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.
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.
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.
Sometimes 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.
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.
So delighted to have The Whirlwind Review feature my essay “My Pink Book.”
Sharing my words with you through this link:
In remembrance of that night beginning November 9, 1938, the Night of Broken Glass.
Sometimes, I like to see my world as being either black or white, segregated into neat piles. My tidy thinking and tendency to categorize allow me to understand, to make sense of things.
But segregation is unrealistic because of the gray. There is the gray of neutrality, of not being on either end of any spectrum. There is the time expended while passing from one point to the other, like entering a lighted tunnel entrance, passing through the dark that slowly turns to gray, and then receiving the brightness. The gray becomes the necessity to get to another side, of keeping hope that there will always be a destination, that there will be light at the end.
It was bright that day, the sun blasting from overhead to the new cement underfoot and against the “Righteous Among the Nations” wall and then back up to me. The blackness of the building’s entrance was obscured by surrounding ashen gray walls. I noticed the stark contrast when the bright sunlight on one side of me met the darkness on the other side. The light and the absence of it forewarned me as to what I was about to pass through. I was stepping into a piece of history kept preserved.
My expectations of being greeted with illumination, color, pictures, conversation, and perhaps music vanished. Once inside, I was struck by the darkness and the quiet. I found no spirit, no energy, no welcome mat underfoot, nothing to offer me a sense of orientation. I was uncomfortable, out of place. I paid for a ticket through a glass window defined by dim fluorescence. The visitor desk was long, with stark lines and barely any curve to its design. Overhead beams of light cast warmth on the two women who welcomed me. But I still could not escape the darkness and disorientation that followed me, as if I were entering a tunnel and had to start feeling my way out to the other side.
After a brief conversation with the women, I was sufficiently oriented to start my journey.
“The exhibit begins over there,” the coifed, reserved woman said quietly. “Just stand in front of the doors and they’ll open.” The absence of light distracted me from noticing any signs of direction. Dark-glassed automatic sliding doors opened to the inside of the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
The museum opened in 2009, just a mile or two from my home. I was reminded of its existence every time I traveled past it on my way to and from my home. I was raised a Catholic, attended Catholic schools through college and took to learning about other religions perhaps more judiciously than mine. But I knew this museum was more than a time capsule of genocide. I wanted to see how the memories of millions of people were being honored. I wanted to understand the historical time that created such a wound in humanity.
According to President Emeritus Sam Harris, “We dreamt of creating a place that would not only serve as a memorial to our families that perished and the millions lost, but also where young minds could learn the terrible dangers of prejudice and hatred.”
The permanent exhibition is a series of twenty-nine galleries, all masterfully detailed through videos, photos, maps, and over five hundred artifacts. It is well crafted, enabling the visitor to learn a piece of history starting with the world shortly before the rise of Nazism. A dramatic display of the November 1938 pogroms, in a back corner, allowed for ample space to experience Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, the beginning of the Holocaust. I followed the flow of galleries as the world went to war, anti-Semitism spread, ghettos were created. And then there were the camps.
It was difficult to study every detail nailed in glass enclosures or framed against a dark wall, like German passports and ID cards stamped with a red “J” because there were so many of them. But it was in the details that I saw humanity being slowly stripped away with each piece of story told, through each exhibit. It clearly defied sense and logic. In the dark and the despair, there was no understanding as Jewish life grew harder with discrimination and social barriers. Anti-Semitism could no longer be a matter of religion or politics. It became a matter of biology, of race.
Public humiliation was rampant. Men’s beards were cut on the street. Jews were identified by a badge in coded shapes and color, a number. Human dignity no longer existed as Jews were completely stripped. Nakedness. To be human was to value yourself, your identity, from your hair, to your clothes to your first, middle, and last names. No one else shared these things. Your uniqueness was your humanity.
Layers of Jewish identity were peeled away until the Final Solution, presented at the Wannsee Conference, removed them from their last source of identification, of belonging: their homes. The self could no longer be defined. The extension of oneself was broken.
What is home? There is nothing like feeling at home, knowing you are firmly planted where the earth beneath you will not betray you and shift, causing you to lose your footing and be insecure or unwelcome. There is a connection to where you call home. It is where you are from, your identity.
Liberation started in 1944, but not before the deaths of a total of eleven million people; 6 million of them Jews.
What happens to people after they are liberated?
To be liberated is to be shown that the gates to life are open. Human emotions, like joy and love, are once again there. But so are mourning and sadness.
Where now are the homes? Your home is not where strangers are living or “even your Yiddish existence,” said one survivor.
It is human nature to want a place to belong. Finding firm ground in Israel was the connection for some survivors, a place they could call home. Wherever you found yourself was a new challenge, living day to day while remembering the camps. An overwhelming quest for normalcy was most prevalent among the survivors. For some, trying to become Americanized was a struggle. Going to college, finding a job, perhaps starting a business seemed to be attainable goals where a sense of home, connection, and identity could be regained.
When one survivor starting dreaming, and dreaming in English no less, he knew he belonged.
The reminders of loss were constant during holidays and in the presence of children. Memory could be reclaimed and defended even though emptiness remained. Emptiness was difficult to preserve. It faded and had limits but as long as the value was remembered.
And then there was the light.
The Room of Remembrance was like an oasis of strength and nourishment after walking through the thick, cloudy environs of death and torture. The Room was round, leaving the visitor with a feeling of endless movement, with no particular starting place or ending spot. It was an homage to six million Jews, with representative names of victims finding a place, inscribed in the walls. The light beams were warm and full of color, casting energy on those names in black letters. Sitting on a wood bench that accompanied the walls was to draw in those remembered and to promise them that they would never be forgotten. I inhaled deeply, counter to my shallow breaths as I walked each gallery. I rested in silent prayer, embracing the warmth of the honey-colored wood. And then I moved on.
How fitting that number 29, the Pritzker Hall of Reflection, should be the last gallery. The light here was bright, blue, invigorating like a beacon in the sky, a summons to let go and feel freedom and connectedness among all else that lives. In the windows, the light of a memorial candle, symbolic of life, stood in the middle of each square, with each white box set in a row punctuating the curve of the wall. It was a message of hope.
I indeed witnessed the black and the white beginning with the dichotomy of the building’s exterior and repeating in the interior where black spoke as an ominous beginning – a descent into darkness – to white, liberation and renewal of survivors. And I also traveled through the gray. It was the light at the end that signaled the beginning again. For all those who survived the Holocaust, I hope they found home in the light at the end of their tunnel.
Unlike seasons in Chicago, San Francisco’s went unrecognized. The change of seasons was subtle for me with only the calendar months marking their transitions.
January in San Francisco can be a beautiful weather month for someone from Chicago. It’s chilly but nothing a few layers of clothing or a jacket can’t remedy. Locals would say, “Oh, the rains this time of year. Won’t it ever stop?” But I saw the sun and the sky perennially blue. I would read the Sunday paper while sitting on a bed of green grass at the Palace of Fine Arts with Enya singing softly in my ears from a tape player in hand. The sapphire sky was without obstructions, enabling the sun’s warmth to bloom pink in my cheeks.
When I would walk home from work, the darkness of winter accompanied me. Since I couldn’t discern much, if any, of my view along the way, 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. I felt the refreshing cool damp air on my face and was delighted that my skin was being nourished at this time of year instead of scaly white patches from the dry Midwest winter. The lights of the Golden Gate and the East Bay bridges were my guide where dots twinkled against a dark and even darker shaded backdrop. The quiet and serenity was my meditation. My filled senses kept me company as I was not alone in darkness but surrounded in gratitude.