A Coming-of-Age Vignette, Sage Advice, and the Writing Exercise They Inspired

This is a Special Edition of a Writing It Real article: WHEN YOU READ THE FOLLOWING EXCERPTS FROM RHONDA WILEY-JONES’ MEMOIR, AT HOME IN THE WORLD: TRAVEL STORIES OF GROWING UP AND GROWING AWAY, YOU’LL LIKELY REMEMBER INCIDENTS FROM YOUR OWN YOUTH WHEN YOU LEARNED IMPORTANT THINGS ABOUT YOURSELF, PERCEPTIONS THAT ALLOWED YOU TO SEE YOURSELF IN NEW WAYS. I’VE INCLUDED A WRITING EXERCISE TO USE AFTER YOU READ RHONDA’S WORDS. YOU WILL BE SURPRISED AT HOW MUCH INSIGHT YOU CAN GAIN FROM WRITING A STORY ABOUT ONE SMALL INCIDENT.

A Coming-of-Age Vignette, Sage Advice, and the Writing Exercise They Inspired Excerpts from Rhonda Wiley-Jones’ At Home in the World: Stories of Travel Stories of Growing Up and Growing Away reprinted by permission of the author. Of the other countries we have visited so far, we are told we are safer in Berne than anywhere else we have been or will be. I need a haircut and have a free afternoon. I ask around and learn about a beauty shop just around the block, to the right and right again. I head out, enter and then it hits me like a pop foul ball — it is possible no one speaks English. Glamorous posters of outrageous hairstyles, dozens of shampoo and styling stations draw my attention from the receptionist for a moment. The receptionist greets me again in Swiss German, I presume because of the guttural sounds in the words she speaks. I ask, “Does anyone speak English?” “Nein.” No one speaks English. So I pull a length of hair with one hand and use a cutting action with two fingers of the other hand on the strand of hair extended. “Ja.” Sounding like “yah,” that is yes. I know that word. She points to the clock and motions to fifteen minutes later. I guess I have to wait for the next available stylist. I study the hairstyle posters, which are weird to outlandish and look more like cartoon characters. Women stare into space from the posters with burnt orange, deep red-colored hair, not auburn, but red, clown colors. No one I see at the moment is getting one of those styles today, though odd shades of hair color appear throughout the salon. Mostly I view regular people like me. Hollywood lights grace each stylist station. The stylists, both women and men (there are no men styling hair at home in Piggott, Arkansas), wear only black, so there seems to be a sort of uniform, a fashionable one. Dozens of people work in this place. In my hometown, the hairdresser works as receptionist, clerk, stylist, and whatever else she needs to be; and she usually works alone out of her house or in a storefront downtown with one to two other stylists. Here in Berne, Switzerland, they each do only one job and that is it. I write home about the luxury of the shampoo and my accomplishment. I had a ball getting my hair fixed here in Berne. I got the BEST hair washing ever. I made the girl understand by saying “simple,” when she was asking how I wanted it styled. One woman washes my hair — it is more of a massage than just a shampoo. I nearly  fall asleep. Then another woman cuts and styles my hair. We discuss how I want my hair styled. Since I do not speak Swiss German and she does not speak English, we have to work at this. She pulls out a couple of magazines and quickly flips the pages to short haircuts and points to a couple photos with a questioning look. I select one over the others, then say, “simple.” The stylist holds the comb over one ear at an angle, meaning “this short?” I adjust it a bit and she nods ja. Then she makes a sweeping motion on the left side of my head, indicating she will pull it back from my face, and on the right, a sweeping motion forward. I consent, though I always draw the sides of my hair toward my face. She snips quickly with precision. The woman works from the nape of my neck to the top of my head. She brushes the comb through my hair repeatedly with a flick of her wrist after each snip of the scissors. She is whipping my hair into the shape she wants. She cuts my bangs with the tip of the scissors, not straight across. Then she sweeps the hair over my left ear back and over my right ear forward. I look … well, how do I look? More sophisticated? More grown-up? More stylish? More like a model out of my American Girl magazine. The smell of permanent solution is the only familiar thing in this shop. All else is European — stark, clean, stylish, almost clinical. It is like an out-of-body experience, as if I have been watching myself from a chair in the corner. She works more meticulously than I am accustomed. I feel like someone out of the movies with another movie star cutting my hair, sitting in front of Hollywood lights that highlight my face and hair with each scissor cut she makes. She styles my hair as she suggested. I feel chic. I love the feel of chic. I pay out in Swiss francs — the best bargain of the trip so far for my money. A Hollywood look for a bit more than I would pay at home. I walk back to the hotel like a model down a runway. My demeanor has been transformed by a European cut and style. I have negotiated a haircut and style with body language and payment in Swiss francs for these famous results.

***

As I look back on these years, I have gained perspective that I could not have had at that time. Mother prepared me and launched me into the world, but could not go with me. She had hoped upon my return I would be enlarged for having seen the world, but did not expect me to be fundamentally changed. Mother could prepare me, as Moses prepared the Israelites for the Promised Land; but could not enter the Promised Land with me. Mother and I would be surprised by and then mourn that my adventures into the world could generate an experiential gap, not intended by either of us. The gap became a necessary and essential element to my growth and development. My older girl cousin, Paula – six years my senior — that I grew up with just blocks from my house, explained to me in my early twenties that a parent must cut the first set of apron strings, like when a teen learns to drive or goes on a first date. But as a young adult later, we must be the one to cut the second set of aprons strings, as parent and child see their unique differences emerge, which make them separate and individual. In Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s book, Writing a Woman’s Life, she states: There are four ways to write a woman’s life: the woman herself may tell it, in what she chooses to call an autobiography; she may tell it in what she chooses to call fiction; a biographer, woman or man, may write the woman’s life in what is called biography; or the woman may write her own life in advance of living it, unconsciously, and without recognizing or naming the process. Early on and most often I wrote my life unconsciously without the benefit of experience. Building a life from involvement brings the sweetness of success to consciousness, like Mother’s hot pie cooling in the windowsill spinning its scent through the house to my bedroom. Over time self-awareness takes over, when I measure how many pieces I can get from the pie and then slice it. As time elapses and I grow aware of the finiteness of experiences, I pull a finger across the empty pan to gather the crumbs and the last flicks of sweetness. Heilbrun writes about the lack of alternative stories in women’s lives. Choices were minimal for me in Piggott, Arkansas in the early 1970s when I graduated from high school. The landscape appeared to be shifting though, when doors opened for women in fields where only men had previously held positions. Hope arrived on the horizon with college a reality for me. When Mother graduated from high school, opportunities were non-existent. Heilbrun admits (p. 120), “… to write my own life on a level far below consciousness, (made) it possible for me to experience what I could not have had the courage to undertake in full awareness.” This was true for me, too. Consciousness-raising occurred as a result of doing the unlikely whether by chance, invention of my mother, and/or by accepting opportunities on my own. Building my wakefulness came from reading other women’s lives through autobiography and biography. It emanated from Mother and me anticipating and reflecting on the events of my life. This heightened consciousness came from exposure to critical thinking, which is why college is not just a job-training program, but an education — to make us whole. My travels, however, served as some of the richest experiences for this purpose. As I examined myself, I matured over time. Only after the fact did reflection reveal to me the magnitude of what I encountered. My walk in the world, like a labyrinth, offered practical guidance and spiritual direction. The lessons rendered by walking the labyrinth yielded insight and confidence for future journeys. Again Heilbrun points out, “Occasionally women have put God or Christ in the place of a man; the results are the same: one’s own desires and quests are secondary.” (p.20-21) And certainly as the church intended it to be. Christ supplanted the role of a man in my life early on as I played out the call to be a missionary. For me this meant playing a role or living out the expectations of my religious upbringing. It meant a life predetermined and set. Though I found that offensive even early on as a child, I succumbed to it nonetheless. Fortunately, I found the courage to create self-space and self-awareness sufficient to determine what was important to me, to follow my own quests, with Mother’s encouragement. My travels produced an ease of being in the world; however, my denomination’s expectations placed me in a position that was unnatural; it opposed how I preferred to interact with people. I felt manipulative and dishonest in my missionary work, like the two boys in the Ireland train station who took my bag or the man who took liberty to touch me on the banks of the Ness River during my travels. I could intuit a similarity between these thugs and myself, but could not articulate it to myself or others. Perhaps that I was an introvert (not shy, but needing to be alone sometimes instead of with people all the time) dictated my dis-ease with winning souls to Christ. However, my philosophical stance against evangelism grew out of what Joel Barker called “the incredible, incurable disease of certainty.” I saw both sides of a coin. Nonconformity, my mark, felt natural to me, not defiant. My future husband and I faced the audience in our wedding ceremony, instead of the minister. I kept my maiden name and hyphenated it with his. I never regretted carrying my name into marriage (when it symbolized my identity built long and hard with experience), though I regretted the consequences of having to spell it and explain where to file it for a lifetime. I would marry a man, my equal, unlike so many women in my mother’s generation. I found my equal difficult to live with only because he is equally as independent — thank goodness. And we would parent someone else’s child, not our own. Our only regret was her previous life, but not the woman she grew to be in her own right. She completed our family. The marks of history and geography draw imprints on people and their resulting culture. Over time and after multiple instances of observing various imprints on different places and people, I collect these experiences in a divided box, like a fishing tackle. Each has a niche all its own, or home, where they experience familiarity or sense of ease and comfort. The task that travel demanded from me was that I become familiar or at ease and comfortable in someone else’s home location. Allowing others to share their window on their world created dissonance for me at times. As I placed myself in the path of others and allowed myself to be invited in, I gained the tensile strength to stretch and bend to their ways. This elasticity overcame the rigidity I had brought with me. I became a young tree, blown by the wind yet surviving the ravages of storms, making me stronger with each storm. The dissonance I once felt has eased, but never disappeared over the years of travel. Today my life, filled with ambiguity and unconventionality, as well as with freedom and joy, puts me at home in the world.

****

Rhonda’s recollections inform us about the way she learned her strengths from being in new circumstances. Often we learn our own strengths (and our weaknesses, too) when untethered from our first families, from old friends and from a culture we are used to. I think this kind of learning occurs, too, when we are in crisis. Whether travelling abroad, attending or being counselors at summer camp, joining a theater group, taking on a first job, or finding our way out of losing one, whether suddenly feeling isolated because of illness or a tragedy, we learned who we are — what we fear, how we react, what comes of it. We formed a new self-image, a new understanding of what we are capable.

Rhonda feels her strength as a girl who speaks no English visiting Germany. Langston Hughes, in his famous essay, “Salvation,” comes to understand deceit and its effects upon one’s honest innocence: That night, for the first time in my life but one for I was a big boy twelve years old — I cried. I cried, in bed alone, and couldn’t stop. I buried my head under the quilts, but my aunt heard me. She woke up and told my uncle I was crying because the Holy Ghost had come into my life, and because I had seen Jesus. But I was really crying because I couldn’t bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn’t come to help me. Here’s an idea for helping you explore a moment in your past when you felt you grew up and grew away because of new perceptions: 1. Make a list of incidents and times in your life when you were faced with having to find your way as a consequence of what others expected of you, asked of you, or what you asked of yourself. 2. Choose the one that strikes you as interesting to write about now. Start your writing off with a piece of dialog, something you said to yourself, something someone in the situation or place said to you, or even something you wished they had said. Now describe the situation. Who is that person? Where is the person speaking the dialog standing? Why is he or she saying what those words? What is it you do next? From here you will be launched into a narrative about the time you are remembering. 3. After you’ve described the incident, introduce something that surprised you about yourself at that time. How did this alter your thinking? Did you tell anyone or keep it private? Why or why not? What pivotal understanding did you achieve or have to admit to? You can do this exercise again and again using different moments in your past. If you write a series of these moments, you can put them together in any order you’d like — they don’t have to be chronological. You may actually also have “grown up and away” during your adulthood as well as during various times in your childhood. When you have written, whether it is a single piece or a series with subtitles, you might want to borrow Rhonda’s subtitle as your title if it fits: “Growing Up and Growing Away.”


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