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.

A couple of days ago I was talking with a friend about my memoir. I must have sounded frustrated, and she’s the sort of friend who calls things as she sees them. I cherish friends like that — they are rare gems.

“Why are you writing this?” she asked. “What are you trying to prove?” That sort of stopped me. In fact, the last part of the question stunned me.

“Trying to prove? You think I’m trying to prove something?” I had that buzzy feeling like I was rubbing my old shorted out mixer, or standing on a rug about to be yanked.

“Well, aren’t you? You have yourself tied up in knots about this story that you already told me isn’t likely to appeal to a huge readership, but you sound like you think a Pulitzer is hanging in the balance — or Oprah’s standing there waiting to pounce on it if you don’t mess up.”

“You’re kidding … I sound like that?”

“Yep. You do.”

“Yikes.” I made a face.

“So, what are you trying to prove?” I had to think for a good long minute and a couple of sips of tea as I scanned the ceiling for an answer. She held the space for me to continue.

“I guess I’m trying to prove that I can do it … that I can finish this project that has become tedious, but I made a commitment to riding it out.”

We went on to discuss several other angles, like credibility (for what?), losing face (so what?), competition (against whom?) and creating a written legacy for future generations (they are more likely to appreciate and understand a simple autobiography than a complex memoir).

With those superficial reasons out of the way, we finally got to the fact that I’m writing as much about time and place as person. She understood that I want to honor that spot on earth that was so sacred to the Indians and so desecrated (de-sacreded?) by modern scientists. I’ve already experienced heart-healing and liberated power by revisiting my experiences there. Further writing is unlikely to add much to that equation, though I remain open to surprise. If I want to continue rapid self-discovery and transformation, it may be time to move on to more recent material. But how can I be sure this mound of mental relics is thoroughly excavated?

As we continued to delve, I remembered that my passion for writing this memoir  was lit by the matches of people who spoke evil of my heart home. I got in touch with my hope that by writing about my love of the land, the place, I will somehow contribute to the healing of the scar upon the face of the place I know and love the most. I pray that as my Mother Earth nourished and comforted me in my youth, I may be of some comfort to her as she heals from the inferno she endured.

Yes, that’s why I write. To help restore a sense of sacredness to that place of current scarredness. My story is a bit of worship, a love song, a tribute of gratitude. Knowing that … should make all the difference and help me focus and weed what I include.

Thank you my friend. Thank you.

For the last few days, perhaps even the last few weeks, I’ve been teetering closer than I realized to the brink of despair. Yesterday I sat down, opened my file, and looked at the frayed end of my story, trying to pick up the thread again. After several minutes of feeling lost, I went to bed. This morning the story was the first thing I thought of as I awoke. Suddenly all the doubts that have been building in the dark exploded to life:

  • This isn’t working. It’s like randomly tossing loose jigsaw puzzle pieces on the table.
  • Nobody will bother reading this.
  • I’m boring myself.
  • Why am I wasting my time on this?

You get the idea. I had unwittingly allowed my inner guidance system to switch to the Critic Channel rather than my muse.

I had a full-fledged case of the doubts when less than a month ago I was exulting about the structure I’ve chosen that focuses on place rather than chronology. What knocked me off-path? Whence the doubts? Philosophical discussions! I’ve been listening to a few purists who include chronological order at the top of a checklist of criteria necessary for a manuscript to qualify as a “real” memoir.

I know better than to do that! On the very first day of every class I teach, I issue this passionate rejoinder: Don’t let anyone else tell you how to write. There are skills, there are components that make your writing easier to read and understand, but the way you tell your story is as personal as your fingerprint. Listen to that inner sense we all have of how to tell it. First and foremost, it MUST fit your sense of your life and your Truth.I get pretty worked up about that message.

I had lost sight of that fundamental Truth and as I woke up this morning I was actually considering abandoning the project — or at least scaling it back to a bland, gray chronological documentary.

Feeling the gravel slip from beneath my feet as I stood on the brink of despair, the student was ready. The teacher appeared. For reasons having nothing whatsoever to do with my writing project, I surfed over to Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonet’s Women’s Memoirs site. There I found a video post reconnecting me with Natalie Goldberg, one of my key sources of inspiration. In the video Matilda reminds viewers of the preference for reflecting rather than recounting that Natalie expresses in her most recent book, Old Friend from Far Away.

Bingo! That is exactly what I needed to hear. That is where I’ve been heading. Ten years ago I spent days researching the difference between memoir and autobiography. I came to understand then that reflection was the key difference. Memoir reflects, autobiography recounts. Reflection may follow a chronological path, but like memory, it may jump all over time and space. Yes, there are skills. Yes, scene is important. Yes, I do need to add some elements to help readers see the grid. I can do that! But only if I keep writing.

Thank you Natalie for the critical support, and thank you Matilda and Kendra for channeling that wisdom back to me at just the right moment. I am such a strong believer in “messages from the Universe,” and this is a very strong message.

No, I have not abandoned this project.  Time away from my laptop allowed me to focus on some hands-on projects, a break that allowed some needed distance for refocusing. Then we headed east to visit with our Texas Tots. They are fortunate enough to have two living great-grandparents, and one is in New Jersey. This was an opportunity to build some deep level ancestral memory.

Now the challenge is to gear back up and revisit the story. Yesterday I pulled out my mindmap and timeline to show to students, but really, I needed to look for myself. I”m like a cat. I need to circle a spot many times before committing to settle in.

Who knew that I was addicted to my laptop? In general, I’m not, but it is my machine of choice for working on my memoir project. When Hubby announced his intentions to take it along to Scout Camp for two weeks, I shrieked in alarm. “Can’t you take the netbook? … How about the old one (that runs Ubuntu)?”

No. Only the good one will do. The netbook is too slow for downloading photos, and … the Linux machine is even slower and doesn’t have PowerPoint.

Well, that’s only fair. I thought I could do without it for two weeks. I thought. And I can. The thing is, my brain freezes when sitting in my office chair. I can work on other things here. Just not that. Maybe I could … but … lots of other pressing matters have intervened.

So, perhaps the project will benefit from around three weeks off — by the time I factor in a quick visit with the youngest grandchildren right after camp is over.

Isn’t it funny how we become so used to a certain setting to do our writing? I have not decided if that is good or not. It is as it is.