A Song of Myself

Image by andyarthur

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

I spent this past weekend at a remarkable place, studying with a remarkable teacher, with two remarkable women by my side.  I learned so much about myself, about writing, about the ways my body (or maybe my brain) craves Diet Coke and chocolate after a few meals of tempeh loaf and steamed kale.

As I reintegrate into the rest of my life – coming home, as I did, to find a wonky Internet connection and sick kids – I feel like I’m just beginning to process the lessons of the weekend.  Dani shared so many delicious morsels about memoir and emotion and writing from “the memory of feeling,” but one question in particular is buzzing around at the front of my mind today:

As writers, what do we do with the contradictions in a life, especially when that life is our own?

Dani led us this weekend in an exercise called “I Remember…” based on Joe Brainard’s book of the same name, a collection of his one or two sentence reminiscences of his childhood and coming of age.  As I recorded my own stream of consciousness reflections, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which that kind of off-the-cuff writing flows without input from the inner critic.  My ideas moved from brain to pen without judgment or analysis.  What I was left with was a collection of moments which, almost accidentally, started to tell a story about my past.  And the story was full of me and full of my many contradictions.

I decided last night to play with the exercise, to change the prompt from “I Remember…” to simply “I…” and to write uncensored for five minutes.  Here’s what I came up with:

I am a mother.  I am a wife.  I am a daughter, a sister, a friend.  I used to be a teacher.

I am a writer.

I am a vegetarian.  I run sometimes.  I do yoga sometimes.  Sometimes I make a bag of microwave popcorn, dump chocolate chips on top, and eat the whole thing.

I subscribe to The New Yorker, but, a lot of the time, I prefer to read People.  After I read People instead of The New Yorker, I sometimes feel guilty about it.  I talk more about reading The New Yorker than I do about reading People.

I love to read.

I love to talk to my husband about where we might be in five years, in ten, in 25.  I love to dream together.

I feel calmest in a tidy house, in a quiet place, in a room alone.  I rarely feel calm these days.

I like to be by myself.  And then I like to come home again.

I understand that there are things that are good for me.  That make me feel good.  That keep me connected to the people I love.  I’m not usually good at making those things a priority over, say, folding laundry or playing “Angry Birds.”

I get grumpy when I’m hungry.

I love my kids, but I’m never as happy to see them as I am the moment I return after being away from them.

Contradictions again.  And all of them equally me.  I took so much away from my weekend of writing, but my first priority is to think more about what the story of my contradictions tells me about myself, to keep writing my way into understanding.

Who are you today?


52 responses to “A Song of Myself

  1. I love this… I’ve blogged about this topic, and thought about it an awful lot, inspired by the very same Whitman lines. I think we all contain multitudes, and they don’t all align. If they did, I suspect we’d all be automaton-like. It would be easier, I also think, if we WERE more consistent internally, but I just don’t think most of us are. I look forward to knowing all of your various facets better over time. xox
    PS I’m so thrilled you had such a good time. As you know, both Dani and Kripalu mean a lot to me also!

    • I think I recall your post Lindsey and my comment was something along the lines of “variety is the spice of life” for wouldn’t life be boring if there were no contradictions?

  2. Oops
    I cut myself off. 🙂
    This is part of what the Just Write thing I’m doing is about. We learn so much about ourselves when we let go and write freely. I’m so glad you got some time away to go to something like that! While I’m jealous. A contradiction! 🙂

  3. I get hungry when I’m angry too. Oops! I meant to write it the other way. Maybe this is true too. I’ll try and notice.

    The People magazine bit. Yep. And I am learning to just tell the world. You’d be amazed. We’ve got company.

    More people ate oreos than I ever imagined too. They vacuum less than I thought they did also, which is such a relief.

    On the upside, all this is helping me with Savasana pose in my yoga practice. I think I’m putting it together that all those little contradiction voices were the things “spinning” and keeping me from letting go. Now that I just notice them….off I float.

    • That’s such an interesting observation about savasana, Rebecca. I think you know that I have trouble keeping my mind quiet during savasana or my few failed attempts at meditation. It sounds like you’ve found a way to do as the yogis do: notice the thought, then release it without judgment. Not only do I notice the thought, I obsess about it and about how I’m not supposed to be noticing it and then about how meditation isn’t about “supposed to” at all…

  4. Ooh, I don’t think I want to unleash that dragon…definitely not in blog comments (maybe later on paper). Thanks for sharing a bit of you and all your wonderful contradictions (which make perfect sense!)

  5. Ah, but the contradiction is what makes the writing interesting. And the person too. The totally New Yorker person and the 100% People person are not nearly as interesting as the woman in the middle, with her contradictions. I am holding on to the feelings of this weekend with a tight grip. I searched the Didion essay that Dani talked about (which I hadn’t read since college) and have been thinking too about how writing helps me understand how I feel, who I am. Missing you already!

    • I have my notebook from this weekend out on my desk right now. I want to go back though it and swim around in all of those ideas – and, yes, definitely look up some of those great references Dani shared with us. xo

  6. We are all built of contradictions. I think it’s what makes us interesting and multidimensional. Were it not for those contradictions we would be ever so boring and predictable.

    PS – Lately I’m with you on People magazine. Something about the physical demands of being 8 months pregnant leaves little energy for mental exploits…

  7. People magazine comment – laugh out loud funny. Contradictions? Finally, people are coming out of the closet on this one. I have felt out of place for as long as I remember because I feel like I define myself as a contradiction. If this is a new normal, then I will need to find a new way to define myself.

    I went to Kripalu in May for Dani’s retreat. It was wonderful. I am still processing it. I want to savor it, don’t want it to end. Still.

  8. I get this. A living contradiction is who I am and who I will always be. Maybe that’s what makes us unique and beautiful as individuals?

  9. I love this exercise. In attempting it myself, I fought the urge to delete as I typed. I over correct. Even reading it afterwards, the urge to take the words back and rework them was almost overpowering. The page would have been much different with a pen and paper in my hand instead of a keyboard at my fingertips. Thank you for sharing!

    • Hi, Margot – Thanks so much for commenting today.

      I did the exercise with pen and paper for that very reason. As a writer, I know that my editing tendencies come to the surface too quickly sometimes and I wanted this to just be about getting some ideas down on the page. Have you ever tried the “I Remember…” exercise? It’s a great one, especially with pen and paper; some very funny memories surfaced for me.

      I hope you’ll visit again!

  10. Sounds like time well spent.

    The Mrs. gets grumpy when hungry as well, but am a grouch when I am tired.

  11. I love my family, (some of) my friends, food, football, fall, and having faith. The letter “f” is a pretty good one for me, as those are the things that come to mind without my having to put too much thought into it. Of course, that does not completely say who I am. But at almost 40, I still have not figured that out yet. And today, I am okay with that! Tomorrow? Who knows.

    Sounds like a good/interesting weekend.

  12. Kristen, first, and again, I am SO happy to have met you and spent the time together. It was great, from start to finish (except, maybe, for the lack of real dessert). Dani read a great Virginia Woolfe quote, something about finding satisfaction in piecing together to the disparate parts. For me, too, this is very satisfying, and another way of saying that we are all full of contradictions.

  13. Hi Kristen, This sounded like a wonderful retreat into writing. Your lessons reminded me of what I used to have my own students do — free writing. This freedom from having to craft the perfect sentence, be grammatically correct, have the perfect response often allowed them to find the essay topic that mattered to them the most. I love the free feeling of just writing what comes to mind, and I loved trying to find prompts that would spark my students’ pencils. But as an English teacher, I simply love crafting a grammatically complex sentence. There’s a contradicition.

    • Oh, I share that contradiction too. I think that’s why I have trouble relaxing into free writing sometimes. I let my mind go for a minute and then my writing teacher self snaps back in and looks for ways to edit and polish. Contradictions indeed.

  14. I’m mostly just wishing you all the best–no contradiction. Within myself, plenty of contradiction. Namaste

  15. I am who I am whenever it is that I am. Don’t care if that makes sense to anyone else, it is just who I am.

  16. Kristen, this reminds me of the really amazing workshops I’ve done (never done a retreat) and how being among writers and just learning from them deepened my writing past anything I could have taken it to on my own. I think the “I remember” exercise is so important because it can take you to an actual place, a scene, in your memory and you can build it from there. I’m convinced that the more we use exercises like this the more we actually do remember.

  17. You make me nostalgic for my own lessons with said teacher. Truly amazing wasn’t it? And of course I remember this exercise and how freeing I felt it to be and to share it with people I love. Thank you for sharing.

    Today I am mother, a frustrated and overwhelmed sister, a full-time employees who’s struggling to disengage work life from home life and I’m tired. Surprisingly none of this is a terrible thing, and that is a testament to how far I’ve come.

  18. I’m jealous, but so glad that you got to go! It sounds like it was great food for the imagination (and soul).

  19. I am too tired to write or think. Apparently I am not too tired to do Actual Productive Work.
    That probably says a lot about my relationship to my job.
    And I love to read The New Yorker, but lately I notice that I get up from reading said magazine with no memory of what I just read. Or I’ll remember that there was an article on some Scientologist and it was really interesting, but apparently not so memorable as to be able to recall a single fact at a later time.

    • I wonder if you’re thinking of the article on Scientology from earlier this spring or summer. I swear that was the longest feature I’ve ever read in any magazine. Like the Energizer Bunny, it kept going and going and going…

      • What’s sad is that I feel that way about nearly all of their articles these days. Yet I continue to read the publication cover to cover. I think I don’t know what else to do with myself. In ten-minute bursts, while away from the TV.

  20. Oh this makes me want a weekend of writing. I would love to have that time for myself, to just write and learn more about where I want to go. I too love angry birds and People and literary magazines.

  21. I can only imagine this was a remarkable experience, Kristen.

    As for the contradictions, I believe they are what make us intriguing and irresistible works of art.

    Some prefer what is predictable – even in those they love and in themselves. I do not. I prefer what moves and evolves and offers beauty in its lessons.

    Many years ago, I managed a brief workshop from which I learned so much about myself, as well as the writing process. I wish my life allowed for that sort of thing now, as I know my “take-aways” would be more tangible and more profound.

  22. Knew you would love Kripalu, and Dani’s workshop. We would all be so boring if we weren’t bundles of contradictions. But that said, make sure to check out Alice Munro’s memoir in the Sept. 19 issue of the New Yorker. I guarantee, this is time well spent!

  23. Kristen, glad you had a wonderful weekend of writing.I think contradictions make us interesting, just like flaws do. 🙂

  24. “I want to go back though it and swim around in all of those ideas – and, yes, definitely look up some of those great references Dani shared with us.”

    And I hope you’ll share some of them with us, Kristen . . .

  25. Oh I love this- this glimpse of you, this unedited version of you. The one that admits to bowls of popcorn with chocolate on top (!).

    Beautiful writing exercise. Tempting.

  26. Contradictions make us more complex. They give us character and nuances. I’ve stopped trying to explain my own contradictions and embrace what is. I love your variation of the exercise. Glad you got to experience this workshop.

  27. I am crazy in love with this piece. If it weren’t for the vegetarian part, I might have wondered if I wrote it:)

  28. Contradictions. Absolutely, that is what we are if we’re being completely honest. I think I may try this exercise, too.

    PS – I get The New Yorker, and more often than not, I only “read” the cartoons. Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone.

  29. I am so, so, sooooo glad you had this weekend in which you could soak up yourself and Dani’s tender wisdom. Thank you for sharing your “I’s”. I liked them. Very much.

    I’ve had contradictions on my mind a lot lately, too. Yesterday, while on a two hour hike with a dear friend and my kids, we talked about the importance of nature in our kids healthy lives. Then, I launched into a story about eating at Wendy’s. She joked with me that I ate lunch there after I ate quinoa for breakfast. Contradictions.

    • Quinoa for breakfast and a Frosty for lunch would be 100% typically me. (Kind of like the giant Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee and coffee cake muffin after my Saturday morning yoga class in years past.) xo

  30. I love that you openly admitted to reading “People” but only wanting to talk about “The New Yorker” with others.

    It’s these multiple facets that make you (us?) interesting, as most have said here. I think these contradictions are manifestations of our inherent need to fulfill our own desires that may be uniquely us and at the same time we try to project an image of ourselves that is accepted in the type of society which we want to fit into. At least that’s what I tend to do – the inner often struggles with the outer.

  31. I love the idea of embracing your contradictions – and this glimpse into you.

  32. I can relate to almost all of your contradictions (except the vegetarianism, although I was once).

    I am too tired to write about my contradictions right now. I’m too tired to be contradictory and will just slide into the path of least resistance.

  33. I don’t know if contradiction is the right word, but I often feel polarized – at the opposite ends of the spectrum. For example, I could sell everything and move to a shack on the beach, or I want to be super, filthy, disgustingly rich. This in between state drives me nuts. I guess I should just sell everything and move to the beach because I know I’ll never reach the other end.

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