In 2004, I was deep into pivoting my work (and life) from being a freelance business writer toward personal history work. I tried out several methods for helping people capture, preserve, and share their life stories. Oral history-style interviewing was one method, where my clients reminisced and I did the work of writing in their words and preparing what we wrote for distribution to family and friends. The other method I tried was Guided Autobiography—small-group workshops using a curriculum developed by pioneering gerontologist Dr. James Birren.
Fifteen years later, I blogged here about how offering my first Guided Autobiography workshop (we call it “GAB”) led to developing my own Remember to Write curriculum, with more focus on writing craft, and how eventually I felt pulled back toward Birren’s approach.
In 2020 I brought the idea of teaching GAB to Madison College. I completed my first GAB workshop for the college. A small group met using Webex for ten weeks of writing prompts on different themes common to life experience. In weekly 2-hour sessions, participants read and shared their writing. There was some instructor-led discussion, but the beating heart of GAB is the stories—hearing others’ truths and bearing witness to your own.
The magic of GAB is that you will do more than start writing down your memories—you will gain insights into how the events of your life have contributed to the person you are today—and may become tomorrow. Research has shown that this workshop method decreases anxiety and isolation, and increases self-esteem and social connection. Who couldn’t use a little of that as we face down our third year of COVID19?
I have a new GAB workshop starting next Wednesday through Madison College. A few seats are available. Find more information and how to register on the Madison College website here.
Now that community has something to celebrate: the first collection of reminiscence essays written BY GAB Instructors, Onward! True Life Stories of Challenges, Choices, & Change. “The book started as a challenge posed to our global community of memoir teachers–‘Tell us about a crossroads moment in your life,'” wrote editor Emma Fulenwider in her Introduction. “As you read these true stories of challenges, choices, and change, you will learn something about yourself, about humankind, and ways of being in our world,” wrote Cheryl Svensson, Director of the Birren Institute in her Foreword.
I went to Italy. I turned 65. I came back feeling my life didn’t fit as comfortably as it had. The urge for change had been sparked.
However, any change I could envision brought a chain of thoughts that all circled back to the same place: I need to declutter. To downsize. To take charge again of the stuff that has reduced the size of our living space, lining the walls like the soft detritus an animal lines her burrow with.
Ekerdt strongly advised that people do their downsizing while in the sixties. It’s the last age at which we will physically be up to the task. By our seventies, we’re too likely to have trouble with the crouching and kneeling, lifting and carrying, that the work entails.
Now I’m 65! I was already motivated to deal with my stuff when I read that the clock is ticking on my physical ability to do so. I’ve started, by moving a great deal of stuff to offsite storage, ostensibly to make room for a home office remodel but just as much, to force me to deal with it by adding a penalty if I don’t.
Watching the moving men removing bookcases and boxes, my life flashed by like a film running in reverse—whole epochs were excavated and carried out. My decade of promoting and leading reminiscence writing workshops, my decades as a business writer and graphic designer. Old work samples, job files, inspirational resource material—so much soft detritus that had lined my nest. There, it quietly whispered stories to me about my identity, my role in the world, my purpose. Now, in the storage cubicle, things mutter to each other, “what will she do when she gets to me?”
I will dispose of as much of it as I can, keep as little as possible, to travel lightly into my next epoch. And I will respect a psychologically-helpful strategy Ekerdt identified, which he termed safe passage: “With downsizing, people are intentionally trying to give their possessions a safe passage into the future to people who would value them and use them and respect them as they did.”
That brought to mind how a yard sale I held in my thirties had temporarily shattered my identity. I hadn’t tried to give special items safe passage, just sold to any who would buy. I spent the rest of that summer hunting for my lost treasures at other neighborhood yard sales—and found a surprising number of them. I wasn’t ready to let go of certain parts of my identity that those items symbolized. This time, I will give stuff with value safe passage, if possible.
Asked how did downsizing, or a failure to downsize, relate to identity, Ekerdt responded, “Possessions are an extension of ourselves… And that’s why it takes a great amount of courage to surrender these things and decide you’re going to move forward.”
So, I’m asking: how do we muster that courage? And, being me, I will write about it. “Keep the stories, lose the stuff,” I tell myself. Would you like to join me in this work? I would happily convene a virtual discussion group around decluttering and downsizing. Send me an email if interested.
And meanwhile–here are some links that might get you thinking.
Last week, I posted my review of Susan MacLeod’s excellent graphic memoir. Now, I follow up with this interview with Susan. It gave me great pleasure to talk with her about the process of creating her book. The following excerpts are from that conversation.
Sarah: What were you trying to achieve with your book?
Susan: I found that experience of shepherding my mother through nine years of long-term care, quite isolating, exhausting, and lonely. Part of my goal was, I suppose, to heal. Also, this is the book that I would have wanted to have. There was nothing out there validating family members’ experiences. And then, seeing all that was missing in my mother’s care, and the kind of messaging our government gives—that I had given, as part of my career—I realized there’s a societal issue here, too. That was something I wanted to explore.
How did you decide how you would structure the book?
I knew going in that there were three threads I wanted to explore: What happens to families when parents decline? What contributes to such poor care in our long-term care institutions? And then, my understanding of the government perspective. I wanted to explore those three threads and also to tell my personal story. Any cohesion, any weaving of those threads together, came from the U-King’s program.
Your book is a graphic novel, it’s a memoir, it’s an expose that calls for action. In the MFA program, we were schooled to ask: Where does your book fit?
I think essentially, I ignored that question. The thing I struggled with or worried about was the audience. I wasn’t sure if graphic memoir was a genre that would be read by middle-aged women. Roz Chast was my inspiration to keep going.
How does writing something that’s drawn in panels differ from writing paragraphs on a page?
I knew nothing about comics when I started. I just knew I didn’t want to write this as a traditional book. I already had a BA in English and a Masters in Fine Art; I have always sketched since the time I could hold a pencil. My thinking was, I’m at this age, I want to use it.
I would liken this to copywriting for advertising in that you have to be succinct. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t have more than 21 words in each panel. And also, the words can’t repeat what you’re saying in the image—they have to work together, or else it’s just redundant. Those are confinements.
I’m curious how much the pages we see in the book look like your first drafts?
My first drafts were more like a children’s chapter book in that there were lots of text and then an image. Rebecca Roher mentored me during the U-King’s MFA program. She’s a comic artist who won the 2016 Doug Wright Award for Best Book. After I graduated, I went to the Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont for a 10-day course with New Yorker cartoonist Paul Karasik. He was like, “you gotta get this into panels.”
The MFA program had given me the narrative are, the chapter structure, and how those three threads were going to be woven together successfully. I had the book proposal and the chapter outlines done. At the Vermont school, I finished the first two chapters in the right comic format. That’s how I got Conundrum Press as my publisher.
Any words of advice for memoirists?
I’ve been fortunate in that I have the privilege and the family situation and the financial situation and the health situation that I could take advantage of all that, to write this book in my 60s. One good thing about getting older is that you do lose your fear of being a fool. I would just advise: Be fearless.
It’s not that I didn’t have all those doubts. It’s just that I had a lot of patience for them. figured I will try and be a comic artist and see what happens. I remember drawing and thinking, ‘this is so bad,’ but I just kept on drawing. I thought, ‘well, Susan, you’re not going to be the one to stop me. Someone else might, but not you.’
Susan MacLeod’s book Dying for Attention is available from the usual online retailers, but why not ask your local bookstore to order a copy for you?
I met Susan MacLeod, author of Dying For Attention, when my Big MFA Adventure began in 2017 with a residency on the campus of the University of King’s College in Halifax. Every student in this MFA-Creative Nonfiction program applies with a book idea. Many leave with a finished manuscript. An impressive number go on to publish that manuscript, as Susan, Class of ’18 has.
In the lecture hall at U-King’s Susan stood out—she was the one with a sketchbook open at all times. She drew simple cartoon depictions of everything happening around her. This was a habit, she explained, that she’d picked up while visiting her mother in long-term care, where it helped her manage her anxiety. Now, she had an idea that she might write a graphic memoir about the nine years she spent as her mother’s advocate with the Canadian long-term care system.
I’ve been interested in what becomes of us in old age since I first observed my mother’s increasing fragility, and that interest turned to both anger and advocacy when I realized the flawed nature of the long-term care system in the USA. In Canada, the government is more invested in the health system, but the problems faced by daughters like Susan and me and residents like our mothers are very similar across Canada and the USA.
When I heard Susan had received a publishing contract, I couldn’t wait to get a copy of her book. It is everything I hoped for, and more. The artistic style is spare yet winsome. The tone is a poignant mix of funny and thoughtful. This is a heavy subject, but Susan entices readers to stay the course by leavening it with humor and humility.
The book’s 13 chapters follow Susan as she follows her mother down the rabbit hole of aged care. Because Susan worked as a communications professional for a hospital system, she thinks that she is uniquely equipped to overcome the systemic obstacles in her way. But in this rabbit hole, nothing is what it seems.
To give structure to the story, Susan uses repeating literary devices, including “Susan Seeks an Expert,” in which she investigates issues from family dynamics to care industry economics, and “Solutions Susan,” in which a family nickname aptly characterizes the chirpy optimism with which she tries her best to affect change.
Yes, it’s that most wonderful time of the year. I know this because it’s cold, its December, and the neighbors have thoughtfully left clues-festive bow-bedecked evergreen swags festoon one’s porch railing, and another’s orange Halloween lights had been replaced by multiple strings of twinkling little multicolored LEDs. AHA.
Now in years past, I would not have required these prompts to remind me that ’twas the season to be jolly because I had Mom, who unfailingly, at the first sighting of a beribboned wreath on someone’s door, would announce sonorously, “Well, I see Christmas has us by our throats again!” Now there was a tradition. Fa la la la la…
However, after starting my own family, I was determined to leave Mom’s” fear of festivity” business in the dust. I decided that selecting the perfect tree would be just the right tradition to infuse excitement and enthusiasm into the start of our holiday season. Of course, my plan, well-meaning though it was, had flaws, most notably that it was singularly my plan, and maybe I was a little more enthused than anyone else.
I remember clearly the first Christmas my husband and I were married. The day before Christmas Eve I suddenly, desperately wanted a tree so we hopped into the Volkswagen, drove to a nearby gas station and purchased one of the three remaining Scotch pines, lashed it to the roof and hurried home, totally forgetting it would need a stand and decorations. Back at the apartment, we released the tree from its bonds and were startled to discover it was as round as a beach ball and quite unwieldy. Our innovative solution to the stand problem involved filling a tin can with water, placing it in a cement block borrowed from our block and board bookcase, and inserting the tree therein. A quick trip to Treasure Island for a few clearance ornaments and a string of lights transformed it into a thing of beauty. I believe I may have even strung popcorn for a garland that year. First tree, best tree?
I’ve had decades since that beginner Christmas to refine my festive tradition, but glitches do occur in spite of my earnest resolve. One holiday, shortly before our first son was born, we purchased a tree that in hindsight, must have been left over from a previous year. It held its needles for about three days, until our dog Luke bumped it trying to sneak a drink from the tree stand. Almost instantly, a crackling shower of needles cascaded over him, leaving the tree virtually naked and the dog covered in resinous, sticky detritus which adhered to him like fleas in summer. He smelled great, though.
A few years later we decided it would be fun to take our three and six-year-old sons to a tree farm and harvest our own much fresher tree. We thought the kids would be enthralled by the idea of actually chopping down a real tree, but they showed no interest in that activity whatsoever. Much more exciting to them was sword-fighting with the endless supply of sharp, pokey, splintery branches left by other tree harvesting families. Their dad became the sole woodsman, gamely hacking down a hastily selected pine while I tried to prevent grievous injury to eyes and other vulnerable body parts. It would be many years before any of us performed a self-harvest again.
We’ve been to good tree lots and bad, some with spray painted firs, others with mostly Charley Brown style trees. We’ve learned that Scotch Pines are economical but scratchy and the needles are virtually impossible to get out of shag carpet. White pines are beautiful, soft and smell grand, but their gentle flexibility allows ornament and lights to slide right off their branches at the slightest touch. Balsams are elegant and wonderfully fragrant, but seem to need water several times a day, too labor intensive, especially if you have a dog who favors tree water.
At the tree lot, you take your chances, variety-wise. And I suppose if one planned ahead, one might check the weather and not inevitably head out to select a tree on the coldest day of the season. Unfortunately, we were not planners-ahead, more spur-of-the moment shoppers, which has left us in near-frostbite territory more than once. Eventually the boys got wise to this poor planning.
One December, due of a prolonged spell of unusually frigid temperatures, we waited longer than usual to shop for a tree, hoping the weather might moderate. But the cold was unremitting, and after several days, I began to worry that all the best trees would be taken.
“We’ve never not found a tree,” my husband reminded me, but I was not to be assuaged. It was time.
Ignoring their protests, I herded everyone into coats, scarves, gloves and boots to ward off below zero wind chills, and we piled into the car for the annual pilgrimage to one of the many available Tate’s Trees corrals. Amazingly, there were lots of possibilities to choose amongst. I was the first to exit the car and rushed off into the Tannenbaum grove eager to start our traditional selection. A few moments into my search I realized the lot was deadly silent. No jubilant cries of “check this one out” or “here’s a good one” to be heard. Glancing around and seeing no one nearby, I looked back over my shoulder to discover everyone but me still sitting cosily inside the car.
“Hey”, what’s going on?” I yelled through chattering teeth. “We haven’t picked out a tree yet.”
“It’s too cold. You pick it out. This was your idea”, one of the kids snapped. “We’re not going out there, its freezing!” his brother agreed while their dad silently turned up the heat.
I could feel the cold through my boots now. Trudging as fast as my numb legs would allow, I returned alone to the lot and pointed to the first tree in my line of sight.
“That one”, I mumbled to the attendant. and handed him some cash. He tied it to the roof of the car and we headed home. No one mentioned the curved trunk or missing bottom branch. We all pretended it was perfect.
Times change and kids grow up. That was our last family tree-finding excursion. Since then, just my husband and I carry on the tradition. For several years after the Christmas rebellion, Peter and I found it pleasant to hike into the hills of a nearby tree farm and once again cut our own fresh tree. The crisp air, the heady fragrance of hundreds of evergreens, mixed with the farmish smell of the reindeer enclosure would evoke a calm, pastoral sense of well-being as we selected our Fraser fir, generally the tree with the thickest trunk, on the highest hill farthest from the parking lot. My husband complains good naturedly that I have to see every tree on the farm, sometimes twice before we select, and that is actually sort of true. One year, after about an hour of searching I spotted the absolutely most perfect tree ever. I couldn’t believe my good luck. “Found it!” I exclaimed excitedly. Peter hurried over
“We can’t get that tree,” he told me. “
Why not?” I whined,” Its beautiful”.
“It is,” he agreed, but it’s not in the tree farm. It’s on the neighbors’ lot. They’d probably be upset if we cut it.”
I had to acquiesce. We found another.
Then last year, Covid arrived, and we didn’t want to be around throngs of merry lumberjacks, so we opted to mask up and buy a tree from a garden center during their least busy time of the week. We quickly chose a very moderate Fraser fir, the best for holding onto its needles. Once in place, it looked just as fresh as if it were newly hewn.
Covid is still here and has taught me that traditions can be modified. We returned to the garden center this year. We still want a real tree and that part will probably never change, but when it’s home and decorated, our tradition is fulfilled, just the same. It’s easier, safer, and equally beautiful. As we gradually accept the shift from tree farm to garden center, I’ve realized that I’m still able to inhale the scent of fresh Christmas trees. And eventually, I may not even miss the essence of the reindeer barn.
Faith has been writing to amuse her family since she was old enough to print letters to her grandparents. Now retired, she has the opportunity (and with Covid restrictions, the time) to share some personal stories, and in the process, discover more about herself. Faith and her husband live with two elderly cats in Madison, Wisconsin. They are the parents of two great sons and a loving daughter-in-law.
“Hang on there, Charlie. We’re missing two things.”
“Oh, we forgot the angel! But I don’t think there’s anything else.”
“Hmm, I think there’s something we need that’s pretty important to you.”
Scanning the box of decorations, he finds his special ornament.
“My ornament! I almost forgot!”
His smile lights up his freckled face as he stares at the tiny cherub sitting on a rainbow. He begins to giggle as he reads the inscription: “Charlie Miller: April 16, 2003.”
“Grandma, my ornament is ten years old and has red hair just like me!”
“Well now we really are finished. It’s time to light the tree. And just in time, our hot chocolate is ready.”
“I can hardly wait to see all the gifts under the tree. Did you have a lot of gifts when you were a kid? Did you make a list of things you wanted from Santa?”
“I don’t remember being asked what I wanted for Christmas or being taken to see Santa Claus. So, what would usually happen was that I played with my brother’s gifts of trains, cars, and trucks and he played with my dolls. I didn’t mind him playing with my dolls except for the year he pushed a nickel into one doll’s mouth. It’s still in her belly today. If you shake her, you can hear the nickel bouncing up and down.
“Why did you play with his toys?”
“I think it was because I could move them around and make up stories about them. The dolls were kind of just there.”
“Yeah, I’d rather play with toys than a doll, too.”
“When I was older I opened boxes full of girdles. Do you know what they are?”
“They’re the things they use to build big buildings. Why would you get those? How did they fit into the boxes?”
“Oh, Charlie, not girders, girdles G-I-R-D-LE-S. They were like having on tight underpants. We wore them to make our tummies look better. Your Great Grandma thought my tummy jiggled too much and the girdles would keep it from jiggling.”
“Grandma, that sounds pretty boring.”
“It was. But one year I got a Hi-Fi. You know what that is don’t you?”
“I think I’ve heard the word, but I don’t remember what it means.”
“You know those big black round things that look like they’re plastic and have a hole in the middle. You’ve seen a stack of them in my family room. They’re called records. There are songs on them, kind of like your tablet. There’s a post in the middle of the Hi-Fi. If you wanted to hear music you’d put the post through the hole in the record. Then you’d put a needle down on the record and music would start playing.”
“Not like a sewing needle or the doctor’s needle. Maybe I’m not explaining it right. I’ll try to find a picture of a Hi-Fi and to show you.”
“Sound like a lot of work just to hear songs. But did you like it better than the girders, I mean girdles?”
“Yes, I did except that there wasn’t enough money to buy many records.”
“Did you feel sad? I feel sad when I get a toy that needs batteries and we don’t have them.”
“I was kind of sad, but when I got older I used the money I got from working after school to buy records.”
“Did you open your gifts on Christmas day like we do or on Christmas Eve?”
“Well, every family has traditions. You know the way they do the same things every year. We’ve kept my family’s tradition of opening our gifts on Christmas Day.”
“Were there any other tradsitions?
“Traditions. Yes, there were others, like it was always your Great Grandpa’s job to hand out the gifts and we all had to take turns opening our presents. But there was one thing that became a tradition that wasn’t too much fun. Every year we spent Christmas Eve with my Aunt Jo and Aunt Yola and her family. We would get to Aunt Yola’s house by about three o’clock. But by six o’clock there was a problem. Your Great Grandma, Aunt Jo, and Aunt Yola each had different ways to make the holiday food. Each one wanted to do it her own way. They would argue, sometimes loudly, over whose way was best. The one argument we could always count on was how much garlic and breadcrumbs should be mixed into the meatballs. I don’t know if you remember this or not, but Great Grandma’s meatballs were always the best. There was one year when wanting those meatballs got me into a lot of trouble.”
“Grandma, how can meatballs cause trouble?”
“Well one year, when the meatballs were done, I asked if I could have one. Because we were Catholics, we weren’t supposed to eat meat until we got home from church after midnight. So, as soon as I asked, I was chased out of the kitchen and told to go sit down.
“I decided to sit in my Uncle Henry’s lounge chair. It was one of those where you could pull a lever and put your feet up. I thought it was the best seat in the house because it was so close to the Christmas tree that you could just reach out and touch the branches. But I think it must have been too close to the tree because as I pulled the lever and my feet went up, the foot part bumped into the branches and the tree fell on me. In those days trees would be decorated with big red, blue, white and green bulbs and lots of glitter and tinsel. These lights got very hot, and before anyone saw what had happened, they burned a hole in my new tights. Uncle Henry lifted the tree off me, but I was still taking glitter and tinsel out of my hair during midnight mass.”
“Did you get burned?”
“No, but it made that Christmas a little less fun. My brothers and sister still tease me at Christmas saying, ‘Now don’t get too close to the tree.”
Charlie, staring at the tree, seemed mesmerized by the glow.
“Grandma, where did you get all of those ornaments?”
“Well, almost all of them are either things that your mom or your aunts made or things that they got as gifts.”
“I like it that they are all so different. My friend Jack’s tree isn’t real like yours and it has only blue ornaments on it.”
“Sometimes that looks really pretty. Blue is a very nice color. And real trees can be a problem, especially if you’re not careful when you decorate it. Do you know what flocking is? It’s shiny powdery stuff you can spray on the branches. It’s pretty but very messy. One year your Great Grandma put a bit too much of it on the tree. Every time someone walked past the tree, some of the flocking fell on the floor. It ended up sticking to our feet and we had flocking footprints all over the house.”
“That must have been very funny.”
“Everyone but your Great Grandpa thought so. Every day even after we’d thrown the tree out he would repeat the same words as he walked through the house, words you’re too young to hear. It was the last year your Great Grandma flocked the tree.
“And like I said, having one-color ornaments can be pretty, but sometimes it depends on the color. One year Great Grandma decided our fake white tree should have black ornaments. We lived on a busy main street and Great Grandma always thought that we should have something pretty for the passersby to look at. We don’t know why she wanted black ornaments. We thought maybe she was sad that year. Anyway, my brothers and sister and I became known as the kids with the black balls on their tree.”
“So, Christmas wasn’t always fun. Does that make you sad Grandma?”
“No sweetie. All those days are gone and now I have the best Christmases anyone could ask for. For one thing, you come to trim the tree and drink hot chocolate with me.”
“Have my cousins ever come to trim the tree?”
“No, this is my special time with my favorite red head. And you know what else makes these the best Christmases? Each year I ask you, your sister, and your cousins to give me a list of four or five presents you would like. I try to get at least four of the five items on everyone’s list.”
“That’s why there’s always so many gifts under the tree!”
“Well there are nine grandchildren. That times four….”
“I know. It’s thirty-six presents.”
“Right. But don’t forget I get two presents for each of my four daughters and one present each for their husbands. So, what does that make?”
“Um, two times four is eight, plus four is twelve. Plus, the thirty- six equals forty- eight presents!”
“So, buying the presents is what makes our Christmases the best?”
“I love buying the presents, but what makes these the best Christmases is when I hear ‘Grandma, you got me just what I wanted.”
“You always do. I love you, Grandma.”
“I love you too, Charlie. I enjoyed sharing these stories with you. Now let’s go refill our hot chocolate and enjoy our beautiful tree.”
Pat LaPointe, editor of Changes in Life, a monthly online women’s newsletter, is contributing editor of the anthology, The Woman I’ve Become: 37 Women Share Their Journeys from Toxic Relationships to Self-Empowerment. In addition, she conducts writing workshops for women — both online and onsite. Pat’s essays and short stories have been published widely. Currently, Pat is completing her first novel, forthcoming late 2021.
I write, it’s what I do. But recently, I went AWOL. Absent without leave. I closed the door to my writing studio and walked away.
My schedule hasn’t changed for the past eleven years. I shut myself in my studio and I write for three hours daily. I write prose and poetry. Over these years, my writing gave me hours of contentment, success, anger, and struggle. I take three or four classes every year, some of six or eight weeks, others of several hours. Most have been online classes, although I like to attend the local community college, too. I’ve worked hard to improve my style and find my voice.
For me, waiting for the muse never worked. What works is chasing the muse every day. She is there nearby, always waiting for me to find her. Lately she’s MIA missing in action. Some days, the only writing I can do is making lists or copying other’s writing word for word to understand how they accomplish their “perfect” paragraphs. However, most of the time, my own words creep to the surface and I find the keys clicking with excitement. Those days make the entire experience worth the effort.
But, another voice has been speaking to me, a voice I didn’t want to hear. In January of this year, emotional, tired, and worn out, I visited my doctor. I’d quit sleeping well, waking up in the night with words and sentences going through my head, unable to fall back asleep night after night. The doctor suggested that perhaps “stress” was the cause. How could stress be a factor doing something I loved, but my days seemed long, and I worried about my classes and meeting the deadlines? The quality of my stories and poems always concerned me. I couldn’t give myself “leave” to relax and take a few days off. I had a responsibility to my teachers, to my fellow writers, and to the idea of writing every day. Stopping my writing wasn’t an option. Who would I be without my writing? I doubted my ability to come back to writing if I paused for a few days. My headaches returned.
Like the smoke from the wildfires that swirls past and around our home this summer, I couldn’t see clearly through this fog in my head. Until one day, I reached a moment when I knew I needed to force myself to slow down. I quit writing, taking classes, and following the writing schedule I’d set for myself. AbsentWithout Leave because I still felt guilty, and that I was letting myself down. Nervous at the idea of passing my writing studio, but not wanting to go in, the pit in my stomach told me to walk on past. I unsubscribed to all the writing blogs and newsletters, so they wouldn’t be the first thing that appeared each morning on my computer.
It took almost a month before the sleeping pattern changed. Soon I relaxed during the day and I kept my mind occupied with things that weren’t about writing. I picked up old books and spent more time reading. I started doing needlework again. The beautiful colors sliding through my fingers as I appliqued pieces of wool to make designs gave me peace and contentment. I ‘ve spent eight months away from my writing studio while still keeping my fingers limber with needle and thread. I’ve started taking photos and spend hours looking at nature through the lens. Seeds and seed pods are fascinating and make interesting photos. They are the beginnings of great things.
By keeping the creative juices going in other pursuits, I’ve come full circle. Words smolder in the nether regions of my brain again. A slow momentum is taking place and I know the muse is extending her arm to me.
Writer and budding poet Suzy Beal spent twenty-five years helping seniors put their stories to paper and this year just finished her own memoir. Suzy’s work has appeared on truestorieswelltold.com, including a serialized portion of her travel memoir. She writes personal essays and is currently studying poetry. Her work has appeared on Story Circle Network, 101words, Central Oregon Writer’s Guild, and recently an essay in Placed: An Encyclopedia of Central Oregon. She lives and writes from Bend, Oregon.
Neil wrote this essay as an assignment for an Ethics class taught by Professor Vincent Kovoloski at Edgewood College. Neil reflected, “We read Man’s Search for Meaning and Tuesdays with Morrie. The assignment he gave was to answer the question ‘Can death be an ethical teacher?’. The question had deep meaning for me beyond the books, having had close relationships with both my grandmothers.”
By Neil Fauerbach
Reflecting on the writing of Mitch Albom in his book Tuesdays with Morrie, I have spent a good deal of time thinking about people in my life, their effect on me, and the way I live my life, or want to live my life. To answer the question “Can death be a teacher of ethics” my answer is “yes”, from several points of perspective. In this reflection, I draw from my own experiences along with that of Morrie and Mitch.
In the presence of a compassionate person who is dying, one who understands what effect their words, actions and demands have on those around them, you can learn much. Their compassion for how the witnesses are coping with the stress of their decline is clear, absolute. Their acceptance of the inevitable does not make it any easier to witness. We can learn patience, forgiveness, and love through example.
Morrie encourages ‘Do what the Buddhists do. Every day have a little bird on your shoulder that asks ‘Is today the day you are going to die?’ Am I doing all that I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?’”
You can also learn compassion for the soul who is dying, and suffering, and wants everyone to know it. It is a person who is, at the cost of those around them, asking that we feel sorry for them. The sorrow comes, not only in empathy for their suffering, but in pity that they never understood the love that others felt for them, or that they thought it was never enough.
What do we learn from this person? We learn patience. We stick with them out of love, or duty, or we avoid them, at the price of guilt, but temporary peace. We learn that we need to be the exact opposite of what we observe with these poor souls. Accept love, accept weaknesses, teach others through example. As everyone’s grandmother says “You attract more flies with honey than vinegar.”
“Morrie would sometimes feel sorry for himself, though briefly. He would mourn what he had lost, and then be thankful for what he had. The good things left in his life.” (P 56 Tuesdays with Morrie).
I cannot help but think about the life and near death of my godfather. An Army enlistee in WWII, he was captured at the Battle of the Bulge and held prisoner in a German POW camp. What I learned from him was how thankful he was for every extra day he was given after his liberation. He took incredible pleasure from even the smallest wonder of living; ants on the ground, snow on the trees, ice in a glass. He taught us to be thankful for what we have as if we could lose it at any time.
“He was standing on the tracks, listening to death’s locomotive whistle, and he was very clear about what was important in his life. Death brought clarity, and with it, a sort of peace”. (P 66 Tuesdays with Morrie)
I had the privilege of being close to both of my grandmothers at the time of their deaths. I was my maternal grandmother’s guardian and one of a few family members who spent time with her in her last days. One day, nearly a year before she died in a nursing home, she commented that it was “taking so long to die.” She was still strong, even though bed-ridden, fending off infections and falls from her bed, and exhibiting her life-long bad disposition. She died at 98. From this experience, I learned a new respect for health care workers, a compassion for the elderly, and a realization of who I wanted to emulate–my paternal grandmother.
My paternal grandmother also lived a long and full life. The last time I saw her, she was meeting with her doctor in the hospital. He told he her that her kidneys were shutting down and there was not much more that could be done. Her concern was that she did not want to be a bother to her family. She had few regrets, having made peace where it was necessary, and let all who needed to know that they were loved, understood, forgiven, and valuable.
By stripping away the distractions of life and allowing us to concentrate on truth, death can be the greatest teacher of ethics.
Neil is a retired marketing professional having worked for over forty years for several professional service firms. In his free time he creates videos, photographs nature, chairs committees in non-profits, and is learning to play the banjo.
I wrote this in 2013. Today, I believe just as stronglyin the importance of preserving family history as I did then.
“The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative,” wrote Bruce Feiler in a March 2013 New York Times article.*
Recent research has brought new breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively. Feiler cited research from Marshall Duke, psychologist at Emory University, showing that children who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges. With his colleagues, he went on to develop a measure called the “Do You Know” scale,” which asked children questions about their families. (You can find it in this Huffington Post article.) They found that the more children knew about their family’s history, the better their emotional health, happiness, and resilience.
Fascinated by Feiler’s report, I went googling to find more about Duke’s research and the “Do You Know” scale. This led me to work by Duke and his colleagues Robyn Fivush and Jennifer Bohanek on the power of family history in adolescent identity and well-being.
I discovered that not only is knowledge of family history beneficial for young children–it plays an active role in formation of adolescent identity.
“…awareness of the ways in which one’s parents or grandparents dealt in the past with the sorts of challenges facing an adolescent in the present can be beneficial in learning to adjust to the stresses and demands of the teen years…Such awareness need not be focused only on successes, but on failures as well. Knowing, for example, that one’s parent made some foolish mistakes during adolescence can certainly help a young teenager avoid those same mistakes,” wrote Duke et al in a 2010 paper in the Journal of Family Life.
Older family members are the primary source of family information–not just about their own lives, but as caretakers of the extended family narrative reaching back generations.
According to the research, the most helpful history for young people is what Duke labeled “the oscillating family narrative”–a story of ups and downs, successes and setbacks, that conveys, “no matter what happens, we always stick together as a family.” This builds children’s sense of a strong “intergenerational self”–knowledge that we belong to something bigger than ourselves.
And that is a good enough reason why you should write your family’s history.
When your family gathers at a holiday like Thanksgiving, you have the perfect opportunity to share and save family stories. See StoryCorps’ “The Great Thanksgiving Listen” for ideas and tips.
Of course it had to be so, my eight-year-old self reasoned. Jake, my twelve year-old brother, and I sat in the kitchen eating breakfast. That particular morning we were enjoying a special treat: the chocolate milk our mother poured for us from a giant-sized glass Borden’s milk bottle. Whenever we got to enjoy what we referred to as “real chocolate milk” — ready-made in-a-bottle stuff instead of the drink we made for ourselves by mixing heaping spoonfuls of Nestles Quick chocolate powder or Bosco chocolate syrup into white milk, was a happy occasion.
“Wow, can you believe how fantastic this stuff is?” I asked Jake, an exclamation more than a question. I obsessed about the differences in taste and texture between what I referred to as “real” and home-made. Besides, mine always mixed up full of lumps so I was in bliss with Borden’s.
Curious about the origins of the drink our Borden’s milkman delivered into the insulated steel box next to our front door, I began my line of questioning because I was convinced my brother was a veritable genius. I approached him with what, to me, was pure logic. In my young eyes, he was both brilliant and vastly more experienced in the ways of the world than I could imagine ever becoming. The two of us were close during our childhood and as such, he assumed the key responsibility as my source for all facts worth knowing.
“Isn’t this chocolate milk yummy?” I asked once more, again an exclamation not a question.
“Jeez, how many more times are your going to ask me that? I mean, duh, whadya’ expect?” He mocked. “It’s the real thing, stupid!”
“Fine but I want to know whether you’ve ever seen a chocolate cow?” I asked next.
“Good god, what in the world are you talking about? You mean a brown cow?” He was almost shouting at me. “Does it really matter to you where brown cows live?”
“I didn’t say brown cow, I said chocolate cow! And of course. It matters a lot!” Now I was shouting. “Haven’t you noticed that in the summer, when we go up north to the Laurentian Mountains, all the farmers have either black cows or black and white ones but none of them have brown ones? So where do you think brown ones live?”
“Geez, talk about stupid worthless information! Why in the world would anyone give a hoot about where brown cows live?”
“Because it’s the brown ones that give fantastic chocolate milk, that’s why! And if we could find out where they live then the next time we’re in the country for summer, mom could get us chocolate milk from those farmers. That way, she wouldn’t have to ask Dad to bring chocolate milk for us from the city and that way he wouldn’t get all crabby. That’s what I’m talking about, stupid!”
“Wow, I really do hope you’re kidding because no way could any relative of mine be such a complete, total moron! All cows give white milk. No cow gives chocolate milk, none, nowhere in the whole wide world no matter what color the cow is! Got it? Every single cow everywhere gives white milk and only white milk, stupid!”
“That’s just not true! I’ve seen pictures of brown cows so if they don’t give chocolate milk, what kinds of cows do? Besides that, they wouldn’t be brown.” I argued. “And if brown cows don’t give chocolate milk then where does Borden’s get the chocolate milk the milkman brings us in bottles?” I asked without waiting a second before answering my own question. “From chocolate-brown cows, that’s where!”
“I’m going to explain this to you so even you can understand, especially because I just realized what an idiot you are!” Now my brother was screaming at me loudly, really loudly. I was tearing up and clamped my palms over my ears which proved futile in drowning out his voice. But he continued, oblivious to my reactions.
“Okay, I’ll explain it to you so maybe you can understand. First they pour chocolate syrup into white milk in gigantic metal tubs. Then, a gigantic paddle attached to a motor mixes it round and round and round super fast and when it’s super smooth, it gets poured into glass bottles moving along a conveyor belt. Magic! Chocolate milk is all ready for our milkman to deliver.”
“I don’t believe you. I bet you’re making all this stuff up just like other stuff you make up. Besides, what I want to know is how you know this?
”I know because I watched chocolate milk being made when our class visited the Borden’s milk plant for a tour, that’s how!”
“Great, but I’ve seen brown cows. You haven’t!”
“I can not even believe you don’t understand that all cows give white milk. What is wrong with you anyway? Call mom in here right now and you ask her for yourself. One thing I can tell you for sure is something I never imagined.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Simple. If there were something dumber than a moron then you’re it!” Again, he was screaming at me. I sniffled trying to stifle my mounting tears. Noticing, he recanted his last words. “Okay, okay, so you’re not really worse than a moron.” He said. “I suppose I can see how you’d think this stuff about brown cows but you know what I’m positive about?” I shook my head hard, still too upset to speak. “No cows anywhere in the whole wide world ever, ever give chocolate milk. Got it?” He reiterated, new patience in his voice. I nodded my comprehension
A few moments passed and I had calmed down enough to speak. “You know what Ruthie told me?” Immediately, Jake rolled his eyes but I ignored him. “She said she saw chocolate milk coming out of a brown cow when she and her mom visited a farm last summer.
“Phew, now I get it! I just couldn’t imagine that you, my own sister, was such an idiot.” He expelled a long breath of air as though beyond relieved. “Just think about this now. Ruthie might be your best friend but that just because she’s your doesn’t mean she’s not a world-class idiot. And worse, she’s a big fat liar!” He then wrapped his arms around me in one of his older-brother big bear hugs.
Marlene Samuels earned her Ph.D., from University of Chicago where she serves on the Advisory Council to the Graduate School, Division of the Social Sciences. A research sociologist and instructor by training, a writer of creative non-fiction by preference, Marlene is completing her non-fiction book entitled, Ask Mr. Hitler: A Memoir Told In Short Story.
She was editor and coauthor of The Seamstress: A Memoir of Survival, and authored When Digital Isn’t Real: Fact Finding Off-Line for Serious Writers. Marlene’sessays and stories have been published widely in anthologies, journals and online. Marlene divides her time between Chicago, Illinois and Sun Valley, Idaho with her amazingly brilliant and supportive Rhodesian Ridgebacks, Ted and George. (www.marlenesamuels.com)