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.

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.

part II, the problem with memoirs

c254934dc3ea1a37d1452b6c9f1b336dI can understand Genzlinger’s irritability with the memoir genre becoming over-inflated. Memoirs seem to be riding the wave of too much sharing and providing an over-supply of personal information. In Part I from a previous post, I shared Genzlinger’s guidelines to would-be memoirists from his essay, “The Problem with Memoirs,” published in The New York Times. He felt that three out of the four memoirs he had read did not need to be written. Over the years of tilling the soil of my memoir, winning a writing contest for Magic of Memoir, studying its contents and its authors, I have a deeper understanding of why memoir. I believe memoirists are people of conviction; they believe their stories must be told. Perhaps Genzlinger doesn’t see that point.

My memoir has been in progress for over 15 years and I attribute a lack of direction, substance, reflection, even a weak theme to my stop and go’s in writing. Even though I have a tidy supply of vignettes illustrating overcoming adversity, coming of age, resilience perhaps, I continue to strengthen my overall theme, my thoughts, and lessons learned to the point of paralysis.

I wrote of a birch tree growing in my front yard when I was a little girl. I believed in my tree as a metaphor for home but didn’t know how to develop the very through-thread and sew it through the story. I looked for direction through professionals who would tell me what my memoir was about as maybe a test to see if I was writing effectively enough that I was understood. I was, albeit rather weakly. I had confirmation, perhaps validation that I was on to something. Maybe this was my permission to keep going at it. “But you can never know if you understand your story until you try to tell it . . . A story lives in its particular, the individuality of person, place and time,” writes Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd in Good Prose. I persisted in telling a story, one that was sure to have particulars of me, the places I had been and the time I had lived. The more I continued telling and writing, the more what I had to say was flushed out.

But something was holding me back, keeping me from believing in me and what I wanted to communicate. I continued to be intimidated by published memoirs illustrating tragedy, humanness of being and redemption of body and spirit written with strong words and message. Pain appeared to be a common theme. I became more despondent realizing my memoir was not like the 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 make no references to pain, per se. Could my memoir even be called one if it was thematically so different from the others? Could there even be a reason to write a memoir?

I reasoned comparing my memoir to others’ was futile; there was no comparison. In Magic of Memoir (MoM), 38 contributors narrated their memoir writing inspiration. Their essays reinforced my “no comparison” stance because the essays and references to their memoir as soul-baring and raw as their emotions allowed on the page were just as remarkable as the person who authored them, professionals with a spectrum of vocations and higher education degrees. Intimidating. Once again, strong themes about their memoirs spoke clear in the subject of their essays. I yearned for stronger clarity, reflection and takeaways in my memoir where my reader and I could connect.

My mommemememoir couldn’t be like theirs. Because of this, I began to see the very difference work for me, not against me. I believed I could still connect with my reader.

A birch tree, in simple image I wrote about, was the very inspiration I needed to connect with others, to show life in the moments, to reveal a very essence of a shared humanness, our abilities and capabilities, to express the heard cries of joy and sorrow, to see the light of day and how the darkness of night can light up, to taste the bitter winds of misfortune or the sweetness of youth and innocence. The simplicity in my uplifting words and positive images revealed connections in infinite ways and possibilities in finding home, back to my birch tree buddy, the first connection and the beginning of my story.

I would not have been exposed to the professional level of writers and learned from them and their writing if it wasn’t for MoM that gave me a deeper understanding of memoir because of the very professional work created with heart and soul by dedicated writers. I would not have learned from this experience if I wasn’t also a contributor, giving me an impetus to read the others’ works, comparing me to them, my memoir writing journey to theirs. Having a clearer understanding of my story and how I made sense of the significance of those specific memories I hold today enabled me to understand the journey, the self-discovery, the sharing of discovered meaning, of what is memoir. I no longer fight with my memoir to be like most because it isn’t. And the fact that it’s unlike the others has enabled me to see its theme in clearer understanding.

I would hope that Ginzlinger would read my memoir when it is published one day and declare it one of those that should be written. I take wise words from Plato, via Krishan Bedi’s essay in MofM, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Bedi sums it up well, “It’s a way for ordinary people to discover and share the extraordinary in their lives.”

Ordinary people like me share the uplifting, inspirational, human extraordinary in my life when my memoir, Under the Birch is published one day.

tracking memories underfoot

walking-feet-clipart-free-clip-art-imagesYou 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 footstepchanged, 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.

low-section-footage-of-woman-walking-on-wet-sand-slow-motion-video-of-female-with-bare-feet-on-shore-during-sunset-tracking-shot-of-woman-spending-leisure-time-sunlight-is-reflection-on-seascape_vdgp8So 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.

the center of town

“The Deerfield Commons, it used to be over there, that entire block, with Waukegan and Deerfield roads fencing it in,” I muttered with a heavy sigh looking west as I drove north on Waukegan Road. I say it when I drive into Deerfield, the town where I grew up as I relive the memories of years passed. “This was the center of town,” I said, willing the hub back where it belonged.The center of town and I belonged with each other.

On the corner across from Deerfield State bank I see the old Ford Pharmacy with its skinny, short aisles tight with rows of shelves where I passed as a grade-schooler dressed in a plaid uniform and white blouse. The stop with Dad was custom at the shiny white counter on Saturday mornings to talk to a man who blended in with the counter standing behind it wearing a white short-sleeved shirt with buttons down the collar which continued down his shoulder resembling a priest’s vestment, like something Father Clark wore when he wasn’t saying Mass at Holy Cross church.

The Jewel grocery store was there in the Deerfield Commons with the parcel pickup man whose name I can’t remember. He was a young man who spoke with lively conversation and always a smile, never hidden by his thick chocolate-brown mustache. His dark hair was short and parted on the side, and he wore a white button-down shirt, dark tie and pants. He looked hurried while bagging groceries at the end of the check-out lane, with his tie a little loose and his shirt-tail not quite tucked in. He was polite and always eager to serve his customers, most of whom he called by name. I remember his name now. His name was Mark.

Kresges or “the dime store” as we called it, was raided for school supplies every September by the local grade-schoolers. I held my list, ready to check off my requirements as I plucked them from their bins. I could also get a milkshake there or a Black Cow (root-beer float) in the diner section, and afterward visit the parakeets in the cages aligned along the wall. I just needed to follow the bird seed remnants on the scuffed and yellowed linoleum at my feet and listen to their tweety calls to find them.

Also in the Commons, I found pierced earrings at The Gift Lantern for my newly pierced ears, solid gold balls (really they were more like dots). The Gift Lantern, with its carpeted blue floor and glass-topped wood cabinets, had many fancy sparkly things that caught my mother’s attention. Mom also shopped in Janie’s, where she got my Carter’s underclothes. Mom and I visited the clothing store a couple doors down, Junior Miss where we looked for a new outfit I could wear for my seventh grade school dance and school picture. “What do you think?” Mom asked as we stood staring at my new and improved image in the three-way mirror of the dressing room. “I think you’re wearing your big sister’s clothes,” the sales lady admitted. I didn’t think so. I felt grown up and ready to impress.

I remember the Deerfield Commons as a summertime destination where Martha, my pretend sister-friend, and I arrived riding our green Schwinn bikes with matching baskets hooked on the handlebars. It was a small neighborhood place where everyone shopped, greeting their neighbors as they got in and out of their Country Squire station wagons.

Things have changed. The Commons is gone now, replaced by high-end stores, a fancy restaurant and retail chains.The Music Center and Deerfield Bakery in town have been expanded and remodeled. The Schwinn bike store doesn’t seem the same, now that it faces a busy street with wider traffic lanes and more cars.

I still mourn for the town landscape of my childhood. And I feel regret for a new generation that never knew you could get a parakeet and a milkshake in one spot at the dime store, or a pair of pierced earrings and a gift for your mom at the Gift Lantern, or have a young man named Mark address you by name as he asked if you’d like your groceries loaded into your car.

What used to be reminded me of simpler times when the ease of shopping and the simplicity of goods were as ordinary as going to the pharmacy with Dad on Saturdays or an easy bike ride up Deerfield road to The Commons. The Deerfield Commons may have lost its original identity when it was bulldozed, but my experiences of yesterday still bring smiles to my heart and belonging to my soul as I remember what used to be.