This blog finds its roots in the losses of my life and my slow, stumbling, but steady path towards healing. Of all the resources I explored when I was newly bereaved and deep in grief, the most powerful ones were those that simply shared someone else's story. The least helpful were those that either tried to fix or change me, or communicated with such mutedness and sadness they seemed to make my own sadness worse. In reacting to such times, I came up with something I called the GriefGlow manifesto, which goes as follows. I am pleased to share it and some glimpses of my journey with you. So, the GriefGlow Manifesto: Because grief is never black and white. Because healing is hard enough without coloring everything around us gray. Because we're just sad, not broken. Because we are a community, even when we feel the most alone. Because a picture is worth a thousand words when we have no words to say. Because we don't need to be changed, fixed, taught, or hurried. Because being vulnerable isn't the same as being powerless. Because our story isn't over. Because the world is as beautiful as it is painful. And because though a little bit of beauty can't change the pain today, it may help us toward healing tomorrow.

Monday, April 18, 2011

TEMPORARILY GONE: but I haven't forgotten you!

You'll have noticed that I haven't been posting here regularly. I'm working hard on two new books, and having to use all available writing time on them. I'll be back here posting again at some point, though perhaps not until the fall. In the meantime, I wish you all a pleasant and productive summer.

My many older posts on this blog may not show here, on this main page, as its display is date-sensitive and "times out" eventually. All of the previous material is still here, however; just click on "older posts" below.

Friday, February 18, 2011

LEGACY AND IMMERSION: wise words from poet Marge Piercy

I've been thinking of legacy lately for many different reasons, including the preparation for my upcoming Effortless Memoir class at the Vero Beach Museum of Art on February 26.

There are all sorts of complexities to leaving a personal legacy, and sometimes it seems that the deeper one delves into the issue of what to leave behind the more difficult leaving any meaningful legacy becomes.

But some things about legacy are simple. Including this basic but easy to overlook fact: we all leave the most powerful legacy by not worrying too much about legacy, but rather living intensely and intentionally right now.

Legacy isn't created by hedging one's bets and projecting into the future. It's created by finding something you really love or believe in, and immersing yourself there in the present.

Contemporary American poet and novelist Marge Piercy has a wonderful way of communicating truths that are at once deeply complex and gorgeously simple. Though it is not about legacies only, her poem To Be of Us is all about the immersion that creates lasting ones. "The people I love the best/ jump into work head first/ without dallying in the shadows," she writes therein, adding, "I want to be with people who submerge/ in the task..." The poem concludes:

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.

But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
                                    (To Be of Use copyright Marge Piercy)
I love that phrase, "the pitcher cries for water to carry." As it suggests, we are all in some sense vessels, crying out for meaning to carry and memory or wisdom to share.

Visit Marge Piercy's website to learn more about the writer and her rich, varied and enduring work by
clicking here.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

LIFE STORY WRITING 6: find the pivot

You find out that you're going to have your first child, and your life pivots, turning in a whole new direction.

You lose a parent or mate, and your life pivots too.

You have a car accident. Win the lottery. Transfer to Seattle. Get diagnosed with diabetes. Decide to get divorced. Decide to get married. Fall in love with watercolor painting. Lose your house in a hurricane.

Each of these moments is what I call a "pivot," a time when your life takes a different and perhaps surprising turn.

If you want to try writing life stories but aren't sure where to start, find a pivot and write about that.

It doesn't matter which one. Any will do. With your pivot in mind you can write about a myriad of things. What you hoped. What you feared. How it happened. What you thought. Where you went. Who went with you. What you learned.

Everyone has pivots in their life. They will enjoy, and be educated by, reading about yours.

Monday, February 7, 2011

IN MEMORIAM, AGAIN: "recollecting" Henry

I wrote a post last month about losing Henry, my dear "foster terrier," on January 19th. At the time I was too unfocused to remember that I wanted to give a public thanks to Dr. Lisa Jutras and the St. Francis Animal Hospital on Route 60 in Vero Beach. Dr. Lisa and the team there could not have been more skilled or more tender in their handling of both Henry and his teary-eyed owner, and I am deeply grateful for their caring, capability and compassion. Do consider them out if you are needing a good vet.

In the aftermath of Henry's death I have been thinking about the deep and soulful connection we humans can have with the animal world. It's tempting to believe that those bonds, and thus the loss we feel when an animal companion dies, are less important than those with our fellow humans, but I'm not sure that's entirely true. I think that the very wordlessness of our relationships with beloved pets makes those connections special: without all the emotional and intellectual overcomplication human dialogue is so apt to create, we can meet "our" animals in a place that is deeply soulful. We meet them, too, in a place of service...a sweet exchange in which each ministers to the other in a pure and lovely way.

I hope it goes without saying that I don't mean to dismiss either the depth or the breadth of human relationships. Rather, I just want to acknowledge the different yet still profound bond we can form with the other species we come to love.

By way of lightening this rather sad subject, I've included a photo that I hope will make you smile: a glimpse of me during the period in which I had a stress fracture in my right foot, sorting the mail in bed with a guardian terrier at my side. In case you can't tell which is which, I'm the one without the good pedicure.

LIFE STORY WRITING 5: undoing the lessons of the past

Some more thoughts on writing life story as a part of building your personal legacy...this time, musings on the things we have to undo, rather than those we must do.

Most of us are taught writing in school—with mixed results. Hopefully, we end up with a working knowledge of English and its forms at the end of our schooling. But many of us also leave our years of English classes with less helpful lessons as well.

We learn to expect others to judge the small points of our writing, sometimes quite harshly. We learn to prize organization and logic over feeling and grammatical correctness over expression. We learn to write more easily in response to external pressure than in reaction to our own needs and preferences. We learn to admire "great" writers, but also to discount our own voices.

It's not surprising that as adults, we may find it more comfortable to avoid writing entirely than to take the risk of "failing." If we want to do any creative or legacy writing as adults, we must actually unlearn those lessons. This can be a slow process, and almost always requires some patience.

It may help to think consciously about your readers as you begin to write. Replace the mental image of that high-school teacher who picked on your grammar with a vision of your children, grandchildren, friends, colleagues: whoever it is you feel you are writing for. Seeing those loving faces in your mind's eye will help remind you that these days, there are no grades and no demerits.

To pass this "test," all you need to do is sit down and share a little of your heart.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

LIFE STORY WRITING 4: the littlest life stories of all

Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure (Paperback)My brother recently sent me a book created by the editors of the online magazine SMITH, a home for all sorts of lively story-related projects. Called Not Quite What I Was Planning, the book is a collection of six-word memoirs. Yes, that's right, six words, as in the book title itself. This might be a bit too succinct for most of us writing life story, but it's interesting to see what folks come up with in this very limited form.

Some of the results are suprisingly poignant: "Learned to live with great loss"..."WASP wants to be soul man"..."I fell far from the tree"...Painful nerd kid, happy nerd adult"..."Wasted time regretted so life reinvented"..."Almost a victim of my family"..."Started small, grew, peaked, shrunk, vanished" and "Act Two curtain brought dramatic improvements." In some ways these little "bites"  tell us little; in other senses they suggest so much. For example, the editors point out that the moving mini-memoir "Cursed with cancer, blessed with friends" was written not by a mature survivor but a nine year old. I'm sure many of the others have similar surprises behind them.

There is social commentary here and there, as in Dean Haspiel's "Tombstone won't say 'had health insurance'" and Johan Baumeister's "Joined Army. Came out. Got booted." There's disagreement: one six-word memoir says "I'm my mother and I'm fine," while another begs "Became my mother. Please shoot me." There's some poetry: "The light that night was perfect." And, of course, there's lots of playfulness and humor.

In that latter vein I particularly liked "Speaks mind especially when losing it," "Awkward girl takes chances. Fun ensues," "Occasionally wrong but never in doubt," "Never really finished anything, except cake," "Sold belongings. Became Itinerant Poetry Librarian," "A crush on Susan Sarandon. Unrequited" and "The psychic said I'd be richer" (Elizabeth Bernstein). Because a college professor once said that I had an "unfortunate passion for semicolons," I of course felt like a soul sister of Iris Page, who wrote "Semicolons; I use them to excess," yet as a teacher now myself I laughed at the rueful "All of my students hate me."

Though many of the writers are people not in the public eye, some are well known. It's interesting to see how they explain lives that are well documented elsewhere. "Me see world! Me write stories!" is Elizabeth Gilbert's apt offering, while another writer, Po Bronson, wrote slyly, "Stole wife. Lost friends. Now happy." Journalist and disabilities activist John Hockenberry wrote "IBM brat broke back; twins, Mac," a surprisingly detailed literal account of a complex life," while comic Stephen Colbert noted only, "Well, I thought it was funny."

Could you write your life story in six words? What would they be?

SMITH has lots of similar story starters. If you need some fun prompts, visit the site and check them out.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

LIFE STORY WRITING 3: five simple story starters

Following up on my last post, here are some easy but effective starting points for life story writing. You might want to try a few of these, and then continue on with whichever one or ones feels the easiest and most rich.

With all of these starters, the keys are the same. First, start small. Define your task as completing one paragraph, two paragraphs, or a single page at most, but try to write regularly. Second, don't judge or censor. Your writing doesn't have to be elegant, skilled, or even neat. As I said in my last post, whatever you write will be a treasure to those who come. Finally, be sure to store whatever you have written safely. If you created your text on a computer, back up the files and print a copy out as well.

1. Choose a single photograph from any point in your past and write a really detailed caption for it. Let yourself capture the people, place, and time it depicts in a full paragraph or even two. Place your text in the album or box in which you keep the photo. Tomorrow, consider writing a caption for another picture. As you go on to write about other images, you can stick to a particular time period or theme, or jump around in whatever way feels right.

2. Choose a single recipe you like to cook. (Or, if you're not a cook, a single recipe you like to eat!) Write a paragraph or two about it. Consider describing what you like about it, when and/or from whom you first learned it, when it is or was eaten, what other memories it inspires, what period of your life it reminds you of. Don't worry if your writing strays from the subject of food; the recipe is just a starting point.

3. If you want to write down memories for your children (adult or still young), start small. Choose one child; write down a single great memory of time with him or her. If you enjoy this, add a second memory about that child tomorrow, or move on to a memory about a different child (or sibling, or grandchild). Don't strain to choose an "important" memory; anything that is meaningful to you will be meaningful to that child, however simple or apparently trivial it seems. On the occasion of my fiftieth birthday, my dad wrote a a note to me with the memory of taking naps with me on his chest when I was an infant. I treasure that note all the more because it reminds me of such a small and tender moment.

4. Use place as a starting point for some memory writing. Each day, choose a single place and do some writing about it. The place you choose could be a home, a city, or a vacation spot. It could be as small as a single spot in your yard or house, or as big as your home town. Let your writing roam as it will, whether what comes up are memories of people, pastimes, landscapes...whatever comes up is just fine.

5. Do some writing about the people from your past. For example, you might make a list of five people who influenced you powerfully, then write about one of them each day. At the end of the five day period, decide where to go next. Do you want to write additional material about one or more of those people? Write about five new folks? Move on to a different starting point?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

LIFE STORY WRITING 2: bigger is not necessarily better

In my last post, I spoke about the trust—in ourselves and others—that we need to write and preserve our life stories. Today, just a brief practical note on that same topic.

Self-doubt is especially likely when we make a life story writing project too big or too complex. When we bite off more than we can chew, so to speak, we can end up getting mired in the details, losing momentum over time, or feeling unable to meet our own expectations. That's why I link this suggestion to the issue of trust. When we don't trust our potential readers to "get" us or our story, we may feel we need to over-research, over-explain, or over-complicate. We may not even be conscious that we're feeling uncertain or distrustful. Assuming that our kids, grandkids or other readers need lots and lots of information just feels natural...and so does assuming that our life stories won't be meaningful unless they are long or detailed.

I don't mean to prevent you from going into detail or writing at length if those modes feel right for you. Some life story writers genuinely enjoy sinking their teeth into ambitious projects. My point is just that you don't have to produce long or detailed writing to offer a meaningful written legacy.

To prove this point, picture an older relative that has passed on—a grandmother, perhaps. Now imagine that you have just discovered a diary you never knew existed—a journal in which that relative noted down her thoughts. Would you be less grateful for, and fascinated by, that diary if its entries were brief? Would you find it any less valuable if its "author" did not write at length or provide lots of background information? I'm confident that the answers to both questions would be "no." It might inspire you to find out more or even do some research. It might even make you wish its owner had written more. But the diary would be a treasure whether it was short or long, expansive or succinct. And what you would remember about it over the years wouldn't be its length or detail or historical accuracy, but rather the glimpse it gave you of your relative's heart.

Have I convinced you? I hope so. Check out my next post for some "life story starters" that can help you record memory or family material effectively and easily.

Monday, January 31, 2011

LIFE STORY WRITING 1: begin with trust

I recently wrapped up a class called "Life Story Starters" for the LifeLong Learning Institute at the Indian River State College. (I'm giving a one-day variant on this same class, this time called Effortless Memoir, at the Vero Beach Museum of Art in late February; it's alphabetized under W for Workshops here). This series of posts is inspired by those classes, the peer students it's my privilege to serve within them, and the idea of leaving one's life stories as part of a personal legacy.

All of the lively and intelligent participants in the class wanted to write memory material. As always in such classes, many admitted to doubts about the value of their memories or the quality of their writing. I have complete empathy for anyone with these concerns. After many years as a professional writer, I still often doubt that what I am writing will be of interest to readers, even those in my own family. Especially in the middle of the process, the text I'm creating always feels like a formless mess with no redeeming value.

Yet I also know that when we let such doubts silence us, we withhold a genuine gift from the world. Every life story has value, whether one person reads it or one million. Every personal history witnesses the human condition, and the life of joy and struggle that all of us share in a myriad of different ways.

A funny thing happens in my life story classes after the participants share their self-doubt. The same folks who question their own pieces are rapt in listening to others. Always, without exception, the assignments we read aloud get nods of recognition. Always, the only pieces anyone doubts are their own.

Let’s remember that all of us doubt the value of our thoughts and the skill of our writing. Let’s laugh at our fears and write our reflections down anyway. Let's trust ourselves, and others, enough to share our life legacies generously.

There are enough times in our lives when we need to keep silent, even situations when we need not to speak our truth. This, happily, is not one of them.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

IN MEMORIAM: losing Henry

Last June, I welcomed an elderly fox terrier into my home to help out his owner, a lovely person who is struggling with serious illness. Henry quickly made himself at home in my house and my heart, as will not surprise those of you who met the goofy little guy. After two decades without a pet I had forgotten how lovely it can be to have a dog around. Henry was a lovely presence when I was at home, a lively companion on car trips to the post office and Humane Society Thrift Shop, and a sweet fellow to sleep with, despite his tendency to hog ninety percent of my bed and snore.

Henry was sixteen when I first met him; though he was extremely spry for his age I knew from the start that his "time" might not be far away. It came last Wednesday, when he went into heart failure and was put peacefully to sleep. My house and car seem painfully quiet without him, and the mere sight of his dog bed or water bowl can make me terribly sad. But even at my weepiest moments my strongest feeling is appreciation. My years of caregiving had tired me at the deepest level—left me wanting to be still and solitary and responsible for, and to, no one. Henry helped open my heart again. There wasn't a single day when the sight of him didn't make me smile, or when some odd little habit of his didn't make me laugh. He quite simply brought me joy, and that's one of the best compliments I can pay any thing or any being.

It's been said that the closest bonds are not always the longest; my time with Henry proved the truth of that adage. Maybe our time with dogs can't be counted in conventional human days, any more than their lifespans can. Maybe relationship of any kind must be judged by tenderness as well as length. No matter how you measure it, Henry and I had six great months. To misquote Hamlet: Farewell, sweet silly pup. May quires of angels sing thee to thy rest, and may heaven never run out of liverwurst.