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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Is It Strange that I Put Garam Masala in My Chocolate Cake?

By Kelly Sauvage Angel

Is there any question that we literary sorts get a little, how shall we say, “balmy” after spending day upon day, week upon week and, bless our little hearts, year upon year, tapping away at our laptops, building imaginary worlds that are far more vivid to us than the one into which we were born?

What is that I hear? Crickets. I think we have a consensus.

Thus, in order to better recall the scent of fresh air and the warmth of sunlight upon my skin – as well as to procure for myself a healthful dose of human interaction – I signed up last month to drive for Uber. Of course, paying the rent had absolutely nothing to do with my decision.

Suffice it to say, my social circle has expanded. In addition to several garden variety physics majors, corporate executives, university professors, investment bankers and service professionals, I’ve had one-off encounters with a disc jockey, a chef, a pilot, a bellydancer and a standup comedian among others. Thanks to a painfully slow-moving trash truck, I kept the husband of one of my favorite local authors stuck in traffic for a good part of the morning!

However, I most enjoy the relationships that, in short time, have been forged with my regulars. The handsome guy who works on Research Park Boulevard is an utter gentleman, and the Frappuccino-guzzling woman, beholden to no man, who rises bright and early to make her way toward Mineral Point Road is a hoot. I feel a kinship to each of them, for they themselves are Near East-siders.

“The Swamster,” on the other hand, keeps me on my toes. One day, I’m called to pick him up in Shorewood Hills. Another time, a few blocks from the hospital. The next, smack in the center of campus.

Kind of like a bad rupee, that guy.

So, a couple Fridays ago, in response to my inquiry regarding his upcoming weekend, The Swamster shared with me that he planned to cook an authentic Indian meal for several of his friends. He described in detail the ingredients required and the variations to be found throughout his country. Although I made a point of asking him for the spelling, the name of the dish continues to elude me.

“So, what do you consider the best Indian restaurant in town?” I asked, suggesting a couple of my favorites.

“Those restaurants? They are for students, for an American palate.”

Suddenly, I needed to know not only which establishments The Swamster frequented but the secret to authentic Indian cooking; yet, the transmission of such precious knowledge requires more time than we had at our disposal, given that we were a mere three blocks from his destination.

“I’m from South India,” he explained with a shrug of his broad shoulders. “That’s where my taste buds developed.”

I slowly braked, nearing the stop sign at the end of Observatory Drive.

“So, is it strange that I put garam masala in my chocolate cake?” I asked with newfound humility, seeking validation that I knew I’d not receive.

An expression of amusement, which he tried mightily to restrain, manifested as a twinkle in his eye.

Then, an unprecedented beat of silence enveloped us.

“Yes, that’s a little strange,” he said on an exhale. He then opened the door, rose from the passenger seat and sent me off with a wave.

Given that it was nearing lunchtime, I navigated East Johnson Street toward home, leaving the app on my phone active, just in case someone nearby needed a ride.

Crossing Wisconsin Avenue, I found myself convinced that I could win The Swamster’s approval with my unique spin on fusion cooking, if only I could perfect my recipe for Red Beans and Rice.

Mind you, this isn’t any ol’ Red Beans and Rice that we’re talking about. It’s my original recipe that’s finished with, you guessed it, an earthy teaspoon of garam masala and topped off with a poached egg.

Ticking off the ingredients in my mind, I made a split-second decision to detour and slid into a parking spot on North Livingston, near the supermarket. I needed only a bit of parsley and a can of petite diced tomatoes. After all, who doesn’t keep a tube of chorizo and a package of thick-cut bacon at the ready?

I ran into the store, grabbing a handheld basket and the weekly circular as I passed by. Once I’d taken possession of the parsley and tomatoes, I flipped through the ad. Oh, tuna’s on sale! I discovered. And, bananas!

Checking out, the cashier informed me that my total was $10.18. I’d never gotten away so cheap.

As I walked quickly along the sidewalk and hopped back into my car, I got a little psyched about the Groupon for a month’s worth of yoga classes that I’d be able to purchase with my savings.

I rounded the block so as to turn left onto East Washington at the light. It was only then that the ticket, secured by my wiper blades yet flapping in the wind, registered within my line of sight.

Idling, I opened the driver’s-side door and reached around the glass, begging that it not be true.

A brief glance nearly stole my thunder. Apparently, the side of the road upon which I parked was restricted for street cleaning. The cost of my violation: 35 dollars. More than the price of my beloved Groupon.


Undeterred, I tucked the ticket into the glove box and headed home to prepare my dish.

In a flurry of culinary inspiration, I tore the unusually tidy kitchen apart. Dicing the onion, mincing garlic, slicing the bacon, measuring out the rice, I had no time for “cleaning as I go.” I was out to blow The Swamster’s mind; and, as I plated the perfectly-seasoned rice and gently laid atop it a not-so-perfectly poached egg, I deemed that I had succeeded.

It almost felt like sacrilege, breaking into the yolk, but the prospect of an excruciatingly painful afterlife or unfortunate rebirth hasn’t deterred me yet.

Resist a yolk so creamy and golden? Please.


Red Beans and Rice with Poached Egg

For “The Swamster”



6 ounces bulk chorizo

3 slices bacon, cut into ¼-inch strips

1 small yellow onion, diced

3 cloves garlic, minced

½ teaspoon dried thyme

1 16-ounce can red beans, including liquid

1 14.5-ounce can petite diced tomatoes

1½ cups basmati rice

1½ cups water

1 teaspoon garam masala

Salt and pepper to taste

1-2 eggs, poached, or more, depending upon the number of servings

Chopped flat-leaf parsley to garnish



In a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown the chorizo and bacon, breaking up the chorizo and separating the bacon strips with a wooden spoon. Reduce to medium heat. Add the onion, and cook until softened. Stir in the garlic and thyme, cooking 1 minute more. Incorporate the beans and tomatoes. Then, add the rice and water, stirring well to combine. Briefly return to medium-high heat. Once the mixture has come to a boil, cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for 40 minutes.

Shortly before the rice is ready, poach the egg(s) according to preferred method. (I find Alton Brown’s technique to be virtually foolproof: http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/alton-brown/perfect-poached-eggs-recipe.html.)

Once the cooking time is completed, check the rice for tenderness. Then, stir in the garam masala. Salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into bowls, and top with poached egg(s). Garnish with chopped parsley.


A graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in literature, Kelly Sauvage Angel is the author of Om Namah… (published under Kalyanii), a collection of poetry, two stage plays, dozens of short stories and hundreds of articles. After surrendering to the healing touch of her massage therapist and downing a couple anti-inflammatories after dance class, she most enjoys wiling away her free time manifesting her culinary inspirations and reveling amid the magnificence of nature. 

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Book Review: “Wasted,” by Marya Hornbacher

Can Madness write a book? That was the question that led me to Wasted, a memoir about a young woman’s eating disorder.


The question arose from a presentation at the recent Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative conference I attended in Oxford. Katarzyna Smigiero spoke on “How to describe what resists being put into words? Story-telling strategies in madness narratives.” Now, the presentations at this conference ranged from abstract to concrete, from over-my-head academic to “I could use that tomorrow.” Smigiero’s presentation fell at the concrete, useful end of that continuum.

I’ll get to the useful writing-craft advice in a moment. First, how Wasted came into it: Smigiero was discussing the collateral damage on family members and caretakers that madness wreaks. She brought up Wasted, A Memoir of Anorexia by Marya Hornbacher. She said, “the title suggests the disease wrote it. Illness overcame the person experiencing the illness.” I needed something to read on the long flight back to the USA. Intrigued, I hopped on iBooks and bought a copy.

I couldn’t put it down—and I couldn’t stand how reading it made me feel. You know, like porn. I was glad no one could see what I was reading. The compulsion to keep reading felt very much like the author’s description of her eating disordered thinking. The book, frankly, is not that good. (Why would I expect Madness to be able to write a great book?) It featured way to much “I”, not enough “eye”—little of the scene, dialogue, character, that good creative nonfiction is built on.

Goodreads reviews will tell you everything you need to know—

  • … “a genuine, gripping story of a youth literally thrown away in favor of madness”
  • … “i think this book should be pulled from the shelves of most bookstores, or at least not giving to anyone under the age of 25”
  • … “the key to tricks and tips for anorexia”
  • … “I’m not sure if in fact she’s not yet over her illness”

Yeah, I’m glad I read it. But the fact that I got distracted by her craft (or is it Madness’s craft?) does not speak well of the reading experience. That said, people who want to write should read good books, but we should also read bad books, so we can learn what makes the difference. Hornbacher’s (or Madness’s) use of pronouns is what first leaped out at me. Goodreads commenter Twxitbetwixt wrote,

… Only a very small portion of the book is her actually owning up to her own personal issues & experiences. … Instead we have a book full of her being totally dissociated from the entire ED. Instead of “I” it’s all “You”…. “You will do this, you will say that, you will go here…” I don’t know who this “You” person is, it’s definitely not ME, the reader.”

Hornbacher leaps from first to second to third person at intervals throughout the narrative, which covers about fifteen years of her life, and the effect builds to show you just how sick this woman really is. (Or maybe Madness just can’t keep her tenses straight?) (Or maybe her editor encouraged this tic, thinking it was cool crafty writing?) Whatever, Feeling like a writing coach critiquing this book helped me get over feeling squicky about reading it.

So what was conference presenter Katarzyna Smigiero’s helpful observations on writing the chaotic experience that is madness? The paradox here, she points out, is all the features of a good narrative—a story line, cause/effect, a sense of character development—go missing when Madness takes center stage. Figurative language fills madness narratives—metaphor, simile, paradox. We get emblematic names for the disease—a beast, Churchill’s black dog of depression. We get imagery of glasses and mirrors—surfaces that separate and distort as much as they reflect. Finally, she said, “Madness narratives try to find a form to express a mess. But is madness the best way to depict the experience? Maybe visual art or music would be better suited.”

Take that, Madness-as-author. Go play with your paints or your Pan flute. As for Marya Hornbacher, good luck. Goodreads informs me you wrote a second memoir, Madness: A Bipolar Life. Guess your mad muse wasn’t done with you yet.

In the end, reading Wasted made me nostalgic for the really well-done madness literature I used to love—I’m talking about books read in high school like Joanna Greenburg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. You’ll find it all there—the figurative language that makes hallucinations real, the compassion for not just the sufferer but the doctors and family who must deal with her—and no chaos in the pronouns.

I went on my library website and requested a real-book copy. I’m now spending time with an old friend I’m not embarrassed to be seen with.

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Who Has Your Back?

I’ve spent the last year nursing my husband through three hip replacements. (No, he is not that strange anomaly, a biped with three hips–his first surgery required revision.) I’ve had an opportunity to think about “who had our back” multiple times through this experience. Today, my man was pronounced FREE from restrictions following the second surgery. To commemorate the occasion, I share Melodee Currier’s essay, “Who Has Your Back.”

By Melodee Currier


Do you really know who your friends are?  I thought I had several good friends, but one year after a serious car accident, I thought no one had my back.

I figured when I posted on Facebook that my husband and I were “rushed by ambulance to the trauma center, our clothes were cut off and our car was totaled,” that was a big clue we were in bad shape and could use some help.

Imagine how stunned I was when a year later I realized we hadn’t received one telephone call, one visit or even a morsel of food from our so-called friends.  The most a couple friends did was send an email, but they didn’t follow it up.  The only ones who called were family – and that was it.  There is just one exception – a high school friend of my husband, who we aren’t even in touch with, sent us a restaurant gift card.

The only thing I really asked for were prayers and I know I received those because every day I noticed God’s healing miracles.

I would have also loved a call, a visit, a quick trip to the grocery or even a casserole or two, but my poor husband, who had also been injured, had to do everything for me because for several weeks I could barely get up to go to the bathroom.

At first, I hardly noticed the lack of support because I spent my time just trying to get through each day.   As time went on though, I couldn’t help but notice that no one was calling or visiting.  They had to know we were going through the toughest time of our lives.

When my friends suffered their own challenges, I was there for them – spending hours on the phone counseling them, calling to see how they were doing, meeting them for a walk or lunch, taking them food or a gift.

I even knitted a beautiful prayer shawl for one of these friends, but in my hour of need she didn’t call me for months and when she finally did, she said, “I didn’t know what to say.”  I wanted to say — ask what happened, ask how we’re doing and ask if there is anything you can do to help.  That was the last time we spoke.

And, I was amazed when I told a couple friends I wanted to bring over food for them following their hospitalizations, they said I didn’t need to because they had so many people bringing over food.

During lunch with another friend she mentioned that she read on my Facebook page about our car accident, but didn’t even send me an email.

A couple weeks after the accident, my husband spoke to our neighbors outside and told them about it.  They could see that our lawn was overgrown and while they were empathetic, they didn’t offer to help mow it.  We weren’t able to find anyone to do it, so my husband mowed it himself against doctor’s orders.

The biggest surprise involved a close friend I’ve had for nearly twenty years.  She happened to call the day after I got home from the hospital, but didn’t know we had been in an accident.  I haven’t heard from her since.  Fair weather friends only want to be with you when the sun is shining.

One year later I was left feeling friendless, abandoned, shocked, sad, angry and disappointed and at a loss to understand how friends can ignore you when you need them most.

When I couldn’t figure out why people were silent, I saw a therapist.  Even though I felt better after a few sessions, not having a tangible answer to my dilemma still bothered me.

Then the answers slowly came to me.  I finally realized that my friends’ lack of support wasn’t personal.  They may have thought others were helping us and we didn’t need their help; they didn’t want to bother us; they didn’t know what to say or do; or  they didn’t want to get close to us for fear of it happening to them.

The Course in Miracles teaches that everything is either based on love or fear and I realized that concentrating on “why” wasn’t important.  I needed to elevate my own thoughts of fear (they didn’t care about me) to thoughts of love (they did the best they could).  As Eckhart Tolle said, “When you complain, you make yourself a victim.  Leave the situation, change the situation, or accept it.  All else is madness.”

After I truly accepted the situation and realized my friends did the best they could, I felt so calm and relaxed.  I’m not a victim — I have my own back now and that’s empowering.

© 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 www.melodeecurrier.com. Mel is an occasional contributor to True Stories Well Told.

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Storytelling: Global Reflections on Narrative:: A Highly Unusual Conference Format

Main buiding, Mansfield College, OxfordPonder this:

70+ people invited after submitting 300-word proposals to present 20 minutes (basically a TED Talk) on something related to the announced conference theme. People from 23 countries come to Mansfield College, Oxford, rooming in the dorm.

Those presentations grouped into “pods” of 3 speakers + good time for Q&A. We are encouraged to propose questions relevant to all 3 speakers in the session.

Break for tea or a meal, rinse, repeat for 3 days. (Frequently there are parallel sessions.) We all have the book of abstracts, so we can choose relevant “pods” to attend.

EVERYONE ATTENDING IS AN EXPERT. Or no one is an expert. The point is, no hierarchy is assumed–or even tolerated.

“Brilliant!” As the Brits say!

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Oxford Morning After



It’s that universal conference attendee feeling–glad it’s over, sad it’s over! “Global Reflections on Narrative” ended w/ incredible panels that suggested many cultural uses of life stories… For entertainment, for education, for bringing about political and social change.

As with any conference, the challenge now is to “pack and unpack” — to take intentions home and transform them into action.

Later for that–on to 2 days of sightseeing!

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Storyboard Collaborative and the Oxford Expedition

Today’s “true story, well told” is a post I wrote for the Association of Personal Historians’ blog. Read about how I came to be headed to Oxford with several other personal historians,on a mission to raise awareness of the importance of saving and sharing our life stories–and just as important, to stretch and grow, to raise my head up from my little corner of the world and look around at what’s going on in other corners.

Read more here–Storyboard Collaborative and the Oxford Expedition.

Main buiding, Mansfield College, Oxford

Photo by Fran Morley

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