Sunday, April 29, 2012

Your Life Is a Treasure

It smelled like old books, furniture polish, and just a hint of motor oil. 

When I was a child, I loved to go exploring in my father’s mahogany secretary desk — the kind with a fold-down tray supported by two sliders, and lots of little cubbyholes and drawers that collectively held The Most Fascinating Stuff in the Universe.

Leather key holders from Columbia Oldsmobile, where he worked as a mechanic. Church bulletins from Norwood Baptist on Courtland Avenue. Electric bills. Rubber bands. Receipts for car parts and house paint. Ball point pens and mechanical pencils. Photographs. Letters written with fountain pens in feathery script. Old report cards. Tools and gizmos that did who-knows-what. All mysterious and intriguing. You would have thought I was Howard Carter, breaking the seal on King Tut’s Tomb and taking that first jaw-dropping look inside.

Why? Maybe because these artifacts belonged to the strange world of grown-ups.  Or because they were Daddy’s things. Or just because they were um, sort of, technically-- that is to say--off limits. This desk exploring could only happen, you understand, on those rare occasions when I was home alone--but you are hereby sworn to secrecy!

Our memories are like that old desk. We keep poking pieces of our experience into cubbyholes, and who knows when or if we’ll find them again. The Pythagorean Theorem? Can't quite remember it, but the cute math teacher who first taught it to you? Him you remember. Seems like you can never find what you’re looking for, but whenever you look, you’ll probably find something interesting.

And not only interesting, but precious, like buried treasure. Our memories hold clues to our essence, our identity, our purpose, our destiny. A burglar rummaging through my father's old desk would have been deeply disappointed, but as I look through it now in memory, I summon up my dad and my childhood.

Last week, I gave an assignment—to list five memories for each decade of your life and to gather a few photos from different times in your life. Here's one of my photos. It's me on a really big bunny. (I'm the one with the balloon.)  :-)

Your list represents (on a very small scale) your life. You could list many more memories in each column. But this is enough for a start.

Once you have your list of memories, now you can make choices. You can choose which ones you want to write down, which ones to pass on, which ones to keep private, which ones to carry to your grave! (Of course, those are the ones inquiring minds want to know.)

Choose two items from your memory list and one of the photos to write about. Maybe just a few sentences, maybe a whole page.

You don't have to be a fancy-pants writer!

There’s something amazing about writing down your memories. One memory triggers another and another. Here are some things to keep in mind as you write. 

  • You don’t have to be a fancy-pants writer to do this. If you can write cursive, or print, or use a computer, you can do this. Or you can tell your stories to someone else to write down for you.
  • You can be totally honest because you don’t ever have to show your story to anybody unless you want to.
  • You don’t have to write with perfect grammar, spelling, or sentence structure. Just get it down. You can edit it later. 

  • Don't feel bad about not starting this sooner. With age, we gain perspective and understanding. Think how much more you now understand the events of your childhood. 
  • The most important thing about any memory is the way this experience made you feel at the time—or how you feel about it now. The emotions are more important than the exact details. 
  • You are free to tell the story your way. If somebody else tells the same story, it will be different. That's okay. Let them write their own version. 

If you do this, you will have made an all-important first step in recording the stories of your life. If you write even one story down, it can be a way for your children (and future generations) to get to know you. You will be more than a name on a chart or a tombstone. 

I hope you will choose to keep writing the stories, collecting them over time.

And then what?

You may decide to write your memoir as a book and try to get it published by a big name publisher. Go for it.

You may make a memory book to give to your children and grandchildren as a Christmas present. 

You may pass on your stories in other forms—as a memory box or a memory quilt, a scrapbook or a photo album. You may choose to record your own voice telling the stories or to make a movie. Technology has blessed us with so many options. But even if you do these things, there’s still something about writing down the stories that helps us make sense of the puzzle pieces of our lives--and to insure that they will be passed down to generations to come. 

The Persistence of Memory, Salvadore Dali
Einstein said that time slows down as we approach the speed of light. Big deal. My "vintage" Beretta will barely get up to 80 mph--downhill, with a tailwind. But we can make time go backwards and even stand still when we write down the stories of our lives.

ASSIGNMENT: 1.) Start writing the stories! Choose three memories--from your list or not--and start getting them down on paper.
2.) Just for fun, can you think of a theme-song for each decade of your life? Be silly or serious.

To read Part III, The Extraordinary Ordinary, click here.

1 comment:

  1. Patty, these posts are great! I plan to print them out and take them over to my mom. Have you thought about teaching a class on memoir at a retirement community?!