God bless the nerds

My younger son, the computer network security major, resolved a vulnerability issue the other day that I thought was impossible to defend against, i.e., my turning seventy years old. Friends and well-wishers wanted to congratulate me, to celebrate, to drop by with a bottle of wine, even (introvert’s worst nightmare) to throw a party. All I wanted was to escape notice, especially since all the attention meant that I would have to get out of bed, clean up my trash-heap house, get out of my robe and slippers, and probably even wash my hair, all before noon so that my real routine, which unfolds on vampire time, wouldn’t come to light and cause embarrassment to us all. (Sometimes nowadays I don’t crawl out of the coffin until mid-afternoon, and then I keep the shades tightly drawn until the scorching light of reality subsides, taking with it the angry press of humanity, the business world’s open doors, the evening news, and the obligation to do something about the dismal state of affairs in the world, in my bank account, and in my body while my government representatives, credit card advisors, and health care professionals are still up and about.)

“Seventy is a big number,” people keep reminding me, as if I didn’t realize that in every part of my failing body! There is absolutely nothing to celebrate about turning seventy, in my opinion, except that at least you aren’t turning seventy-five yet, or eighty. Even my natural optimism is degrading with age, along with patience, graciousness, and generosity. Time has become not only short but also annoyingly vocal, like Joe Pesci yammering away while I’m trying to defuse some lethal-weapon style bomb.

And yet: not even the grasping hand of death seems to faze true nerds. My younger son has a Future Corpses of America tee-shirt, but there is a tender heart hidden beneath it; his razor-edge mind is uncompromisingly scientific, but also fuses logic with the creativity necessary to solve complex problems. I had felt despair when Trump said he was going to defund the National Endowment for the Arts until I realized that nerds are today’s real poets—subversives living in basements instead of attics, subsisting on pizza instead of baguettes, guzzling Amps instead of Chianti. They are, impossibly, the true romantics of our age: artistic savants fluent in multiple languages, gifted in metaphoric association, familiar with our entire body of literature and able to decrypt anything from a simple Caesar cipher to Boomhauer’s speech on King of the Hill. They have minds like libraries because they are addicted to intellectual spice, like the space/time navigators of Dune. They are notoriously shy, yet deeply embedded in the emerging world. Given what they know and do, they have every right to be cynical as hell–and yet they tend to be good natured, able to laugh at themselves, and understanding when other people get frustrated–because their work is all about persevering in the face of certain, and repeated failure.

God bless them. They never give up, and they never surrender, even when—like the Tim Allen character in Galaxy Quest—they have to just make it up as they go.

When I complained to my son that I didn’t want to be seventy, even though I did want my chocolate cake and candles so I could make an impossibly stupid wish, this is what he brought down the hall for me:


Of course, I required an explanation for the “X 46” candle arrangement, since base 16 computer code didn’t immediately spring to my mind, and he was happy to oblige:

“You’re forty-six in Hex, not seventy, Mom,” he said, and gave me a hug, reminding me that I do really have quite a lot to celebrate.

God bless and keep the nerds.

Posted in Aging, Creativity, family, Love, nerds, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 17 Comments

Replacing New Year’s Resolutions

Willpower has always seemed to me like some highfalutin relative with an ivy league education living in a distant metropolitan city, having no idea what I’m dealing with down South, where I live. She wraps her bacon around asparagus spears and garnishes it with arugula, while I stuff mine inside a buttermilk biscuit and smother it with red-eye gravy.

She doesn’t visit me, and I don’t want to hear from her. While she maintains a grim, healthy abstinence, the genetic material we share has mutated in me into a stubborn determination to feed myself whatever I want—red beans on white bread, or collards with ham hocks and hot water cornbread, or a mayonnaise sandwich, all of which I actually ate when I did live in the South as a child, God help me.

People tell me about Willpower’s accomplishments, about how I shouldn’t be too proud to ask her for money or at least advice–she’s powerful, by definition, and necessary if I’m ever going to get ahead. But I have always felt towards her like I feel about hedge fund managers, prison wardens, fanatic self-help gurus: probably not folks I really want to spend a lot of time with.

So of course I resist the idea of New Year’s resolutions, which depend on her, and it’s no mystery to me why they fail. Instead, mulling all this over last night while the old year was still painfully fresh in memory and definitely in need of an upgrade, I hit on a more useful end-of-year inventory tool: New Year’s Reminders. A reminder requires no resolve, no willpower, no ambition, and there is no implicit judgment if you ignore it. It’s just an opportunity to use the past as leverage on a better future, just a note from our present to future selves about what worked and what didn’t.

Here’s the year-end template I devised, in case you want to try it. Just make note of:

—Things/people/events that made me feel good in 2016:

—Things/people/events that made me feel like shit: (note: best to stick with your personal life here, as opposed to, say, the extreme melt of the Greenland ice sheet, or who won the election—not that those won’t have very personal consequences)

—Things/people/events that gave me energy:

—Things/people/events that wore me out:

—If I had 2016 to do over again, I would. . .

—If I knew I would die in 2017, I would. . .

—I want to remember. . .

If you do this and feel like sharing some of whatever’s on your list/s, I would love to hear from you. Listening to people talk about real stuff is one of the things that gives me energy. 🙂

Here’s to the coming year, to our renewed opportunity to trust ourselves, to the ongoing work of getting unshackled from expectations and judgment, to hitching our wagons instead to that which is driven by hope, courage, and love.





Posted in Uncategorized | 10 Comments

Who’s Your Daddy?

The first thing I did after The Bloody Divorce was to buy a big-screen TV to replace the thirteen-inch model that, along with the dishwasher, had become the focus of my husband’s crazy interpretation of what was wrong with our family. After he’d gotten a new therapist and Iron John showed up on his nightstand, he started saying things like “I’m the man of the family, and if I say we’re moving to Montana, then we’re moving to Montana!” He took the thirteen-inch TV out of the house when we weren’t home, and when the dishwasher broke, the new one I bought had to sit in the box in the living room with a potted plant on it for six months.

Over the years since the divorce, the TV screen size has grown along with the kids and now, at fifty-eight inches, is limited only by the width of the wall it hangs on. It’s like a huge frame around a display of favorite family members’ pictures: ours include Angus MacGyver, Jim Rockford, and Thomas Magnum, men who had no children in their fictional lives but paradoxically—I realized recently—have been fathers to us, thanks to Netflix.

Note to the data-mining gnomes: not everyone is actually watching TV even when they’re ripping through seven-seasons series back-to-back, nonstop, and then doing it all over again. Over the last few years while my younger son and I have been in college (with him as a student and me as a teacher), we must have logged in at least twelve hours a day of big-screen background sometimes, as we cranked our way through our respective piles of assignments. I know this must sound bad—maybe it is bad—but we are at least discriminating about the characters we live with, which is more than you can say for a lot of families. We don’t generally allow drama, for instance, because it requires too much attention, but we feel right at home with characters who manage to get themselves in trouble regularly and can laugh about it, or who can get out of trouble like MacGyver, using only a gum wrapper or a paper clip. They go about their business while we go about ours, looking up once in a while to laugh when Higgins starts droning on about the Yorkshire Regiment, or Angel goes out the window after promising Rockford he’ll stay put.

There are multiple advantages to having a television family: for one thing, dad is the kind of guy you like to have around, and he’s always home, there in the background, trying to make a living—or at least stay out of hock—while you’re advancing the family’s prospects by tackling machine language or rhetorical modes. He doesn’t care about conventional success, so he’s not all up in your face about performance; he only gets mad under extreme provocation, like when a friend he’s trying to help leaves him holding the bag, and even then he’s good-natured about it. He will give everyone a second, and third, and so on, chance, even the bad guys. He doesn’t carry a gun even though he knows how to use one, and when he takes someone else’s away, he usually just throws it in the drink.

He’s smart but he’s not an asshole about it. People betray or misjudge him in every episode, but he never reciprocates and he’s got a smile that can make you feel okay about the world, no matter how bad the case. He had a good dad himself, and has a soft spot for boys who don’t.

And, of course, things always work out in the end. So every forty-seven minutes or so—or about fifteen times a day around here—no matter how knotty the problem you’re working on in real life may be, you hear a theme song from a few decades ago that manages to capture the innocent thrill of a happy ending, and you laugh at yourself as you hum along.

There are other, more complicated, fathers we also have loved—most notably Andy Sipowicz and Lenny Briscoe—who did have fictional children and who spent most of their time trying to make amends once they got sober, but as with real-life alcoholics like my real-life father, these stories are not good background material and not the kind of thing you can laugh along with. Nevertheless, I count them as family too because they meet my newly-developed definition of a good dad, which is pretty simple: a good father is someone who puts his child’s welfare ahead of his own—always, and no doubt about it. Nothing else really matters all that much.

When I was a child along with television itself, my grandmother used to watch The Guiding Light every day, and she sent greeting cards to Papa Bauer on special occasions as if he were a real person; I’m not sure whether she believed he was real, or, like me, just incorporated fantasy into her reality as a creative prop—but I admire her, either way. So I’m sending this Father’s Day thank-you card to Angus MacGyver, Jim and Joseph Rockford, and Thomas Magnum, as well as to the real men who played and created them, especially Stephen Cannell, with whom I share the good fortune of having had Ralph Salisbury for a writing teacher. (Cannell credited his long, successful career to Ralph, who told him “spelling doesn’t matter” and thus set him free from dyslexia to write The Rockford Files and many other television shows and best-selling novels.)

Last, but certainly not least, Happy Father’s Day to Jean-Luc Picard and Gene Roddenberry for the most enduring TV family of all, role model for the next generation of our entire species, not just the lost children. It’s playing in the background as I write this—can you hear the theme song?

Posted in family, Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Things I wish somebody had pounded into my head early on…

…or that I wish I could remember long enough to pound into my own head, even now:

1. Half of life–at least half–is about cleaning up after whatever you are doing in the other half. And it always takes way longer than you think it should.

2. Your forties and fifties are the most productive years of your life, unless you have chronically underestimated #1 and are hence behind the curve.

3. By your sixties, you have been around enough of life’s blocks multiple times to have a pretty good grip on the neighborhood. You want to improve it a little before you move on. You have good ideas and big plans, but principle #1 is still operating in the universe, now in tandem with #2. This may explain why old people don’t bathe enough. And don’t even care: time is short and energy is precious.

4. Time is short and energy is precious! If you don’t know what to do with it, at least conserve it. The day will come.  Try to tidy up as you go: wash the pan right after you fry the egg, throw dirty clothes in the basket instead of on the floor. The tendency to just let things drop is a bad, bad habit because life feels shitty all the time, except for the brief moment when you’ve done a massive cleanup because it got SO shitty you couldn’t stand it anymore. There are implications for emotional work here: talk about it right away–don’t let the sun go down on some sweaty, mildewed laundry pile of bad feelings.

5. Nihilism is a phase, not a sophisticated intellectual achievement. The idea that nothing matters because you’ll probably be dead before you’re thirty anyway is not one you want to get in bed with; its bad-boy appeal ages badly.

6. Life isn’t an all-or-nothing kind of deal. There are a million in-between options. The crap your internal critic offers up–well, you’ve blown it so there’s no point in even trying–is crap. Or if you want a fancier intellectual label, it’s a false dichotomy. Nothing is really either/or; if you look hard, there’s always a third option, and a fourth, and so on. Even when it seems like someone else is in control, has a gun of some kind to your head, you still have the option of choosing how you respond.

7. Children who are wanted swim in love like a warm ocean; they bathe and roll like newborn whales, as if being surrounded by wisdom and guidance were a given. But even if nobody in your family wanted you, you have a right to exist: to take up space, to sing some song of your own making, to want something for yourself and go after it.

8. Life isn’t a contest.

9. With all due respect to John Lennon, love is not all you need unless you still have parents who support you or millions in record sales. But love is all that matters in the end—and by love, I mean the inclination of our hearts toward the good, no matter what we have or haven’t done, no matter how big the laundry pile.

Leaning toward the good, like plants toward the sun, is all that remains of choice in the end—yet in that stripped simplicity there can still be found all the warmth and guidance life has to offer, which is the paradoxical joy of age.

10. I once heard a Jungian psychologist say that the role of elders is to give blessings; I’m pretty sure an immaculate house isn’t part of the job description, nor even is a successful career or financial security—mercifully, we don’t have to be hedge fund managers or highly organized and educated in order to fulfill that role.

Blessings can be pretty simple: telling a child who has never heard such a thing that she is beautiful; listening to someone in turmoil with empathy, and without judgment or advice;  applying the balm of understanding to our own troubled past and its inhabitants.

I suppose that excludes trying to pound things into their heads, come to think of it. So that leaves one more for the list of things I want to remember: writing is underestimated as a path to at least modest gains on enlightenment. (Good news, fellow slackers: write more, vacuum less!)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 16 Comments

Blogging v. flogging

Note: this is something I wrote a few months ago when my writers’ marketing group was discussing blogging; I thought it might be useful for other writers too.

If I felt like I had to blog, I would immediately abandon the whole thing. But just because most everybody else in the writing world sees blogging as a way to build that required platform (a metaphor that I find distasteful on all fronts), and hence they give us onerous imperatives like “blog, blog, blog,” that doesn’t mean we have to see it that way. Blogging that’s done dutifully, out of a sense of obligation, or under duress, can feel like punishment and/or self-flagellation, no doubt! But there’s another way to approach blogging that feels more like coming unshackled—and then finding your way home.

The last post I made on my blog was a year ago, and I’m still getting visitors—admittedly, not a lot of visitors, but that doesn’t matter to me because I don’t see my blog as a marketing tool. I started blogging because I realized that such a vehicle would:

—be a way for me to say some things I want to say right now, instead of waiting until I get around to working them into a book and then get around to trying to publish that book

—let me say those things off-the-cuff, low-stakes, in pieces, in whatever way they come to me, whenever they come, without considering regularity, saleability, marketing, or even coherence

—serve as a central, virtual file cabinet for ideas, insights, ponderings, sketches, and whatnot to replace the scraps of paper, dinner napkins, post-its, abandoned journal efforts, and computer files that have vanished into the writerly Bermuda Triangle over the years (this advantage has been HUGE, because I have multiple “drawers” in the form of multiple private blogs, in which I can store drafts as well as posts: in this way, I’m working on several books or book ideas, and I’m actually reminded of what those ideas were from time to time, because they’re all in the same place)

—set me free from publishing prison, both the supermax New York version and the contemporary minimum-security Amazon: I don’t need anyone’s approval, and publishing is completely free, immediate, and world-wide (this advantage becomes more apparent as time goes by and the monetary rewards of publication continue to shrivel)

Of course, I don’t make any money at all from my blog. But when has any ordinary person made a living at writing anyway? Even poet laureate Ted Kooser sold insurance. And while it used to be possible to get a six-figure advance for a well-written memoir (nostalgic rush here), even those heady numbers won’t pay the rent if you consider the number of years it takes to produce such a thing (six, or ten, or—in my case—twenty-five and counting). A big advance wouldn’t even provide coffee money, if you consider the number of such books you have in you.

So once I accepted that, a whole ‘nuther world opened up (the title of my blog applies here). The opening widened when I realized that my real audience consists mostly of a small tribe of thoughtful pilgrims and sojourners in this strange land—so what’s the point of trying to publish my work like Fifty Shades of Grey, or any other mass-market success? Instead, I can just write something, put it in a blog bottle, and toss it out on the Internet sea, trusting that in time it will find its way to the right shore, and be passed along if it’s worth reading.

If I were writing a novel instead of memoir and essay, things might be different—although I still think I might use a blog in some similar way, since blogs are so fluid and  can be updated, moved, deleted or resurrected, and made private or public at any time. I’m not saying that my approach to blogging would fit everyone, just that it turns out to fit me quite well—and maybe some aspect of this alternate view might fit you, too. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing.

As an unexpected side benefit of blogging, and having made no effort to advertise other than an initial email to a few friends, I have discovered a deep connection with a small but international community of kindred spirits. It startled me when I realized that most of my readers are in the UK (maybe some kind of Celtic magic is at work here). These are people I have come to know and care about, and such a virtual connection suits my introverted, writerly nature perfectly: there’s no obligation to read, or write, or respond—so everything is a gift.

It’s really quite beautiful.

When I think of some of the things these people have said to me, and vice versa, and of the numinous quality of our ordinary lives, I have to reach for a Kleenex! Right now, for example, I’m thinking of a young man in London whose observant, wry, and increasingly melancholy posts I’d read for several years, and about how happy I was when a post showed up in my inbox after a six-month silence that ended with “Apart from that, and the fact that I actually married the world’s most perfect woman, I can’t say anything of importance has happened.” 🙂  So I have him to thank for reminding me that despite the apparently real British need for understatement, life sometimes delivers happy endings. And for this song, from one of his earlier posts: “Even if you, like me, have no idea what it’s all about, I still guarantee that you’ll feel at least, ooohh, 2% happier after listening.” (Click if you need another 2%, or if you’re worried about the fate of the younger generation.)

I have the blogging world to thank for the miracle of connection without borders or intermediaries, and for the ability to offer aid or insight without the preliminaries and reciprocation that in-person interactions require. If I’m too buried to even sleep, let alone blog—as I have been for the past couple of years—I don’t have to explain that to anyone, or feel guilty about not holding up my end of a relationship, or beat myself up for failure to perform. The blogging world that I inhabit is the antithesis of “platform” mentality, and instead of making me feel like a captive of conventional advice, it has provided me with an antidote.

In this writers’ medium people understand long absences, emotional interference, financial exigency, physical limitations, and other constraints on how we roll. Yet our work here persists over time as opposed to being shredded after ten days on a bookstore shelf, and it exists in a searchable world not confined to amazon.com. In this medium we can find and be found by our real family—or, in writerly terms, our audience. Even more important, this medium is amenable to deep, ongoing conversations, which makes it more like telling stories around the tribal fire than conventional publication, which isolates writers from readers.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t try to get our work published or look for ways to make money at it; I’m just saying that we’re free to be completely happy as writers right now, and that I’m grateful for the ability to share things that matter to me without anyone’s stamp of approval and at no cost.

That’s a pretty good deal for the money.

Posted in Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , , | 20 Comments


You would think that an epiphany would last, since the moment itself is defined by clarity—like a high resolution photo in a blurry world—and a sense of significance so profound that time and space may feel altered. But for me, the most important realizations—those unanesthetized moments in which I wake up to what really matters—seem also to be ephemeral, at odds with the inertia of ordinary life, work, and responsibility that can so easily swallow us up.

When I was in my early thirties, I moved with my husband and our newborn son to a remote property in western Oregon where we planned to build a house—a new endeavor that was not beyond the scope of that good man’s considerable skills, because in a long career that involved everything from blacksmithing to machining parts for the space shuttle, he’d built a lot of things. I was his apprentice in construction, and in life, being much younger than he was, and very much in love.

I had never been north of San Francisco, so when we first drove into the dense tangle of Oregon rainforest, it seemed otherworldly, a lush wilderness I had only imagined in fairy tales. We turned right from a two-lane highway onto a trestle bridge, then left onto a narrow gravel road that ran along the Siuslaw River, a shining jade ribbon trimmed with lacy rapids, pulled down tight into the crevasse of a steep, forested canyon. The cliff on our right overhung the road in places, netted tight with a wonderful profusion of pine green and chartreuse that shimmered in the sun; blackberries dripped from tangled vines, and every hundred feet or so there was a creek, or a little waterfall cascading right down the rock face. As we went on, the road narrowed, hugging the cliff, and began to seem more like an animal trail. Deer stood in the road in the middle of the day.

It was fantastic, and yet as we approached the dilapidated old house where we would live while building the new one, I also felt the kind of premonition that defines a fairy tale: the sunny glades, the murmuring stream, the almond honey cakes made by elves in magic cloaks, even the prince and his splendid castle next the enchanted forest—all serve only to suggest the unseen presence of some terrible lurking giant.

Even so, right next to that premonition in my memory lives an image of my husband that still brings a smile. He always liked to wear an old hat when he worked that was cut like a baseball cap, though he’d never had anything to do with sports; it was made of tan, narrow-wale corduroy with a red cotton liner. He wore it backwards, so the bill would be out of the way, and though he had taken good care of it, over the years it had become stained with sweat from his forehead, so there was a dark brown dome in the corduroy. As we worked on building the new house and summer stretched into winter and back again, I watched him snug that cap down every morning as we got ready to go to work. His predictability made me happy, as did his smile, spontaneous and genuine as a child’s, even though his hair was starting to go grey.

He taught me things like how to use a level, how to drill a straight hole by sighting in two dimensions, and how to set a nail without leaving hammer marks, all of which had deep psychological and moral implications. There was nothing fancy about the house he laid out, but it was built to last. It had three-foot eaves to protect the cedar siding; the roof was steep enough to shed snow, but not too steep to walk on; the pipes were copper, and the insulation well above code.

We worked hard, which involved a fair amount of discomfort and sacrifice. While we put together the plumbing system, for instance, our son Jay—still in a baby backpack—took his naps in the crawlspace under the house, with my jacket for a pillow on one of the concrete pads. We hauled a six-hundred gallon water tank up the canyon behind the house to the spring using a complicated arrangement of ropes and pulleys, with me carrying Jay on my back. Before we put it in place, we spent a week or two preparing the site—an ordinary man would have just hauled it up there and hooked up the pipes, but my husband wanted to make sure we wouldn’t have problems with it later. So we used pry bars to dig out every rock that might eventually, with the settling factor and all, poke into the bottom of the plastic tank and possibly weaken it. Then we tamped dirt back into the holes, waited for it to settle, and tamped in some more. We canted the ground to discourage erosion, added a layer of sand to smooth out any irregularities we might have missed, and laid black plastic over it all to keep it stable under the filigree of alders shading the creek, and the huge old firs clawed to the canyon walls so that their canopy closed the sky.

One day—this is where the epiphany comes in—as I was on my way back down the canyon, I stopped to rest for a minute and put Jay, who was just learning to walk, down off my back. As we stood there by a bend in the creek where a fallen tree made a natural dam, we saw a salmon as big as my forearm curling around itself in one of the little rocky, shaded side pools, as if to catch her breath. The salmon looked up at us, and I wondered how we appeared to her from the other side of that glassy surface beneath which she waited to lay her eggs, or to die. Jay, even as young as he was, seemed to be taken into the stillness of this moment, and we stood there holding hands as if we were the same age—or as if age didn’t matter.

As time slowed down and the light intensified, as it does in such moments, the elements of the scene became almost holographic. You know how dry stones that appear common in the sun of everyday life suddenly roil with glorious color when they’re immersed in water? It’s like that in these moments when we find ourselves so fully immersed in the present that we also intuitively grasp the past and future that it implies.

I wonder now if what was driving my husband while we built that house was some knowledge in the body of what was about to befall him, some built-in sense of a long, personal winter approaching that made him oblivious to the less pressing needs of making our current life pleasant. He didn’t drive me, ever—but he drove himself, and as Jay and I tried to keep up, I noticed I was always telling myself that life would be better when… when we got the roof on, when we had electricity in the house, when the drywall was up… —and that when never came.

I knew suddenly, as that salmon and I locked eyes, that life would never be any better than it was right now.

As revelations go, the idea that we should live in the present, or stop to smell the roses because life is short, isn’t anything new—and as a child of the sixties, I’d been exposed to even more than the usual cliché versions of it, everything from Alan Watts’ interpretation of Zen Buddhism to Janis Joplin singing “Get It While You Can.” But the thing about epiphanies is that they happen to you. It doesn’t matter that there’s nothing new under the sun—what matters is the moment that you become aware of some piece of truth.

So the next day, I took Jay down to the river instead of going to work at the house, and we splashed and played and looked at crawdads and ate peanut butter sandwiches in the sun. There was a special place where, in summer, when the river was low, you could walk out to the middle of it on a big, smooth, rocky flat where the water was either rushing cold and clear in deep channels into which you could dangle your feet, or lying about in warm, mossy pools filled with tiny fish. I rolled up the legs of my overalls and, for the first time in a long while, we enjoyed ourselves.

When we got home, I told my husband that I was going to do that more, and he smiled and said, “Fine. That’s a fine thing to do.”

Later that year, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and during the seven years that followed, as well as the decades that followed his death in 1988, I have had many occasions to remember, and to reach again, for the kind of insight that gave our son a childhood even while I took him by the hand into the long work of building a future without his father.

But I think the more important lesson is not the content of any particular moment of insight. Like Dorothy in Oz, the world of our human journey—no matter how vivid the adventure, how terrifying the dangers, how sweet the rewards—isn’t the only world we have access to. Revelations occur when we need something beyond the limitations of what we know, beyond our uninformed personal agenda, beyond what we think we’re capable of; they occur when we reach for home.

Note: thanks to Tom Titus, whose description  of collecting agates on the beach and “the little clink that each stone makes when it lands in an old canning jar” reminded me that I’d once written something about stones immersed in water. When I searched my computer for those words, I found this piece that I had put together years ago and then just forgotten about. I decided to post it since I’m pretty sure Tom and I aren’t the only ones who have looked at rocks closely enough to see them as a metaphor worth saving.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | 18 Comments

About memoir

The best writing in any genre is an act of love, not explanation or even insight, not contrition or justice—and surely not reprisal.

Such an act doesn’t require thematic justification or any other reason for being, so you can stop worrying about how you’re going to pitch it. Love doesn’t need a tag line or an elevator speech: it just needs to be real. That’s not to say it’s easy—loving this beautiful, brutal world or anyone in it so much that you have to draw their precious outline on a page can be consuming, even desperate, and if unrequited for one reason or another (the need for a day job, the interference of people who need us, the barriers of anxiety and doubt), we pine and wither.

And then, often, we get subverted into thinking that we need to write about ourselves. After all—isn’t that what memoir is supposed to be about? Isn’t memoir by its very nature all about us? Our memories, our lives, our trials and woes and joys and transformations?

I don’t think so.

Not really.

That capital I, so unavoidable in memoir, stands up tall only in witness, not to dominate the text or claim singular importance, but rather to testify: to honor what the writer has seen, to obey love’s imperative to cherish and also set free the people we have cared about–including those who did not, or could not, reciprocate.

Memoir is sometimes an elegy of love that allows us at last to touch those who eluded our reach in life, to hold them steady in the light while they rage, to return compassion for ignorance and fear, to warm them inside our coats until they thaw, revealing hearts that beat like our own. And sometimes, of course, memoir is the best chance we have at paying tribute to those who held us under their coats next to their generous hearts, and to keep gratitude alive in this unforgiving world.

So if you struggle with the “I” in memoir, if you think that you’re supposed to be writing about yourself and thus need to make your story sound, somehow, important enough to warrant a book—relax.

Memoir isn’t really about you at all.


Posted in Uncategorized, Writing | Tagged , , | 20 Comments