The Long Shadow of Shame

“…shame relates to self, guilt to others.”
Joseph Burgo, Ph.D. in a 2013 issue of Psychology Today.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers song Under the Bridge has a refrain that goes, “I don’t ever want to feel / like I did that day,” which could technically refer to either guilt or shame—both give rise to feelings one wouldn’t want to repeat.

That song always brings to mind a day in about 1994 when I did something that made me feel a way I never want to feel again. I acted out of alignment with my own sense of right and wrong, and I got caught. Guilt plus shame.

A squib about my 1993 business move appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.

A squib about my 1993 business move appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal.

I had recently moved my graphic design office to East Washington Avenue, into a rehabbed old factory building. Next door was a building occupied by a printing firm. The print shop had been there for decades—the motley crew of artistic types in my building, only a couple of years. Our building’s owner had not yet arranged a recycling solution for his tenants. I was generating office paper waste, and short of driving it home and placing it curbside with my residential recyclables, I was accumulating paper with nowhere to go.

One summer evening, I left the office with my overflowing carton of waste paper. I hope I meant to put it in the car—I don’t think my crime was premeditated. But I saw the printer’s recycling dumpster squatting just beyond the chain link fence from our parking lot, and no one in sight—I quickly tip-tapped an end-run around that fence in my Easy Spirit pumps and, pressing the carton against the dumpster with my chest, used one hand to lift the lid and the other to hoist the carton over the side.

“I saw what you did.”

That’s what you don’t want to hear when you, at 43 years of age, just did something a juvenile delinquent would do.

One of the pressmen had stepped out back to smoke a cigarette on the printer’s loading dock. I hadn’t paid enough attention to my surroundings before committing my crime.

I belonged to the same Rotary Club as his boss. I was a Rotarian, for crying out loud. That’s like being an Eagle Scout when it comes to moral behavior. And here I was against the dumpster with the lid still held high in my right hand.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t know what else to do—“

It sounded as lame to my ears as it must have to his. His reply was just a steely glare.

So I slunk away.

“Guilt and shame sometimes go hand in hand; the same action may give rise to feelings of both shame and guilt, where the former reflects how we feel about ourselves and the latter involves an awareness that our actions have injured someone else,” Dr. Burgo wrote.

I didn’t inflict great harm on the printer with my carton of #20 bond, but I did steal 2.5 cubic feet of dumpster space they paid for. Getting caught made me feel bad.

I would probably have forgotten this incident if it wasn’t for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ song. Every time I hear that lyric “I don’t ever want to feel / like I did that day” I have to relive that moment.

I’ve long since gotten over the guilt of taking a little dumpster space from a printing firm, but I’m still standing in the long shadow of the shame.


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Why Our Stories Matter

By Sarah White

I pull a battered blue folder off my shelf. In marker, I have printed “FIRST MONDAY FIRST PERSON” on the cover.

I open that battered blue folder and look for my notes from our August meeting, the one where the small miracle occurred.

From time to time, because I create spaces for reminiscence writers to come together, I see small miracles: The one where someone makes peace with an old life experience. The one where a friendship forms, often at a stage in life when we lose more friends than we make. The one where, like this time, one person’s story helps heal another person’s grieving heart, just a little but just enough.

In the meeting room at the Goodman South Madison Library, thirteen of us gathered, greeted, filled our little plates with snacks, then settled in a semi-circle around the podium. Some were regulars, some just occasional drop-ins to First Monday First Person. One by one, writers who had added their name to the readers’ list stepped forward. We listened to their stories about a death, a birth, a tribute to a dad, a bad choice, a happy childhood—memories good and bad, memories worthy of reflection.

Some people leave early, some arrive late, dipping into and out of the stream of story in that meeting room. I was pleased to see Mary Joan slip in, since I know she lost her husband quite suddenly last spring, and sadness stalks her. Shortly afterward, Sariah stepped forward to read, a woman whose writing talent frequently soars into poetry. She said, “The title of my piece is, ‘How It Is Now, Living Alone.'”

Here is the piece Sariah read.

Not that night, but one like it...enthralled listeners.

Not that night, but one like it…enthralled listeners.

Another reader, another round of applause, and then the librarians flashed the lights, signaling time to close.

For me, a big part of the motivation to host workshops and events like First Monday First Person is to create a place where we can help each other figure out how to live, from the writing we share and the talking we do. These moments are what I’m working toward, with every phone call and email about the logistics and the honoraria and the registrations and all that nitty-gritty stuff that goes into being a writing instructor at large.

As I gathered up the remnants from the snack table that evening, I noticed that Mary Joan had approached Sariah—the two were talking near the door. As I headed out into the summer twilight, I saw them in the parking lot still talking, car keys in their hands.

I pulled away with a heart happy for the small miracle of one person being able to offer comfort to another.

    –  –  –

There’s still time to claim a seat in Guided Autobiography
at Capitol Lakes, starting next Tuesday. Find the nitty-gritty here.


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How it is Now, Living Alone

By Sariah Daine

Yes, there is a freedom that comes with living alone. I can come and go as I please, eat when and what I desire, sleep when I want, whether the dishes are done or not, use the bathroom whenever I feel the urge, regulate the temperature and adjust the blinds to shut out or welcome in the light of the sun as my mood flows.

No one asks me to turn off public radio to play violent video games on the TV. The mail is always addressed to me, whether by name or by virtue of being ‘current occupant’. I choose where I live, what artwork to place where and when to open my door to other people, invite them in and share my ‘Sariah’ feathered nest.

And then they’re gone.

If it’s late at night when my guests leave, I might not swish the wine from the bottom of the glasses, but leave them for tomorrow.

When I’ve brushed my teeth, washed my face, and taken my medications (to encourage my body to forget it’s headed quickly to 70), I look ay my big, comfy, queen size bed and begin ‘the arrangement.’ The taupe colored spread and deep red shammed pillows are removed, the fleece sheet pulled back; then the seven pillows and 2 towels are ‘arranged’ ……… all for the sake of my dislocated shoulder blade and back, with its many bulging discs!

I sleep ‘snowflake style’, per my physical therapist’s suggestion. This sleeping ‘snowflake’ takes up my entire bed! I am a spread-eagle, arch-backed, supported-limbed and -necked ‘snowflake’ as I melt into sleep.

I sort of chuckle as I write this, understanding more, with every added pillow, why loving couples sometimes opt for separate beds. Good Grief!!!

So, yes, I live alone and sleep alone and can do what I want, when and how I want.



There is no one to care one way or another.
there is no one to care… one way or another………

No one to ask how my day went or complain about theirs; no one to suggest we try a new recipe or cafe; no one’s hand to hold when one or the other of us is sad or scared. No one to care if the open blinds let in too much sun, that might fade the leather and wool.

When I was 33, sharing a home with my husband, my daughter, his son and a big floppy dog, I looked out the living room window, anticipating my husband’s return from work. My parents had arrived a bit before, going to share an evening meal. I turned to my mom and said, “I get excited, like butterflies inside, when Dan comes home.” Mom said, “I get butterflies too, when I see your dad… every time… for over 30 years!!!”

That night, I looked around the table as we ate our meal, got teary-eyed, as my heart filled….. full of wonder, at this group of ‘each-one-different’ people; so grateful for every mood and desire they brought to this shared table.

I miss it… having to always be conscious of other’s needs and pleasures… to share mine….. to feel the flutter of butterfly wings.

Now, I am some sort of chrysalis ……hanging… …waiting… …waiting to break free ….free of all this ‘freedom’ I feel.

Not much fun at all…..

(c) 2016 Sariah Daine

Sariah read this story at the First Monday, First Person salon in August. Check back next week for the story of this story’s impact!

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My “Aha!” Moment

By Melodee Currier

There are a variety of reasons people go to high school reunions.  Some want to catch up with old friends they haven’t seen in years, some want to see and be seen, and some are looking for closure with a former friend or love.  I wanted closure.

This story begins forty-five years ago in Pompano Beach, Florida when I left my high school fiancé to attend secretarial school in New York City.  Since he was a year younger than me, he still had his senior year of high school to complete.  Our plan was that he would attend Penn State after he graduated from high school, I would join him, get a job as a secretary at Penn State and we would get married – and live happily ever after.

mels high school pic

They say long distance romances are usually destined for failure and ours was no exception.   Soon after arriving in the Big Apple, I started dating and I’m sure he wasn’t just watching TV waiting for me his senior year of high school.  And so our relationship drifted in different directions.

After he graduated from high school, he went to Penn State as planned, but we never saw each other again.  I called him once while he was there and talked about coming to visit him, but within days of that call, I met my first husband and never spoke to him again.

When I heard that our high school classes were having a combined 45th reunion, and he RSVP’d that he and his wife would be there, my husband and I decided to go too.  I was apprehensive about seeing him after so many years, after all, I wasn’t 17 anymore — but I had so many questions and wanted to hear all about his life.

Soon after arriving at the reunion, I caught a glimpse of him and was surprised to see he looked very much like he did in high school.  As we passed each other on the walkway I called his name.  He stopped, looked at me and said, “Melodee Leven….wasn’t it???”  I was stunned and offended.  Is this the same guy that didn’t want any other guys to sign my yearbook and cried like a baby the night before I left for New York City?  His reaction was so unexpected, it caught me off guard.  It didn’t seem possible he could forget me — his former fiancé.  Hadn’t he told his wife about me?  So many thoughts went through my mind.

Although he and his wife spent a lot of time with my husband and me during the reunion weekend, most of the time we didn’t talk – and what little conversation we did have was superficial.  The funny thing is, I recall that is the way he was in high school too, but it didn’t bother me then.   When you’re a teenager and all you want is a guy who wears madras and Bass Weejuns and is a great kisser, it should be no surprise that they’re not talkative too.

I left the reunion disappointed.  There were so many words left unsaid.  And there was no going back.

Several months after the reunion I had an “Aha!” moment while telling a friend this story.  Hearing myself complain, I suddenly realized that I alone had the power to create the closure I wanted by letting go of my expectations.  Just seeing him again at the reunion after all those years was enough.  I didn’t need to know the details of his life which may have been interesting — or not.  It’s empowering and freeing to realize you can always create your own ending by adjusting your expectations.


© 2016 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 Mel is an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told.

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Back to school! Workshops for Memoir and Family History Writers-Fall 2016.

Living in a college town, “Back to School” season triggers a longing to devote time to learning and growing, no matter our calendar age.  I’ve got a fresh set of workshops lined up to help you get started and stay motivated as you do the important, satisfying, creative work of writing about your life or that of your ancestors.

Visit my website for more details about the events listed below.


Here’s what’s local in Madison, Wisconsin:

“First Monday, First Person” salon
Share and critique writing in the first person with like-minded people. Listeners welcome as well as readers. Free, Goodman South Madison Branch Library, next salon October 3, 6-7:45pm.

* * * 

Guided Autobiography at Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, 

  • Do you want better health? Fewer doctor visits, better ability to manage stress?
  • Are you facing a big decision? Want better clarity about what would fit the “real you”?
  • Would you like to feel part of a community Where deep thoughts and beliefs are discussed in an appreciative, nonjudgmental atmosphere?

Then try Guided Autobiography!

  • Free preview August 30, 10-11:30am.
  • 10-Week Workshop 9:30-11:30am Tuesdays, starts September 20.
* * *

Write Family History Others Will Want to Read 
Two options:

  • Madison Central Library, bi-weekly 5-session workshop,  Tuesdays evenings, 6:30-8:30 pm, starts September 20
  • Fitchburg Library, weekly 3-session workshop, Friday mornings, 10:30-12:30, starts October  7
* * *

And if you’re looking for an online class:

Write Your Way to Better Attitudes about Money (5-week workshop)
Designed for personal historians; open to other solo entrepreneurs. Thursday evenings, 7:00-8:30pm, starts November 3.

Okay, like I said, details are on the First Person Productions “Upcoming Events” page. I hope to see you in class this fall!

~ Sarah White

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My Good Life Just Got Even Better

By Kaye Ketterer

This particular Tuesday was no different than most.   I took the bus into work and felt good about life as this was my last week of work. I had been planning for the last year and a half to retire on July 14, 2016. In addition to retiring, I was waiting for my first grandchild to be born.

My arrival to work was uneventful and I got busy continuing to sort and get rid of things in my office. It was about 9:45am when my husband called and said that my son, Brad and daughter in law, Jamie had gone to the hospital as Jamie was in labor.   I was so excited I couldn’t do much work after that.   The day went by really slow and that night I hardly slept at all.   We did get occasional texts from Brad keeping us informed of how things were progressing.   Finally, the text came telling us our granddaughter was born and to welcome Molly into the world at 2:45am on July 13, 2016.

Of course, I wanted to come see her right away, but I waited until 10:00am so Molly had time to bond with her parents.   So, I went to work as usual and told anyone that looked at me that I was now a grandma and a grandma about to retire!   Paul picked me up about 9:45 and off we went to meet my granddaughter.  Seeing her for the first time was an experience like no other.

As I took Molly from her mother’s arms I was filled with hope at the miracle of new life. Molly just fit perfectly in my arms like she had always been there and she grunted and squeaked to let me know she knew me.  As I held her, she would turn her head towards her parents when she heard their voices.   Memories of my own two children when they were babies flashed through my mind and I was bursting with love for my adult son and his wife. I felt a new kind of love for my granddaughter. Molly was a beautiful baby, just like her father and mother.   Her hair was dark and there was a lot of it.   She weighed in at 8# 3oz and was 20 inches long.   She was perfect.

Kaye Ketterer holds her new granddaughter

Kaye Ketterer holds her new granddaughter (not shown, after all, she’s too young to give us her permission!)

In the days that followed, we saw her a lot.   Her parents camped out in their family suite at the hospital getting to know her every sound and movement.   The suite included a big queen size bed, a bassinet for Molly, three reclining chairs, and a private bathroom.   It was a very safe place that had the secure back-up of a wonderful staff to help when needed.   When they came home with Molly, I continued to visit her every day and sang her songs, read her books, and talked to her a lot.   I’ve continued to help out by tending their garden and picking raspberries.   Her parents are proud–and tired, and hoping for a good night’s sleep someday.

As a new grandmother, I’ve put on the role quite easily.   It is easy to do with adult children who are smart and fun to be around.   I imagine future days with Molly picking raspberries in her back yard, going to the park, and reading books together.   Being retired gives me freedom to do things when I want to and allows me to spend plenty of time with Molly.

Retiring from work that I had done for 15 years in this job was not so hard.   There were changes on the horizon at my work and they were not changes that I wanted to deal with. The last week was very special and I didn’t want a big party, so my colleagues got me a delicious cake and on my last day we ate cake and throughout the day my colleagues came into my office to say goodbye and we did a bit of remembering the fun times we’d had working together.   It didn’t feel a lot like a final goodbye as I’ll keep in touch with many of my colleagues.

Reflecting on these two major events in my life has also made me think of how free I am and how the privileged freedom of my life impacts others in their chains of imprisonment.   In his book “Teaching with Conscience in an Imperfect World”, William Ayers says that freedom can never be an individual pursuit. Ayers says, “Freedom is social; it’s found in the company of others.” (p. 54)  Knowing this, then if one person is not happy, how can I be happy? If one person is hurting, I hurt.   Freedom in a true democracy has everyone working for the good of all.

I rejoice in my good life that got even better, but I don’t take it for granted.   I know how fortunate I am.   New little Molly depends on her parents for all her needs and her parents depend on others to support them in her care and upbringing.   As Molly grows, laws will be passed and laws will be enforced that may give Molly freedom or imprison her in her own self.   Growing up in a privileged family, Molly will soon come to know the differences in families and realize that none of us are truly free until society bends in the direction of meeting the needs of all, not just some.

(c) 2016 Kaye Ketterer

Kaye lives in Monona, Wisconsin, and keeps her country roots close to her heart. Along with writing, her interests include music, traveling, children, and the elderly.

*  *  *

When Kaye read her essay at our August “First Monday, First Person” salon for memoir writers, I was struck by how what started with a light, almost “Hallmark Card” tone grew deeper as it unfolded. I encouraged her to share it with readers of TSWT.

Kaye chose to change some names to protect the identity of family members, and chose not to publish an image of Beautiful Baby Molly. Memoirists must be mindful of unintended consequences when we write about other people.

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James Birren: “Ask participants to draw a visual map of their spiritual journey”

This summer I’ve been teaching a Guided Autobiography class following the curriculum laid out by Dr. James Birren, as faithfully as a new bride in the kitchen with her first cookbook.

This is the core curriculum that over the years I’ve adapted to create my own workshops, such as “Start Writing Your Memoir,” “Write Your Family History,” “Write Your Selfie Obituary,” and others. The first time I taught this curriculum was in summer 2004. It was the first time I’d assembled people and taken the lead in a classroom. It has been pleasant “going back to basics” over the course of this 10-week workshop.

Dr. Birren guides the instructor throughout his helpful “Joy of Cooking” for reminiscence facilitators (titled  Telling the Stories of Life through Guided Autobiography Groupswith discussion questions and writing prompts, always couched in the phrasing “Ask participants to…”. I found very useful as a beginning teacher 12 years ago.

This week (#8 in the curriculum) Birren challenges us to:

spirituality map

(c) 2001, page 118, Telling the Stories of Life Through Guided Autobiography Groups

Birren does not include a sketch from his own life or a student’s, as he so helpfully has with other challenges, like creating your Life Graph or Life Portfolio. “What does Birren mean,” they asked, “a spiritual journey map? We’re talking about time here, not space.”

Now, I don’t know what Birren meant. But I think it’s something like the Game of Life playing board. Or Candy Land. They represents time, in space. Sorta makes sense, right?

So this week, I told my students: If you try it, I’ll try it. And now I ask you, dear readers, to try it too. Get out your art supplies or just have at it with a pencil and pad.

Send me a jpeg of your Spiritual Life Map and for feedback on this challenge. With your permission, I’ll share in a future post.

— Sarah White



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