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I Remember

Memory is the theme of Human Chain, a collection of poetry published by one of the world’s greatest poets, Seamus Heaney, in 2011. “What is the relationship between writing poetry and memory?” he was asked by a Toronto Star reporter.

“Memory has always been fundamental for me,” Heaney replied. “Remembering what I had forgotten is the way most of the poems get started. At the best times, something wakens, there’s an almost physical quickening. There’s no knowing where a remembered image will take you” (italics mine).

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How’s the Weather?

 

How’s the weather? That’s what we ask. Like, how’s Mom, or how’s the baby. The weather is like a close relative, something or someone we care about. Indeed, sometimes we feel embraced by this ‘relative’. Love affairs happen in sun, rain, hail, the hush of no wind, the roar of a tornado, heat waves, cold snaps, fog, smog, flood, drought, ice storms, dust storms, solar storms. The weather can prevent us from eating, working, sleeping—and suddenly that relative friend becomes a foe of sorts. Every one of Earth’s seven billion people was born on a day when the weather was busy doing something.

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They Left Us Everything: A Memoir by Plum Johnson

Plum Johnson plumjohnson.com begins They Left Us Everything with conflict between her mother’s needs and her own fatigue and frustration from being the primary care giver for her mother for years. Johnson goes back to an earlier time, too, to describe the old clapboard house in Oakville, Ontario she grew up in, but it is the conflict between her and her mother that drives the first several pages.

Plum Johnson on the verandah of the clapboard house, Oakville

Plum Johnson on the verandah of the clapboard house, Oakville

In the first few lines, we hear three recent phone messages from Johnson’s mother. “Damn this machine! Call me!” is the last one.

Johnson then tells us, “Nineteen years, one month, and twenty-six days of eldercare have brought me to my knees.”

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Close Call on the Pacific Ocean

leflaneur[1]Below is an incident I wrote  in 1972 after a four month sail from San Diego through the Panama Canal and up to Key West, under sail alone—no engine, in a 42′ trimaran, similar to the one shown. We were a crew of four: the captain and his thirteen-year-old son, and my partner and I. This anecdote became part of my first book, a memoir. Says Philip Marchand, “The vital principle of any memoir, the red corpuscle in it’s bloodstream, is the anecdote.”

My watch. No wind. No moon yet. Two hundred miles offshore from Costa Rica. The three others asleep, the sea silent. Warm salty droplets on my bare arms. A freighter appeared on the horizon at 2230 hours. From the lights I could see it was on a collision course with us. No worry, it was eight miles away. Make a log entry. Five minutes later it was considerably closer. The range lights were still in line, and both red and green running lights were visible. Too far away to worry, I decided. I looked at the orange drifter hanging limp on the forestay.

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Truth Plus Memoir Equals Revolution

When you write a memoir, you share your truths, good and bad, with those whose eyes follow your words. It’s mind to mind. It’s enlightenment, and quite possibly medicine.

Franz Kafka famously said, “A book should be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Such a book is The Education of Augie Merasty: A Residential School Memoir published earlier this year by the University of Regina Press.

A memoir that is a sentinel to truth

A memoir that is a sentinel to truth

Just seventy-three pages, this book represents one Cree man’s experience with abuses he endured as a child at the St. Therese Residential School in Saskatchewan, from 1935 to 1944. It’s an era that has been invisible to most of us, due mostly to a conspiracy of silence. His book is visible, real, a testament here to stay. Joseph Auguste Merasty, like the taxi driver, woodsman and warrior he was, persisted with his memoir for several years. He had his reasons:

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From Love Letters to Memoir

I stood by my table of books at Chapters in Peterborough earlier this month for a book signing, just inside the front door. Several people stopped by the table to talk about memoirs.

Suddenly a familiar face with a dazzling smile appeared. Joanne Culley www.joanneculley.com who took my course on memoir writing four years ago, had also just published her book, Love in the Air: Second World War Letters. We had talked about trading books via email, but I didn’t know whether or not she would be able to get free that afternoon.

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Joanne Culley and her new book, Love in the Air: Second World War Letters

Lo and behold, there she was! I could hardly wait to have a quick look to see how she had made a story of the over 600 letters her parents wrote during the Second World War. Letters she had talked about during the course.

I spent the weekend reading her book. It’s a love story, a history lesson, and a daughter’s tribute to the parents who raised her. The book is strong, and you realize while reading it the enormous amount of historical research Joanne did. It’s a story well worth reading.

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Tales from the Pond

(Marie Prins has written a nature memoir. The land lives, breathes and procreates alongside her. The following is an excerpt from “Manifestations from the Pond”, which appears in Hill Spirits ll, An anthology by writers of Northumberland County. I’m honoured to reprint it here. Marie is a member of Spirit of the Hills Writers.)

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Our pond is small, compared to those on nearby country properties, maybe fifty feet in diameter. Basically it’s a frog pond only five feet deep in the middle, a third of its depth the primordial muck that incubates dragonfly nymphs and mosquito larvae. Twenty years ago, a back-hoe pulled down a slimy cement pool that filled this corner of our acre lot. Gravelly dirt was dumped in the hole to make a ball field for our children; but spring water and cattails reclaimed this hollow as a mating pool for toads and frogs. So, five years later, another back-hoe dug a new pond and my husband, Ed, spent the rest of the summer shaping its edges and bordering a small grassy ledge with rocks for our chairs and umbrella.

At first, we envisioned deep water with sunfish and perch swimming the bottom and a profusion of ferns and water plants ringing the shoreline. When we planted marsh marigolds, blue flag, and an elder bush in choice spots, native jewelweed, boneset, and Joe Pye weed picked their own places in the boggy parts. When we lodged white and pink water lilies in the middle of the pond, pickerelweed and arrowhead surrounded them and stood erect like commas on opposite shores. Then cattails repossessed the outlets, and uninvited grasses and goldenrod crowded out the turtlehead and cardinal flower. Tough roots of yellow irises, once thought beautiful, grabbed a toehold on as much shoreline as possible, and proliferated into an invincible foe.

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Who is Your Audience?

It was Mother’s Day in Port Hope. In a small house, gray clapboard with blue shutters, the phone rang. Her walker was handy, but so was the phone this time. It was John.

“Mom, you have to write your story!”

John had just reconnected with the yoga teacher his mom had signed him up with when he was five … over six decades ago. Out of the blue, it was time to know more about his mother’s spiritual path.

A few days later, at the meditation class that she runs, Melodie told us that she was now going ahead with her memoir. Surprise! Several people over the years had urged her to tell her story, either orally into a tape recorder so that it could then be transcribed, or written in her own words.

No, she’d said, I don’t want to go back. She saw more value in the one-on-one, here and now. Another time, long silvery hair twisted into a knot on the top of her head, she shrugged her shoulders and said, who would it be for? “Us!” cried those in the room. But we weren’t motivation enough. When she read my book, and in particular the passage about Thomas Merton’s book, The Seven Storey Mountain: An Autobiography of Faith, she remembered that Merton’s book had been one of her mentors. Following his example, she began writing down a few memories. Perhaps, she thought, her written stories could be a way of mentoring others. Then, life got in the way—celebrations, lunches out, illness, the beautiful walker, but the damn “Mr. Ugly” new chair that does cushion her bones.

It was a son’s cri de coeur that gave her the audience she needed. Who would she write for? For him. Now would be the time to make a ritual of sitting down to write. To talk to him. What better audience than your son? Melodie Massey is hyped! Quite possibly, by this time next Mother’s Day—when she will be 93—her story will be complete.

Do you know for whom you are writing your memoir? Knowing who your audience is will help clarify what it is you want to say, what it is you have to say. And will get your “ass in chair.”

A few people do write their memoir just to keep track of their lives, or to get things off their chest with no intention of anyone reading it. Indeed, this can be healing, and studies do show that the immune system is enhanced by writing down troubling events, even if the paper is burned afterwards. But many writers of memoir have an audience in mind.

When I asked Cynthia Reyes (www.cynthiasreyes.com) about her audience when writing her memoir, A Good Home, she said this:

My first audience was probably myself! I imagined a fairly well-educated woman over 40 who had been through some big ups and downs in her life. Someone who could empathize with another woman in a similar situation. She was someone I would like to spend an afternoon with.

I imagined she was fairly well-read, had probably done some traveling and would be interested in my childhood experiences in Jamaica. And most of all, I imagined her as someone who had a memory of a special home, and who either wanted to believe in God, or – even if an atheist – could understand my faith struggle.

How it turned out: From the hundreds of letters I’ve received, I’d say that is indeed the majority reader of my book.

Sidney Poitier wrote The Measure of a Man for his granddaughter so that he could be a presence in her life even after he was gone and she was grown. Abigail Carter wrote The Alchemy of Loss for other grieving spouses who had also lost husbands or wives in the Twin Towers during 9/11. Her peer group, support group, was her audience. At 105, Samuel Smith told his story in To Shoot Hard Labour for the new generation so they would remember what early life was like in Antigua. Marina Nemat’s audience for Prisoner of Tehran, was all who would listen. To warn us. I heard her say here in Port Hope that we all need to be on guard, that what happened in Iran could happen in Canada if we are not vigilant.

When I wrote my first book, The Perfect Galley Book, I was talking to other sailors, and anyone interested in the sailing life. It was a continuation of the sharing lifestyle my partner and I led while living aboard the 46′ sailboat we built; it covered a ten-year period of my life. Sailors get together when at anchor to share knowledge and knots, rum and recipes, the lore and lure of the sea, and the writing of my book was more of that. It was pure nautical pleasure to put that book together.

Of course my new book, The Gift of Memoir, has a specific audience: people who want to write the stories of their life. I imagined I was talking to the women and men who have come to my classes. They, and other like-minded people, were my audience.

I’m curious! Who do you want to read your stories? A son or daughter? Descendants as yet unborn? A specific group of people? All of us? An imaginary empathetic friend? I’d like to hear.

Do someone a favour. Leave a bouquet of your stories.

A Bouquet of Stories

A Bouquet of Stories

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I Was Named After Renate

(In the story below, Renata Hill is responding to one of my earlier blogs entitled Does Your Name Tell a Story? Hers does. Thank you, Renata, for sharing this story of remembrance here.)

I was named for a childhood friend of my mother’s—a lost friend.

In the early 1930’s, when my mother was no more than eleven years old, she participated in a student exchange program. Her alma mater, Palmer’s College in England, was a progressive girls’ school which evidently had no qualms about sending their students to various places in Europe for months on end! To be fair though, my grandparents didn’t mind either and my mother, Joan, was absolutely thrilled.

Joan was sent to a family in Berlin to learn the language and culture of Germany. The Benjamins were a warm family who treated her like a daughter. Mr. Benjamin was a kind, gentle man, the manager of a bank in Berlin. His wife was kind too but stricter. She made sure that Joan spoke only in German—hard at first but it turned my mother’s basic schoolbook German into fluency by the time she left.

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