Omens and Amens

When we don’t think we know where we’re going

There is no mistaking a fox. One crossed my path on a recent early morning bike ride along the river bluff. Through a narrow opening in the chain link fence it came. It looked both ways, saw me, and still onto the paved trail it came. I may have slowed. But on it came, flagrant and orange. The fox presented itself in profile, held the pose, then loped just ahead of me before turning, with no haste, up into the brush.

Four years ago I set out to write a memoir about overcoming the silence that has dogged me much of my life. I admit I didn’t know this at the time, or for a long while. I had a general notion that I would write a book following the proximate deaths of my husband and mother. At first I focused on loss and grief. In another draft, I seemed to be telling their stories. Then there were experiments with structure. None of these attempts felt quite right.

The one piece of every draft that never changed was the ending. It seemed I knew where I needed to go, even though I lacked a clear path for getting there. Neuroscientists are beginning to recognize that what distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to consider the future. Foresight is our brain’s central function. Instead of merely recording and storing memories, we are continually rewriting history. I had projected the ending, even articulated it, without perhaps realizing this was where I was headed. Other chapters I could always refine or rewrite, but the ending I left alone.

Finally I let the ending guide my way.

I recently read through my latest (last?) revision. Whenever I stumbled over a sentence, I flagged the page. By the end, I easily had 50 yellow post-its reminding me of places I still needed to revisit. Many I resolved quickly. Soon I was down to 4. But these places stubbornly resisted my attempts to clarify.

Days went by. Company came and left. The hyacinth vine grew, patches of lawn turned brown. Then I saw the fox. My first thought when I saw its long body and tipped tail? A pencil. Yes, a pencil. In a writer’s world, a pencil, especially a red one, is used for editing. Within a day I’d made the final changes. I’d said what I set out to say, not fully realizing it until I was there.

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