After what seems like eons of urgent sidetracks, I’m feeling pulled back into this project. Something subtle shifted, connecting me with the drama and tension of the day we moved to Los Alamos. That day was a huge milestone in my life and as I pondered it, I noticed all sorts of omens I’d never seen before. I use the term omen in a neutral sense, not one of foreboding. I wonder what a more accurate term would be. Foreshadowings?

I’m sticking with chronology, at least for now, and I’ve written this scene at least half a dozen times now. Each time it comes out a bit differently. This time I’m deeply in touch with the tension and the wonder. I’m finally sensing the feelings I had at the time. Feelings I had no words for so couldn’t articulate back then. The closest I ever recall coming to talking about feelings in our family was adjurations not to hurt anyone’s feelings by doing or saying this or that. We didn’t talk about our own feelings. I’ve spent a significant chunk of my life learning that vocabulary and how to apply it!

I think I can probably take much of what I’ve previously written and graft it into this new manuscript. We’ll see. For now it feels good to have some movement again, however slight. I won’t delude myself that I’m close to final copy but it feels closer. I feel more in touch with something close to bedrock, more connected to place. Perhaps the NAMW Roundtable discussion of writing about place I listened to on Thursday has something to do with that.

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.

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.

After talking with a few people about their experiences in high school specifically and childhood in general, I’m realizing more clearly than ever how few people led the sort of charmed lives my husband’s Uncle Walter did. He wrote a short account of his early life because, as he put it, “I had the boyhood everyone wishes he’d had!” I certainly didn’t have that sort of youth.

My daughter claims to know people who ran in the cheerleader crowd who stay firmly in touch with their school pals, proclaiming, “Those were the best years of my life!” After she told me this she laughed. “Doesn’t say much for the rest of their lives, does it!”

In recent years I’ve looked back on my girlhood years and realized that a very few painful episodes had colored an entire era. Memories of happy times and the satisfaction of solitary accomplishments have come to the fore. I’m realizing now that those years prepared me ideally for the life I find so rich and satisfying today. The clouds have lifted and I rejoice in discovering blessings that were hidden at the time.

I say this with a profound sense of relief and hope that I don’t sound arrogant. I think of this revelation as a gift. Suddenly I’m uncertain just what to do with this gift. I’ve been wavering about the tone to take in recording girlhood memories. I never wallowed in self-pity, but I had my share of blows to the psychic solar plexus. When I look back through the lens of current understanding, it’s tempting to gloss those times over and write them from my current point of view. After all, what is truth? Movement of bodies through space and sound waves hitting an eardrum? Or the meaning one assigns to those events?

How easy it would be to gloss it all over, to write girlhood as one long picnic. But hey! It wasn’t! I waited half a century  for liberation from those chains of angst and self-doubt. I’m realizing now that I would be doing nobody a service to pretend otherwise. Perhaps it’s time to come clean and admit, “Yes, that hurt.” Perhaps spreading the news that it doesn’t hurt anymore (due in no small part to the fact that I’ve written about it so long the last thread of the cocoon broke, enabling my inner butterfly to soar free) will help others make their own peace with the past.

Realizing this is a big step, probably as big as recognizing my Organizing Strategy.

The last puzzle piece I’m aware of is deciding how to handle the identities of tormentors. I don’t think anyone was ever deliberately mean. Most of my discomfort originated in my own understanding. So do I use real names or fictitious ones? I’m thinking that for the most part first names will suffice with a few alterations as to protect the privacy of others. That’s easy to change later, should my perspective evolve further.

Moving ahead with the idea of using my last visit to Los Alamos as the organizing principle, I laid out a map of the drive to and through town, noting memory clusters related to each place. I can do this. It will work. It’s even authentic, because at least fragments of these memories, emotions and sensory experiences did flood back at that time in much the way I’ll describe. I even have an idea for a catchy entry point into the story.

I don’t recall exactly where I came upon this idea, but I believe Linda Joy Myers mentions it in her new book, The Power of Memoir. It’s sort of a variation on the timeline theme.

My next challenge will be to set up chapters for each location and make a more detailed list of “story beads” for that particular string. Up to this point, much of what I’ve been writing is more narrative than scene. Having this structure will provide organizing context and make it easier to write scene. It will also make it easier to work with composite memories.

As I think of scene, I’m realizing that most of the memoirs I’ve been reading lately (new, commercially published ones) have been mostly rumination type narrative verging on essay with very little dialogue. Description is gorgeous, but in general dialogue is limited to single sentences from other people most of the time, with only a line or two per page at most. These books have also lacked a strong story line. I’m struggling to make sense of this observation compared to all the challenge of creating a “Hero’s Journey” type of account.

Perhaps the bottom line is one of my mantras: “Your story is as personal and unique as your fingerprint.” Also, “To thine own story be true.”

My story is emerging.

For the past couple of days I’ve felt out of sorts about this project. I’m writing. The words and pages are piling up, though not as fast as I’d like. But I’ve felt bogged down, like I was dragging something heavy on my feet, or maybe they were tangled in algae on the bottom of a pond. I’ve been indulging in the sort of behavior described in today’s Heart and Craft post. This afternoon A Voice snarled, “This has no interest to anyone but you, and maybe a couple of your grandkids. I know you won’t quit, but get done with it. You have real writing to do!”

Wow! That Voice is not one I’m familiar with. I haven’t heard that one before. It was definitely masculine. Unusual. Nobody specific that I know. I thought about it. There is some truth to it. Outwardly my early life was less than thrilling to hear about. The excitement was on the inside. Girl against emerging woman. Girl against perceived expectations of others. Girl against her own expectations.

There was another aspect to that message that totally puzzled me. The Voice knows me well enough to realize I will not drop this project. But I do not know what this real writing is. Woo woo!

Suddenly I felt overwhelmingly sleepy. Rather than fight it, or go for a cup of coffee (I’m decaffeinating for a few days, which is less oppressive than I anticipated — I still allow myself a couple of cups of tea) I headed upstairs and lay down for a nap. I fell instantly asleep, for about ten minutes, and had a firestorm of dreams. I don’t recall a single one, but they were intense. When I woke up, the storm was over and the sun shining — at least inside — Mother Nature is still weeping her eyes out beyond the window.

I’ve been writing topically, more or less chronologically within the topics. My dis-ease has centered on lack of vision about how to chop up the topics and reintegrate them. The answer is clear now. I won’t even try. I’ll stick with the topics, and probably devote a chapter to each. This is not a new idea, but I feel more settled about it.

This could all change. But the decision calms me for now, and restores my sense of flow.

Turning back to writing after a weekend away, I decided to continue the orchestra saga by writing of my decision to return. I opened my manuscript file (after accruing a folder of a couple of dozen single story files, I decided to keep them all in one massive file), scrolled down to the end, and typed a working section title: Going Back. I began to type:

I felt miserable that …

I stopped. That week? I’ve forgotten how many days we were at All-State. In fact, I’ve forgotten just when it took place. In fact — I’m not totally sure I rejoined orchestra second semester of my freshman year! HELP! Well, I’m pretty sure.

Fortunately, I don’t have to guess. I have three resources to turn to for help. The first took mere seconds. As fast as I could type New Mexico All-State Orchestra into the search bar, I confirmed that it takes place in January, at least now, and that squares with my memory that it was cold and gray.

The second and third will take a bit more time. I think I know where the brown envelope is that holds my old report cards. That will confirm when I took any given class. Finally, I’ll haul down a box big enough to hold a pair of hiking boots and find all sorts of high school memorabilia, including All-State concert programs for for my sophomore, junior, and senior years.

If I didn’t have those resources, I’d probably just wing it and do the best I could, relying on the symbolic truth of whatever memory I did have. I’m glad I still have tangible evidence for maximum accuracy.