Reading A Double Life reminded me vividly the weeks and months after Grace’s birth, which were the darkest of my life. As she recounts it in her memoir, Lisa Catherine Harper’s depression seems considered, thoughtful. I plunged back into my own, remembering how inelegant my complete and utter collapse was, how inchoate the roaring of desperation in my ears. I had no idea what was happening to me, but I knew firmly that I’d made the biggest and most permanent mistake of my life.
For years I’ve wondered if I could have somehow known what was coming. As I’ve mentioned, I think the seeds of my depression were sown in my surprise pregnancy, and in how out of control I felt of the endeavor from the absolute beginning (fair question: is there ever a way to feel in control of such a fundamentally uncontrollable enterprise?). There are two places I go to look for clues, wondering if with the wisdom of perspective I can see the shadow of what was coming casting its darkness over the light of a moment?
One is in my photographs. It’s no secret that I take pictures of everything. These photos do not become a silent, untouched mausoleum on my hard drive. No, they are a living, breathing record: I return to the photos over and over, revisiting experiences, remembering moments. I’ve done that a lot with the pictures of the days surrounding Grace’s arrival. I can see a certain tentativeness in myself, but other than that I don’t think I see any concrete evidence of what hovered ahead of me. I’ve looked at the pictures of her first weeks on earth an awful lot too, and those make me mostly sad. I see a shell-shocked woman, overcome with a numbness so complete I don’t remember very much from that time. I realize how that that numbness was sheer survival instinct – I was so deeply wounded that I think experiencing the raw feelings all at once would have swamped me utterly. The picture above, moments after I delivered Grace with my own two hands, is the last one where I think I look like myself until many months later.
The other place I can pick up crumbs that show me the path I was on at a given time is my quote book. In the specific quotes that moved me enough to hand-write them into my books I can decode something of where I was emotionally at a specific time. In these books I see more clues than I do in the photographs, a deeper, subconscious anticipation of what lay ahead. One week to the day before Grace’s birth I entered the James Baldwin quote that has come to be so incredibly important to me: “Trust life and it will teach you, in joy and sorrow, all you need to know.”
Two days before her birth, I added these lines from William James: “I am done with great things and great plans, great institutions and great successes. I am for those tiny, invisible, loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets…” It’s as though I knew I was moving to a world whose focus was small acts, deep individual love, and a power beyond sight.
And then, three days after Grace was born, the day after we brought her home from the hospital (incidentally, those photographs terrify me – my eyes are both blank and blazing, full of what I recognize now as abject terror), I wrote this: “One word frees us of all the weight and pain in life … and that word is love.” (Sophocles).
It took me many, many long months to learn what I can see now so brightly in these specific quotations and in their chronology. I’m grateful that I now understand how the path unfolded, though I remain bruised by the experience of walking it. In some strange way being able to revisit the woman I was then, through words and photographs, allows me to extend compassion to her, to attempt to heal in some out-of-time way the wounds I still carry from those days.
Do you have places – written, photographic, filmed, or otherwise – that you can return to, looking for a record of who you were at a specific moment in your life? Places where you can see threads of your life glinting through, even when you weren’t aware of them at the time?