Tag Archives: Writing prompt

What Does Your Memory Smell?

I’m slowly putting my memoir in chronological order (from age eleven) and deciding which scenes to leave out and which to put back in (that I had already taken out). The story has to be told differently in the order it happened in, as opposed to a present day telling that dips back and forth. Stories connected in a more thematic way before, but now the reader has to be able to follow threads where they may stray farther afield for a while.

There was a scene I’d first written several years ago where my mother tried to persuade me to go to medical school. It has connections to two major threads, so I was thinking of putting it back in. I couldn’t find it anywhere and now wonder how much of my story I’ve inadvertently deleted or lost. But I did find some old writing exercises that were kind of fun.

Here is one from a class with Faith Adiele:

In trying to work on the muscle memory assignment I became very frustrated by all the memories which are not available to me.  I wanted to smell the dirt in Kalamazoo.  When we dug on the playground at McKinley school, which was next door to the celery fields, we pulled out spoonfuls of rich black muck.  Muck holds a lot of water in it, maybe because of the clay base to the soil.

When we planted petunias in the dirt behind the filling station, Grandpa told me that the muck was like Dutch soil and that we knew how to work with it, that it was in our blood.  When we moved to Portage, which is a suburb of Kalamazoo, the soil was brown.  Mom said it was sandy soil from all the lakes in Portage, but I’m not sure it wasn’t just plain brown dirt and that she thought it was sandy in comparison with what she grew up with on Burdick Street.  As a kid, I spent a lot of time digging in the dirt, building forts and hiding treasures.  I’d like to put my hands into these soils now, squishing the muck between my fingers and spilling the Portage soil from my cupped hand.  I’d like to smell them and see what I can remember.

Instead, I’ve got the Arizona dirt now.  On dry days, it’s tough, light-colored and packed too tightly.  When it rains just a bit, like it did today, and I step outside, it smells like wet sand in the air.   Looking down I see that the dirt has packed even tighter, its matte finish more dense.  It takes me farther from home and my memories.

So I wasn’t able to do my muscle memory exercise, but if I could find a Be-Mo potato chip, I might be able to do it.  Or maybe those little wax pop bottles.

Reading this is like reading my own writing in some ways, but in others, it is like reading something by someone else. After all, I have changed in recent years–and so has my writing and my thoughts about my past. I wasn’t sure what a muscle memory assignment was meant to do, so I had to search for Faith’s assignment. I found it here:

Muscle Memory: Begin to collect sensory souvenirs that you can incorporate into your standard investigations. Avoid the visual, as we tend to over-rely on sight; instead, eat a childhood candy, listen to what was popular on the radio the month your brother left home, lay your cheek against the hammock you brought back from Guatemala. The sense of smell is particularly evocative; spend several minutes with your eyes closed experiencing a jar of your grandmother’s favorite spice or a bottle of your father’s cologne. Now freewrite whatever memories come to mind.

So the idea was to use sense memories as triggers for writing.  I desperately wanted to remember what Kalamazoo muck smells like and was unable to do so. If I recall, I asked someone–probably my father–to mail me some soil.

It’s funny that I was asking for a Be-Mo potato chip or those wax pop bottles of my childhood. I can remember very well what the chips smelled and tasted like and how it felt when the tiny amount of “pop” slid into my mouth from the wax bottle, then the taste and texture of chewing up the wax.

Using your muscle memory, what can you remember?

CAT OF THE WEEK

This is Maverick. I posted earlier about his brother Moe. They need to be adopted together.

Just as I finished this post, I was notified that the shelter is having a lowered fee week for cats and dogs that have been at the shelter longer than 6 months. That includes Moe and Maverick!

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Memoir Writing Lesson #12: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away: 

Write about something you have found ugly. 10 minutes.

The other day, I saw a woman for the first time. My first impression of her face caused me to physically recoil for a second. I’d never seen a face like hers before–not in person or through the media or even in antique photographs–and it startled me because it didn’t fit the fairly liberal parameters I must have in my mind regarding human faces. Scientists or pseudo-scientists have done studies on what makes people think a particular human face is attractive, but I have never read or even seen a headline about a study on what makes us think someone is ugly. My guess is that we have a range in mind and someone has to fit inside of that range or we think they are ugly. Her face had a shape I’d never seen before–more width at the bottom than at the top, combined with a peculiar flatness that also angled outward at the bottom–angled, not sloped. Her eyes were overly large, as if the skin had been unnaturally pulled away from the socket area, and the cheeks below were not only without any definition, but were part of a large droop of skin on each side of her face. She was probably elderly, if I believed the wrinkles, but her straight and fine reddish hair looked young, almost juvenile.  What happened, though, the longer I looked at her–and I was just an observer, so I wasn’t interacting with her personality–was that I grew more and more fascinated with her looks. Soon I didn’t think she was ugly at all. Instead, I thought her looks were charming and held a strange, unique beauty.

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And that, my friends, is pretty much what happens to me with anything I first think is ugly. That’s why I am fascinated with scrap art and photos of old structures rotting into the group, gritty city scenes and reading about what people found in the garbage.  It’s all so fascinating. Don’t get me wrong; I love beauty, maybe a little too much. But so much is beautiful. And when you get right down to it, not much is ugly if ugly means something that will permanently make me cringe.
(Except for vile human behavior toward animals or other humans. THAT is ugly).

Go ahead and try it. What have you found ugly?

Not ugly at all is Jackie O! Such a sweet girl, she’s been at the shelter way too long. Maybe it’s her tipped ear? That is supposed to indicate an altered feral cat. Jackie O is the furthest thing from a feral cat. Very friendly and loving, in fact. She can be found at Home Fur Good in Phoenix, Arizona.

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Memoir Writing Lesson #11: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:

“Tell me about a breakfast you were once privileged to have.”

I wish I had a story about sharing my tiny breakfast with someone in need or a morning when I had not been able to eat after days of illness and the first bite into dry toast sent me into paroxysms (always wanted to use that word) of delight. Alas, I can’t think of anything in that vein. All I’ve got is that one event of pure and utter gluttony.

The gardener and I were young, not married that long, and were friends with another couple with ties to Chicago. They were a fun couple, and both Michelle and I were thin and fit and vain.

After two nights and a day going to museums, restaurants, and clubs, we went to a Jewish deli for Sunday brunch. Chicago friends had told us this place had the best brunch in town. Being from Michigan, we had no idea what awaited us. Michelle and I both wore culottes in the cream-colored wrinkly Indian cotton that was so in style.

When we got into the crowded restaurant, I noticed that one large room was ringed in a U-shape of very long banquet tables literally groaning from the weight of the dishes. More than one type of lox, pickled fish, smoked fish, several flavors of cream cheese, big stainless containers overflowing with real New York style bagels. All the fixings: tomatoes, onions, capers, and more than I could even “process.” There must have been a dozen salads: tuna, whitefish, pasta, cucumber and salads I’d never heard of before. Hot containers held tomato sauce-smothered stuffed cabbage and sweet ‘n sour stuffed peppers. I’d never seen so many latkes (potato pancakes) in my life. Since they are one of my favorite foods (with sour cream, not apple sauce), I seriously considered moving to Chicago, somewhere near the restaurant. They had sliced deli meats (including a pastrami they could barely keep stocked it was so melt-in-your-mouth), cheeses, and hot meats as well. One long table held every flavor of rugelach, cake, coffee cake, kugel, and cookie you could ever imagine encountering in your entire life.

At this point I should probably mention that we had “put away” a lot of alcohol that weekend. Michelle and I were more hungover than the guys–probably because we weren’t used to drinking as much as our husbands although we were all just out of college. So, speaking for myself, I was hungry. Very hungry. I filled up a plate and gulped it all down. So did Michelle. Then I filled another and ate it. So did Michelle. At that point, I realized we were in a competition to see who could eat the most. And we both continued to eat and eat and eat and eat. We unbuttoned and partially unzipped our culottes. But we kept eating. Finally, the guys got worried that we wouldn’t stop eating and tried to pressure us into leaving. By the time the brunch was over and dishes were cleared away, we both lay partially prone as we couldn’t sit upright. My stomach bulged, and my pants were completely unzipped at that point.  Michelle and I waddled out to the car and tried to slide in the backseat in a reclining position.  I began to hate my culottes just from looking at the strain on the fabric from my huge body. The two hour ride back home Michelle and I lay there groaning from the pain of all that food in our stomachs and from the laughter caused by all the jokes we were making at our own expense. I sure didn’t feel thin any more.  Or fit. I felt as if I had a different body just from one meal. To me, Michelle still looked as thin as ever, but I looked like a snake that had swallowed a cow.

Our pants looked like the blue ones in the pattern above, except for the color and the fabric type. That wrinkly cotton was soft and had more give to it than denim.

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Go ahead and try it. Tell me about a breakfast . . . .

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Memoir Writing Lesson #10: Check

In today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away, Goldberg asks us to write for ten minutes each in response to two questions. Although I didn’t write a lot in response, I realized that it’s always been easier for me to write about fear than about happiness. Seems strange to me.

“When was the first time you were afraid?”

I have already written about some of my terrifying early experiences. The kidnapper who was after me (I thought so).  And the horse ride. Now the horse one I wrote up for this blog four (!?@#%!!!!) years ago, and that is truly the first time I can remember being that afraid. If I keep searching I might find even earlier memories of fear, but this one was so scary and I was so young, that it doesn’t make sense to try to rewrite it. Sometimes after I write out a memory, I don’t want to write it all over again. Do you ever feel that way?  Anyway, you can find this scary story on A Ride with Memory, which is also where I question how memory works.

“When was the last time you were happy, really happy?”

I guess there are two kinds of happiness. The very last time I was really happy was when I looked around at all five cats and felt so blessed and comfortable and content to have them in my life. love for each one of them welled up in me. This emotional event was a simple blessing happiness that I can experience over and over again, as long as I allow the blessings to come into my life. Then there is a happiness that is full of excitement and fulfillment of dreams. The very last time I was really happy in that way was this summer when the gardener and I went on vacation. We visited our daughter in New York City and saw her amazing performance in a new musical and spent some quality time with her. I felt her happiness when she was mentioned in the New York Times and nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor along with other actors who have been in multiple Broadway shows (and one a Tony nominee). After all the years of watching her work so hard on her craft and knowing how passionate she is about performing, I felt great happiness for her. And then spending time hiking with her and going out to eat and drinking wine together–and really talking. All so blissful. The last time before that that I was really happy was when my son asked his girlfriend to marry him and they sent me photos that night of their exciting evening overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Seeing him on bended knee–so full of hope and nervousness–and her beautiful face lit up with happiness was thrilling.

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This exercise was another hard one for me, but for different reasons. Again, the fear one I’ve done several times and couldn’t go there again. The happiness one was hard because so many ways to go.

Go ahead and try it. When was the first time you were afraid? . . .

 A little worse for wear after several brutal summers, but still a bright sight.

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Memoir Writing Lesson #9: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:

Tell me about a time you washed the dishes. 10 minutes, go:

Until I read Thich Nhat Hanh, the only big events that involved washing dishes were the holiday dinners where the kids wash the dishes for me. I put the good china and silver away, after they scrub and dry them. But when I discovered The Miracle of Mindfulness I saw the daily routine of dishwashing as something more than one more chore to check off my daily list. He teaches that when I wash the dishes, I need to wash them in order to wash them. Period. I need to be in the present and feel the soapy water on my skin, the temperature of that water, and the adhering crumbs of food under my fingertips. I need to experience the slippery surface of the plate when it comes clean and watch the clear water rinsing off the dirty, seeing it come down in little rivulets. In short, I need to become “one” with the experience.  When I wash the dishes this way, I am part of the little sink area, the double stainless basins, the graceful chrome faucet, Planet detergent, foaming handsoap, and the big window–unblocked by curtains or shades–that opens out on the green of our trees, the oleanders and bougainvillea, the flagstone walkway, and the little brown fountain. In the morning, the big gecko performs his pushups and suns himself directly in front. In the summer, hummingbirds fly up to greet me.  In the evening, I can better focus on the washing itself without being distracted by the “moment” of the gecko, the hummingbird, or the buds and seedpods hanging from branches.

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What a difficult one. You know how when you park your car in the same lot you park all the time you can’t find it because you can’t remember where it is? That’s because all those times have blended together–and it’s hard to isolate that one time today you parked it. Same thing with washing dishes. I wash them almost every day!

But I’ve written about dishwashing twice before, both related to the concept of mindfulness. The first post was on January 19, 2013, and the second was almost exactly two years later, on the anniversary of my mother-in-law’s birth, January 29, 2015–right when my father was so sick and we didn’t yet realize he was dying. So while I didn’t focus on one time I washed the dishes (oh, there was that time I cut myself in the water and turned it red), at least I wrote about dishwashing.

So was what I did good for memoir? The general rule is to write the specific event. The one time something happened. If it happened a zillion times, choose one time and write it that way and have it represent all the times it happened. I didn’t do this here. The assignment I give myself is to go back and re-write the above into a single occurrence.

Is there a place for this overlay of experiences in memoir?

Go ahead and try it. Start here: Write about a time you washed the dishes.

My dear Kana

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Memoir Writing Lesson #8: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:

Write for 10 minutes about Jell-O. Go.

In my mother’s grocery cart I was used to seeing a few boxes of Jell-O, along with Campbell’s chicken noodle soup and Chef Boyardee ravioli, which my mother pronounced raviolah and the neighbors called raviolee. For years I didn’t question why Jell-O was one of the main food groups. Meat, potatoes, vegetable from a freezer box, store bought dinner roll, and of course, Jell-O. That’s what we ate too often for my taste. Jell-O was a suitable dish for church potlucks. And when it came time to bring dishes to Grandma’s for holidays, Mom or one of my aunts had to bring the Jell-O: two-sided, one cherry and one orange; mint-green made with the lime-flavored mix and cream cheese; or a plain color with mandarin orange segments or canned fruit cocktail floating like thumbs and pinkie toes in formaldehyde. Jell-O was tolerable when other parts of the meal weren’t: lima beans, beets, and brussel sprouts. Then Anique moved in across the street. She wasn’t part of the family. They had six kids, all under the age of ten, and I babysat for those kids. When Anique arrived as an exchange student from France (although she was German with a German last name—the W like a V), I no longer had to babysit, but walked across the street to see her anyway. On the day we met, I asked her what surprises she had found so far in America. She didn’t even have to think about her reply. “Jell-O!” She shuddered when she said it. I asked her if they had Jell-O in France. She laughed and told me that French people would never eat anything so disgusting. Although I didn’t really change my opinion of Jell-O—I’d never respected it or even loved it, but it was tolerable on its own (i.e. no floating garbage)—I could see it from her perspective. I no longer took it for granted that Jell-O was a major food group.

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 I realized after I wrote this that the memory of Anique’s words was so vivid to me because it was a defining moment: I no longer had to see the world through the eyes of my family.

Go ahead and try it. Write about Jell-O for 10!

We always have black kittens and cats available at the shelter–except around Halloween when they are not up for adoption.

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Memoir Writing Lesson #7: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:

Write about coffee.

Ten minutes on coffee? Goldberg figures everybody drinks it, or if they don’t, they stopped for some reason. But I have never had a cup of coffee. I don’t know why. When I was a kid my mother’s two younger siblings, my aunt and my uncle, didn’t drink coffee either. All three of us liked ice cream, and we all preferred it with baby spoons so we could stir it up with Hershey’s chocolate and then mince our way through it with those tiny spoonheads. But coffee? No. My dad was a big coffee drinker. He never drank water, but drank coffee instead. His blood must have been part coffee. My mother also drank coffee, but a human quantity (unlike Dad). Whenever Dad wanted to rest from his relentless expression of hyperactivity, he’d hold out an empty coffee cup and ask my mother to pour him some coffee. I never liked the smell of coffee, a smell I associated with an odor of garbage, something that is over and done with, discarded. Like cigarette butts. Empty cups and overflowing ashtrays. On road trips with my parents, we had to stop for “a cup of coffee.” It was never for a Coke or a burger or a snack. But a cup of coffee. And my father took that quite literally, ordering himself coffee. When I was young, it was coffee with cream. When I got a little older, he drank it black. Until the year he died, my father drank coffee at 11PM every night, just before bed. By the time mom climbed into bed after him he would be asleep. That last cup never kept him awake. Maybe my father’s relationship with coffee had something to do with his undiagnosed (except by me and, later, my father himself) ADHD.

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Go ahead and try it. Start here: Write about coffee.

Simon who lived at the shelter and just went to his own home!

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Memoir Writing Lesson #6: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:

“Name three times when it came to you clearly that you wanted to write a memoir. Go. Ten minutes.”

Just after we moved to Phoenix, the gardener handed me a piece of junk mail and asked if I wanted it. The brochure from Gotham Writers Workshop offered online courses. Since I work at home (now that I’m retired from teaching) for our business, an online course appealed to me because I could fit it in “whenever.” When I looked at the genres, I suddenly knew I wanted to study memoir writing. I had an unfinished story that I’d inherited, so to speak, and I wanted to be able to share it. Maybe I wanted to be able to monkey around with it, try to figure things out. Maybe I wanted to solve the mystery and air the secrets. If only I knew them. I’d already studied poetry and fiction years ago when I got my MFA. Creative nonfiction barely existed in those days–and our program didn’t offer them. I wasn’t smart enough to think about memoir as a vehicle for my story in those days, although I tried over and over with poetry. Most of those attempts fell flat. So I signed up for my first memoir course.

Another time I knew I wanted to write a memoir was when my father did something that upset me very very much. I was middle-aged and he was treating me as if I was a kid. And as if I was wrong. When he was irrational and vindictive. Rather than talking to me, he mailed me a letter. When I got it, I was so upset I picked up the phone. Luckily (not) for my mother, she answered it and got my wrath dumped on her. After a conversation where she tried to defend my father as I accused, I finally had enough and said, “This is why I’m writing a book!” While my comment was as vindictive as my father so often was, I don’t think my intent was: I needed a place to vent and sort out the insanity of what I’d been put through for so many years.

The third time I clearly realized how it important it was that I write and finish my memoir was when my father died. While he was dying, we talked every single day. It wasn’t all small talk. My father was compelled to talk to me about the past and our relationship. He apologized. He explained. He told me things I didn’t know–about himself and about me. I finally had the ending for my story, and I also had the reason others would want to read it because it became a story of forgiveness as much as a story of survival.

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I find some of the structure of Goldberg’s sections amusing. After naming this exercise, she goes off on a tangent of how important it is to find writing friends (thank you thank you for my writer friends–I love you!) and going to readings (and similar writing or writer-based activities).  I’m not sure how that subject connects with the prompt, but I think the prompt is important because knowing what made you want to write a memoir helps you to find your (true) story.

Go ahead and try it. Start here: Name three times . . . .

Moe is one of two long-haired feral brothers living in the roaming room at Home Fur Good in Phoenix. They are doing well at getting socialized. Moe’s brother Maverick is perhaps more social than Moe. His fur is darker in tone, and he is a bit bigger than Moe. But Moe is the one who wanted to pose for my iPhone. Gorgeous boys, they need to be adopted together.

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Memoir Writing Lessons #4 and 5: Check

Yesterday’s memoir writing lesson (#4) from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away couldn’t be posted. The prompt is to write “I don’t remember,” and the idea is to dredge up the dark stuff. Her point seems to be (and I have to guess because she doesn’t draw it all out for the reader) that a memoir about only good things happening (what she calls protection) wouldn’t be a memoir/book/story/have-enough-conflict. A story, as you know, has to have conflict–that is what creates the story. Otherwise it is merely a description.

She gives permission to destroy what you write from this exercise–so that it doesn’t get into the wrong hands–at least until you’re ready.

Today’s lesson (#5) is:

Tell me what you will miss when you die.

When I die, I will miss the missing. The longing for something that is just out of reach or long past. When I am dead, this life will be completed, a finished product. It can be altered only by perspectives, as different people revise their thoughts of me through time. But my life will be boxed up and sealed with packing tape. Somebody will write with a fat black marker on the side of the box: Luanne 1 of 1. There will be no more dreams and goals, no more maybes. None of that glorious unexplored space that makes up all that world that is not the self. When I die, I will miss my family. They won’t be my family any more because they will move on and change and become different without me within the family as a living presence. So I will miss them in a physical sense, but also miss them as they are now. I will miss my cats. Since I will no longer be able to worry about them, I will worry about them now and make arrangements for their care when I do die. If the gardener and I die together, the cats will be divided among our two children (they want to take them). 5 + 1 + 2 = 8 cats. They will each have 4 cats, although my son might be in a better spot to handle 5 and daughter 3. I will miss helping them negotiate who takes which cats. When I saw this assignment I thought I would list all my favorites: pumpkin pie with whipped cream, fried zucchini (you knew that was coming), chardonnay, sake, Mountain Dew, trees and lakes, peonies and hummingbirds, cats and elephants and bears, the colors coral, ivory, and black, but when my fingers hit the keys I knew it would be the missing that I would most miss.

 

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These are getting harder!

 

Go ahead and try it. Tell me what you will miss when you die.

young Siren is available at Home Fur Good in Phoenix

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Memoir Writing Lesson #3: Check

Today’s memoir writing lesson from Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away:

In this exercise, Goldberg asks us to respond to several prompts. They are derived from the “I remember” prompt, but are more specific.  I will choose a couple to publish here.

Give me a memory of the color red. Don’t use the word “red” at all.

In high school I had a pair of floral hot pants that were designed with an overall-style bib front and straps that crossed in the back. The yellow daisies bloomed against a background the shade of a chili pepper.  I’d bought them while shopping with my best friend who went to the high school across town. My high school was far more preppy than hers, so when I walked through the halls in fake patent leather knee-high lace-up boots, a yellow T-shirt, and those shorts, my face and throat flamed with a rosy-hued rash. It didn’t matter that my outfit was the height of fashion on TV–it didn’t fit at my school. I felt as if everyone was looking at me and when I would look at individuals who quickly looked away, I realized I was not being paranoid. I wished I were that little birthday girl in her chiffon dress–the one with the pink top and a skirt decorated with twin-stemmed cherries. In the shorts I felt like a girl with that well-known letter on her chest.

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Tell me about a time you remember rain. Rain does not have to be the main focus.

While walking in the rain, I tend to look down at my feet. As a kid, the sidewalks on my street were uneven and sometimes damaged, so water would puddle easily both on and off the sidewalk. The brown water seeped over my Buster Browns and onto my socks when I made a misstep. Even worse were the worms and nightcrawlers that had come out of their undergrown homes to find death on the sidewalk. I remember walking home from Mrs. Blair’s house (my next door neighbor babysitter), and the time it took to walk down her driveway, up the sidewalk, and up my driveway in the rain amidst the dying worms (that smelled . . . wormy) seemed interminable. In some tiny part of my brain I am always walking that worm gauntlet between babysitter and home.

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Why didn’t I just run from her front door, across our lawns, to my front door? Was I wearing my school shoes and worried that the rain-soaked lawn would be like quicksand? Had I been taught to use the sidewalk?
The red prompt wasn’t nearly as easy as lessons #1 and #2. But the rain one was even harder for me. I couldn’t even remember any events that had happened to me during the rain, other than this memory loop of walking between the two houses. Having my memories narrowed down like this is more difficult than just writing from whatever comes to mind.

 

Go ahead and try it. Start here: Give me a memory of the color red.

Lily Lane (my grandcat and smartest cat in the world)

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