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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.)

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Finding the Divine in Nature

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FINDING THE DIVINE IN NATURE

“Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal,” writes theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Perfectly said.

In less mystical language, the Message translation of the Christian Bible says, “The basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of {Her} divine being.” Romans 1:20

Ancient mystics have always felt that silence is God’s first language, which may be true, but nature is certainly a very close second. Together, they are the gateway to the Divine.

Assisi Pathway

God has always spoken to me through the natural world. I wasn’t brought up in a religious home — my sanctuaries were the woods and meadows of New Hampshire and a muddy little spot on the edge of a silty pond in southern Florida. Turtles, grasshoppers, and garter snakes served as my preachers, “intimations of the divine,” in Rabbi Heschel’s words.

Preach it, sister!

I know that many people experience a “higher power” most strongly in nature. Of course, not everyone will choose an environmental profession as I did in response to nature’s divine communication. But if you spend quiet time in a natural setting and “take a long and thoughtful look,” you cannot help feeling a sense of connection, belonging, oneness . . . awe. There are no words to capture this connection, hence silence.

Tomorrow is World Day of Prayer for Creation, which was started in 1989 by the Eastern Orthodox Church and is now celebrated worldwide by people of all faiths. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a “praying person,” why not get outside, preferably alone, and say something like, “Hello?” 

Or consider the words of 12th-century German philosopher mystic Meister Eckhart as you look up at the sky: If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” 

Amen.

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

How to Prepare for the “Second Civil War”

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Today is the day that right-wing conspiracy theorists have declared liberals will start “a second civil war.” Of course the imaginary troops are all those “animals” crawling over our border and being recruited by Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters to fight against self-proclaimed “patriots.”

(Never mind that those right-wing extremist “patriots” are the ones armed to the teeth — don’t confuse them with the facts.)

Of course liberals are having a heyday with this ridiculousness, and it is amusing, in a warped way. Sometimes you just have to laugh to protect your heart and spirit, right?

The Liberals are Coming, The Liberals are Coming!!

But I think this made-up crap about an impending war and the need to arm oneself against people who disagree with you politically is no laughing matter.

I feel powerless against the lies and misinformation and the constant race-baiting and fear-mongering, not to mention the increasing number of crazies with guns. And if I venture into the world of Alex Jones, FOX “News,” and other conspiracy peddlers, I feel that I’ve fallen into some vortex of dark fantasy. Like this “second civil war” thing — talk about inciting violence!

Retreating to a Peaceful Place

I’m trying to limit my exposure to our national crisis while I’m in my peaceful place in New Hampshire. (Most people up here have taken down their trump signs by now, thank God, so I can pretend we are still governed by a stable administration.)

To avoid the news and my grief over losing my aged kitty yesterday, I’ve been blessedly absorbed in several books. First was a Canadian mystery, then a wizards & dragons tale, and this morning I’ve been engrossed in a spiritual book.

Father Richard Rohr is one of my favorite authors, and I consider him a spiritual mentor. The book I’m reading, “Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go,” was written decades ago, but its timeless wisdom speaks to the age of trumpism. I found the following quote especially appropriate to mark the start of the imaginary “Second Civil War,” and helpful in accepting my own powerlessness:

“Many things in life cannot be changed; we can only grieve them. So long as we are no longer under the compulsion of wanting to change them, we have the freedom to change them. Then the change comes from much greater depth — not from our anger, but from a place of integrity; not from a place where fear dwells, but from deep trust; not from a place were self-righteousness rules, but from wisdom.”

If, as I believe, America’s ailment is a spiritual sickness (the pure essence of which is embodied in the current president), then we must be especially careful not to “become the monsters we fight,” as Nietzsche put it. 

May we all be armed only with the weapons of integrity, trust, wisdom, and compassion. Amen.

On Meeting Jesse & Margaret

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I run into Jesse and Margaret at the spring, or “down to the spring,” as they would say here in the Granite State. And a more perfect New Hampshire couple I have yet to meet.

Jesse is tall and lean, wearing well-worn blue jeans and a dingy white knit cap. His shirt is even more worn than his jeans. It’s one of those generic green shirts with his name over the pocket that he probably wore back when he worked at a garage or service station.

At eighty-three, he’s not working anymore. “Me and Margaret, we like to go for drives,” he says. “We went up to the Weathervane in Lebanon yesterday — had our Thanksgivin’ dinner there. Ayup. That’s almost an hour away,” he informs me.

Margaret nods her bundled-up head. Her blue eyes are clear and shining with delight at the prospect of befriending a new person. “We get out as much as we can,” she says enthusiastically.

She is a particular type of older woman that you meet up here, the kind that exudes health. Her skin’s as deeply wrinkled as a peach pit from the sun, but it’s got a fresh glow to it and her cherubic cheeks are rosy pink from the cold. She is beautiful, actually.

We chat as Jesse helps me fill my water bottles from the spring. It turns out that they used to live on the same back road that my grandmother’s house is on. In 1955 —  the year I was born and started spending summers here — they moved to the next town over, but they know my house and call it “the old Tainton place,”** as all the old-timers do.

We share stories about long-gone neighbors and agree that Hattie Bunker was the sweetest woman we ever knew.

Hattie and her husband Arthur lived in a little tar-paper shack down the road and were a big part of my childhood. Hattie was twelve years old when she got married, and she carried a childlike simplicity well into old age. Arthur always looked like he was at least a hundred years old. He was struck by lightening multiple times while riding his tractor in the fields. One bolt stole his power of speech. I never heard him utter a word in my whole life.

I tell Jesse and Margaret how I spent hours listening to Hattie’s stories while we milked her cows and harvested veggies from her garden. I ask if they have a garden.

“Not anymore. Our daughter liked to garden, but she’s gone now,” Jesse says.

“Cancer, like my mother,” Margaret says. “You probably knew Carolyn. Didn’t you? Carolyn Wheeler — she was at Prudential for thirty-two years.”

“Thirty-two years,” Jesse confirms.

I nod and say yes, I think the name does ring a bell, which of course it doesn’t but they really need it to, and so I give them this small gift.

“I’m so sorry about that. I’m really glad you have each other,” I say.

“Married sixty-one years,” Jesse proudly tells me. He hoists my crate of filled water bottles into my car and invites me to stop by if I’m in their neighborhood. He shakes his head and laughs because for a minute he can’t remember the name of the street they’ve lived on for sixty-two years. Margaret doesn’t remind him; she lets him remember for himself.

“Center street!” he finally declares. “That’s it. Right across from the old saddle shop. Come by anytime, we’re always there unless we’re out for a drive.”

Down to the Spring

** Not wanting to broadcast the most common security query, my mother’s maiden name, I have substituted my grandmother’s maiden name.

 

A Writing Conundrum

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A WRITING CONUNDRUM

Today I wrote for three hours. it was tortuous. The whole time I heard a voice in my head saying, “You have no idea what you’re doing, you have no idea what you’re doing.”

And I replied, “I’m writing. I’m writing.” At this point, that is all that matters.

It’s crap. It makes no sense. It probably does not even meet author Anne Lamott’s idea of a “shitty first draft.” But it is written. Fifteen hundred words in some sort of order.

The problem is that I do not know what this book is about. It is a memoir, so it is about me. (Yawning already? Me, too.)

The issue, I think, is parameters, boundaries. What’s in the story frame, what’s out? Why am I writing this anyway?

What belongs inside the frame?

Some things are in, for sure, like this old house in New Hampshire. Quiet Hills is my muse. It seems most integral threads of my story pass through this sacred space. She belongs.

My dearly departed brother probably belongs, although whenever he shows himself, the narrative starts to become about him, which if you knew him you’d agree was par for the course. Only it’s not about him. At certain times in my life, my story did become about him. Not anymore.

They say that the human brain tries to make meaning, tries to find patterns, and that’s never more true for me than when I attempt memoir. “What was all that about anyway? What did it MEAN?”

The story is really about a particular woman becoming herself and the life events that contributed to her evolution. But the older I get, the more I agree with Franciscan author Father Richard Rohr when he says “everything belongs.”

This does not solve my conundrum.

Winter Writing

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I’ve just arrived at my beloved New Hampshire house, where ghosts and God abound. My writing muse is usually quite active here, and I’m hoping that’ll she’ll be romping around the place over the next two weeks. Lots to do to close up the house for winter, but I’m looking forward to quality writing time.

I usually bring a stack of books about writing, but I’ve limited myself to just one so that if I put pen to paper, I’m not just underlining someone else’s words about writing!

I’m excited about reading the copy of If You Want to Write that I recently found at a used bookstore in Vermont, because although the book is one of my faves, I have only listened to it on audio. Brenda Ueland first published this little treasure in 1938 and it was re-released by her estate in 1987. My favorite chapter is entitled, “Why Women Who Do Too Much Housework Should Neglect It for Their Writing.”

While you are awaiting my glorious prose, I will share one of my favorite poems from Joyce Rupp:

Winter’s Cloak

This year I do not want
the dark to leave me.
I need its wrap
of silent stillness,
its cloak
of long lasting embrace.
Too much light
has pulled me away
from the chamber
of gestation.

Let the dawns
come late,
let the sunsets
arrive early,
let the evenings
extend themselves
while I lean into
the abyss of my being.

Let me lie in the cave
of my soul,
for too much light
blinds me,
steals the source
of revelation.

Let me seek solace
in the empty places
of winter’s passage,
those vast dark nights
that never fail to shelter me.

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