Memories and Their Power

Ann Patchett says: I’m very sure that my memories are true and accurate, and if I put them up against the memories of my family or my friends, they would have very different true and accurate memories. Even if they differ from a sibling etc.

Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory

“You have your wonderful memories,” people said later, as if memories were solace. Memories are not. Memories are by definition of times past, things gone. Memories are the …faded and cracked photographs, the invitations to the weddings of the people who are no longer married, the mass cards from the funerals of the people whose faces you no longer remember. Memories are what you no longer want to remember.”
Joan Didion, Blue Nights

That’s Joan Didion, her words veering toward the negative. Because loss is tragic, hard, challenging. She longs for her daughter. That loss shakes up the foundations she depended on, and I applaud her words as a search for strength.

But can we be nostalgic when we are young? Yes.

Anne Frank was, writing in her diary of days past, knowing those days were gone, that her world was imploding and that she might never again sit in a classroom, walk the streets of Amsterdam free and unhindered, look forward to love, marriage and children.

Anyone who looks back in longing–for a friend, a house, a parent, an experience, can feel and write about their longings–this is nostalgia. You want something back, that you don’t want to forget.

CREATIVITY AND REMEMBERING 

There was a time when I began to write, that nostalgia seemed to propel me. Why? I was young, and I saw that my experience was in some ways limited. Some changes in my life had already happened (loss of a parent, early responsibilities as a result). And I saw that I didn’t want to relive my childhood, but that it dwelled within me, making my losses and gains part of me, the engine of my creativity.

Because when you write, you are either pulling things out of your own experience or making shit up. Both land on the page, and wow, you’re a writer. (Though not necessarily a good one. It takes time, lots of time. Maybe forever.)

SO WHAT IS THE ENGINE OF CREATIVITY?  

When Author Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, The Dutch House, Commonwealth) takes a memory and infuses it with meaning, she then uses it in one of her novels. She describes her process this way: “I’m very sure that my memories are true and accurate, and if I put them up against the memories of my family or my friends, they would have very different true and accurate memories. Even if they differ…” Because we know that fiction comes from seeds of experience. IT COMES FROM LIFE, FROM LIVING. And what one person sees or hears or feels, can differ from another.

EVEN FICTIONAL CHARACTERS LIVE IN OUR MEMORIES 

One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Strout, discovered that her characters refused to stay within the pages of past books. Though Strout left her home in Maine for New York City, Maine stayed with her. So did the voice, the face, the life of Olive Kitterridge, the eponymous title of the collection of short stories that won Strout the Pulitzer for fiction.  But Olive wasn’t finished. She continued to speak to Strout, and thus Olive Again came to be, more stories that take us back to Maine, but also (and this is to amazing and clever) bring back characters from Strout’s other novels. It’s delightful for Olive to find herself living in the same senior facility as the mother from Amy and Isabel, that being only one example. After writing My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout felt compelled to learn more about Lucy’s beginnings and sent her back to a small town in Illinois to reconnect with her siblings and other in a collection of stories, Anything Is Possible. We all do this: let our memories grow, fill out the stories of our lives, enhance them. At some level WE ARE ALL STORY TELLERS. 

WRITE IT DOWN 

Many of us kept or still keep a diary. It’s our lives on paper, our deepest thoughts and even our anger and our hurts. It’s not fiction, but it can fuel fiction and it always comes from the power of memory.

Talk to an old friend. Discover that the mention of a place, a high school crush, a certain teacher brings back a flood of memory. And though they aren’t always positive, they are part of our lives. Joan Didion wrote Blue Nights after losing her daughter. She wrote The Year of Magical Thinking after the death of her husband. Joan used the power of her memory, of her words to seek healing. Each and everyone of us is a vessel of stories. Write them down. They are part of you, and they have power. 

Writers and where they live…  Part One

Writers and where they live…  Part One

The Santa Ana Winds of California

 

I’ve written a memoir of my early years in Chicago. I’ve written about PLACE (the house, the streets, the vegetation, the traffic, the people on the streets) because it colors so much of who we are. (You can reread my first post about PLACE here.)

No one can write fiction, a memoir, a biography without PLACE becoming a major character. Think of the wonderful selection of memoirs that have become best-sellers: Black Boy, All Creatures Great and Small, Born a Crime, Becoming, When Breath Becomes Air, The Glass Castle….all are filled with references to the place the author has lived, the streets he or she has walked.

And if you have moved during your life (I’ve lived in three different states) or even if you have remained in the same place your entire life (New York City, Colorado Springs, Huntsville Alabama, only to name a few) HOW DIFFERENT your life has been from the lives of others and from mine.

ILLINOIS 

Illinois is flat, flat. Even as a child, I knew that was in some way a detriment, as if flatness could be the butt of jokes. Then, after fourth grade, my amazing mother took me and my brothers to California! My uncle and cousins lived there, so why not! We traveled on the California Zephyr that runs from Chicago to San Francisco. WOW! Our train revealed parts of the country I had never seen: the plains of Nebraska, the Rocky Mountains (real mountains not hills), Salt Lake City (they washed our train there) and on to San Francisco: the trolley cars, the harbor, the steep streets.

Weeks later, after seeing the Grand Canyon and Albuquerque, New Mexico, we headed home on another train, the El Caspitan that runs between Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chicago. I met a girl my age on the train. I can’t remember where she lived, but it was a more glamorous place than what I was going home to. So when she asked me where I lived (flat flat Illinois) I said we lived near the “hills and the flats.” (a truly fourth grade answer) But it wasn’t a total lie. Beverly Hills, Chicago, is called “hills” for the following reason:

High bedrock under the retreating glaciers left the most prominent feature in the area, the Blue Island Ridge in South Chicago, a 6-mile-by-1-mile table of land that sits 25 to 50 feet above the adjacent flatland. Residents often identify their community as “Beverly Hills,” a reference to that glacial ridge just west of Longwood Drive, the highest point in Chicago. Wow, the highest point in Chicago …Even as a fourth grader, I knew that was something, and I lived two blocks from that RIDGE, which we called, “the hill.”

BEFORE AND BEYOND ILLINOIS

But after Illinois, there was Iowa (some hills) and then for the last seven years, California, I could see the bottom of a mountain out my window. But how does one, how does family gravitate to a place?

Again, the Uncle that moved there, his family, my cousins. We kept up the visits, weddings, touring. My brother moved there, and then one of my daughters did; grandchildren were born, and so yes, we did our California time and it was wonderful. I’ve written about California on this blog.

But I’m not alone, some of our most treasured authors have written about California, Joan Didion being one of them. Her works include: Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play It As It Lays, The White Album, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. The last two volumes are diary-like, Didion trying to come to grips with the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and then the death of her daughter, Quintana Roo.

THINGS SO CALIFORNIA: The Santa Ana Winds 

If you have ever been in California when the Santa Anas blow, then you will feel them blowing in Didion’s passage:  

There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sand storms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to flash point. For a few days now we will see smoke back in the canyons, and hear sirens in the night. I have neither heard nor read that a Santa Ana is due, but I know it, and almost everyone I have seen today knows it too. We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks. I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air. To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.

WIND, FIRES 

What did I love about California? Besides being near my grandchildren…sunshine is ever present. It lifts your spirits, though there is something called June gloom, but that is infrequent. The blue sky is full of dry soft winds, now and then a jet stream (at least where I lived). There are pepper trees and jacaranda trees, roses everywhere. Some people say they help hold back the fires.

Because yes, there are fires. (And earthquakes, though in the 7 years we lived there, we had only two experiences: one when my desk kinda rolled; the other hardly felt. But we bolted our TV to the wall, used museum glue behind art hangings. We also had two large emergency canisters in our garage which we never needed.

Wherever people live, they adjust. Joan Didion writes:

Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.      

For instead of “fire and rain”, California has fire and wind–“It never rains in California, but Girl don’t they warn ya…

FINAL THOUGHT

As Edward Albee wrote: There is science, logic, reason; there is thought verified by experience. And then there is California. 

Next Week: Part 2

Weather and How Life is Lived

Pepper trees blowing…

“Let’s start packing now. Last year we weren’t ready, but this year we will be,” my husband said.

We were packing our car with clothing, jewelry, computers and memories. We were packing our car because we live in Southern California, and it was October, and the Santa Ana winds were blowing. In past years, we didn’t think too much about it. In fact, one of the years we lived here some people were saying the drought was over.

THE WEATHER OF CATASTROPHE, of APOCALYPSE: Joan Didion 

The drought is not over. This is global warming. And though there might be snow in our mountains and come January the rainy season might cause the arroyo behind our house to fill with water, so that you can hear it rushing as it seeks Malibu Creek and the Pacific Ocean, it’s not enough. And it sets up a vicious cycle, causing the wild mustard and lupine that spreads through the hills around us—to grow six feet high. It’s gorgeous, but when it dries, and it always does, it’s fuel for a spark that starts and then spreads as the Santa Anas blow and blow.

Joan Didion wrote in Slouching Toward Bethlehem: “Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

CELL PHONES STEP UP

What’s amazing is modern technology. No, it can’t stop the fires, but under the weather icon on our phones, it listed the hours that winds would be blowing—from 4:00pm on Tuesday through noon on Thursday. Blend that with weather predictions of 50 mph winds with gusts up to 70mph and you start to worry. You remember the dried-up lupine and mustard in the hills nearby just waiting to combust. Add the wind prediction and you pack your car.

Tuesday night it blew and blew. Wednesday morning it had settled somewhat, but then around nine we turned on the TV and a fire was raging near the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. The crow has to fly to make a connection to our little community, but what if that crow flew on a 70mph gust. We were packed. We waited. One good thing—we couldn’t smell smoke. The winds were blowing in another direction. I called my nearest neighbors, California natives. One was going to yoga. The other was packing a few things. The winds kept blowing.

IF YOU REMEMBER A SNOW STORM, EARTHQUAKE, TORNADO, YOU REMEMBER FIRE

Because last year when driving back from a lunch near the LA airport we could see billows of smoke to the north and to the east. I couldn’t forget the words of many neighbors that very evening that fires never came our way. What? Do you believe in some kind of magic? Yes, in Sleeping Beauty the rose bushes grew tall and gnarled and kept everyone away from the castle. But fire can cut through anything. And that night the smell of smoke was strong and the wind was strong and soon phones were ringing and everyone had to GET OUT.

Last year we were not prepared, hurriedly packed, forgot things. Last year we were damn lucky and able within 18 hours to return home. No home in our little community burned, but just a few Chicago blocks away, houses burned and the park and duck pond about a mile away was scorched.

Last year we drove home to see firefighters smashing grasses and hosing down the hills near us. Last year five firetrucks were parked in the grocery parking lot near our home when we ventured out to buy food. Last year, there were banners across the 101 Freeway proclaiming our gratitude and love of our public servants—our firefighters and police, our paramedics and ambulance drivers. Last year people made signs and secured them to fences and house-fronts. THANKS THANKS THANKS.

AND SOMEONE WHO KNOWS NOTHING ALWAYS HAS A SAY… the political fallout. Someone drops in for a few hours and proclaims that we need to RAKE OUR FORESTS. That person didn’t offer any help. 

CALIFORNIA’S ETERNAL SPIRIT

California is not dead yet. Neither is the rest of our country, though others deal with hurricanes, tornadoes, also drought and don’t forget earthquakes. Oklahoma now has many earthquakes because of fracking. California has earthquakes because it’s California, it grew up on major fault lines. Global warming is affecting everyone. Don’t kid yourself.

And after the fires were controlled, in the LA TIMES, Steve Lopez took up the criticism of nationwide publications calling doom and gloom on this amazing state. He listed what keeps 40 million people here. “The beaches, the mountains, the deserts, the sunsets, the rural, the urban, the red, the blue, the people, the wildlife, the languages, the history, the diversity, the endless curiosities, the energy, the universities, the music, the art, the food, the culture, the climate, the risks that work, the experiments that failed, the long tradition of break-away politics and the collective agreement that you can say or think of us what you will–we don’t really care one way or another-just shelter in place (unless you’re a firefighter) and please don’t move.” 

When Joan Didion wrote about the Santa Anas…”To live with the Santa Anas is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deep mechanistic view of human behavior,” she might have been the foreteller of California truths. As Lynell George writes in the TIMES today: “We come to Didion for dusty palms, pepper trees, eucalyptus, the soft ‘westerlies off the Pacific,’ but also the concrete overpasses, cyclone fencing and deadly oleander. It’s home.” 

Californians as a people love to dream. One of those dreams is that the fires don’t come your way.

Photo: Pepper Trees are Pretty Much My Favorite from PINTEREST

Books That Pave the Way for Life’s Journey

Books That Pave the Way for Life's Journey

Books can take us on many journeys and I love to get lost in fiction. But ever so often a book can inform, change an attitude, a choice, maybe even a life. Having the ideas of thinkers and researchers at our side when we have a question, a problem or a new idea can make the difference between informed choice and blowing in the wind. The net makes it even easier, as you can type in a term: education, marriage, parenting, employment, health, exercise, travel, science, politics–and voila, your choices are numerous. I’ve picked a few today to get your thinking about nonfiction. Some of these choices have been in print for years. Some are hot off the press. We all want to embrace the next decades with knowledge and understanding–so happy searching and reading.

I highly recommend Dr. Bernie Siegel’s Love, Medicine and Miracles that relates, through his personal experience, how death is truly part of life and acceptance of a loved one’s death makes a passage easier on the one leaving and the one staying. When he was asked to recommend a list of self-help books, he responded: “Every book ever written is a self-help book. What’s the Bible? What about Buddha? Each generation thinks somebody new is starting the process, but we keep repeating the wisdom of the sages and the ages.”

Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient was written by Norman Cousins, a longtime editor at the Saturday Review. The book relates how Cousins laughed his way out of a crippling disease by watching the Marx Brothers and thus “jump-started the whole mind-body connection.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is the memoir of Victor Frankl MD PhD, who survived Auschwitz. He argues that we cannot avoid suffering, but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory-known as logotherapy, states that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, but the discovery and then the pursuit of what we find meaningful..

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi This is one I have not read, but it is definitely on my list. If you have read Atul Gawande and Anne Lamott, readers state you should read this inspiring, exquisitely observed memoir that finds hope and beauty in the face of insurmountable odds. It is written by an idealistic young neurosurgeon as he attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? He died within two years of his diagnosis.

Blindsided by Richard M. Cohen, a Journalist and husband to Meredith Vieira. In this memoir, Cohen relates his battle with MS, startling the reader with his grace and wisdom.

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Mood and Madness by Kay Redfield Jamison This professor of psychiatry shares her personal struggle with manic depression. She is also the author of Touched with Fire: Manic-depressive illness and the Artistic Temperament.  

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion A personal favorite, this 2005 National Book Award winner recounts how Joan could continue to live after her husband’s sudden death and then was faced with their only child lapsing into a coma. (Read Blue Nights for the end of that part of Didion’s story.)

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie I received this book for one of those “life-changing” birthdays. It’s amazing. The author shines a light not only on blatant discrimination, but also the more insidious, institutional behaviors that marginalize women around the world. You will better understand the often masked realities of sexual politics.

The Book of Joy authors, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama Despite the hardships—or, as they would say, because of them—these two men are the most joyful people on the planet.

If you have suggestions, please mention them in your comments. Wishing you good health and good reading. We are all in this together.

Parts of this post appeared in 2011 in a different form.

Photo credit: janeaustenrunsmylife

True Memoir: When the Writer Gives You a Gift

And I have written before about sharing your love and your life with someone, even if they are dying. Don't be afraid. I admire the thoughtful columns of Meghan Daum. Recently she drew an interesting distinction between what writers put into a memoir–stating that it should be an honest report on a life and not a confession. She stated that some writers of memoir treat the form without respect.

“They forget about their audience. They forget that they have a mandate to shape the material into something beyond a diary entry or a rant. They also confuse honesty and confession.” —Salon, January 2013

To simplify, Daum believes

  • a memoir that reads like a confession is asking the reader for something;
  • a memoir that is an honest relating of one’s life is a generous gift, a sharing of a life so the reader will feel less alone.

When I read THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, by Joan Didion, I was transported. Didion worked through the loss of her husband in that book–but she wasn’t asking me to weep for her, she was offering the gift of shared human experience. From her book I wrote my piece THE DAY OF MAGICAL THINKING. I then read her next book, BLUE NIGHTS, about her daughter’s illness and death. I cherish both of these honest and endearing works. Didion from The Year of Magical Thinking:

We all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. 

So true, and yes lately–we have been reading a great deal about shock and awe on Elm Street. FOR A CHANGE– I’d like to focus on stories that are shockingly wonderful. Stories of success and happiness–because they can happen just as fast as sorrowful events. We all need to work harder at focussing on the positive.

  • So Meghan Daum has a point: let’s focus on those people in our lives who are walking memoirs, the ones who share their lives and their stories with us and give us some joy.
  • They don’t harangue us with negatives, tear down the way we live; they aren’t constantly begging us for attention and complaining about their lot. We do not need their ugly negative thoughts.

Didion was deeply hurting in both of her books; she was in sorrow over the loss of her husband and daughter. But she gave of herself with openness and shared with her readers the JOY of her life, the WONDER of those precious relationships and the POSITIVES of the human experience.

Have you ever thought about writing a memoir? It’s more than a diary. It should really be the awakening of memory and the sharing of your soul. When you search Amazon for books on how to write a memoir, there are many to choose from. But this one stands out. Mary Karr, in THE ART OF MEMOIR, writes about memory itself:

Memory is a pinball in a machine–it messily ricochets around between image, idea, fragments of scenes, stories you’ve heard. Then the machine goes tilt and snaps off. But most of the time, we keep memories packed away. I sometimes liken the moment of sudden unpacking to circus clowns pouring out of a miniature car trunk–how did so much fit into such a small space?

I’m no Meghan Daum or Joan Didion, but I did write a memoir over 15 years ago, that like other work I have done is filed in a cabinet. I searched that work today, found a passage that might qualify as GIVING you something–I am certainly not asking for forgiveness or confessing a sin. This goes back to my childhood. I am trying to remember it. Did the clowns spill out of the car trunk?

My mother gives us a record with the story of the PIED PIPER of HAMLIN. I play this over and over. It is a strange story about a town infested with rats, about a piper who can rid the town of these pests, and then, because he is not properly paid for his deed, plays his pipe once more, coaxing the children to follow him out of the town along a winding road, over a hill and eventually into a long tunnel. It leads to a place where the honey bees have lost their sting. This last detail I always remember. It seems to linger with me, the tunnel, the honey bees that don’t sting. I keep picturing all the children in line in the darkness and then emerging into the light at the other end. There are flowers and trees and the warmth of sunshine and these marvelous bees. 

Sometimes, when I lie awake and the hall light is off, I worry that I’ll hear that strange alluring music, that I will disappear into that tunnel. It is in the dark of that bedroom that I discover how dry my lips can get, the existence of uneven spaces between my teeth, the clutching pain of stomach cramps before vomiting. It is the darkness of that room that sheds on me the light of discovery. 

P.S. I have written before about sharing your love and your life with someone, even if they are dying. Don’t be afraid. 

 

We Dream, We Plan, We Live

We Dream, We Plan, We Live

Magic Lake
Photo by Elena Shumilova

I wonder if some of the generations below us have decided that we are too old to dream. Because it is not so. There must be something in the DNA of humans, something lying fallow in our makeup that periodically blooms, grows, takes us over. We dream, we plan, we live. We go on living. Sometimes it’s hard to work toward those dreams. Sometimes the very act of dreaming provides us with solace. At our core we all have some vision that we aspire to, that we lean toward, that we encourage in ourselves and in our children and families. This blog features a woman, a mother who used her camera to bring the sense of dreaming into focus, and writers whose words build on dreaming, visions and a sharp understanding of life.

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, on understanding death. “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.”

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, thoughts on laughter. “It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it . . . so I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is much more easily spent.”

Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk, on yearning for the spiritual. “What have we been doing all these centuries but trying to call God back to the mountain, or, failing that, raise a peep out of anything that isn’t us? What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are not they both saying: Hello? We spy on whales and on interstellar radio objects; we starve ourselves and pray till we’re blue.”

Dr. Seuss on dreams. “You know you’re in love when you can’t fall asleep because reality is finally better than your dreams.”

Vincent van Gogh on dreaming. “I dream my painting and I paint my dream.”

___C.S. Lewis on dreaming. “You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream.”

___Lewis B. Smedes on forgiving, which helps dreams come to life. “Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, thoughts on writing. “That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.” And his famous last line from The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Because we do beat on, we do dream on, we do keep going. A person very dear to me wrote me this in the flap of a favorite book: Your creativity is boundless, and now I have the chance to make sure you truly believe this about yourself. My creativity, if it is anything at all, is your gift to me, and I’ll spend my life trying to give it back to you. 

Those words truly are the stuff of dreams. But so is the Valentine from the person we didn’t expect to hear from or the endorsement on Linked In, the recommendation freely offered for whatever goal, job, dream we are seeking. We all need to hold each other up, to be a brick in the wall of the dream of the persons we care about. It’s just so true, We are all in this together. 

So I thank my brother-in-law George for sharing Elena’s photos today. Because they sparked the seed for this blog post and they are truly the stuff of her dreams. Now what is the stuff of your dreams? And how are you going to work toward those dreams? And who will help you, who will offer to place a brick in the wall of your dream so that it is strong and purposeful? Please share your dreams.

We Dream, We Plan, We Live

The Bunny photo by Elena Shumilova

See more of Elena’s photos hereAnd here.

We Dream, We Plan, We Live

The Sun