Everything I’ve written on this project has been typed in from the start. This morning as I wrote in my journal, by hand, I circled back to explore an area I’ve typed about. What a difference! New thoughts and insights gushed onto the page, breaking through a wall I only dimly knew existed. I’ve known for ages that printing things out makes a quantum difference. Things just look different on paper than on screen. So why would this not also be so when the words go directly to paper?

This is not news to me at all. I’ve been journaling by hand for a few years now, and am firmly convinced of its value for exploring deep thought, but had not made that connection with this project. It’s too easy on the computer to just back up and have another go at it, which impedes the free flow of thought. I know — turn off the monitor. That’s not the same. I don’t write on paper with my eyes shut. Why would I type that way? No, I just need to spend more time with pen and paper.

A couple of weeks ago I met with a man who sought input on an idea that turned out to be quite synchronistic with my Writing for the Health of It project. He uses a fountain pen. I developed a full-blown case of pen envy as I watched that tip glide so smoothly across the Moleskine page. I have a pen. A nice one. I have no ink. Ink is not easy to find and I don’t like the idea of the tiny disposable cartridges. I also have an ancient Esterbrook from sometime like fifth grade. Where can I find ink? Will my thoughts deepen further with the silkiness of a perfect point?

The answer will appear. Meanwhile I still love my Tül gel pen.

Since my last post here, a month ago, I spent two weeks in New England, one each in Vermont and New Hampshire, where my husband and I attended Road Scholar programs. Each program included multiple discussions of local history. I was fascinated to learn that the Indians taught early settlers to kill trees in order to create open spaces for growing food. The settlers eagerly seized upon this tool and amplified it to new levels. Eventually they not only killed the trees, but cut them down for lumber and fuel. They defoliated most of the area.

In the overall scheme of things, the flaming fall foliage we see is new, regrown within the last seventy or eighty years. If I look closely, I can see the lack of majestic old trees such as we gaze at beyond the meadow we call a lawn in our backyard. But overall, the slopes look verdant and lush. They look healthy. Had I not heard about the devastation, I would not sense it today.

I’m reminded of the concluding line of Archibald McLeish’s play J.B., a modern adaption of the book of Job: “Blow on the coal of the heart and we’ll know … we’ll know … These tales of devastation and regrowth were dry tinder on the coal of my heart.

They brought focus to a growing sense that  the story of my grieving the Los Alamos devastation is only tenuously connected with daily events of girlhood. Roots were certainly there, but the details of this adult perspective are a distraction from the account of my girlhood and vice-versa.  While the two are related, the connections are so deep and complex that Tolstoy himself would be challenged to cover it all.

The die is cast. My decision is made. These two stories will be separated. Henceforth My Los Alamos Girlhood will revert to a simpler story of growing up in Los Alamos. I’ll develop the story of the mountains as a separate piece, perhaps part of a spiritual memoir that has not yet taken clear form. I may also expand the original essay that sparked the attempt to marry the two stories.

Keep it simple!

Fortunately, nearly all of what I’ve written can be rearranged, allowing me to proceed apace rather than starting over.




Having realized the dramatic shift in focus my story has taken, I set it aside to ferment a bit. I’m gently coming to the realization that the 2000 visit is not the best mechanism after all. I’m not yet clear on the possibility of combining the Love Letter to Mother Earth with my basic Los Alamos Girlhood story. To be complete, Mother Earth needs to include additional material from recent years, and I think it also needs to culminate in an additional visit for closure with the new form Mother has taken — with her new wardrobe, so to speak. Perhaps I need to scale back to something simpler and closer to my original concept to get the basics between covers before turning to Mother Earth.

In a few days my primary target reader will be here for a visit. All six of our grandchildren live way across the country from us, so we have never had the opportunity to spend time alone with them as they grew up. The oldest are well into their teen years now, old enough to fly unescorted, and the Portland pair is due to arrive on Wednesday. I plan to discuss this challenge with Stephanie, and feel certain she will have thoughts on the matter.

What a surprise it was when we realized we were calling our children for advise. It’s an even bigger surprise to realize my grandchildren are mature enough to have significant opinions. I’m thrilled that they have reached this stage at relatively young ages and also a bit daunted to realize I’ve lived long enough that those babies are nearing the point of leaving the nest. To keep things in perspective, I remind myself that by the time she was my age, my maternal grandmother had five great-grandchildren with another on the way.

Anyway, in honor of their visit, I don’t plan to be actively working on my story for at least a couple of weeks. It may be longer. I’m teaching a newly developed class in September, Writing for the Health of It, at both Carnegie Mellon’s Osher Institute, and the one at the University of Pittsburgh. This is not a writing class, and I’m doing lots of further research to beef up my presentations. I’m so excited that nearly fifty people have enrolled.

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.

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.

Who knew that I was addicted to my laptop? In general, I’m not, but it is my machine of choice for working on my memoir project. When Hubby announced his intentions to take it along to Scout Camp for two weeks, I shrieked in alarm. “Can’t you take the netbook? … How about the old one (that runs Ubuntu)?”

No. Only the good one will do. The netbook is too slow for downloading photos, and … the Linux machine is even slower and doesn’t have PowerPoint.

Well, that’s only fair. I thought I could do without it for two weeks. I thought. And I can. The thing is, my brain freezes when sitting in my office chair. I can work on other things here. Just not that. Maybe I could … but … lots of other pressing matters have intervened.

So, perhaps the project will benefit from around three weeks off — by the time I factor in a quick visit with the youngest grandchildren right after camp is over.

Isn’t it funny how we become so used to a certain setting to do our writing? I have not decided if that is good or not. It is as it is.

A story hydrant? Of course you never heard of that. I just made it up. I’ve learned to put a title on posts before I begin writing because e-mail alerts go out instantly when I click “Publish” and a couple of times lately I’ve forgotten the title.

Over the weekend I spent lots of hours clicking away as story flowed forth. My manuscript grew from 11,000 words to 21,000 words — nearly double in size. (I’ve written way more than that since I began this project, but much of it was warm-up that may or may not be used later. I refer here to my current working draft.) So, as I thought of a way to describe this torrent of words that were ready to be written, I thought of the fire hose analogy. It is an apt one, but rather clichéd, and it would take lots more space: A fire hose of words … something like that. As I pondered the matter, Sarabelle whispered in my ear: “Word hydrant . . .  NO! STORY HYDRANT!”

For those who have not met Sarabelle, and that’s likely to be most of you, she is my muse. You can meet her on my Heart and Craft of Life Writing blog. I tell about the day she introduced herself to me here. Other posts featuring her are here. She has been conspicuously absent on this project, so I’m delighted she finally put in an appearance.

The only way I can explain this gush of story is that I’ve been feeling my way along with this place-based structure, and spending gobs of time looking up resource material. Also, writing about the town center seemed a bit daunting. And, I’ve been super busy with other things. On Friday evening as I sat with my laptop, I realized that I saw light at the other end of the tunnel. I could now envision the rest of that chapter. The story hydrant began to gush, so for the rest of the weekend, I set aside all optional activities and wrote. I’m a firm believer in catching story while it’s gushing.

When I got to the high school (new chapter), I’d intended to explore that memory lode, and work my way back through schools. The junior high is quite near the high school, and my grade school is between junior high and our houses. But just as I wrote some dialogue with my husband about stopping to look at the high school, Sarabelle blurted out a direct order: “Save this stop for later. Go home first. Go back to the beginning now. You’ve put that off long enough. Catch schools on the way back out.” I swear I saw sprinkles of little star thingies as she said that. I certainly felt sparks of inspiration. That’s how the story hydrant worked. Suddenly lots of things just fell into place.

Please don’t think I was churning out finished draft. Far from it. Even now I realize that I left out lots of description. For example, I mention my parents and sister a lot, but have never formally introduced or described them. I am working in lots of dialogue — more than I ever expected be able to use. But there are still quite a few places where I stuck with narrative to get the basic story down, saving dialogue for the revision stage. If the dialogue doesn’t come naturally, I’m skipping it for now.

Anyway, I’m stoked. I once again believe I can get this project polished off by the end of the year, as I intended on New Years.