I’m doing some work with Christina Baldwin’s family myths concept that I mentioned in the last post. Results are mixed. I’m seeing lots of family myths that affected my life in powerful ways back then … and even now. I’ve discarded some on my own, and others have been outgrown by the whole family. Relatively few are left intact, but I do see how some linger even now, and in a couple of cases current events provide to cues to recognize departed ones.

My biggest challenge right now is sticking to my determination to frame off that particular period of time rather than jumping ship and following another thread instead. I run the risk of having a dozen unfinished manuscripts piled around like unfinished garments next to the sewing machine. When I realized too many garments had piled up, I tossed several out and realized I didn’t want to sew anymore. I’m not ready to let that happen with writing! Finished projects are sooo satisfying. For better or worse, I must get this draft written and get on with things.

The obvious solution to capturing the moment of insight into those that don’t fit into the Los Alamos frame is to record them in my journal, carefully flagging them for easy retrieval later. By the end of this month I should be ready to focus on this project more intently once again.

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Sometimes turning my attention to other things is just what the doctor ordered, and that’s just what I’ve been doing the last few weeks. Putting the polish on my Writing for the Health of It class has consumed my attention and time. But as often happens, turning my attention elsewhere sparked new insight for this project.

In this case, two key discoveries, perhaps key tools, have come from delving back into Christina Baldwin’s book Storycatcher, a book I’d nibbled on previously. Baldwin’s book is rich and multi-layered, and somewhat like a huge pot of soup. Soup is formless and filling. rich with a blend of ingredients. You can’t “get your hands around it” or isolate ingredients, but the blend nourishes you and satisfies your hunger. Even so, on this reading, two concepts popped out  that unlocked new direction.

One is the importance of Story as a meta-concept similar to Truth. It took me a long time to grasp the concept of Story as an organizing principle, the lens for viewing experience and making sense of it. Story in this sense isn’t about single events, it’s my sense of self, of who I am. “Big S” Story is composed of individual experiences that may be recounted as “little s” vignette stories. Truly, I’d never thought of Story this way. A new vista has opened. Thank you Christina. This concept is even more important for my class than this project, but it will give new depth and direction to my memoir.

The second concept is that of Family Myths. These are the stories that we tell ourselves about what makes our family special and different. What binds us together (or pushes us apart). I’ve thought of personally defining characteristics, but not collective ones. Another big Aha.

I’m not ready to get back to my narrative just yet. I have another week of intense preparation for the class, and then we’ll devote a bit of time to reveling in fall color. But even if I’m not drafting my narrative, I will be spending some good journal time exploring My Story and our Family Myths. That’s sure to fertilize the narrative and perhaps I’ll even finally “catch my story.”

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.

Right now I am keenly aware of the process of writing and the sheer joy of sitting on my sun porch early in the morning, computer-in-lap. A raucous jay warns off other birds, or perhaps calls to the chicks that recently left the nest. Its harsh sound is intrusive and distracting, like a thorn or itching mosquito bite. Our house nestles into the west side of a steeply rising hill, and the first rays of sunshine have yet to rise above it. I love this softly gray, moist time of day, especially when the temperature is perfect for comfortably sitting out here, as it is today. The deciduous hardwood forests in Pennsylvania are so different from the ponderosa pine clad mountains I grew up in, yet the same deep sense of connection prevails. Memories seem more real out here.

As I consider what I’ve already written, I realize I need to add more details, and I see where they are lacking. For example, I have not described myself at all, nor have I said anything about my husband other than the fact that he is with me on this trip. I can add some self-description in an early scene about wearing my new turquoise chunk necklace on a visit to Old Town in Albuquerque. I can describe my husband in the scene I’m still working on that’s set near the apartment where he lived the summer I met him.

No, I’m not spending all my time revising, not even rereading — these revelations occur at odd moments, like in the shower, or while I’m cooking. If I don’t do something about them soon after I think of it, like any story idea, they’ll be lost. As I see it, I have three choices: scroll to the place I’m thinking of and add the material, jot some notes in a separate file (or scrap of paper), or take no action and hope I remember again when I’m ready to edit the whole manuscript.

“Just get the story on paper. Don’t stop to revise as you write.” So say the Experts. My decades of experience at the sewing machine tell me otherwise. A sleeve is a sleeve is a sleeve. Pattern instructions put cuffs on sleeves way late in the game. But it’s entirely possible to sew the side seam of the sleeve and fully finish a cuff buefore you even cut out the rest of the shirt. Aside from having to sew the shoulder seams before inserting collars and sleeves, little is sacred about the order of construction for a shirt. And so it is with stories. I listen to my inner sense of order most of the time.

Now my jay bird has moved a few hundred feet deeper into the woods, and a chorus of gentler birds has returned. I’m going back to my manuscript.

I just missed watching the pilot board our ship to guide it through the Inside Passage into Vancouver’s harbor Saturday evening, but I did watch such a transfer several years ago in the Baltic Sea. A small cruiser pulls up next to an ocean liner, adjusting its speed to maintain position alongside. The ship’s crew drops a hanging ladder over the side. The pilot grabs the ladder and climbs twenty or thirty feet up to a small portal in the side of the ship. Aside from requiring considerable strength and agility to climb the ladder, this is a relatively simple challenge on smooth water, but life threatening when waves toss both boats around, changing their relative levels, and causing the ladder to swing. Leaving the ship after guiding it out of the harbor may be even more perilous.

Today, as I shift from travel mode to daily life, I feel like one of those pilots, going from one treadmill to another, both moving, and not quite aligned. Few trip experiences related to Girlhood, and it’s going to take a little time to reprime that story pump and get the thread moving again.

The one thing I did notice as we hiked through Victoria’s Stanley Park was the deep feeling of peace and reverence I remember from time in My Canyon. Coastal forests in the northwest are far different from those in the Rocky Mountains, but both evoke a sense of mystical awe that I find largely missing in totally deciduous forests. What is there about towering evergreens? Hope? Stability?

I’ll let that question gently guide me back into the story stream.

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.