Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Box: A Story About The Stories We Tell Ourselves

This is a story about a box. A small box, roughly six inches high and six inches wide. It's a story about the power objects have over us, and their ability to make us feel boxed in.

This is also a story about the stories we tell ourselves. The boxes we put ourselves into. 

But let me back up a bit...all the way to my 30th birthday, which requires throwing the car into reverse for quite a few miles.

My husband and I got married 3 days before I turned 30, so I passed that major mile marker on the road to adulthood in a bit of a blur. In fact, it didn't really hit me until the dust had settled on the wedding festivities. All of a sudden I had a new name, a new title, a new home, and a new number in front of my age. I was someone's wife. I was Mrs. Shand. I was a homeowner. And I was 30.

To give you an idea of how the transition went, shortly after we returned from our honeymoon, I sat in a doctor's waiting room reading my magazine as the nurse repeatedly called "Mrs. Shand? Mrs. Shand? Shand!" I just sat there, thinking to myself what a coincidence it was that someone there had the same exact name as my my husband's mom.

And the new house? Though it was just a few miles from where I had been living, and I had moved many, many times before, across the country and even around the world, something about this move was different. The neighborhood was lovely, but the neat rows of bungalow houses all looked exactly the same to me, with nearly identical streets forming a nondescript grid. The first time I went out for a run, intending to go about 3 miles, I got so lost I ended up running 9.

This was a house my husband had been living in for years. He had remodeled it from top to bottom with his own two hands. He knew every inch of that house from the inside out, every creaky floorboard, what every switch on the wall did. I didn't even know where to put my socks.

But even more disorienting was the idea that I was supposed to be an adult. I had a job, a roof over my head, and cupboards stacked with linens, cups, and dishes. But let's face it: I didn't have a clue. I felt like I was playing house. Pretending to be a grownup.

Mostly, I felt lost. Confused. Out of sorts. Who was I?

A few weeks later I came back from a run- just 3 miles this time- and found a package on the porch, marked "fragile" and covered in postmarks and stamps. Since this was back in the Stone Age of online shopping, a dark period in our history I refer to as Before Amazon Prime, this was still a bit of a rarity.

I took it inside, unwrapped it and pulled out the most beautiful, intricately decorated ceramic box. It was off-white, but painted in brilliant hues of green, orange, burgundy, and teal, with a tribal, almost aboriginal pattern of swirls and dots. I had never seen anything like it. I traced the ins and outs of pattern with my fingers, feeling the bumps and grooves of the artist's work. It was stunning, but it was just the beginning. The box had a hinged lid, and I lifted it and reached inside to reveal a gorgeous pair of dangly, beautifully beaded earrings. I held them up to my face in the mirror, their delicate sparkle ridiculously incongruous against the backdrop of my sweat-stained face and, messy, post-run ponytail.

I dug around in the package and pulled out a small, handwritten note. "Dear Mona," it read. "I was in Bangkok last week, saw these, and thought of you. Happy belated 30th birthday, sweet friend. Hugs and kisses, X" Of course, her name really isn't X, but we'll call her that to protect the innocent. X was a British woman I had met at a youth hostel in Australia years prior. At the time, I was a recent college grad with not much of a plan beyond that trip. She was successful documentary filmmaker "on holiday" as the Brits say. Together, we backpacked through the land down under- at one point we even took a temporary job picking grapes at a vineyard, and probably drank more wine than we helped produce. Then, we went our separate ways- me, back to the United States, on to grad school, and eventually to my married life. She relocated to San Francisco, where she continued her documentary work with a human rights organization, and never married. We kept in only sporadic  touch, but she always remembered my birthday- even before Facebook notifications.

As this gift perfectly illustrated, she was in so many ways the kind of person I wanted to be. The kind with a rewarding career that was making a difference in the world. The kind who picked up exotic souvenirs just because she was thinking of her friends...and then proceeded to actually send them!

I carried the box and the earrings up to my bedroom, wondering all the way what my friend's home looked like. I imagined it was a funky city loft full of tribal artwork and exotic pieces she'd collected in her travels, each one telling the story of some oppressed group and their struggle for basic freedoms. I wondered about the box. Did it, too come from Bangkok? Or perhaps another faraway land? Maybe the African savanna. Or a jungle in Central America. Who were the artisans who toiled over it? What story did that beautiful pattern tell? What secrets did it hold?

I put the earrings away and wondered where I could find a dress to match them. And a life to match the dress. I hoped they would do OK in metro Detroit, in my life, where I was in the midst of a career change and quite possibly the oldest unpaid intern to ever make coffee in a television newsroom.

The box I carefully carried to my bedside, and over to my nightstand. It looked like hopelessly out of place next to the Pottery Barn catalogue, but I figured we'd adapt. Or maybe what I really hoped was that it would rub off on me. That somehow if I kept the box and kept it close, I would have magically have all it seemed to represent- the international career, the beautifully decorated home, the global stories.

You can imagine how well that worked out.

Years went by, and the box stayed in that same spot next to my bed. When my good friend insomnia came for its nightly visit, I'd lie in bed and trace the patterns with my finger. I was pregnant with our first child and wondering how in the world I was supposed to take care of another human being when I still hadn't figured out this whole grownup thing for myself. I wondered what we had thrown ourselves into. I wondered if I should get throw pillows to match that box. I wondered if we had any matches so I could light some candles. I wondered what my future kids would think of a parent that didn't even have their act together enough to light candles or have throw pillows. I looked to the box for answers- it had none.

Mostly, I felt lost. Confused. Out of sorts. Who was I?

Along with the new baby, the next few years brought a new house in a new city. Another new baby. And then another one. The box, of course, came with us and still sat in its mismatched place of honor next to my bed. Of course, there were many, many more sleepless nights. More staring at that box at 3am, wondering why my life's twists and turns weren't as beautiful as its swirls. Why my life didn't seem as vibrant as its rich hues. Why my relationships weren't as harmonious as its patterns. I'd trace the path of each curlycue, praying that I had taken the right one in my own life. While nursing my babies in the middle of the night, I would reach over and slowly open and shut its lid, over and over- trying to find my own rhythm in its gentle snap. It was a habit I'd developed as a child, with another box- a pale blue Holly Hobbie lunchbox, as I sat, more often than not, alone in the school cafeteria. I'd focus on opening and closing its metal clasp, hearing that satisfying snap so I wouldn't have to hear the silence all around me.

Back then as a child, and once again a grownup, I felt lost. Confused. Out of sorts. Who was I?

A few years later I remembered hearing that if you couldn't sleep, you should try writing down all the things that are bothering you in an attempt to clear your head before bed. Between the kids, my work, my parents' failing health, my own health challenges, and my guilt and personal neuroses about pretty much everything, I had enough to fill a novel, but instead, I decided to fill that box. Armed with a pack of post-its and a pen, every night I tried to take the weight of the world off my shoulders and quite literally box it up.

I started with the easy stuff- the things that danced around the edges of my mind during the busy daytime hours, but really came out to party at 3am like: Research summer camps. Dig out bins of summer clothes. Organize bins of clothes. Be more organized. Try not to yell so much. Teach her to stand up to mean girls. Figure out why girls are so mean. Figure out why grown women are so mean.  Did I hug my kids enough today? Did I hug my husband at all? Do they all know how much I love them? I shoved all of that in the box...but still found myself wide awake, staring at it every night. Sometimes it even seemed to taunt me, its curves and twists making me think of the ones I had taken...and the ones I had left behind.

So I dug deeper. I'd write down things in my life that I really hated and stuff them in the box. Parkinson's Disease. Septic shock. Aphasia. Femoral acetabular impingement syndrome. Religious persecution. Sectarian violence. The children of Syria. Oh, magic box, why can't you take these struggles away? Take them to your far away home on a remote tropical island, or a desolate hillside, or the rainforest, or wherever it is you came from. Just take them away from me. The box betrayed me yet again.

A few months later my own health issues came to a head and I found myself more lost, confused, out of sorts, and unsure of who I was than ever. I was a writer with nothing to say. A runner who could no longer run. A mother who could barely take care of her kids. One night I hobbled up to my bedroom on crutches, trying so hard to hold it all together. As I eased myself down onto the bed my crutch went flying, I reached out to grab it, only to be hit with a dagger of pain to the surgical site. In the process, the box was knocked to the floor where it spilled open, scattering all the pieces of paper around the room. Tears poured out as I looked down at the mess.

I HATE THIS STUPID, STUPID BOX! I yelled, slinking painfully to the floor. Seeing it there, it all became clear- on the outside, that box was everything I wanted to be but wasn't. And on the inside, everything I was, but didn't want to be. I wanted to smash it to bits, but that would just be one more mess in my life I couldn't clean up. So I glared at it, and for the first time noticed something on the bottom. I used a crutch to reel it in, hoping it was the artists' name or initials so I could at least curse him or her more personally. But what I saw when I pulled it closer was strangely familiar. A little too familiar.

It said, Kirkland Signature.

That's right. My box...the one that had tortured me for artsy fartsy, indiginous, free range, free trade, artisanal box...was from COSTCO.

It didn't come from a tribe deep in the Amazon, or a war-torn East African jungle. It wasn't carved with the tears of ten thousand weeping widows or coated with the ground up dust of unicorn hooves.

No, it came from Costco, somewhere between five dollar rotisserie chicken and the 50 pound bag of cat litter, with the melodic sound of the seafood roadshow in the background.

Let's be clear- this has nothing to do with my lovely friend X who sent me the box. She did nothing but offer a gesture of kindness. I was the one who covered it in magical, mystical, powers and measured myself against it for years. And as it turned out, it was just an ordinary box. A box that probably came in a 6-pack of other boxes. I cleaned up the papers the best I could, picked up the box, and stuffed it in the bottom of my closet.

Not long after, my daughter was wrapping up work on a big 2nd grade project. Together, the class builds a community, with each child completing a building for the town guessed it, a box. She had worked diligently on it for weeks, and brought it over to show me when she was done.

"You did a beautiful job," I congratulated her. "It's perfect."

"Mom, it's not perfect," she corrected me with me, her tiny hands on her hips. "But it's my box, and I love it."

That night I once again found myself awake, my heart racing as I stared at the ceiling since the box was no longer by my bedside. I got up, pausing to watch my loving husband snore...I mean sleep. I went from room to room, peeking in on each of our slumbering children, watching their chests move slowly up and down until my own breathing slowed to matched theirs. I ran my hand over the spots on the walls where the paint was peeling, the moldings we've never gotten around to finishing, the jumble of family photos in mismatched frames on the table, the crucifix on the wall.

"It's not perfect." I told myself. "But it's my box, and I love it."

The next morning when I woke up, I dug the ceramic box out of my closet, took it to the garbage can, and threw it away.

Don't get me wrong- more often than not, I still feel lost, confused, out of sorts. And I probably won't get this grownup thing down until it's much too late. But I guess little by little I'm figuring out who I am and this much I know:

I'm someone who is learning to think outside the box.

1 comment:

  1. I really love this. I always thought I'd have it together by 40, but as moments tick down until August, I'm not so sure. This made me realize "together" might be a bit of an illusion and that I should take some peace in the "working on it" state of things <3