baby shoes and psychotherapy

My new friend and I have been on what sometimes feels like an emailing rampage. Linsey asks lots of good questions, and some of them really rattle my brain. Today she asked me to write a six word autobiography. And, following my standard M.O. of avoidance, I quickly wrote back with something snarky. But then I started thinking about it some more, and I thought of Hemmingway’s six word story:

“For sale: baby shoes, never used.”

These are some of the heaviest six words I’ve ever read.

There are all sorts of legends about how this story came to be, and whether Hemmingway even wrote those words. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re there, and what makes them brilliant is that they can tell a hundred stories. The reader can make assumptions about the baby (never born? died young?) and the shoes (too large? shoplifted?) and the reason they’re being sold (why not give them away, for example? and are they the only items for sale?). Each two word phrase has a story behind it. Combine all six words and there is an even larger story with even more emotion.

If I read those words and then close my eyes, I can see the shoes: old white leather shoes with sturdy soles and perfect laces. The same kind my brother wore as a toddler (when I was probably five or six). The same kind people used to bronze. I see those shoes alone on a sun-bleached wooden table in front of a farmhouse, a note with those six little words tacked on the table next to the shoes. Tiny clouds of red dirt drift across the cracked ground. And not a soul in sight.

That’s the same image I’ve had in my mind since I first heard this story years ago.

Consider that. The power those six words have—their ability to burn this story into my mind.

But also consider what I’ve brought to the story. My brother’s shoes. The cracked, red dirt from the backyard of my childhood home in Newberry, South Carolina.

I could go on, deconstructing the story and interpreting all that I’ve brought to it to make it my own.

So I thought of all these things when I considered my six word autobiography. What could I say about my life in six words that would tell a story? And what story do I want to tell? I thought of writing Linsey and asking for further direction, but I decided against it.

I imagined myself hovering just above the surface of my life’s landscape. What’s there? My childhood, a sometimes chaotic upbringing. College, the Navy, marriage and divorce. Restarting. Falling in love for the first time. More college. Loss. Grief. A career. Depression. Rebirth and growth. The process of discovering my own resilience and, more importantly, my Self. Writing.

I thought of these things and of how I came to recognize this landscape, to draw back and see all of it at once. And what I wanted to tell Linsey is this: If you want to see my autobiography, read the notes my therapist has taken over the past seven years. But I realized that, again, would be the snarky approach. So I gave her six words that (to me, anyway) say this:

If you want to know more about my life, read the notes my therapist has taken over the past seven years. Within those notes you’ll find stories of love, death, grief, success, depression, growth, loss, family, home, creative expression and droughts. You’ll find just about everything I know how to say about my life. I am thankful for therapy—I’m thankful for making the decision to start and keep with it; I’m thankful that I have a job with decent health insurance; I’m thankful for a therapist who understands me and shows me how to understand my Self.

So I imagine my autobiography filed away tonight, dozens and dozens of pages of handwritten notes in manila folders inside a file cabinet somewhere. But if you took all of those pages and condensed them as tightly as possible, if you put into six words the story that I’ve told over the course of seven years, they would read:

$50 a week: worth every cent.

I have no shame at all in saying that I am—and have been—in therapy. I think it’s one of the best things a person can do for her Self.

As I work on Acceptance, as I tell my story, much of what I will write has already been revealed in weekly fifty-minute psychotherapy sessions. I will rely on what I’ve learned in those sessions. And, if I do this the right way, the emotional weight that I’ve carried into and out of my therapist’s office will appear on the page.

I can only hope it works.