~ Anna ~
I want to offer a structure in and around the margin.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the way my mother’s creativity never stopped. She was endlessly looking for new ways to solve situations and bring more color and new insight to basically everything she touched. And she knew this about herself. But she hasn’t had a word for it. Until I suggested one.
I like this word. I like marginalia in a similar way that I like the word marginalized and the framework each word can offer in seeing our marginal experiences. The 1960s concept of marginalizing people and groups helped generations confront a world that pushed some to the edges of society. Since then we have centered these stories in order to achieve social change. But what happens in the margins matters, has always mattered, and will always matter. My mother happened in many ways the margins.
Here is the opening of the essay my mother started in 2005.
Imagine a sheet of paper with text written on it. The edge is where the paper stops and begins. The margin is the space between the edge of the paper and where the text begins. And the complexity, if it is there at all, is in the text.
Where is the edge of the world? I believe the place where I was born is part of it: just north of the Arctic Circle, not quite north of the tree-line, on a rugged coast facing the North Sea. The poverty ravaged fishing and farming community was home to a deeply religious population and was occupied by the Nazis during World War II. The town was so far out on the edge of the world that I have often thought of it as belonging to the nineteenth century. I surely was surrounded by thoughts and ideas from the nineteenth century when at three and a half I contracted polio. My parents were told by their neighbors that they must have done something horribly sinful and that God had punished them by giving me polio.
My mother was trying to center her own voice — in academia, within her family, on the written page. In a world that had marginalized her for decades, she understood that the complexity of life was only widely visible to others at the center of the page. But all of the hidden meaning of her life — her having been asked to submit a chapter in the first place, my clumsy attempt to support her English grammar, her whole life story edited down to several pages of stark but true sentences about her incredible life journey so far — was there all along in the margins, unfolding rapidly and beautifully and mysteriously. Her story has never been a center of the road story. From the beginning, she had to fight her way from the edge of the world into a mainstream setting in order to gain a marginalized identity.
And that is where I want to meet her — still encoding the meaning of her life in the marginalia, the creative content that my mother is still making for herself around the center of the page. She is going through her old papers again, trying to figure out what to throw away. Which poem is an important footnote to her childhood? Which drawing deserves an asterisk? Which ideas merit further definition?
I am a white, nondisabled person with an increasing range of lived experience. But I carry a lot of middle of the road privilege and can still sometimes forget how much everything changes and be rapidly humbled again by a personal tragedy. My writing lives in the middle of the page, and my mother knows it. When she asked me to help her write the story of her life, she knew that I could get her onto the center of the page where people could see her. I can and I will, for as long as she wants me to. But the center of the page is not her story. Her story lives in the marginalia of life. And our story meets in the margin in several ways that are important to reading this book and understanding her story.
After many deep conversations, my mother and I have come up with some categories of marginalia that are important to how we live and how this story is written. All of these categories are offered as overarching concepts with some concrete implications that I will outline.