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Memoir Madness

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MEMOIR MADNESS

The good news is, today I wrote almost 1,300 words. I know that’s not much compared to the over-achieving masses who will participate in National Novel Writing Month in November, dashing off 1,667 words every day for 30 days in pursuit of a 50,000-word novel. But it’s pretty good for me. Yesterday was only 500 words, and it was crap.

The bad news is, only about 350 of today’s words have the slightest chance of contributing to my final word count because I went on a 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum (about which I will tell you), and because I got mired in shame.

The downside of searching for patterns and themes in your life is that when you find them — or they find you — they may not be the lovely themes and patterns you had imagined were the narrative of your life. Alarmingly, my redemptive spiritual coming-of-age story seems to be all about shame and secrecy. Mind you, neither “shame” nor “secrecy” appear anywhere in my chapter outlines (such as they are), yet every scene leads me there.

I knew that the alcoholic father/enabling mother business would produce a few sentences on shame, but when your alcoholic father is also an undercover CIA agent in Miami during the Cuban missile crisis, the secrets can multiply quickly. Next thing you know, you’re writing about stealing your friend’s stuffed mouse, and your sister’s souvenir coin, and the shiny set of keys dangling from the door of the shiny new Dodge at the dealership, and you’re thinking, “This isn’t what my memoir is about.”

So then you take a break from your memoir and you draft a blog post about shame, which you start thinking is not half-bad, and so you begin revising and playing with words and researching outlets that might publish something like that, but while you are doing this, you remember that last spring you were working on a piece for the New York Time’s Modern Love column and so you find that and start revising it, and then you are googling your dead ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend and so you stop.

At some point, I also searched “shame” in my blog archives and discovered that I’ve written 59 separate posts that at least mention it. This makes 60. I may soon have to acknowledge its existence.

Now about that 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum: As an ethical memoirist, if someone told you a story when you were a child and you have always believed it to be true but then you find out it’s not technically true, actually not even close, can you still use the story without fessing up that it’s not true after all? If everyone involved is long dead? I’m asking for a friend, of course.

And – BAM! Another 482 words, done.

 

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Memoir Misery

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I keep reminding myself, I did this on purpose. I am sequestered at my solitary little house in New Hampshire for a month; whole days pass with no human contact except an occasional text message that’s somehow made its way over the rivers and through the woods to my grandmother’s house.

I am here to write, or at least to think about writing. I also had dreams of repairing broken windowpanes and painting mildew-pocked walls, but once I got here I realized that a month isn’t that long after all. I do need to find a way to keep the chipmunks from bringing all their belongings through the broken attic window and settling in for the winter, but otherwise, writing is enough.

More than enough, it seems. I’ve been messing about with this memoir for years and have now promised myself that by the end of this month, I will either have found the themes, patterns, and connections that give my life meaning, or I will stop pretending that I’m writing a memoir. Grandiose, right? Perhaps I need to narrow my scope a bit. (I’ve always loved an existential crisis.)

The Grand Endeavor

I’ve been reading books about writing memoir and I’ve been reading memoirs and I’ve been reflecting on memories. I’m not certain what type of memoir this is trying to be, but it has elements of coming-of-age and of a spiritual journey — and it’s hard to ignore my struggle with addiction. All of which require mining the past for often-painful memories.

This is why I’ve been here five days and only yesterday put pen to paper.

As Sven Birkerts says in his brilliant book, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, “The memoirist writes, above all else, to redeem experience, to reawaken the past, and to find its pattern; better yet {s}he writes to discover behind bygone events a dramatic explanatory narrative.”

Think about that. It’s kind of overwhelming!

Especially when you consider Virginia Woolf’s theory that what makes certain memories stand out is that they have in some way shocked our systems. So when you write memoir, you are nudging long-buried “shocks” back to the fore. Woolf, though, saw great value in this. “The shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it . . . it is or will become a revelation of some order.”

Her philosophy, she says, is that behind everything “is hidden a pattern; that we — I mean all human beings — are connected with this; that the world is a work of art.” (This is a fine example of the universality that writers seek: Woolf called herself an atheist, yet this Jesus follower completely tracks with her philosophy of life.)

The Challenge Ahead

So here I sit, swinging from Virginia Woolf’s soaring philosophy to the more practical considerations of “Chapter One.” In their user-friendly book, Breaking Ground on Your Memoir: Craft, Inspiration, and Motivation for Memoir Writers, authors Myers and Warner lay out a step-by-step process of building a memoir. The first step is to identify turning points in your life, important “moments of change” that provide the hooks for your story. They may seem clearly significant, or they may not. You start by brainstorming freely.

The first turning point that came to my mind? The day I discovered my tiny toad Sally’s pale legs sticking out of my big toad Fred’s mouth and I chose to extricate her despite my poor mother standing behind me shrieking, “Melanie don’t, Melanie don’t!”

So you see what I’m working with here.

(To learn Sally’s fate, you have to buy the book. It should be out in about a decade.)

Confessions of a Twitter Addict

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CONFESSIONS OF A TWITTER ADDICT

I am quitting Twitter cold-turkey, and I do not use that addiction language lightly. I’ve been fighting a social media addiction for what feels like a long time, but it only became serious about a month ago. I’m not sure exactly what the addiction is, but I can feel the dopamine shooting into my system as surely as if I’d just snorted a noseful of cocaine. I had been a recreational Twitter user for quite a while and dabbled in softer drugs like Facebook, but I recently hit bottom.

I’m not sure how it happened. In mid-August, I suddenly started getting tons of notifications in my feed from people I had never heard of. I’d somehow ended up on several threads that engaged in — well, let’s call it “political discourse.” I’ve always loved a good political debate, but of course it isn’t really debating these days. For most Twitter users, it’s just trading insults, the nastier the better.

These people on Twitter are beyond ugly — mean, vitriolic, crude, vicious. Truly. And it’s not just the trump people. Mostly, but not always.

ONLINE HELL

I quickly became part of a de facto “liberal team” against an opposing “alt-right” team, and it went downhill from there. Many of the fifty people on the threads have apparently been yelling at each other since February.

Here’s how it works: One person makes a statement of “fact” or opinion and then those who disagree run off and google to find counter-arguments. I recently had tabs open to a glossary of hard-rock mining terms, an EPA report on toxic waste in Colorado, Michelle Obama’s thesis from 1985, Helen Keller’s biography, a speech Joe Biden made in 1992, and court records of a foreclosure hearing involving the parents of the woman who has accused Judge Kavanaugh of attempted rape. You see what a good use of my time this has been?

“Libtards” or “snowflakes” generally post major news outlets or analyses by government agencies, and then the tribe of trump shouts “fake news!!” and tweets random fake news and conspiracy websites and crazed blogs as sources. Then they post an anti-Hillary meme or two, and usually end by tossing insults: Liar! Fraud! Fake! Hater! To which a liberal occasionally replies: Liar! Fraud! Fake! Hater!

One of the many “Christians” in the tribe of trump might quote Bible verses that damn you to hell while posting memes of trump standing on top of a tank with bombs bursting behind him. Recently “Daughter of the Most High God” told me to pray that “the Democratic Deep State will stop conducting mass shootings in our schools as a ploy to take away our guns. Amen.”

For a while, I tried arguing with said Christians about what Jesus might think of taking children from their parents or taking healthcare from the poor or turning away refugees or destroying God’s creation. But those people are scary, really scary, and I eventually blocked most of the religious ones.

HOOKED

I knew within a week that I was hooked and that I needed help. But I couldn’t stop. I’d get several hundred notifications a day and started to feel as if I knew these people. I’d get a feeling of accomplishment and superiority whenever I scored a “point” against the opposition and my fellow liberals would applaud me and say, “Way to go, Mel!”

Oh, there were redeeming moments and comments, and I did establish a certain joking rapport with a few trump people. I had some good laughs, like when one woman wrote, “I don’t believe in history.” But then of course she was mocked mercilessly by the liberals and it wasn’t funny anymore.

A POWER GREATER THAN TWITTER

This “confessional” blog is part of a ritual I created to give myself the strength to deactivate my account. If you have not had such an addiction, you won’t understand. I didn’t really understand either. So as part of my ritual, I journaled a stream of consciousness to find out what it is I’m addicted to — what I think I get from Twitter. I wrote words like “excitement, belonging, relevance, engagement, competence.”

There’s nothing wrong with any of those desires, but from Twitter?? God, this is embarrassing.

Anyway . . .

Last night I lit a candle, I said a pray, and then I recited a version of the first three steps of the twelve-step program: “I am powerless over Twitter and my life has become unmanageable. I know that only a power greater than myself (which I call God) can help me be free of it, and so I turn my Twitter addiction over to You and ask You to help me let it go.”

Then at 7:13 pm precisely, as the sun went down, I deactivated my account.

In thirty days, I will reactivate it to see if I can go back to reading the news and interacting with other writers, readers, literary magazines, and spiritual seekers in a healthy way. If not, I’ll deactivate for good.

Wish me luck!

 

Memories of September 11, 2001

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MEMORIES OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001

If you were alive and old enough to comprehend what was going on, you have your memories. Here are mine:

Hearing about the first plane strike on NPR as I got ready to leave for my office on Capitol Hill and thinking, “That wasn’t an accident.”

Arriving at work, turning on the TV, seeing the Pentagon in flames and thinking, “We are being attacked. This is a war.”

Huddling around the TV with a dozen others as we watched the tower fall, and saying over and over, uncomprehendingly, “Are there people in there? Are there people in that building?”

Standing on the deck outside our office and seeing a plume of smoke rise into the air beyond the Capitol building — the Pentagon burning.

Frantically trying to get my coworkers to move away from the windows, fearing that the Capitol would be next. They laughed at me, none of us realizing that at that moment, the heroes of Flight 93 were taking down the plane that was aimed at the beautiful dome just a few blocks away.

The weight of making the decision to send everyone home, even though we weren’t sure it was safe. Walking to my car and passing hundreds of congressional aides milling around dialing their useless cell phones. All systems were down.

Battling evacuating traffic and finally reaching my neighborhood just as the NPR reporter signed off his long and painful shift.  His voice was cracking and wavering with emotion.

Pulling over to the side of the road and wailing like a bereft child.

Stopping at the sub shop because I didn’t want to go home alone. Nobody speaking. An older woman looking at me and shaking her head, over and over, as if trying to expel the images.

A friend came over that night. I don’t remember much of what we said as we tried to process the day, but I remember telling her that I felt like I’d lost an innocence I hadn’t even known existed, and that I would never feel safe again.

In Memoriam

A Summer Morning in New Hampshire

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A SUMMER MORNING IN NEW HAMPSHIRE

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I live in the crazed and chaotic D.C. area most of the time, but steal away for a few precious months each year to my family’s old farmhouse in New Hampshire. Here I shed my usual roles and responsibilities and am able to simply be — a human being rather than a human doing, as they say.

While I’m usually alone, my nephew and his four teenagers come each summer for one of my favorite times of the year — a month of jigsaw puzzles and art projects, early-morning ice cream and late-night board games, swims in the river and croquet on the lawn. And piles: piles of dirty clothes on the floor, piles of shoes by the door, piles of dishes in the sink, and piles of books everywhere. Kind of like my place at home, come to think of it, but on a smaller scale.

Quality Time

Midway through their visit, I’ve been gifted with a rare quiet morning. All the kids are upstairs reading books, of all things.

My first order of business was to relocate three house mice that I caught in live traps overnight. I’ve read that you must put three to five miles between the critters and your house or they might somehow find their way back. This is hard to believe, but I’m not going to question it. We have an all-out invasion this year, and I’ve only begun to fight.

I drove the wide-eyed traumatized mice three miles up a narrow winding road on the far side of the Ashuelot River (can they swim across rivers?) and found what looks like a good spot to begin my resettlement project, featuring lots of brush and a seed-rich meadow on one side of the road, and the river on the other. After I had introduced the migrants to their new home and left them a hearty breakfast of birdseed, I went wading in the river and perched on a sun-warmed boulder to contemplate my blessings.

Once home, I fed the wild birds, boiled some sugar water for the hummers, and scattered sunflower seeds on the deck for the chipmunks. (And I wonder why I have mice!!)

Chipmunk Investigates Mouse Prison

Once the outside creatures were taken care of, I cut up four perfectly ripe mangos and made a jug of iced tea for the inside creatures when they emerge. Now for some quality deck time with my bird book and journal, binoculars, and Father Richard Rohr’s book, Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go. After a week of spotty internet coverage, I am indeed learning to let go and just breathe. I have no idea what that man donald trump is tweeting, and I don’t care.

Peace.

Deck Time

Love Flowers

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LOVE FLOWERS

Tomorrow when I walk into work, I will be greeted by the smell of roses and fresh greenery and the laid-back reggae beats of Bob Marley. I’ll spend the day reading encouraging, funny, sweet sentiments while chatting with friendly people.

I can’t believe somebody is paying me to do this.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a substitute teacher and a writer and a pastor. Also an office assistant for my housing cooperative. I also have ADD, which helps explain why I’m perfectly happy to be working at half a dozen different pursuits. This keeps my brain bathed in feel-good chemicals. To me, boredom is the ultimate terror.

But this job — this job.

When a friend of mine posted on Linked-In that her florist shop would need extra help during the Valentine’s Day rush, I messaged her right back. I have always thought that working in a flower shop would be the bee’s knees.

(I just had to know, and now you will, too: Turns out, “the bee’s knees” was part of a bizarre slang fashion in 1920s America which consisted of animal/attribute pairings, including elephant’s adenoids, cat’s meow, ant’s pants, tiger’s spots, bullfrog’s beard, and eel’s ankle. So there you have it.)

As I was saying, flowers. 

Being surrounded by flowers is just as wonderful as I’d imagined — it’s a big warehouse bursting with every kind of bloom you could name and a lot you couldn’t.

But even more wonderful are the loving messages that accompany each flower order. I get to print out each one and slip it into an envelope that will be received with love and gratitude. My day is infused with positive, caring sentiments. Congratulations, sympathy, encouragement, apology, new house, new job, new baby, new school, and of course declarations of love for Valentine’s Day.

I love reading people’s pet names for each other. (So far, “Poop” is my fave.) What makes it all even sweeter is the number of messages from husband to husband and wife to wife. Love is love.

I suppose part of what makes this job the eel’s ankle (I just wanted to use that one) is that it’s temporary. Knowing I’ll only be there for one week, albeit working ten to twelve-hour days, makes me appreciate it all the more.

I am grateful to the Higher Power that aligns my stars for me.

Happy Valentine’s week!

 

Teaching. Or Not.

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“You still like the teaching job?” friends often ask.

I’m stymied by the question because I don’t recall ever telling anyone that I liked teaching. I don’t actually know if I like it or not. Do I even teach?

The other day a little blonde girl flounced past me on her way to hang up her jacket, which I had asked her to do. “You’re not a *real* teacher,” she said in a challenging but slightly uncertain tone, like you might say, “There’s no Santa Claus, right?” hoping against hope you didn’t just jeopardize your Christmas Eve visit. She wasn’t sure, but she had a hunch that I did not have the authority of her real teacher.

I sighed. She had a point. I mean, is a substitute a “real teacher ?” I usually feel more like a glorified babysitter with a seating chart.

Every once in a while I get to act like a real teacher — to stand up and say stuff to the class that is more than just “Quiet down” or “Sit down” or “Clean up.” But I’m usually spending so much time trying to control the 2 or 3 wildest kids that I have no time to do more than give cursory instructions to the rest of the class. It doesn’t seem to be getting better as I approach my one-year anniversary of being a substitute teacher.

The little blonde girl’s teacher said to me, “You are a real teacher and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.” I appreciated the support, but that same teacher has told me in so many words, “Our standards for subs are really just to make sure nobody gets seriously hurt.” So much for teaching.

I don’t know if I’m a good substitute; I do know I could get better. I also know that another sub at my school fled the building in tears in the middle of the school day and was never seen again. At least I haven’t done that. Yet.

Thing is, I don’t feel like a “real pastor” or a “real writer” either. I have multidimensional Imposter’s Syndrome or whatever it’s called. So who knows? Maybe I am a real teacher. I wonder if I’ll ever get good enough at classroom management so that I can teach a lesson.

Here’s the truth, though, and why my friends probably assume I like teaching. I love the children. I really love them. Even the misbehaving ones, the ones who test me and flounce by me — even the little boy who peed on a stuffed animal the other day.

When I zig-zag down the hall, dodging streams of rambunctious knee-high kindergartners and carelessly nonchalant middle schoolers, I feel . . . joy. There’s no other word for it.

So you tell me: do I like teaching?

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