Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Final Tally

I recently rediscovered a box I hadn't rummaged through in many years. I had taken it from Mom's closet after she died. It's filled mostly with things I made for her when I was little (drawings, poems, Mother's Day cards, silly letters I wrote her from summer camp), but there's also a pretty thorough collection of report cards, certificates of achievement, progress notes from teachers, award ribbons, samples of my schoolwork, school programs that featured my name -- even a taped envelope labeled "Katie's first haircut" and a newspaper clipping of the horoscope that was published the day I was born.

Also in this box I found a looseleaf sheet of paper titled "To Jean: My Self-Analysis."

From context clues, I know I wrote this self-analysis at age 17. That was a tumultuous year in our family. For starters, after having lived with Mom during the school year and Dad during the summers since I was 6 years old, my mom made the difficult decision to move to Washington D.C. to take a good job. It was a dramatic move, but the times warranted it. It was the '80s, the economy in Dallas was sluggish, and she'd been through two layoffs in less than two years. As a single mother of two, she needed more stability. I think her idea was that my sister and I would move east with her, but -- being every inch of the typical teenagers we were -- we chose our friends and stayed behind to live with Dad. However, because Dad lived in a different area of Dallas, my sister and I ended up having to change school districts anyway. For me, that meant leaving the friends I'd known since preschool to start my junior year at a school where I knew no one. Moreover, Dad ran a tight ship in contrast to Mom, so there were new house rules to obey, which did not sit well with Teen Goth Katie and her "nonconformist ways." All of this required a lot of adjustment for everyone in our family.

But wait. There's more.

That same year, Dad met, fell in love with, and proposed marriage to an incredible woman named Jean. Even though they had only been on four dates when my dad proposed, Jean said yes -- and, voila! -- my sister and I suddenly gained a stepmom. Oh, and she had two daughters as well -- ages 4 and 7 --  and all three of them moved in with us, which meant my sister and I had to share a bedroom for the first time in our lives.

Picture, if you will, Teen Goth Katie sitting on her bed, penning this self-analysis in her journal and intermittently peering out the window at the rain. (Technically, it might not have been raining on this day. But figuratively, it was always raining in Teen Goth Katie's mind.)

I no longer remember what prompted this particular writing exercise -- this "self-analysis" to Jean -- or how it ended up in my mom's box of Katie treasures. But I do know that this was something my mom had taught me to do when I was feeling blue ... which was basically all the time for Teen Goth Katie. The idea was to make a list of everything good in my life and then make a list of everything bad in my life. Mom's rationale was that inevitably I would discover in making these lists that the good stuff outweighs the bad stuff, and knowing this would make me feel better. And, to her credit, both of these things proved to be true 99 percent of the time.

So, on this particular day, when I was 17 and dealing with a lot of change, I felt compelled to make my lists. And this is what I discovered:

Good things 
I graduate and turn 18 this year.
My eyes.
My lips.
My buckle shoes.
My art.
My friends.
My records and tapes.
Never been mugged or raped.
My bedroom in D.C.*
My house has never caught on fire.
My feet.
Never had a serious car wreck.
My daydreams.
Thanksgiving and Xmas vacations are soon.
My first report card this year.
My childhood.
My free airfare**
Never had stitches.
My left pinky fingernail.***
My moonstone ring.
Laughing with my sister or Heather.

Bad things
My surgery.
My skin.
My weight.
My eating habits.
My deteriorating bank account.****
My endless generosity.*****
My cavities.
My health.
My insomnia.
Accidentally wiping out 9 wks of work on my floppy disk at school.
My high tolerance for taking shit.******
The damn bells at school.
The incredible amount of time it's taking to grow out my hair.

* Mom gave me free rein to decorate my bedroom in her D.C. house, which was a beautiful old row house in historic Old Town Alexandria. So, what did I do? I painted the walls solid black and hung posters of James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Sid Vicious -- all of whom I admired because they were beautiful and, well, dead, which made them all the more mysterious and tragic.
** Dad was a pilot for Delta Air Lines.
***I had grown it out like I was some kind of coke fiend. I thought it made me look cool and dangerous. (Teen logic at its finest.)
**** I had an intense crush on this bad-boy punk rocker in my art class named Chris. He was a senior and only a year older than me, but in my recollection of him, he looks as wizened and haggard as Keith Richards. Anyway, I had inherited a couple thousand dollars when my great grandma passed away and, without telling my parents, I withdrew a little more than half of it to bail Chris out of jail when he got busted for having weed and drug paraphernalia in his car. In my mind, our reunion would be passionate. He would kiss me and tell me I was his girl. But when Chris walked into the jail lobby, he patted me on my head and said, "Thanks, kid. I'll pay you back" and then asked me to give him a ride to his buddy's house. I did not become his girl, and I never saw the money again.
***** See above story about Chris.
******See above story about Chris.

The final tally of this self-analysis:

21 - 13 =

+8 more good than bad

Mom was right again. If I looked at the bigger picture, my life was actually pretty good.

It's a lesson that has stuck with me all these years. To this day, if I'm feeling down about something, it's relatively easy for me to widen my perspective and recognize that the good outweighs the bad. And it only gets easier as I get older and my world view expands to reveal everything that life is capable of delivering -- opportunity, disappointment, love, loss, growth, joy, isolation, challenge, hope, friendship, peace, justice, redemption, forgiveness, the unknown. Always the unknown.

I list all of these as "good things." My list of good grows and grows. And for this I am forever grateful.