Interview: Patricia Reis
Patricia Reis is a woman who believes "nothing's wasted." She's also a psychotherapist and an author who just came out with a memoir, Motherlines. Here, she discusses her antidote to cynicism and fear, having no regrets, and veering off the conventional course.
How do you describe yourself? How do you describe your work?
There’re a lot of layers to this cake! The top layer right now is that I am a writer and I just published a memoir – which I never in my entire life thought I would do, being an introverted, private person. I also work as a psychotherapist.
I’m passionately interested in creativity, in how that creative process informs our life, whether you are making a book, a painting, a fabulous dinner, having a very creative time in your relationships. Whatever you’re doing, if you are doing it with that creative impulse to see what’s happening, to be open, to be energized and curious. I’m very interested in that.
What was the drive for you to write the book?
I didn’t publish anything until I was 50. I have an MFA in sculpture from UCLA. It took me four years and all during that time, I wrote in my journal, “Should I be writing?”
I had an aunt, Ruth, who was a Franciscan nun. She and I began a voluminous correspondence – letter writing, an antique form of bonding. I was in my mid-life and she was in her early elderhood. She was working in Latin America in the poorest of the poor barrios doing social justice, what I call kitchen table ministry.
In 1984, Ruth was living in San Cristóbal de las Casas. I’d just finished my MFA and was getting a degree in counseling psychology. I wrote to her and said, “I want to write a book about your life.” Now this is a lot of hubris. Because I’d never written anything except letters. But I thought, “I want to write and she’s an interesting person.”
I went to visit her, packed my duffel with tapes, a tape recorder. That stuff never came out of my duffel bag. However, as I walked with her on the streets, rode buses, stopped in people’s houses, I saw what she was doing and wrote it all down each night.
Then life took over. I moved to Maine and started my psychotherapy practice. I wrote two books and co-authored two books. Then I thought, “It’s time I write this book about Ruth.” It was 2003 and she had already died. I decided to write her story as fiction, thinking I would have more freedom. I just kept writing it and writing it for years and years. I sent it to my agent and she said, “No dice.” Her editor had said, “I don’t know what makes this woman tick.”
This was not a big laugh, let me tell you. Finally, the agent said, “Patricia, this is a memoir about your relationship with your aunt. Write it. Write your memoir." And I thought, Wow, okay, all right. I mean, I tried, but I’m not a fiction writer. I was being a ventriloquist. It wasn’t authentic.
Was it a mistake to do that? No. I learned so much trying to do this thing as fiction. I taught myself how to do dialogue and scene construction. I took classes, I went to a lot of writing conferences, and I met a few fantastic people who really helped me along the way. When it came time to write this memoir, I knew it was right.
With the decisions that have taken you off the conventional course, how have you held yourself in those unsure and unknown places?
I’m in a long life here with a lot of different experiences. From the outside, it could look messy. To me, there have been many seemingly unrelated choices that I’ve made that have brought me to where I am. All we really need is the next footfall. I don’t think we ever get the whole map. Even more rarely is there ever a final destination.
So there has to be some level of trust in oneself. Trust not in just one’s persona, personality, or what one has constructed about oneself. But trust that there is a spirit unfolding, that your human life has its purpose, its direction, its lessons, its contribution, the belief that every life has that potential.
We’re all plunked here without a lot of direction. You do the expected things, and sometimes that adds up, sometimes it doesn’t. And sometimes you have to go, Guess what? I’m just going to cut myself a new path. Ultimately, I don’t think anything is ever wasted. As long as we’re engaged in some way or another, there’s never waste.
What grounds you?
I’m a pretty grounded person, dogged and perseverant. But what grounds me in a very deep way is nature. Being out in nature in a lot of different ways. My daily walk around Back Cove in Portland, Maine where I live for eight months, or when I’m in in Nova Scotia and ride my bike for 12-15 miles every day around the back country roads. It is my way of clearing my mind, of opening myself.
Canoe trips, winter snowshoeing. My cats! I’m with my cat right now, all curled up in the chair across from me taking a nap. That’s very instructive, very inspiring.
I really like to cook and I like to share food. Cooking for me is like composing, like composing a nice sentence. I also do water color. That gets me out of the mental part of the brain and let’s me just look at color, shape, form, paint on paper. It’s unencumbered by anything. And I have a partnership of 30-plus years that is also grounding, the daily bread.
If you find yourself feeling closed and cynical or fearful, what opens you back up again?
Those kinds of things are very contagious – cynicism, being fearful — especially these days. So, I keep away from a lot of that kind of thought. They’re sterile and unfruitful directions. Indulgent also, I think.
Cynicism, fear, these things can be immediately countered by honest, open engagement with others — two leggeds or four-leggeds — it takes you right out of those shallow feelings into vulnerability. Also the humbling work of creativity.
How do you rest?
I go to bed early with a big fat book – the fatter, the better. I read for about two hours every night. And I sleep. I’m really fortunate, I know, to be able to pull off a good eight-to-nine hour stretch of sleep. To me, it’s like medicine. So, I go to bed early, not shorting myself on that end of things.
I stay away form hyper-stimulating stuff. I like a good rock-out dance now and then, but I’m not a stimulation junkie. I don’t look for the next big adrenaline rush. I’m not interested in that. I’m interested more in the daily bread, the steady go.
Are there questions you ask yourself now that you wish you had asked yourself at another stage in your life?
After having just written a memoir, especially about a very turbulent part of my life, there’s nothing I regret. You could look at my story and think, “Wow, too bad about that.” But, no. There’s nothing I regret. No steps I wish I hadn’t taken or things I wish hadn’t happened.
Being a writer allows me to use all my life experience, grist for the mill. Nothing’s wasted. There really is consolation in that, as there is nothing unhappier than feeling like one’s life has been riddled by mistakes. So, as long as there’s life, there’s the possibility for redemption, revelation. But regret or nostalgia or sentimentality? No, no.
What’s the best kept secret of being an adult?
You get to grow your own self up. You can’t lean on anybody else. It’s your job. It’s your work. It’s your pleasure. It’s your surprise. You get to grow yourself up.
Also, that nothing goes to waste. Everything has its place and its purpose. It’s up to you, up to me, to create that meaning out of what we have, playing the hand we’ve been dealt. We get to do that.