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.
The 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.
Being 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.
You will take over 200 million steps in your lifetime. Imagine if your feet could narrate a travelogue, reporting miles and destinations, while they are at rest, and injuries they may have sustained. They dance and run, burrow in sand, hold you in mountain pose. Your feet have tracked memories, recording the spot beneath them together with the merging of your heart and mind to make lasting impressions” Fred Astaire said, “I just put my feet in the air and move them around.” What joy our feet can give us, dancing in happiness. Feet are even referenced in War and Peace, “And each time he looked at his bare feet, a lively and self-satisfied smile passed over his face. The sight of those bare feet reminded him of all he had lived through and understood during that time, and he found that remembrance pleasant.”
You may simply view your pair as extremities to get you where you want to go. But have you ever taken a good look at your feet, though? Do you notice how they may have changed, from perhaps once chubby feet as a kid to now feet with longer toes, a narrower arch, spread wide with age? The evolution of your feet and its characteristics bear witness to the miles traveled in your life and memories you have made. Your conscious observation of intricate details – shape of the toes, alignment of digits, the sculpted curve of the arch, even the haphazard maze of wrinkles – reveal your story.
My memoir, currently in progress, spans many years. My life stories were possible because my travels got me to their starting marks. I make this point because my story is speaks to the lasting impressions embedded in the many places I have been where my feet have walked me through life, starting from my first day of kindergarten. Mom dressed me for success in a 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 with a white Peter Pan collar around my neck. My chubby feet were the center of my attention because they were crammed into blood red Mary Janes where Mom struggled to pull the strap just to the first hole on the buckle. But I maintained my uncomfortable composure anyway while standing still with my feet together and my hands folded in front posing for my picture to be taken in the front yard under bright sun. I greeted the shine overhead with a squint in my eyes while my heels brushed against the yellow marigolds in full bloom, diminishing my uneasiness. The scene created memories of summer warmth and smiles with a palette of blooms surrounding me while my feet were firmly planted on solid ground beneath them. This was where I started. This was my home, my beginning.
My little chubby feet evolved to wider foot stances, albeit still small, over the years. Whether walking, running or bike riding, my busy feet and I developed a desire for adventure and in turn, created self-confidence. My growing feet, commensurate with maturity, took me to places outside my comfortable perimeters when I left Chicago, my home town, for a new city known for its beauty, San Francisco. Traipsing my new place for hours resulted in sore feet, reminding me I had enough, for just a short while to take care of the very vehicles that enabled me to create new memories. Idle feet enabled me to absorb the present moments, the sensual details, the smell of the Bay water, the whirl of inline skaters, witnessing the love of outdoors shared by many, succumbing to the sun’s warmth atop my head and shoulders. And then onward my feet would go after a respite, treading the new earth, to make discoveries in parts unknown, and in myself where I would learn to connect back to home in a myriad of ways.
I refer to feet merely as a metaphor for the vehicle that is inherent with all of us to create life stories. Our feet lead us through travels in our lives where we feel pain or happiness from heart and mind all the way to the bottoms of our feet.
So when I strap up my bare feet in a pair of sandals, instead of red Mary Janes, I am reminded of where I have been, how I have lived and where I am about to go, reminiscent of my starting point with heels pressed against marigolds while standing in sunshine. I smile at the anticipation of knowing what is yet ahead for me. And that memory, is indeed, pleasant.
So delighted to have The Whirlwind Review feature my essay “My Pink Book.”
Sharing my words with you through this link:
My decision to leave my hometown of Chicago came without lengthy contemplation. After three unemployments in six years during my budding advertising career post college and eighteen months working in corporate banking, the city turned its back by not bestowing its wealth. My weary footsteps had marked every city corner, intersection, advertising and employment agency during my interviews and job searches. I acknowledged I had a bad attitude; I blamed the city for my inability to be happy with a job and myself. But I loved Chicago, too. I grew up in one of its suburbs; it was my home, where I came from. My love-hate relationship with my city was the catalyst to a change in my life.
While I lived in the city in my twenties I never ceased to see a cityscape coming alive. Dots of light blinked and shadows shifted against tall buildings. Blocks of darkness interspersed with occasional sun were dabbed among the streets bisecting city blocks. Lake Michigan’s water lapped the shoreline rocks, never reaching close enough to touch as if to pull me back into a night’s trance of the city mood. I would walk to Wrigley Field and buy a Cubs T-shirt and a Bears sweatshirt along the way too. I walked downtown, to my neighborhoods in Old Town, through Lincoln Park, Wrigleyville and then Lake View. The panoramic Chicago skyline wallpapered my thoughts. But soon my vision became worn and tired as I acknowledged an underlying conflict with a place that was my home.
Though I mingled with creative and motivating coworkers in advertising, my inability to get to the next job level, to connect with friends, to find a boyfriend left me questioning my place in the world. So I reinvented myself, capping my head with a new hat, and went to work for an international bank hoping my career change would give me new personal and professional opportunities. But it didn’t. After 18 months, I couldn’t make connections with my physical home in Chicago and personal place with others. My city could no longer calm my unsettledness. The streets of the North side buckled in their attempts to provide footing, telling me to move.
I headed west in August to San Francisco, the bank’s corporate headquarters, a month after I turned thirty, to a city known for its beauty, a place I had never been. I was destined to walk through this open door of timely opportunity, a voluntary retreat. Self-confidence empowered me to be courageous and move away from all that was my familiar. I was grateful for the opportunity and my gratitude carried me.
I settled into my airplane seat and buckled up, a definitive statement where I would no longer look back. I was moving forward.
“Hi. Been this route before?” my seatmate asked.
“No . . . actually . . . first time. I’m on a one-way ticket moving to San Francisco.”
I was excited to hear my words of declaration. “One-way” uttered the unusual, when round-trips were routine. I was on an adventure, to the unknown.
We spoke intermittently. He gave me his phone number telling me he lived in the city and he’d be glad to show me around. He was a messenger telling me everything would be okay.
I chuckled when thinking that the answer to my unsettledness was moving away from home to San Francisco. I had direction, exploring farther from my apartment, hiking in the Presidio in quiet solitude while absorbing the clean scents of the eucalyptus. Exploration among the giant redwoods made me giddy with freedom, getting lost in their shadows along narrow paths. Connections were made as I grounded to a new home with every step. However, a contrasting world was outside the gates. The glaring sun spotlighted zooming cars and groups of young people shouted and laughed while walking in animation. I connected the dots from the Palace of Fine Arts to the Marina Green and then to the Bay to create a picture of my new home, never talking my eye off the cityscape and ocean’s horizon while trekking the Golden Gate Bridge. My footprints were established, marking my spaces and unearthing my place to be.
This was my new life where I was cleansed of past struggles and black clouds that traveled overhead with me, starting over with new people who would never know my discontented past. My inner strength was learned in gracious ways with a renewed carefree spirit.
By October the following year, the Bus Stop, a local bar, became my social gathering place.
“Your Bears aren’t doing well in this game,” uttered a deep voice.
George, the bouncer was standing near the door while watching the football game on the overhead television screen.
“You’re for the Bears?” said a thin-framed man sitting by the window. I noticed his thick, chestnut brown eyebrows almost meeting in the middle.
“I am, and I’m from Chicago with good teams. Which game are you following?” I asked as I pointed to each of the four television screens stuck to the walls.
“The Detroit game,” he declared.
“Are you from there?”
“You’re not from here, are you?”
“Okay, then, so where are you from?”
I had to look hard to see his blue eyes set under those caterpillars nestled above and behind oversized glasses.
I never thought Mike was from California because his non-conformance to the fashion statement of the San Francisco preppy male told me so. His jeans and flannel shirt looked shrunk to his frame and were more in style of the North Woods than Union Street. But then I didn’t look like I was from there either; I was out of the uniform of khakis, white button-down shirts and chunky sandals with my Midwestern Levi’s, hard-soled shoes and a sweatshirt.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I work here,” he said.
“And what do you do?”
“I work for a bank.”
“I work for a bank too, but I’m not a banker,” I declared to him.
For the first time I was okay with not having career but a job because I had a life outside of work, one that included connections to new friends and to a new home.
My newfound settledness offered a respite for me to learn life lessons. Passing years were required for evolution, to be massaged, to be absorbed into the stream of life and wisdom where each lesson was built upon learning from its predecessor. I would always get a job and there would always be a place for me to be. Hope kept my faith.
My decision changed me and how I looked at my place in the world. I could not have left Chicago, my home, until time granted me the ability to be comfortable in my own skin and to risk leaving the familiar. I made room for present moments and to trust that life is good. I had to move away from the only home I knew to find a larger encompassing home with connections that mirrored their reach like the redwoods to the sky in the Presidio. Moving away was a gift to me and validation that I had made the right decision. And when I learned and understood my lessons, I met Mike.
I was thirty-five when I married Mike and I could never have been more ready.
My move from Chicago to San Francisco changed my life.
On a Saturday morning a few years ago, I responded to a hankering. I needed to free a hall closet in my house of clutter. I understood what faced me – the messiest offender found in three files buckets – as soon as I opened the door. I spied a particular grey one packed askew with folders and paper and then I delved into the vessel with abandon, plucking a few files, ready to purge the litter. Inserted within the stack were large sheets of thick white paper aged to tan, folded into untidy quarters. I held the curious parcel like a treasure in my hands before separating the folds to discover blueprints on another side. I spread the poster-sized drawing flat on the floor then squatted to read the details of the reverse print. My girlhood home was illustrated in blueprints. The building commissioner from the village had given his approval, stamped September 4, 1964. I was two.
I was taken aback by my discovery. Where did this come from? How did I come to find this? Why now?
We were lot #18 on Carlisle Avenue in Colony Point. William D. Murphy was the architect . . . ¾” Driftwood panelling in the family room, (“paneling” was misspelled) . . . Donley Brothers Dutch Oven Door in the fireplace, below the mantle. There were views of the inside including the basement and crawl space, however, there was no attic. I was disappointed that artifacts of my ancestors, accompanied by dust and cobwebs, telltale signs of age, would not be found there. Old family photos were few. Letters bundled by a single string revealing my family and their relationships were nonexistent. I wanted to discover a rich heritage, a connection that might have been squirreled away in hidden corners of the basement. As I followed the thin white lines with my fingertip, a magic wand, I drew a circle engaging the contents to blossom with life. I was no longer seeing empty space.
At that time of this discovery, I was a couple of drafts into my memoir manuscript. Basics were written, scenes, characters, memories but I lacked details of which I knew were needed to bring sound to my voice and an invitation to my readers to join me on my story’s journey. Yes, I remembered my home, the black, red and cream colors in the living room, the black and white checkerboard floor in the entryway and flashy red carpeting snaking up the stairs and how sun spotlighted the right rooms like lights illuminating scenes on a stage thanks to a decorator who created the perfection Mom demanded. But I wanted to remember more, the relationships among my family of 4, the lessons learned and the disappointments suffered as record of my growing up. I wanted to retrieve memories of connections of home and family that disengaged quickly. The blueprints unfolded in white print, turning pages to show detailed floor plans, once empty, then filled to tell my story.
I was back in my childhood home where I saw colored details in the many rooms. A pink and green wallpapered mural provided a backdrop to the pink wrought-iron kitchen set centered in the breakfast nook and made me feel like I was dining in a fancy cafe. A large floral print in shades of green on paper hugged the dining room walls. “No sliding on the wood floors, you’re going to get splinters,” Mom would yell to Tim and me. Socked-feet were mandatory for speed to escape when chasing each other. Mom’s statement was serious enough for me to stop, questionable enough for me to examine the bottoms of my feet for loose brown specs imbedded in the sock’s white stitching. I resumed sliding – when I confirmed there were no wood fragments– all the way into Timmy. We were bumper cars, knocking each other off our feet, disabling our slide progress.
The more I studied the blue pages, the more the beginning of my life story was revealed. This disclosure was necessary for my memoir as an anchor to my theme. I quickly understood my questions as I paused to consider what I really held in my hands. I had found the answers there. I don’t remember how I came to have the blueprints in my possession after all these years but I was meant to have them, to rediscover my home and its connection to it and to my family where detachments grew within the confines of my red brick house so long ago.
I believe in a lot of things. I believe the sun will rise from the horizon and awaken all that was dormant in darkness. I believe the sparkle in the night skies are stars in the universe. I believe in Christmas. I believe in Santa Claus. I also believe in my memoir and my strength in writing it. I believe in its completion. I believe it will be published, one way or perhaps another.
When I was a girl, I learned to believe. During one summer vacation my brother and I tried swimming lessons at Exmoor Country Club where Dad played golf on Saturday mornings. One morning, the sun was warm and bursting out of a deep blue sky when we went to the Club for our lesson. I sat on the rough ground poolside and felt the coarse cement pull at my bottom. Rocking back and forth, the water and I fell into a rhythm. The sun’s reflection off the white cement made me squint hard as I stared into the bright water, watching the ripples inch toward me. I became mesmerized by the visual chant distracting my sense of place as I looked deeper, hypnotic by a bottomless pool. Its depth fooled me. I was under water. My eyes popped open, arms fanned and I kicked my legs. I struggled to reach the top or maybe I was moving deeper toward the bottom. I remember the Catholic school nuns at Holy Cross School telling me to always remain faithful to God, so I yelled at Him, invoking my faith, “Get me out of here. Where do I go?” I prayed to find my way to the surface. I heard my ears fill with water and then I couldn’t hear anymore. And then I found light. The bright beam had guided me to the water’s surface. The light found me. I believed God didn’t let anything bad happen to me.
Since that experience, I reasoned that as long as I believed, I would find my way.
Melissa Heisler, writer of “From Type A to Type Me, challenged my thoughts when she said in a recent newsletter post, “This year I’d like to explore how to make things happen by not making things happen . . . We have devoured the concept of Law of Attraction where we create a vision of what we want and through our focus we make it happen.” She suggests instead of focusing on outside manifestation – writing goals, creating plans, creating vision boards – we instead focus on inside channels – the way to allow our best to come our way. She does continue to suggest ways on how to make things happen without making them happen. I applaud her approach, though for me, without my goals and my plans, I’m an aimless wanderer.
I believe in vision boards. Without my vision board for my memoir, well, it might as well not exist. I have a Facebook page for my memoir, “Under the Birch Tree.” Though clearly the page is meant for a published work, mine is not – yet. My blog, Facebook page, personal essays and any other pieces of my writing pie contribute to my board, my vision of a completed memoir. I can see its cover image, its title (“Under the Birch Tree” is a working title only) and its typeface. I see how its spine looks when stacked in line with its bookmates. I believe in it just as clear as I saw the light guiding me out of the uncomfortable depths of a swimming pool long ago.
I remain a believer; in the power of vision and that I will find my way.