Monday, June 5, 2017

Resiliency: accepting what is: what cannot be changed

I believe with all my heart in the power of affirmations.

I use them every morning to start my day with something uplifting. They raise my vibration and give me focus and vision.

Positive affirmations can change the way you feel and the way you respond. They create new neural pathways in the brain. And they are powerful senders of energy that is reflected back by the response of the Universe. When we say “yes”, the Universe says “Yes.”

There are plenty of articles and books about the power of positive affirmation. You can watch Abraham and Ester Hicks discuss it on youtube. Unity became a movement due to the power of Myrtle Fillmore healing herself through prayer and meditation. Writers from Wayne Dwyer to Eckert Tolle discuss the unlimited power of thought.

I believe gratitude is one of the most powerful affirmations of all.

However, I also need to practice acceptance: the things that cannot be changed.

While I was in Puerto Vallarta, I created a bilingual poetry event during Día de los Muertos. I appreciate how the Mexicans honor their ancestors during this celebration. They build ofrendas in their homes filled with the favorite foods for when the dead come by. They clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones in the cemeteries and spend time together at the gravesite, telling family stories. They also have ways to poke fun at death to remove the sting. Everywhere you see calacas and calaveras, miniature sugar skulls and skeleton figurines from every walk of life: the mariachi band to the soap opera star, the barber to the teacher, the bus driver to the bride. They remind us that death comes for all of us, none of us are getting out alive.  The Mexicans call death La Muerte, and La Catrina and La Sebastiana.  I found a poem by E. R. Mares which listed Spanish names with meanings such as The Stinky One, The Bony One, the Hag, the Bitch, etc. The poem is essentially about near-misses, how the poet had close calls but survived. My co-performer and I were calling these names in Spanish to each other across the stage, almost as if taunting Death or enticing Her near. 

Suddenly I had a revelation that Death is part of the natural cycle of life, death and rebirth.

I had placed a candle on each table and at a certain point, asked audience members to light their candles and hold them aloft in honor of someone they had lost. As I looked out over the sea of flames, I realized that we have all lost someone…or will lose someone…or we will die. I was not alone in my grief. 

My son was not coming back. This was the beginning of acceptance. This was a turning point.

There are things in life that will never change, no matter how many affirmations we say. The only thing that can change is our attitude. I will never have the same flexibility I had before hip replacements. . I will never be a professional dancer, for example (but I still can dance.)  Some of us have lost people or relationships or ways of living. Some of us have lost homes, cities, or freedom. Some of us have lost dreams that won’t come true.

Acceptance is letting go and moving on. I will never stop loving Sam but I had to accept his death. This is part of my healing.

What things do you need to accept? 

Monday, May 1, 2017

Cultivating Resiliency part 2

How can we cultivate resiliency? What is resiliency and is it a muscle we can strengthen? How does being resilient change our lives and the ways we cope with crisis?

Resilience is defined by the ability to bounce back after trauma, to cope with or to heal after a crisis. Resilience is not only coping or bouncing back or healing but change, growth, and transformation. 

The love of my life, Michael, was wild—gregarious, funny, warm-hearted, affectionate, honest—and he lived his life in a creative fury. But when his mood changed to unrelenting depression, he was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. The next eight years were a roller-coaster of manic highs where he stayed up all night, disappeared out of state, and spent recklessly, and lows that sucked the air out of the room, when he spent all day in bed, unable to change clothes. I lived in constant fear after he told me he wanted to die. During this time I joined two writing groups, one a women’s poetry group and the other Write Action, a writing support group led by poet Joan Logghe. These would cushion my grief when he took his life.
     Michael’s death released me from the weight of care-giving and my own depression. A burst of creative inspiration uplifted me. My poetry group held our first public reading during Day of the Dead to honor those we had lost. I wanted to share a poem about Michael but felt too emotional to read it off the page. I needed the audience to support me, so I memorized it. The connection was gratifying as I shared my grief honestly in public. I opened hearts, and mine was comforted.
         I decided to memorize all of my poems. I self-produced a poetry CD, had a launch party, traveled to promote it, and honed my performance style, creating a career as a performance poet.
But tragedy struck, one I was not anticipating. When my younger son died, also by suicide, my life shattered. I was filled with anger--at myself, at him, at God, and a burden of guilt—that I hadn’t seen it coming, that I hadn’t tried to stop it. My voice was strangled. I was unable to pray or write. The spiritual practices that had guided me through mourning Michael were now silenced. At the memorial services, one in Minneapolis where he lived, and one in Santa Fe where friends gathered, I fell into dark despair.
As Thanksgiving approached, I wanted quiet—I didn’t think I could put on a façade for friends. However, I didn’t want to be alone and I decided to go to Christ in the Desert Monastery. The monastery is thirteen miles up a dirt road by the Chama River. I didn’t have a car, I don’t drive, and I didn’t have money for a retreat, but I contacted the guest master and asked for prayer. He replied that the monks would pray for me.
            Then, a small miracle happened. A friend had gone back to Mexico but slipped over the border and drove me out to the monastery. (Little did I know that here Thanksgiving was celebrated with a turkey feast with wine and the vows of silence lifted for the evening meal!)
            The next day the Abbot read the preface from the book The Thorn Birds: “There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life …it impales itself upon the longest, sharpest spine. And, dying, it rises above its own agony to out-carol the lark and the nightingale…For the best is only bought at the cost of great pain. …Or so says the legend.”
                As a poet without words, this seemed hand-picked for me.
                 I walked to the river where we scattered Sam’s ashes. I had chosen this spot because we camped here when I was pregnant with him and when he was a teen.  I hiked back through autumn leaves to the beach. At Earthwalks for Health retreats, we learned from the indigenous people how to listen to the river, the rocks, and the drum. I thought, The river wants to give me a gift, and walked to the water’s edge. Was it a special rock, a feather? Then I heard a voice saying, “You have all the pieces of the puzzle. Take all the pieces of your life and put them together. You must sing again.”
This visit to the monastery was a turning point. I came home to write on my own for the first time, recording my experiences of the week-end.

We live in a culture that demands we be strong and self-sufficient. Asking for help is a seen as a sign of weakness; asking for charity makes us dependent on others. But what I learned is that to ask for help is being resilient. After I learned of Sam’s death, I asked friends to make phone calls so I wouldn’t have to. I remembered from Michael’s transition how draining that had been. My friends threw fund-raisers. I asked for rides to the grief counselor, to pick up groceries, to the writing group. I asked the monks to pray for me. I had support from professional counseling, a grief support group, and a women’s group. People helped move possessions to second hand stores or storage. A friend took me camping. Another friend cooked meals. Alejandro escorted me on the plane from Minneapolis back to Santa Fe, I felt incapable of doing it alone. People gave me places to land, kept me connected.

Question to ask yourself: Where can you go for help? Is it professional: a therapist, counselor, or coach? Physical therapist, yoga class,  hot tub? Is it a support group or workshop or spiritual community? Is it family and friends: a listening ear or just company; an invitation to dinner; transportation: errands, to the doctor, to support group; a walk in nature together; help with de-cluttering or getting rid of things; or prayers, healing energy, and positive affirmation?  

     Sam's altar at the Santa Fe memorial gathering.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Cultivating Resiliency part 1

How can we cultivate resiliency? What is resiliency and is there a way to strengthen it? How does being resilient change our lives and the ways we cope?

Resilience is defined by the ability to bounce back after trauma, to cope with or to heal after a crisis. We think of bouncing back after health challenges such as cancer, heart surgery, joint replacements, serious infection, root cannals, as recuperating, but actually we never recuperate to be exactly as we were. We may have scars, we may have new body parts, we may have a new diet or restrictions on activities or we may be advised to increase physical activity. With an on-going illness such as diabetes, MS, CP, Lupus, Parkinson’s, we may think of resilience more in terms of attitude and determination. We practice gratitude for what we have, we choose to be disciplined about therapy and we ask for help and guidance in order to enhance our lives. We continue those activities we love as best we can. Resilience after pregnancy doesn’t mean we bounce back to the person we were, even if we get our figure back. Our hearts, emotions, minds, time, stamina, are all stretched, sometimes to the limit. We give up sleep, autonomy, our own comfort; even our friendships may change. But we live more fully, deeply, richly. So resilience is not only coping or bouncing back or healing but change, growth, and transformation.

Resilience after an emotional crisis is a sign of healthy moving forward. Whether it is a loss of a loved one or our relationship with someone, a way of life or a job, a home or homeland, a dream or our abilities, we mourn and let go. Sometimes this happens in cycles, a wave of rising and falling, as we are reminded of what has been altered, perhaps by an anniversary, a special place, children and grandchildren, a certain fragrance or song. When we are resilient, we are able to feel whatever it is we are feeling, then we move on to another feeling which may be relief, gratitude, love, or acceptance. We may find ways to express our feelings through art, journaling, a support group or a friend's listening ear; we may choose to weep, scream, pound our fists; or we may draw, pray, dance, walk by a lake. But we don’t stay stuck in the past. We remember we have other relationships, ideas, projects, homes, dreams and a life to fill. We may be more compassionate; we have gained insight, wisdom and new perspectives.  
Michael was the love of my life. He made me laugh and he listened to me, he took me seriously. He was the first person I ever told, “I am an artist.” He healed past physical and psychological abuse with his affection. He was fun to travel with, always ready to explore, gregarious and enthusiastic. He also had wide mood swings. Some days he couldn’t get out of bed, some days he couldn’t sleep. He would call me from another state or even disappear across the border and not call at all. He would bring home people he had met at the bar at 3 am. He was also suicidal, telling me that he didn’t want to live daily, that life was too abrasive. With a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, we began to understand his suffering was not going to be cured by will alone.

We lived in Santa Fe, a Mecca for alternative healing, and I began to search for alternatives to prescription drugs. Earthwalks for Health was part of my search. Earthwalks connected us to indigenous artists and local sages for a week-end of learning about their healing practices. This is how I met Joan Logghe, beloved Santa Fe poet.
 Joan was the founder of Write Action, a writing support group. I was writing poetry with another group at the time and encouraged Michael to attend Joan’s group. He found it satisfying to pour out his brutally honest thoughts on paper and not be judged. One week, he couldn’t attend because he was going out of town so I suggested that I could go and “keep his seat warm.” I loved it and we continued attending together weekly. We felt supported and accepted. It was energizing to hear common themes go around the circle and to be reassured that coping with Michael’s moods was not isolating us.
Joan had worked with Natalie Goldberg and used the same basic writing instruction that so many writing instructors and writing groups would come to rely on: spontaneous timed writing. However, Joan used poems as prompts. 

Eventually Michael became more and more mentally unstable and one night he gathered up the courage to kill himself. I wept until my eyes were swollen shut but I was released from care-giving and uplifted by a burst of creative energy. To be able to pour out my grieving heart onto the page in the writing groups was cathartic. To feel that others cared was life-saving. From that point on, writing became not only a way of self-expression but a life raft that saved me from drowning. When emotions feel overwhelming, writing helps me to stay focused. Writing helps me to analyze and understand what I am feeling and to make a shift from emotion to clarity.

There is no sharp dividing line between self-repair and self-realization. All creative activity is a kind of do-it-yourself therapy, an attempt to come to terms with traumatizing challenges –Arthur Koestler

What I learned about resiliency is that it is important to name and claim your emotions. When we feel something, the amygdala part of the brain lights up. This is called our flight or fight center. Studies confirm changes take place in the brain when we feel or name our feelings“When you put feelings into words,” wrote UCLA psychologist Matthew Lieberman in an article in UCLA Today ”you’re activating this prefrontal region and seeing a reduced response in the amygdala. In the same way you hit the brake when you’re driving when you see a yellow light, when you put feelings into words, you seem to be hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.”

In one MRI study, appropriately titled "Putting Feelings into Words" participants viewed pictures of people with emotional facial expressions. Predictably, each participant's amygdala activated to the emotions in the picture. But when they were asked to name the emotion, the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex activated and reduced the emotional amygdala reactivity. In other words, consciously recognizing the emotions reduced their impact.

Suppressing emotions doesn't work and can backfire on you. Gross found that people who tried to suppress a negative emotional experience failed to do so. While they thought they looked fine outwardly, inwardly their limbic system was just as aroused as without suppression, and in some cases, even more aroused.

To reduce arousal, you need to use just a few words to describe an emotion, and ideally use symbolic language, which means using indirect metaphors, metrics, and simplifications of your experience. This requires you to activate your prefrontal cortex, which reduces the arousal in the limbic system. Here's the bottom line: describe an emotion in just a word or two, and it helps reduce the emotion.

Therefore, the emotions move from the amagdala to the prefrontal cortex, which decides how to respond. Here is where writing about our experiences not only sends helpful chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin to the brain, but the emotions move from flight or fight to determine how best to respond.
  • How do you feel when you wake up? At the end of the day? After work? After your evening activities? Is there a way to express what you are feeling?
  • Are you sad/frustrated/angry/lonely/upset/frightened?
  • Are you relaxed/filled/content/happy/satisfied/joyful/curious?
  • Keep a feeling journal and note the ups and down through-out a day.
  • Chose an emotion and write to it, telling it you let it go. Use Joy Harjo’s poem I Give You Back as a prompt:

I Give You Back 
I release you, my beautiful and terrible
fear. I release you. You were my beloved
and hated twin, but now, I don't know you
as myself. I release you with all the
pain I would know at the death of
my children.

You are not my blood anymore.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

What will fill your soul in 2017?

Every new year is an opportunity to pause and reflect on what we have accomplished the year before and what we look forward to in the new year. We make resolutions, that it we make a list of ways to improve ourselves, coming from the root re-solve, to solve a problem. But often we find ourselves unable to keep our resolutions as early as the end of January. We haven’t signed up for the fitness center, we haven’t written three new poems, we haven’t cleared out the closet, we haven’t changed our eating habits, or we did for a while then slid back to what is familiar.

What if instead of resolutions we set intentions? An intention is a course of action we are going to take but it begins with the idea that we are creating or planting the seeds of what we wish to see grow. Deepak Chopra says, An intention is a directed impulse of consciousness that contains the seed form of that which you aim to create. and here is a link to his method for setting intentions.  

In other words, rather than seeing ourselves as a problem to be solved, what if we saw potential? Instead of lack: I need to lose weight, be more healthy, make more money, have better relationships, find true love, write a best seller, buy a new car….we saw ourselves planting seeds for a future that we love: I am perfect weight to wear clothes I love, I am healthy and strong, I have plenty to spare and to share, I love fully and am loved in return, I am writing something that is compelling, I am driving the right car.

Think back over the past year at your accomplishments that are not necessarily signs of success but are signs of growth. Did you get to your yoga class? (I did, at least once a week, although not the three times a week I “resolved” to go.) Did you call a dear friend you haven’t spoken to in a while? Did you join a book club? Did you speak up about your feelings instead of hiding them? Did you try a new recipe? Did you attend an event in a neighborhood where you don’t normally spend time? Did you support an artist of color by attending his/her reading/exhibition/show? Did you volunteer? Did you speak kindly to a strange? Did you fill yourself with beauty?

Now think ahead to the life you want to create. What would fill your soul in 2017? More prayer and patience? More determination and speaking truth? More fun? More gratitude? More support of those community organizations you think are making a difference? More kindness and more gathering with those you love? More words on the page with dynamic impact? More celebration? More beauty?

This new year in 2017 is a year for deepening our courage and our determination. The world around us is shifting, there is an awakening happening, some of it very painful. It may feel we are sliding backwards, it may feel like a shadow has chilled us to the bone. But at the same time, we are awakening to our fullest potential.  We must take nothing for granted, including that others think the way we do. We must remember that we are here to learn and grow. We must not let the fact that we have slipped from our resolutions prevent us from carrying on with developing our intentions. We are beacons of light in the midst of a terrible storm. When it clears, the horizon ahead will be glorious. Be kind to yourself. Be the change you want to see in the world, one small step at a time, one leap into the life you want to manifest. What if you are not a problem to be solved but a solution to the challenges you see?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Christmas Reflection 2016

As I reflect back on 2016, I see beautiful uplifting experiences and then the shock of awakening to the
underbelly of American politics and the festering illness of racism, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia. It’s hard to talk about these topics in a Christmas newsletter but they won’t let me go. I truly believe we are in a time of transformation from the old paradigm to the new, entering the 5th Dimension and the Age of Aquarius and the time of the Feminine, leading with the heart. And yet, we are also in need of profound healing. You don’t realize how much until you hear that a colleague who is articulate, successful, who turns every reading into a community gathering, has been followed often by the police due to the color of his skin. Until you see the photo of someone in the next neighborhood over cleaning the swastika from her garage. Until you see the rows of brown paper bags getting packed with Saturday’s lunch for KidPack and find out that ¾ of the children at the neighboring school are receiving food support because their families are struggling economically. Until you hear the statistics of suicides by GBLT kids and murders of transgender folks.

What can we do?

Be our best, ask questions, follow what calls to us, pray, meditate, gather in community, stand up for what we believe in, donate food, serve meals, have conversations, make art, appreciate the good, pay attention.….work on ourselves. Our own assumptions and ignorance. Our own intolerance and judgment.

You may feel called to protest, write letters to congress, and boycott certain businesses. You may feel called to a rejection of consumerism, purchasing only what you need, recycling, giving away, living more simply. You may feel called to deeper stillness, embodying peace, listening to the inner voice, speaking from the heart. You may feel called to write poems or songs or plant a garden. But whatever you do, do it with love, do it from a place of peace, so that the world we build from the shards of the old is based on peace and love. Read The Most Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible by Charles Eisenstein.

Read poetry: the famous and the local. Attend readings. Buy books. Support literary organizations.

These are some of the things I did last year and will continue to do:

Taught a memoir class at the men’s correctional facility, followed by a  reading of their stories to about 100 audience members and “Writing About Your Ancestors” at the women’s facility, with laughter and tears as we shared stories about grandmothers and mothers. Mn Prison Writing Workshop raised $29,000 in order to continue to fund our programs and to meet the matching funds requirement of our current state grant. Our annual reading was attended by over 250 community members. It is such joy for me to hear the improvements in my students’ writing and to know that some are now publishing. My colleagues are my heroes and my literary community. They are dedicated above and beyond, they are smart and wise, they are open-hearted and compassionate. And they are receiving their own grants, accolades and awards.

Presented a panel on teaching incarcerated writers at Split This Rock Poetry Festival in Washington, DC. It was a renaissance of hope, three days of dynamic, powerful, moving, thought-provoking poetry, panels and workshops. Poetry as activism, as resistance, as subversion. Novice poets mingled with experienced poets, spoken word poets with published poets, all ages, genders, and ethnicities.

Encouraged the children at Unity Minneapolis to meditate, to be in silence and stillness, to know the Divine is within us all. Every Sunday I am in the classroom with a story, art project, game, and/or  discussion.  I am tested by challenging behaviors, tardy families, not enough volunteers, and my own expectations. And every Sunday there is fun, there is a child saying something profoundly wise, there is silence, there is grace, there is wonder.

The Writing Life: 
Going into my fourth year of leading Writing for Healing group at Pathways.
 I am back teaching creative writing at Face to Face Charter High School in St. Paul. 
I was invited to be the key note speaker for Jacob’s Well Women’s Retreat on the topic of resiliency and how to access one’s inner guidance with writing, to be repeated at Unity Minneapolis on Jan 22.
I will teach Writing Through Crisis at The Loft Literary Center in March.
I am looking towards teaching on-line classes in the spring.
The novels and poetry manuscripts, stories and essays and poems are getting sent out but the plethora of writers submitting makes it harder than ever to be published. Nevertheless, I won the National Women Book Association’s contest for Pilgrimage and my essay called Words to Light Our Way will be live on line in Talking Writing the week of Dec 18:

I can’t promise that we don’t have a rocky road ahead. It takes much more determination to stay positive, to use the tools I have learned to use so well: patience, affirmation, trust, gratitude, surrender, staying open, being flexible, blessing those I meet. But I do promise that this is the beginning of something that will change us as human beings, a painful awakening that is inevitable and necessary. Hold to the Light!

You are the Light!  Namasté!

Thursday, October 20, 2016


In 1989, I attended synagogue on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, in Israel. I was invited by an American family to babysit, to take their child home when she became too restless to stay. They belonged to one of the only conservative synagogues in Israel. The toilet paper was torn ahead of time and the lamps were on a timer. As we walked to the synagogue, the profound silence was cathartic to me. The cessation of traffic was highlighted by the serious and yet joyful mood.  The women dressed in white fluttered in the women’s balcony like doves, the children were free to wander among the men praying downstairs, the sounds of plaintive Kol Nidrei wafted up like smoke from a celestial fire drenching us in holiness. Although I couldn’t understand all of the Hebrew, I could follow along in the prayer book as we enumerated our sins and asked to be covered by God’s merciful forgiveness.

The High Holy Days are a time of repentance in the sense of self-reflection, to consider harm you may have done to others and ask their forgiveness before God opens to your page in the book of life  at the end of Yom Kippur. I loved the fact that we asked for forgiveness as a congregation, that we were part of a ritual cleansing as well as personal evaluation. The community supported us as we declared those sins, those choices and decisions where we missed the mark, aloud. This year I read Michael Lerner’s additions to the traditional prayers  in Tikkun Magazine and was astounded by their clarity, admitting to sins of social injustice as well as the more personal sins of slander and lying, not looking out for others, neglecting our obligation to act as responsible members of a community.
Last year I taught a writing workshop at Stillwater prison for the purpose of holding a reading during Victim Awareness week. We entered this exploration together. They wanted to hold a reading to express their remorse and I would do whatever I could to help them make that possible, to write stories and poems that were well crafted, thoughtful, and honest.
I told them, “You can’t just write a letter of apology and expect to be forgiven. Your victim may never be able to forgive—but if I were a victim, I would want to know how you have changed. How you are different now and would never commit that crime again. I want to know about the work you have done on yourself.” The word I used is metanoia, literally with-mind, to find mindfulness which is translated in the RSV New Testament as repentance. To me, the concept of metanoia goes beyond repentance, it means that you have changed. That you would never commit that crime again because you are not the same person that you were.

As a victim, it can be a long hard road to healing. It can take years. It can take forever. I was lucky to have a therapist who was able to guide me through the trauma and tell a new story of survival and strength. After years of silence about my rape, I was finally able to speak about it, write about it, read my writings aloud at an exhibition through the MN State Arts Board called The Art of Recovery. I also have written about it in both memoirs Flowers in the Wind and To Catch a Dream, hopefully to find publishers someday. And yet, my impulse was to forgive the man who perpetrated the rape immediately after it happened because during the four hours he held me captive, I listened to his story. I knew he was a victim as well and that the violation he was pouring out onto my body were the results of his own abuse, humiliation and anger. It is not an excuse. I don’t believe forgiveness needs to include forgetting. However, I remember with compassion for both of us.

A few years ago I attended a Radical Forgiveness workshop led by Rev. Sher McNeal. We formed a circle and she read questions such as “Have you ever been hurt, ever been unkind to someone?”  “Have you ever been bullied,  have you ever bullied someone?” The acts of unkindness, abuse, violence mentioned became more and more specific. We were instructed that if we were either victim or perpetrator, to step into the middle of the circle. Then she asked us to look each other in the eyes and say, “I am sorry that happened to you”. No one knew who was victim or perpetrator. Rather we witnessed that with each question, some of us stood in the middle of that circle together.  Sorrow and forgiveness included all of us. Remorse included all of us. Forgiveness included all of us. Kinda like Yom Kippur. A covering over us of Divine Mercy.

After my Restorative Justice class, I felt that I would like to lead a class of victims and perpetrators, although not  from the same crime as I am not a therapist but a devoted writer who has used writing for healing through my own intuition. However, it was interesting to me to realize I would not want to face my own perpetrator in a workshop, no matter how genuine his intentions were to make restitution. I know he went to prison and I have no desire to be in any form of contact.

The work I needed to do was on myself:  the crime was a wake up call because at the time I was far away from living my own integrity, spiritual life and values and that I needed to remember self respect. I had to heal the belief and guilt that if I had been  attentive, I would not have been a target. He had told the court, “I picked her because she was the kind of girl who would never have a man like me.” At the time, I was recovering from rejection and was hanging out with  gay men because I felt safe and comfortable; they pampered me.

If my perpetrator had entered the Radical Forgiveness circle with me, would I have been able to look him in the eyes and say I am sorry that happened to you? Would we be able to weep together over his life wasted in prison and my years of PDST and distancing myself from relationships? Would we be covered by the mercy of God? I like to think it could be so. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Writing a Complicated Memoir

My memoir is a story of communal living and personal transformation. I joined the commune to live with my best friends, I was a single mom and wanted help to raise my child, and I was very idealistic. We took in the homeless and visited incarcerated adults and juveniles; we lived all over the Southwest and Northwest and in Mexico, Spain and Israel. Over time one person dominated the group with his interpretation of how we should live. The break up was a bitter mix of betrayal and disappointment and grief, but my journey continued to self-awareness, healing and empowerment.

After the group broke up, I dreamed of sorting, packing and running away for years, and sometimes still do. This describes what it has been like to write and edit my memoirs. For the ten years I lived in the commune, I did almost no writing at all, held to a standard of perfection impossible to achieve and a lack of privacy that prevented true self-expression. When I returned to the states, one of the first things I did was to enroll in a continuing ed writing class. Memories poured out of me onto paper, insistent and unstoppable. I wanted to capture everything while it was fresh in my mind. I made phone calls to friends to confirm details, I returned to Mexico and re-visited places I lived, I wrote furiously every chance I could but it still took me years to finish. In the meantime, I had to earn a living and raise my kids. I found true love and lost both the lover and a son to suicide and had to survive yet another painful turn on the wheel of life.

The memoir, started twenty-five years ago, grew into 650 pages. Five years ago I revised it down to 350 pages but it wasn’t until this past year that I was able to work with an editor and revise it to a publishable manuscript.

While writing down everything I could remember, realizations about myself, the person I was at the time, startled me. In high school, I was a rebel hippie; in love I was a free spirit; in heart and soul I was a poet. In the group, under the “guidance” of our leader, I was scolded and my personality flaws raked over the coals. At one point, I defiantly removed myself and my children from the group; longing to belong brought us back. But as I remembered the past, I saw how naïve and inexperienced I was, emotionally high-strung and desperate for approval. In this mirror of myself as a character, I was revealed in a not very flattering light: my introverted yet overly-dramatic personality, my need for acknowledgement and acceptance, my awareness of how attractive I was to the opposite sex, my opinionated ideas and resistance to advice, overlaid with undiagnosed PDST from a previous trauma. These personality traits made me seem out-of-touch, arrogant, vain, insecure, stand-offish, and “too sweet, not enough salt” as I was chided. Seen from this angle, I could understand how someone might be impatient with me and want to toughen me up. I could understand someone wanting to mentor me so I could be of service to others: to become strong, compassionate, visionary. 

I also had to be vigilant about blaming others or dramatizing the role of being the victim. In this way, my skills with writing fiction were helpful. Through the lens of trying to objectively describe interactions between myself and others, I didn’t pity the person I had been. And from there, I couldn’t excuse the way I surrendered my power to another. A lifetime of experiences would eventually teach me how to survive loss and disillusionment and bereavement, how to connect with understanding and openness, and how to be of service with deep empathy. But these were not mine when I first joined the commune and I cringed to see my faults laid bare under the scrutiny of my pen.

After I started the memoir, I shared the beginning chapters with members of a women’s writing class. They were curious and encouraging but when I started to publish poetry, my focus shifted. I might mention that I had written a memoir but I only showed it to a couple of friends. Lately I feel an urgency to get it out to the world. Perhaps it is because a dozen of the former commune members have died and I am painfully aware that time is running out.

I pitched my memoir to a well-established agent at the 2014 writer’s conference in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. He scanned a few pages and said he was interested. He advised me to hire a professional editor to go through it before submitting a proposal to him. Filled with new ideas from a workshop on how to write a dynamic first page, I revised the beginning until I ended up strangling myself. Even with the help of an editor, the agent rejected the proposal I sent. When it came back, I realized that I had been trying to fit into someone else’s notion of “a hook” instead of trusting my own voice.  But I persisted in rewriting the introductory pages over and over. And over.

One of the weaknesses of my memoir was that I was more comfortable as a fiction writer. I wrote it like a novel, without reflection from my present, wiser self giving insights on my past self, hoping the reader would connect to me as a character and want to know what happened next. Now I can see that reflecting deeply on the meaning of my experiences was so painful and fraught with emotional landmines that I was unable to tackle it head-on. Writing about those times when I was abused, not only by the leader of our group but others who were still my friends, and those times when I allowed choices to be made for me and my children that were unhealthy or dangerous, brought up unresolved anger and guilt. How hard it was to write from the perspective of hard-earned wisdom and even harder, to justify why I had stayed! I felt, for the first time, ashamed of my endurance, my duplicity, my willingness to go along with the abuse. I felt ashamed that I had been so stupid and naïve. My doubts began to crescendo as my editor asked questions about things that seemed obvious to me. I grappled with explaining the spiritual basis of our lifestyle, founded on interpreting the New Testament literally. I didn’t want to explain every scriptural reference because I thought it would bog down the story. It was a challenge to explain that as remnants of the ’60s with Flower-Power attitudes about parenting and property, we didn’t believe in nuclear families or owning possessions. For example, my editor would always bring up my children: where were they, was I worried about them? She would suggest that I add sentences such as, “As soon as I came home, I went to check on my son,” but that sentiment was simply not true. We raised our children kibbutz-style; I trusted others to take care of my boys and even left them to go across state lines. We were living a new paradigm as brothers and sisters in spirit, sharing everything in common and working for “God not Mammon.” Why didn’t she get that? Her red marks all over the page made me feel discouraged. I had to slow down and explain more than I wanted to explain. I wanted to take the readers on a ride with me, an exhilarating roller coaster of highs when we were doing God’s work and receiving what we needed and lows when we were begging on the streets, highs when we got invited to the inner circle and lows of being chastised, highs of feeding the hungry and lows of living with sexual predators. I had to remember that she was reading as an outsider and as a representative of my possible readership. There were moments when I almost gave up, thinking I could never untangle the complicated mess enough to keep a reader turning the pages. Revising was exhausting but I started to see how the manuscript was taking shape. My story made more sense and had more clarity.

My memoir is a multi-faceted, complicated story. If I think about everyone on that journey with me, there are more than one hundred points of view, not including some who left and never came back. Others had similar but vastly different experiences, including my children. I wondered if I should refer to some of these. As my editor pointed out, episodes piled up one after the other and she thought the reader might get tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop. The reader wanted the crescendo towards revelation and group break up, followed by my awakening or rebirth, she advised me. But I felt it was important to keep the integrity of the story as it unfolded, the reality that I lived this lifestyle for ten years and that group-think, disempowerment and blind obedience occurred gradually. It was later, after the editing process was finished, that I was able to go back and cut out parts that felt unnecessary or dragged the momentum. (I am glad that I have kept a hard copy of the original manuscript for myself, though.)

Because the leader was alive until recently, I chose to rename everyone, including myself. It wasn’t so much fear of lawsuits as fear of being harassed by him. I imagined him showing up at a public reading or contacting me through social media. Any possibility of attention from him made me anxious. I knew I just couldn’t handle it; rage and resentment surfaced during the writing and editing as well as a more compassionate understanding of my own journey.

I knew that the people I was writing about would be upset. I knew friends would be taken aback by some of my perceptions. I deliberately left out the more scandalous sexual behavior because I didn’t want that to be the flavor of the memoir or the reason people read it. At the same time there is more about my relationship with the leader than people who know me now might be aware of. I have to be willing to be vulnerable and take a risk that they won’t judge me. I wanted to show how miracles were possible when we lived by faith and served the outcasts and the disenfranchised of society, how easy it was. But as I meditated carefully on the past, my perspective shifted.

Perhaps the hardest thing to do in revising my memoir was to keep a consistency of vision and purpose. I wrote my story chronologically as that is how the memories were stored but in revising, I also recognized that my writing skills have improved since I started twenty-five years ago. I originally wanted the story to be told in the innocent young woman’s voice, then have that voice mature over time. My story is about giving up self-volition and reclaiming self-empowerment, naiveté and sagacity, losing a sense of individual identity and re-identifying myself, a transformative healing story. But while trying to summarize it for a proposal, I realized that what my story is really about was never feeling that I was good enough and the ways in which that belief allowed me to be victimized. This belief did not begin when I joined the group. My sense of self-worth had already destabilized during encounters with others who disregarded me or rejected me because I was different. This is something many of us deal with in our contemporary culture, especially women and especially artists. Because I believe in the power of story to teach and to reach out to others, it overrides the fear that others who lived with me might feel discomfort at reading my version of what they also lived through. I changed my name back to my real name in order to connect it to my previous work but kept the pseudonyms I gave everyone else. It provides some disguise for those who don’t want to be associated with this story. I also have my son to consider: he doesn’t want the story of his upbringing to be blatantly in the public eye if at all possible. In my preface I apologized to all that I was limited to the events and experiences of my own life told through the subjective lens of my own interpretation. I wrote that I regret that there isn’t a way to archive our shared experiences.

Now that the manuscript is edited and revised, it is possible to self-publish if I don’t find a home with a publisher, so I foresee it being in print some day. I want the take-away to be the story of survival and healing and being silenced no longer because, after all, that is the reason I felt inspired to share it. I rescued my own voice, both in telling the story and in living my life. I access my inner guidance daily. I claim my authentic way of being in the world and I am still learning how to live up to the person I want to become. I am powerful and I am still evolving.

I wrote the memoir to heal myself. Some of this healing happened naturally as I wrote down my memories and continues as I share this story through open mics or excerpts posted on my fb page. I revised it in order to offer it as a healing story to others, to remind ourselves that we are all more than enough.