A misty rain showers us with kisses as we file into the home of memoir writer and teacher Abigail Thomas. We are like disciples seeking a guru. Eleven of us, all women, curl up in sofas and chairs, acting casual and confident as we prepare to share our stories. We are all shapes and sizes, most roughly middle age. Abigail sneaks a smoke on the porch as her dogs volley for a space amidst all the visitors. The chocolate dog, Daphne curls up near her mistress’ feet, chewing the throw rug. Abby grabs a tangerine from a bowl on the counter and tosses it to her as we round the circle of introductions. The hound, Carolina, approaches her sister, sniffing the tangerine. She considers claiming it. Abby grabs a second, pitching it her way to ward off a fight. What do these animals think, so quiet and relaxed at the feet of strangers?
I did an interview on Reiki for animals once. The woman explained it was all about energy. She calmed dogs and cats at the local humane society by sitting in the room and being quiet, exuding the right kind of energy. The restless cats would settle into plush beds and window seats. Are these dogs calm because we are?
I don’t feel calm sharing my story. Most likely few of us do. Each person offers a nervous disclaimer as it comes her turn to read – I did this quickly, I’m not good with prompts, I prefer to revise, I’m tired. The excuses vary slightly, but the message is the same: I’m afraid I’ll be judged. This is more important than I show. Be gentle.
No matter how many times I ask my students to do this, no matter how often I myself write and set out to share, it becomes no easier. I hate wearing the title writer/teacher when it comes my turn. Who wants to say you write for a living, that you teach memoir when you offer yourself raw and naked for judgment?
When my turn comes I read. My face grows hot. I press on. What’s the expression? The only way out is through?
The chocolate dog makes her way to my seat on the sofa. Solid and sure, she nudges me to the edge, claiming her space. My legs cramp with little room to move, but I enjoy the familiarity of her dogginess. I am at home amidst the quiet snorts and dog hair. Carolina approaches her Mom, stretching her neck to rest her head in Abby’s lap. Abby raises her journal to her eyes and tries not to see – “It will get her going,” she explains.
We talk about sex and suicide, longing and love – the gamut of human existence. We compare our stories to one another's like boys in a locker room, but encourage and support nonetheless. The dogs snore beneath our words, a comforting soundtrack. They do not worry what anyone thinks of them. They are dogs and if they are nervous about anything it is whether we will share the tuna and chicken wraps that we’ll be served at lunch.
We read and gradually relax, growing more comfortable with each other. The room exudes the right kind of energy. We settle into our stories like dogs to a comfy couch.