May 2010


Last night I spent a few hours with a high school friend I have not seen or spoken directly with for over forty years. Reconnecting was a rich experience, but more like getting acquainted anew rather than revisiting the past. Somehow our memories of “back then” didn’t click into recognition and alignment, and my occasional attempts to steer the conversation in that direction bounced like a super ball. She did remind me of a couple of things, but nothing major.

I had considered this possibility in advance and decided it didn’t matter. Whatever was meant to happen would happen. Expectations could only hinder. Having realized or decided this ahead of time freed me to allow conversation to flow as it would rather than insisting on controlling it to meet my expectations.

Did this encounter move my project forward? Hardly at all. But neither does it hinder.

As I think with my fingers here, I realize how odd it is that I seem to be the one collecting connections with a dozen key people from the past who would not otherwise stay in touch. I did not serve this role back then. I did not feel central as I now do. Hmmm. Something to think about. What does this mean?

This is one of the benefits of journaling, which this blog more or less is — new insights and connections are often spontaneously revealed when thinking is made visible on the page.

I’ll have time to ponder this question tomorrow as I ride a bus around central Alaska. More in a few days.

Yesterday I met with a couple of writing friends and took along the first four pages of this current draft. They’ve read  drafts of pieces I wrote earlier, but this was new material. I was heartened by their responses.

“This sounds lots more like you. The other pieces sounded more formal and contrived. Your personality is coming through in this.”

What sweeter words could anyone hope to hear?

These gals and I have been meeting for seven or eight years — I’d have to look at my timeline to be sure. However long it’s been, we’ve been through a lot together, on the page and off, and have coaxed, witnessed and cheered as we each continue to develop our writing skills. A victory by one is a victory by all, and we are able to be, well, not brutally honest, because we are always kind and loving. But we hold each other to high standards, and if something seems awkward, we work through it together.We have diverse styles and hear things differently, which makes the group input especially valuable.

Meanwhile, I continue to write. It’s so much easier now, with an organizing structure firmly in mind. Using the drive-through structure has a couple of additional advantages I hadn’t thought of until I began writing. I was nervous about the fact that the story would be obese with narration if I stuck to the viewpoint of me as a young girl. Incorporating that material as flashback insets allows me to interact in the narrative present (I concocted that term on the fly) to counterbalance the sparsity of remembered dialogue.

Even so, I do have some in the flashbacks. I have us “up the hill” now, entering town. The first memory trigger after the front gate is the Christian Church I used to attend. The paint was hardly dry in that new building when I moved away, but it triggers a hologram of church memories. When all is said and done, that may be significant timing.

At this point, the writing process, the organizing and developing and weaving together, is far more intriguing than the memories. On their own, they are beginning to feel a bit stale. If I weren’t writing, I would have put them back in their box long ago.

Just as I decided it was time to quit doing research, lest I create more memories than I discovered, I had to dig in my own photo file and crank up Google again. But this time it was to verify.

I imagine everyone reading this blog has driven through a turnpike ticket/toll booth or military gate somewhere along the road. I remember the Front Gate as being like a combination of those, but the covered area I remember from the early days is not there now. I found a photo of that original gate in my personal collection that verifies my memory.

The Los Alamos Historical Society could surely tell me when they took it down, but since I don’t remember, it doesn’t matter. I was able to verify the year as being 1957, which is good, because I thought it was 1956. The difference means that the event occurred before April in 1957, the time when I would have needed a pass. I think. Or was 14 the age for passes? Another fact to be documented. I’ll save up these questions and query the Historical Society with all of them at once. As a matter of principle, I do want to be as accurate as possible on details like this, and that’s a challenge when things blur into distant and composite memories.

The writing is fun again, like working a puzzle

Further pursuing the online Los Alamos research I started the other day has been fascinating — not to mention time consuming. After the first couple of hundred photos on Flickr, I found little else of interest. Though more than 2300 Flickr photos have a “Los Alamos” tag, over one hundred are shots of the road up the hill, and many hundred are taken in the Norris Bradbury Science Museum. Most are of recent vintage and of little relevance for my purpose.

Moving on, I found a few more good memory jogging shots, but got discouraged with Webshots, Picassa, and the web in general.

Then I thought of YouTube, and eventually found a short National Park Service video travel guide of Bandelier National Monument’s Frijoles Canyon cliff dwellings (the five-minute video is beautifully done, and likely to make you want to go there if you watch). This canyon was my very favorite place to spend summer afternoons, though I didn’t often go there. It seemed much farther than eight miles away! The video ended with a goose-bumpy revelation: “Although the pueblo people have not lived here in Frijoles Canyon for more than 450 years, the site isn’t considered to be abandoned. The modern pueblo people believe that the spirits of their ancestors still reside here.”Furthermore the video mentions that nearly all canyons in the area bear evidence of early inhabitants.

No wonder I was so acutely aware of the Indians. Not everyone will understand, but I do believe that some form of spirit does persist in that area, and its stronger in some places than others. It’s especially strong in Frijoles, stronger than other ruins like Tsankawi or Puye. But perhaps if I went back to those places, alone with plenty of time to wander and wonder, it might be different.

Others have written about this also. I believe that Peggy Church Pond mentions it in her enduringly popular book, The House at Otowi Bridge, the story of Edith Warner, a key figure in the social life of early Los Alamos. Edith lived very near San Ildefonso pueblo and was often included in pueblo life.

Alas, the more research I do, the more danger this could become a history rather than a memoir. The challenge of maintaining the boundaries of my own memories and experience compounds with continued research. Guess I need to just write the damned book! While it’s still mine to write.

Huzzah, huzzah! I found the drama, the tension. I’ve been assuring people for months that though it was far from dull, my girlhood was lacking in the elements of suspense and tension that make for a compelling read. This morning as I got back to my challenge of arranging memories on the map of my last visit to Los Alamos, I found the tension. It isn’t in the events of girlhood. It’s in the re-view.

Backing up just a bit, I’ve found it exceedingly difficult to sit down for even fifteen or twenty minutes to work on this project. I’d been thinking this was due to having deadlines on book reviews, needing to write something for a writing group, catching up on promised critiques, wire brushing a report my hubby is writing, working on a project building shelves in the guest room, eye surgery, etc. Yes, those things and more have definitely played a part and kept me busy, but … there is always at least a little time for things that truly matter.

This morning I found the real block. Mostly to assuage guilt, I forged ahead and began writing about the drive up from Santa Fe. I’d bogged down at Camel Rock, just a few miles north of Santa Fe. A memory of my grandfather is forever anchored to that site. I didn’t want to leave Camel Rock! (And maybe the safety of my granddaddy?) Today we moved on up the road. That was easy enough to write, because I’d already written it in an earlier draft. All I needed to do now was to paste it in, gently tweak and add as I went along, and convert it to present tense — a couple of weeks ago I decided the best way to delineate the re-view from historic events is to use present tense for the 2000 trip and thoughts and past tense for girlhood memories.

Moving up that road, I felt the tension building. I know what lies ahead. I know what I’ll see. But the reader doesn’t. I dread it because I know. I began sharing my dread, elaborating on it, without naming the source. By the time I got to the crest of the hill after the road winds up the side of the cliff to town, I was in tears, on the page in memory and on my face in real time. And I have a double thread of tension — from my first ride up, which I clearly remember (creatively perhaps, but clearly in any evet) and this later one.

Now I “get it” more than ever that it’s hard to write about painful memories. They do become intensely real again. I’m more fortunate than some, because I’ve already worked this one through and know what lies beyond. For sure, my heart goes out to those who are writing more freshly.  I see more clearly than ever the value of personal experience for those of us who help others write this sort of material.

If adventure at the time was pale, look for adventure n meaning. Now I’m excited about writing again. Hooray! To celebrate, I’ve begun looking through Flickr.com for historic photos of Los Alamos. There are many more than a few years ago, and I’m assembling them in an album. It’s going to take time to fill it up.

Wouldn’t it be an amazement if we could always just sit right down and write, freely, flowingly, and daily? But life keeps intervening. Right now writing is more challenging than usual. Life is intervening more than usual, primarily because at least temporarily, I’m not able to see my computer as well as usual as I peer through the ruby red orb located in my right eye socket like some artifact from a science fiction movie.

On Wednesday I had my third eye surgery in three months. The first two were to remove cataracts, replacing cloudy lenses with dazzlingly bright ones. I chose Crystalens replacements, a premium lens that’s hinged to move back and forth like a healthy young lens, restoring nearly a full range of vision. Those surgeries were a snap, with vision clear and complete as soon as the dilation was gone. The only inconvenience was the need to use eye drops three times a day for a couple of weeks, and I’m thrilled that for the first time in my life I can see my computer screen clearly without glasses — a writer’s dream!

This third one was a vitrectomy. The doctor swapped out the gel inside my right eye with saline solution. This is a common procedure, used when the natural vitreous becomes polluted with clumps of dried out cells of various types, obscuring vision. In my case I’d had a tiny amount of bleeding when the vitreous detached from my retina a few years ago, and the resulting “amoeba” in the center of my vision has been driving me nuts for years. The good news is that the amoeba is gone. But … this surgery required more anesthetic, requiring a longer recovery time to feel fully alert and peppy, and the drops form a film over my eye. This is surely a temporary situation, but it’s distracting when I sit at the computer, and quite frankly, my mind has seldom  been on writing!

It’s coming back though. I opened my file and reread what I’ve done so far on the new first chapter. I see where to fit in a couple more flashback vignettes that will add to the backstory and fit here better than anywhere else. The “road map” I made of the trip through town is helpful, but only in generalities. Nothing can substitute from moving fingers on keyboard. But most likely the next few days will mostly be spent on projects requiring less close-range concentration.

As a side note, when I first saw this retinologist, he observed that my description of symptoms was “amazingly detailed and complete,” and made his job easier. I smiled and told him that I’m a writer, and accurate, detailed description is a primary tool of my trade. What better example that honing writing skills can benefit wide areas of life?

Writing about my love of sewing and remembering how I used to spend time at my sewing machine the way I now spend it at my writing machine has reignited a craving for the feel of fabric between my fingers, slicing, stitching and shaping it into something beautiful, wearable, or useful. I’d forgotten how sewing typically sets off a flood of creative juices, washing away mental log jams and rearranging debris into stunning new configurations. Earlier this morning I began writing about a trip we took two years ago to Mexico’s Copper Canyon. I was remembering the time we spent in at El Mirador, a hotel hanging over the edge of the canyon near Divisdero. The sound of drumming reverberated around the canyon. Our guide explained that this only occurs the week before Easter in preparation for the huge fiesta held by the Tarahumara Indians.

The morning after we arrived, I headed out on a point, alone with my camera, just before sunrise. I found a spot on a spacious rock right on the edge of the cliff and sat to watch the sun turn the mist of dawn to pure gold and wake the colors of far canyon walls with a good  morning kiss.  The combination of wide open spaces, flaming glory, mystical drumming, and fragrance of the forest invoked a state of pure bliss.

Later, as I worked on a sewing project, I was reminded of a similar feeling while attending Girl Scout Day Camp in Los Alamos Canyon. On a much smaller scale, we were on the edge of a cliff, half way down into a canyon. Our troop site was situated on a ledge against a sheer cliff face above. We arrived in the early morning and were surrounded by old growth ponderosa pine. I never heard Indian drums up on the Hill, but San Ildefonso Pueblo was only 15 miles away, and Indian influence was strong in the area.

These two dots connect with my general love of the Southwest and its native culture, inherent simplicity, exposure and vast scale. It speaks to some profound Truth deep within my soul. I feel that something, but I can’t yet name it. This experience of writing about it is allowing me to name it and more strongly claim it, giving it more power in my life. This is the magic of memoir and has become my primary purpose in writing.

I uploaded a collection of pictures from our whole trip onto the Flickr website. The slide show starts here. If you want to specifically see pictures of that mystical morning, that set of eight begins here.