“Be the ancestor you wish you had!”

I heard that phrase from an attendee at a writing talk I gave in Belleville a few years ago, and it stuck with me because it so perfectly captured one of the reasons why I encourage people to write their memoirs.

We write to provide the oscillating family stories, those stories that convey not just our triumphs but our struggles and how we overcame them. There is solid evidence that passing on these stories improves children’s and adolescents’ emotional health and happiness. It helps them find that “grit” so talked about these days, that resilience that helps them weather setbacks and resist temptations.

But writing family history can be daunting. For decades genealogists have assured us that we must complete comprehensive research before we can, with confidence, set down the facts of the people who came before us. While some people find this research absorbing, others resist. As a result, stories go untold, and fade from memory until, like a badly fixed photograph, nothing but ghostly outlines remain.

1978 return from France ghosts

My friend and genealogist Dee Grimsrud says “research AND write!” Research enough to begin the story. In the telling, you will get down what you know, and discover what deserves more research. Step by step, left foot following right foot, you will capture the stories AND enough factual material to frame them appropriately.

Do you have to wait until you have confirmed data before sharing a story? No, says Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, author of You Can Write Your Family History. “Those colorful family legends–the ones you haven’t been able to prove or disprove in the course of your research–also have a place in your family history narrative. Use and acknowledge them for exactly what they are: family legends.” [Emphasis hers.]

I have another favorite saying that comes to mind regarding writing family history: “The kid stays in the picture!” (That line is attributed to studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who was defending the use of a child actor.)

For me, this means including YOURSELF in your family stories. Be a character in that drama. Write about favorite or colorful relatives as YOU remember them. If your genealogical research takes you on dramatic journeys, down dry dead-ends that at the last possible moment turn into treasure-houses, or into correspondence with long-lost relatives who bring new chapters to your life, write that too. Genealogical purists poo-poo inserting yourself into a family narrative, but I’m all for it. You are a link in this chain. Give yourself your due.

Suppose, as you gather with friends and family this holiday season, the conversation turns to the family tree. As those stories spill out, grab your iThing and say, “Hey, let me capture that!” Pull up your Voice Memos app and hit the Big Red Dot.

Save and share those family stories. Some future relative will be glad you did!


My workshop “Start Writing Your Family History” begins January 6 at Pinney Branch Library on Cottage Grove Road, 4-6pm for 5 Wednesdays. Click here to register.


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In the new year, how about some new writing?

Ready for some consciousness-raising about ageism? Fancy fashioning a family history? Want to write in wintery beauty? It’s time to check out my upcoming workshops.
71559675At a glance:

  • “First Monday, First Person” memoir writers’ salon, South Madison Branch Library, every first Monday of the month. Next salon: January 4, 6pm – 7:45pm. Free.
  • Start Writing Your Family History, 5 week workshop, Pinney Branch Library, Wednesdays, 4-6pm for 5 weeks, beginning Jan 6, registration opens December 23. Free.
  • Successful Aging Discussion Group. I am interested in having small-group conversations around fighting ageism and discovering how to joyfully and thoughtfully transition from adulthood to the next developmental stage. Threshold, 2717 Atwood Avenue,  7:00-8:30pm, meeting on January 12, 26, Feb 9, 23. Drop in at any meeting.  Donations welcome.
  • Write in Nature: A Winter Retreat. Thursday, January 28, 9 am – 3 pm, at the Linda and Gene Farley Center for Peace, Justice, and Sustainability, 2299 Spring Rose Road, just west of Verona. Fee: $75 includes a tasty, healthy, gluten-free hot lunch.12375994_1053963641310230_6423915252268414479_n

Contact me at 608-347-7329, sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com, or check out my Upcoming Workshops for more information.

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Book review: “Second Wind” by Dr. Bill Thomas


I mentioned thought-leader/geriatrician Bill Thomas’ book Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life in a post earlier this month about “Bedside Books.” I’m ready to share a more complete review.

Second Wind is fundamentally about recognizing, exploring, and imagining a developmental stage beyond adulthood. It is also a quintessential Baby Boomer book, as self-centered as everything else about my generation. (That Dr. Bill Thomas is roughly my age probably explains that.)

His basic premise is that the dynamics that gave rise to the Baby Boomers (back when the phrase referred to youth) have over the intervening 40 years  created a dangerous sea of misperceptions about old age. He calls for a cultural revolution mirroring that of the 1960s to reinvent elderhood as radically as we once challenged existing ideas of adulthood.

In the first section, titled “The First Crucible,” he describes that first revolution:

Young people of the era were ultimately led to choose among three basic developmental strategies for emerging out of childhood. They could (1) accept adulthood as it was lived by one’s parents, (2) embrace the power of adulthood as an instrument of social change, or (3) reject the adulthood on offer and explore new, nonadult ways of living beyond childhood.

He terms these three subcultures Squares, Activists and Hippies. He then goes on to explain that:

The chaos associated with the most intense First Crucible years generated a powerful counter-counterculture….The Squares’ furious rejection of the First Crucible’s social and cultural dislocations led them to push their counterreformation forward with relentless energy and dedication.

In the second section, titled “The Rise to Power,” Dr. Thomas takes down “The Cult of Adulthood” with astounding vigor. Steven Covey-style efficiency? Dangerous brainwashing to make us all productive cogs in their great machine. Greed? Our national religion, masked as Horatio Alger-style “rags to respectability” bootstrapping. Time is money, and it’s moving faster than ever, thanks to the sensation of drowning in an unending stream of news, opinions, facts, and statistics.

The cult of adulthood has defined the contours of American life for nearly four decades…. Adult understandings of success and “effectiveness,” the proper role of individualism, and the ennobling nature of wealth are no longer subject to debate or ridicule: they have become articles of faith.”

In the third section, “The Second Crucible,” he presents his analysis of the current moment:

The postwar generation’s increasingly strained relationship with adulthood will create entirely new cultural fault lines. During the Second Crucible, these fractures will give rise to unique subcultures with divergent answers to the increasingly urgent question, “What comes next?” Members of the postwar generation will deny the necessity of change and endeavor to remain fully and permanently adult, accept but work to minimize the impact of change for as long as possible, or embrace change and choose to explore life beyond adulthood.

Like the Squares, Activists, and Hippies, these three reactions “are poised to exert an outsize influence over our shared culture.” The rest of Thomas’ Second Wind is devoted to his  call to action–that we join his Enthusiasts  and fight for respect and appreciation for this developmental stage in which we privilege being over doing (take THAT, efficiency-worshipers!). It’s time to embrace and share the gifts of sages and crones–wisdom, insight, experience, common sense. “It’s time to challenge the dehumanizing power of ageism,” Thomas writes.

Reading Second Wind came for me a few months after finishing Powers of the Weak, a seminal feminist text published in 1980 by Elizabeth Janeway. 1+1 = 11 when you realize who the “weak” are in this next cultural revolution–the elders, rendered invisible and dehumanized by ageism!

So here’s MY call to action–it’s time to apply the tools of the counterculture activists–and specifically, the second wave feminists–to fight the powers that be. I am forming a consciousness-raising group about successful aging that will begin meeting on Madison’s east side on January 12. (More info here.) I’m open to forming an online group if you tell me you’re interested. (email me at sarah.white@firstpersonprod.com.)

Let’s get this revolution underway, Baby Boomers! We’ve changed every institution we’ve touched since kindergarten–do you really want to stop now?

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Turning Points – The Good, the Bad  and the Ugly

By Melodee Currier

A “turning point” is a point in time when something happens in your life that causes a change in direction.  Don’t be surprised if you don’t realize a turning point has occurred until years later when you step back and can see the full picture.

I have experienced over twenty unplanned pivotal changes in my life.  Most were good, some not so good and one was downright ugly.  Their themes were mostly centered on reaching goals, careers, relocating, health, and relationships.  Many times these unexpected detours turned out better than the trip I planned.


One turning point happened during my sophomore year of high school in gym class.  The guys were on one side of the gym and the girls were on the other.  While we were waiting for the signal for the boys to ask the girls to dance, several girls sitting around me were buzzing with excitement, giggling and arguing amongst themselves, saying that one of the best looking boys was motioning to them.  I didn’t think anything of it, but when he came over to our side, he chose ME!  You could have heard a pin drop.  That was when I realized I wasn’t the wallflower I thought I was and my life changed dramatically.

The most significant turning point in my life, however, was the birth of my only child.  He was so perfect I couldn’t believe he was mine!  Dionne Warwick’s song “I Never Knew Love Before — Then Came You” describes my love for him.  And bringing him into this world has been life changing for me in so many ways.

They say love happens when you least expect it.  I didn’t know when I went to a book signing that it would lead me to my husband of nearly 25 years.  The author was taking a long time signing books, so I started talking with the woman standing behind me.  We became instant friends, exchanged phone numbers and met for lunch a few times.  One day she asked me if she could give my phone number to a guy she worked with.  He called me and within a couple days we went on the date that never ended.

I realize that I wouldn’t be a freelance writer today if it weren’t for a co-worker who enjoyed listening to my unconventional true stories and encouraged me to enter a national magazine writing contest.  I didn’t win the contest, but I enjoyed the process of writing so much I continued writing and haven’t stopped.

The “ugly” turning point happened recently while my husband and I were on our way to breakfast.  Driving through a green light, a car suddenly turned in front of us, nearly causing a head-on collision.  We were rushed by ambulance to the hospital’s trauma center where it was discovered I fractured my sternum and my ribs, and suffered several other injuries while my husband badly injured his leg.   While recuperating at home, I realized that we escaped death thanks to divine intervention.  I counted my blessings and made life-changing goals to improve the way I was before the accident — mentally, physically and spiritually.  There is a relatively new term for this, “post traumatic growth,” and I knew this was a defining moment for me.

The common thread in these turning points is that they all started with one other person — the boy who asked me to dance, the husband who fathered my son, the woman I met at the book signing, the co-worker who encouraged me to write, the woman who drove the car that caused our accident.  All were events that started without much fanfare, but ended up being life changers.

Life is mysterious and can be exciting — every moment is an opportunity for change.  The next person you meet may just change your life.  You might even win the lottery!

© 2015 Melodee Currier

Mel Currier left corporate America in 2008 where she was an intellectual
property paralegal.  Since then she has devoted her time to writing and has
had numerous articles published on a wide variety of topics.   Her articles
can be read on her website www.melodeecurrier.com. Mel is an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told.

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Bedside books

On this Thanksgiving morning, I am grateful for books–and the time to read them.

Here are the books currently on my nightstand:

Nine books on my nightstand--and you'd see an iPad too, if I weren't using it to take the photo.

Nine books on my nightstand–and you’d see an iPad too, if I weren’t using it to take the photo.

Two have been there since last winter. One joined the stack after a conversation with a feminist last spring. One is from the library. One was a gift, one a loaner. One is a repurchase of a book I gave away, after it was given to me. Not one is fiction. Funny, the things our books say about us. (What’s on your nightstand? Let me know.)

Now, let’s open a few covers:

Second Wind: Navigating the Passage to a Slower, Deeper, and More Connected Life, (2014) by Dr. Bill Thomas. He’s a self-proclaimed “nursing home abolitionist.” You can find out more about his work at changingaging.org, as I am doing. This is a library copy but I’m ready to buy my own so I can go highlight like crazy. I want to start a discussion group to explore thoughts like this one:

“Although it is hard to believe, a four-decade-long cultural hegemony created by the postwar generation’s occupation of the adult life phase is drawing to a close. We are approaching the postwar generation’s Second Crucible, and with it a spectacular and unprecedented struggle to discover and enter into life beyond adulthood.”

Or this one:

“People living in contemporary society are constantly reminded that doing > being….The Enthusiasts [Thomas’ term for people actively embracing a lifestage beyond adulthood] are set apart from the dominant culture in large part by their desire to reverse the cult of adulthood’s life equation so that it looks like this: being > doing.”

So, want to join my discussion group? Let me know!

Moving further down the stack…

Having the Last Say: Capturing Your Legacy in One Small Story (2015) by Alan Gelb. His message: “As the baby-boomer generation ages, its members are looking ahead to the biggest challenge of all: making sense of life in its third act.” It’s a short-ish how-to book on writing the opposite of a college entrance exam–the essay to be read at your funeral, using one story from you life to convey values, passions, and life lessons. It’s a nice, concise how-to-write book, and I’m getting some nice tips from it on my occasional dips.

Writing Your Legacy: The Step-by-Step Guide to Crafting Your Life Story (2015) by Richard Campbell and Cheryl Svensson. Skimmed this when asked to blurb it last year (the authors are fellow colleagues in the Association of Personal Historians), received my copy  at the APH conference, looking forward to seeing what it adds to a shelf becoming somewhat crowded with these how-to guides.

Cannot Stay: Essays on Travel (2015) by Kevin Oderman. These essays speak to the experience of travel, and I like Oderman’s way with words–the man can turn a felicitous phrase. I’ll draw on this next time I update my “Write Your Travel Memoir” curriculum.

Writing to Learn: How to write–and think–critically about any subject at all (1988) by William Zinsser. Zinsser believes that writing is the best way to learn about a field of knowledge. That might not be true for every learning style, but it sure works for me. (The problem is, not continuing to write about it is the best way to forget what you just learned, I find.) We all need a Zinsser book close to hand at all times, IMHO.

The Artist’s Way: A spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (1992) by Julia Cameron. Repurchased in a recent fit of delusion that I would have time for creativity soon. And when I do, I will do those Daily Pages…

Powers of the Weak (1980) by Elizabeth Janeway. Wow, now THAT was some heavy food for thought! Took me 3 months last summer to read its 321 pages. I look forward to going through it a second time to gnaw more meat off those pages. A friend of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem (although considerably older) and a reviewer for Ms. Magazine, Janeway is a foundational thinker and writer of  second wave feminism. Here’s my distillation:

  • If the weak accept the labels “powerful” and “weak” and accept the roles that go with the labels, they are doomed.
  • The “powerful” use isolation, trivialization and self-doubt to keep the weak believing they are weak.
  • The weak can fight back with disbelief, community, and collective action.

Now if I can just find a way to start applying those insights to the “weakness” that we define as elderhood…  see Second Wind. It’s time to start a revolution. Who’s with me?

Now we’re down to books that haven’t moved since last spring….

Being First: An informal history of the early Peace Corps, (2010) by Robert Klein. Got this at an oral history conference. I dip into this one occasionally and dream about joining the Peace Corps myself (hey, they take older people now!) or at least teaching “Travel Memoir” to a group of retired Peace Corps volunteers. Klein did a great job of collecting oral history interviews for this book about the corps’ creation and first year of service–an incredible testament to John F. Kennedy’s vision and ability to get things done through other people. Good lessons there….

And that brings us down to….

Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (2004) by James Webb. Last St. Patrick’s Day I was lamenting having no particular ethnic origin (and posted about it here). Once my brother provided genealogical evidence for my Scots-Irishness, My friend Jane lent me this book. Wow, the ethnic pride fairly crackles off its page! I’m surprised the type doesn’t spring up and start fighting. I’m not sure I like knowing such warlike traits are in my DNA.

And there you have it: 7-1/2″ of reading. I am grateful to have an inquiring mind, a fresh prescription in my eyeglasses, a taste for coffee (both of which are required to bring that mind into focus), and a small bracket of time set aside each day for reading. May a holiday here and there bring a second pot of java and a larger bracket for reading, as it did this morning. And may there occasionally arise meaningful action from the delicious swirl of thought provoked by good authors.



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The Post Office Truck (conclusion)

By Diane Hughes

The story continues from this previous post. Diane and Glenn have completed renovations to turn their Post Office Truck into a unique mobile home base, allowing them to join in the peripatetic 1960s hippie culture.


For most of a year, we traversed the California, Oregon, and Nevada backroads, stopping when we tired of driving, going when we grew tired of the place we were in.



We met people who were artists working the Art Fair circuit and were invited to their homes if we ever got to their home town. After a fair near the UC Berkeley campus, we were invited back to the home of one of the artists in the Berkeley Hills. There in a small handbuilt house we talked with several artists while a guitar gently played in the corner. The jeweler was thrilled because Joan Baez purchased one of her large silver bracelets. During a lull in the conversation, I mentioned how lovely the music was and our host replied “yeah, that’s Steven Stills of Crosby Stills and Nash.”


Glenn, who grew up in a family-owned motel, could start a conversation with almost anyone and get excited about some unique aspect of their character. We frequently found ourselves invited to dinner or sharing our various food stashes with fellow travelers. We might be discussing religion or politics, but we both especially enjoyed picking the brains of someone who had some expertise or opinions other than our own. We were open to almost anyone and, though we each had a very strong sense of what we thought, we were willing to reconsider. An old crinkled rock hound explained to us how he made a modest living out of hunting stone in various locations which he made sure he didn’t disclose. But he graciously accepted the free meal we provided and we enjoyed the evening campfire listening to his stories. We layed our bags on picnic tables in some small park high in the Sierra Mountains to watch the annual meteor showers.

We felt we had discovered how to live, how to be free enough but also secure enough. That year seemed blessed with fortuitous meetings, precious times of making love on a deserted beach, sleeping with the sounds of the grand waterfalls of Yosemite. On a whim we could change course, driving towards the beach so we could hear the sounds of the ocean. And everywhere and every day, we fixed coffee and read for hours, often reading tidbits out loud to each other. Long conversations about philosophy, history, or our families, why we were who we were. We listened to the news and agonized over the directions things were headed.

But after a while, we grew tired of the life. I no longer remember precisely what happened. It wasn’t anything horrible but just a series of small things. I remember we had just barely made it back to town, no money for food or gas, so we arrived at his parents’ place hungry and each of us in not such a great mood. I blamed him for not better managing the money and he was just tired of my depression and fears. After a good night’s sleep and a couple of good home-cooked meals, we left to take me to my sister’s place where I would spend the weekend while he did his reserve duty. Somehow we came to the conclusion that some change was needed and we agreed to think about it over the weekend apart.

On Monday we drove to the beach of our first date. Glenn wanted to go back to school, and I wanted to take classes too. I was thinking that if we wanted to adopt, we needed to start living in ways acceptable to adoption agencies. Glenn’s mom had mentioned that a neighbor’s house was for rent, and his sister-in-law told us that Hewlett Packard was hiring.   A man who admired our truck had given us his number saying if we ever wanted to sell, he’d give us a good price. So we made the call and the man came over that evening. The man tried to negotiate, but he wanted that truck and he could see that we were not going accept a lower offer. If he paid it, we would rent the house and I’d go to Hewlett Packard to apply for a job. If he didn’t we’d get in the truck and head South the next morning. The man paid the price, saying all kinds of wonderful things about our truck after he’d agreed to our price. It was sad to watch him drive off with our beloved home but it was time to move on and we needed that money to get started in our new life. The next morning Glenn took me to Hewlett Packard and I got a job, we rented the house…

Neither of us ever regretted that time as it was a rich time of adventure and getting to know each other so well. I often said what I missed most when we parted ways a dozen years later was that he knew me so well he could walk into a bookstore and find the perfect book for me because he always knew what I was thinking about.

When we split, we were both as gentle as possible. But when we started dividing up the books, so many were books we’d both read, so many important reads that both of us wanted. The tension got the better of us. In the middle of it, one of us said “hot fudge sundae.” So many evenings, with both of us reading, one of us would say “hot fudge sundae” and we would jump in the car and head to Denny’s where we often sat for hours reading together, sharing interesting items.

Going out together for one more hot fudge sundae broke the tension. We returned to the unsorted books with our mutual respect in control. The book we almost fought over, we realized, was Making of the Modern Mind, a book that was one of the books on that yellow shelf in our post office truck when we headed north on that first leg of our journey, a book we both read, often reading parts out loud to each other. We both wanted it because we so fondly remembered those sweet shared days, now burnished a soft golden yellow in my mind.

9780231041430_p0_v1_s118x184© 2015 Diane Hughes

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The Last Soldier

Tune in next week for the concluding chapter of Diane Hughes’ The Post Office Truck. In the meantime, in honor of Veteran’s Day, I offer this short creative essay by Doug Elwell, who holds the honor of being the most frequent guest writer for True Stories Well Told. 

In his recent autobiographical writing, Doug has been experimenting with the line between creative nonfiction and fiction. “Harry” is his alter ego in this endeavor. Of ‘The Last Soldier’ he writes,  “this piece looks back via the old man’s memory–my future self–to his soldiering days. It is creative nonfiction in that there was a squad and several have passed on. There was also a case of rum…”

By Doug Elwell

Blue winter sunlight streamed in through the bedroom window. The storm had passed. The electricity and heat returned sometime in the night and Harry was wet with sweat. Snow plows scraped by on the street. He heard shovels on sidewalks. He had no need to go out so he spent most of the day sorting papers and magazines that teetered precariously on the small table next to his chair on the far side of the bedroom. Late in the afternoon, as was his custom on this day, he went to the hall closet and stood on a stool to reach a high shelf. He steadied himself with one hand, and reached in, probing until he hit upon a shoebox buried in the back under a frayed old lap blanket. Clasping it in both hands he stepped hesitantly onto the floor. At the kitchen table, he pushed a candle aside and put the unopened box in its place. He drew up a chair, sat and stared at the box—remembering.

He thought this day deserved a measure of respect so he went into the bathroom and shaved. When he looked in the mirror he noted the loss of tone of the skin on his neck. According to widow Fansler across the hall he was still an attractive man, but he doubted her judgment, given her advanced age and circumstances.

Thin afternoon sunlight beat uncertain through the window onto the kitchen table and the shoebox where his hands rested. He curled his fingers around the lid and lifted it gently—set it aside. He pulled out a cylindrical object wrapped in wrinkled, yellowed tissue paper. He opened it. There, in the last thin light of day, the last unopened bottle of Mount Gay rum stood at attention on the table—the last soldier. It was a true day to toast his old comrades. They had all passed now. He was the last. The slanted shaft of sunlight passed through the bottle and cast an unsteady, molasses colored shadow on the wall. It caught his eye, he stared, remembered. He wiped his cheeks on his shirtsleeves.

The Vietnam Memorial. Panama City Beach spring breakers spit on Vietnam veterans. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

The Vietnam Memorial. Panama City Beach spring breakers spit on Vietnam veterans. (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Forty five years. So far away that time was now. When he thought of those days it was as if they happened in another life. Maybe they did. Maybe it was a story he read that was peopled with characters created by some author he did not know. He closed his eyes and shook his head. No—they were real enough, though he hardly remembered DB, Matt, Jimmy and Alvin but they were there—that he didn’t make them up—that they all shared those moments of terror and triumph. Those days in the paddies and the elephant grass and the heat. Everything was big and important then. They were all larger in those days and believed that everything they did was large and important. They flashed large across the sky like shooting stars then one-by-one over the years left to another dimension behind the black dome of the heavens. They all moved on. He removed the cap, breathed in the richness of dark molasses and toasted another Veteran’s Day.


© 2015 Doug Elwell. Doug Elwell writes short stories and memoir that feature characters, lore and culture of the rural Midwest. His work has occasionally appeared in his home town newspaper, The Oakland Independent, two editions of Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource and Midwestern Gothic. He can be contacted via email at: djelwell@mchsi.com.

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