Imperfect Serenity

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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Back to the Blog

Last week was the first since May that I didn’t write here at all. The main reason was that I was totally focused on getting my mom’s apartment empty by the end of January. I’m happy to say that mission was accomplished, with the help of many friends, all of whom were coaxed into taking a few things home with them. I also delivered four loads of thrift store donations, recycled at least eight bags of papers, filled a friend’s minivan with rags and things that she’s going to bring to a special recycling center an hour away, sold several boxes of jewelry and books, sold the couch my grandfather died on, donating a hearing aid and several glasses to worthy organizations, and carted an astonishing amount of stuff into my own home, which now looks like a flee market. All month I’ve been very conscientious about not putting in the landfill things that could be reused or recycled, but I finally reached my limit Saturday when the Salvation Army turned down some of our stuff. Sunday I started throwing things in the garbage with wild abandon, though I couldn’t quite bring myself to trash my mother’s enormous (and hideous) hand-painted picture of Jesus’ heart with a sword through it. So there are still some loose ends.

Aside from the time involved in the apartment clearing, I suspect I also didn’t write last week because it was easier to stay task oriented that to connect to my emotions. I didn’t want to reflect too much. I just wanted to get through it, which is how I’ve felt for most of the month. Yesterday I finally let my emotions rise up when I was leaving the apartment for the last time. I walked around each room—the rooms I grew up in—and remembered my father and the spot where my mother died. Then I took a small bottle of mom’s holy water and sprinkled each room to bless the mother and son who will live there next.

I still have plenty of stuff to sort out, but today seems like a good time to start thinking about what’s next in my own life. Starting a new book? Developing a new course to teach? Released from the care of my mother, there is a new freedom, but also a sense of uncertainty. I just ran into a friend in the coffee shop where I’m writing who said that after quitting her job last week, she doesn’t know whether to feel bereft or free. That’s a good description. There’s part of me that wants a new project to anchor me. But I know I haven’t done much grieving yet, and I shouldn’t be too quick to fill up my time. I probably need a little space to make room so whatever’s next can reveal itself.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006


Two things have gotten me thinking about the nature of memories: the recent controversy over the now-discredited A Million Little Pieces and the continual slog through mom’s stuff.

For those of you who missed the hooplah, James Frey recently admitted that parts of his bestselling “memoir” were made up or exaggerated, a revelation that has sparked much discussion on the pages of The New York Timesabout the nature of Truth and a publisher’s obligation to discern it. Perhaps it’s a bad week to relaunch my efforts to sell my own motherhood memoir Imperfect Serenity, though that’s my goal. Aside from wanting to sell the book I worked so hard on, I want to defend memoirs and memories, even though both are often imperfect. I’m not defending lying, mind you. Saying that you did hard time in jail, to impress the reader (as Frey did) is clearly unethical. It does matter that he made stuff up, and whatever redemptive message the book contained is tarnished by the revelations.

What’s interesting to me as a writer is the more typical dilemma of memoirists, the need to give specific details to evoke a scene when one’s memory of those details may be shaky. For example, I remember the leader of a writing workshop saying, “If you’re writing about the first time you had sex in the back of a blue Chevy, don’t get hung up wondering if the car was really blue. If you stop while you’re writing to wonder, ‘Or was it green?’ you’re going to loose what was really important about that experience.” I agree with him, for the kind of personal writing we were doing. Obviously if I were a reporter describing a crime, whether the car was blue or green would actually matter. Likewise, if I was quoting a politician in the paper, getting the words exactly right would be important. But in the above quote from the writing teacher, I haven’t used notes or a tape recording to confirm his exact wording. I’m using my memory of what he said over ten years ago and, more importantly, what struck me as important about it. Maybe the example he gave was actually a blue Mustang, but I’m pretty certain I’m accurate about his main point, that a memoir writer is striving for an emotional truth that is different from the kind of truth a reporter pursues.

It’s emotional truth I want to defend, first of all for myself as a writer, even if no one ever reads my work. Even if Imperfect Serenity is never published (which I still trust it will be), the two years I spent rehashing my memories and trying to discern the patterns they revealed were well spent. For example, reliving the first months of Luke’s life, when I was angry and short-tempered and overwhelmed by the needs of two young children, made me more aware of my own limitations, more compassionate toward others, and ultimately a bit better as a mother. This is why Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn suggests that everyone should write an autobiography. Writing about one’s life, in a blog or a book, can be a spiritual practice, if we’re honest with ourselves. Frey may have sold millions of copies of his story, but if made up his past he cheated himself out of the memoir writer’s richest reward.

What we get out of reading each other’s experiences is a whole other question. At the moment I’m more focused on what I should learn from my mother’s life based on what she kept and what memories her possessions evoke. Much of what she kept was rarely used, and I’m left wondering why she held onto so much. Some of it was a scarcity mentality. (You can never have too much Tupperware or too many rubber bands.) But some of it was clearly sentiment. Yesterday I found a drawer with unused wedding gifts, a silver plate and a silver gravy pourer, both in their boxes with cards from people I’ve never heard of. Mom also kept an assortment of ash trays with shamrocks on them, even though no one has smoked since my Dad died seventeen years ago. Finding a white linen tablecloth, now stained yellow at the decades-old creases, seemed symbolic. I’d rather ruin a tablecloth by using it than by keeping it unused.

A few hours at my mom’s inspired me to come home and try to get rid of some of my own stuff. I unearthed a musty box that contained my high school yearbook and my Setswana language books from my Peace Corps training. I found a few papers I was able to recycle, but most of it I held onto, the way my mom held onto the shamrock ash trays. Partly it’s the hope that I’ll actually go back to Botswana some day, and I’ll be able to use those twenty-year-old books to brush up on my Setswana. But partly I think it’s holding onto fragments of memory that have faded. Learning Setswana was very important to me as a Peace Corps trainee. I prided myself on speaking the language better than most of the white folks around, and now I only remember a few stock phrases that I occasionally practice in the car. If I can’t speak Setswana any more, does that mean that I’m no longer that young idealist? If I hold onto the books, can I still claim her as myself?

Perhaps memory is most important for its influence on the present. The Setswana books are most useful if they inspire me to actually plan that trip back to Africa or, absent that, to continue educating other Americans about Africa as best I can. The silver tray (the one wedding present I kept) would earn its space in the cabinet if it inspired a dinner party, along with the tablecloth, if the stains bleach out. And my memories of parenthood are best kept alive if they inspire me to continue to try to be a better parent.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Mom's Stuff

Well, despite the ambitions in my last post, it hasn’t been that creative a week, unless you count the creativity involved in arranging more wine glasses in our dining room display case. I’m starting to bring things home from my mother’s, and finding places to put them is a challenge.

Those of you who have been reading this blog for awhile may recall that we spent last summer trying to clear out our basement. Now I’m filling it up again with things of my mom’s that I’m not ready to part with: a bag of sympathy cards, a box of pictures, unused notebooks that we don’t need now but could use someday, a doll dressed in the habit of the Sisters of the Assumption (the nuns who ran my childhood school), a backscratcher. Then there are the things I’m trying to cram into the kitchen cabinets: a Jell-O mold a friend convinced me to keep, Irish coffee glasses with little shamrocks on them, an ice cream scooper. The ice cream scooper is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. It was the first thing Luke said he wanted from my mom’s, something we’ve never had and never needed until we realized we had to have the one in my mom’s drawer. There’s an iceberg of stuff lurking beyond the ice cream scooper, in drawers and closets and boxes. I’m just starting to chip the iceberg into manageable pieces, and it’s overwhelming.

It’s an odd process, going through someone else’s stuff and deciding what to keep. It’s a little cathartic, getting rid of cracked rubber bands from the Johnson era. It’s also a little guilt-producing, going through mom’s scarves with two friends and snubbing my nose at things she loved. It feels like another step in the individuation process, affirming my separateness from my mother by declaring my different taste.

Perhaps the biggest difference I’m feeling between us regards the tension between generosity and frugality. My mother rarely gave anything away, except to us. If she had things she didn’t want anymore, she brought them to the local thrift shop, waited in a line of older women who were consigning things, hauled home whatever wasn’t accepted, and then went back in six weeks to collect whatever didn’t sell and a check for the items that did. Over the decades she made thousands of dollars this way, money that probably paid for my horseback riding lessons, or other privileges she never enjoyed herself.

It’s crossed my mind that I could sell some of her stuff on e-bay, or at the local thrift shop, but the time involved in such a venture hardly seems worth the money to me. I’m inclined to sell the most valuable things, but most of her stuff (the rest of the drawer with the ice cream scooper, for example) I’m inclined to donate to Whosoever Gospel Mission or the Salvation Army and take the tax deduction instead of the cash I’d get from consignment. I just want to give the stuff away and have started by offering baking sheets and earrings to the friends who help me sort through it and to my cousin who is nineteen and could probably use a spatula.

My mother would be horrified to see me give everything away, but I’m also discovering values my mother and I shared, such an appreciation for fine wood, a love of books, and a desire not to waste things. Neither of us ever liked putting things in the trash that could potentially be used, and I felt her training at work in me yesterday when I pulled soap out of the trash after the friend who was helping me put it there.

I imagine these moments will keep coming, moments of feeling connected to my mother and moments of feeling separate. I suppose grieving is also like an iceberg, and it’s probably fortunate that we only see the tip when we begin.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


The kids are back in school, Tom is back at work, and I’m at the coffee shop with my lap top, finally. I’ve been looking forward to writing for at least a week, feeling like a plane in a holding pattern waiting for the go-ahead from traffic control to land. Now there’s finally some space, though there are still plenty of potential distractions. We have plumbing issues and a dent in our car that we postponed dealing with in December. The house is a mess, and I really need to get it organized before I start bringing in things from my mom’s apartment, which is of course the big project for the month. In addition to sorting out her legal affairs, I have to sort through her old stockings, her piles of papers, her drawer full of purses, her clothes, and much more. I’m assuming that this process will help me to sort out my feelings which have also been kept on hold while we celebrated Christmas with Tom’s family and friends in Wisconsin.

Yet, for my first free hour back home, I choose to write with the hope that I’ll soon get back to writing more than this blog. Last year I had several different ideas for another book and started a few computer files with notes and ideas. But it was clear I needed to keep my emotional energy focused on my mom, so I never got past the brainstorming stage with any one project. Now I have no clarity about what I should write next, but a smoldering creative impulse. My first priorities should be to sort out my mother’s affairs and sell the book that I’ve already written, but I’ve taken the semester off from teaching to make space for whatever else is next. Space is what I’ve been lacking for the past few weeks, and it feels good to have a little. The one morning in Wisconsin that I tried to write, Megan came and snuggled up next to me so close I could hardly move my shoulder as I typed.

I think the children are ready to get back into a routine, too. The day before we left Wisconsin, Luke looked at me mournfully and said, “I want to go home now.” He missed his Legos, which is his primary form of creative expression, along with the piano, which we also had to leave behind.

On New Year’s Day, as we were discussing our hopes for the year, Luke and I agreed that we wanted to make more music as a family. (Megan wants to sneak less candy and go to Australia; Tom wants to read more and go to Italy.) At the end of last year, we worked on "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on piano, guitar, and recorder. Then in Wisconsin we got to visit a musical family and play a little with them. They had a student visiting from Belfast, another musician who happened to know my favorite song from Northern Ireland, "There Were Roses" by Tommy Sands. Together we performed this sad song about the tragedy of war on cello and guitar. I had been missing my guitar, which until last month had been collecting dust for years. Now, along with the urge to write, I’m feeling the urge to play, maybe even to get back to writing songs, which I haven’t done in decades. Who knows? I just have to keep some space in my schedule to see where my creative impulses will lead.

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