Monthly Archives: June 2014

One Naughty Rabbit

It’s that bunny time of year! Every time I step outside I disturb a young rabbit feasting on my plants.

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I’m going to take you back to 1959 today. (Yikes, how did today get so far away from then?) I have a certain quantity of very clear memories from the age of just before two to age four. This event happened in the spring, about three or four months before I turned four.

What I am searching for today is why this is one of those important early memories.  According to  Sven Birkerts, we have memories which are involuntary.  Memoirists, he argues, “need to investigate why a particular memory of a seemingly meaningless moment has such power that it still calls to us through decades.” I wrote about this theory when I first started this blog in a post called “Breaking the Codes of Childhood.”

My parents took me on a trip far from our Michigan home–to New Orleans. On the last day, we went on a boat ride along the Mississippi River. In the restaurant, the ship’s captain introduced himself to me, then hoisted me up and tousled my hair. He placed his captain’s cap on my head. The hat fit me perfectly.

Maybe it was not really his hat, but one he meant to give me all along, like a souvenir. He and his men fussed over me, and I thought I knew what it felt like to be a princess.

Mom and I went for a walk on the deck. Somehow my thin summer coat sailed over the side of the ship into the giant net that encircled the craft. Sailors tried to fish out the jacket, but they couldn’t reach it.

“Lulu, you need to learn to be more careful,” Mom said.

I hung my head. “Peter Rabbit.”

“What?”

“Peter Rabbit lost his jacket.”

Mom said, “Yes, you lost your jacket just like Peter Rabbit. He’s a naughty rabbit.”

I stood at the guard rail and stared at my little blue jacket, so recently wrapped around me, lying forlorn in the netting, so close and yet unreachable.

Peter’s jacket ended up as a scarecrow, whereas mine became fish bait

Why do I remember this memory so often? Any ideas?

* At home I had a 45 (record) with a narration of Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” so I was very familiar with the story.

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A Story of Grief

WordPress blogger Carol Balawyder‘s book Mourning Has Broken explores her grieving process after the death of her sister.

As with many griefs, Carol’s is entangled with her mourning over losing other relatives and friends and even her retirement. She writes:

I try to separate my sister’s loss from that of my mother, who died nine months before Diana. Daughter. Sister. They weave into each other by stitches on a quilt. To grieve the loss of a mother and a sister at the same time is more than the sum of the two parts.

Carol identifies her book as a memoir, but it’s not a memoir in the usual sense. Instead, it’s written in the form of lyrical essays. They are all stand-alone pieces, but together they function to give the book an arc, thereby making it a memoir in a nontraditional sense.

The journey of Carol’s grieving takes place against a spiritual landscape, but Carol herself is not a particularly religious person. That she keeps searching in religious and spiritual arenas shows me that she is a very spiritual person.  She refers to herself as an immature person on more than one occasion, but I found her to be a wise person in many respects.

The high point, or climax, of the book’s plot arc, occurs in the title essay “Mourning Has Broken.” In this piece, Carol’s new Reiki Master tells her that at the commemorative for Diana, Diana will give Carol a sign if Carol asks for one. When Carol’s sister gives her a sign it’s more powerful than imagined and has a profoundly healing effect on both Carol and on the reader going on this journey with Carol (the book’s protagonist I refer to here, rather than the actual Carol).

The writing style of the book is beautiful and distinctive, but I felt as if my best friend was sharing with me. I found myself very charmed by the book. I also made notes throughout the book, so that I can refer back to passages later.

All memoirs are part reflection and part storytelling, but the majority are heavier on the storytelling than the reflection. Lyrical essays tend to be heavier on reflection. In this book, Carol creates a perfect balance of the two (50-50? maybe), which I find fitting for the subject of living through grieving.

Carol’s book is the loveliest book about grief and mourning that I’ve read.

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There are a few typos Carol’s editor left in the book, but Carol is cleaning them up in the Kindle edition. If you’re interested in reading Carol’s fiction, she has a story online at the literary journal carte blanche. You can find “The Witness” here. 

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The End of a Special Time

My daughter leaves for her home today. She’s been with me for the past few months because she was performing in a show at a regional theatre here.

I don’t want her to leave. She’s a calm, generous spirit, and it’s been such a pleasure to spend time with her. We’ve done things I would never have done if she wasn’t with me.

We cleaned some dandelion greens . . .

and made a tart.

She scanned old family photos for me.

Ten years ago her paternal grandmother passed away on my daughter’s 16th birthday. As we went through a few of Grammy’s belongings, my daughter selected a vintage 1960s Le Monde bracelet watch to remember her by.

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And I went to see my daughter’s show. A lot.

This was a little souvenir. Can you tell what show she was in?

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Secret War Hero: One Woman’s Story (A Memoir)

Years ago, my friend, Lisa Ercolano, urged me to read a memoir by a friend of hers who had passed away. This is how she describes her friend for this post:

Over the quarter of a century that I worked as a newspaper reporter, I met and interviewed a lot of interesting people. There was treasure hunter Mel Fisher, famous for finding the 1622 wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha at the bottom of the sea; “The Amazing Kreskin,” a mentalist who flabbergasted me with his seeming ability to read my mind; comedian Professor Irwin Corey, “the world’s foremost authority,” whose conversation was so off-color that I left blushing to the roots of my hair; and a Wiccan priestess and her son, Merlin, who frightened me out of my wits by “calling the wind” and making things blow off the family’s living room shelves. I have interviewed survivors of Iwo Jima, hypnotists, Native American shamans, nudists, actors, musicians, poets (including Allen Ginsberg), children’s author Maurice Sendak and a woman who believed that the spirit of Elvis Presley visited her as she was baking in her modest kitchen. And I enjoyed (almost) every minute of those interviews.

But my interview with a tiny, white-haired woman named Hiltgunt Zassenhaus changed my life. I knocked at her door one spring day in 1993 looking for nothing more than a good story for my newspaper, and I came out with a friend. I cannot remember any other interview in which I connected so instantly to another person, nor that person to me. It was like we had known each other our whole lives. From then on, I visited her several times a week, sitting among the potted plants in her little backyard, hearing not just about her harrowing life during World War II (which she writes about in her memoir, Walls) but discussing the books we had read, her life as a doctor and mine as a reporter, our families, politics and more. No matter how varied her opinions and experiences, what came through loud and clear was her strong, unbending and unwavering lifelong commitment to helping other people and, as she put it, “serving life.” She told me, “We all have to do what we can, every day, to serve life and help others. People who hear my story are always saying ‘Oh, I cannot imagine what I would have done in your place going through all that.’ I tell them ‘You don’t have to wait — you shouldn’t wait — for some big, dramatic thing to happen. You have to act now.” Her words have echoed through my life ever since, informing decisions big and small.

Since reading Hiltgunt Zassenhaus’ book,  Walls: Resisting the Third Reich–One Woman’s Story, I have also felt inspired to live my life in a better way.

I’ve read many memoirs by Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, but this one is by a German woman, a Gentile, who decided not to play it safe, but to “fight back” against the Nazis.

Her story reads like an adventure tale. I became caught up in the danger that Zassenhaus put herself through to save Scandinavian political prisoners. I learned what it was like for her and for her family, living in Germany during the war. Although she does anything but draw attention to it, Zassenhaus’ strong ethics and sense of honor inform the book. She refused to compromise these codes when her resulting actions put her life in danger.

The main theme seems to be how important it is to speak up or act in resistance against dangers to freedom like Nazism. Her clearly written scenes allowed me to envision how and why an entire nation was caught up in Hitler’s madness. As an example, one character, her neighbor Mr. Braun, is an angry man who doesn’t get along with any of the neighbors. There is something a little “off” about him. But as the Nazi movement takes over the country, Mr. Braun becomes  the Warden of the precinct that Zassenhaus and her family live in. This gives him control over their freedom and their lives. By transferring control to “small” and dangerous people like Mr. Braun, Nazism was able to create a net (network) that captured all of Germany in its mesh.

I had to force myself to consider what I learned about writing memoir from this book. After all, I didn’t read it for analysis, but was caught up in the events of Zassenhaus’s life during the war and how she would survive. After I finished, I was overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy and admiration for such a brave and honorable woman.

But then I remembered what Lisa had told me: that Zassenhaus told her not to wait for a dramatic event in life, to step up now and perform an act that makes a difference. In memoir writing this advice could translate this way: Those of us with less horrific or courageous stories might discover that there are others who find our stories important, even inspirational.

Psst: about Lisa. She’s in China right now, helping take care of babies in an orphanage, thanks to Hiltgunt’s inspiration.

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Confession: I’m a Snoop

I guess that’s why I like to read memoirs.

My husband always drives the car when we are together. I like being the passenger because I look into every window that has a curtain open or shade up. I don’t really want to visit the house or the business. I just want that quick exciting glimpse into some place I have never been. Then a story or character description flashes through my mind before I look into the next window!

Another way I know that I’m a snoop is how fascinated I get by even the most distantly connected ancestors on my family tree. When I see an antique photograph or locate a document or bit of information for the family tree, I get incredibly nosy about the lives of the people involved.

For instance, I noticed that my great-great-grandmother’s brother’s middle daughter lost her mother when she was 6, and I began imagining what it was like to be a 6-year-old in 1900 whose mother has just died. I found out through a newspaper article in 1902, that their house burned down that year. In the article it said that the oldest girl ran the household and took care of the kids.  In 1902, the oldest was 14, so she would have taken on those duties at the age of 12. That means that the middle child had her mother “replaced” by a 12-year-old sister. All the ramifications of that began to set up a storyline in my mind.

It gets worse. I am addicted to reading other genealogy blogs where I get fascinated by the lives of other people’s distant relatives.

When I read a novel, I am taken away on an enjoyable experience, but when I read a memoir I am satisfying a craving for spying. Am I Gladys Kravitz, spying at Darrin and Samantha’s window on Bewitched?

 Anybody else want to ‘fess up to being a snoop?

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I Found A Memoir About Loss

The book is called Found. And I am so glad I did. I have been searching like mad through my brain trying to remember who recommended this book so I can thank her.

Found is actually a sequel to a memoir called Blackbird, which I have not read. There was no need to read it first, although I plan to search for it.

Jennifer Lauck is an award-winning journalist, a skilled memoir writer, teacher, and speaker. But before she was those things she was a newborn never touched by her biological mother, a baby adopted by a sickly woman and her husband who both died by the time Jennifer was seven, and a little girl sent to live with various relatives of the adoptive parents. Later she was adopted by relatives who were inadequate and abusive. She knew they didn’t love her and wanted her social security money.

Apparently Blackbird is the story of her childhood, but in Found, Lauck gives the reader enough scenes of that childhood to understand the woman Lauck became. Found is the story of that woman.

Lauck presents herself as a “tough cookie” who goes after her education and a career as a reporter with determination. At the same time, the reader learns that there is a gaping abyss of loss and crushing feelings of abandonment at her very core. When she begins to search for what is wrong, she ends up at a Buddhist retreat, and for years, she commutes between the retreat and her home. But it’s a long time before she realizes that she needs to search for her birth mother. The irony of the seasoned reporter not realizing she had the tools necessary to search indicates how far down Lauck had suppressed her real feelings.

There is so much about Lauck’s story that is tragic. In the midst of the trail of tragedy the reader follows Lauck on, guide posts are placed. These guide posts are clues back to, or threads leading from, her original identity. They also add suspense and tension to the story.

Where this book moved beyond other adoption stories I’ve read is that Lauck allows the reader to explore with her the complexity of her feelings about her losses, about adoption, and about her family members, especially her birth mother.  There are so many emotion-filled scenes, but a quiet moment that really touched my heart was when Lauck agrees to be the mommy driver for two of her daughter’s classmates. She recognizes them as fellow adoptees. In their case, they are international adoptees, from Vietnam and India, whereas Lauck’s adoption was domestic (and private, not through the state, which made her search more difficult). With this one expert move, Lauck shows the reader her growing awareness of how the trauma of adoption has affected her personality, that she has learned compassion for others (yes, others have gone through this early abandonment and loss, too), and that some of the same problems of adoption still exist today.

As an adoptive mother and sibling, I feel so strongly that anybody considering adoption today needs to read accounts by adult adoptees and make sure she pursues adoption for the right reasons and in a manner that is set up 100% to benefit the child (and maybe not even just that one child, but children in general).

Although this book focuses on adoption, most people have experienced or will experience losses in their life, and this book will resonate triumphantly within the heart and soul of any reader.

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Growing Up in Lake Country

Growing up in Michigan meant that I was always figuring out how to make decisions. And they all had to do with water. That’s because Michigan has over eleven thousand inland lakes, which means that each of the 83 counties has an average of a dozen lakes within its boundaries.

Kalamazoo County, where I grew up, has at least sixteen lakes. These aren’t cheesy reservoirs, like they have out west where I now live, but natural incubators of minnows, weeds, and snakes.

In the summer, I had the option of whether to be in or on the water. On the water meant sailing our little Sunfish, paddling the rowboat, driving the used and very rigged-up faded red motorboat with the too-heavy motor, or flying behind said motorboat on my water skis (the rare times I could pretend to some athletic skills).

Since I was a girly girl, for the most part, I usually had to have help sailing, paddling, or driving any of our boats. Therefore, on the water ended up meaning setting up my chaise lounge on the dock, covering it with a beach towel, and flipping open a book.

Young teen me on the lake

Young teen me on the lake

In the water meant floating around on some kind of well-worn flotation device, too lazy to get out, and becoming waterlogged in the process. This could be accomplished out past the weeds, but we were on the shallow, swampy side of the lake, and not too far out there was a large plateau of shallow water, lily pads, and bullfrogs. And other creatures as yet unknown to humankind. Therefore, I didn’t actually go in the water very often.

If I did decide to enter the water, I had to plan it out. Sometimes I’d walk slowly into the water. Depending on the weather, I’d do this either to get used to the cold or to luxuriate in the balmy water cooling my over-heated skin. This now brings back memories of stepping onto the lake bottom, its wet sand massaging my feet when I dug my toes in.

No, wait. I’d forgotten how we got such a smooth lake floor. It’s coming back to me now. Dad used to put me to work with a hoe summer mornings, and by lunchtime my back would be temporarily bent over and painful if I tried to stand up straight. He did plenty of hoeing himself, too, but much of the time we had to reach down closer to the roots and yank with our hands. I’d come up snorting water out of my nose and tossing back my wet hair so I didn’t have to smooth it with my hands which were slippery with weed-slime.

To enter the water for fun instead of work, instead of wading slowly, I’d cannon ball off the dock into the deep water with my head tucked so that the water didn’t blast into my skull. Then I’d swim to the old raft which floated atop four watertight barrels. From there, I could stay clear of the majority of greasy weeds.

The next decision I would over-think—and this only happened when I actually did get over my squeamishness with the weeds and the animals flitting past my toes underwater–was how best to haul my soaking wet self out of the lake, heavy water sloshing out of the seat of my bathing suit, threatening to take the bottom half of the two-piece off with it, and how fast I could scramble for a towel to get warm and not end up with skin like a plucked chicken.

It’s amazing that there was yet another decision after my ambivalence with our marsh-called-lake. I had to figure out how to make it through the winter when the lake had semi-frozen into a giant Icee. Come the first thaw, we would head out to the lake. No matter that we were still wearing jackets, no matter how many mosquitoes had sucked my blood the summer before, no matter how many water snakes I’d witnessed peeking their heads above the water line like miniature Nessies, I always wanted to go back.

Do you have any water memories from your childhood?

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Summer Spotlight: Luanne Castle

Jill Weatherholt interviewed me for her Summer Spotlight series. I had a blast answering her great questions. Each one made me think of a story I would love to write ;)!

Jill Weatherholt

Luanne CastleLuanne Castle has been a grad student, college instructor, businesswoman, wife, mom, crazy cat lady, and more. Woven throughout those other identities has been writer, but more often than not writing has had to come second to everything else.

After years of dreaming of retiring and sitting in a pretty office writing her first book, Luanne seized the day when she partially retired. Now she works from home for the family business and writes—blogs, poetry, and memoir. Her office is beautifully decorated with her creative colors of ivory, coral, and black. Instead, she sits at the kitchen laptop, alternating between writing and handling the business demands by phone and email. She finally learned that it’s better to write “some” than “none.”

Recently, Luanne completed Doll God, a poetry manuscript. She is sending it out to publishers and contests. She also sifts through her memories and the family story, arranging it…

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The Other Addiction

Maybe you don’t know a gambler whose destructive addiction has taken its toll and still think of gambling as an amusement of a sophisticated man like Nicky Arnstein in the movie Funny Girl or Jim Sturgess’ character Ben Campbell in 21. The reality is that a gambling addiction often leads to financial and emotional losses, even prison and suicide. I call it the Other Addiction because we hear so much about drug and alcohol addiction, but gambling can be just as deadly.

To find out what it’s like to live your life as a person with this terrible disease, read Bill Lee’s memoir Born to Lose. Lee is a 2nd generation Chinese-American, born in 1954. The origins of his addiction have their roots in his genetic history (father, grandfather) and in his upbringing (struggle between traditional Chinese home disturbed by mental illness and dysfunction and life on the tough streets of San Francisco amid gang life).

Lee’s book is written in a straightforward, no-nonsense journalistic style, very different from the lyrical style of The Kiss or Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. There is a simplicity to how he tells his tale that belies the hard work he put into (I’m sure) structuring his mainly chronological story. I say “mainly” because the story begins with a framework that allows him to share his story as he might “therapy” in a 12 step meeting. It begins with Bill hosting a GA (Gambler’s Anonymous) meeting and when he’s asked to share for the sake of a new member, the story begins:

My mother was convinced that the men in our family were cursed by a gambling demon.

I love how this opening focuses on how bad and longstanding the problem of gambling was for Lee’s family, as well as how it shows his mother as a traditional Chinese woman who believes there can be such a thing as a “gambling demon.”  Also, when I noted the structure, I thought “of course” because the structure seems to fit the idea of a recovery story so well. Because that is what happens and the reader knows it from the beginning. Lee’s story is one of addiction and recovery.

In some ways this book is a complement to books like The Joy Luck Club, which focus on the stories of Chinese and Chinese-American women. We get some insight into what it is like to be a Chinese-American man of Lee’s generation.

Lee also writes much of his life as a Type-A businessman in the Silicon Valley and how he juggled the demands of his job and the demands of being a single father with the more intense demands of his addiction. Addictions are soul-deadening, and that is what Lee shows the reader by allowing us into his private world.

One little warning: before you go over to Amazon, know that there is a spoiler in Lee’s bio. It doesn’t ruin the book, but something horrific occurs in the book that reminds me of another memoir I’ve reviewed here. If you want to experience it as a shock, as I did, don’t read the bio or reviews on Amazon, just order the book!

OK, now a little postscript: Lee does a great job of showing his contradictory reaction to GA meetings and depicting that the meetings and people involved are not all a positive experience. It’s a sign to stop looking for perfection. By reading this book, an addict who comes up with excuses for not going to 12 step meetings can learn that it works to take what one needs and leave the rest. I really like his whole philosophy about rehab. Let me leave you with this portion.

Many Twelve Steppers believe people can only begin their recovery after they hit rock bottom. That’s probably true for the most part, but we need to be mindful that as addicts, there is no guarantee that we have hit rock bottom. All addicts are a slip away from relapse and a potentially deeper bottom. That’s why as addicts, it’s important to accept our addictions as lifelong diseases–we’re never cured. [Then Lee gives an example of a man named Robert who was left alone, while other gamblers waited for him to hit bottom before they helped him more actively. Unfortunately, Robert died during his next relapse.] But what Robert taught me is that we need to reach out and carry the GA message to other compulsive gamblers before they hit their bottom, which in many cases is prison, insanity, or death.

Brilliant. And good advice to those who love addicts, as well.

 

 

 

 

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A Teeny Sample of My Memoir

River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative has published a piece I wrote in their weekly “Beautiful Things” column. One of the beauties is that each essay has to be 250 words or less. As you can imagine, it’s quite a task for me to keep anything I write that short.

I hope you enjoy reading “Patterns.” You can think of it as a little introduction to the memoir I am writing. Find it here. Please feel free to comment over there, too, if you have time.

Sorry about the shadows and lighting !

 

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