husband worked on the top floor of a mid-town building- recommended I see the therapist two floors down. She’d seen him riding on the elevator, and she heard he’s good, hardly qualifications for choosing a mental health provider, but I was in such a desperate state I was willing to try anything to get my life on track. Whatever that meant.
I didn’t know this brilliant man had a waitlist of people wanting to see him, I didn’t know that he had done graduate research in South America, or that one of his best friends lived in Ecuador, and I certainly wasn’t aware of how lucky I was that due to a cancellation, I would be sitting across from him in two days time.
Riding the elevator in a building full of financial advisors and surrounded by tech offices, I thought this was an odd place for a therapist to set up shop, but there it was, the solo practice of Dennis Blomberg, P.H.D..
The room was unkept in way a room is unkept when you’ve lived there a long time, and things seem to find a place of their own, the furniture had seen better days, but all doubts about his office were forgotten when I took in the giant L shaped windows facing southeast that gave a perfect view of the mountains, the 14th floor high enough to drown the sound of the midtown traffic below. Many times over the years I told him how lucky he was to have that room all to himself. He never disagreed.
The first time we met I said I had never been to therapy, I was uncertain about where to begin or what to say, so I would begin at the beginning. Logic dictated that it was the choices I made that led me where I was, and the reason I continually made poor choices began with my upbringing. Allow me to highlight that this was not a complaint session about my parents, but if I was to unravel the mess that was my life, I had to pick a place to begin, so I chose my childhood.
Session after session we moved through my life as he made notes on a yellow paper pad. Every so often he would leave his chair and explain concepts with drawings on a board. Sometimes they were timelines, sometimes illustrations on how the brain works. He often told anecdotes and quoted people and books. He was quick to listen and slow to speak. Over the years I have seen him on and off, he has given me many gifts in the form of words. I have a special place for his wisdom, when I’m faced with a challenge I can quickly sort through the files in my brain to come up with my version of what-would-Doctor-Blomberg-do. WWDBD.
On the subject of my childhood he told me he could see it was not perfect, but it was over. Circumstances may damage us, but at some point we have to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions. There’s no point in suffering about suffering.
At some point I stopped thinking about going to therapy as something I did to get better or be better (though it certainly made me better), and it became a soothing balm for my soul, a telling of my own story. I looked forward to verbalizing what my brain held onto for 20 years. From the vantage point of the future I can see how this storytelling of sorts healed me.
Years later, when our marriage was going through what we called "the dark times", Tim and I sat across from each other in the therapist's office. Me in my usual spot, he on the leather couch.
Whatever the recipe is for a happy, long lasting marriage, I do not know, but I will say that we change, humans change, circumstances change, everything changes. Change is perhaps the single one constant we can count on, and the day you wake up and realize that the person you thought you knew is not that person anymore, and neither are you, for that matter, it is crucial to have a knowledgeable, objective third party on your side to help you navigate the murky waters. To help you begin a new story again.
It occurs to me now that this is why I favor short stories over other forms of writing. After all, what is a life if not a collection of stories in itself.