February residency I’m going to ask my students of memoir to imagine their lives as if they had made all the right choices and gotten everything they’d fiercely wanted and failed to get.
In this moment, a few breaths before the new year of 2016, I try imagining my own life the same way. If the story had gone the way I wanted at the time, here’s a tiny sample of what would have happened: I would have stayed at cool La Jolla High School past the seventh grade instead of being yanked yet again into a new and uncool school in north San Diego county. From there I would easily have gotten into Stanford instead of being sabotaged by my uncool San Dieguito High School counselor and ending up at Berkeley instead.
From Stanford I would have easily gotten into Yale graduate school instead of the distinctly less cool University of Toronto.
If I had gotten into Yale, I might not have quit graduate school after one year and gone to live with my terrible boyfriend from Berkeley in the slums of Cambridge, Mass. while he went to music school and I worked a low-grade menial job in the Harvard School of Education.
What sort of person, I wonder, would this putative La Jolla High School, Stanford, and Yale graduate and non-girlfriend of Jon Golwyn have been? Someone much higher up on the professional ladder and earning a great deal more money than I ever have, for sure. Possibly even a wife and mother at some point.
But wait! Just wait! Suppose funky old Encinitas, California, and my cohort of classmates, surfers and farmers’ kids born in Japanese internment camps and other kids whose parents were braceros from Mexico, and the Krishnamurti Self Realization Fellowship right there on Highway 101 with the lotus blossom columns and mushroom burger stand and naked old ladies sunning themselves on the cliff over the surf break called Swami’s—suppose this was a better place to grow up than the rich persons’ town full of oilmen’s widows wearing mink stoles in the hot weather to conceal their dowagers’ humps. What if preppy, smug, upper middle class Stanford had squashed the sixteen-year-old female social misfit flatter than a mosquito on the windshield of a forest green MG, thereby proving my counselor right (though I still don’t forgive her)? What if rowdy, lively, anything-goes Berkeley was exactly the right place to be during the roaring Sixties? What if free speech and free thinking and the absence of class markers made exactly the right alchemical container for that sixteen year old joyously swallowed up in a sea of other social misfits?
And if Yale had been tony and smart enough to soothe the doubts of the twenty- year-old misfit, doubts that were ignited and set ablaze by the English provincial shabby gentility of Toronto, the unabashed sexism and academic pettiness of a mediocre college that had only hired its first female professor the year before and barred women from the library, swimming pool, coffee lounge, and classy dormitory suites of its Massey Graduate Center, steering them intead to the coffee machine on the ground floor of the Lillian Massey School for Home Science building?
Well, if New Haven had managed to seduce her, this youngster would not have ejected herself in and out of the Cambridge slum and would not—here’s the whole point, it’s coming now—would never, repeat, never have been desperate enough to leave the east coast and the west coast and launch herself far out into the Pacific for the two-week visit to Berkeley friends in Hawaii that turned into the ten magical years in the Islands that so wonderfully and unpredictably shaped the rest of her life.
The paths I thought I wanted to take would not have brought me to the person I wanted to be, which is the person I am now.
Paths taken, by choice or necessity, are one thing. Behaviors pose a different problem. They are tougher and more painful to rewrite. What would my life, and my brother’s, have been like if I hadn’t bullied him? What would my life, and my father’s, have been like if I hadn’t let him bully me? If I had let my mother into my life, just the tiniest bit, what would that have been like, for her and me?
A doorway into a resounding world of Light, that’s what. The person I am now stands at that threshold and sees the spirits of all those I knew and know, and my own, expanded out of their twisted forms and freed into the pure energy of love. I want to walk through that doorway and greet them. It feels like stepping sideways and up, into the Light.
No rewriting needed here, either.
Happy New Year, everyone.