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.

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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.

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.

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.

Huzzah, huzzah! I found the drama, the tension. I’ve been assuring people for months that though it was far from dull, my girlhood was lacking in the elements of suspense and tension that make for a compelling read. This morning as I got back to my challenge of arranging memories on the map of my last visit to Los Alamos, I found the tension. It isn’t in the events of girlhood. It’s in the re-view.

Backing up just a bit, I’ve found it exceedingly difficult to sit down for even fifteen or twenty minutes to work on this project. I’d been thinking this was due to having deadlines on book reviews, needing to write something for a writing group, catching up on promised critiques, wire brushing a report my hubby is writing, working on a project building shelves in the guest room, eye surgery, etc. Yes, those things and more have definitely played a part and kept me busy, but … there is always at least a little time for things that truly matter.

This morning I found the real block. Mostly to assuage guilt, I forged ahead and began writing about the drive up from Santa Fe. I’d bogged down at Camel Rock, just a few miles north of Santa Fe. A memory of my grandfather is forever anchored to that site. I didn’t want to leave Camel Rock! (And maybe the safety of my granddaddy?) Today we moved on up the road. That was easy enough to write, because I’d already written it in an earlier draft. All I needed to do now was to paste it in, gently tweak and add as I went along, and convert it to present tense — a couple of weeks ago I decided the best way to delineate the re-view from historic events is to use present tense for the 2000 trip and thoughts and past tense for girlhood memories.

Moving up that road, I felt the tension building. I know what lies ahead. I know what I’ll see. But the reader doesn’t. I dread it because I know. I began sharing my dread, elaborating on it, without naming the source. By the time I got to the crest of the hill after the road winds up the side of the cliff to town, I was in tears, on the page in memory and on my face in real time. And I have a double thread of tension — from my first ride up, which I clearly remember (creatively perhaps, but clearly in any evet) and this later one.

Now I “get it” more than ever that it’s hard to write about painful memories. They do become intensely real again. I’m more fortunate than some, because I’ve already worked this one through and know what lies beyond. For sure, my heart goes out to those who are writing more freshly.  I see more clearly than ever the value of personal experience for those of us who help others write this sort of material.

If adventure at the time was pale, look for adventure n meaning. Now I’m excited about writing again. Hooray! To celebrate, I’ve begun looking through Flickr.com for historic photos of Los Alamos. There are many more than a few years ago, and I’m assembling them in an album. It’s going to take time to fill it up.

I admit it. I fell under Tawni O’Dell’s spell and took advantage of her permission to be a real writer without writing every day. Actually I don’t need Tawni’s permission to not write every day. I already knew that. Besides, life sometimes intervenes and other business must be attended to. Now my fingers are flying again.

During my break I found a jumping off spot. What better place than a cemetery, finding the grave of the baby brother I never knew and cracking the veil of the past? That occurred at the beginning of the drive from Santa Fe to Los Alamos, the drive that really did trigger a gush of cogent, potent memory. In so many ways, it was a day lived in parallel universes, oscillating between times and realities.

I’ve done two things to move the project forward. I set up a Live Sync folder so I can work on this project on either of my computers and have my files automatically and instantly update on the other. This has the splendid advantage of providing perfect backup. Having done that, I set about dissecting the preliminary file I wrote a few months ago so I can recast the relevant parts and add to them. I have a strong start now.

I’ve been reading too, and came to a stunning conclusion after reading Sam Patron’s “Search for Soul” blog, and Susan Wittig Albert’s latest volume, Holly Blues. Sam has a couple of posts about an adventurous part of her life. She covered a lot of ground in relatively few words. The story is lean and mean, written close to the bone. It’s pure narrative, with little in the way of description and no dialogue that I recall, but my eyes were glued to the page as I scrolled through the account, reading as fast as I could. Thinking back, I decided that I might have found additional description and scene elements distracting. I was making my own movie on the fly.

That hunch was validated when I read Holly Blues. Susan Albert is a master of scene building and her descriptions are especially succulent. I could take a week to savor the book, but instead, I read it in about four hours after dinner. I chided myself when I realized I was skimming through whole pages of exquisite description to get on with the action. Guilt? Not me. I savored enough of those scenes to know that Susan has not lost her edge and would have missed them if they weren’t there. Making the choice to skim read to fast forward through the action is far preferable to skimming out of boredom while deciding whether to set the book aside.

What’s a writer to do? I love this sort of soul-gripping story that totally sucks me in, and I’m also easily seduced by silken word ribbons. Can we have it both ways? Guess I’ll have to stick with the silken ribbons, because I do not have the gripping adventure.

Just what did I really want? This is the sort of question guaranteed to drive a memoirist to distraction, but until you can answer it, you’re unlikely to have a compelling story. For weeks I’ve been picking at the lock guarding the answer to this question. I’ve filled countless journal pages and thought about it incessantly. I tried free writing. I tried everything besides sitting quietly and waiting for an answer.

Tonight I finally resorted to that last step. I sat back in my recliner in a dark room, turned off the sound of my thoughts, and focused in on metaphorical images of a couple of memories. I used a sort of split screen, comparing possibilities, and changed conditions in the active screen, comparing to the base image. Finally a scene clicked. I knew I’d finally hit the paydirt of fundamental Truth.

This Truth is not something I’ll disclose directly, because I was not aware of this truth as anything but the vaguest dissatisfaction back then. but it will provide form and shape for lots of scenes. It will serve as a sort of hidden skeleton. It will be a major source of tension in the story, helping to move it forward.

My discovery came with a huge bonus. Now that my desire is clear, now that I see that image, I can clearly see how it has manifested in my life. I can watch the dream unfold, beginning a little over thirty years ago, gradually unfurling. That’s the magic of memoir —it can solve some of the basic mysteries of life, our own and perhaps others too. Not only can it heal broken hearts, enable  forgiveness, and bestow inner peace, but it can disclose unexpected joys and blessings, and few things are as satisfying.