The Stars as Our Witness
to becoming intimate with oneself.
Since the beginning of the year, several women who have influenced me and my work share the root Ann in their name. I call this my constellations of Anns.
There’s a delightful and intriguing poet named Ann in my writing group. A narrative non-fiction writer and lecturer, Ann. A cookbook author named Annie whose mother experienced Alzheimer’s, and an Italian editor, Anna, who I worked with on recent publication for Italy Segreta.
Why was I suddenly cognizant of this constellation and the connections? I wanted to find out.
In an email exchange with non-fiction writer Ann, I shared how I was “named after my mother's grandmother, Annantonia” and confided to holding an Ann/Annie/Annette convention in my head right now.
She told me about her family and the lineage of her name. One great aunt Anna, one great Aunt Anne, two Ann cousins (who she hugely adored) “and dear wondrous Great Aunt Frances Annette whose photo I have in my living room.” That Annette was also a marksman. And possibly a spy. I liked Aunt Frances Annette already— she definitely would have qualified for inclusion in my constellation.
My mother swore she gave each of her children a name that couldn’t be shortened. The more information Ann and I exchanged, the further into the name game I went, confessing to the grab bag of nicknames I’ve pocketed over the years.
Little did my mother understand the creativity of other children. I was called, in no particular order: Annette, Annetta, Anita, Janette, Netti, Netti Spaghetti (my own doing), Gepetto (still not sure where that came from but a reading of Pinochhio in Italian brought it back), Net, and Net Marie. In other realms, I was also Annette Funicello, Cubby (thank you, Mary Beth Doslak). Shoes a few times (my father owned a shoe store), Slippers mostly. And Shorty.
Ann and I left the name game behind to trade inquiries on the direction of our writing. Did she want to move into fiction when her gift had been so clearly in the realm of narrative non-fiction? Why had I explored fiction when my gift too was the remembering in various forms? I had written profusely about the “I” in memoir, I wanted to try it out in fiction, never one to be contained—of course—to any one label.
We asked each other about desires versus duty, trying something new versus traveling into far reaches of what we might already know. Her investigations into the above led me into mine. At one point, I tossed the proverbial pen up in the air and said, let me see where this one lands and set sail for the far reaches of some personal writing (to be included in the next Morning Finds).
Part of my work has been to explore the depths of who we are. I have been intimate with death more times than I planned for, and more attuned to what we cannot get back from the past: our days, our bodies, our minds. Yet, I didn’t want to write a steamy love scene like in the Last Tango In Paris. I wanted to reach outside of my capabilities and write a scene in which I was intimate with myself.
This inquiry arrived at a time of ongoing pain management, controlling what I could, and resting what I could not. Physically, I was stilled, but my imagination regarding my corporal body came alive. I became more intimate with its needs and wants and desires and how they changed over time, over the hours. I said to my writing partner, “Even if we can’t shed the pounds, we can shed the baggage.” I wished my mother had loved her body, been intimate with it the way I was wanting to be, the way in which I saw it, washing over the bumps of her life, legs that held her up those many years on the sunspot linoleum of her life, her feet. No doubt I could describe her body in a manner more intimate than I would like to describe mine.
In Ada Limon’s Sanctuary poem, she explores what it means not to be the one observing, but to be that object looking back at you, drawing the conclusion: To be made whole / by being not a witness, / but witnessed. What would it feel like for my body to speak to me from within itself, instead of my body experiencing the consistent haragueing it receives from me as the outsider?
What does it mean to be intimate with oneself?
One merely needs to fill out a new patient questionnaire at the doctor’s office to begin to understand.
It is an inventory of your life—of your lineage. What is genetic. What is yours to own. Some cancers and diseases are a result of circumstances beyond your control. Some are not. Your eyes, your height. Your blood pressure and why it courses so low. What was the end for your parents? What will yours be? What can you remember? What have you forgotten?
There are patches for this, treatment for that. Like science, we begin to understand our bodies at the cellular level. The fact I never liked mine (I will not blame my mom, I will not blame my mom) has given me new energy to explore what’s really inside it.
I am a writer and observer of aging and memory. I take stock in those issues every day. It’s no wonder writers more prolific than me have gone “crazy.” Or at least what the world might consider as so. Think of what’s required of those who write to push the self beyond its means. To be in conversation with each blobby cell or speck of bone, and understand its lost hopes and burning desires.
This level of self, what we are made of and how we see ourselves as membranes, is similar to a doctor who experiences the near-god like complex. I always said that as my mother aged, she was becoming closer to the perfect state of being. She discarded what she could of expectations and memory. How sad for us. I tried to imagine how freeing for her.
C.S. Lewis once wrote we should be a compassionate observer in our own life. Here I think is the problem. We shouldn’t step outside our life, float above the surface.
The edict is to step inside the self, explore as an astronaut might, tethered only by our fragile life experiences.
So what do the constellation of Anns have to do with this? There words are the stars, their appearance in my life my witness, to help me navigate into my Annetteness, and leave the nicknames (mostly) behind.
Do you have a similar constellation in your life? I’d like to know. In the interim, here’s a few places I’ve navigated to, thanks to that constellation of grace:
On April 18th, I’ll be participating in an AlzAuthors poetry reading, in honor of National Poetry Month and all those individuals who experience dementia and Alzheimer’s. Details to follow on how to listen in.
Pauletta Hansel and I are again offering FREE, virtual caregiver writing experiences through Giving Voice Foundation. Next up, May 16th from 1-3 p.m. Learn more or register here.
I finished the final, final edits on two essays that will appear in The University of Illinois Press Italian Americana, a double-blind peer-reviewed journal dedicated to exploring the Italian emigrant/immigrant experience. It’s been a long journey, but both are excerpts from my upcoming food memoir: Something Italian: Stories from my family’s table. Stay tuned for details to read more.
We’re closing out our 3-part workshop on revision at Roebling in Newport. Our participants are writing historical fiction, memoirs about single parenting, YA fiction, and fantasy. We’re planning a manuscript readaround for the public. Stay tuned.
When the earthquake struck Turkey, the citizens of Abruzzo region in Italy took notice. They too understood the depths of that calamity. They’re publishing a cookbook to raise funds for restoration efforts in Turkey. I’ll be sharing the link for the purchase, in case you’d like to check out one recipe belonging to my mother/grandmother.
Yet another great read! Your words are always so thought provoking and comforting, most of all, I cherish taking the time to myself to sit and read them with my cup of coffee. Just spending time with me and your words! Love it!
You always amaze me in your writing. My middle name is Ann. But always go by Cookie, or pie or cooker or cookrina. Grew up with a family of nicknames, my Mom Bobby or we called her Mom Upstairs, then my grandmother Mom Downstairs, my grandfather Frog, our uncle Sonny. My great grandfather was Shuey or Dutch. Our neighbor was Cootie. Cannot believe the names of our dogs. But love you have the history of your parents. Ready for your next writing. ❤️💕