on being unmindful

One would think someone who claims a writing journey of almost 20 years had learned a thing or two. I’m not quite convinced. Sure, when I was fifteen I wrote a poem about a tree and finding security with it, how I grow in tandem with the tree’s growth and how I discovered spirituality among all things nature. I also considered a tree to be like home. Thoughts of my young girl self were abstract, but I now discovered through my memoir writing journey how my conceptual considerations had evolved to something more refined and honed. Though still not convinced I had learned a few things, I understood through experiences I share in my memoir, Under the Birch Tree, how I made connections that always brought me back to that tree.

n-MINDFULNESS-628x314The word mindfulness is well-used in the common dialogue of memoir writers, yogis, spiritual practitioners, psychologists, and teachers, to name a few. In this age of continuous immediacy, mindfulness becomes ignored because of the overabundance of stimuli. It’s as if we need a constant reminder to lure us back in, to become centered once again and to hold strong to our filtering system. We tire at being mindful as we engage in a constant struggle to allow in those thoughts we deem good and block those we find disturbing or toxic. It becomes a daily battle where we are on the defensive when for just one moment we wish to be on the offensive. We look for relief, to let our guard down, to be free, to be ourselves, unbothered and vulnerable once again.

As I grew up, I experienced disconnections. It was as if I was on the defensive, warding off the effects of divorced parents, moving from the only home I ever knew, and not experiencing social interactions inherent with girls coming of age. How I longed to be on the offensive, to connect to mother and father, to friends and to a home that had changed in order to feel more secure, safe, all the feelings found when being at home.

It wasn’t until my early adult years when I saw connections that brought me back to home, to the where I started, where I grew up. Perhaps it was a mindful practice where overcoming internal dissonance allowed me to be open to the very sight of a birch tree, my first connection to home. Mindfulness had allowed me to connect.

BCALM-mindfulness-meditation-tree-top-sliderBeing open to making connections through the senses can lead you. I write in my memoir how in my adult years, birch tree sightings were spotting home as if an instant messenger, telling me to be comforted. My birch tree gave me a focal point to refer to, kind of meditative bulls eye to hit every time I stood in front of it. It kept me centered and reminded me that there will be times of difficult growth but the sun will shine on me the next day and I will have renewed strength. In my memoir, I share one of my experiences of how the darkness of winter accompanied me when I would walk home from work at the Embarcadero in San Francisco. I relied on my senses. I smelled the bay water and heard the lapping of the waves rolling in and clashing against the rocks along Ghirardelli Square. The twinkling dots of lights of the Golden Gate and the East Bay bridges were my guide. My filled senses kept me company as I welcomed the many connections that came with my openness. I was reminded of what Henry David Thoreau once said, “In my walks, I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

When referring to mindfulness, we see an awareness of every moment and controlling of experiences. In the moment you are acting, not reacting, to life. When you are mindful, each action, word and thought is conscious. But I’d like to consider being unmindful. Of being unaware and unreacting to life, of being unconscious to actions, words and thoughts, of being on offense. To suggest being aware of every moment and conscious of thought and action is tiring and frustrating to always grasp for a state you can’t seem to reach.

Unmindfulness gives us the chance to consider the unawareness, the loss of thought, of controlling experiences, of not have any reaction to anything. Neutrality allows us to be in a suspended state of apathy where we can seek rest and relief of the mind’s work. It is when we allow our unmindfulness we can clear the fast traffic in our mind and allow for casual travel of thoughts.

My mind, void of thought and defensive reaction when walking home from work was open to the connections that found their way to me. I connected to sights and sounds, a place and touch as the cool, damp night air clung to my cheeks, in comfort and security that brought me back to home, to my birch tree.

As a young girl, I was on my way to figuring out what a tree and home had to do with me connecting to people and places. It was in my adult years when I had figured out that when maybe being unmindful the connections would find me as they did when walking at night along the San Francisco Bay.

Imagining

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As one of my favorite writers, he has simplicity of thought and an unwavering ability to observe and reflect from his time in the woods near Walden Pond. As a writer of memoir, I take Thoreau’s lead by weaving my own reflections from observed experiences to pen Under the Birch Tree.

a basic question with a perplexing answer

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So why DID I write my memoir?

Admittedly, I couldn’t answer the question over 10 years ago when I started writing my memoir. Now I’ve passed a manuscript hurdle, a professional developmental edit, and I’m polishing my book with a copy edit on my way to publishing. But who knew the life of a virginal indie author could be simple yet complicated. Who knew answering “why”, a seemingly curious, basic question could be so perplexing to answer?

I pushed aside automatic responses to why I wrote a memoir– because I could, I’m a writer, I have to write, I’ve got something to say–as insufficient and empty. Middle-age had knocked, and I needed to answer. My words had evolved changing shape and course from autobiography to a self-assessment where clarity allowed me to answer my question of what I learned from my experiences over the decades. I became more aware of my writing and what I was trying to say. Mindfulness spoke reflections and taught lessons as takeaways.

Everyone has a story to tell is an inherent belief especially for a memoir writer who speaks of personal issues and deep emotion leaving nothing unexplored and everything to the public. I questioned if I had a memoir because my story was not like other published memoirs. I didn’t have an illness, a tragedy, a loss. I didn’t necessarily have a “thing” happen to me, about me or with me. I made no references to pain, per se. Despite my misgivings, I kept with it, massaging the details of my experiences hoping that through my thoughtful words and story my reader could identify a universal belief, one that would elicit an “aha” moment.

My memoir’s backbone is chronological starting with my young girl self in the opening pages. My scene was set where I grew up when I marked my home’s boundaries by walking its outside perimeter. I would begin and end at the same place–in the front yard standing next to a birch tree as if protector, growing in tandem with the walkway leading to the front door. I developed a kinship with my tree where standing next to it was my safe place and the front yard was where I learned connections and established my roots with every step. I showed my tree as metaphor woven throughout my story.

As I peeled away the layers of my timeline, I would discover connections to home and how they were presented in many ways. For me, the smell of eucalyptus in cool, damp air and the fragrance of pine trees laced in the sip of red wine connected me to a home in San Francisco. Our connections are bridges that keep an open path to home, wherever that may be.

It is with my story of overcoming adversity in my coming of age and faith-driven adulthood to finding safety and security once learned starting when befriending a birch tree, where I learned a first connection to home.

I wrote this book so that people can walk through their day of life, tap into their connections and always be at home.

how i finished my memoir

When I was a young girl, a small glass ball threaded by a thin plastic rope through a pinhole hung over the lock of my double hung window in my bedroom. When the brazen sun enveloped the plant vase and took hold of the gnarly roots, I wouldn’t just see budding foliage, but tiny rainbows upon the refraction of light.

599b43bb6bd1302ad7089929dd43c688Sometimes we don’t always see what’s in front of us.

I didn’t see the obvious until after over ten years of writing my memoir and examining my events and experiences ad nauseam. I didn’t see what was in front of me because I was too focused on finding complex meanings.

My memoir began with a chronological structure, a timeline of autobiography of events and experiences. Though I understood it didn’t make a memoir, I didn’t understand how to turn it into one. I read all I could about memoir including books and blogs and I listened to presentations by professionals. I rejected reading other memoirs because their writing was different from mine in theme, story and structure. I didn’t have an illness, a tragedy, a loss. I didn’t necessarily have a “thing” happen to me, about me or with me. I made no references to pain, per se.

I persisted in examining my words and looking beyond their meaning, trying to read between the lines as I compared my writing to others’ strong themes that spoke clearly. I reasoned my memoir couldn’t be like theirs. Because it wasn’t. And because of this, I saw the difference work for me, not against me. I saw a clarity I had yearned for. This simplicity was in front of me.

I began my story when I was a young girl when my mother insisted my photo be taken on my first day of kindergarten in front of the picture window of my house. I obliged her because my favorite tree was near, plotted in the center of circling greens where it stood tall and arabesque in front of me, as if to say “look here and smile.” My scene continued, my birch buddy and its branches not shading my eyes squinty from the sun’s high noon rays, my pixie haircut aglow in sun-bleached hair and my tanned body offsetting my navy dress, patterned in tiny white polka dots, with an appliqué of paint brushes and an artist’s pallet in primary colors at the hem. My dress was too small and my chubby feet were crammed into blood red Mary Janes. But I stood at attention with my feet together and my hands folded in front to pose with my heels brushing against the yellow marigolds in full bloom.

But my story was not just about me, my surroundings and a tree. I tried to look for deep meanings in my early memories and after many rewrites and flushing out themes and through-threads I realized meanings were not deep at all, but at the surface, right in front of me. I realized I had a connection to trees and to a specific birch tree in the corner of my front yard that the association was central to my theme. Connecting with my birch buddy made the irritations of a too-small dress and short-strapped shoes diminish as my buddy’s arms welcomed a toasty blanket of sun overhead. It was my tree that ushered a smile on my face and a squint in my eye allowing my contentment to win over my physical discomfort and adversity.

When I realized what was in front of me, that I was present with my house and my birch buddy, that I was at home; I knew I had my story.

Looking back on my overall memoir writing experience, I wrote every 78,000 plus words of my experiences and adventures, the people I had met and the conversations with them as enriching my life. Whether discovering a new place, engaging in a conversation, listening to music inside and the harmonies played outside, tasting the bitters of food to mouth or touching a numbing cold, discovering the simplicity of living life through my senses was key to finishing my memoir.

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When I explored the very connections learned as a young child beginning with a birch tree, I realized just how my life inspired me to see what was in front of me.

A sighting of my tree buddy spurred memories when I sought to be at home. Trees became a metaphor for living, a guiding symbol for finding home and the beginning for my story. My tree had a purpose.

“Developmental edit is complete,” Annie, my editor said. These words were not expected so quickly after my rewrite from her first edit. I’ve cleared a major book writing hurdle, one I’ve been working to overcome for years. I hope to publish next year, completing my vision for my memoir. I have learned it is about the journey, it’s about enriching our lives by living the moments. It’s about seeing what’s in front of us.

a developmental journey

I doubted the day would come. I had been working on my memoir for over 10 years, admittedly at a more stop than go pace, chronicling the timeline of my youth, coming of age to adult years. I had recorded memories, nestled them in my mind as if contributing to my DNA, creating a map to become the person I was destined to be. I thought my memories and sensory connections that reminded me of my encounters with people and places, to a birch tree and to home were enough to guide my memoir in establishing an innate connection I would have with my reader. I thought I had what it took not only to call what I was writing, a story, but also a memoir. But my writing fell short of what made a story and a memoir.

writingThe day did arrive when all of it came together. However, I do not take sole responsibility for mastering my arrival. Professional intervention and a rediscover of a time when I was learning more of myself and the places where it happened worked together to overcome the hurdle of development, pulling story and memoir in tandem.

My first engagement with a developmental editor was as I expected. She questioned me in the right places, prompted me for more when needed, and called out my many contradictions. I accepted that I was on a long road to my new developmental rewriting journey. I called on my stamina and dug my heels in deep, to acknowledge difficult work ahead to uncover deeper issues and expose their meanings. It wasn’t until pensive work, detailed analysis of what was behind each scene, its placement, the paragraph and the chapter, answering my own question of why I chose to write about it in the first place, when I had landed on the other side. When this journey had ended, I had lifted from the ground and stood on the other side of the barrier. Developmental edit complete.

I likened this journey to growing up as a little girl in my house on Carlisle where spaces had become a Petri dish for my development. I would often sit on the yellow and white shag carpet in my walk-in closet and engage my mind, filling silence the closet walls enveloped with talk in my creative thoughts. I surveyed the perimeter of the closet floor, spying an Etch-A-Sketch, Light Bright and a plastic briefcase containing art supplies. A large shoebox filled with crayons, a Singer Genie sewing machine with a macramé box slid underneath, knitting and crochet needles sticking out of an old canvas bag lined the opposite floor. My cave-like surroundings gave me security and inner contentment as the closet walls loomed tall and wide yet my small being sat small and narrow in the middle on the floor. My view was not limited to this space. I would turn my head to the outside, to my bedroom where a small glass ball vase with a hole threaded by a thin plastic rope hung over the lock of my double hung window caught my eye. The brazen sun enveloped the ball and took hold of the roots as they struggled to expand in their water-filled round bottom. The light filtered and refracted upon the globe into tiny rainbows. I smiled from seeing rainbows on my window. I was confident and in control of these spaces where I wasn’t alone—I had all that was me huddled around me, reassuring me of who I was.

When I confronted my developmental-lacking manuscript, I needed to tap into all I could that would guide me through newly written pages. I recalled my comfortable familiar as I once did in my bedroom closet and bedroom, evoking emotion of pleasure and happiness, of all that was me. The confidence and security felt while settled in my spaces reemerged in the drafting of new, enriched pages. My memories boasted large to get me through developing my story and calling it a memoir.

Recalling a comfortable familiar time and holding hands with the sensory emotions and feelings reassured me that my memoir would be developed in the best way I understood. I was sure to reach the finish line after mastering the hurdle of developmental editing. That day had indeed arrived.

riding the wave of a writing contest submission

letterwavedetailLast fall I won a writing contest for The Magic of Memoir edited by Linda Joy Myer and Brooke Warner of She Writes Press. This was a first time I entered a writing contest and a
first win for anything that had to do with my writing. A win at anything says it all, a handshake in welcome, validation that you’re writing well, and self-confidence to keep going and tackle another contest perhaps. I decided to ride a wave of a newly diagnosed writing karma and consider submitting to another writing contest.

Starting to write an essay from a blank page, no, really solid, bright white, is paralyzing. What’s more daunting is the word “contest.” It’s like you know you’ve got a test coming up and you better start cramming now so you’ve got plenty of time for your best answers to shine at the time of the test – the submission.

I’ve never been one to enter writing contests just because of the competition. I know the level of my writing, what I’m capable of producing and I admit it’s probably not competitive enough with the writings and writers who have been the contest submission route many times and have published. It’s taken me 15 years and unmeasurable hours of practice to now consider I’m ready to submit another time.

My main consideration to submit is the topic or theme. The writing contest I am considering asks writers to write about any aspect of the writing life. I like the topic; I have a few ideas. But when contest guidelines require an essay about a topic I have neither interest nor knowledge, even the best research I could do would still not yield an effective essay. My lack of contest submission track record could be explained, for example, in a guideline suggesting my interpretation of a given word, such as “adaptation,” as I recently saw in one magazine’s contest announcement or a niche theme such as the supernatural. My lack of connection to my topic or word would be evident in poor writing.

I can write a more effective essay when I have an immediate reaction about a topic or word that catches my eye. I know it happens when, upon the first few seconds I read the contest guidelines, a thousand bolts of ideas strike my mind. I know I’m on to something when I need to scramble to type the ideas on that big white space before they dissipate from my head.

My writing life is the memoir. I can draw from my memoir writing experiences – rewrites, development, editing, self-discovery, connecting – and write that which I know. Writing from the heart, from personal space and from a core knowledge developed from my writing experience is all I need to craft an essay.

Memoir writing gives me the opportunity to tap into the unexplored and find meaning of what is discovered. It also presents a universality when reading a paragraph, a sentence or just one word results in an, “ah, yes!” in birth of a connection from writer to reader.

Perhaps writing about the supernatural or your interpretation of a given word strikes you with the right chords to compose a winning essay. I’m sticking with that which I know and have learned over the years of practice – the writing life – to submit my chances for another win in a writing contest.