Born or made?

What are the stories that made you what you are?

Stories are how we tell our children who they are and whose they are. The stories we tell ourselves become how we operate in the world–tell yourself that people are laughing at you, and you become armored and defiant; tell yourself people are preoccupied with their concerns and hadn’t noticed that you dropped the turkey, and you remain calm and open.

The stories we make of our past merge the two functions. But enough of that; I’m going to tell a couple of stories.

My mother has long told me that, somewhere around age three, I would bug her to stop what she was doing and write down my story. I envision my small self grabbing her hem, or the seam of her trousers, maybe even tugging. There would be the inevitable MAmaMAmaMAma until her attention shifted. Then the request, the paper and pen, the dictation, and finally–freedom for all. Until the next story came!

By three, I was reading for myself. Sesame Street was an effective teacher. No doubt I would collect my new story, review it for accuracy, and carry it off to my room for whatever ‘later’ brought. Though I no longer have any of these early stories, and wouldn’t have remembered them without my mother telling me.

I do remember my typewriter, however.

According again to my mother, she gave me her old college typewriter; she had gotten a newer, more sophisticated one to help produce my father’s dissertation. Knowing my mother, my interruptions in search of a secretary were both important  to her and annoying…my mother prefers to begin at the beginning and work until the end of whatever she’s set out to do. She also values voice, agency, art, and learning…so how to give those key things the space they deserved, while tactfully removing my interruptions?

Kim can read. Kim can read a dictionary. Kim can find the letters on the typewriter and write out her own stories, no dictation needed. Problem solved!

I don’t remember ever wondering why I had a real portable typewriter when none of my friends did. I do remember using it freely, and always having a stock of paper.

The first two poems I remember writing for myself rhymed. This you may find ironic; I do. 

Have you ever been in sock feet, sock feet on the lawn?
Have you ever been in sock feet, sock feet at dawn?
Have you ever been in sock feet, sock feet in your room?
Have you ever been in sock feet, sock feet at your doom?

Portentous, too. It worked like this:

I was six. We lived then in a split-level house with a pink bedroom, just off the Army base where my father was stationed. We rented it from another military family, who were detached elsewhere for the two years of my father’s tour of duty.

In addition to the glory of the pink bedroom, the house came with a climbable apple tree, and a swing set. My parents refurbished the swing set, including getting swings for it. It stood a straight shot out our sliding glass door, across our postage-stamp patio, and halfway across the grass. 

In the Lawrence household, we always wore shoes outdoors. Always, always, no bare feet allowed. Why I would have been shoeless in the twilight backyard I don’t remember, but I completely understand how remarkable it would have been. I was Playing Outside (In the Dark) Without My Shoes…a transgression to thrill the six-year-old soul.

The rhythm of pumping the swing back and forth, pushing it to the highest point of its arc–you can hear it in the poem. It propelled the other poem as well, though I no longer remember that one. I chanted them over and over to be sure I didn’t lose them before I made it back in the house.

I don’t think I jumped from the swing; I think I avoided that for another two or three years. Though it would’ve made a better story.

I went back upstairs, fished out a notepad styled like a tomato and with pale red pages. I wrote down “Sock Feet” on one page and its partner on another. 

I carried these poems with me into my teens. I remember them as talismans–perhaps because they came so unexpectedly, perhaps because they were a new form for me. Perhaps too because they were not school assignments–I was getting old enough that much of my writing was in service to more than my own impulse.

I claimed my identity as a poet when I was sixteen. When I did, I reached back for “Sock Feet.” And then reached back further to my typewriter. Writing since before you can remember is a powerful affirmation: you must be a writer! You’ve always written.