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Our relationships to our mothers have so many different layers of connection that we sometimes forget to ask ourselves the core question. Do I really know who this person is?
Mothers Day is a wonderful time to appreciate our mothers and the roles they have played in our lives. Though it is often a time for gratitude, for some people it is also an opportunity to be honest about what they didn’t get from their mothers, to acknowledge the lack or the pain that can plague your whole life because in most cases, your mother was the one who first mirrored back to you that you matter. If she smiled when you smiled, you knew you could trust and feel accepted. If she ignored your earliest gestures and cries, then you began to worry about what you would need to survive your loneliness. But today’s blog is not about her role in relation to us. It is asking: Who is this woman?
For those of you who have already read my memoir “The Woman in the Photograph,” you are not surprised to hear me raise these questions as you know I spent almost twenty years in pursuit of the question: Who is the woman in the photograph before she became my mother? But even if your family history doesn’t have the added obstacles and complications that mine did–a mother who escaped from Nazi Germany and chose to lock the past away, including any relatives or family stories silenced as a by product of that decision. Even if there is more continuity in your family history, have you asked about the details of your mother’s past? These days, we do tend to talk about ourselves more than people used to and many older people have even tried their hand at writing about their lives. But I don’t just mean the dates and events. The key to our emotional inheritance lies in the underlying attitudes and conclusions drawn from experience, often passed down to us implicitly and well as explicitly.
Mom, what were the pivotal events that changed your life? How did you feel when that happened? How did it affect you? What choices did you have then? What did you take away from that experience?
I met my mother-in-law Arlone when her six children were grown up and already forming their own families. She lived in El Dorado, California and spent her days growing roses and grapes and knitting afghans and sweaters for her grandchildren, eventually numbering twenty-three. I had a picture of her as a person who rarely left home and took minimal interest in the outside world. She seemed content to putter around while her TV continued its constant hum in the background.
Then I heard the story of her youth, born in Wiltse, Kansas, orphaned by her mom’s death and raised by her grandparents. When World War II broke out, she went to Witchita to work at the Boeing plant and was on the team that built the first B-29 bomber to role off the assembly line. When asked about her life, she went back again and again to that time. It was clearly a significant experience of her self at a time when she believed she could make a valuable contribution, the years before the men came back from war and she settled into the semi-suburban rows of houses in San Leandro and started raising a family. As I heard her stories, I saw the vivaciousness and felt the confidence with which she once embarked on her life, and wondered where that person had gone or how she still showed up in Arlone’s life. Knowing about her earlier years, I also understood more of her attitudes, her disappointments, her broken dreams, her beliefs.
The New York Times ran this article “Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them” to remind us of all a photo can tell us, whether your mom is still here or not. Get out those photos today, and get on the phone if you’re fortunate enough to have someone to ask questions. Sometimes we are more influenced by what we don’t know than by what we know.
And if you need more inspiration and a page-turning memoir mystery, “The Woman in the Photograph” is FREE on Kindle in honor of Mothers Day until midnight tonight. Enjoy.
“A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.” Leonard Nimoy posted this as his last comment on Twitter before his passing into the great beyond this week… a place where he is probably right at home. OK, he didn’t specifically refer to memoir writing but his words are such a perfect description of how we can use memoir writing to keep our life garden blooming and renewing.
Our memory is a technological miracle. It records every experience we have. Before the age of two, most of these experiences imprint as a sensation that remains in the body, a feeling that may arise later without our thinking it’s connected to anything from the past. It is a somatic, pre-cognitive memory. Around two years old, our memories become more cognitive and our memory may include a feeling that arises as well as images, words, messages. I saw this happen for the first time when my grandson Bodi was almost 18 months. Being a twin, it was not that noteworthy that his brother Asher bonked him on the head with a plastic car. What was extraordinary was that I saw the original event, then about a half hour later Bodi came over to me and re-enacted the event accompanied by his adorable but unrecognizable vocabulary. “Eh, eh,” he said, grabbing the sleeve of Asher’s t-shirt. Then he tapped himself on the head with his fist in the very spot Asher has previously bonked. Aha, from being just in the moment to moment experience to a narrative about something that occurred earlier. Cognitive memory!
Most of our memories just languish in the so-called subconscious, perhaps a great lake full of forgotten moments that lie on the bottom harmlessly letting time wash over them. Some memories remain with us because we took an interest when they occurred though they are neutral. And others are highly charged because they were pivotal moments and accompanied by strong feelings, positive or negative.
When we write about our memories, they emerge from their buried sleep and come back to life with a chance to evolve again. They are like the perennial flowers that seem to have died but awaken again the following spring. They draw their life force from a bulb or tuber stored in the ground over the winter. When they push their green shoots back into the sunlight, they keep their essential nature but can manifest in a fresh and new array.
Over and over in my memoir writing classes, I hear people say, “I haven’t thought of that in years,” or “I see it differently from this perspective,” or “I feel like I am right there living it again but I have my wise self with me.” When I wrote my own memoir about the search for my mother’s past, I felt like a re-opened my relationship with my mother and it got to evolve over the next decade and come to a new understanding and connection. By the way, The Woman in the Photograph is back on Kindle both for sale and free as part of Kindle Subscribe.
I will continue on this theme of how memoir writing can change your life in the months ahead. For now, thanks Dr. Spock. Live Long and Prosper.
Today is Veterans’ Day and with this occasion come many different news items that have to do with veterans and the contribution they make. But what touched me most personally today was a story about veterans, both men and women, expressing their experience of serving in Iraq and Afghanistan through tattoo art on their bodies.
“We all carry our stories. This is a way of telling the story without having to say anything,” one of the veterans reported. And the theme was repeated by everyone–whether a way to approach post traumatic stress, remember significant moments, memorialize loss, honor their buddies or express an identity that can’t be put into words.
A picture can say more than a thousand words. But sometimes there just are no words. When people are in a war or life threatening situation, we revert to the parts of our brain that focus primarily on our survival. Almost like a child’s precognitive state, we may not be registering our experiences in words, or even left brain thoughts. Yet they are being recorded on the body. I see the inherent harmony in using body art as a way to acknowledge these profound, often unmentionable experiences. The images work with our consciousness and over time our witnessing mind can begin to digest and integrate the information.
Some years after the Viet Nam War, author Maxine Hong Kingston led writing groups for Vietnam vets and others who served in Vietnam. She said that it takes about twenty years to look back on your experience and really be able to write about it. As a therapist and writer, I understand how the combination of time elapsed and the capacity to witness from some distance allows us to look at difficult situations from our childhood or our family history, without reactivating the traumatic feelings again. In memoir writing the witness can touch tender memories and yet bring healing with the perspective of wisdom gained over time. I experienced so much of this while writing “The Woman in the Photograph.” I had feelings but as the memoir writer, I had some control over my response to them. Perhaps that is what vets experience when they look at their tattoos, a bit of distance from the intensity yet a window to enter into reflection, integration and some resolution.
The War Ink project gives a new voice to our veterans, our sons and daughters, parents, siblings, friends who served. It is a site worth visiting. When you listen to the stories these veterans tell, whether with your eyes or your ears, you are also supporting them as they have supported us.
A photo of my mother also told me a story she hadn’t ever talked about. Today and tomorrow are the last two days to get The Woman in the Photograph on Kindle digital, FREE. Enjoy.
Not being a big hot dog fan, for me the best part about holidays is that you often learn something about history that you didn’t know. It is especially true this week when we get the Independence Day discussions on talk shows. Driving to the gym this morning I landed on KQED Forum where Michael Krasny was interviewing several historians about our founding fathers (miss those founding mothers) and our Declaration of Independence, which unfortunately didn’t quite give the same rights of independence to everyone. Maybe that’s why our lives are never done. We need to keep evolving and re-interpreting and making words from over 3 centuries ago relevant to our current consciousness. And although scientists say as a species we have evolved because of our flexibility and capacity to adapt to new situations, we have not shown ourselves to be so flexible regarding our old ideas. Could they let a few more of us on the Supreme Court please?
That said, do you love learning some new tidbit about history as much as I do? One of Krasny’s guests was Kenneth Davis, a historian who has written a book called “Don’t Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History But Never Learned.” He had me at the title, humming the old Sam Cooke tune by the same name. I always appreciate a good book title. Most of us know very little about American history. And the bare bones we get in school are often misleading and sometimes downright incorrect. I used to wonder why historians keep writing books about subjects that have already been covered, but now, as a memoirist myself, I understand why.
History writing is like memoir writing. History comes alive through an observer, and each observer sees differently and brings a new perspective. Pushing the comparison just a little, historians, like scientists, will claim ownership of hard facts: letters written by John Adams, records of significant meetings, drawings that show who attended, documents in the graceful hand of calligraphers on parchment paper. FACTS. But in truth, a historian, to be a good one, must be intuitive like a memoir writer, must listen to the stories one can gather and see the connections, understand the context, bring in the humanity, because behind every act or event there is person who drew from his or her past experience.
Perhaps “The Woman in the Photograph” is a limited, very personal piece of history. But sifting through the scraps of truth, the documents and photographs, the remnants of conversation, the memories of others, I discovered with new appreciation the art and craft of a good historian. Perhaps it is not objectivity that makes a good historian but just the reverse. Subjectivity that brings the characters to life so we can know them and be part of history. Thought you might enjoy my book trailer, with its wink at history.
I have found that realizing “I don’t know much about…” is the best starting point for a new adventure of discovery. Happy Fourth!
Readers and writers are in an intimate relationship, and don’t let anyone tell you they write only for themselves. Yes, sometimes one writes because the words demand to be expressed, without regard to whether they are popular with others. But guess what, you are also the reader of those words, learning something new and discovering what lurks in your own unconscious as you hear your own narrative. You can be both the reader and the writer, like one of those fantastic plants or insects that have both the male and female parts on one organism. (Here’s the call to my entomologist husband to give an example of this.)
Writing may be a solitary activity for hours, months and years, but there is never anything that is all complete in your head beforehand. No. Maybe a glimpse, but as you write, something get created. That is one of the reasons that memoir writing in particular can change your life. It is a stimulation and response experience within you. Something is evolving. It is a relationship. In my writing groups, we read segments out loud to each other. Do you think what is on the page remains the same when you speak it and are heard. I don’t think so. Something in the synergy opens new doors. Tell each other what is alive for you when you hear it. Notice your own voice when you read it.
So I propose that writing is a social activity. Two parts of yourself, or two people create a new life. Like a child This may sound dramatic, but try it. Start a writing circle with a couple of friends. Each week one of you can bring three or four opening lines and then everyone writes for 20 minutes on the one that has energy. What remains most vivid in my memory is…. The last time I saw him/her… I wish he/she had told me....Then read to each other and discover a whole fresh way of knowing each other.
I got a comment today on a blog I wrote last November after my 3-day free Kindle offer of The Woman in the Photograph in which 10,000 people downloaded my book. Seven months passed, then this week a reader picked up the story she had downloaded. And she had the generosity to send me a comment.
She said: I felt compelled to visit your site and explore it after I finished this book. I had downloaded it during this free period on Amazon and had it tucked away on my Kindle. I started the book on Tuesday and finished it Thursday morning. I loved it. Every minute of every page. I a second generation American, born of a mother whose German parents immigrated from Russia as children. Not Jewish but still German immigrants. What an interesting story you found. Thank you for sharing it.
Flash! Now I have the feeling of bonding, the oxytocin chemical that makes me feel like I am not writing in a vacuum, that we are sharing something far more universal than the particulars of my own story. I am part of her story and she is part of mine. Life is a relationship. Writing is a relationship. When you have a pen, or a keyboard, or a story to tell, you are not alone.
Pick up your pen, open your computer, your tablet, your mind, your heart. Write a phrase, a line, a paragraph, and read it to someone, or send it to someone, just for fun, just because words are a door. Enjoy.