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.
I 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 memoir 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.
So delighted to have The Whirlwind Review feature my essay “My Pink Book.”
Sharing my words with you through this link:
“Why do we write memoir?” This question is posed on many writing blogs, writer websites and to writing discussion groups. I am curious to know my fellow writers’ (of personal stories) responses. I read on. They write “. . . . to wring every possible lesson . . . to learn about my own past . . . I wrote my memoir for perspective.” I continue and realize I haven’t read two same answers.
I read with great interest a post by Maria Popova on www.brainpickings.com, to learn the reasons from a few celebrated writers on the art of telling personal stories. One possible explanation is that we are drawn to memoir maybe because it has something to do with our longing. Joan Didion explains, “for keeping on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” Delving deeper, there has to be something that drives memoirists to open up to strangers, urging them to take heed to their exposure that reveals the good and the bad, the joys and sufferings. Novelist and memoirist Dani Shapiro says, “It’s a misapprehension that readers have that by writing memoir you’re purging yourself of your demons.” She explains that writing memoir implants your story deep inside you. “It mediates the relationship between the present and the past by freezing a moment in time.”
Consider the power behind these words, “Memory is utterly mutable, changeable, and constantly in motion. You can’t fact-check memoir.” For me, this statement could not be more truthful. I admit my memoir writing journey, one that has continued for over ten years with stops, starts and forks in the road, has been affected by its own lengthy gestation. My reflective self in my 40’s ten years ago is very different from my reflections of today. When I started writing my memoir, I didn’t know why a birch tree, thriving and filled with shoots of branches and leaves, was integral to my sense of home. My story started when I was seven or eight with a simple reference to trees. I didn’t know why I had a thing for trees, just that there was something about them. Then the reference turned to a focus on one particular tree, a birch, in my front yard, nestled in a corner where it was usually included in family photographs. Over time, my now reflective self understands what my relationship was with my birch tree, home and self. A universal theme has changed, evolved and continues to do so. Shapiro adds, “One of the greatest gifts of writing memoir is having a way to shape that chaos, looking at all the pieces side by side so that they make more sense . . . It’s taking this chaos and making a story out of it.”
I identified with Anne Lamott, author of best seller Bird by Bird who writes about spirit, generosity, grief, just to name a few of her topics, when she said, “I write memoir because I have a passionate desire to be of even the tiniest bit of help.” Another memoir author, Meghan Daum reiterates a similar idea, “To me, writing personal narrative nonfiction should be an act of generosity toward the reader.”
Over my memoir writing years, I struggled with why I was writing my book. I had scanned popular, best-selling memoirs and found most discussed common themes – trauma, crisis, pain, recovery. Though my story has notes of overcoming adversity, it’s central them is far removed from loss, suffering, addiction, self-help. I discovered I was writing pages of optimism, of the glass is half full, not empty, about trust and faith so that you, the reader, can see it too in your life. I identified with the answer to why I write as a way to learn about my past, for my perspective.
In all my reads along the way of answers to a universal question posed to personal story writers, I have discovered that responses are varied and wide-ranging and that there is no right or common answer. Each writer has his or her own reasons as to why they write. No matter what your reasons are for why you write personal stories, I’ve realized they are indeed, personal.
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.