“I’m king of the mountain,” I used to say as a kid. “You may think you’re king, but you’d be dead wrong. I am the king of the mountain.” Usually when I said this, I was on top of something, a table, a bench, a rock, a stump, a hay bale, and from there, I surveyed my land and subjects.
“You realize,” my friend Lois would say, “that you are king of a barn?”
“Hey, some people aren’t king of anything.”
“Good point, well, bye king. Adios.”
“Come back, if you’re not here, then I have nothing to be king over.”
“You can be king of the goats.”
The goats were unsatisfactory subjects in that they ignored me.
I grew up in a cult in Southern New Hampshire. The adults lived in one compound, and the kids were raised on a farm where we spent most of our time doing farm labor. I try to remember what my inner life was like then. What made me happy or sad? It’s hard to remember the inner life of your past self. What I mostly remember is being ashamed of being badly behaved but not ashamed enough to behave well. I remember fear and shame every day of my life, and when something happens where I act badly and am punished in some way, I feel myself reenter that childhood self who was always down an emotional dark well.
But I wasn’t always in that dark place. Sometimes I claimed to be king of the mountain, sometimes I told stories. As children, we figure out what coping methods will sustain us and those too become our thinking lives as adults. You learn that you can claim to be king of the mountain but if nobody is there to appreciate it, then you’re just talking to yourself.
You never really know a person until you know who they are alone. When my husband is alone, he’s happy. He’s writing and reading, thinking and breaking his diet to eat grilled cheese sandwiches. He isn’t wishing for applause or someone to listen to him. He’s deeply involved in a creative and intellectual life. When he is around other people, he can sit quietly or he can talk. We all know men who can dominate the conversation and go on and on seemingly unaware that everyone at the table is bored to tears. Mark rarely goes into long rants except perhaps at the office because his inner life doesn’t demand an echo. He had as hard a childhood as I did, but he came out of that and developed an inner life that focuses on thinking and contentment.
When I met Mark, I needed encouragement. I didn’t want to say, “I’m king on the mountain” and have no one there to hear. I relied on a network of girlfriends to let me know that I was okay. My inner life as a child was all about the dark. I saw myself as a damaged person going nowhere, but with an amazing capacity to have fun on the road to nowhere. When I met my husband, I liked his centered way of being and slowly I reworked my own inner life as I imagine people do in therapy.
Like my husband, I don’t spend much of my life thinking about myself. I think about books I want to write, books I’m reading, ideas I’m tossing around, I think about teaching and the business of the press, but I like to think about big ideas. Having just had a birthday, I’m thinking about some life goals, but I don’t talk down to my little self. I don’t need to any more. I can analyze something I’ve done wrong without thrashing myself to bits.
Like many kids raised without loving parents, I used to do my own extreme inner parenting. I was always either the king of the mountain or the village idiot. There was no room for growth. Many poets have an inner life that bounces between self loathing and self aggrandizement. Neither is particularly helpful because they don’t go anywhere. Added to this, I have a tendency shared by many children from abusive backgrounds of catastrophizing. That’s a great word that covers a lot of strange behaviors. Everything is the end of the world. Oddly, I grew up being told the world was about to end, and literally when things go wrong, my inner conversation used to be, “It’s over!”
I’m still working on the stories I tell myself. I’m writing a new story. Your inner life is how you see yourself based on the conversations you have with yourself, and it becomes how other people see you as well. We project our own inner life and it becomes a reality. At my most despairing, my son and daughter message me, “You’re going to be fine. You’re amazing,” and I remember that I can continue to learn from my mistakes, practice integrity and compassion. I tell myself, I got this.
I think about the inner life of bees. Just as they sting you, they know it’s over, they will die, but still they sting you in the hot sunlight because that’s their nature. We are not bees; we can divide by ten. We can change our inner life so we do not die in the bright sunlight needlessly. “This is a problem,” I say to myself now. “What’s the solution?” Future Kate will have an even more amazing inner life.