Since I must now use this account to post comments on some WordPress blogs, lots of people are visiting what appears to be a dead blog. It’s dormant, but not dead. Please visit my active blog, “The Heart and Craft of Life Writing“.

That said, another year has flown by. I have not abandoned this project, nor have I quit writing toward its conclusion. I just quit blogging about it. Fragments are flying around, looking for their proper place. Perspective is deepening, Structure options remain open. Meanwhile a return to Los Alamos to visit with classmates at a Major Reunion will soon take place, and while I’d intended to have this volume finished before then, it will benefit from the refreshed contact and site visit.

Another factor has come into play. A couple of Facebook groups have formed for those of us who grew up “on the hill.” Hundreds of memory snippets are posted there, and the result is the compilation of a sort of meta memory, larger than any individual could possibly hold. I’ve learned that I did indeed grow up under a rock, largely unaware of much of what was happening. There is no way I can speak for my generation, so I can only speak for myself. That’s good to be reminded of.

The bonus for realizing this is that realizing I grew up under a rock, I also realized that I sort of knew that, and although I thought I wished to be more included with “those kids,” I was quite happy with life as I experienced it, and pretty much did what I liked to do, most of the time. That is a cool and affirming realization.

Viva memoir, and viva the meta connections being enabled by web apps like Facebook, blogs, and more.

After what seems like eons of urgent sidetracks, I’m feeling pulled back into this project. Something subtle shifted, connecting me with the drama and tension of the day we moved to Los Alamos. That day was a huge milestone in my life and as I pondered it, I noticed all sorts of omens I’d never seen before. I use the term omen in a neutral sense, not one of foreboding. I wonder what a more accurate term would be. Foreshadowings?

I’m sticking with chronology, at least for now, and I’ve written this scene at least half a dozen times now. Each time it comes out a bit differently. This time I’m deeply in touch with the tension and the wonder. I’m finally sensing the feelings I had at the time. Feelings I had no words for so couldn’t articulate back then. The closest I ever recall coming to talking about feelings in our family was adjurations not to hurt anyone’s feelings by doing or saying this or that. We didn’t talk about our own feelings. I’ve spent a significant chunk of my life learning that vocabulary and how to apply it!

I think I can probably take much of what I’ve previously written and graft it into this new manuscript. We’ll see. For now it feels good to have some movement again, however slight. I won’t delude myself that I’m close to final copy but it feels closer. I feel more in touch with something close to bedrock, more connected to place. Perhaps the NAMW Roundtable discussion of writing about place I listened to on Thursday has something to do with that.

Everything I’ve written on this project has been typed in from the start. This morning as I wrote in my journal, by hand, I circled back to explore an area I’ve typed about. What a difference! New thoughts and insights gushed onto the page, breaking through a wall I only dimly knew existed. I’ve known for ages that printing things out makes a quantum difference. Things just look different on paper than on screen. So why would this not also be so when the words go directly to paper?

This is not news to me at all. I’ve been journaling by hand for a few years now, and am firmly convinced of its value for exploring deep thought, but had not made that connection with this project. It’s too easy on the computer to just back up and have another go at it, which impedes the free flow of thought. I know — turn off the monitor. That’s not the same. I don’t write on paper with my eyes shut. Why would I type that way? No, I just need to spend more time with pen and paper.

A couple of weeks ago I met with a man who sought input on an idea that turned out to be quite synchronistic with my Writing for the Health of It project. He uses a fountain pen. I developed a full-blown case of pen envy as I watched that tip glide so smoothly across the Moleskine page. I have a pen. A nice one. I have no ink. Ink is not easy to find and I don’t like the idea of the tiny disposable cartridges. I also have an ancient Esterbrook from sometime like fifth grade. Where can I find ink? Will my thoughts deepen further with the silkiness of a perfect point?

The answer will appear. Meanwhile I still love my Tül gel pen.

It’s been another month between entries here.  The fact is, I’ve been totally absorbed in transforming my Writing for the Health of It workshop to include narrated slideshows I can use when I teach it via teleseminar (it will be listed as a Story Circle Network winter offering). This memoir project has sat untouched in the shadows. Work on my memoir has ground to a halt, at least in terms of applying fingers to keyboard. But it’s never far from mind.

This morning as I scanned Jerry Waxler’s latest post on his Memory Writers Network blog, I was suddenly transported back to the summer of 1951 into my seven-year-old body. I stood on the rise in front of our house looking down across the street to the cluster of kids gathered between Carol and Tom’s houses. More than anything I wanted to be part of that cluster. I wanted to belong there, not just hang around on the edges as I’d done a couple of times previously. And I had no more idea how to go about achieving that status than how to sprout wings and fly to the moon.

Suddenly I felt a visceral shift and stunning realization: this desire to belong, to fit in, to be connected and accepted, is the theme of my youthful years. This is the thread that carries through everything. This desire is what I thought about as I sat at the sewing machine. It filled my fantasies as I pumped toward the sky on the playground swings, or rode my bike around town, or … did anything at all. By the time I left for college I had made significant progress toward that goal.

Realistically I know I won’t be getting back to serious writing on this project before the end of January at the soonest, but I probably will do some doodling and journaling on this theme.

When I do get back to it, I’ll be writing primarily for the fabled “Audience of one.”  I may eventually share the story, but primarily this has become a self-exploration tool, and I know I can write deeper and more truly for two eyes than the eyes of a multitude. At least in the beginning. This is a valuable discovery. Private writing removes the need for artifice and strips things to the bones.

 

Since my last post here, a month ago, I spent two weeks in New England, one each in Vermont and New Hampshire, where my husband and I attended Road Scholar programs. Each program included multiple discussions of local history. I was fascinated to learn that the Indians taught early settlers to kill trees in order to create open spaces for growing food. The settlers eagerly seized upon this tool and amplified it to new levels. Eventually they not only killed the trees, but cut them down for lumber and fuel. They defoliated most of the area.

In the overall scheme of things, the flaming fall foliage we see is new, regrown within the last seventy or eighty years. If I look closely, I can see the lack of majestic old trees such as we gaze at beyond the meadow we call a lawn in our backyard. But overall, the slopes look verdant and lush. They look healthy. Had I not heard about the devastation, I would not sense it today.

I’m reminded of the concluding line of Archibald McLeish’s play J.B., a modern adaption of the book of Job: “Blow on the coal of the heart and we’ll know … we’ll know … These tales of devastation and regrowth were dry tinder on the coal of my heart.

They brought focus to a growing sense that  the story of my grieving the Los Alamos devastation is only tenuously connected with daily events of girlhood. Roots were certainly there, but the details of this adult perspective are a distraction from the account of my girlhood and vice-versa.  While the two are related, the connections are so deep and complex that Tolstoy himself would be challenged to cover it all.

The die is cast. My decision is made. These two stories will be separated. Henceforth My Los Alamos Girlhood will revert to a simpler story of growing up in Los Alamos. I’ll develop the story of the mountains as a separate piece, perhaps part of a spiritual memoir that has not yet taken clear form. I may also expand the original essay that sparked the attempt to marry the two stories.

Keep it simple!

Fortunately, nearly all of what I’ve written can be rearranged, allowing me to proceed apace rather than starting over.

 

 

 

I’m doing some work with Christina Baldwin’s family myths concept that I mentioned in the last post. Results are mixed. I’m seeing lots of family myths that affected my life in powerful ways back then … and even now. I’ve discarded some on my own, and others have been outgrown by the whole family. Relatively few are left intact, but I do see how some linger even now, and in a couple of cases current events provide to cues to recognize departed ones.

My biggest challenge right now is sticking to my determination to frame off that particular period of time rather than jumping ship and following another thread instead. I run the risk of having a dozen unfinished manuscripts piled around like unfinished garments next to the sewing machine. When I realized too many garments had piled up, I tossed several out and realized I didn’t want to sew anymore. I’m not ready to let that happen with writing! Finished projects are sooo satisfying. For better or worse, I must get this draft written and get on with things.

The obvious solution to capturing the moment of insight into those that don’t fit into the Los Alamos frame is to record them in my journal, carefully flagging them for easy retrieval later. By the end of this month I should be ready to focus on this project more intently once again.

Sometimes turning my attention to other things is just what the doctor ordered, and that’s just what I’ve been doing the last few weeks. Putting the polish on my Writing for the Health of It class has consumed my attention and time. But as often happens, turning my attention elsewhere sparked new insight for this project.

In this case, two key discoveries, perhaps key tools, have come from delving back into Christina Baldwin’s book Storycatcher, a book I’d nibbled on previously. Baldwin’s book is rich and multi-layered, and somewhat like a huge pot of soup. Soup is formless and filling. rich with a blend of ingredients. You can’t “get your hands around it” or isolate ingredients, but the blend nourishes you and satisfies your hunger. Even so, on this reading, two concepts popped out  that unlocked new direction.

One is the importance of Story as a meta-concept similar to Truth. It took me a long time to grasp the concept of Story as an organizing principle, the lens for viewing experience and making sense of it. Story in this sense isn’t about single events, it’s my sense of self, of who I am. “Big S” Story is composed of individual experiences that may be recounted as “little s” vignette stories. Truly, I’d never thought of Story this way. A new vista has opened. Thank you Christina. This concept is even more important for my class than this project, but it will give new depth and direction to my memoir.

The second concept is that of Family Myths. These are the stories that we tell ourselves about what makes our family special and different. What binds us together (or pushes us apart). I’ve thought of personally defining characteristics, but not collective ones. Another big Aha.

I’m not ready to get back to my narrative just yet. I have another week of intense preparation for the class, and then we’ll devote a bit of time to reveling in fall color. But even if I’m not drafting my narrative, I will be spending some good journal time exploring My Story and our Family Myths. That’s sure to fertilize the narrative and perhaps I’ll even finally “catch my story.”

Between the press of preparations for the all new Writing for the Health of It class I’m teaching this fall for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, and family chaos revolving around a relative’s recent cancer diagnosis, I have barely thought of this memoir project for several weeks now.

Yesterday I began mentally picking up pieces and looking for an entry point back into the process. The search was daunting, and easily dropped. Last night I had a dream. I saw a puzzle, with pieces scattered around the table. Each piece held a complete image, and I knew if I arranged them right, they would reveal the Truth of my life in Los Alamos. The box cover had a panorama of Los Alamos, with the mountainsides verdantly green with ponderosa pine and aspen, as in the olden days (and the picture above). But as I looked at each piece, it faded and grayed out. I quickly left the puzzle, thinking If I don’t look, they’ll stay bright!

Then the dream moved to the dining room in our first house on Walnut Street. I found a bowl of soup on the table. The contents were overcooked and mushy. The meat was nothing but gristle, and the broth lacked salt. That soup was utterly tasteless and tepid.

I woke up in a panic with a single thought: “My memories are fading and turning to gray mush!”

Instructions for enhancing digital photos with a program such as Photoshop always include a firm reminder: “Be sure to save a copy of your original photo so you can go back and start over if you get carried away with your enhancements.”

In articles on his work on brain function and language, researcher Matthew Lieberman cautions that labeling emotions, even positive ones, fades them and diminishes their impact. Psychology professor James Pennebaker states that applying language to sensory memories changes those memories.  Neuroscientists tell us that each time we recall a memory, we incorporate the experience of remembering it, along with any reflections or “enhancements” we make. Over time the original memory morphs into something that may bear little resemblance to the actual experience. I wish I knew a way to store originals of my memories!

I derive some hope from the fact that short-term memories are not all transferred to long-term. Perhaps at least some of these modifications will fade if I leave the memories alone for awhile.

My dream seems to be a powerful warning that I am on the verge of burnout, and need to back away from even thinking about those years for a few weeks or months and see if more of the original color comes back. So for now I bid you a fond au revoir, reminding you of the literal meaning, “until the re-viewing,” or “until we see each other again.” I know we will, but I don’t know when.

The grandchildren have come and gone. At the risk of seeming to brag, I’ve got to say, they are ideal grandchildren. As teenagers, they are respectful, helpful, considerate, well-behaved, resourceful, full of insightful ideas and great conversationalists. And so, so full of energy. The constant rush to cram a lifetime of visits into a week took its toll on this grandmother. I’m exhausted.

But I’m also refreshed and feeling  a bit of new perspective nibbling at the back of my heel. Isn’t that an interesting place to experience inspiration — in the Achilles area? Now what could that mean? Obviously something about vulnerability . . . or maybe moving too slowly in the fast lane?  Is something “nipping at my heel”?

Another source of inspiration is coming from Dominique Browning’s book Slow Love: How I Lost My Job, Put On My Pajamas & Found Happiness, the memoir I’m chilling out with while waiting for a resurgence of energy so I can finish plans for my Writing for the Health of It class that begins a week from today. I’ll review the book when I’m finished, but two things stand out right now. First, she uses dialogue as a very occasional accent, like a splash of lemon-yellow against an olive background.

The other is one line that stands out like that splash of lemon-yellow: “What I have found, in these hours of sleeplessness, is something I may have encountered as a teenager, and then lost in the frantic skim through adulthood — the desire to nourish my soul.”

The “frantic skim” through adulthood . . . is it time to slow down? To “take the repeats” as she began doing and nourish my soul? Could be. What does that mean? For life in general and for my writing? These are juicy journal prompts, for sure!

New, or possibly revised, concepts are bubbling away in the dark. It may be a few more weeks before they begin to take form on the page, but the yeast is lively.

Having realized the dramatic shift in focus my story has taken, I set it aside to ferment a bit. I’m gently coming to the realization that the 2000 visit is not the best mechanism after all. I’m not yet clear on the possibility of combining the Love Letter to Mother Earth with my basic Los Alamos Girlhood story. To be complete, Mother Earth needs to include additional material from recent years, and I think it also needs to culminate in an additional visit for closure with the new form Mother has taken — with her new wardrobe, so to speak. Perhaps I need to scale back to something simpler and closer to my original concept to get the basics between covers before turning to Mother Earth.

In a few days my primary target reader will be here for a visit. All six of our grandchildren live way across the country from us, so we have never had the opportunity to spend time alone with them as they grew up. The oldest are well into their teen years now, old enough to fly unescorted, and the Portland pair is due to arrive on Wednesday. I plan to discuss this challenge with Stephanie, and feel certain she will have thoughts on the matter.

What a surprise it was when we realized we were calling our children for advise. It’s an even bigger surprise to realize my grandchildren are mature enough to have significant opinions. I’m thrilled that they have reached this stage at relatively young ages and also a bit daunted to realize I’ve lived long enough that those babies are nearing the point of leaving the nest. To keep things in perspective, I remind myself that by the time she was my age, my maternal grandmother had five great-grandchildren with another on the way.

Anyway, in honor of their visit, I don’t plan to be actively working on my story for at least a couple of weeks. It may be longer. I’m teaching a newly developed class in September, Writing for the Health of It, at both Carnegie Mellon’s Osher Institute, and the one at the University of Pittsburgh. This is not a writing class, and I’m doing lots of further research to beef up my presentations. I’m so excited that nearly fifty people have enrolled.