The Blue Sweater: Learning the Difference Between the Things I Say Are True and the Things I Just Want To Be True
September 12, 2018 § 37 Comments
By Loree Griffin Burns
I thought I would bring a blue sweater home with me from Ireland. I mentioned the sweater in the final sentence of a short essay I wrote for a workshop during Bay Path University’s 2018 Summer Creative Writing Seminar in Dingle. The sentence read: Then I’ll walk back to my rented bed by way of the Dingle Strand woolen shop, where I’ve promised myself the slate blue wool sweater in the back corner, the one with the hood and the pockets, the one that felt like a hug when I tried it on, the one I am certain would never wrinkle, never, ever, amen.
But interesting things, hard things, happened after I wrote that essay. The workshop instructor told us to look for heartbeat lines in our pieces, and I knew that the blue sweater was not that. The heartbeat of that little essay was my grandmother and our relationship. And an important facet of our relationship was the early death of my mother, her oldest daughter.
Guided by that idea, I wrote a new draft, and then somehow found myself sitting across from Irish novelist Mia Gallagher in the Writer’s Lounge of the Bambury Guest House, watching her read my work. She said lovely things about the images that resonated with her most. She gave me time to ask her some questions. And then she asked me a few questions of her own.
Including this one, “Tell me about forgiveness as it relates to this line: ‘I forgave my grandmother the moment she uttered the words.’”
I told her about anesthesia and its side effects in elderly patients. I told her about doctors and paranoia and how a patient, while under the influence of anesthesia, might say things one might never have said otherwise. I went on telling her about all sorts of things for a very long time.
When I finally stopped, Mia said, “I don’t believe you’ve forgiven your grandmother at all.”
And when she said those words I lost my grip on the things I know and the things I don’t, the things I call true and the things I just want to be true, the things I try to avoid writing and the things I need to write, the stories I’ve always known would or could or should be told and the fist-clenching fear that keeps me from telling them.
I’m beginning to see, thanks to that hour with Mia Gallagher and the hours spent in workshop during the Bay Path MFA seminar in Ireland that I’ve been doing a fine job of setting off small fireworks here and again in my essays, quiet fireworks that I hope will go unnoticed but that, at the very same time, I long for people to see. I’ve worked very hard at not writing the story of my life and how its early challenges shaped everything that came after.
That week in Dingle, I learned that I’m not very good at avoiding these stories. Which begs certain hard questions: Would I be any good at writing them instead? Is it time to start trying?
When I wrote the essay for workshop, I planned to buy the blue sweater. But I passed the store a dozen times, and didn’t go in. I armed myself up with reasons: it was late, too near closing time, raining, I was tired, had to go write, needed to rest, would do it another day. I didn’t even need a sweater. Didn’t need a hug, either.
I didn’t need anything at all, because mostly I was perfectly fine, am perfectly fine, so long as I am not writing about my mother.
Loree Griffin Burns has avoided writing memoir by beachcombing both American coasts, cruising the Pacific in search of plastic, surveying birds in Central Park, stinging herself with honey bees, visiting the Mexican wintering grounds of the monarch butterfly on horseback, and living for a week on an uninhabited volcanic island in Iceland. She’s turned these adventures into award-winning books for children and teenagers, which you can learn more about at loreeburns.com.
This reads like a Carrie Newcomer song touching parts inside of you you never knew were there
Thanks for this kind comparison, ccbarr.
I’ve been working on a piece about anger and forgiveness this morning. This piece is so timely that it almost ripped my heart out. I also can think of multiple reasons not to buy the blue sweater.
I’m sending you so much light, Susan, for that hard piece. Thanks for reading mine.
Amazing and true. How we struggle to avoid acknowledging ugliness—or what we fear may be ugly or weak or unfair or unkind—in ourselves. Thank you.
As my teenagers like to say, “The struggle is real.” Thank you for reading, jan.
Very pertinent to me right now.writing about my mother but worse confronting the rejection by my daughters-yet it cannot be avoided. Memoir is very hell, resurrecting the hells you thought you had forgiven, and at one level you have, but in re-living them you are in danger of resurrecting yourself before you ‘had’!
I was just saying to a friend today that you can TRY to avoid it, but it won’t go away. Better to just lean in and do the work. (So much easier said than done, though.) Thanks for reading, Philippa, and good luck with your memoir.
This is beautiful, you are beautiful, the blue sweater still at the back of the shop is beautiful.
Jeannine. Thank you. ❤
Beautifully written. Our piercing truths hurt, so no wonder we avoid them. But they’re good for us despite the pain – tunnels you think you’ll die in but emerge anyway, transformed.
Oh, Sharon, this comment is too lovely. Thank you for making it, and for reading. Here’s to transformation.
As I age I ponder the circumstances of my life and how I came to be the person I am….I confront my past on all levels knowing I cannot change it, but yet trying to make it feel better. It’s always hard when one person can put a family into such regression and bitterness over their own insecurities…I’ve learned that the fiercest and angriest people are most certainly the weakest. I day dream of what should and could have been and then I try to forgive and put it to rest….it’s the only way I can move forward. Can I possibly forgive everything…NO…can I move forward and know I have succeeded…ABSOLUTELY. I have learned to put the hard, unfair past where it belongs, to move forward and believe I am a better person for this….I choose to give and take hugs whenever I can and to forgive the unforgivable so I can find the peace I want !!! Next time, buy the sweater and enjoy the hug !!!!!!
Sage advice, moochie1954. Thank you. ❤
I love this. “I’ve worked very hard at not writing the story of my life and how its early challenges shaped everything that came after.” I imagine it rings true for many. Great essay.
Thank you for reading, and for these kind words, Dorothy. Sincerely.
A beautiful piece that speaks to me this day as a ponder why my new writing space remains empty. So glad you shared it. I’ll consider it my birthday gift and spend some time where the shadows lurk. Thank you.
Happy Birthday, Rita! I hope you are able to fully occupy that space one day soon.
This reminds me of something that I read a long time ago about forgiveness being a spiral path. We start forgiving at one point, but sooner or later we find ourselves needing to forgive the very same thing again, but in a different way. We may revisit that thing many times before it fades.
Your honesty was breathtaking. Thank you.
That is a beautiful image, Patricia. (Even if a little scary to me, because … again?) Thank you for reading, and for commenting too.
Thank you for writing this and the reminder to face the truth!
Thank YOU, Kristen.
Loree, the other commenters shared such piercingly beautiful words that I’m not even going to try to go there, save to say that I agree with them. Thank you for summoning the honesty and courage to share this.
There’s another aspect of the story you tell here, though, that I will mention, because it lit me up like a bonfire: the honesty, courage, insight and, yes, love, of Mia Gallagher to speak the sentence that unlocked all this for you. I want to be a friend and mentor like her.
Tricia: YES! One hundred thousand times, yes! What Mia managed to see in that short time we worked together was not only incredibly insightful, but, when gently pointed out to me, the greatest of gifts. I’m in awe of her, to be honest, and grateful.
This writing made me ask if I’ve forgiven or really feel as I write or do I just want to be that person.
That all the details in your answers revealed so much more. Do we need to be honest in our writing or is the story as good or less troubling to readers with what or who we believe we are.
As hard as it sometimes is, I’m always going to come down on the side of honesty. I think that’s why I’ve struggled to write my story: I know that to do it with complete honesty is going to take a lot out of me. I haven’t been willing. Until now. Thanks for reading and commenting, uphillslide.
You do need that sweater, and I believe you’ll get it. Maybe next year or the year after, but you are on the path to that warm hug and peaceful comfort. It will be worth the journey back. xoxo
Thank you, Karen. ❤
Such a familiar difficulty—“the things I call true and the things I just want to be true”! Thank you for your insightful reminder and call to clarity.
Thank YOU for reading, Ellen, and for taking the time to comment.
Reblogged this on Her Headache.
So happy to see your piece here and read those words. When it is time, you will write it. When it needs to be written you will have the strength. Nothing can be harder than the story that you have to tell. Lately, I have been needing images to explain what I cannot seem to find the words to express. When I read the Blue Sweater, I wanted to find some image that would help, that might help make this journey, make a little more sense. I found this one. I think it may speak to you. Vana
Ah. You’re right, Vana. That image does speak to me. ❤
(Now … do you knit? Will you teach me?)
A beautiful piece of writing, thank you.
Thank you for reading, Bernie, and for taking the time to reply.