Archive for the ‘memoir’ Category

I write books. I write a lot of books, and I write them at the same time. I do this because I’m a storyteller, and because I use writing as a way of escaping to another place, time, and life. And all that’s great–but it really doesn’t result in good books.

This is because while I am a storyteller, I tend to get lost in minutia. My readers might enjoy my storytelling, but they tend to have a hard time following the big story–the overarching narrative that ties all the little stories together, and makes them more together than they are apart.

A few days ago I posted a request for people to weigh in on which of my current writing projects they’d like me to focus on next. The answers were pretty much divided, but then fate took a hand. A book I’m typesetting about helping loved ones who are facing death included a passage on the importance of “both/and” thinking, rather than “either/or” thinking.

The writer explained that it was particularly important in circumstances where “ambiguous death” was involved–missing persons, Alzheimer’s patients, and as in my case, where my father’s terminal illness brought up a whole scorpions’ nest of emotions, memories, and history. His death was incredibly complex, and I found myself wishing for the false simplicity of an either/or answer to the questions he left behind.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve been weighing those days, and I’ve come to see that the question of whether we would be either/or people or both/and people really was the defining question we faced. How we answered that question is what determined how those terrible days played out.

Recognizing this has given me something I never have had before–a clear theme for a book, one that governs every aspect of how I will put this book together. I have the stories–lots of them–but I’ll be retelling them, editing, shaping, and pruning to explore that central, vital question the manner of Dad’s death posed for us–would we be either/or people, or both/and people?

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Illustration from Patrick Saves the Troll, available on Amazon

The year is 2002. The Boy is just four, and we are at Grandma’s house. It is early summer, evening. The Boy is preparing for bed in my old room. The windows are open and the cool blue evening breeze is blowing the curtains. The first stars stud the sky, even as the last of the day turns the horizon to pearl. Bathed and pajamaed, his hair still damp, The Boy climbs up onto the bed.

My mother tucks him in, and then she asks, “Would you like to talk to Jesus?”

And here is where things get a little sticky. Prayer does not figure large in our home, largely because I am a witch. I am raising my son using one rule–the Hippocratic Oath, a simplified version of the Wiccan Rede (If it harms none, let it be). When we feel the need for guidance we meditate, then pull out the runestones, the Tarot cards, or the scrying bowl. When we need help we invoke the appropriate image of deity and cast a spell.

So there is my son, being invited to converse with a stranger. My heart sinks. I flash back to my own childhood, when my mother was teaching me how to pray. There was a certain language (King James English), a certain set of topics in which Jesus was interested (missionaries and colporters, the Vast Harvest Field, starving people everywhere, any sins I had committed, Grandma and Grandpa’s salvation…you get the idea), and a certain posture (Kneeling Up, or standing on one’s knees, hands folded with fingers laced, head bowed, eyes closed).

“Sure,” says The Boy. He is nothing if not game. And it’s not like the concept of prayer is completely foreign to him. After all, we do come from a Christian family. He has seen the process many times. He’s seen the posture. He understands that people pray and ask God for the things they want or need. He’s just never done it.

With the confidence of someone who has no clue what he is doing, he scrambles to his knees on the bed, turns to face the window, folds his hands, closes his eyes, and says, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight, wish I may, wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight.” (We might not know about prayer, but he’s solid on his nursery rhymes.) And then, heaving a sigh of satisfaction at a job well done, he scrambles back around, lays down, and holds up his arms for his “good night” kiss.

Grandma and I oblige. We do not look at each other. We never talk about it. I know she is horrified and saddened that my son does not know how to pray. Though I have made no real secret of my new spiritual path, neither have I actually forced the information onto my family. I have allowed them to simply see me not as a practicing witch, but as a “Backslider,” the Adventist term for members who have, in the parlance, “wandered away from the fold,” “forsaken the narrow way which is rocky and hard” for the “broad, easy way that leads to damnation,” and are “drifting.” At the time I stopped being one, the Adventist view was that while members might “backslide,” they never adopted another active spiritual path, that somehow the very rightness of Adventism had forever spoiled them for other things.

I can’t tell my mother that while The Boy might not know how to seek answers and help on his knees, he’s very good at finding his answers in Tarot cards and runes. So we just walk out of that bedroom in silence. And we never, ever, talk about the fact that my son doesn’t understand about prayer.

We don’t talk about it, but I have thought about it. I’ve thought about it a lot. And  I’ve come to the conclusion that I was wrong. I think of myself, finding a quiet place in my heart (my mom kneeling), focusing my will through the use of ritual acts and words (folding her hands, closing her eyes), reaching out to Something or Someone Beyond(“Dear Jesus…” “Star light, star bright…”) grasping hold of the promise of present abundance (“we ask these things in Jesus’ name… I wish I may, I wish I might…”). I think of temples full of rats, of shrines to ancestors, of saints’ faces painted gold. I think of this beautiful, bountiful, troubled planet, all of us on it, heads bowed, holding our hands out to Something Beyond, seeking connection, and our words arise like incense, carrying our hopes, wishes and dreams, weaving a web of hope, of contrition, gratitude, and I wonder if somewhere, in a place so far beyond us and our small ideas of religion and gods as to be unimaginable, and as close to us as the children we hold to our hearts, our prayers don’t meet and become one.

So mote it be.

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Okay, now that I’ve got your attention…we are, but not in the way you might think. We’re announcing an imminent New Arrival, one of the reasons things have been so quiet around here. Sometime soon, probably within the next month or so, our latest book will be on Amazon, Kindle, and bookshelves near you, provided you live near Walla Walla, Washington.

This book has been a long time in the making–fourteen years, actually–and it’s about being a single mother became one woman’s journey to self discovery. It’s a deeply intimate look at the inside of one single parenting experience, and it raises questions about some of the things “everybody knows” about being a single mother.

I won’t say more right now, but stay tuned…

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of friendship lately. Mostly this is because I have a brilliant, funny, friend who has struggled with great pain for most of her life. And a few months ago she finally buckled under the combined  pressure of her personal demons and the ravages of the economy.

And now I face a question. Is this woman, who was my friend when we were laughing in the back row at church, listening in awe to the Messiah, sharing long conversations about everything under the sun, and sitting on blankets at the beach, still my friend, now that she can no longer speak–in fact, may no longer even recognize me?

The quick, trite, answer is, “Of course she is.” I would have said so, myself, until I faced the reality of her collapse, and the question of what it meant to our friendship. The things that characterized our friendship are no longer possible. And the traditional answer, that friends are there for each other, is so far from possible it’s ridiculous. My friend is probably  no longer aware of my existence. Obviously she can’t be there for me. It’s foolish even to ask. The more modern philosophy, that friendship is an exchange, and that it’s important to be sure your friends aren’t draining, you, aren’t sapping more energy than they provide, would dictate that our friendship end, at least until she pulls herself together, if she ever does. So what’s left?

What’s left is a whole boatload of memories of shared conversations, shared laughter, shared caring. What’s left is the knowledge that this woman stood by me when I was facing the demons in my own past, because they were demons she recognized from her own. But that’s the past. And since my friend isn’t able to do so, I must find the path our friendship will take now. I have to decide, are we still friends? And what does that mean?

The first answer is the easiest. Yes, we are still friends. The next question is harder. What does it mean to maintain a friendship under such circumstances?

I’ve realized that it means setting aside any idea of reciprocity. It also means setting aside the idea of shared present–or even a shared past; my friend no longer can respond. Who knows what she remembers?

I’ve decided those things don’t matter. My friend is my friend. She is my friend not because she knows me, remembers me, enjoys my company, but because I know her, remember her, and have faith that inside the shell behind which she has retreated, the woman who has inspired and comforted me is still there, and whether or not she can communicate, she needs my friendship more than ever.

Now, while she is lost to herself, perhaps what she needs is for me to remember who she was–and who she still is. And she needs me to give her back to herself.

I’ve decided to write to her, not just once, but over and over again. I had thought about a card, or about letters, but I’m afraid neither thing would register. I’m making her a book–I’ve found pictures of the places we knew each other, taken pictures of friends we share, and in between it all I’ve been writing to her not like a letter, but like one of our conversations. I’ve just sent it off to CreateSpace for binding, and then I’ll send her a copy. It’s not perfect. It’s not polished. But it’s something that she can pick up and look at if she likes, things that hold parts of herself that she enjoyed. And it’s something that those who care for her can see. Maybe it will help them understand who she is, inside all the pain and brokenness.

In a little while, I’ll start another book. My plan is to keep writing them, keep sending them, keep talking to my good friend, whether or not she can talk back. Because in her silence she has taught me one of the most important lessons of all–that good, true friends can remain friends through the most radical of changes. And that being a friend means more than coffee shop conversations and trips to the beach. My friend is my friend, and if she needs me to remember her for herself, or even if she never does remember, if every day she needs me to be a new friend because she cannot remember me, that’s what I’ll be. Because we are good friends.


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