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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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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.

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.

A Peek into My New Hampshire Journal #1

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A PEEK INTO MY NEW HAMPSHIRE JOURNAL #1

Here for your reading pleasure is the latest in my “too-random-to-be-called-a-series” series of snippets from my journal — always some of my most popular posts! Everyone’s a voyeur, right? Plus, I don’t have to edit or revise. ♥

  • August 23 – Quiet Hills

I am here. Here where there is courage and rest and centeredness. I had an excellent drive, just 8 1/2 hours with stops. The house is horribly musty and the mice have been active, so here I sit, windows and doors open, fans going. It’s only 9:30, so I have a few hours to let it air. I’m going to sit on the deck and look at the stars — lovely clear night, and I didn’t notice too many bugs while I was unloading.

Deep breaths. Up here I can pretend that Donald Trump is not president if I stay off the computer. He gave another unhinged speech last night, trashing journalists (“I don’t think they like our country”), threatening to shut down the government to build his damn wall. Really sounded nuts. Very much the way a dictator begins, trying to discredit anyone who disagrees with him. The good news is, the GOP is in total chaos. The bad news is, so is the country.

I get to choose a new novel tonight. I finished Daddy’s old “The Strange Death of Manny Square.” I loved seeing his handwriting in the margins. What a wonderful connection.

  • August 24 – Quiet Hills

Glorious afternoon, cool in the shade and warm in the sun. Just perfect. First mosquito — so few! I came out before bed last night and the coyotes started up their chorus; it felt as if they were welcoming me. Utterly cool. I gathered some flowers for the table this morning: goldenrod, phlox, stock, bee balm. So pretty. There’s a ton of poison ivy in the flowerbed. Lazy day today.

Grandmother’s Garden

  • August 25 – Quiet Hills

Late summer morning with a tinge of autumn already. Cloudless sky, save one flowing line of small white puffs in the north. To have time to watch clouds — imagine!

The seasons up here are much more pronounced. In Maryland it can be sweltering in Sept and even in April now. Here, nature knows what it’s meant to do. No confusion, no argument. When it’s fall, it is decidedly and brilliantly fall and then along comes a big rain with wind and boom!, only the browns are left and then soon a snow, and winter has come.

Today I am celebrating being here. Just being. Listening to the wind in the trees, watching the tired yellow apple leaves flutter down to the deck. The field is frosted with an airy layer of Queen Anne’s Lace. The birds are almost silent, just an occasional twitter. Crickets and grasshoppers.

  • August 26 – Quiet Hills

It was a quiet morning until Bill and the boys arrived on a tractor and bearing chainsaws. I had been writing a lyric poem (of sorts) about the quiet. Doing a little mindfulness practice from my book, Fifty Ways to Pray, and then here they came. The chainsaws are a-blazin’ — he’s cutting a fallen tree in my meadow.

3:30 p.m.

I had Bill cut a huge branch off the apple tree, the lovely one that reached out on the horizontal and framed the garden. It’s been dead a good while and I feared the rot or whatever it was would spread. So now I have a massive pile of logs and branches to deal with. Bill thinks I could sell it to someone who uses apple wood to smoke meat. Probably more trouble than it’s worth. Perhaps I’ll burn some of the smaller logs tonight. It’s going to be cold.

7 p.m.

This day. Just like this. I read for hours, made gazpacho after a run to the spring, and am now chilling on the deck with a glass of wine while perusing a cookbook. Another Moosewood one I found at a used bookstore up here and haven’t spent much time with. Soon the deer will be out — I saw them come from my woods into the meadow last night.

Deer’s Meadow

I’m very happy right now. I’ve been noticing this feeling quite often the past few months, and I’m grateful for it. I want grieving people to know: you will be happy again. I was all but shattered — stripped naked — just 3 1/2 years ago. I still get sad. I miss Biff, and Mom, too. Up here with the ghosts, I miss everyone. But I am happy. Thank you, God.

  • August 27 – Quiet Hills

I checked my computer only once today, I think. Up here, the spell can be broken, thank God. I feel as if I’m on vacation in every way, including from the internet.

The other night I got stuck for several hours watching storm chasers on Twitter during a massive hurricane that hit Texas. Terrifying and no doubt the worst is yet to come. As I write, there are multiple wildfires raging out west and deadly flooding going on in Texas, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Yemen, and Niger. But no, there’s no climate disruption. None at all.

Yesterday I began some notes and reading for a possible sermon on hope for the planet. Or for climate change. Not sure yet. Checking out some “green faith” books I’ve had for ages but never read. One is by some scientist/Christians; looks good.

If I can stay off the computer . . . no, let me re-phrase. Since I will be off the computer, I’ll have time to read, write, and submit. Reading Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration, Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel, and a couple of books on teaching.

How did I become such a book freak? Blessed, blessed, blessed.

Reverential Reading

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It is a sacred charge, being the last to read an aging book.

Each caramel-colored, brittle page detaches from the paperback binding with a whisper as I turn it, and I gently scotch tape the inner pages together before reading further.

I find myself pondering this simple little novel from the dollar-shelf with a meditative mindfulness that would more befit an ancient religious scroll.

Every book should be read with such reverence.

photo-book

The Way That You See

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Today is all about seeing, apparently. I didn’t choose this theme for the day, the universe did. Or God. Depending on how you look at it.

photo (78)

First, I read today’s entry from Frederick Buechner’s Listening to Your Life, my hands-down favorite of the dozen-plus “daily readers” that I own. He says you can learn a lot from “religious observances” like weddings, bar mitzvahs, and christenings if you are in a receptive state of mind:

“The word ‘observance’ itself suggests what is perhaps the most important thing about them . . . It is life going on. It is always going on, and it is always precious. It is God that is going on. It is you who are there that is going on. As Henry James advised writers, ‘be one on whom nothing is lost.’ OBSERVE!! There are few things as important, as religious, as that.”

Then I turn on my computer and in my inbox is a daily meditation from Father Richard Rohr called “Nondual Consciousness.” This is his favorite subject, but it’s not as wonky as it sounds. It’s really about how we see ourselves and each other. Which is to say, it’s about love. Here’s an excerpt:

“You give a piece of yourself to the other. You see a piece of yourself in the other (usually unconsciously). This allows the other to do the same in return. You do not need or demand anything back from them, because you know that you are both participating in a single, Bigger Gazing and Loving  . . . You accept being accepted — for no reason and by no criteria whatsoever! . . .

To put it another way, what I let God see and accept in me also becomes what I can see and accept in myself. And even more, it becomes that whereby I see everything else. This is why it is crucial to allow God, and at least one other person, to see us in our imperfection and nakedness, as we are — rather than as we ideally wish to be. It is also why we must give others this same experience of being looked upon in their imperfection; otherwise, they will never know the essential and utterly transformative mystery of grace. This is the glue that binds the universe of persons together.

Such utterly free and gratuitous love is the only love that validates, transforms, and changes us at the deepest levels of consciousness. It is what we all desire and what we were created for. Once you allow and accept God’s love for yourself, you will almost naturally become a conduit of the same for others.”

Richard Rohr is best in small doses, like rich chocolate cake. If you liked that bit, I highly recommend reading his book, Everything Belongs. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it changed my life. It certainly changed how I see.

The Eyes of the Heart

Then I pick up my bible, which has been ever by my side lately as I work on two sermons simultaneously — remind me never to do that again! My head is a complete muddle and I have two messes on my hands, one of which is to be delivered in a week. Anyway, I come across a wonderful prayer from the apostle Paul to his friends in Ephesus, present-day Turkey. He prays that “the eyes of their hearts” would be enlightened so that they can see the hope and abundance in which they’re living. What a timely prayer for today!

Also a good reminder not spend too much time watching or reading about Donald Trump, lest my heart be filled with negativity and darkness — lest his anger and contempt seep into my heart and fill me with hate and fear. Elsewhere in the Bible, you’ll read: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light, but when it is bad, your body is full of darkness. Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness.”

Watch what you see!

Back in my email, I find the daily word prompt from WordPress is “Eyes.” Of course it is.

eye

I leave you with the words of one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite songsters, Bruce Cockburn.

It’s a verse from Child of the Wind:

Little round planet

In a big universe

Sometimes it looks blessed

Sometimes it looks cursed

Depends on what you look at obviously

But even more it depends on the way that you see

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