Note: This post was originally published in a slightly altered form at womensmemoirs.com.
My late kitty, Mittens, didn’t have much personality. As my friend and co-author, Debbie, once observed, “he’s one notch above a stuffed animal.” I argued for two notches, but she had a point. Poor guy. It wasn’t his fault that he was born with no street-smarts or even house-smarts, and slept 23-3/4 hours a day. He was also terribly timid and ran away meowing if he even saw an ant. The most dangerous thing he ever attacked was a Starbucks straw. So imagine my shock and amazement when Mittens caught and killed a mouse in our living room, just a few weeks before he died.
It goes to show, you never know what someone is capable of. Furthermore, “what someone is capable of” is not fixed or finite; it changes and shifts as we evolve. I’ve seen this truth play out (to one mouse’s misfortune) in many ways. You think you really know someone. You think you know what she is capable of – the limits of her talent, the depth of her insights. And then, it turns out, you totally misjudged. The person you thought you knew so well has unsuspected depth, humor, even virtuosity.
And that person could be you.
When I was in eighth-grade, my English teacher, Mr. Eul, gave us an assignment to write a short story. As an aspiring writer, I was thrilled. Back in the 1960s, we were never given writing assignments in school, and I never imagined there were any living authors. I pictured a cemetery filled with tombstones of my favorite writers with their last names first, like card catalogs in the library:
Baum, L. Frank 1856-1919
“Remember,” Mr. Eul called as we filed out of class that day, “no stories from TV!”
I hardly heard him. I was too excited about getting started.
That night, I set my parents’ old Smith Corona typewriter on my wooden writing desk, rolled in a fresh piece of paper, and began writing a story about a mute boy living in an eighteenth century seaport. It was a dark tale about what lies beneath the surface, and about not being heard – a feeling I knew well from growing up in a family dominated by the strong personalities of my brother and father.
For the next week I stayed up late every night, tapping away with obsessive intensity. Until the short story assignment, all we’d written in Mr. Eul’s class were check marks on multiple choice tests. We were all afraid of him – he liked to humiliate students in class and he snapped girls’ bras in the hallways. Still, I couldn’t wait to see the look on his face when he discovered the brilliant writer hidden behind those anonymous check marks!
A couple of weeks later, Mr. Eul announced that he was returning our stories. I could hardly wait to see what he wrote on mine, as he walked around the classroom passing them out. When he came to my desk, he stopped.
“You didn’t write this,” he said, holding up my story. His words hit me like a fist. This was the last thing I had expected.
“Yes I did,” I said. But my voice sounded very small, and Mr. Eul looked very big and imposing looming over my desk. He also looked like he was enjoying himself.
“I don’t believe you.” His voice was hard, accusing. My heart hammered against my chest and a metallic taste of fear filled my mouth.
The classroom was quiet. Everyone was watching, waiting to see what would happen next. Mr. Eul leaned over, his eyes boring into mine. “I’m going to keep this story so you won’t try to use it again in high school.”
Mr. Eul didn’t think I was capable of writing the story I handed in, and I couldn’t find the words to explain that stories were part of me; they were who I was. I would never “use” a story again, like a piece of recycled laundry. (He never did return my story, though the incident itself has become one of my favorite stories to tell.)
And it’s not just talent that is at issue. Qualities such as drive, courage, tenacity – and the fact that you probably don’t take 23-3/4 hour naps – profoundly affect what you accomplish. Whether you’re writing a novel or chasing a mouse, your inner self is a cosmos, infinite and unchartered. No one can survey it at a glance, or predict the limits of what you can achieve.
As for Mittens, he went back to attacking Starbucks straws after the mouse-catching incident. But I had new-found respect for him. In his own way, that dead-but-still-warm mouse was Mitten’s masterpiece, his magnum opus.