I lie on the ground of my childhood bedroom as Dr. Brianna Booth invites our Zoom class to participate in a visualization. It’s spring quarter, classes are online and I’ve been home for two weeks now. Downstairs, my mom is singing, putting away pots and pans, loading the dishwasher. She’s playing John Mellencamp, the backdrop of my adolescent years and a thousand scattered evenings spent cooking, arguing and laughing in our kitchen. I’m still surprised by the daily rhythms that haven’t changed since I left for college. The small acts of normalcy give me hope that we can braid together who we’ve become in the past five years with who we were at 18 and 58, when my mother said goodbye to me at the front door of my freshman dorm, and I pretended not to cry as I watched her drive away.
Brianna asks us to become aware of our breath. I’m brought back to the moment, to my classmates, to my body. My breath travels from my nose, to my throat, to my stomach, sinking deeper with each round of inhales and exhales. I try to focus on Brianna’s voice, but I struggle to tune out the clattering pots and pans. Pots and pans make me think of frenetically cooking dinner for my housemates back in California, timers going off as we sing loudly to musicals. I suddenly remember that I neglected to pay the rent when it was due… many, many days ago … and I open my eyes in panic. I glance at the Zoom gallery. To my surprise, ALL of my classmates’ eyes are closed. They don’t seem concerned with crafting elaborate plans to finish their to-do lists. They are breathing — just breathing — only breathing, and something about their stillness makes me believe that the rent can wait. I close my eyes again and feel the warmth of my inhale. My heart rate slows.
Brianna continues the visualization. She asks us to imagine ourselves as a house.
Each room contains different life stories, she says. Some rooms we visit often; the blinds are open and warm light streams in. We invite others into these rooms; we tell people about the stories that live there. Other rooms, she continues, we seldom visit. The longer we ignore them, the harder it is to spend time there.
Tours of our house — our whole house — are few and far between. Every once in a while, we meet someone who we feel immediately known by; the connection is instantaneous, electric, unspeakably beautiful. When they ask for a tour, we feel crushingly excited, like we’re six years old again, open-armed and barreling into our best friend on the first day of school. With other people, tours of our house have happened over time. Trust is built slowly, brick by brick, until one day we realize they have visited every room, and we have visited all of theirs. These tours feel sacred, like we’re building relationships that are durable and able to withstand the complexities of time. Tours of our houses also happen in intentionally guided spaces, as weeks fold into months, during dorm events, therapy sessions, class meetings.
StoryCraft is the very best of those communities. As one of my favorite writers, Glennon Doyle, says, “We can’t fix anything for [each other], but [we can] witness everything,” and that was StoryCraft: a community of people who showed up as loving witnesses Zoom after Zoom, week after week.
I feel my chest expand and contract. My jaw softens, and I focus my attention on Brianna’s voice. She asks us to imagine a story we might want to tell during our final performance. When we step into the room that houses that story, she says, allow yourself to notice the smells, colors, feelings and memories that arise. My breathing slows. I close my eyes and let myself be transported.
I arrive in a scene from my junior year of high school. It’s 1AM, and my mom and I are laughing as we fall asleep. Most nights end the same way: Netflix and idle conversation, sleep by midnight, my mom’s fingers wrapped around mine until she begins to lightly snore. Other nights are anxious, but neither of us have the word for that yet. My high school has tests every three weeks, so the stress is cyclical — the Sundays before weeks 3, 6, 9 and 12 — but the worried nights come erratically, too. I struggle with typical high school things: fitting in, getting enough sleep, overextending myself, discovering the importance of boundaries. All extraordinarily lucky things to be dealing with. Lucky, especially, because I had my mother. I had nights with her in the guest room after she first stopped sleeping in the same bed as my dad. I had nights with her in my room, when she was just “staying with me for a while” and I had nights with her after we stopped pretending she would go back to my dad’s room altogether.
On these nights, she let me spiral from anxious thought to anxious thought. Sometimes it would go on for so long that my dad would march up the stairs and desperately ask us to please, please go to sleep. He was tired, and the light kept him up. After he would leave, we would giggle, and she would tell me to keep going. The thoughts and tears would eventually run their course. She never asked me to explain them. She didn’t offer solutions. She was my confessional, the person who bore witness to my shadows and light, and loved me all the same for it.
We would know the anxious nights were over when she would leave to wet a washcloth. Upon her return, she would slip into bed and gingerly press it against my eyes; she didn’t want them to be puffy in the morning. We stayed like this until our breathing synced, and we fell asleep.
This memory activates the felt experience of being mothered: slowed breathing, a warmth in my chest, a tingling in my fingers. But, comfort is laced with shame. The story of divorce is common, and its landmarks are shared by many families: the first holidays spent apart, the split time between parents, the introduction of new partners. But the years leading up to divorce are extraordinarily specific. Each family fractures differently. Ours was a slow unraveling, beginning with my parents carefully avoiding one another in the kitchen, until one day they stopped saying goodnight to each other, and my mom started sleeping with me in my room. At the time, only my most trusted people knew this part of my story. I fabricated the image of a perfectly functional family with everyone else, and in some ways we were: my parents loved me, and loved me and loved me. Is there any greater gift than that?
I open my eyes, surprised to feel dried tears on my cheeks. Brianna’s voice calls us back from the visualization. I wiggle my fingers. Rotate my neck from side to side. She invites us back to our bodies, the Zoom, each other. I lie on the floor for a moment longer, the carpet rough against my fingers. Class ends.
I hear my mom in the kitchen; she’s still singing along to John Mellencamp. Her voice is raspy and impossibly tender. I walk downstairs. She leans against the stove, wiping it down with a sponge. I wrap my hands around her waist. Startled, she laughs. “Michelle! Michelleeeee. What — what is this for?” I laugh and hug her tighter, her giggle folding into mine, until we laugh so long and deep hot tears begin to fall, and we hold each other close for a few moments longer.
Contact Michelle Hull at rmmh ‘at’ stanford.edu.
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