Writing a non-fiction book based on your life is a curious thing. I have written primarily non-fiction in 50 years of serious writing but never like this. My book-in-process, A String Of Pearls, has small chapters that are like little beads on a strand, each chapter another pearl, small, tender, luminescent, divine in its humanity. But looking back over my life to find the pearls has become far more puzzling and difficult than I would have imagined. Let me try to explain…
As I jot down ideas for chapters the “pearls” that are prominent, meaning the good things that are obvious pearls, are easy, or rather easy to choose as good possibilities for chapters in the book. And there are all kinds of things that could be relevant because there are many types of pearls grown under various conditions. Some of the pearls we know are grown in mussels, not oysters. Some are part man made to the extent that humans insert matter into a live oyster so that it will create a pearl, these are “Cultured pearls.” There are black pearls, freshwater pearls, and so on. The main theme in the book would be life’s sometimes glorious and often challenging times that lead to pearls of wisdom. But how to write about the really hard times that can never be viewed as good but have, in the way that they led to growth, or greater strength, or deeper knowledge, forged the soul?
For example, while I get weary of writing about having been sexually abused from 4 to 18 it is also a very important part of my narrative because it caused so many things to happen that led to many dark passages in my life, some devastating, but also, over a few decades, led me to be a person of great compassion and empathy, with a deepened sense of spirituality and love for all of the creatures of the earth, woman and man and animal, plants, trees, the fruits and flowers of the garden, the little snail on the path. Somewhere along the line, after decades in therapy, and with medication, and struggling to stand upright in a world where I was so often pulled down I took, in my own small way, the Hippocratic Oath, “Above all, do no harm.” And it is how I try to live.
But my days are rooted in dark times that could well have caused some of the mental health issues that I live with. I am a product of nature and nurture. Through 2 decades of abuse, and ongoing emotional abuse from my mother for 50+ years, the acts that harmed me may well have flipped the switch so that the bipolar light turned on in my brain, and other lights on the board lit up with ongoing, repetitive abuse. The little girl in me who lives on is often frightened, the adult woman can comfort her on the days where a greater sense of balance and peace are the order of the day, but, looking back over my life as I write this book I see my life as a fairy tale and it is fractured at every juncture. At the same time the light shines through those broken places here and there, enough to make me want to live and move forward, but how do I write about the dark times that really led to no pearls but did make me stronger over time?
I have come to this, thinking about how pearls are formed. An irritant of some sort, a grain of sand, or a parasite, embeds itself in the soft part of the oyster. It is very uncomfortable for the oyster so the oyster secretes a substance known as nacre. As long as the irritant remains it will continue to secrete nacre, layer after layer, and after a time it becomes a pearl. You can feel the metaphor in that. We often take life’s challenges and turn them, over time, in our own way, into pearls. But what about those dark, dark times too difficult to transform?
It came to me that on a strand of pearls the white cotton thread is often knotted between the pearls. This is done for safety so that if the strand breaks not all the pearls are lost. It came to me that these knotty places, though not places of beauty, are places that hold the piece together, and now, at 61, having worked since my late teens in therapy to try to find a way to survive, to even have the will to live, great strength was built up in those fractured places. I have grown strong, strong enough that I no longer wish to take my life, that I make it through the hard times often by sheer will and determination, that as the knots have been created over and over in my life the whole strand is stronger. I am a strong woman with a beautiful if odd sort of life held together by the knotty places, much like scar tissue, which is stronger than the place before the scarred tissue was formed.
I have made a lot of jewelry in my life, rough hewn, old Chinese beads knotted on twine often that I myself had made. There is a hearty beauty to these pieces, the lovely beads, the hand-knotted cord, and they form a heavy necklace that slips over the head and lies against the chest with a weight that is comforting. So, too, my life. The colorful handmade beads — the stories of my life that are like fairy tales, as surely much of my early life was, a little princess of sorts, and the knotted handwoven cord, the weight of it all, the pain, the darkness, the strength. I am broken and pieced back together, wabi sabi style, and in the end I have become an interesting, odd shaped, cattywompus woman who is soft, and gentle, and nurturing, and who will tell you her stories, light and dark, as I sit with a basket, pearls and thread on my lap, making necklaces out of my life to wear and give as beads of courage.
I will write you my story. I will weave it well and tie the knots firmly and present to you a book crackling with life and color and love and grace. The oyster does not make a pearl without a great deal of discomfort, and he produces a thing of such great beauty it is prized around the world. I will begin here, with this, and I will keep writing and finding a way to go deeper, the circuitous path of writing this book very much like the making of a necklace, round and round and round. I will take my basket now and gather up my things. There is much work to be done and I’ve only just begun.