Write It: Your Story is Everything

There is something about cold autumn days and gray skies that can transport me to my ‘life at home’ years ago in the 1970s. Not in a sad sappy way, but a gentle remembrance of running home from school through the woods behind our house, the trees naked with mystery, geese in formation honking their way south, and that crisp cold air that filled the lungs with energy and opened the nose to a plethora of aromas like wood smoke and damp decaying leaves, the leather of boots, the smell of books, and even the oily-metal smell of the inside my flute case.

In just a flash, I can see my father, mustached and still so young getting out of the station wagon with a hint of burnt tobacco still swirling around him. I can hear someone playing the piano, the house bustling with the sound of teenagers talking about basketball practice or musical play try-outs, with the warmth of home-cooking simmering on the stove, dishes clinking as the table is set, and a chocolate cake waiting on the counter; life was full and alive with busyness and sensory delights.

It is in stark contrast to what I come home to now, my nest empty, no dinner cooking or music coming from rooms upstairs, no voices full of possibilities…and so far from the landscapes of my own youth. Interesting, that’s all, just interesting how life evolves into worlds that we land in through circumstances. I’m not sure that I ‘miss’ that time in my life, but am quite sure it is only a brief turn of the page, like all things, and one needs to snap a picture of it in their mind before it is gone. Those everyday moments are a part of the intricate fabric of who we are.

More and more, especially as the seasons circle around so quickly now, I feel the need to share my stories with my children. Fortunately, they are good listeners, though like so many aging people who want to relate the now to then, I often get the preverbal, “We know, we know, mom, you don’t have to tell that story again,’ response when I am particularly reminiscent.

That’s where the benefit of writing down our memories, the times of our lives, comes in.

I was a sensitive child, and gratefully so, able to see and feel things even amid all the noise of life. That early, keen awareness gave me much to write about, even if no one reads it. That is what I get from writing; a travelogue of memories….a review, a sorting out of things, a sense of continuity and order, a reminder of who I am and where I came from, even as a new chapter begins to reveal itself, even if no one else remembers it the way I do.

Second to youngest, with my sisters on the lawn in Roseville, MI, later 1950s.

Second to youngest, with my sisters on the lawn in Roseville, MI, late 1950s.

Maybe there is some truth in the idea that everyone wants to be remembered, and somewhere down the line some curious child will open a book about their great grandmother and be….interested… in her ancient school days running home through the autumn woods. That would be enough for me, knowing that I might inspired that child to be aware…to be present…to even write her own story. Better yet, that she may see a bit of herself in me and come to understand some of her own mysteries.

But what if that never happens? What if my typed pages burn up in a fire or my CD of memoirs melts, floats away, or gets thrown in a trash heap of what is deemed ‘junk’ by some less sensitive person? So what? The act of writing has become a form of therapy for me; it’s cathartic and transporting, as well as a spring board that propels me forward. I’ve often wondered why people are so afraid, or timid, about writing their memories early enough in life that they might still have clear recall of the voices of people that mattered, of places they could still smell and clearly walk through in their minds. If I am anything, I am an advocate for the memoir of everyday people written BEFORE they are too old to remember.

Sure all the movie stars and celebs have already started to write their tell-all books, but that is not what I am advocating. When talking to older people, or even co-workers and people my own age, I’m amazed at the varied lives they have led, tours of duty, Peace Corp adventures, childhoods with dirt floors on Indian reservations, a year spent on the road with only a backpack, or a full career in some market that failed and brought someone to a new station in life. Their painful losses and proudest moments and how they moved through the changes that crippled some and inspired others, is worth the telling. Surely we can learn from each other, feel supported (and not so crazy), as well as empowered by theirs and our own stories.

Whether it was the damp autumn woods of Michigan, rows of cotton fields in Texas, or corn fields in Iowa that each of our young selves have run home through, our stories link us as human beings and are like an out-reached hand to help us along. We are not so alone. In sharing we become united in our commonalities and uniqueness. In writing we define and learn to embrace who we are, why we laugh the way we do, why we fear what we fear…or love with a cold, bitter bite, a sincere kindness, or warm lusciousness.

There was a time when I was intimidated by others proclaiming that they were ‘writers.’ I’d throw up my guard and rattle off my academic and work credentials like a badge in a battle of words. But, I have since met and read the works of countless everyday ‘writers’ whose words read from idealistic to sarcastic, from trite to profound, from simple to highly philosophical, and each not only have the right to call themselves writers (because, after all, that is what they are DOING), but I welcome the words of wisdom and whatever I can gleaned from their thoughts. They are a voice that needs to be heard, and I’m a willing listener…a warrior on the same side.

My father wrote his memoirs in the last year of his dying life. I was left with a pile of fragmented thoughts smeared with tears, some pages poorly ripped from notebooks leaving only half the story, some, I’m sure, were lost to no time left to tell. But, oh how I fell in love with the boy who became my father just through reading his stories. I learned things about him that he never spoke of, as if the pen was a secret key that finally opened up the book of his life. My mother, on the other hand, had twenty more years and despite my prompting, left me only a handful of little notes. She was a talker, so I learned to absorb everything our conversations could yield. I knew someday I would feel the need to write her stories for her.

My father was well-educated, scholarly, and well-versed in literature and history. My mother was, well, my mother. Her stories were sentimental and simple, even jokingly crude, yet just as important as my fathers. Even ‘the way’ we tell our stories reveal so much about who we are.  In both cases, I got an in depth picture of who they were and how they became the parents I knew and loved.  Though we are all bound to vanish from this earth, there is some comfort and satisfaction in knowing our stories may continue long after even our children are gone.

Maybe that’s not important to you. But if it is, than ask yourself, “What is it that makes me remember who I am?” Ponder that for a while and then start scratching out your thoughts. Pay attention to everything, but mostly to your senses and what memories they trigger. When you’re at football game, does the energy of the kids, the cheers, the announcer, the band, or the lights take you back to your days in high school? When you’re in church, does the light streaming through the stain glass, the smell of incense, and the hymns find you once again an eight year-old fidgeting in your seat or veiled on your first communion day? A cup of fresh brewed coffee, a walk along a river, the smell of a new car, the oil and grease smell of a gas station, catching fish off a dock with your grandchild, the sunrays streaming through the windows on a winter’s morning, or the sound of a screen door closing; at every turn there is something that triggers your memories, and you know this! Why not share where it takes you? Make a mental note, if no one is around to listen or too busy to care. Stop…and write down what you recall.

Don’t try to sound like a ‘writer,’ just use your own words and descriptions the best way you can. Remember the details; take yourself back into the scene. If it is sentimental, than let yourself weep. If it is painful, then bleed and heal. Pound out the demons, strike up the band, and be in the arms of your first love once again. Writing can do that all in a safe, almost magical way.

If it’s not for money or fame (hard to come-by in the writing world), than write just for yourself, and who knows, maybe someday…somewhere down the line…some great grandchild will open up your journal, your cookbook, your old work briefcase, or your hardcover published book….and read your story. Maybe they’ll find themselves in those same woods and see you there where your spirit still lingers…under a golden canopy of leaves on the same foot bridge where you had your first kiss.

The story is everything. Think about it. Without stories there would be no books, no movies, no poetry, no news, no song lyrics, nothing to listen to, nothing to tell, no conversations, no inspiration, and no reason to remember anything. Life IS just one story after another. Why not include yours?

Singer/composer Joni Mitchell wrote in her song, Hejira, “I know no one’s going to show me everything.
We all come and go unknown. Each so deep and superficial, between the forceps and the stone.”  Surely, none of us can be completely known and remembered for all the complexities that we are. But in writing your story, you have nothing to lose, except the memory of you.

Your old aunt’s string of pearls are nice to touch. Your grandfather’s pocket watch a treasure in the glass dome on your shelf, but what of your aunt or grandfather? Who were they? Who were you? Believe me; someday someone will want to know. Summer field or autumn woods, antique treasures or a stack of old love letters; it’s all in the story. And it’s in the story, your story, that someone might find themselves. Write. Find yourself and leave your story. It’s a powerful legacy to pass along.

Written by Cynthia L. Currie, November 2015

“Crawford Road, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan,” Photography courtesy of Craig Goodrich

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Have I Got a Dish for You!

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Epaig ‘Stratford’ pre-1950s

People have addictions. It might just be that you overload on bowls of pasta while Netflix-binging on ‘Will and Grace’ every Saturday night, or that you secretly smoke cigarettes in the pantry between the shelves of canned pickles and paper towels, or worse inclinations that require serious help; mine (well one of them anyways) is purchasing dishes.

Dishes do something to me. I get mentally and emotionally elevated, dreamy and romantic; I get downright high. My eyes become fixated on the color and pattern. My fingers almost erotically find pleasure in the smooth curve of the plate or comfortable fit of the handle. If I am anywhere near dishes in a store, I find myself so distracted by a set, or maybe even one piece, that I can’t look at anything else. I circle back around, walk up and down that same aisle, and stalk any other shoppers who move toward the object of my desire. All the while, I’m imagining a million ways I could dress my table with these delicate obsessions or how they can be perched behind some other trinket in a vignette in my dining room.

I should be over this. I’m almost sixty years old, for goodness sakes, and everyone around me is reminding me that I should be giving away all my crap, that I should be down-sizing not adding more to my stockpile of stuff. I get that, and feel that, for the most part, but not when it comes to dishes. If time is good to me, I’ll have many more Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving Day meals to host as the grandchildren are making their arrivals. I don’t use paper or plastic plates so they’ll have to eat off of something, right?! I really want to ‘entertain’ again, like in the old days, with interesting people enjoying deep conversation and hardy, belly-filled laughs and teary-eyed toasts  across the comfortable ambiance of my candlelit tablescape. I still have plans that involve dishes, so I’m justified, right?

Blue Danube China

Blue Danube China

The problem is I don’t have any more space to store all these lovely, mostly vintage china pieces. The Inn is full. I know the obvious solution. It’s time to get rid of some of the others, but that’s the thing. The ‘others’ hold the memories that have graced my table for years and whisper of Sunday dinners and homespun conversations with our kids, every time they are placed on the table. They mean too much to me and besides, I hope that at some point my daughter, or daughter-in-laws, maybe my grown granddaughters may want to inherit them. Maybe. It’s hard to say these days, but it doesn’t seem to matter where they will go after I’m gone. I like having them NOW. Apparently, I’m a dish-whore or hoarder; I’m not sure which is worse. But, let’s just say it sweetly, I’m a lover of beautiful things, primarily dishes, some of which I must possess.

A couple of month ago I was spending the day with my daughter in a beautiful, quaint Texas Hill Country town, a place where charm and historic homes just seem to command, ‘You must buy something while you’re here!” I had braced myself for this, did a lot of self-talk on the road, and asked my daughter to ‘stop me’ if I got too caught-up in any dishes, “I simply don’t have any more room, Sweetie, so remind me of that when the time comes.” Much like a recovering alcoholic who isn’t ready to sit in a bar, it didn’t work. All the promises I made to myself went right out the door and across the gingerbread porch of the antique store we were in, as soon as I saw the perky pattern and colors that could be used in just about any season, hidden inside.

At first I saw a few orphaned plates of blue and white that called to me, but I was strong and just gave them a knowing sigh as I moved on. I chuckled at all the ‘antique’ dishes on display that were from MY time, MY youth; stuff my mom got at the Montgomery Wards and Sears & Roebucks. Are we antiques already? That’s just plain weird.

Then I saw my daughter off in another section staring dropped-jaw into a large glass, upright display case. Walking towards her, she waved me off, told me not to come her way, ‘Mom…just don’t!’ Too late, I was there, opposite her on the other side of the glass completely captivated, mesmerized, in love; I was a goner (as us antiques used to say).

Simple, yet elegant, with a dancing line of gold, orange, green, even pink flowers around the edges, held in by a metallic gold rim (something that has never before appealed to me); Epaig ‘Stratford,’ made in Czechoslovakia; it was like I found my long, lost love of the dish world. Youthful, yet pre-1950s vintage; playful, yet serious; light enough for Spring, warm enough for Autumn; a whole serving set on sale for only $100. Let’s be real, I could go to Target for toilet paper and end up spending twice that much on a bunch of nothing; why look away from this?!

We just stood there, my daughter and I, silently staring for quite some time, both knowing what the other was thinking, “I don’t have room. Dad’s going to kill you if you bring home another dish. You already have enough dishes to serve a small village. Don’t do it, mom. No, I can’t…” I walked away….several times…but I was drunk on the beauty of them, injected with the poison of mealtime pleasure, aglow on the anticipation of spreading a beautiful table, and weak-in-the-knee by the thought of hand washing them; I could feel their fragile strength warm and sleek in my soapy hands.

I bought them.

It was tough, on that hot Texas day, getting three huge boxes of individually wrapped dishes into a small car with a trunk the size of a bread box, but of course we did it…with a little swearing and a lot of sweat. I got home to an empty house, and painstakingly rushed them into the house alone (having to take them out of the boxes in small loads, since I couldn’t carry the weight of the boxes), and hid them, yes hid them, in the closet under the stairs.

The dishes have been in-hiding since that summer day.

Tonight, while a roasting pork loin filled the kitchen with a warm aroma of home, I systematically (okay, I snuck in-and-out of the closet) retrieved enough of my secret stash for a four-place setting. When my husband sat down, he said, ‘Oh no, what is this?” My son’s girlfriend, who was not privy to my dish ordeal at all, immediately commented on how lovely they were. Thank God for womenfolk! So, I revealed that I had fallen off the wagon and bought a lovely set of dishes at a great price! I admit I strategically planned to bring them out when company was present. It worked.

Surprisingly, he liked them (though he didn’t know just how many were stuffed under the stairs). Just the same, the hardest hurdle, the great ‘reveal,’ was over and now commencing with the storage issue would just work its way out. It always does. This isn’t my first auction haul!

As the evening wanes in a peaceful glow of acceptance, all the hand-washed dishes are stack proudly on my counter waiting for me to give them a comfortable shelf to dwell on, and my hubby is joyfully discovering facts about the vintage pattern, for if anything, he too appreciates time-worn things. It’s kind of sweet of him. It’s moments like these that he reminds of my father, who used to turn into a little kid whenever my new recipe cards from ‘Better Homes and Gardens’ would come in the mail as I was preparing for wifedom in the 1970s. He and I would spend hours combing through the recipes in the warmth of the kitchen light. When it comes to my husband, space or no space, it seems antiques continue to be our comfortable common ground.

You see, dishes, like recipes and meals, bring people together. Everyone has a memory of someone special at the glance of a familiar dish pattern. We see our aproned grandmothers and aunts bending and busy in the kitchens we loved, our mothers giving us the honored tasked of ‘getting out the good dishes’ when the hungry smell of a holiday dinner was filling the crowded house. Dishes clink and slide, stack and hide in all of our memories, and I am very much connected with that scene, mine and theirs, from the heart of the home, the kitchen.

Contemporary fun!

Contemporary fun!

From leaf-laced, autumn patterns to Blue Delft old-world charm, country white plates for simplicity, Christmas Spode gems, and round oatmeal glazed bowls just right for soups and stew, to bunny-shaped Easter favorites that the kids still love to see; my cupboards are filled with much more than porcelain artifacts. My dishes help tell the story of our lives. There is historic sweetness in a set of pink flowered, silver-rimmed dishes from my mother-in-law’s days of collecting dishes at the movie theatre one movie and dish at a time; I can see her trim and proper, with a huddle of blond-haired kids straight out of the “Dick & Jane” children’s book series, anxiously walking down her small town Midwestern street headed for the cinema and another new plate! Like the visual pleasure I receive from my 1950s era ‘Currier & Ives’ Royal blue village dishes which beckon back to my days around the crowded table of my parent’s house and the cupped aroma of coffee on cold Michigan mornings at our wood-smoke cottage; 1970s stoneware comes with a song; Transferware can transport. They all speak of places I’ve lived and people I’ve loved; each has a story, evokes memories, and allows for the pure pleasure of creatively setting a lovely table.

Currier & Ives Blue Royal, circa 1950s

Currier & Ives Blue Royal, circa 1950s

Have I justified my purchase with passion and purpose? Ha! I always say, if a thing doesn’t give you pleasure or serve a purpose, than it’s time to let it go.

All in all, it’s a harmless addiction, obsession, or hobby, whatever one wants to call it. It could be worse. I could collect unicorns, or gum wrappers, or expensive Italy leather shoes. In time, as time so cruelly will do, I’ll give them all away to someone else with kitchen memories and table dreams, while we finally empty our cupboards and down-size and succumb to the reality of Chinet disposable dishware. Ugh! Until that dreadful day, I’ll keep making memories, one delicious dish at a time…and, for sanity sakes, go on hiatus from browsing antique stores!

Through My Father’s Tears

 “History is a guide to navigate in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are.”
~David McCullough, American Author

dad alone by lake

Dad in his early teens by the lake

Just as ‘all who wander are not lost,’ all who ‘look back’ are not sad, depressed people living in the past. Through the popular notion that to ‘look back’ on one’s life is somehow an unhealthy indication that one is ‘living in the past,’ and that we should all just ‘let it go’ and move forward, we are being lead to believe that we gain nothing of value from the people and places we once loved or knew. As if to look back fondly, or with bittersweet regard and nostalgia, one must not be happy where they are. What does that say about our society’s interest and reverence for history, geography, and ‘home?’ Furthermore, what does that say about our respect for those that came before us, and, for that matter, how WE will be remembered, if at all?

Everywhere we are bombarded with daily reminders to ‘let go of the past,’ as if it’s a social disease to be curious, to tell stories, reflect, share pictures, delve into one’s family history, even attempt to unravel mysteries or heal old wounds that would, indeed, help people move forward. Yet, some of the healthiest people I know are well-versed in history with a calm acceptance of their personal past. In fact, they live more in the ‘present’ BECAUSE of their awareness of the past, than those who prefer to numb themselves in hopes of forgetting, or preach the ‘let it go’ theory because they don’t want to forgive or understand the motivations and circumstances of those that came before them. “It is what it is!” is the one- dimensional decree of the ‘don’t look back people .’ Maybe it’s a good intentioned defense mechanism, or fear, or ignorance, but promoting a overall attitude against ‘looking back’ is to me rather arrogant, as if all things begin and end with you or me.

Even as an elementary school teacher, I can see the sad decline of the social studies curriculum, limited acknowledgment of notable people, moments, and movements in our country’s history; limited space in the timeline.  And what of the poets and lyricists? Awwww….they make us think about the past, don’t they? There is no time for THAT! It’s all about the application of math and science to the detriment of a well-rounded education. In our need for the illusion of perfection, to rise above other countries, are we not losing vital learning experiences  that would only serve to make us a better country…better people? You know the old adage, “Learn from your mistakes?” Well, if we are not willing to talk about the past, how can we learn from any mistakes? What a terrible disservice to the present and future generations, who may not be that interested in hearing about old Uncle Bill and his dancing tattoos, or how their great-great grandfather was a ship captain on the Great Lakes, but at some point they may be. What will they have to draw on later in life when they have questions and we know nothing?

“An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We’re raising a lot of cut flowers and trying to plant them.” ~David McCullough, American author, from “Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are,” April 18, 2005

Dad with his brothers

Dad with his brothers

Dad and Archie

Dad with his brother Archie

My father was a humble man, as many from the ‘greatest generation’ were. Born in 1929 on the onset of the Great Depression, he saw his share of sadness, poverty, and hard knocks in life. His sixteen year old brother, Archie, was shot dead accidently by a stray bullet in a ‘cops and robbers’ incident on the streets of Detroit in 1943. Daddy was fourteen and lost his best friend; his closest companion. Dad’s mother had a brain tumor in her late 40s and after her brain surgery, he wrote, “We had our mother with us for many more years but she was never more than 75% of who she was before. My wife and I were deprived of a beautiful friend. My children were deprived of a youthful, fun-loving, talented grandmother. The only thing not affected by her operation, was her sense of humor which was as sharp as ever.” And THAT is what I remember about my grandmother, her sense of humor. But, I also learned so much more about her through my father’s recollection of her earlier days when she was healthy and there for him. He painted a different picture than the limited one I saw myself.

Dad with his mother swapping hats

Dad with his mother swapping hats

At family parties or after dinner with all of us sitting around the table like a classroom of students drinking coffee, he would share bits and pieces of his life, and for someone like me, who truly was fascinated with social history, even the sad and unpleasant parts, I was the perfect student.

Several years before he was diagnosed with Lou Gering’s Disease (ALS), he was sharing a story with me about his father. It was more of an intimate look into his life than my father had ever shared before. Dad and I were not ‘buddies.’ He was always revered as ‘someone above me’ as many children, even in old age, perceive their parents. So I respectfully asked him if he would consider writing down some of his memories. He hee-hawed a bit, as older folks do, but I persisted. As a news writer in rural Minnesota, I saw this all the time. Older people just didn’t want to talk about their lives. Usually ‘other’ people would say it’s because it was too painful, but I always managed to get them to open up. Their resistance had more to do with humility than pain. I had a ‘girl-next-door’ quality in interviewing; they felt I could be trusted and was as interested as a daughter. I always was, but in my dad’s case, I was the real thing, and very interested. So, he told me he’d write things down as he remembered them, which, for you aspiring memoirist, is the best way to do it.

In my father’s case, time wasn’t on his side. Once we all knew he wouldn’t be with us much longer, he decided to follow through with our ‘memoir plan’ the best that he could. In my mother’s view, it was painful, not only physically (at first he lost control of the muscles in his fingers, and then later in his tongue so he could not speak clearly), but also emotionally. But, my father was a wise man. He had a choice. He could have sat there watching one TV show after another until he passed away, or he could ‘recall’ his life, walk through it again, and relive both the sad and joyous moments of it in order to pass those memories along to us, namely to me, because he was a man of his word.

My dad had a romantic soul. Even in that terrible year of a slow, unforgiving death, I knew he wanted to be remembered for more than what appeared on the surface; “father, teacher and coach.” There was more to him, as there is to all of us. In that way, we were cut from the same cloth. He was passionate and emotional, and at times sobbed uncontrollably. Tears make other people nervous because they assign their own beliefs to them. They believe tears must be bad, uncontrolled emotions, a sign of weakness, heaven forbid! Have a drink! Crack a joke! Numb that shit up! Yes, my dad cried a lot through the process. But in my mind, he needed to after a long life of being ‘the strong son and brother’ in the family, standing tall and taking care of everyone, as he himself faced one challenge after another, and then got hit with this final blow. Crying is a release. ‘Letting go,’ if you must, and sobbing is as natural as laughing, indeed it’s healthy to let the tears flow to help wash away the grief of lost time and people.

After his funeral, I took home a briefcase full of chicken-scratched notes, badly-typed stories, some on torn pieces of paper, smeared ink passages as if someone carelessly scribbled them out on a wet napkin. The text was full of big Polish names I wasn’t sure about, and places along the avenues and streets of the old Detroit where my dad grew up…places now closed up and gone. It was a mess of a project and took me too many years to compile, but what a gift! In his wake, he left a wide path of understanding, a portal into what makes us who we are, and a colorful slice of life that will never be seen again. He created room for forgiveness, a sense of history and belonging, and a place for others to stroll back easily into the past and find a piece of themselves.

What I admired most about my dad’s memoirs was how they were written straight up. No frills, no analyzing, no blaming or interpretations of why people were the way they were, other than the obvious socio-economic scene; they were easy to read. He seemed to share everything he could remember, from the everyday life of city boys playing in the park, to his first sexual experience in the woods, to his endearing friendships with the men who were still his best friends to the end, to the sweet simple romance between him and my mother.

“Our courtship was a series of parties punctuated by quiet walks and talks. Our favorite date was going to the Rialto on Gratiot and Mt. Elliot, then interrupting the workers at a local bakery and taking home a loaf of fresh bread and sharing it at her house on Kirby Avenue. I walked the mile from Canton to Kirby at least a hundred times. I knew she was the girl for me.”

The courtship of mom and dad

Mom and Dad courting

As I wrote and re-wrote his words, crying and stuffing bread in my mouth, I found myself falling in love with the boy who would become my father. I could see my young parents stopping at the 1940s bakery, them walking hand-in-hand down the darken streets past the once manicured lawns of a different Detroit. It was easy to imagine them sitting in my grandma’s kitchen by low light, sharing the loaf of bread and maybe a cup of coffee…the difficult goodbyes…and daddy walking that city mile home in the dark alone with my mother’s perfume on his collar. My only regret was that he was no longer with us, for I knew there must have been more that he just didn’t have time to write.

Sad? Yes, on some levels, but sweet as well. But, in the telling and sharing, the listening and receiving, there is a kind of awakening and freedom that comes from the voices of the people before us, and an awareness of why we are on the paths that we walk, why we love or distain the things we do, and why we can hear our parent’s voices in our own words. The perception that it’s an avoidable dark journey to look back, is that of people who don’t want to ‘feel’ anything, people not able to face the fact that maybe other people had rougher lives than theirs, or better. People who want to glorify or dramatize than own existence, rather than learn that we are all more alike than different. In fact, I think that knowledge of one’s family history and dynamics, and the acceptance of it, is necessary to be ‘truly present’ now.

I know there are people who had very difficult, unthinkable childhoods. I also know that many therapies designed to help those bearing the scars of childhood, are based on recalling and moving through those heartbreaks to heal. I did this, in a way, with my mother. Our weekly phone calls included many laughs and ‘how are the kids’ chats, but often we circled round to the ‘what happened when and why’ of our lifetime together, and respectfully we opened up those old wounds, explained, shared, cried, and healed our relationship. But, we had to open the door to the past to move forward. We had to become vulnerable, let our armor down, and be willing to feel something! The emotional gift of delving into the past together, my listening and appreciating all her stories of her life growing up, her feelings about my father and the years when we were babies, brought clarity and life-confirming affirmations and gave us both a kind of peaceful satisfaction that, regardless, all was forgiven through understanding and knowledge. We had no loose ends, and we both knew that when my mother left this world I would remember her for only the love and goodness she brought to my life. In return, I received wisdom.

There are a lot of broken people out there. Some drink or eat or drug themselves to forget. Some just hide their memories away, proudly carrying the banner of ‘be present’ when, in fact, ‘they’ are still stuck somewhere else. I think it’s time we stopped this overly romantic view of the ‘here and now’ and the warnings, especially to our young people, that looking back is dangerous and unhealthy. It’s time we try again to remember, to show respect, and honor those paths we and the people before us have walked, with a story. There are other banners like, “Everyone has a story to tell,” that can be plastered all over Facebook walls and encouraged in classrooms. How about we give a listen, read their writing, and learn from the past, if not for pure enjoyment, then maybe for a lesson or two. One look at a day on a social network or in a ‘test focused’ classroom or at the crap they call TV these day, begs us to reassess what is really important. Certainly history has to rise from the dead and enlighten us again, especially if it’s our own.

My father at college

My father at college

My father was the first person in his family line to finish high school. He was referred to as ‘the professor,’ as was common of college-bond kids back then. He earned a Bachelors of Philosophy (Ph.B) at a tough Jesuit university and later, after bringing eight children into the world with my mother on his teacher’s salary, he earned a Masters of English. He understood history, the human condition, and the need to teach children how to think and make connections. He had every right to be arrogant, but he wasn’t. He often worked two or three jobs, made a big pot of oatmeal on weekend mornings and coffee cake and donuts, like his parents before him, and let us shake on the sugary toppings in brown paper bags like easily amused kids with new toys. He sang old vaudeville songs in the station wagon with us, and enjoyed a smoke and cup of coffee with my mother who…well, had her own story, was a fireball of emotions, got in trouble with the nuns, was socially gifted and a sexy little thing to my dad right to the end. And in the end, he was recalling the simple things of a lifetime that stayed in his memory, worthy memories that he was, gratefully, able to share. In the process, I think we all learn a whole lot about ourselves.

“My brother Archie and I were constant companions. We shared the same bed, shared the same food and treats, played together, built model airplanes together, and went to the movies together. We did everything together. …My parents often were called upon to sing duets at house parties or whenever there were gatherings. My mother had an uncanny ear for harmony and my dad had a pleasant lead voice. Archie and I picked up on all their songs and managed to add a few of our own. When we went for long walks, we sang. When we had to wait in the car for a period of time, we sang. Even when we went to the outhouse together in the summer, we sang. That first walk to school alone without my brother after his death was the longest walk of my life.”
~ “Miles, the Memoirs of Walter Miles Currie

Dad with us kids in Lake Michigan

Dad with us kids in Lake Michigan

Through my father’s tears and words I grew to understand the boy who lived inside my big, brave daddy. He grappled with fear, like we all do, yet seemed to be the strongest person in our whole extended family, and that just makes me what to be braver and maybe take another big step just for him.

If you want to embrace the ‘here and now,’ then you have to look back first, even if it hurts. It’s good to learn about the people who ‘shaped us,’ for better or worse. It provides us with roots to grow, so we (and our children) aren’t just a bunch of “fresh cut flowers trying to grow themselves.” When we grow, we experience emotions, and to ‘feel something’ is a healthy human response, at any age. It provides a connection, insight and understanding into the reasons why we do what we do. It awakens potential and sleeping dreams. It waters us, gives us courage, passion, or even a fire to change our situations, and it’s the very thing that will enable us to truly ‘be present’ and blossom into the whole human beings that the people before us had hope for when we came into the world. Look back, heal, write your own story. Believe me, someone down the line will want to know who you were…

 

 

 

 

How Far Have YOU Gone?

“People will tell you where they’ve gone; they’ll tell you where to go. But till you get there yourself, you never really know.”
~ Joni Mitchell, ‘Amelia’

If you’ve been around, you have stories. That used to be enough, when people had the patience to stop, listen, or read, and the imagination to see themselves in others’ recollections with intrigue or an appreciation of novel experiences. Today, a quote, a video (even a crappy one), or a tweet is about all that will hold the attention of, what I observed to be, a highly competitive and self-absorbed social arena. The old adage, ‘Quality not quantity’ doesn’t seem to hold much value in life experiences or in relationships, for that matter. It’s all about one-ups-men-ship, a bombardment of shocking facts and numbers, with no stamina to listen to or ‘read more…’

Occasionally, the lunchroom one-ups-men-ship topic drifts to a place where I once lived. I mean, really lived. Like my parents, storytelling was in the natural order of things. I learned to sit and listen, to mentally walk in their shoes, thereby experiencing the places and people that I knew I might never experience in my own life. This started at a young age, of course, before people bought into the concept that children have limited attention spans and are aching to go stimulate their brains with something more exciting like a video game which has resulted in, well, a host of new childhood problems that have run amuck.

Back in the teacher’s lounge, someone asked, how far north have you gone…south, east, and west? I’m sure the question wasn’t meant to elicit long answers, as we have all of maybe 20 minutes to inhale our lunches and get in a little adult conversation. But, of course, my early training kicks in, and a little excitement sprinkled with beautiful words in the hope of ‘getting others there’ starts to pulse through my storyteller veins, as if I’m sitting in front of a hearth with children at my feet who, ugh, are interested.

I lived in North Dakota for almost three years in my early 20s, through some of the meanest winters on record. I can still hear the frozen snow crunching beneath my boots and see my breath turn to ice crystals around my face…creating a snow-globe effect that was magical. Okay, on to the next person, who has miraculously driven through every state in the Union. I guess she wins; conversation over! And that appears to be what it’s all about these days; who wins with shortest, most dramatic comment.

People seem intimidated by the stories of others, as opposed to interested or curious, and terminology has changed. Lived-in, driven-through, or visited are not measurements that weigh the experience, anymore. One would argue that the questioner didn’t ask where we had lived. Yet, what is the point of ‘rating’ how far one has been, if they have simply driven through a corner of a state or stepped over a border only to yank their foot back with a proudly earned participation ribbon. That’s sort of like saying; I’ve had many lovers…in my mind (but not in my arms)! “North Dakota? It was dark and cold, I don’t know, I slept most of the way, but I’ve been there!! Ribbon please!”

Throw in the geocentric belief that everything where YOU LIVE is somehow bigger or better (as if one was personally in cahoots with God and had a hand in making it that way) and the attention quickly gets narrowed down to the, well, less experienced.

This is unfortunate.

Anyone who has ever LIVED in North Dakota, for instance, can tell you things that are anywhere from breath-taking, like seeing the northern lights dance across the plains, to horrifically desolate. The visual delight of seeing miles of indigo-colored flax in bloom, shoveling through the snow to get OUT of your house, and the dismals feeling of standing in a small grocery store in the dead of winter observing one’s choice of produce…a cabbage, an onion, and everything else is either rotten or not available; this, my friends, more aptly describe just how far north I have been.

Raised in the 1960s and 70s, many in our generation were all about leaving home as soon as possible. People strapped on their REI backpacks and headed out to hike the mountains, went off to ‘find themselves’ in far off places, thumbed their way down roads less traveled, joined communes, and left ‘the settling’ for later. I can’t tell you how many times I wished I had never left. Yet, it was in the leaving that I learned to appreciate coming home. And it’s ‘in the living’ in different places that taught me how to appreciate other cultures and vistas, establish new friends, and navigate the highways of life. In short (if I must), I grew. I also found that I can ‘sit and listen or read’ other peoples’ stories without a need to one-up anyone. I just find it interesting how I am meeting fewer and fewer people that have this same sensibility. People just seem so uninterested in other places and life experiences other than their own.

A fellow Northerner and I were once dreamily recalling the beauty of autumn ‘up North.’ A Texas co-worker shook her head and said, “I could never leave Texas because I need the beach!” My friend, from ‘the land of 10,000 lakes,’ and I, from the ‘Great Lakes’ state, just looked at each other with puzzlement. There is safety in ignorance, I suppose, but it’s rather boring, and in this case embarrassing. When you try to explain the inland seas to people who have never seen them, it’s like trying to explain having a baby to a man. They don’t get it, and they don’t really want to know. End of conversation.

Photo by Alamy

Photo by Alamy

On another occasion, I was sharing my memories of Tahquamenon Falls, one of 84 magnificent waterfalls in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The falls are more than 200 feet across with a 48 foot drop, colored brown by the tannins leached from the cedar swamps which the river drains. Tahquamenon Falls is noted as being the land of Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha – “by the rushing Tahquamenaw” where Hiawatha built his canoe. Naturally, someone quickly piped in with, “Oh, WE have tons of waterfalls here! You haven’t seen waterfalls until you’ve seen Gorman Falls!” one of 28 waterfalls in all of Texas, most fed by rainwater run-off. So, when there is no rain, they don’t fall. But, really, why does ‘sharing’ have to be so competitive? “My falls are better than your falls, nana-nana-boo-boo!” Given my before said training, I was curious about Gorman Falls, and quietly listened to the other’s experience. She didn’t seem to want to know anything about the root-beer colored water that rushes through the Hiawatha National Forest. End of conversation.

Likewise, try to explain the smell of Texas….rich with the warm roasted aroma of BBQ in the air, the intoxicating fragrance of Mountain Laurels in bloom, or how quickly a big rain can turn into a flash flood, to a Michigander, and one is met with a raised eye-brow and a quick dismissal. They’d prefer to hold on to their limited belief that all of Texas is covered with rolling tumbleweed. Try sharing the joy of canoeing a river and having beaver and river otters playfully flirt with one’s paddles, and get met with ‘beaver’ jokes. Share one’s experience of the Ozarks and the beauty of Arkansas with anyone from anywhere, and get the ‘dueling banjos’ whistled back at you. Share the bounty of Wisconsin apple orchards and serenity of its pastoral scenery to someone from Illinois and you get the cow-town jokes. Really? Is there no judgment-free wonderment left in people?

In short, people don’t want to know ‘how far you have been,’ in any detail. In fact, it seems to make people feel threatened. Blinders on, ear-plugs in; they proudly talk up their little neck of the woods. They don’t seem to want to know what else might be ‘out there.’ What gets lost in this disregard for other’s experiences are the stories that inspire travel, geography, insight, romance, and …growth.

To me this is leading to a very shallow and uninteresting human condition. Not unlike celebrating a couple who has been married for 50 years, neither of whom even talk to each other anymore, in fact their disdain for each other may be written all over their harden expressions, yet everyone around them is celebrating their longevity; it’s all about the quantity not the quality of the years. Let’s not tell the ‘real’ story of their long marriage. No one wants to ‘read more…’ After all, we may learn something that shakes up our safe status quo.

How far have I gone? I stepped over the Mississippi River once. Do I win?! Of course, it was the mouth of the Mississippi in Bemidji, Minnesota, which at that time was a babbling brook. But, oops, adding more of the truth just took away from how cool (and short) my answer was. No ribbon for me! I lose, but not really.

My mother, who in the last years of her life shared a bounty of wisdom with me because, well, I would listen, told me that after awhile no one wants to hear the stories of older people, so you learn to just smile and nod your head like you’ve never been anywhere or experienced anything. “It’s a peaceful feeling” she said, “like letting go. You can’t tell anybody anything. They have to live it for themselves.”

Texas Hill Country road Photo by Jeffrey W. Spencer

Texas Hill Country road
Photo by Jeffrey W. Spencer

I’m so glad I lived it for myself, from the North Dakota desolation, to the playful river otters, the deafening sound of 50,000 gallons of water per second pounding over the Michigan falls, to those loves (yes, sir, heart break and all), and the serenity of a drive along the wildflower-edged roads in the Hill Country of Texas. You can have your life-in-the-moment tweets and your competitive snap to out-do others. I, for one, will gladly listen to your stories, but have learned not to expect the same in return.

I imagine there will be many empty hearths someday. Maybe the tide will change, and a new generation will have a need to sit, listen, or read about other peoples’ lives without the urge to one-up the story-teller, thereby missing the beauty in the ‘sharing.’ With any luck, they may change the bleak course of our social interactions, to include more engagement, and less judgment or need to prove their experiences are ‘better.’ That’s my hope, anyway, as I learn to yield with, ‘a smile and nod of my head.’