bouncing kisses

Somehow I’ve set my phone to back up every picture I take to my laptop. I only realized this when my hard drive was so full the computer quit working, and I started poking around to solve the mystery. And there they were, thousands of pictures and videos, saved to a folder buried in the file structure. In addition to all the images, I found a somewhat random collection of other files — pdfs and text files and Word documents, all saved and long forgotten. Most of the file names were descriptive enough, but one was just titled “ms.doc” so I opened it, thinking it was a client’s project I’d accidentally saved in the wrong place. And what I read felt as detached from me as if I hadn’t ever seen it before, but the stories were clearly mine. I have no recollection of writing them, page after page after page, but they are definitely mine. Weird. Maybe that’s the hazard of being a compulsive writer-of-stories, and a person who is now very good at forgetting things.

Anyway, this one was written in a way that brought me right back to that experience, to those lonely and exhausted years, those summer nights, those sorrowful feelings, so I thought I’d give it some air and let it breathe a little. Here you go, a story from the very early 1990s:

“Let’s go bounce our kisses off the moon.” This is what I told them every night, after their baths, that long summer in Virginia. The nights were so hot and steamy my glasses fogged up when we stepped out the front door, and my shirt clung to my skin within seconds. They were little, then, and always clean-scrubbed and shiny in their fresh pajamas and nightgowns. There was something fantastical to them about going outside in their nightclothes; they always looked at each other with sneaky little grins, as if they were getting away with something. It had been his idea, before he left, this whole bouncing kisses off the moon thing, as if they could throw theirs and he’d catch them, in the other hemisphere.

“Mommy, does Daddy feel our kisses the way you do? How does he get them?” they’d ask, in a hundred different ways. Katie was the oldest and knew this was just a game, but she went along for the sake of her little sister and brother, the same way she gave me a sideways smile when they’d talk about how clever the Easter bunny was to think of hiding their baskets underneath their beds – the last place they’d have looked. She knew what we were up to with this story, but the way she threw her kisses, the way she looked so hard at the moon as they flew away, I knew she was hoping that somehow they’d get there, somehow he’d feel her yearning for him and know that this one, this special kiss, was just hers, for him. Marnie and Will always gave a little jump when they kissed their hands and threw their kisses into the air. Marnie was just the right age, really, believing in the magic. She’d turn to me with light all over her face, letting the kiss go on its way as she gave one to me, too. Will was usually unsatisfied with just one toss and jump, so he’d push the kiss on its way with both hands a few times, each push getting its own jump. “Daddy is gone,” he’d say, and then he would run into the house, upstairs to his bedroom to play. “Yes, Daddy is gone,” I’d say softly to myself. “Daddy is gone.”

Saturday mornings the kids gathered downstairs, watching cartoons before breakfast. At the top of the stairs, I’d ask, “What shall it be this Saturday morning,” doing my best imitation of the silly-pompous way he used to ask that question, “waffles, or pannnnncaaaakes,” dragging out the last word as he did. “Pancakes! Pancakes!” they’d say, jumping up from the floor. The girls jumped once and ran to me, but Will just kept jumping around in circles, singing, “pannnnncakes, pannnnnnncakes, pannnnncakes!” and waving his hands like little wings. Of course pancakes didn’t mean pancakes, it meant their dad’s pancakes, shaped like Mickey Mouse, or like a silly unicorn, or sprinkled with candy if we had it, or cupcake decorations. Nothing as boring as a plain round pancake with butter and syrup, there’s nothing fun about that, Daddy always said.

“Daddy makes better pancakes than you do,” Will said again this Saturday. “Yours are too round and the legs are too short.” Katie glanced at my face and scooted her chair a little closer to mine, and asked if she could have another pancake, please. “I wonder what Daddy’s doing this morning,” Marnie said. “I wonder if he got our kisses last night? I want to draw monsters with him, I want him to come home now.” Her eyebrows pulled together and a little pout started forming around her mouth. Touching my hand, Katie turned to Marnie and said, “It’s OK, Marn, I can draw with you this morning!” I looked away, out the glass door into our large backyard, littered with leaves and fallen branches from the recent storm. I sat still, unable to move my gaze, as the girls ran upstairs to get the jar of markers and the big blank book Marnie and her dad filled with funny monsters, and palm trees, and dogs that waved their paws. I heard them turning the pages, turning clumps of pages, trying to find an empty space that hadn’t already been filled on Saturday mornings, before he left.

“Mommy? Are you crying, mommy?” Will asked. I coughed a little into my fist and turned my shining eyes to him. “It’s OK, Daddy will come back!” he said. Will put his arms up, the signal he wanted to be lifted out of his booster seat, so I got up and lifted him out of the chair and watched him run upstairs, to draw with his big sisters.

Daddy said he would come back. He said.

* * *

In the funny way the world works, sometimes, this story continued to echo into the world. Marnie incorporated some of it into a personal experience she had, and put it in a truly beautiful book she wrote and illustrated called Particle/Wavewhich you can buy for only $8.

It reminds me of the way our experiences have such long echoes and ripples, how a moment can transform and connect past and future. And it makes me cry.

three things: 1/11/17

1)  I think a lot about the truthiness of things, and of course I have my historical, personal reasons for it. I read this passage in Fall on Your Knees, a powerful book by Anne-Marie MacDonald, and it has stayed with me:

“It’s a sin for Lily to let Mercedes think it was Daddy who beat up Frances. But he has done it in the past. Surely truth can be borrowed across time without perishing. Shelf life, so to speak.”

“Surely truth can be borrowed across time….” That. And the shelf life of truth, that too. Freud talked about ‘screen memories,’ one that may in itself be false but that masks a deeper, true memory of great emotional significance. And in Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch said,

“The more a person recalls a memory, the more they change it. Each time they put it into language, it shifts. The more you describe a memory, the more likely it is that you are making a story that fits your life, resolves the past, creates a fiction you can live with. It’s what writers do. Once you open your mouth, you are moving away from the truth of things. According to neuroscience, the safest memories are locked in the brains of people who can’t remember. Their memories remain the closest replica of actual events. Underwater. Forever.”

And so, as I continue this extremely difficult process of writing my two memoirs, and as I myself am not always absolutely certain about the truth of my memories in certain aspects, the truth of my own experiences even when my body knows the fact of them, the question of the unreliable narrator haunts me. I’m unreliable in so very many ways — including the mere fact of having told my stories a number of times — and yet I insist on the deep truth of all my memories, of all my experiences. Did this experience happen like this in the moment I am writing about, in this specific scene? Can I borrow truth across time without losing its truth? I insist that I can. Owning, telling, remembering, writing the truth of your life is not the same as being on a witness stand accusing another person of a specific crime, for which they can be judged and punished.

Right? I think so. (And if you are strong, read Chronology of Waterhere’s my GoodReads review, it was such a powerful story. The link also includes the material I highlighted, passages I loved for one reason or another.)

And in a funny twist, this quote was in my quote widget (in the right sidebar) when I was writing:

“A common feature of many theories of trauma is the idea that the causative—the wounding—event is not remembered but relived, as it is in the flashbacks of combat veterans, experienced anew with a visceral immediacy that affords no critical distance. To remember something, you have to consign it to the past—put it behind you—but trauma remains in the present; it fills that present entirely. You are inside it. Your mouth is always filled with the taste of blood. The killers are always crashing through the brush behind you. Some researchers believe that trauma bypasses the normal mechanisms of memory and engraves itself directly on some portion of the brain, like a brand. Cattle are branded to signify that they are someone’s property, and so, too, were slaves. The brand of trauma signifies that henceforth you yourself are property, the property of that which has injured you. The psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi believed that trauma is characterized by the victim’s helpless identification with the perpetrator, and elsewhere in the literature one often comes across the word “possession.” The moment of trauma marks an event horizon after which memory ceases. Or else memory breaks down, so that the victim can reconstruct the event but not the feeling that accompanied it, or alternatively only the feeling.” —Peter Trachtenberg

2)  Here’s a poem I really love, and hope you like it, too:

REALISM (Beth Bachmann)

God said, your name is mud
and the thing about mud is you
got to throw it down
repeatedly
to remove the air
and sometimes cut it
and rejoin it with another part.
If stars are made of dust,
it’s not the same stuff,
God said;
you can’t make a hut out of it,
only heaven,
and when I said dust to dust,
that’s not what I meant.

3) I read a collection of short stories by a new (to me!) writer named Carl MacDougall — Someone Always Robs the Poor. He’s a very well-established Scottish writer, and the stories are set almost entirely in Scotland and most are about alcohol in some way, and frequently violence.

The stories often left me stunned, like the powerful story “Korsakoff’s Psychosis” that took me right into the experience of a late-stage alcoholic, with all the horrors of that life. It was hard to read that story, and hard to look away even though I wanted to, because the prose slipped me right into the terrible, tragic remnants of mind. The story “William John MacDonald” broke the narrative form to tell a terrible sad story (one of many stories related to drunk men) of a young man’s tragic encounter with violence and drinking. On occasion I had to read a page a few times — in part because of cultural references that weren’t familiar to me, and in part because of the style of storytelling. I was always glad to read and re-read.

On the whole, the stories were sad and tragic, although they were never told with melodrama. Instead, they were quiet and deeply emotional, and I sometimes paused when one ended, and held it for a long while before I slipped into the next. What a powerful collection of stories that will haunt me. I read and ARC, and the book won’t be published until February 23, but I heartily recommend it. It’s a quick read; I read the bulk of it on the flight from New York to Austin, about 3.5 hours.

I could use your thoughts, please

lidiaSo I was listening to this beautiful short series of free writing lectures by Lidia Yuknavitch, author of the gutting memoir Chronology of WaterHer writing is not like anyone else’s. I hadn’t read any of her books, only short stories here and there, but I had Chronology of Water on my Kindle and after seeing these lecture clips, I decided to read it finally.

W.O.W. I can only read the book in snips and sips, it’s pretty raw and powerful, and quite hard. She does a thing I’d give anything to do, in my own voice. I recommend the book, or anything else she has written.

In one of the lectures she talks about the central importance of our metaphors, and in finding the story underneath the story, and the one underneath that. She said that if you just tell the story you’ve always told, it will be dead, and she provided a really great exercise that I’m dying to try. But in her conversation about metaphor, she said she’d shared an early draft of Chronology of Water with a trusted reader and she asked for deep feedback. Among the feedback, the reader mentioned that Lidia’s central metaphor was water, which she simply had not realized . . . even though a huge part of the story is her early life as an athlete, a competitive swimmer, and her return to swimming, and her feelings of drowning, and on and on and on. Realizing her central metaphor was a crystallizing and powerful thing, not just for her book but for her understanding of herself, and her life.

She said everyone operates with a few metaphors, and she named a couple of others that echo through her stories and her life. I thought it was fascinating that she couldn’t see her own most central metaphor, but at the same time I totally get it. Fish don’t see the water!

I do have a sense of one big metaphor in my life (by which I mean a metaphor that I see in my recurring experiences — it’s my storytelling, not something that exists in a reified way in my life), but I wondered about others. And since sometimes other people can see you more clearly than you see yourself, I thought I’d ask. If you’ve been around the palace for a while, what would you say are my metaphors? I’ll welcome any thoughts you may have.

And if you’re interested in Lidia (an interest that will be so rewarding, you’ll see), here’s her TED talk about being a misfit:

Lidia Yuknavitch: The beauty of being a misfit

To those who feel like they don't belong: there is beauty in being a misfit. Author Lidia Yuknavitch shares her own wayward journey in an intimate recollection of patchwork stories about loss, shame and the slow process of self-acceptance. "Even at the moment of your failure, you are beautiful," she says.

Thanks, y’all.

Helen

cotardIn November 2008 I put myself in the hospital in New York, Weill Cornell/ Payne Whitney, because I was very, very sick. It went beyond wanting to die — I quite literally thought I was already dead. It’s a kind of psychosis that can accompany severe clinical depression, and though it’s not at all common, it’s known. It’s called the Cotard Delusion, and one day I’ll write about it. I’ve had it twice in my life.

But while I was in the hospital, I wrote a LOT. A lot. Luckily I dumped it all in a private blog and I just came across it. This story is chilling, as you’ll see at the end.

* * *

My first morning at breakfast, a very tall blind woman was escorted into the dining room for breakfast. Her blue eyes were strange: one was milky, and the other had a very sharp circle cut out of the blue iris, just outside the pupil. She didn’t wear dark glasses. She had a very strong accent, which I initially thought was German, a very deep and rich voice, and she was beautiful. Her messy hair was piled up on the back of her head into what must have been a twist of some kind, several days before. It was gray, but with reddish-colored ends, so she used to color it. Her skin was translucent, and her features were fine and beautiful. Her lips were full. Though she had a stick, as she called it, she didn’t use it as blind people do, tapping in front of themselves left and right. She just held it upright like a scepter, and held the arm of anyone who escorted her.

She sat at the breakfast table and announced, “Derek. I vant vaffles. And hot cho-co-lat.” None of the staff responded, though it seemed they were preparing her food. Of course she was blind and couldn’t see that, so a minute later she’d repeat, “Derek. Can I please have some vaffles and hot cho-co-lat.” No response, request repeated a minute later, exactly the same. Finally the staff became irritated with her and snapped at her – “Helen, you have to wait and be patient.”

So she’d pick up her vaffle with her fingers and eat it, no butter or syrup: a bite of vaffle then a drink of her hot chocolate. A bite of waffle, a drink of hot chocolate. When she finished, staff would escort her back to her room and she wouldn’t be seen until the next meal. Lunch was always baked eggplant. Dinner was always baked eggplant. And breakfast was always vaffles and hot cho-co-lat. It wasn’t that they only served those things to her – it’s that those were the foods she always asked for. Demanded. The rest of us had to eat whatever was being served, but Helen ate only these things. If she was not eating, she was left in her room.

One evening she appeared in the doorway of her room and said, “Would someone help me make a call?” None of the patients moved, and few people even looked up. The staff didn’t respond in any way at all. So finally, I stood up and went to her, offering to help. We walked over to the phone, I dialed the number and waited while she completed her call, then escorted her back to her room.

I don’t remember how it began, but it became our evening habit that I would walk her around the unit until she tired. She asked my name, and though I said Lori she called me Lora. With her accent, the r sounded like a d. She would come to her door and bellow, “Lora! Lora!” The unit was very small, so our walk was just a square – a short hallway, a small sitting area in the back, overlooking the East River and the FDR, then back up the opposite short hallway, and then across the front sitting area. While we walked, we talked. The insane girl would race past us, up and down with manic speed, and as we rounded the corner the tiny, fat Jewish man who had a 24-hour guard would blow his shofar.

I learned that Helen was from Russia, and she believed that was why the staff hated her. I asked her where in Russia and she snapped at me, she didn’t want to talk about that because she’s an American. I apologized, and said that I’m from Texas, and then she started talking about her childhood in Russia. Her mother was an actress in Russia, I remember that. She was curious about me, and asked me why I was there, which led to long conversations. She scolded me for wanting to be dead. She asked me how I came to NY. She never smiled, but she was very friendly and warm. She said she was there because she’d just become blind, a year before, due to cataracts and glaucoma and something else, and all surgical options were exhausted. She said she was stagnant, warehoused. I couldn’t disagree with her, which broke my heart.

The last couple of nights she opened up more to me, and wanted to lie on the couch in the back sitting area with her head in my lap. She didn’t want me to stroke her head – she said it made her feel like a pet. But she seemed to want to be touched, and to have real contact. So I sat at the end of the couch and allowed her to put her head in my lap, and I lay my hand on her shoulder. The last night, she lay on her side with her head in my lap, curled up in a loose ball, and she pulled my hand into her chest and held it there the whole time.

She asked me what I look like, so I tried to describe myself. Then I also told her the story of my tattoos, and this absolutely gorgeous smile spread across her face. She said, “Lora, you are so silly. This is a silly thing you have done, vy did you do this silly thing.” She teased me, and it was wonderful, a light and touching moment.

She said the staff was going to transfer her to the state hospital and she said, with her deep-voiced Russian drama, “Lora, I vill perish. Lora, I vill perish.” I looked into her eyes and had no response. What could I say?

blindFinally I asked her the obvious question: “Helen, why are you here, on the psych ward, instead of in a hospital for blind people where you could learn how to navigate the world?” She said it was her punishment, because when she lived in France she made her living telling fortunes and reading cards. She was very religious, and believed that this part of her life was as it should be, given by God, as punishment. Then she said, almost in passing, “They said I poured bleach into my eyes, can you imagine such a thing?”

a post, in two parts

PART I

The tide has turned. The worm has turned. It’s a beautiful morning. The world has turned. Morning has broken. And many other sayings like that.

Light is coming back. Light and air are coming back to me. Yesterday I actually laughed spontaneously, and I haven’t had “those” thoughts for three straight days, now. If bad language offends you, turn away (but then you probably aren’t one who reads my damn blog 🙂 ) — I think it’s fucking ending. Halle-fuckin-lujah. And thus ends the F word, in this post, anyway.

For you professional depression-havers out there, you know how it sidles up alongside you, a dark day turns into a week but you know, people have down weeks. A week slips into two, then three, and then you’re in it and don’t even remember that it ever was anything but this. I wish it announced itself in some way, that would make it all so much easier.

I told people slowly, very slowly, too slowly. One here, another there. This one. A hint of it to that one so as not to freak out that person. A secret group, and then another secret group, and then the last one, and then that last blog post and a public-ish post on open Facebook. Damn depression, the way it makes you unable to think and see! There was pretty much a linear correlation (thus ends the statistical stuff) between help I got and people I told. And a big duh right there. If I weren’t depressed I’d have caught it on the second person. So the next time this comes around, as I sadly imagine it will even as I hope it doesn’t, I hope I can remember this, and simply tell all my support people, my friends, those who love me, those I love, and accept the help they so generously give. Just do that. Tell, and as soon as you can. And as many people who love you as you can. You’ll know the ones who’ll get cold, or freak out, so don’t tell them but tell all the others, the ones who will rush toward you in even the slightest of ways.

This morning I was telling a group of friends about what this giant all-out launching of love has done for me, and a sweet little bit of writing slipped out of my fingertips so I’ll plagiarize myself: “this kind of love bombing I’ve been receiving ever since I went ‘public’ with it has been like a booster rocket, sending me above the ocean’s surface where I can take deep gulps of good air. And even if I go down again, I don’t go nearly as far.”  [pretty good imagery if I do say so myself. thank you, subconscious.]

Of course every time is different, and it’s different for every person (different each person x different each time = I can’t do the math but that’s a lot of instances), but I learned something this time that I want to try for others, and I hope to ask for, for myself. When you are way down in the hole, people who love you remind you how much they love you, and of course they do, and you know it even if you can’t feel it while you’re down there. But the nasty little sentences I was resisting were these: No one would miss you. It wouldn’t matter if you just died.

People not only showed up, they gently took me out for a drink, for dinner, they held my hand and looked into my eyes and told me what I meant to them, they told me they understood because they suffer depression, they sent me little notes, or they bought me music, or they wrote me letters, or they sent me gifts. They listened to me with great heart and compassion, and I could see it in their glowing eyes. They pinged me every single morning asking how I was, darling, and sometimes again at night. If I said it was really really bad, I got good practical advice — go outside and take a very fast walk, go do it now. And text me when you’re back.

And sometimes they wrote out what it would mean to them if I weren’t here. And there it was, the very real argument against those miserable thoughts. Liar! She would be devastated, and in these particular ways! Liar! Her world would change in these particular ways! Liar! Liar! Liar! Not only were those like silver bullets against the thoughts, they were also overwhelmingly wonderful to read — not that people would suffer, but that my presence in their life means all those things.

And so I will carry this with me out of the darkness, and not just wait until someone is depressed to tell them what they mean in my life, how important they are in the very fiber of my life, but tell them all. (I mean, not all the time, for heaven’s sake. 🙂 )  You might file this away for the next time someone you love is severely depressed. It may or may not help them, but there is no way it can hurt. And maybe it will just make them feel too guilty to leave. Whatever works, man. Whatever works.

Part II

Just the right person came into my life at just the right time. I didn’t recognize it at the beginning, because I was too far gone in grief and loss, and she went out of the country for six months. I kind of feel like I’ve been waiting all my life for her, but don’t tell her that, she’ll get embarrassed.

I’ll only be able to explain her importance when I write the dedication and acknowledgements for my memoir, but thanks to her, it’s an entirely different book now, and it’s amazing and flowing. Yesterday I wrote for five hours straight, non-stop, two chapters, 7326 words. I could have written chapter 3 and chapter 4, probably, if I didn’t have to stop and clean the kitchen and brush my teeth and go to bed. (And take my mighty-strong extra antidepressant, which is also part of the equation in addition to all that love bombing.)

And so my silence here is probably going to be prolonged, but for a very different reason. I actually have two books to finish, one the publisher is waiting for, and I’m ~75% through, and the one I’m writing now, like a river flowing out of me, and I want to spend all my non-working time on these two writing projects. My friend turned the dial so it’s oriented at a different angle, said a magic sentence, and flipped the switch. How can I ever thank her enough.

So many people have helped me, I’d need an index-length acknowledgement to include them all, and I hope you know who you are if you read this. For everyone who said a little something, sent a little smile, told me to write, gave me your attention, your love, allowed me to give those to you, I am forever in your debt.

I am not my story

A recent spate of publicity about Robert Downey, Jr. has him saying, “I am not my story.” I think this is a common idea — and specific sentence — in the recovery movement. It’s a very interesting idea, as you poke at it. It’s partly saying that the past does not determine who you are. And it’s partly saying that even the story that you or I tell, that’s not who we are. Since I think it’s most often used in the context of addiction, it speaks quite pointedly to thinking about who you were, what you have done, but it’s true every minute for every single person, addiction or not. I could tell you one story of who I am. Or I could tell you another story of who I am. Or another. Some of the stories would contradict — in this one I am brave and true, and in a differently organized version I am weak and inconsistent. And perhaps I could try to tell a greatly complex story that brings in those stories and weaves them together…..but it still wouldn’t be who I am.

I have a decades-long connection to the idea of self as story. “Self is story,” I have long said. I have my version I tell strangers, the version I tell in polite company, the version I tell people I trust, the version I tell myself, and the version I don’t even like to tell myself. Without story, there isn’t really a self. That’s the tragedy of profound amnesia, of late-stage Alzheimer’s, right? And of course it’s stupid to throw the baby out with the bathwater as I drift away from my old story about story. It’s just that I increasingly understand the pretty severe limitation of words and narrative as a way of capturing self. You. Me. Us. Who am I, who are you? Can you possibly tell a story that conveys who you are? Even if you had all the time — even if you could tell a story that lasts exactly as long as your actual life — you couldn’t capture who you are. Think about it.

Lately I’ve been thinking about “my story,” the story I am finally so sick and tired of telling. The story that has been exhausted by me, that feels increasingly irrelevant, that doesn’t have the power in my imagination and gut that it always did. The stories I no longer want to tell. As I first started thinking about this, I thought I didn’t want to write the memoir I’ve been working at for so many years, because I’m just so tired of those stories. I have nothing new to say about them, they are what they are but more importantly I am who I am right now. And right now my “past” includes stories of that last trip I took, to Greece. Stories of Oliver’s accomplishments, my daughters’ lives, the mysterious and sudden dropping of the lawsuit (still I say what? What was that, then?). Stories of dinners with friends, laughing with my neighbor. Stories of heart-to-heart hours of conversation about our lives. Stories about everyday aggravations or pleasures. Stories about ‘wow did you see that gigantic moon last night?’ And stories of what’s to come — my upcoming trip back to SE Asia, breakfast with my women on Saturday, book club next week. Chicago in November.

One thought I had is that perhaps being released from the power of all that will finally give me the distance and objectivity I need to write what I want to write — which was never as much about “this terrible thing happened and here are the details, and then this terrible thing happened” as much as it was a story about what’s possible, about human resilience, and triumph. Maybe being released from an intense need to get the “accurate” story told is freedom. A videotape of my life, from birth to now, would not — could not — tell you who I am.

I find this enormously liberating, rather than feeling it as a sense of loss. I guess I have a new story about story. Which is just another story. 🙂

memoir blah blah blah

memoirIt is the age of memoir and has been for quite a while. Some people are contemptuous of memoir (that always shocks me), even calling it an “absurdly bloated genre.” To blindly dismiss an entire genre is idiotic, as if they are all one thing. As an editor, I read a lot of memoirs and like any other genre, there is tremendous variability. I have a few favorite memoirs, many written by poets (Nick Flynn of course, and the one I am currently editing which I pray gets published). My other favorite memoir is a genre-buster — The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, by Maxine Hong Kingston. That book provided a metaphor for my life that I hadn’t had before, and helped me see myself in such a different way. As you know if you’ve been around these parts for long, it is the most important and transformative book in my life.

The best memoirs go beyond the specific details of the writer’s life to illuminate what it means to be a human being, living a life. (In my opinion.) When I read my favorite memoirs, I somehow understand my own life differently, or better, as in the case of Nick Flynn’s books. Or maybe I look at myself quite differently, understand the circumstances of my life in a new way. And to varying degrees, memoir can serve as a self-help book of the broadest kind: ah, this person went through by doing y, so maybe I can get through it too. They can inspire.

It’s the age of dramatic troubles memoirs too. Memoirs used to chronicle lives of adventure and privilege, and some still do . . . but these days it seems that so many memoirs focus on horrible childhoods, dire circumstances, horrific tragedy. Those can be self-indulgent but the best of them show readers the power and possibility of resilience, of transformation, of persistence. Stories of resilience can inspire readers to be stronger, braver in the face of their own troubles. I know that’s how those kinds of stories affect me. And of course those stories are not limited to the genre of memoir; excellent journalism and other kinds of non-fiction can do the same thing, as this piece in The Atlantic about the resilience of people and the society in Rwanda, 20 years after the horrific slaughter that lasted for 100 days and left 1 million dead. To read anything that shows the brilliance and courage and strength of real people can only be inspirational, in the best way. Not in a “do these 10 things and you will be happy” way, but in a deeply moving way. My god, human beings can be so courageous and creative.

My friend and former dissertation advisor Jamie recently told me that I am the poster child for resilience, and on this one I agree with him. I am resilient. If and when I complete my memoir, my goal is for it to be one of these tales of resilience, of survival, and of a variety of kinds of triumph anyway. Despite. But I need these booster shots of stories of others’ resilience. Every time I read a very good memoir that is a tale of resilience, I learn new ways of being strong in the face of life, I get a reminder of the strength of people, I find awe and respect in the everyday humanity of people. Sometimes I think, well, what else is there to do but survive and persist? and yet I know that not everyone does. I know that some people destroy themselves and/or others, some people are too damaged to recover, some people do not have the inner resources they need to keep going in a whole way. Would reading stories of resilience help these people? Some, maybe, and maybe those people are the ones with stores of resilience they’re just unaware of. I don’t know. It’s certainly not a cure-all, of course.

I am not so naive that I think just the right memoir could help everyone get through;  as I’ve said a number of times since I’ve been thinking about this, temperament just is and while you can push it around and affect the edges, you are who you are. Like the current conception of the influence of DNA, it sets the boundary conditions, and environment can move it around within those boundaries. But probably not outside them. If you are a person who sees primarily the dark, the trouble, you probably can’t transform yourself into a lighthearted optimist (and you probably don’t want to!). You can learn skills and ways of thinking and you can probably shift things around the easier topics, but we are who we are. I believe that. And I believe that we are who we are, right from the beginning. I look at little Oliver and wonder who he is in there. What his temperament is, because it’s already there. He seems to be laidback and chill, but he’s 2.5 weeks old so we haven’t truly seen him yet.

So when my memoir is completed, and assuming it is the kind of memoir I hope it will be instead of a self-indulgent “feel sorry for me” kind of piece, will the art and transformation of experience help someone, anyone? God I hope so. I hope it helps someone feel less alone, I hope it helps readers keep going through their own circumstances because they know others did, I hope it helps people understand themselves and their lives in some way. You hear people say this kind of thing, but when I think about it I get so choked up: Truly, if reading my memoir helped ONE PERSON in any way, I would feel like all the events of my life had a new kind of meaning. And even writing that sentence, I can’t see through the tears in my eyes.  xo