Last month I posted “truth didn’t set me free.” It was about my experience one early January morning in a courtroom. I read the post a week later and then took it down. As a memoir writer, I didn’t like how I wrote it; there should be more meaning to the experience than what I had written. But I wondered after some time if I found its meaning.
When rewriting memoir, I use time like an elixir, a magical potion that when applied, will pull meaning up from below a blurry surface into the clear air. Perhaps it’s my conscience working covertly during this time, massaging the details of the experience until an understanding becomes apparent. Sometimes I question if I’ve ever truly grasped the lesson I was meant to learn or the reflection I was meant to see.
Ask anyone who has had an impactful experience and they’ll tell you several specific details you may think unimportant—a color of his shoes, a sound of wind chimes, the smell of burning leaves—when in fact, they are important. My deleted post had the details—what I saw in my rearview mirror, seating like church pews, a bulky dressed officer, undeterred dialogue—and I struggled to understand why they stuck in my memory. Maybe they were important too because they shaped the telling of my experience. They became the experience and that’s why I remembered them.
Memoir continues to reveal herself to me in unexpected ways. I wrote in an essay for an anthology, The Magic of Memoir, “I was once eager to find complicated significance in what I now see as simplicity,” where I was looking for significance to my memoir when in fact my story was one of simplicity. And maybe with time, and a weaving of details of this experience, the writing will finally please the writer.
Memoir seems to be an unapologetic way of writing. You don’t regret what you wrote the first time around; it simply wasn’t right. Yet you gave yourself permission to try, try again.
And in the following rewritten post, I began to see perhaps a simplicity from what I was trying to make from complicated significance.
I took for granted the power of my voice. I assumed it to be like a stamp on a golden ticket, one that would automatically free me from wrongness or injustice when handed over. But there was a time when my voice held neither power nor conviction and I faced deciding to take a costly risk in telling the truth.
He spoke the deal as if reading a grocery list— plea, judge, guilty, fine, five hundred dollars. I tried to keep pace with the fast-talker but it was all a blur.
“I did nothing wrong,” The tone in my voice pleaded to be heard. Is this the time for me to tell what really happened?
“I don’t care whether you did or didn’t. If the judge finds you guilty . . .”
Those words wore me like an overcoat of self-doubt. Could I really be found guilty despite my voice speaking the truth? I believed my voice was my confidence but both were slowly weakening in their powers.
He avoided my direct eye contact while waving a stack of yellow tickets clutched in his hand. My eyes were drawn to the crinkled paper showing multiple narrow lines of personal information and just one line of a five-digit number. My name, address, and date of birth was now associated with a new number. I had hoped that my voice would make right a statute number on a piece of paper. My voice was moving deeper inside me.
How did I get to this point?
It was a dark and cold morning in January when I was pulled over by a county sheriff officer after crossing a railroad crossing at the train station in town. I squinted from the brightness of blue and red lights, flashing and twirling in my rear-view mirror, becoming frightened by a dark figure emerging, bulky with wearing a bullet-proof vest, radio at his shoulder, armed at his belted waist, a flashlight in hand. It was six-thirty in the black of morning during a holiday break. No one was around. I shivered not because of the cold of pre-dawn but because of the darkness of an unknown, of fear.
The reason he said why he pulled me over did not match the violation he wrote on the ticket. Oncoming train? There was no oncoming train. It had left the station. The truth was that I didn’t go around lowered gates to dodge an oncoming train. How could someone of reason and right be so senseless and wrong? He was as much a contradiction as was the ticket in my hand.
Cellphone violators, accident victims, DUI offenders, those clutching proof of insurance and registration papers crowded into wooden benches that looked like church pews. Dim yellow light did nothing to offset the grey hue of the filled courtroom. While I nervously waited being called forth, the voice in my head chanted I didn’t belong, as if willing the judge her reason to excuse me. I had never been in a courtroom, let alone received a ticket of any kind. But I did belong. A yellow ticket was the only thing that connected me with the congregation.
Indecision hit me like arrows to a dart board. Guilty and I could end it all. Not guilty, and a bench trial.
“Not guilty,” I said to the judge. My voice, once sounding loud in my head, now came out my mouth a whisper.
Standing outside the courtroom, he repeated the plea deal. Should I take a risk of being found guilty with a price? Or plead guilty to a stop sign violation? Only there was no stop sign. This was wrong on so many levels. My voice was buried.
I could no longer believe in an opportunity to tell my truth with no cost or risk.
I took the deal. I turned away from giving sound to my silent voice in front of a judge. Acquiescing trumped taking a risk. And that was the most piercing violation of all of them.