All posts by Terah Van Dusen

About Terah Van Dusen

Writer of poetry and memoir.

If I Took My Grief Out to Lunch

Dear Reader, Throughout the month of October I, along with a small group of other writers, wrote about loss in “Write Your Grief Out” with Anne and Maria Gudger. Here is one excerpt from that period, based on the prompt “If you took your grief out to lunch, what would you talk about?”

If I took my grief out to lunch, we’d talk about the way things used to be. How the other day I saw a small child sending crab pots off the dock into the ocean with her father. The way we used to do that before you became a vegetarian. Before you quit crabbing in the wintertime and raising rabbits for meat in our backyard. We’d talk about way before the tofu and carob phase, when you ate burgers and drank Budweiser. But that was never you, so I was glad I got to see your next phase too: your altars and spiritual books and how a real live guru came to visit us and stayed in our home and went on long walks with you in the woods.

If I took my grief out to lunch, we’d talk about the way things used to be. How half the pictures from when you were a boy show you at the top of some tree. Or expertly showing your hog for 4-H. Or snug in the middle of three sisters, volleying between tormenting them and being the soft shoulder they could cry on. How you had so much lived life before me, but it took you dying for me to really see that. The boy you’d been–wild as they come. The teenager you’d been–different, but popular and carefree. The man you’d become–a young, single father, your biggest challenge yet.

If I took my grief out to lunch, we’d go up river afterward. We’d blast Jonny Cash through the redwoods, roll down the windows, and stop for a drink of spring water gushing from Carter Falls. I’d take my grief inside the culvert under South Fork Road, where the runoff pours into the river in wintertime. We’d steady ourselves on the rocks, crouching just to watch the water run. Solely for the meditative purpose of it. We’d have no agenda. We’d have no to-do’s. We’d see a bald eagle and raise our hands to our chest in prayer. We’d skip rocks. We’d drive up further and park by Rock Creek. We’d travel up creek on bare feet. We might see a wild animal drinking from the stream; or a fairy ring of mushrooms, undisrupted. We’d awe.

If I took my grief out to lunch, we’d talk about the way things used to be. The time we rode elevators to the tops of the tallest buildings in San Francisco, just to look out the windows. Danced with other Hare Krishna devotees at Golden Gate Park, real ones who lived in the temples year round, not just for a few weeks in the summertime like we did. Venice Beach. Berkeley. British Columbia. All the food and the flowers and the strangers. How we’d come back to Crescent City in September tanned, hair windblown and faces happy, just the two of us. No mom in sight and all the freer for it.

If I took my grief out to lunch we’d talk about the way things used to be–because it’s the best balm to the way things are now. Less colorful. Less natural. Less free. I don’t know many daughters who can claim that the best gift their parents gave them was freedom and exploration–just for the sake of it. Without agenda. But if I took my grief out to lunch, we’d talk about that.

With love,

Mama Bird

What Matters Most

I shouldn’t still be thinking about the earrings I wore on the day of our wedding on Sunday, May 22, 2022, but I am. I’d wanted to convey that, despite Dad’s passing less than three weeks earlier, I was OK. It was all good and everything was fine.

But when I look back at the photos, I see me the day before the wedding, running frantically around the mall alone, bombarded with choices. There were plain gold hoops, bright neon feathers, faux diamond drop earrings, shaped like leaves, and the ones I got: showy gold hoops with crimson silk flowers. The earrings were distracting, and I hadn’t noticed that at the time.

What didn’t help is that until 72 hours before the wedding, I didn’t know which dress I was going to wear, my original choice never having arrived in the mail. It also didn’t help (or maybe it did) that, since Dad died, I decided that nothing superficial mattered anyway. It wasn’t what you wore, it’s what you said. It isn’t how you look, it’s how you see.

So on the one hand when I look at those photos, I think of those earrings as my “fuck it” earrings. The slap it all together and play-it-cool mood of that unique moment in my life. The wishing I could hide in plain sight. But the only statement those earrings seemed to be making was “whatever you do, don’t look at me.

Do I wish, instead, I’d have selected the faux dangly earrings shaped like leaves? Yes, I can too clearly picture how they would have sparkled when catching the sunlight through the trees. But would I take it back and change it? No. Not really, because something else would have been off. As is in life in general. As is when you are having a wedding and you are having a funeral.

In this life, it really, truly isn’t about the perfect look and the photo-worthy setting. And I give myself grace that I knew that going into it, and I placed my priorities elsewhere when I didn’t give myself a lot of time to shop for the earrings, and I didn’t take along a friend. I didn’t really get that “bride moment”…the one that they were selling me. For me that fantasy involved a careful putting on of my high-heeled shoes (I would wind up wearing slip on leather wedges), a cheers with my bridal party, Lorde’s “Royals” blasting in the background, my “Cinderella” moment. What I got instead was a mad dash to the mall for last minute, unplanned accessories, and, in the bridal suite, our children running around underfoot, only the sound of shrieking and chatter in the background. What I got instead was real life, what actually matters, the people, the experiences, and yes, even the innocent fashion mistakes.

Now when I think back on our wedding day, I remember being thankful it didn’t rain. I remember being grateful nobody got hurt. I remember that “My Sweet Lord,” Dad’s song, came on the radio on the drive to the mall and it felt like it was playing just for me. I remember I cried. I remember I was fragile, deep down. I remember I couldn’t afford to crack. I remember writing and practicing my vows. I remember carefully putting out the ceramic dinner plates and silverware, buffing smudges out of the wine glasses in the dining room late into the night before our wedding.

I am trying to forget the sparkly earrings that got away. I want to let go of notion that tells me our wedding needed to be more perfect than it was. That I needed to be a better bride. That I had somehow let something slip. That I should have spent even more money. Then, maybe, things would have really been perfect. Maybe. When the only thing that honestly would have made that day better, is having Dad there for it.

Love and mysterious blessings,

Mama Bird

Town

There is nothing more difficult
I believe
than relaxing

Than just being

We are human beings
Not human doings
Yet who out there is willing
to “just be” with me?

My most treasured doings
are working
then eating
then shopping
then teching out
then vaping
in no particular order

I am not doing a very
good job of setting myself up
to just be

Upon waking
I am already grasping grasping grasping
it’s astonishing
and yet today
I felt a calling
to be centered
and now, despite myself,
and after having taken a spontaneous U-turn,
I am laying on my belly in the grass
at a park and writing this poem

And for at least these few
short moments I will be free
from all of that grasping

I will be right here
barefoot
just being

This poem the closest
I will get to being present
because soon I will succumb
to the tornado of wants and desires
that is town
that is tech
that is quick and easy
and in and out of
my brain in a heartbeat

All The Tattoos I Never Got

Tattoos are expensive. But not the first tattoo I never got. The first tattoo I never got was going to be free, because my friend who was fourteen, had an older brother who was sixteen, and he was doling them out for free. He may or may not have been on something. But the real reason I didn’t get the first tattoo I never got–a flaming heart on the inside of my right hip bone–was because I knew Dad would kill me. Or that he’d want to. Or, at least, he’d say he wanted to. “I could kill you,” I could picture him saying, fists clenched like he wanted to fight, but without a fighting bone in him. All soft on the inside like the bubblegum ice cream he bought me down at CC’s Diner.

Plus I didn’t think my friend’s brother could do color, and I didn’t want a green flaming heart, I wanted a cherry red one with licks of yellow and orange flame coming off of it, like was on the sides of the hot rods down at the annual Sea Cruise.

The second tattoo I never got wasn’t quite as symbolic as my “love equals pain” flaming heart. Like my friend Aimee had done, I was considering a full back tattoo–a landscape. The landscape of home. A redwood tree, and the ocean, and maybe some rhododendron. The plan only got as far as that–a fantasy–before cost prevented me from even considering it. Months later, at 23-years-old, I moved from the high desert where I was living in Arizona, back to the Pacific Northwest. Back to the big trees and the sea. It hadn’t been about having a tattoo at all, but about answering a calling.

The third tattoo I actually got close to getting. It was on a whim which, I was sensing, had to account for at least half of all tattoos out there. It wasn’t even during a break up, or anything. I can’t even put my finger on why I was going to finally get the tattoo I never got. Something about being hip, or the potentiality of appearing as hip as I felt.

I almost went through with it. I thought about it for several days before walking into Cry Baby Tattoos in Eugene. I presented the tattoo artist with an image from my phone: two minimalist looking tattoos, a sun and a moon. Stick drawings for the backs of my arms, placed above my elbows. The sun on my left arm, the moon on my right. I kept thinking of a favorite quote, “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.”

The tattoos would be a reminder to always be truthful, to seek truth in all situations. To demand truth. To be truth.

As soon as the tattoo artist stenciled the designs on my arms, a perfect replication, I looked into the mirror and suddenly my elbow wrinkles jumped out at me. I hadn’t noticed them before. And when I bent my arm at the elbow, the sun and moon stretched, misshapen.

When I confessed to the tattoo artist that I felt conflicted, and didn’t think I could go through with it, he responded gracefully, “It’s your body.”

The next tattoo I never got were the coordinates of home:

41.7353923 N -123.9828519 W

It was either that or a fiddlehead fern on the inside of my left wrist, to remember Dad by. Later, I learned that I didn’t need the coordinates of home tattooed on myself anymore. Because now that place would forever be a part of me. I could plant trees in Dad’s yard instead, and spend decades watching them grow. It seemed I had outgrown all of the tattoos I never got, which lead me to thinking that from here on out, maybe I should just let my scars do all the talking.

Moon Teachings

79 days ago, on May 3rd, 2022, my dad was knocked off of a tall ladder by the force of a tree branch he was limbing with a chainsaw. It happened at an odd construction job he took, painting some house. A side gig. A split second decision he made at the request of a neighbor.

That evening, after getting the call that Dad was in the ICU, I drove from Oregon to Northern California along the coastline. His only child, I was frantic and pleading with the Goddesses to save him. I worried about everything from the fate of his soul, his consciousness; to his potential suffering.

Gazing out the window at the ocean rolling by as I drove, I noticed the moon: a waxing crescent in Gemini. The night sky was crystal clear and the moon and the ocean were a painfully beautiful sight. An inky blue sea. A golden yellow moon. Brilliant silver stars. I needed everything to stop being so perfect. I needed the moon to remain as it was, and not to move an inch until everything was sorted out. I felt anything but in control. All was chaos and confusion…so how could it look so peaceful? 48 hours later, Dad would dearly depart us.

Today, at three p.m. on July 21, 2022, 77 days after he died, I stepped outside after spending all day inside a building at the university where I work. I looked up at the blue, cloudless sky and noticed the white reflection of the moon. A waning crescent moon in Taurus. It was another painfully beautiful sight, this moon, coupled with the gorgeous, sunny weather and flowering bushes lining every path and street. The moon had risen and set, waxed and waned, over and over and over again since the days of Dad’s passing. Had the moon betrayed me? Relentlessly marching across the sky? Didn’t the moon get it? Any why does summer feel the need to carry on, too?

Perhaps, I thought. Just maybe, I cautioned…maybe nature knows how to let go. And we don’t. My body softened, shoulders releasing just a little bit of tension. Perhaps I should be bowing to the moon and reflecting on its wisdom, rather than questioning nature at all.

How to Grieve a Father (Before He’s Even Gone)

After getting the news…

Go stand in the shower to cry, howl instead.

Wail to the heavens, his heavens, the heavens that he believes in enough for the both of you.

Squint your eyes at the crescent moon, the last moon Dad would ever know. Grapple with that for a minute.

Later, meticulously make note of the moon and its aspects: a waxing crescent moon in Gemini.

…Search for meaning. Always search for meaning.

Wonder aloud, tell him, “You were everything to me, Dad. And now you are everything.”

Light a candle, and then another candle, and then another candle. Burn sage and cedar wrapped in string. Sing the Maha Mantra over his dead/dying body. More wailing.

Then silence. Enough silence that someone says, “I think she’s in shock.”

Hold your hands in prayer. Pray for grace, pray for strength, but most of all, pray for his soul to be okay after falling off that ladder.

Notice his body swelling. His hands. His eyes. Listen when the doctors tell you it’s the machines that are keeping his body alive. Write all the dirty details in a notebook, as if that’s going to change anything. Prognosis: impossible.

Instruct them to keep keeping his body alive until all or most of his loved ones have come to see him, to say their goodbyes and their thank you’s.

Host them. Meet them in the waiting room. There are so many and they can only go in in twos.

Notice how his body is swelling. How at first he looked just like Dad, but now, not so much. Notice how he doesn’t open his eyes. Notice the artificial breath. Touch his hair.

Put your hands in prayer again.

Talk like Dad is in the room. Tell him, “So and so is here to see you, Dad.”

Surprise yourself by reciting the Lord’s Prayer verbatim during a too long silence.

After all the visitors, try to sleep next to Dad in a recliner that the hospital provided. Have trouble sleeping. Decline the offer for TV. Walk the halls of the hospital instead.

In the morning, instruct the doctor to unplug him. Play a favorite song. More wailing.

Let your grandpa hold you…something he’s never done before.

Weeks later, let your grandpa walk you down the isle at your wedding.

Ask the mortician to burn him with his tulsi mala beads on, wrapped around his wrist or placed around his neck.

Liken him to Christ in his obituary.

Don’t wash Dad’s laundry, because that means he’ll really be gone.

Place a portrait of him as a baby at your dining room table. His cherub-like smile greeting you every morning.

Place his adult portrait on your dresser, making eye contact every time you pass it.

Decide you don’t need Dad in your bedroom, on your dresser, looking over you. Place the portrait in the common room instead–a reminder to all who enter, “Father Gone But Not Forgotten.”

Search for rainbows. Stitch a quilt of silver linings.

Study Dad’s birth and death dates for meaning: 11/11/62 – 5/5/22

Find none because your mind is too blurry.

Place the jelly in the cupboard and the peanut butter in the fridge.

Finally wash Dad’s laundry, twice to get rid of the ICU smell. But refuse to put the clothes away. Then it’ll really, really mean that Dad’s gone.

Gone. Meditate on the origin of the word. It’s from the Old English “gan” meaning to depart or go away.

Dearly departed. Indeed.

Take a month to go pick up the cremains, which they present to you in a box inside a gift bag.

Tell yourself you’re going to buy little ceramic jars for the family. Then don’t.

Smoke too much pot. It was your and Dad’s “thing.” That and swimming or soaking.

Tell yourself you’re going to take yourself to the water every opportunity you get. Then don’t.

Tell yourself you’re going to send a card to the nurse staff at Sutter Coast Hospital. Then don’t.

Tell yourself you’re going to try not to be so hard on yourself for once. Then don’t.

Have breakfast with his baby picture everyday. Granola and that gummy smile.

Tap into that grief place through music. Play all the emotional ones. Unknown Legend. Eureka. Ripple.

Take a walk in the woods, it’s what he would have wanted.

My Sweet Lord

I am not a destiny person. Or I wasn’t until now anyway. I’m still wary of signing off on that whole concept. But I dare you not to think of God or the afterlife, when staring at a body you once knew, loved, even relied on, hooked up to a life support machine. Questions of what the soul is, where the soul is, and where that soul will end up are likely to swirl around in your consciousness for weeks, if not forever, if you are like me.

So that is where I am now. As I write this, it is seven days after Dad’s passing. I am reflecting on how in those moments of great challenge with Dad, in those hours that I laid by his bedside in the hospital, I surprised myself by curling up in the presence of Something Greater. It didn’t feel good to pray and to surrender—nothing felt good at that time—but it felt completely necessary. The experience with Dad made me question my own faith, or what little there was left of it. This is all to say, you don’t need spirituality…until you do. And you will.

I usually cringe at statements like “It was meant to happen” or “It was all part of God’s plan.” Now there is a small fissure in the wall of my beliefs, where the narrowest slip of light can come in. I didn’t become a believer overnight. Or rather over those 36 hours between Dad’s accident (a fall from a ladder) and when we took him off life support. But my defenses did soften. Where else was there to turn, but to some idea of God? To some idea of an afterlife? I couldn’t just turn on the television and forget about it all, though they did, perplexingly, have a TV in the ICU.

How could all of this, I questioned, from work to play and everything else in-between be orchestrated? It had all been said by others before but, if it were all orchestrated, why would innocent people be imprisoned and tortured, people who love with all they have become broken hearted, and children be born, and die, on the streets? Why is there no justice on this earth?

If there was such a thing as heaven, I hoped there was justice there. The truth is, there is no conflict in heaven. So there needs to be no justice.

According to many, the answer to why there is so much pain and there is so much suffering is that the soul has a need for spiritual evolution. That each has their own lessons to learn in this life, on this earth. Without conflict, our spiritual selves cannot grow or evolve. In the days after Dad’s passing, people started saying things like, “His work here was done.”

Dad used to talk a lot about religion and spirituality. And now that he’s not physically here, I feel I owe him the respect of listening, of leaning into his beliefs, of opening my heart and mind to what he’d been saying all along. His teachings have never been more relevant. In the moments by his bedside, I experienced more than one “ah ha.”

The best I can do for Dad now is to breathe more life into those wisdoms and teachings that he’d had. In his obit, which I wrote, I liken him to Christ. It’s a bold statement, I know. But some people don’t realize the well of compassion that Dad carried within him. Just one example, at the time of his death there was, and still is, a man living on Dad’s property. When we approached him and asked where they’d met, the man said he met Dad at the Mission. He’d just been released from prison, and Dad offered him a place to stay. As a child, there was always one person, usually a convicted felon, living on our land. These are people who had been shunned from society, with no place else on earth to go. And Dad was there for them, as hard as that was for me at times.

“Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” Proverbs 14:31

I didn’t know that scripture, I don’t know any scriptures, really, but thinking about Dad’s ways, I did a quick Google search. It turns out there are a shit ton of scriptures just like that one.

When the doctor came into the room—Dr. Christie—he asked me, with complete respect, why I had laid a hindi blanket across Dad’s body. I fingered the white cloth with the red Sanskrit lettering and depictions of Krishna and Rhada.

“Dad is a Hare Krishna…and a Christian, and a Buddhist,” I told Dr. Christie.  

He took a sidelong glance at the Bible I’d brought and placed on the table next to Dad’s breathing machine. He worshipped any God that was in front of him, I thought. But I can’t remember if I told Dr. Christie that or not.

A few days later, I was reading a book “Embraced by the Light” by Betty J. Eadie and came across this:

“I wanted to know why there were so many churches in the world. Why didn’t God give us one church, one religion? The answer came to me with the purest of understanding. Each of us is at a different level of spiritual development and understanding. Each person is prepared for a different level of spiritual knowledge. All religions on earth are necessary because there are people who need what they teach.”

It turns out that that book “Embraced by the Light” would help me access my spirituality through a side door: near death experiences or NDEs. I couldn’t come to that spiritual place head on, through the Bible or the Baghavad-Gita. I don’t jibe, and never have, with religious stories that read like fiction or with timelines that seem to counter science.

But I could get behind near death experiences themselves, I mean, Dad and I had both had one. His, we all believe, was what made him the way he was. But more on that later. I couldn’t possibly tell this entire story in one sitting. In my journal, where I have been laying down all the letters and words that have been helping me come to some place of understanding at this unimaginable crossroad in my life, my writing now shifts from addressing you, the audience, to addressing Dad himself. This change in style makes it difficult for me to continue the story and round it out in a nice, easy way, so I will share the next segment of what I have written in my journal, before closing this chapter and picking the story up in a different piece. If anything is to render me speechless, or wordless, it is Dad’s passing. So be it. The fact that I cannot finish this essay is a testament to my grief.

My next paragraph is, “I thought of how, since you were a boy, you’d had one foot in this world and one foot in another. You didn’t remember ‘what happened’ when you were in a month-long coma, or what happened to your soul in those moments that you floated lifeless on top of the water, having drowned, but it was clear that you’d met God.”

This is all to say that you don’t need spirituality…until you do. And you will. And also this: some things you just can’t write, or reason, your way out of.

Love and mysterious blessings,

Mama Bird

A Simple Potluck Dinner

Last Saturday we piled into the minivan and headed, for the first time since moving here more than five years ago, to a locally infamous community potluck at a place called Big Bear Camp. The potluck happens monthly and follows a different theme. I imagined themes like comfort food and Asian food, but wasn’t exactly sure. We’d long wanted to go to the potlucks but missed the opportunity during Autumn’s newborn phase, and then the pandemic happened, and it wasn’t until recently that the owners of Big Bear Camp, an engaging couple of retirement age, called us on the telephone. They addressed us as the “chicken people” and invited us to their monthly community potluck, which had just started up again.

We’d passed their sign before marking Big Bear Camp on the long, winding and wooded Nelson Mountain Road back when we used to drive it regularly to visit our good friends in Deadwood. The road connects our small town, Walton, with another small town, Deadwood. Deadwood was always a decidedly cooler place than Walton, but if anything were to change my mind about that, it was sure to be our experience at Big Bear Camp.

Time stands still in some places. Takilma, Oregon. Deadwood. And even, I would learn, at Big Bear Camp–located 33 miles outside of Eugene. I am certain that a million places like this exist across our country. They’re the places that don’t show up on glossy brochures. They’re places where GPS always gets it wrong. And where you are more likely to see a person walking in bare feet, with flowers in their hair, a beer in their hand, and their face toward the sun, rather than looking down at their watch, or phone; or rushing in and out of big box stores, and chasing the next “thing” at breakneck speed. These places are a step outside, even, your quintessential small towns–your Tombstone, Arizona’s; your Virginia City, Montana’s. It’s a place for locals where nothing, and I mean nothing, is being sold. Just bartered.

I immediately felt at home when we, after arriving late, were welcomed into the wide circle of what must have been over forty five people, who were introduced as our neighbors. In that moment I honestly felt more connected than I have in years.

After introductions, people made their way to the lodge for a potluck feast served on the wraparound porch outside. Lively discussions about solar energy, sustainable food production, and building homes using reclaimed local timber ensued.

“There’s more food inside,” a pretty elderly woman dressed in a blue wool coat told us. She sported coral pink lip gloss and I was immediately drawn to her, and inspired by her style. I almost regretted wearing my fresh-of-the-farm outfit: black from head-to-toe. Next time, I told myself, I’d wear some color. I wanted to talk to her, but before I could say a word she’d fluttered away.

It was eye-opening to see so many other likeminded and friendly people, right there in our backyard. I’d almost come to believe to some extent that these kind of people only existed in my phone. What a mistake that had been, and what a casualty of the isolated, pandemic-era.

After the feast, which was as lively as always for Steve and I–balancing our paper plates with metal forks and grabby, wobbly, three-year-old–the host pointed us to the “library” on the lodge’s second floor. We rounded the spiral staircase to a comfortable landing place for any parent and child. Energized as she was, I couldn’t get Autumn to focus on a single children’s book. That was until a little girl close to her age–almost three years her senior–wandered up. Autumn was content to have the little girl read to her when she offered, and the two happily played together for the rest of our visit.

For sometime, I sat in a chair in the corner of the library, just catching my metaphorical breath. Not catching my breath from socializing or parenting, things you might think of when I say that. But catching my breath from the fast paced and often artificial world outside the walls of Big Bear Camp and other places like it. Looking down from the loft library at all the people sitting face-to-face, eating pie under the glow of solar light, with not a phone or screen in sight; I felt both sad and happy. Sad because something as ordinary as sitting face-to-face, and really giving someone your attention was somehow a novelty now. And happy because I felt warm and fuzzy just witnessing and being a part of it all. This recently forgotten ritual: a simple potluck dinner.

I wanted to stay forever off grid, where the norms were flipped on their heads and where the something missing was at the heart of all the magic. When devoid of technology, we only have each other to connect with.

Of course I didn’t say any of this to anyone. And when one of the hosts appeared in the library on multiple occasions, I noticed that while he was speaking to me, he was also grabbing books. He grabbed one book off the arm of a chair. Another off a shelf. He did this very nonchalantly, as if I wouldn’t notice. Of course, I did notice. I noticed one was titled “Women of the Woods,” or something like that. I knew he was going downstairs to pass the novel off to one person or another, and naturally that made me happy. I liked to imagine how far back these traditions went, how long he and his neighbor had been trading paperback westerns. Two individuals, about my age, popped their heads into the library. Both said they’d been coming to Big Bear Camp since they were kids, that their parents read to them in the library I was sitting in. I smiled thinking of my own upbringing off grid, and how deep an impact my community had left on me, too. And how I desperately wanted that for my daughter.

This is all to say that the potluck was a reminder that there are still one million ways to live a life. And that time stands still, even today, in some places. Perhaps with this new awareness, we too can create a more intentional living space, built on a foundation of art, knowledge and community. And food. And although we did puncture a tire on the drive home, we will definitely be going back to Big Bear Camp’s next monthly potluck. And I’ll be sure to wear my colors.

Love,

Mama Bird

The Importance of Showing Mercy in Memoir

Like all of us, I’ve always been of the belief that actions speak louder than words. But over the past several months, I’ve been thinking about how loud words do speak, particularly if you are a memoirist.

I’ve had many years of writing and publishing (mostly here on my blog) to teach me that those who are written about will read your words closely and they will take them to heart, naturally. I have also had the luxury–I humbly admit–of those characters showing me extreme grace and forgiveness.

My memoir writing journey began in my very early twenties, and because I knew virtually nothing about memoir, other than having read a couple of them, I approached my writing this way: I wrote everything about everyone and used all their real names.

Now, I look at my pages and I see the truth, yes. But I also look at those pages and see real live people with real live emotions, and I have to honor that. At this juncture, having written the meat of the story, and revised it several times over, I have a choice: Do I change names or soften the story? Do I painstakingly sort through and assign similar sounding names to key characters? Cousins, boyfriends and bosses? Or do I keep their names and speak as if they are there in the room with me: with honesty, integrity, and compassion?

Writers in the genre have all heard the same line, “If they didn’t want to be written about poorly, they shouldn’t have behaved badly.”

It’s a fine starting point, a line to help you get your pen moving across the page. But I am curious to hear from other aspiring memoirists if it’s that same sentiment they think of when crossing over the threshold into querying and publishing.

Because, after all, most books do not become overnight bestsellers. What if we memoirists, in the end, sell our books only to our family members. If your book subject matter, childhood trauma, wouldn’t make for some awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversation, well I don’t know what would.

But here’s the thing, when it comes to me, the majority of those who have purchased the books I have self-published are not my family. I haven’t had a Thanksgiving with my mother, ever, and abandonment, whether comfortable or not, is central to my story. I cannot untangle myself from the truths and tell some other story. But maybe I can tell my story with a balance of both transparency and grace. Maybe. That’s what I hope for.

Back when I first started writing The Poetry of Place, long before it had a title, long before I’d changed my mother’s name to Moonbeam, and long before I started dragging my pages through critique group, it was all about the therapeutic benefits of memoir. I didn’t think of it in those terms back then, but looking back I’d really, really, really needed to exorcise my story. I was always a writer, from elementary school on up. So my story–once I finally realized it’s potential–became viable subject matter. And my intention morphed from the therapeutic benefits of writing to the creative challenge it presented: Writing a book worth reading.

So rather than “If they didn’t want to be written about poorly, they shouldn’t have behaved badly,” how about, “Hurt people hurt people.”

Most people agree with that statement, and I believe the message is being conveyed through my memoir. Therefor I cannot take responsibility, or blame, when expressing, in so many words, something that we all agree is true, that “hurt people hurt people.”

But that’s what it all comes down to, responsibly. Because memoirists aren’t just airing our dirty secrets, but in some cases the secrets of others, too. In turn we have the potential to create a significant portion of someone’s legacy. And that is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. Ever.

As I cross over the threshold into querying (that’s the long process of landing an agent or a book deal), and as I refine its final pages, imagining its bound version, I weigh my options. I am trying to strike a balance that honors both what I’ve endured, and protects the inherent innocence of those surrounding the story itself. Because none of us are perfect. Not even close. I think the most helpful advice I have heard is to be as hard on myself in the story as I am being on others. I assure you, given my nature, that my flaws will come across strongly in the final story. No matter what version you get.

Love (above all else),

Mama Bird

This is How I Care for Myself

Only build what you can properly care for.

This is how I care for myself:

Some people listen to their bodies, I listen to my heart. Of course, it’s louder when it’s pumping full of blood, so I take big, long strides up and down the hillsides near our home. When the sun comes up in the morning, I raise the blinds in both bedrooms and make two beds before making the coffee. I work for that cup, I earn it.

This is how I care for myself:

If I have time, I sip my coffee seated by the window. I especially love the blue sky. I didn’t appreciate it as much pre-pandemic, but now, after everything, I value the blue sky much more. If I don’t have time, the coffee goes into a dented aluminum mug, long on function, but short on looks.

This is how I care for myself:

I paint my toenails a sunny yellow. I paint them myself because it’s more satisfying that way. I offer to paint other people’s toenails too, because I secretly like to do that. I love imagining the joy on their faces when they look down at their toes.

This is how I care for myself:

I write in my journal and I don’t care about the scribbles and trailing thoughts because I remember a time when it was all about the journey and not the product. It really can’t be any other way and still be true.

This is how I care for myself:

I register for a grief writing group because feeling and writing is what I do. And feeling is better than numbing. I do it to help with the anticipatory grief I am experiencing over my grandmother’s health. “It’s an investment,” I remind myself.

This is how I care for myself:

I sing and dance with the children, even when I really don’t want to (even when I’d rather be writing).

This is how I care for myself:

I only take what I have it in me to give in return.

This is how I care for myself:

I take social media fasts on the weekends. It doesn’t transform my life, but it helps me stay accountable to the things, and importantly the people, that really matter to me.

This is how I care for myself:

I put invisible, impenetrable walls up around me–porous for only a few.

This is how I care for myself:

I knock them down from time to time. I rock n’ roll.

This is how I care for myself:

I learn, slowly, what boundaries are. I communicate my needs, first to myself and then to others.

This is how I care for myself:

I get my hair trimmed regularly. I don’t need a cut, exactly. I just like feeling cared for. I wear a big, soft shawl the color of wine.

This is how I care for myself:

I accept whatever weird and wacky–or totally mundane–way I have of taking care of myself. I trust myself–now, finally–to care for myself in healthy ways, the best ways for me. I do these things regardless of what others think of it.

This is how I care for myself:

Some people listen to their bodies, I listen to my heart. Of course it’s louder when it’s pumping so I take big, long strides up and down the hillsides.