by Keri Mangis
I remember the last time I removed wallpaper. It wasn’t even an entire room. It wasn’t even a large room. It was only the top border around my bathroom. I thought would be simple. As the hours passed, my shoulder cried with pain. The steps of the ladder pushed into my thighs, leaving bruises. My calves cramped as I strained on tiptoe to reach the spot where the ceiling met the wall.
As I scraped, paper came off not in large swaths, but in crumbly pieces that fell and littered the floor like dirty snowflakes. It was nothing like it had been depicted in advertisements: a project I could fit in after work but before starting dinner, a smile on my face and the mess neatly hidden away.
I couldn’t get leverage when trying to scrape with my left hand. I tried to use my left hand to support my right elbow, but I feared falling off the ladder. I scraped upwards, sideways, downwards, and diagonally. I thought I’d never get to the blank wall behind that old-fashioned wallpaper. Despite all the solutions and tools available at the local hardware store, there were no quick-solve answers that worked for me. I had to scrape it off, inch by inch, sometimes with my bare fingernails.
But with effort and time, I soon scraped free an empty square, the size of a small book, a spot of clean potential. Dumbfounded by my own success, I stared at it. I could envision new possibilities atop fresh, glossy, silvery paint. It was enough to spur me onward. I made my way through the rest of the project, moving the ladder a foot at a time, until I stood, exhausted but beaming with pride, before an entirely blank wall.
Now I could surround myself with fresh colors and new images. I could stencil in a quote or hang a picture. I could change what images impressed upon me each morning before I went out into the world. The wallpaper had been sticky, but it had let go.
Three years ago, wanting to free myself not from sticky wallpaper in my bathroom but sticky stories in my life, I began writing a memoir. First, I listed the stories I wanted to write by key word: Panda Journal, Mr. Anderson, Holly Hobbie, Dead Cat. It didn’t matter to me at this early stage whether they were fit for public consumption, it only mattered that I felt the urge to write them.
Some stories brought a smile to my face and childhood memories to my mind. Others brought about nostalgic sadness or hindsight wisdom. But then I waded into the harder stories, the sticky stories, the ones I called my “wallpaper stories.”
There was the story of when I disappointed my boss, the one who placed all his trust in me, his intern-turned-full-time-employee. There were the stories of my failings in my first at-bat with motherhood. There was the story of losing a business that I had sunk heart, soul, and pocketbook into. Just thinking about these stories triggered defensiveness, regret, anger, or denial. These were the stories that haunted me. We all have these stories.
Writing these stories yanked me back in time to relive the difficulties. I walked away from those early drafts bruised, tired, sore, and frustrated. I tried to reengage with the present moment, but my mind couldn’t release the past. My emotions responded as if these stories were happening again, in real time. I thought, “Why am I doing this to myself? Why purposefully inflict pain?”
But also as I worked, I received small glimpses of space and freedom. It was enough to bring me back to rewrite and rework. I diminished the self-judgment. I considered other perspectives. I added in a layer of detail or small insight I just realized, one that might not have been available if I hadn’t come this far.
Each day, I scraped away at my stories from fresh angles. I soon saw the importance of my role in respect to others. I could chuckle at my impulsive, knee-jerk reactions. I sent love to my own insecurities. I saw how my stories worked to strengthen my voice and exact my intentions. I saw with gratitude that while I was chiseling away at them, my stories were chiseling me into a wiser, stronger, kinder human being. The space around me grew wider. I breathed a little deeper.
I kept going. I rewrote again and again. Soon, the universality of my stories emerged. They began to feel distant, almost as if they were someone else’s stories, or something I heard or read about once. As details and pain worked themselves onto the page, they worked their way out of my body.
Now, finished, these stories are no longer about “what happened to me,” but express my take on what it means to be human. To be imperfect. To want, to yearn, to lose, to fight, to stay, to walk away. While the names and places of my stories may be unique, my human journey is certainly not.
My heart is now like that blank bathroom wall.
A part of me wants to protect it from ever getting hurt again. Close the door and remain safely outside. Cheer others on in their risk-taking adventures while not taking on any more myself. But no. For in this process, though I did not expect it, I have regained faith in myself and others. I’ve replenished my stores of courage, tenacity, and hopefulness. I’m ready to get back out there in the world and offer my heart—not to be viewed from a distance, but to be written on, painted on, and wallpapered up.
Image: “Vintage Typewriter” by Memphis CVB via Flickr.