When I asked my mom, who was 92 and in the middle rounds of her fight with Alzheimer’s, what was up with the densely packed pink toiletry bag sitting on her couch, she shrugged her shoulders. So I sat down to take a look inside. For the next couple of hours, I was swept away on a journey deep into my past that pointed directly back to my present and hinted at my future.
It reminded me of a fascinating book I’d read a few years earlier by James Hillman called “The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling.” “Everyone is in search of an adequate biography,” Hillman wrote. But the questions each of us struggle with are, “How do I put together into a coherent image the pieces of my life? How do I find the basic plot to my story?”
I found the basic plot to my story in that pink bag my mother had filled with the biographical pieces of my life. She remembered neither collecting the artifacts in the bag nor leaving them on the couch for me to discover. Yet there they were: an assortment of photographs, report cards, correspondence, newspaper clips, and other mementos covering a roughly three-decade period, from the 1950s through the ‘80s. Together they expressed the genetic sequence of what Hillman would call my “soul’s code” – the essence of my personality, character, and life’s calling.
Hillman believed that beyond the influences of nature and nurture, including but not limited to our hereditary traits, upbringing, and formative development, there lies an even more determinative factor of personal destiny. He explained it in his “acorn theory.” Just as an acorn holds the blueprint for every bit of bark, branch and leaf that an oak tree will have throughout its existence, Hillman posited, our full potential is present within each of us from birth – character, calling, and destiny.
I found all that in the pink bag – from the seeds of the psychic conflicts underlying my life-long inner tug-of-war between security and adventure, rationality and spirituality, to the early propensity for writing stories and poems and songs that laid out paths I’ve traveled for different distances and with varying degrees of success throughout my still evolving life.
Opening Pandora’s Pink Bag
It all made perfect sense, with the exception of the small, white envelope containing several golden locks of my infant hair: those soft blond curls, along with the reportedly blue eyes of my birth, turned dark brown by the middle years of my childhood and have remained a core physical characteristic ever since.
Otherwise, all the rest of the bag’s contents defined the child who became father to this man. My first kindergarten report card offered a seminal glimpse of the socially guarded, taciturn nature that would always be my default mode when meeting new people. Dated December 1956-May 1957, it reads, in part: “Martin is very quiet. He does not play or take much of a part in his group.” But, the teacher went on, “He is interested in our stories and loves to participate in “Show and Tell.”
The next core trait in my personal profile emerged in my second-grade report card, in which the teacher, Mrs. Rupersberger, advised my parents that “Martin should practice counting money and work on his arithmetic.” So by the age of 7 or 8, the contents of The Pink Bag have already profiled Young Martin as a shy, introverted boy whose passion is storytelling and whose kryptonite is anything having to do with numbers. It would take every ounce of fortitude within me to change those basic attributes, if I could change them at all.
I worked like hell to get more comfortable and outgoing with people and made a career of telling stories in various forms. But I never did overcome my fear of those intimidating integers, especially when confronted with more of them than I could count on my 10 fingers.
Despite my deficit with digits, though, the report cards in the bag from high school and college documented a fair amount of academic distinction: generally better than average grades, especially in non-mathematical subjects, and cumulative averages that were frequently good enough to get me on the honor roll and dean’s list, as the newspaper clips and letters from university administration attested.
My college report cards brought back the triple anxiety of being away from home for the first time, having to take courses I found incredibly difficult and worrying myself sick over flunking out, losing my 1H Selective Service designation in the draft, and hearing Uncle Sam call my lottery number – 145. I pictured myself being yanked out of school and whisked off to die in the jungles of Vietnam.
All this was highly improbable, if not totally impossible, but I agonized over it nonetheless, and the sight of my draft card in The Pink Bag gave me agita all over again. After the first two years, though, college became easier and the war eventually came to an end. My battle shifted to finding my way in the world. Two envelopes in The Pink Bag contained yellowing, type-written letters that shed light on this pivotal period.
The first was from an Edward Thomas of Somat Publishing LTD, Suite 904, 157 West 57th Street in New York. I’d had an aunt in Manhattan who knew people who knew people. Somehow, she’d managed to finagle me a couple of hours in a recording studio in the famous Brill Building, where songwriters like Burt Bacharach, Carole King, and Paul Simon had produced some of their work during the 1960s. Sitting alone in a room with my guitar and a microphone, I recorded five or six original songs that somehow wound up with Mr. Thomas.
“We liked 3 of your numbers – 2nd, 3rd, and next to last on the tape,” he wrote. “You definitely have talent.”
However, he cautioned, “At this particular time the music industry is very tough. Since you have a year of school to go to, it is our considered opinion that you should certainly finish and have that in your hip pocket for security. There is no reason why you couldn’t get in touch with me a year from now, at which time I would be very happy to help you reevaluate your position with relation to a music career.”
The letter was dated March 23, 1972. It gave me a lot to think about. When my father died by suicide five months later – as documented in the obituary my mom left for me in The Pink Bag – my world was turned on its head and my need for security versus adventure underwent an instant, seismic recalibration.
I put aside writing music for writing news articles, feature stories, and ultimately CEO speeches, corporate policy papers, and crisis plans. In the second of the two key letters in The Pink Bag, I had written to my mom, telling her how much I was enjoying my work at my first real, feels-like-I-found-myself job at a major multinational corporation. I was, ghostwriting for the CEO and handling all sorts of communication challenges. That job ultimately gifted my wife and me with 16 years of life abroad, travels around the world and the security to once again seriously consider what we want to do with the rest of our lives now that we’re back in New York.
Something out of the ether prompted me to Google the name and address of Edward Thomas, the music publisher who had sent me the encouraging letter I found in The Pink Bag. Low and behold, there he was, still listed as an active composer, with even a phone number provided. So I called it, and Edward Thomas answered.
He’s 97 years old now, and grieving over the recent death of his wife, he told me. He didn’t remember me, but was kind and gracious enough to talk awhile just the same. He said he’d started focusing on classical music years ago and had worked not long ago with the London Symphony; he’d composed his most recent major piece just three years ago and said he still felt he had one more composition in him.
As for me, “It’s never too late to start doing what you love,” he told me, “or to pick up where you left off with something you love.”
Who could have guessed I’d find all that inside The Pink Bag? The fact is, my life would have been and continued to be, whatever it was going to be had my mom never left it for me. I know that. But I also know I’ve always been searching for what James Hillman said we’re all searching for: a life narrative that makes sense, a plot to my story that feels right and makes me feel fulfilled. That’s the gift my mom left me in that Pink Bag. If she only knew how precious it would turn out to be.