Dreaming & scheming together

I was nearing my seventeenth birthday before I slept in a room without one of my sisters. I’ve always thought those years of close contact had something to do with my need for a lot of “alone” time now. As Joseph Campbell said, we all need “a sacred space,” even just a corner of a room, where “you can experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be.” And yet, my memories of the rooms I shared resonate so much more vividly than those I had to myself.

The Patient Voice Project at the University of Iowa (an expressive writing project for people who are ill) often assigns participants to write about their childhood bedrooms. After all, it’s a topic that virtually everyone can write about, and it offers a “way in” to the practice of expressive writing. Telling stories through expressive writing often changes the experience and shows us the way forward.

We lived first in a small duplex house built in 1924. The presence of my older sister, born only 16 months before, hovered over me. We napped together, played together, and shared everything. Shortly after our third sister was born (just  shy of two years after me) we moved to a “bigger” house, about 1000 square feet, but with three bedrooms. Most of my memories begin  there.

The musician Robert Smith says that he still goes back to his parents’ house so that he can just sit in his childhood bedroom and “feel small.” When I think about the shared rooms of my childhood, small is the operative word. We felt small and so we played small games and dreamed small dreams in those rooms.

Little golden bookMy older sister and I like to tell people how we constructed paths around our room with our collection of Little Golden Books. I have no idea how many books we actually had, but at the time, it seemed liked hundreds. Since they were all the same size, we could line them up and turn them into roads. While we were supposed to be napping, somehow we were developing a sense that we needed to have a path to somewhere else.

Role-playing the life of the adults we knew was another pastime in our room. Our mother went every week to have her hair done, so we decided to do it too. My sister (being the bossy one) decided to take the part of hairdresser, so it fell to me to have my hair “done.” She cut my hair with preschool scissors, we stuffed the shorn locks into a shoe box and thought no one would notice. I don’t recall feeling any remorse or regret, even after we were found out.

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After the haircut

For many years, the three of us shared a room with Sleeping Beauty cut-outs on the wall where we created our own fantasy lives. We had to go to bed when it was still light outside and other kids were playing in the streets, so we played “house” in our beds. By carefully turning down the covers (bedspread, blanket, sheet) to different intervals, we could delineate three different rooms atop the bed. There, we would each play-out grown-up life in our own “home.” Invariably, we ended up making too much noise and bringing down the wrath of our very real parents.

By high school, of course, our world had expanded, and the bedroom was no longer our playground. My older sister and I got a “new”, wood-paneled bedroom when my dad finished the basement of the house, but we fought like cats and dogs over the space. My sharpest memory of that time is when I divided our room by building a wall between our beds out of my shoe boxes. (Even then, I loved shoes!) We had gone from building roads to building walls, and I couldn’t wait for her to go off to college and leave me with a room of my own.

The funny thing is that I don’t remember much from the time when I had the room to myself. Sarah Susanka has written that, “We are all searching for home, but we are trying to find it by building more rooms and more space,” instead of thinking about the essence of what makes the spaces feel like home. Without someone to share it and fight over it, the room lost some its luster. There’s a line in the Beach Boys’ song, “In My Room,” that goes, “Do my dreaming and my scheming lie awake and pray…” I think I must have sensed that so much of the dreaming, scheming and praying had been a shared experience, that it was the people, not the place, that were important to me.

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Who would I be without my sisters?

At the end of each semester, I receive a packet of narrative comments that my students have submitted as part of the course evaluation. Leery as I sometimes am about reading them, they provide an opportunity to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, and how I can improve the course. One of the things that my students most appreciate is the opportunity to heal through writing, and easily the most valuable assignment to them is the letter of gratitude that I ask them to write. The gratitude letter doesn’t just say “thank you,” it is a full acknowledgement of what someone has done for you and an appreciation of what that gift means.

But while assigning the gratitude letter to my students year after year, I have only rarely written one myself. Reading their comments recently made me realize that I have a group of people to whom I owe tremendous gratitude:

To my sisters:

Thank you for being my first friends, for teaching me about loyalty, the importance of relationships, and how to care for others. With you, I never felt alone – someone was always a step ahead and a step behind, protecting me. Being with you was like being in a private club with its own secrets and rituals. I think that’s why I hated camp, dropped out of Girl Scouts and never wanted to live in a dorm. My sisters were, for the longest time, the only group I needed to be part of. Remember how, no matter how old we were, Dad always referred to us collectively as “you girls”?

Thank you for teaching me how to share, no matter how reluctantly. Thank you for giving me the freedom to be myself. I know I can still be my most authentic when I am with you. Yes, we judge, doubt and second-guess each other sometimes, but we also accept each other, no matter how many flaws. We have learned through each other’s mistakes, and we have made mistakes together.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABrenda Shaughnessy has a poem called “Why I Wish I Had More Sisters”, where she writes, “I wish I had more sisters, enough to fight with and still have plenty more to confess to.” Over the years, we have fought and we have confessed; in fact we have experienced a full range of human emotion. When I was cruel to one of you, I learned shame. When one of you was cruel to me, I learned forgiveness. We have carried anger, jealousy and resentment with us at times, but also love, kindness and compassion.

I am never at a loss for conversation when I am with you. We can laugh and cry, celebrate and grieve, in equal measure. Shaughnessy writes, “None of us would be forced to be stronger than we could be.” We have proven this to be true over and over again, as we have gone through difficult times together. When one of is hurting, there is someone to hold her up. We don’t always understand each other, but we never give up on each other.

Finally, thank you for making my husband part of the family, for loving him and our children almost as much as your own. We are stronger as a family because of the support and safe space you have provided. There is a synergy to love that is shared.

You continue to inspire me, to be my collective North Star. You are smart, dedicated, curious, funny and accomplished women. You keep me honest, you force me to grow, and I love you for it. I don’t wish I had more sisters – I realize I have just enough.