On Being Singular

Lately I’ve started each morning by reading for a while before turning to my own work, spurred by Jane Kenyon’s beautiful instruction: keep good sentences in your ears.  A day that begins with reading – as is also true of a day that begins with meditation – will inevitably lead to more internal spaciousness.  Just yesterday I pulled Elizabeth Tallent‘s masterful collection Mendocino Fire from my pile.  A few pages into the first story, I came upon these good sentences:

“This was life then, this bravery, this scaredness, this love of the truth in your possession, the thing  you had seen that set you apart and somehow was you.  You and no one else.”

You and no one else.  I spent a lot of my early life trying hard to fit in.  Most kids do.  And because we are, each of us, singular, this is a futile, disheartening battle, this work of attempting to be just like everybody else.  When I was a little girl who didn’t fit in at the yeshiva, I believed the problem was me.  When I was a slightly older girl who didn’t fit in at the prep school, I was certain the problem was me.  I spent part of my well-documented twenties careening from man to man, trying to define myself not by who I was (since I was the problem) but by who I was with.  Finally, finally, I landed in my thirties and began to untangle this sense that there was something wrong with me, something that needed fixing, and once that thing was fixed, I would feel like I belonged.

I remember  — well into my life as a writer, having published four, five, six books — turning to my husband one day and saying: but who are my role models?  I couldn’t point to a writer who had taken my exact path.  Who moved between fiction and memoir, who wrote a spiritual memoir, who shifted from academic teaching to leading retreats.  I wanted to fashion myself after someone instead of hewing ever-more-closely to myself.

Finally — one of the greatest gifts that comes with having been around for a while – I think I’m beginning to get it.  This was life then.  The thing you had seen that set you apart.  When I bring a new book, story, essay into the world, when I give a speech or lead a retreat, I am reporting from the front of the thing I have seen.  The thing that sets me apart.  Each of us is as individual as a snowflake.  Each of us is set apart.  It is in all of our individuality, in the sum total of our life experiences, the specificity of our paths, that we have most to offer one another.

Or as that great literary icon Dolly Parton once said: Find out who you are, and do it on purpose.