Another messy and mundane memoir exploring what “normal” means for modern American families. A string of stories that are as bizarre as they are heartwarming, Beside My Doorstep follows Zola and her split-level family as they move from house to house over the course of twenty years. Raw and genuine, Zola illustrates a profound mother-daughter relationship centering on the wild and persistent ghosts of her mother’s past- a deeply-rooted bond that is heavy and brilliant and constantly burning.
“The moment that you feel that just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind, and what exists exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself, that’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.” -Neil Gaiman
The above quote, spoken at last year’s commencement speech at The University of the Arts in Pennsylvania, found me at just the right moment. Having recently completed my memoir, every once in a while- usually while maneuvering traffic or falling asleep- I doubt myself. I doubt what I’m doing, what I’ve done. I get caught in the mindset that family, and all of the baggage each one collects over the years, needs to be kept private. I find that on my worst day, I have convinced myself that the act of revealing the worst along with the best days of my childhood, the not-so-flattering moments between siblings and parents and everyone in between, is an act of selling out.
And I am grateful for the moment I snap out of it. I remember that all families are made up of imperfect people, which inevitably leads to an imperfect family, that the structure of a house is a mask for what really goes on inside, and that we are nothing if we pretend otherwise.
I have found that the act of writing a memoir, regardless of how many people read it, is a way of stripping your existence down, realizing what has mattered and what you will never recall. It is a meditation on all of the things that you never thought were significant enough to remember.
In yet another graduation speech, one given by David Foster Wallace in 2005, he opened with this anecdotal story:
“Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
His point, which most of the speech was centered on, was to emphasize that: “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”
So I watch commencement speeches when I need to be reminded of things people say to optimistic children who are reluctantly turning into adults. I stumble upon words like these that make sense of what I am doing and why. And so I take Wallace’s advice by constantly reminding myself that “this is water”, and I realize that on its most basic level, for better or for worse, the human experience is most valuable when it is shared.