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Remembrance in Memoir: What Does It Take?

Dear Steve,

I’m really glad you asked this question in my memoir writing workshop last week:

         “What three qualities do people who complete their memoir have?”

Since then, I’ve consulted two authors of published memoirs who sent me their three qualities. Then, I came up with four. All in all, we now have ten personal qualities that help lead to a completed memoir.

Ronald Mackay, author of A Scotsman Abroad http://editura.mttlc.ro/ronald-mackay-scotsman-abroad.html (about a two-year period of his life in Romania, and published on line by the University of Bucharest in 2016) sent me these:

“Be daring”: I found I needed to ‘screw my courage to the sticking place’ just to overcome self-doubt and the fear of appearing self-indulgent by writing about my own life.

“Avoid temptation”: When I worked in Bucharest, I was a ‘babe-in-the-woods’. Nevertheless, I decided to write from that ingenuous perspective and not as my older, hopefully wiser, self.

“Plough on regardless”: While I might forget precise dates, the names of places and people and exact details, I avoided being slowed up by research that would have added little value.

Sheila Wright, author of Amare: A True Italian Love Story https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/amare-a-true-italian-love (about falling in love in, and with, Italy, was published by iUniverse in 2009), sent me the following:

 A strong feeling of urgency and inevitability.  Almost like giving birth, once the story had grown inside of me, there was no keeping it from coming out.

A belief that I have universal truths to express, that readers will relate to me and find common ground.  Maybe even see themselves in my story and say “Yes, I have felt that!”

A strong history of journalling — that desire to record and remember.  And perhaps a fear of losing those precious memories.  I want to keep them fresh for myself, and for my children.

And mine, which are everywhere in my book The Gift of Memoir, but not in this succinct organized fashion:

The self-discipline to show up. Making the commitment to write a certain number of hours a day or week, then actually sitting down and writing, is crucial. Freeing up the space to create – or re-create – your world in words, gives you the freedom to enter the past. As Margaret Atwood put it, ya gotta “get ass in chair.”

Curiosity. Writing a memoir is setting out on an adventure. Like deep sea diving, or hiking the Camino trail, it is the anticipation of unknown discoveries that grabs your imagination. What will you remember that you had forgotten? What will you learn about yourself? What will it feel like when your book is in your hands, bound in a form meant to last through the generations?

Generosity. When you write your stories, you give to others. Every sentence, and the thought behind it, is a gift to someone who will one day read your stories. “Give, give, give; write, write, write,” is a message from your generous higher self.

Trust. Trust that you will get there. Writing a memoir is a journey. It has a beginning, then it has pitfalls, great highs, doldrums, night sweats, gems, and then it has an ending. Of course, the raft on which you are crossing the ocean may be rammed and broken into pieces by a maddened humpback whale (its partner endangered by whalers), leaving you treading water … but along comes a sail boat and picks you up. Picks you up. Somehow, changed in some way, you get there … to journey’s end.

 

Steve, many thanks for inspiring me with your question. I hope you get a chance to read A Scotsman Abroad (free on line) and Amare: A True Italian Love Story (available at Indigo).

Diane

A Bouquet of Stories

A Bouquet of Stories

 

 

 

 

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Goldenrod Feast

Fall Feast

Fall Feast

 

It’s late August and Goldenrod is everywhere. I walked by Lake Ontario today, and was ecstatic to see several species of bees, three lady bugs, two wasps, one grasshopper, and one monarch butterfly luxuriating on the lush yellow florets of Goldenrod in full feathery bloom. Fascinated by the frantic activity of the bees and the majesty of the monarch in the hot afternoon sun, I stopped to observe.

The monarch grasped florets with its thin black legs, and occasionally opened and closed its orange wings as he or she gathered nourishment for the trip across the lake. I had just learned that a bulge in one of the black veins on the hind wings indicated male gender, but was so taken with the interaction between Goldenrod’s lunch menu and feasting visitors that I forgot to notice. I kicked myself for not having a camera.

The bees clung to florets, even hanging upside down as they gathered the riches. Some looked like bumble bees, some like yellow jackets. Others could almost be mistaken for flies. Sometimes they flew the short trip to a nearby ochre buffet proffered on the tip of another four-foot stem.

Maybe, I thought, just maybe, all these life forms would still be here if I beetled home, grabbed camera, and zoomed back. Luck was with me. Half an hour later, the multi-specied community was still harmoniously harvesting pollen and nectar. Click. Click.

I must admit I had never really appreciated Goldenrod until this moment. What did it do besides give me hay fever? Here by the lake I could clearly see it offered sustenance to winged wildlife.

This past weekend, I had another Goldenrod moment. I drove out to Campbell’s Honey House (on Campbell Road west of Warkworth, Ontario) to get my winter supply of unfiltered honey. I handed Mrs. Campbell my jars.

“Would you like summer honey or fall?” she asked.

“What’s the difference?”

“The bees make summer honey from summer flowers,” she said, “and right now the fall honey is mostly from Goldenrod, and that’s why it’s a deeper amber colour.”

Goldenrod! It offered sweet sustenance to human life, too. How could I have misjudged it all these years? Ignorance is not bliss.

To top it off, my doctor told me that it’s unlikely my, or anyone else’s, hay fever is caused by Goldenrod. Ragweed is the usual culprit. The two just happen to blossom at the same time.

Folks, this land of ours is alive! Let’s keep it that way.

~~~~~~~

Thanks to Kathryn McHolm for teaching me how to see gender in Monarch butterflies. Thanks to Leslie and Peter Campbell for teaching me about their bees’ honey. And thanks to fellow travelers, the bees, for the sweet winter ahead.

Male Monarch Butterly

Male Monarch Butterly

 

Written by Diane Taylor, author of The Gift of Memoir: Show Up, Open Up, Write

25 Comments

Brief Memoir of a Blender

Preparing Mango Shake in the Revived Blender

Preparing Mango Shake in the Revived Blender

I am an aging multicultural blender. My glass bowl came from the Philippines, my practical plastic lid was imported from Mexico, my snappy blades were sharpened somewhere in the USA, and all my parts came together in China. My birth (they call it ‘registration’) certificate says Florida. Go figure.

Since I was purchased by my owner in Miami in 2003, I flew north in a suitcase and have lived my life as an expat in Canada—in Port Hope, Ontario to be exact. It’s been a sheltered life, living as I have in the same corner of the same kitchen of this same old house day in day out, all these years.

Sheltered, but not dull. I’ve done what I was born to do. Fulfilled my destiny, you could say. Pink smoothies, green smoothies, purple smoothies … with or without walnuts, sunflower seeds, or almonds. And soups! Many the soups I’ve whirred into silky spoonable easy-on-the-teeth bowls of goodness. Butternut squash soup, cucumber soup … and my favourite: potato-leek soup.

I almost died last month. My life of service almost ended when my Dear Owner (Dee) added a teaspoonful of honey to the mango smoothie, and hit the go button without removing the spoon. Idiot! The noise was frightful. I struggled for a few seconds and was ready to give up the ghost when, at my last gasp, Dee punched the stop button. In spite of her panic, she had the sang-froid to stop the accident in its deadly tracks before … well, you know.

The damage was severe. My fine blades were totalled, and the central part that held them in place was ruptured beyond repair. Would I wind up (before my time) as junk in the dump?

To my surprise and everlasting gratitude, Dee took me to the local fixit clinic on Mill Street. Here, a bearded wonder had seen this kind of case before, and sent out a request for a new part. The heart of the matter arrived in a well-padded box and in no time Ed—for that was his name—performed a magic transplant and had me ticking like new … for a fraction of the cost a younger model would have been. My 2016 blades, oh, they were cutting edge. I began pumping out smoothies like there was a tomorrow. Boy, I hadn’t felt this good in a long time…

I recommend this shelf-life saving procedure to all who are concerned about

  1. saving money
  2. reviving aging electric tools
  3. protecting the environment of our one and only Planet Earth.

Much obliged,

Blender and Dee – who has promised to be more attentive to Blender’s needs in future. They are looking forward to many more years together.

19 Comments

The Magic of Intention

Eowyn and Prime Minister Trudeau.

Eowyn and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Before she left for Ottawa with her parents for the Canadian Dance Festival, eight-year-old Eowyn announced, “I’m going to have my picture taken with Prime Minister Trudeau.” Ha!

Once words are launched into the air, atoms and molecules perk up their ears and set the stage. The girl’s parents noted the flurry of molecular theatrics and unwittingly began to conspire with them.

My niece Kate, who is Eowyn’s mother, had won an award in the dance world. She arranged for me to receive a formal invitation to the reception from the Minister of Heritage. On the day of the event, I drove the four hours to Ottawa, and checked in to the downtown hotel where other family members were staying. I took a taxi through the stop-and-go traffic to the site of the reception, and passed through the security queue.

Hundreds of dancers were gathered on the second floor of the Sir John A. MacDonald building on Wellington Street. Wine flowed, an Aboriginal dancer welcomed us to this traditionally Algonquin land, the several speeches were short, and the award was presented to Eowyn’s mother. Dancers milled about, jubilant to meet others devoted to this same artistic pursuit.

Eowyn and her parents eventually wandered out to a quieter space at the glassed-in front of the building. They looked out. A black limousine pulled up to the sidewalk.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau emerged from the limo with an entourage of body guards. A waiter whom Eowyn had befriended asked her if she wanted to meet the Prime Minister. Eowyn said “Yes!” and the waiter yelled, “Quick, downstairs!”

They dash down the stairs to another reception room. What happens next is as much the mystery of molecules—obviously listening—as it is the universe fulfilling a promise to a young girl. Knowing this was meant to happen, Eowyn self-assuredly jumps the line of officials wanting to talk to the Prime Minister. He sees the girl (and the camera-ready waiter), and steps over beside her, big smile on his face. Click. History in the making. Her story.

Did I hear you say you are going to write a memoir? I can hear the flurry of molecules and rustling of paper and tapping on keyboard. I can see pages accumulating. I can feel the stories dripping from your shoulders and fingertips.

History in the making. Your story.

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An Honest House: A Memoir by Cynthia Reyes

An Honest House is a rich memoir that moves through a ten-year period of Cynthia Reyes’ cynthiasreyes.com life. In the midst of a successful career, family life with children blooming, she and her husband move to an old farmhouse surrounded by gardens they love, just north of Toronto. Against this idyllic backdrop, PTSD strikes.

AHH

An Honest House, a second memoir by Cynthia Reyes

 

 

A car accident leaves Reyes with debilitating pain and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and its attendant depression, inability to concentrate, inability to sleep, nightmares, regimens of pain killers, difficulty walking and years of physio. The dream house becomes a prison.

In case you are thinking this is a hard luck story, it’s not. Good memoirs bring light into the world, and An Honest House beams light from every page. Bit by bit, from deepest despair to light-hearted jocularity, we accompany Cynthia Reyes as she “grows up”, to use her term.

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Book Burning

When I heard, I was shocked. Ninety-year-old Sarah called to tell me one of her daughters had rounded up all fifty copies of her book, a memoir, from friends and relatives and burned them. She didn’t know why, and it was too painful to probe.

CRF9WH Books burning in fire

CRF9WH Books burning in fire

Sarah (not her real name) and I had worked on her story for three months. We laughed, shed tears, and slowly sculpted a monument to her life. It shone with light and grace and humour and forgiveness and grief and glory. We were both so pleased with the legacy she was leaving for those she loved. As she said to me one day,

“What good are our life experiences if we do not share them?”

It’s been years since Sarah and I met at her house to do what she knew was sacred work. The soul work of telling her story. Today she came to my mind. I thought of how the act of silencing her was similar to how the Catholic church silenced stories of abuse – perhaps because I’d recently seen the documentary movie Spotlight.

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Refuge in Prison is a Book Club

The title caught my attention on a shelf in the Port Hope library. The Prison Book Club. A neighbor and I started a book club here in town over ten years ago, and I know how much it means to all of us. I had to find out how a book club worked in a prison.

There were two prisons with new book clubs, both in Ontario: Collins Bay and Beaver Creek. I was familiar with Collins Bay, at least as an outsider. When I lived in Kingston in the sixties, I could sometimes hear the umpire in the prison yard calling out on a Sunday afternoon, “Steven Truscott up to bat!”

Collins Bay Penitentiary, Kingston, Ontario

Collins Bay Penitentiary, Kingston, Ontario

Ann Walmsley wrote this memoir about the eighteen months she spent co-facilitating book clubs in both these institutions. Her partner was Carol Finlay, who has since set up 22 book clubs inside 15 penitentiaries in 7 provinces, and has begun coaching volunteers in New York and California.

Reading good books, fiction or non-fiction like memoirs, is about seeing things through another person’s eyes. So, while increasing empathy, such books also increase literacy and communication skills. The members of the book clubs discuss characters and themes (such as loneliness, forgiveness, home). They listen to all opinions with respect. The men take turns leading the discussion on a particular book, making sure that everyone gets a chance to express an opinion.

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