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.

Advertisements

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been tapping away on the loop through town for several days now. For some reason, this part has seemed unduly complicated, and I keep stopping to do research and check Street View on GoogleMaps. I don’t suppose it matters if I spend that time now or later. One way or the other, it must be spent if I’m going to get the details right. Now I’m finally on the home stretch for this section. I’ve done everything around the center of town, and now I’ve gotten into the heart of the Community Center. Another day or two should do it before we roll on down the road to the high school.

If I had known I would use the drive through town as the basis for the story when we were there, we could hardly have planned the route more conveniently. The town itself is cooperative. There are a few more roads in and out now than there were back then, but the main road hasn’t changed. We went in one way, made a loop through town, and left out the other side. The trip out is perfect for wrapping up several left-over memories. I continue to be pleased with my choice of structure.

Someone asked me recently if I paste in stories I’ve already written. I did that with one, but nearly everything I’ve written has been new material. And the voice of something I wrote in 2002, for example, is generally rather different from the way I’d write it for this purpose. Writing the free-standing ones was good experience. Last night in a tele-chat with members of National Association of Memoir Writers, Nina Amir urged all of us to send stories out for publication, to build platform for our books even more than generating income. I got the message! Perhaps I can find homes for some of those freestanding stories.

I just sped through a reread of The Children of Los Alamos, by Katrina Mason. I’m glad I did reread it, for reasons I covered in a review I just posted on Amazon. Aside from the reasons I cover in the review, I’m glad I reread the book because it affirms that my particular cohort — elementary-aged children who moved there five or six years after the war ended — moved to a rather different community, but to my understanding, we shared most of the perceptions as those who were there during the Manhattan Project.

It also strengthens my belief that a memoir from my cohort, my time, has a valuable contribution to make in illuminating the overall community atmosphere of the second round of Early Years. It helps me refine these views and find more purpose in writing. Perhaps it may even alter my decision to self-publish. But there’s no point making a decision like that until the book is written. One or two more volumes of background material and then back to work!

You may wonder, as I also do, how much reading the work of others may influence my memories. That is a distinct possibility, but … no memory is pure in the first place. Memory is influenced by the very act of remembering. And some fuzzy perceptions I’ve struggled to articulate are becoming more clear. This material feeds into composite memory more than specific ones. So on balance, I don’t think it will affect Truth at all, and I shall proceed.

Now it’s time to tell how I met my husband, one week after I graduated from high school. For decades I told people I met him exactly one week after I graduated, but recently I checked an online perpetual calendar and discovered that wasn’t quite true. I graduated on Monday and met him on Tuesday a week later. Today I went back to that calendar to verify the date of a party I threw shortly after that, and found a surprise.

The date, May 28, is red on the calendar, signifying a holiday. I blinked and looked again. I checked my diploma to verify the date. It appears that I graduated on Memorial Day, but in reality, aside from graduation it was business as usual that day. How could that be? I dimly recall a date change, so I checked Wikipedia. Sure enough, in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, moving Memorial Day from its traditional May30 date to the last Monday of May, thus ensuring a three-day weekend.

Is this level of detail useful for building tension or moving my story along? On the contrary. I think it would be a distraction. It’s a piece of fascinating trivia to admire and put back on the shelf. Online resources are fascinating and useful tools, but we have to know how to draw boundaries.

I did use the calendar to verify that our wedding was on the exact date of our first kiss. Isn’t that romantic?

We’ve driven past the apartment where we lived the first ten weeks of our married life, and I discovered that if I’d bothered to look down the road, we were only a couple of blocks from “Aunt” Opal and “Uncle” Ben. They hadn’t lived in that house more than a year or two before I left for college, and I hadn’t firmly fixed its location in my mind, so I never walked up the street to pay a visit. But the issue here is not where they lived, but how to handle their name.

I’ve already included both first and last names for the teacher who lived above us and my boss who lived across the street. I need to decide whether to continue using full names. I need to decide whether I can use full names for some people and stick to first names for others. I’m a little squeamish about using full names for some of the kids I went to school with. In fact, there are a few that I may fictionalize.

How am I going to handle this? I’m baffled.

But obviously it is not a problem until I have the story written, so rather than obsessing at this point, I shall forge ahead. The answer will come clear in good time. Maybe it will appear as a comment. One can always hope.

After a brief detour in real time here to paint a room and catch up on some local chores, I’ve moved past my old church and memories of Junior Rifle Club and we’re heading into the center of town. But first we make a lap around a couple of blocks to find the apartment where we began married life, living below one of my high school teachers who, nearly twenty years older than I, was also a newly wed — for the first time.

Thank goodness for Google Maps that make it so easy to check the route we took and get street names right. Somewhere I have a map from the 1950s that shows the town as it was back then, before any of the private housing was built. That will be a nice illustration to include. Sooner or later I’ll check with the Los Alamos Historical Society about the possibility of obtaining a few old pictures of places like the Community Center that would enhance the book. I have no idea what they might charge for a project like this.

I’ll need to go back later and insert a little more car conversation with my spouse as we’re driving around to add a bit more reflection. But I’m going to leave that as an additional layer for later. I don’t feel ready to tackle it yet. We did talk about things at the time, and whatever I come up with is going to be very close to the dialogue we had at the time.

Last time I actually wrote anything on my manuscript, I began describing the church building we were driving past and listing memories. I only got a few sentences into that section. It was late when I got to that point and I feel into a state of brain freeze. I’ve been back a couple of times and felt overwhelmed by the idea of resuming where I quit writing. Aside from anything else, I was sure I’d written about this before and didn’t want to spend another half hour restating what I’d already done, but I could not find that file. This hump loomed large.

While looking for something else a couple of days ago, I came across the file I needed. This morning I’d planned to do a simple cut-and- paste, then edit the result. But as I poured a cup of coffee, the root of the problem jumped out at me. This was boring. Big time boring. Even to me. How can I fix that? I  wondered.

I immediately knew the answer. Scene. I needed to write it as scene, with some dialogue and action. How many times have I shared my trepidation about writing my cerebral life as scene? In spite of this angst, I felt my energy level rise at the idea, so I set my mug down, pulled my ‘laptop onto my lapdesk and began tapping away. It flowed more smoothly than I expected. I got the whole scene drafted, and moved on through Junior Rifle Club, the next site along the drive.

How convenient that my life back then was so containerized with little overlap  among my various activities, clearing the way for isolated sight-specific memory.

The new material will need a lot of editing before it’s ready to share, to add more tension among other things, but at least it’s on the page now. On the page. I like that phrase. That page can be either digital or paper, and it’s “written down” in either form.

While writing about Rifle Club, I wondered how long the shooting range was. I tried standing at various distances from a wall, looking at an imagined image the size of a target and estimating from that. Fortunately I was able to find a description of the requirements for an official NRA shooting range. It was not the 30-40 feet I guesstimated — it was the full fifty feet I originally assumed. Perhaps nobody would notice if I’d gotten it wrong, but it isn’t that hard to dig around and get it right. I appreciate accuracy in the details, whether I’m reading or writing.

My other big challenge of the day was wording around the temptation to use distancing phrases like “I remember…” A quiet voice urged me to “Take responsibility for your story. Just say it, plainly and simply. Don’t try to hide.” Direct statement worked.