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.

 

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My head has been in books the last few days. One, Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott, is a novel. The other, The Atomic City: A Firsthand Account by a Son of Los Alamos by Terry Rosen, is a memoir. Blue Shoe was fascinating because it was based on the search for the truth of family relationships and the result of shedding light on long-guarded Truth. Sometimes fiction can tell more truth than memoir does, at least in a general sense. But The Atomic City is the one that rang my bells the most loudly.

It rang my bells for several reasons. Terry Rosen graduated a year before I did, and our paths did cross now and then, though I don’t recall direct interaction. Although he was one of the guys I would love to have gone out with (that prospect seemed too futile to pursue or even dream about), I primarily thought of him as “Louie Rosen’s Son.” Louie was already legendary at that time as one of the super-brains at the lab, so brilliant that, as I heard it, he sat in an ivory tower and dreamed up whatever he wanted and they paid him a lot of money to do it.

Terry’s book spotlights his father’s achievements, and my impression wasn’t too far off the mark, though his research was not that esoteric. My assumption that Terry was a cut above the (Los Alamos level) average brilliance was also true, though I derive that fact from reading between the lines, not his declaration.

Primarily the book validated my sense that there was indeed a sort of caste system in place, one that co-existed with across-the-board egalitarianism. How did that work? The population was divided into a grid with ethnicity and national origin in “columns” and the job classification (scientist, engineer, plumber, electician …) of the family breadwinner in “rows.” It didn’t matter if your forebears came from Great Britain or Hungary, (non-Europeans were all but non-existent in Los Alamos back then) but job classification determined where you lived, and indirectly who you associated with.That effect was far less strong on kids than parents, but we all knew who lived in Western Area.

The book validated my sense of reverence for place. I think we all felt that. And he went on to elaborate on his perception of the effects of growing up in a high-pressure environment, causing so many of us to have an unusually high sense of urgency about achievement.

Reading that volume was fascinating because I spent time talking with Terry about writing during an all-school reunion in 2000. He sent me the pre-publication manuscript for review and critique, and I still have those files. I was able to flip back and see that all my suggestions were implemented in the final draft, published by Sunbelt Eakin. But to my dismay, the final version omitted several pages of material that I would have kept in. One of my suggestions was to break the manuscript into two parts, one about “The Los Alamos Years” and a sequel about the rest of his life. He resisted the latter, but Sunbelt Eakin convinced him. He closes the first volume with the promise to go more deeply into the effects on his later life of having grown up in Los Alamos.

The general public will never read those conclusion … he died a year after the first volume was published.

Lucky me! My copy of the manuscript includes the second section. I reread it yesterday. I found it far less compelling than the Los Alamos section, perhaps because I knew nearly all the people he mentions in that part. The second needs a lot more work to prepare it for publication and he’s not around to fill in the blanks. Reading the account of his reunion with his childhood sweetheart (after three failed marriages for each of them) and her tragic demise had me in tears once again. She and Terry witnessed a car hydroplane on a wet highway south of Pueblo, Colorado and stopped to render assistance and call for help. A second out-of-control car ran directly into Jennifer, missing Terry by a few inches. He witnessed her instant death.

What did I learn from rereading the two volumes of this story?

  1. Readers who “were there” are likely to be the most enthusiastic.
  2. Publishers exert a lot of control over contents — if anything is sacred to you, publish it yourself. Of course we have lots more flexibility to do that today than Terry had ten years ago.
  3. His first volume has significant relevance as a historical record of the Los Alamos community. It includes personal glimpses and inside stories about the key players in the Manhattan Project. This sort of anecdotal material is not available anywhere else.
  4. His analysis of the social system in early Los Alamos is a resource for others of us puzzling out the same era, and holds special interest for that reason.
  5. The story of these super-achievers posed a special challenge, to document their achievements without sounding pompous. In my opinion, he kept his balance on that tight-rope, primarily by reporting most events without pointing out their sheer brilliance.

Overall, the material will have little influence on my own story and how I tell it, but it’s still fascinating, and I deeply appreciate that Terry took the time to write these 231 manuscript pages. Reading this reminds me that I have three more volumes on my bookshelf that I want to skim through again: The Atom and Eve by Elsie Blumer McMillan (wife of a Manhattan Project scientist), Children of Los Alamos by Katrina R. Mason (an anthology of interviews she conducted with assorted offspring of LASL employees), and The House at Otowi Bridge by Peggy Pond Church (The story of Edith Warner, who entertained The Scientists at dinner parties in her small tea room by the Rio Grande, at the bottom of The Hill).

Where will all this reading take me? I don’t know, but like Mattie in Blue Shoe, I feel driven to keep digging. There is some Truth not yet uncovered, for me, or perhaps all of us. There has never been a time when more resources were available for low or no-cost research from the comfort of home.

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.

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.