Save the Seas and Write a Memoir

Ocean Country

Ocean Country

        Ocean Country is a memoir about belonging, longing, and awakening. It’s one woman’s journey from loving the beauty of the ocean and all its life forms to realizing that all the oceans are diseased, abused and in peril – unless we commit to doing something about it. Liz Cunningham http://lizcunningham.net/ocean_country_the_book/ takes us through her own grief at the imminent loss of this beauty, and the research she explores in an effort to save not only the beauty, but also the ocean’s role as a crucial life-support system.

In her research, she discovers that 50% of the oxygen we breathe comes from the photosynthesis (conversion of sunlight into chlorophyll, which is green) of marine plants and algae. She makes this more personal by rewording it: every other breath we take depends on the health of these plants and algae. How much of Earth is water? 70%. How much of Earth’s water is salty ocean? 97%.

Cunningham’s first awakening happens in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI). She’d been recovering from injuries from a kayak accident and struggling with Hashimoto’s disease, longing to return to go diving on the coral reefs in the TCI, and finally finds the energy and courage. The beauty overwhelms her: “My whole body was smiling. Diving opened up so many unexpected worlds for me, not just the ocean, but also my own body and how my breath was connected to the world as a whole.” She learns from a marine biologist that coral is a colony of millions of vibrant animals. “Not plants. Animals. Each has tentacles, a mouth, and a stomach; each spawns and propagates.” She tells us that corals sense the full moon and sunset and emit a chemical that allows them to smell each other during spawning, that they mate and propagate, growing in colonies that form the limestone reef armatures that are essential to ocean life.

A week later, shock. Cunningham returns to dive on this same reef, expecting to once again be stunned by the variety of multicolored fishes, sea fans and corals. Now the miles and miles of it are barren of life, and the coral is “bleached” – white, not mesmerizing shades of pink, purple, orange, red, yellow. She feels as if she is swimming “through the ashen remnants of a bombed-out cathedral.” She knows the reef is fighting a terminal illness.

The investigative reporter in her asks questions (a running theme in Ocean Country). “What don’t I know? What do I need to know?” She learns that there had been a four-degree spike in the off-shore water temperature, from 78 degrees up to 82 degrees Fahrenheit. That month of June, 2012, she learns, had the warmest surface temperatures ever – of both land and sea – in the Northern hemisphere.

A baby turtle from South Caicos in the Turks and Caicos islands, with Liz Cunningham

A baby turtle from South Caicos in the Turks and Caicos islands, with Liz Cunningham

Realizing the need to explore the ocean in other parts of the world to understand the destruction that is occurring, and also to preserve the life of the seas, Cunningham travels to the Californian Coast, the Mediterranean, and the Coral Triangle – the Indonesian-Philippines bioregion. Everywhere she goes this question directs her quest: how can we live without leaving a trail of destruction behind us? And a new one from all she has learned: If we really do share an interconnected destiny with other creatures, how do our lives need to change?

Liz Cunningham’s search for answers concludes after swimming with a mother humpback whale, whose eye, big as an apple, looks at her with calm, care, and confidence. The mother’s calf wobbles close by. Whales have their songs. If Cunningham could give us just one song, she writes as her final word to us, it would be this: Find someone or something to save. Be specific. Now’s the time. 

As I write those words of hers, hear them repeated to myself in my own voice, they reverberate in my soul. I notice my heart is beating faster. It’s urgent. And it’s a love story.

Find out more about Liz Cunningham and Ocean Country at her website:


Ocean Country

Ocean Country


Ten Ideas to Enhance Your Desire to Write

You have a story to tell. You are the only one who can write your story. Taking one or several steps in the writerly direction may offer you the necessary incentive to put your plan into effect. All the steps below are rich ingredients for a compost pile. With the right combination, the pile heats up and there’s nothing stopping you from growing gorgeous sentences that reach for the sun.

  1. Join or start a writer’s group.
  2. Keep a daily journal for three months. Take a break, then go for another three months. Etc.
  3. Join or start a book club.
  4. Read a book a week. Make notes on what you liked, and which authors to read more of.
  5. Read the book section of a newspaper: the weekend Globe and Mail, the Star, or the New  York Times.
  6. Sign up on line for The Writer’s Almanac. It’s free, and brings wild ideas to your mind.
  7. Listen to people talking – at home, on the bus, at the gym. Record conversations. Listening  (and remembering) is a lost art.
  8. Listen to a radio broadcast about books. For example, The Next Chapter on CBC with Shelagh Rogers. The immense variety of fiction and nonfiction spark the imagination.
  9. Interview your mother or father about their early years. Ask about feelings, sounds, smells, and the music they loved. Write up.
  10. Be generous. With yourself, with others, and with flowers.

    2013-09-19 03.49.03

    Flowers for you.



How to Cook a Memoir

What we eat and how we prepare it says much about us and the period we are writing about. In Thailand, grasshoppers are dropped into boiling oil and eaten much as French fries … and, every grasshopper eaten will not itself eat crops. Eat or be eaten! In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert equates the preparation of a lunch in Italy (asparagus, goat cheese, olives and oily salmon) with a new-found happiness. In One Native Life, Richard Wagamese undertakes learning how to make bannock from his mother and finds it a spiritual experience. This morning, my breakfast was a banana-strawberry smoothie, with a big handful of spinach and small dollop of honey, all thrown in the blender, and it was so very delicious. I’m sure my billions of gut bacteria were wriggling with pleasure.

Sweet Potato Soup

Sweet Potato Soup

In fact, food is so crucial to human experience that sometimes an entire book is published on a single ingredient. Three fascinating such books are Sugar by Elizabeth Abbott, Salt by Mark Kurlansky, and Scurvy (about Vitamin C) by Stephen R. Brown. Did you know that more seamen in the age of sail died from scurvy than from swords and guns?

Some questions that may trigger memories associated with food: What dishes do you prepare that take you back to your childhood? Do you have food allergies? What, if anything, do you bake for birthday parties? What memories do you associate with marshmallows, corn on the cob, oranges in a Christmas stocking? When did you prepare a meal with gratitude? Do you or did you say grace before a meal? What foods have you grown in a garden? Eating is a sensual experience in that it involves all five senses; Describe a meal you enjoyed making use of all the senses. When did you go without? Did you ever lose weight because there wasn’t enough food? Do you make an attempt to buy local, and if so, why? Did you ever boycott a particular food for political reasons? My mother stopped buying grapes in the seventies to show her solidarity with California grape growers who were paid too little and had no benefits. Writing food stories every day for a month could unearth good stories about yourself, your culture, and world events.

I like to think I’ve become a pro when it comes to winter soups. (Grinning wryly as I sit here at my computer.) Sometimes I have to face flops that are, well, inedible. You see, the scientist in me likes to experiment with recipes, and it’s never quite the same as the original. This one is my own version of an uncommon sweet potato soup. Most of the ingredients are local. I wish I could say the lime came off my own tree. Neighbours have their own lime tree that lives outside in a pot in summer, and in winter they bring it into the house where prolific summer blossoms become fat juicy limes round about December.


Sweet potato soup

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, diced

2 teaspoons chilli powder

3 cups vegetable broth (bouillon cubes)

5 cups cubed peeled sweet potatoes (2 large)

1 1/2 cups soy milk

3/4 cup yogurt or coconut milk

1/4 teaspoon salt

zest of one lime

2-4 tablespoons fresh lime juice


In a large pot, place oil, garlic, onion and chili powder. Sautee 3 or 4 minutes over medium heat, until onions are soft and translucent.

Add broth and sweet potatoes, bring to a boil then simmer for 20 minutes.

Blend in batches, using some of the soy milk to thin if necessary.

Return to pot and add the rest of the soy milk, the yogurt or coconut milk, zest and lime juice.

Heat, but do not boil. Serve. Garnish, if desired, with a swirl of yogurt or sprinkling of cilantro leaves.

This sensational soup is vibrant orange. Served in a blue or white bowl, it looks like a work of art, a Matisse perhaps. The tang of lime and the heat of chili give the creamy sweet potatoes a startlingly delicious flavour. Come cool weather, I can’t get enough of it.

The nutrition of this soup appeals to me. The sweet potatoes are very high in fibre and vitamin A and have moderate amounts of potassium. The yogurt or coconut milk adds protein and calcium. The lime juice has vitamin C. Low sodium, low fat, low cholesterol … this soup can do no harm.

What I also like about this soup is that it’s easy to make and easy on the pocket book. No more than half an hour and you have enough for six or seven people for just a few dollars.

For variety, you could replace the bouillon cubes with a teaspoon or two of curry powder or cumin. Or add a large knob of freshly grated ginger.

If you have read my book, you will be familiar with the chapter on the importance of nourishing your stories with the aromas of love that come from your kitchen. Sprinkle liberally everywhere.

Sweet Potato Soup

Sweet Potato Soup


The Sixth Sense


When I talk about the six senses in memoir writing, occasionally someone asks me, don’t you mean five? The Famous Five they mean are sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. A writer makes a story come alive when generous use of the Famous Five is splashed fragrantly onto an otherwise sense-less page. The reader is then transported to another world as warm arms of words reach out to embrace. The reader surrenders to literary rapture.

Human Energy

Human Energy

The sixth sense is just as important. Including experiences for which there is no rational explanation honours the inexplicable, the invisible, the spiritual. A woman in one of my classes told us about two men she was dating when she was young and couldn’t decide which one to marry. One day, she was walking beside one of them and when she went to hold his hand, an electric shock passed from his hand to hers and travelled the length of her whole arm. Sparks! She decided then and there he was the one. One of my friends had a mother who astral travelled. In the middle of the night, my mother-in-law—who was alone because her husband was on a painting trip up north—heard her husband calling “help”. She got up, drove the four hours north and found him on the floor unconscious.

Such higher sense perceptions could include serendipity, synchronicity, coincidences, hunches, intuition, dreams, sending energy, seeing energy, distance healing, healing though the laying on of hands, telepathy, clairvoyance, near-death experiences, psychokinesis, and more. Love, too, falls here, says Barbara Brennan, a NASA physicist who became a healer.


Einstein Quote

Einstein Quote

Hallucinator Dr. Oliver Sachs writes that hallucinations are normal. It was in a dream that Isaac Singer received the idea for the hole in the sharp end of needle that made the Singer sewing machine possible. Psychiatrist Diane Hennacy has found that autistic children demonstrate telepathy to a greater extent than others. She believes that accepting these phenomena as real can open the door to a more harmonious way of connecting with one another.

From my own life … I was living on a boat on Pier 4 at Dinner Key Marina in Miami, just barely making ends meet doing varnish work on boats. It had been six months since my life had fallen apart in the islands, and I desperately needed to go back and visit people and places. I calculated that I would need $500 to do this. I wrote it down, made a list of the expenditures. You could say that I made my need visible. The day after I wrote down this request, my thin and fit surfboarding friend George phoned. He was trying to sell his 28’ wooden boat —I’d done the smooth-as-a-baby’s-bum varnish work on it—on Pier 1 but wasn’t having any luck. If I brought someone to see his boat who wound up buying it, he would give me a commission of $500. What a coincidence. But what were the chances?

The very next day, when I was reading and sipping hot black tea in the cockpit, waves gently lapping against the hull, a big blond man clumped the long way down Pier 4 and asked me in a heavily accented voice if I knew of any boats for sale. Well, I said, you’ve asked the right person. I pointed the boat out to him, told him what I knew about it, which was quite a lot (I didn’t mention the stinky bilge), and that was that. He was too big a guy for a little 28-footer.

A few weeks later, George phoned to say Ivan had bought the boat and would I come to his office so he could give me a cheque for that magic $500. On the one hand I was amazed, and on the other, I felt it was absolutely right, that the stars were in proper alignment, that invisible forces were at work. At this most difficult time in my life, I felt enchanted. Loved, even, by invisible forces. I brought George a bouquet of yellow tulips, and booked a flight.

When you include all six senses in your memoir, we listen wide awake. Do you have a sixth sense experience to share here?


Written by Diane Taylor, author of the Gift of Memoir


Fifteen Great Memoirs to Read


View of Earth during a moon walk

View of Earth during a moon walk

Empathy relies on a willingness to step into the shoes of another person and leave our own world behind. We do this when we read memoir. When we understand what moves another, we are taking a giant step towards felling barricades. Barricades of racism, poverty, mental illness, zenophobia and all the other phobias. Indeed, what a ‘giant step for mankind’, as Neil Armstrong said when he walked the moon, if we could all do this.

Read, read, read! If you want to write well, reading a lot is more important than writing a lot. In the bibliography of my book The Gift of Memoir I list sixty memoirs that I refer to in examples throughout the book. Most of these fifteen titles come from there, although a few I have read more recently, or decades ago. It was excruciating to select only fifteen.

Dare to be a moon walker! Read memoir, and enjoy the new view.

Small Wonder: Essays by Barbara Kingsolver

Ru, by Kim Thuy

I Shall Not Hate: A Gaza Doctor’s Journey by Izzeldin Abuelaish

The Spark: A Mother’s Story of Nurturing, Genius, and Autism by Kristine Barnett

They Left Us Everything by Plum Johnson

In My Mother’s House by Kim Chernin

Learning to Die in Miami: Confessions of a Refugee Boy by Carlos Eire

One Native Life by Richard Wagamese

Walden or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

A Good Home by Cynthia Reyes

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: A True Story by Elizabeth Bailey

Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co. by Jeremy Mercer

Wild: from Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

Night by Elie Wiesel

The White Masai by Corinne Hofmann

Little Princes: One Man’s Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

by Conor Grennan

And I can’t resist adding one more, part memoir, part essay, part you tell me when

you read it. The Truth About Stories by Thomas King.


      Memoirs bring light into the world.

            What’s the best memoir you have read recently?

Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir – a guide book for memoir writers.


Death as a Doorway into Memoir

For Judy Fong Bates, the death of her father by his own hands when she was twenty-two, is a painful shame that hangs over the days of her adult life. The prologue of A Year of Finding Memory opens with this startling, but somehow serene, statement.

“Not long after my father hanged himself in the summer of 1972, I found a small cardboard box far beneath his bed.”

There is a once-upon-a-time tone to these words, as if Bates is floating in a fantasy far away. Indeed, much of her childhood is filled with stories her parents told her about the many relatives and hardships of war that happened in faraway China. She is six when her mother brings her to small town Acton, Ontario where her father, already sixty-four, ekes out a living of drudgery washing other people’s dirty clothes by hand, a business her educated mother hates. Constant bitter arguments ensue, against the back drop of racism, isolation, humiliation, hopelessness and homesickness. A worthless dog life, her father complains endlessly. Any extra pennies are sent back to relatives.

Bates was not able to talk openly about the way her father died – her anger and sadness, the lashing out at inconsequential things—not until she and her husband make a trip to China to look for answers. There she finds welcome, connection to the centuries with age old Eastern rituals, and connection to a sister she hasn’t seen in fifty years. There, her parents are remembered, and to her surprise, respected. Those extra pennies from Gold Mountain (as the West was known in China) kept many of them alive during the starvation and brutalities of the Cultural Revolution.

Towards the end of her year of finding memory, she says “I … watched my parents grow into fully fleshed human beings” and discoveries of history and family “have turned my doubt and arrogance into a richer sort of knowing.”

But still, she cannot reconcile the diminished man she knew as the father who took his life and the sharp-tongued bitter mother with the people they were before they emigrated. “I am left aching to know the man and woman who knew each other before I was born.” In the end, although she is left with unanswerable questions, her memories have been enriched and enlightened. Her heart has found some solace.

A death can be a doorway into the most complicated parts of oneself, and into all sorts of other things that happened in the larger world. Balancing these two worlds can make for a very rich memoir. The Year of Finding Memory by Judy Fong Bates exemplifies how this can be done. Please enrich your life by reading this memoir.

Judy Fong Bates

Judy Fong Bates

DT   When you started writing The Year of Finding Memory, did you know right away you wanted to open with your father’s suicide and the contents you found in the box under the bed?

JFB   No. The manuscript went through several drafts before I came to that decision. I actually had two writer friends suggest opening with my father’s suicide. After thinking about it for some time, I decided to follow their advice and re-wrote the opening.

DT   What other openings did you consider?

JFB    For one, I began with my arrival in Canada with my mother, and another with my father’s arrival in Canada. To name just a couple.

DT  Talking about the circumstances of your father’s death was not possible for many years. What changed?

JFB   the two trips to China changed my perspective on my parents’ lives, gave me a depth and understanding that had been absent. I found myself with a window into a story which had been closed to me for many years.

DT   I am grateful to you for revealing the many stories of your and your parents’ lives – both the little pleasures and the huge tragedies. How do you feel to have researched and written your parents’ lives, the ghosts of which are part of you?

JFB   The story of my parents is a pioneer story, perhaps not like the ones belonging to the early French/Anglo/Irish settlers, but they nevertheless played a role in Canada’s story. They are not big players like Samuel de Champlain, Tommy Douglas, Laura Secord or General Wolfe. Those powerful people will be remembered and written about. But Canada would not be where it is today without ordinary people like my parents who did all the little things that are also a part of nation building. I like to think of the powerful people as the bricks and the people like my parents are the mortar – the mortar that holds the bricks together. As a writer, the stories of those ordinary people are what interests me. In the case of my parents, I wanted their story told and I knew that if I didn’t write it, it would be forgotten.

DT   Did the writing of this memoir have a healing effect?

JFB   There probably was some, but in my case, it was time that healed the wounds left by my father’s suicide. When I started to write this memoir, time had given me enough distance that I could approach it with love and compassion. Healing might have been a byproduct, but my primary goal was always to tell a story.

These flowers are for all those who have ached to understand their parents’ lives.

A Bouquet of Stories

A Bouquet of Stories


Operation Turtle Migration


Newly hatched turtles

(The environment is a necessary part of any memoir. It is the setting where the narrators story unfolds. Indeed, its existence is why the human species survives at all. Here, activist and naturalist Joan Norris relates how hundreds of doomed turtle eggs and hatchlings were given a chance to survive with strategic intervention.)

Have you ever heard of turtle nests migrating? Is that even possible? Well, it turns out turtle nests can indeed move from one place to another. They just need a little help from their friends.

Turtles ready to dig their nests look for a sunny embankment where the eggs can be incubated by the warm substrate. The Close Point Causeway on the south shore of Rice Lake, Ontario has this and it has a marsh on one side to serve as a nursery for the wee hatchlings. So, scores of  snapping and map turtles travel here each spring to dig their nests. For about ten years now I have been protecting these nests. With help from friends, our success rate has grown each year so that last year almost 2,000 baby turtles hatched out.

This year would prove to be different. The road was scheduled to be paved the first week of September. Even if the shoulders were not paved, heavy machinery would, of necessity, be driving on the shoulders of this one lane road, crushing the nests.

Heavy road machinery

Heavy road machinery

But wait a minute! Aren’t all but one of Ontario’s eight native species of turtles at risk? Isn’t it against the law to disturb or destroy their nests? Well, one of the things I found very disheartening was to find out that even though snapping turtles and map turtles are listed as Species at Risk, they are given no protection under the Species at Risk Act. They are being “watched” but hunters can still legally trap them. Yep. List them as at risk and then give them no special consideration.

During a six-week period leading up to the road work, a friend and I explored every conceivable avenue and option to save the nests. We talked to the Ministry of Natural Resources, Conservation Authorities, experts in the field … hitting one dead end after another. As the deadline loomed and all other possible recourses dried up, we began to realize we had no other choice but to dig up and relocate the nests. So, at the proverbial two minutes to midnight, the decision was made, and the word went out for help. Word of mouth, phone calls, and emails.

And help came in spades! Within a day or two, a troop of turtle heroes armed with buckets and hand shovels descended on Close Point Road.

They answered the call.

They answered the call.

A biology professor from Trent University showed up with a dozen grad students who wanted to help. Members of the local naturalist club came by the carloads. Another biologist not only showed up with his co-workers, but they knew the ideal spot for the nests – a safe turtle nesting habitat newly created a few kilometers down the lake! People I didn’t know just showed up, saying they found out about the project from other people I didn’t know. Everyone rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Operation Turtle Migration had begun!

turtles #2

Each nest site had to be carefully opened and explored. Once the soft-shelled eggs were uncovered, they were delicately removed and placed in a temporary nest (bucket or other container) for transporting to their new site.

Turtle Eggs

Snapping Turtle Eggs (Chelydra serpentina)

Much to our delight, many of the nests had hatchlings inside. The first to hatch stay in the nest until the rest of their siblings hatch out of their shells so that they can all dig out of the nest and make a run for the water together. But instead of having to run for their lives, these lucky babies got a free lift to the marsh, under the watchful gaze and big smiles of their human helpers.

Twenty-two nests containing hundreds of eggs were transplanted to the newly created nesting site, where they hatched out over the next few weeks, one nest at a time. With any luck, these turtles will come back to this nesting site when it’s time for them to lay, becoming the first of many generations to come.

It’s not always easy to know what is the right thing to do in life. Decisions are not always black and white, but often varying shades of gray. Although I had my reservations about moving the nests, I can look back now and say, yes, we called that one right. A couple of days after the Great Turtle Migration, the graders and rollers came and transformed the gravel road into another “paved paradise” as Joni Mitchell would say. But thanks to a small army of turtle guardians, the nests that had been there just a couple of days before had “migrated” north and hundreds of baby turtles that would have been running out in front of the paving equipment are now swimming around Rice Lake, helping to ensure the survival of a species at risk.

the next generation.

The next generation. And that’s Diane’s hand!

Thank you, Joan, for contributing this wonderful post on my blog!


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