They were pictures like these that caught my attention as I clicked through a slideshow of images on the NPR site one morning. Weathered photographs of a hispanic couple and small child, then of a lanky teenager, a young college age woman standing against a backdrop of canyons, later a middle aged woman in long black robes. Realizing whose face it was evolving frame by frame: now Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, I was intrigued and downloaded her recently published memoir, My Beloved World, immediately to my Kindle. I was delighted.
Slowly and thoughtfully, the narrative voice of the memoir constructs the impression of a childhood, carefully enfleshing its primary actors and influencers as well as establishing its important stages and backdrops. Singular stories that capture the essence of early ages and catalysts for personal epiphanies construct the sensory layering and narrative framework of a young human being’s beginnings. Hers was a childhood of cramped apartments and empty liquor bottles stuffed under her father’s mattresss, a ubiquitous brood of relatives, the smells of chuletas and sofrito, the sounds of Spanish poetry and salsa music, the quivering fears of succumbing to a premature death due to Type 1 diabetes.
As the memoir progresses, childhood stories yield themselves to larger patterns and chronological detail takes over as we are led along a history of college degrees and career advancement. As she described long hours and crippling work loads, I wondered if and how she would address the idea of work / life balance. She writes, ” Could I have managed to negotiate this culture as well as the crushing caseload with a child tugging at my awareness in the background of every moment? I thought not. The idea of another life utterly dependent on me, the way a child needs his mother, didn’t seem compatible with the professional necessity of living at this punishing pace. As it was, I thought there was already too little time to accomplish the things I envisioned.”
However, rather than my mind taking me in its usual direction – wading through the spectrum of opinions on “having it all” in life, my mind took me in quite a different direction, to another set of questions the memoir raises. Sotomayor frequently refers to the professional climate she navigated day by day as being extraordinarily inhospitable to women. She writes, “Men and women got equal pay at the DA’s Office, but promotions came far less easily for women, my own quick move from misdemeanors to felonies being unusual. I saw many women who were no less qualified wait much longer than men for the same advance. And they would have to work twice as hard as men to earn it, because so much of what they did was viewed in the light of casual sexism.”
And yet, within that environment inhospitable to those of her gender and her ethnicity, how did she succeed? My mind ventured further – what does her story indicate about factors that contribute to human success and how might these patterns or routines be emulated? Could her story be a guidebook for other women, navigating equally tenuous waters?
Her own account of her personal success is mystifying. She writes,
My understanding of my survival was bound up in every way with the fact of my grandmother’s protection. It amounted to more than a refuge from the chaos at home: my sense of being under safekeeping, physically and metaphysically. It had given me the will to manage my illness, to overcome my insufficiencies at school, and ultimately to imagine the most improbable of possibilities for my life. And that feeling of Abuelita’s protection would only grow after her death, made manifest in countless ways, from bizarrely fortuitous interventions that would save my life in diabetic crises to strange alignments of circumstances that have favored me unreasonably. Things that might easily have happened to me somehow did not; things that were not likely to happen to me somehow did. This seemed like luck with a purpose.
I was under no illusion of having been singled out, chosen for some particular destiny. But I did come to recognize in my good fortune the work of a blessing, a gift that made my life not entirely my own: I was not free to squander it if I chose. Gifts, Abuelita showed us, were for sharing with others. And though I was not given a mission, I had to find a worthy purpose, to earn this protection. The language of cause and effect would be misleading here, the implied exchange of one thing for another not relevant: suffice it to say, somehow a synergy of love and gratitude, protection and purpose, was implanted in me at a very young age. And it flowered in me the determination to serve.
For me, therein lies the difficulty and the infuriating beauty of memoir as a genre. I approach these works in search of formulas, the predictable lists of habits, the exhortation that hard work itself guarantees a reward – and I am confronted with circumstances impossible to imitate. Life is not so simple. While she does not here credit her brilliance, precociousness as a child, her work ethic – obvious factors in her rise, her tone as she surveys the brute outcomes of her life and their slow manifestation seems to convey the same sense of wonder I experience when I approach the telling of it. She seems to be wrestling with the same sorts of questions but from the an opposite pole – I wonder, how did she arrive? as she wonders, how did I arrive? And the seeming answer is a handful of photos, a collection of stories, a recollection of faces, memories of Christmases and illnesses, quick steps in stairwells: a lovely, stultifying, enigma.