Burning to Know

I realized this weekend, with a sense of horror and shame, that I don’t know a damn thing about the world I live in, and I just can’t go on like this. So I did some searching around on the web, and I came across some advice from a soldier in Kandahar who says that if I want to imagine what it is like there, I should put a handful of dirt in my mouth and set myself on fire. I see that breaking out of my cave isn’t going to be easy. After all, my world didn’t shrink overnight. I barely saw it happening.

As a college freshman and an aspiring writer rooming with my sister and taking poetry classes at the U of M with John Engman, I was set on a course of political activism and outreach, even if it was youthfully shallow. I went through a short phase of going to protests with my friend Adam, wearing all black, chain-smoking Marlboro lights, and drinking diet soda by the pitcher. I wore old men’s overcoats scrounged from thrift shops and started dyeing my hair just a little more auburn than it already was. It was exhilarating, but short-lived, because within two years I was engaged, within another year married, and within weeks of the vows, pregnant. Out with the protests and the Marlboros and diet sodas and hair dye, in with the cottage cheese and vitamins.

During that pregnancy, I began working full time in sales management and gained about 60 pounds. Instead of black turtlenecks, I found myself donning floral hand-me-down maternity frocks that I tried and failed to pass off as business attire. I barely recognized myself and wondered if I ever would again.

When my beautiful daughter was born, I experienced a fantastic post-partum elation. I was so overjoyed to have a miraculous, tiny, gray-eyed daughter that those extra 53 pounds still flopping around on my body and the lingering pain of childbirth became almost irrelevant. So did the rest of the world’s problems. My single mission was to shield my daughter from all harm.

Back home from the hospital, my then-husband brought me—along with the standard bouquet—a gift that underscored my joy in the most poignant way imaginable. I found it when I walked into our bedroom, where the open windows let in the comforting aroma of processed oats from the General Mills factory across the street. There, atop my small, scratched wooden dresser sat a 12-pack of Diet Pepsi and a hard-pack of cigarettes.

Gross, yes, but exactly what I needed in the moment: a signal that someone other than me remembered the part of me that was not an Earth mother, not a floral smock. The part of me that had barely invented a grown-up identity before impending motherhood turned me on my head.

I couldn’t actually smoke the cigarettes or drink the poison, because I was breastfeeding, a state of affairs that went on for a total of 10 virtually uninterrupted years and two more children. Eventually, the Earth mother chased off the budding intellectual activist for good.

Or so I thought, until this past weekend, when several small events jolted me out of a thick fog. It started on a Friday afternoon when I left town with my friend after the last day of school for a short getaway in Stillwater. By the time we reached the inn, I was beginning to lose my focus. When I awoke on Saturday morning, utter disorientation had taken over.

At first, I thought it might simply be the horizonless intoxication a teacher feels after passing through that celebrated portal from the school year into the heat of summer. Since my friend and I are both teachers, this theory would add up nicely. But no, I think there’s more at work here. I mean, have you ever had that vaguely bizarre feeling of… not having the foggiest notion of who you are?

You think I’m exaggerating. But I’m not so sure. Because yesterday, after 23 months of uncertain denial, my divorce decree arrived in my mailbox. I—a child of divorce, who spent my whole childhood and young adulthood vowing that if I ever got married, it would be forever—am now officially a single parent, a divorcee, a marriage failure, a head of household in a “broken family.”

And through the fog I holler, so what? Can I imagine stuffing a handful of dirt into my mouth and lighting myself on fire? That’s still the question at hand, and at the moment the answer is no. So I’m going to step out of my cave and start trying.

Jeannine Ouellette is Associate Editor of The Rake.