September 2010


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.