Remembered: Expectations for Memoir


For Christmas this year, I purchased Handling The Truth: On the Writing of Memoir  by Beth Kephart.  I couldn’t go any farther than the first chapter without participating in the writing assignment “expectations for memoir.”  Kephart asks her students and readers to write 750 words on what draws us to memoir, then challenges us to “not fail our own gold standards.”

Here are mine….they are impossible and hard, and explain why I balk at the blank page.

Perhaps I should lower my expectations and just write.

Expectations for Memoir

        Perhaps my expectations are too high.  But the truth is that I want to be grabbed by writing that goes deep emotionally.  I want complexity in sentences and to be led into compelling questions raised by complicated relationships and social situations. I also want to eat good food voyeuristically, through characters that relish and savor and appreciate meals.  I want characters who clean their houses or apartments or impoverished shacks.  I want to see the ordinary celebrated and appreciated and valued.  I want to be shown a wider perspective through place or characterization that is different than the narrow one I experience through the consequences of my lifestyle choices.  I want to travel, to be slightly disoriented and then later, to be shown the way home.  Once at home, I want to feel just a little bit larger, expanded and changed.

I love to be shocked, and then also comforted by surprising events or intimate moments.  I want to cry, to laugh, to rage against injustice.  A good memoir is also a great story.  I want to be told the truth, but I also want to know about things imagined that aren’t real or that never happened, the unfulfilled wishes, dreams and fantasies of people.  I want to know how they survived, coped, avoided, misplaced, rejected or embraced the hardships and the victories.  What I don’t like is someone telling stories to glamorize or sell themselves as a celebrity.  I want the speaker to be accessible as a friend, someone who suffers but ultimately recovers.

I ask for so much.  I also expect to discover another something or someone to care about.  What the writer cares about will hopefully expand empathy in society.  I want the writer to be writing for a purpose, to heal something or improve a situation for someone, a human, a creature or natural landscape.  I don’t like to be advertised to in regards to a particular cause, but I would like my awareness of a particular issue to be expanded.  I want to deepen my understanding of cultural differences, political differences, religious and educational differences.

I’m intensely interested in how people learn and grow.  I became hooked on memoir after reading Frank McCourt’s three memoirs.  I was working at the library, preparing to have some time off to have my wisdom teeth removed. I walked to the nonfiction section, hoping for something interesting. Angela’s Ashes seemed to fall off the shelf into my hand.  McCourt’s story gripped me, pulling me down to the couch, where I read continuously for a week, simultaneously recovering from oral surgery.  I love to read about miserable circumstances when I am feeling miserable, like people who play the blues when they’re depressed.

I love the blues.  I love sad, terrible stories of fantastic loss, of discomfort, then recovery or redemption.  I am inspired continuously by the resiliency of ordinary people struggling through life; the ones to whom much is not given and to whom much is taken away.  I value strength and endurance and hope and faith and finally…peace to accept it all.

But how does one begin to go to all the places in a memoir that we dare not discuss?  All of that suffering and recovery may come at an impossible price; the exposure of secrets, the breaking of trust.  We must not hurt people this way; we must not betray our loved ones.  This is my writing block, the duct tape on my lips.

I once asked Elizabeth Gilbert this question when she gave a talk at UNCG-Asheville.  I wondered if she would ever consider writing a childhood memoir.  She said she was waiting for someone to die before writing that— but she was confident that she would outlive that person and be able to write it one day— even if she had to do it in her nineties.

I don’t want to wait until I am ninety to write an honest memoir.  I just have not yet learned how to handle the truth.

What does one do with all of that raw material?

My expectations are incredibly high. I’m not sure how they got that way.  Perhaps if I’m going to spend time reading a book, with so many competing demands, I want it to be worthwhile.  In years past, when I did not care so much about dishes in the sink or piles of laundry hiding behind the closet doors, I read everything the library offered.  Now, with the responsibility of home education, a small handmade business, a larger house, three pets, exercise needs, meal preparations and generally higher expectations for orderliness, I read less.  I write less.  My vocabulary suffers from too much scrolling on social media sites. I need something deeper and more complicated than I am currently able to write.  I want to read love in a memoir, and write love too.

Maybe I could begin with this single, simple intention:  to love.


Still Enjoying…

I received another unexpected gift yesterday.  An old friend from elementary school shared a yearbook photo that I hadn’t seen in decades.  I don’t know whatever happened to my copy of this yearbook, or even if we bought one that year.  But this blast from the past seemed to foretell my future.

jennylarockenjoysenglishIn all of the rush and expectations of this holiday season, may you remember the essence of your unique self, and renew your potential that may become hidden or dormant in the load of responsibility you carry.  May the New Year arrive with a feeling of freedom and open doors.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you!

Ready Enough

decembermorning7For three weeks, I’ve been preparing.  I’m still not ready.  The big morning will arrive and by that time, I’ll have done all I could do. I will learn whether or not the choices I made hit the bull’s eye of the heart, or skimmed the edge and deflected, landing in the dirt of another foolish gift idea.  Shopping for gifts for loved ones is hard in a way that shouldn’t be.  Don’t I know my family?  Am I not fully aware of their likes and loves and passions?  The trouble with shopping for gifts is that in December  manufacturers, inventors and merchants blast us with the latest novelties, stuff that has nothing to do with the complicated and unique individual.  If the perfect gift is out there, I never make enough time to search every store or browse hundreds of webpages.  I end up in a mess of anxiety days before Christmas wondering what to do.

Perhaps the best material things are the kind that help wake up the spirit inside, like something to create and share. Or a handmade gift from the heart.  Something I need to be thinking about and preparing for months instead of days.

Every year, my husband asks for the same gifts.  He always wants socks and underwear.  He never asks for anything else, except for a bottle of cologne.

Yet,  I know there are things he would love to experience or enjoy, but because we are strict with our budget, he would be angry if I went into debt for the holidays.  So I behave.  I keep it simple.  But I know that just like me, he would enjoy a fun surprise that  distracts him from the everyday grind.  Something unrelated to home repairs and projects.

I appreciate that my guy is humble and practical.  I used to be jealous and frustrated with his non-magical-fantastical dreams on Christmas morning.  If he has secret wishes, he doesn’t let on.  Meanwhile, I go around asking for the entirely un-practical, like a big fluffy cat or roller skates.  I’m forty-three and on Christmas morning, I love gifts that nurture and celebrate the inner child. Since I did get my big fluffy kitty cat and  a nice pair of skates earlier this season, My husband is now struggling with the same dilemma.  I reminded him that I already received so many gifts this year, like tickets to see Paul McCartney.  I couldn’t help him with a list, except to say I love Soapworks’ Lemon Verbena bath bar at the Dollar Tree.

The truth is that I have everything I could ever want.  A loving family, a beautiful home, a lovely region to live in with a fantastic community.  My brother is coming during the holidays and this is a huge and exciting gift, something that makes our house full of energy and anticipation.  I should be riding the wings of these sustaining happy thoughts, but I also know I need to finish my dreaded gift shopping. This is annoying and bothersome.  It means I have to make choices based on assumptions and guesses and take risks with funds.

But since I’m not supposed to be stressing myself out for health reasons, I noticed that this annoying anxiety is a choice.  I can decide to feel grumbly and cruddy about going out in public with my dwindling funds and pray for a miracle that it will be enough, OR I can let that feeling slide away.  I can remember to practice gratitude.

And just as I began to feel grateful and happy to experience all the blessings and the joy, I received an unexpected gift; a mature gift to grow on that I didn’t even know I was asking for.

Last night while Christmas shopping, I encountered a friend I hadn’t seen in years.  She was sitting at a table in Barnes and Noble providing free gift wrapping services.  There was another woman next to her, sitting behind a sign that read “Free Gift Wrapping:  Writer’s Group of the Triad.”  I spoke with my friend for a while, amazed and delighted that she remembered me, then happily walked away.

As I headed to the stacks, the handwritten sign at the table popped into my head, blocking out the titles on the shelf: “Writer’s Group of the Triad.” Like recognizing  wholesome, nutritious—but untasted by me— food in the supermarket, I reached for courage and decided: this will be good for me.  It might even taste good.  It might sustain me in a way that I can’t provide for myself alone.  Pulled by an unseen force, I bravely decided to out myself as a wannabe, and turned back to ask about the group.

Later I wondered, “am I really and truly serious about writing?” while tucking the scrap of Christmas paper with my friend’s number into my floppy corduroy bag.  Perhaps I am not as serious as many writers, but maybe I am ready enough to try just a little bit harder.  Maybe I’m ready enough.  And maybe my husband will receive a perfect gift too, one that comes from the Spirit that had nothing to do with me.

This is what I hope.  Just in case, I’m saving all receipts.


Editing Selfies and Those Pesky Internal Blemishes



Facing illness, I’m discovering more habits I have the power to change.  In the process of noticing my compulsive habits, I found that they’re not unmanageable.  I stopped drinking coffee.  And this helped me relax more.  I no longer feel those surges to multi task and force my will into maintaining everything.  In my new herbal tea mindset, things get done, just in a more calm and deliberate manner.  Eating tiny meals has actually eased some stress; I’m saving funds at the grocery store and my jeans now feel comfortable.  I have excellent control with portions now, which means no more isolating hours in the bathroom or expansive bloating.  While I’m not cured, I’m learning how to live my new reality with a positive outlook.

Since recognizing the factor of stress and my bold confrontation with issues, relationships that were complicated are suddenly eased.  In letting go of my hyper expectations for myself, I am better able to let go of my high expectations of others.  Last night after days of feeling resistance and discomfort with a woman I am working with for a pet adoption, I realized that sometimes I’m just too hard on people.  I don’t mean that I’m outright argumentative, pushy or manipulative.  On the outside, I try to be as pleasant and agreeable as possible so not to spark conflict. Instead of impulsively speaking out my feelings I internalize the dialogue that I so want to say. I’m hard on person in the privacy of my own mind.   And struggling with them there changes nothing. It only wastes my energy and joy for living.  But once that loop of cycling dialogue kicks in, it’s hard to break the pattern. Sometimes a long nap or a night’s rest helps me to forget what I was so mad about.  If I have a good creative project, this sometimes helps me work things out and make the peace I long to reclaim.

So just before bed last night, I tried to find a perspective that would allow me to be kinder in my own mind toward this person.  I wondered if they had come in my life to teach me something.

I took a long look at my internal selfie and decided it needed some editing.

Usually when people are rude or unkind, I bolt for fastest route out of the situation and make plans to never have to deal with them again.  Because I don’t like to be uncomfortable and mask my true feelings, which may or may not be based in logic or reason.  Keeping my cool is easier done on the outside, but the furnace inside me wants to blow.

Being kind on the inside matters more than simply acting kind.  I want to genuinely care about people despite their behavior.   And I cannot make this happen without continual work and exposure to the flow of life outside of these four walls. I’d like for the cocoon I’ve created to be burst so that the wings I’ve been developing can be free to take me out and lift me up.


All That Passes Through


Holidays have never been easy or completely blissful for me.  While I do enjoy the spirit of gratitude, giving and the joy that comes with Christmas, I also struggle.

Being in close proximity with family and loved ones has become easier for me as I age, but sometimes I still fall into old patterns of resentment and disagreement.  How do we begin to navigate the trecherous waters of our emotion-laden holidays with the people we care about the most?

I don’t have a single, clear answer.

In fact, I stand here in the middle wondering which way to turn. Two of my favorite spiritual guides have opposing views.  I’m often caught between the wisdom of Michael Singer in The Untethered Soul, and Jill Bolte Taylor in My Stroke of Insight.  Singer writes,

“If you want to be free, you have to learn to stop fighting these human feelings.  When you feel pain, simply view it as energy.  Just start seeing these inner experiences as energy passing through your heart and before the eye of your consciousness.  Then relax.  Do the opposite of contracting and closing.  Relax and release.  Relax your heart until you are actually face-to-face with the exact place where it hurts.  Stay open and receptive so you can be present right where the tension is…just see it as energy and let it go.  If you close around the pain and stop it from passing through, it will stay in you.” (Singer, 105)

In My Stroke of Insight, Taylor recounts her experience recovering from a stroke.  In the hospital, she was negatively affected by caregivers who arrived in her room bringing stress and anxiety, anger and fear.  This made an impact on her recovery.  She now claims that each of us has a responsibility to be aware of the energy we bring to others.

So in considering these two views, I recognize that both are true.  I am inclined to side more with Taylor’s view simply because it takes so much work to do what Singer is suggesting.  It also takes bravery to ask the people you encounter to be aware of the negative impact they are having on you.

Both roads, whichever you choose, are difficult.

I believe that we can grow from practicing the continual release of our feelings and simply observe them as “energy” (which is hard because it’s so abstract).  I also believe we can begin to heal when we are able to honestly communicate the struggle we experience when someone close to us has a habit of ranting or complaining or objecting and offering opposing viewpoints for the sake of entertaining arguments.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lammott loved a line that one of her students wrote: “I could resent the ocean if I tried.”   While that might be humorous and witty, I really don’t feel so great about hanging out with someone who sees the world through that lens.  I want to be around happy people, and I want to be happy.  I might not have a “right” to it, but I surely do seek the company and comfort of friends who take life in and give back light.  Especially when I’m struggling in the dark.

Recently, I had to accept a diagnosis from my doctor that means I need to make changes.  The first of these changes involves stress reduction.  I also had to give up coffee, over eating, red meat, alcohol, and all dairy.  I have to eat the smallest meals and cook and mash almost everything I eat.  It’s like the baby food diet.  I can have a small snack every two or three hours.  None of this bothers me though, because I only want to feel better.  If this is the way, then I feel so happy to have a simple solution that doesn’t involve drugs or hospitalization or surgery.  So many people are having a worse time. For stress reduction, I decided to reduce my compulsive habits, and asked the people closest to me to be aware of the energy that they bring to me.

And once I asked, I experienced a deep and powerful lonliness.  For days I lay on the plush loveseat with blankets and a stomach ache, feeling ashamed to ask my loved ones to stop bringing so much to my emotional table.  My detachment was filled with sadness and loss.  I wondered how long I could be in this place, feeling that energy.  Knowing that what I asked will be difficult to give.

Then, after a few days of this internal moping lonliness, I was gifted with a day of silence.  I got off the couch and cleaned the house.  I followed my diet.  I played my French Horn.  I hugged and kissed and loved my family in the evening.

Sometimes we need to have this silence, a soothing bath of warm water for the soul.

I don’t know why I feel so lonely when I speak my truth to those I love.

It never comes out as kind as I intend it, or as eloquently as I might write it.

I used to go out on my front steps to have a cigarette when I felt like this.  Yesterday, still wating for my mood to lift, I sat on those steps and looked out at a glowing sunrise through the trees.  A passing aircraft spread a pink contrail on the pale blue sky.  My seven year old neighbor danced alone in her driveway, delighted with her new sequin encrusted high tops. This is the kind of energy I love.

I plan to notice it more.