Friday, May 18, 2012

Memoir-writing as cultural challenge

by Margaret Swedish

Getting back to work later today on the more-than-memoir I'm writing, chapter six, a bit of a crescendo in the narrative of the book, unlocking the secrets and shame that impacted my parents' generation, and therefore we baby-boomers, in ways that did not serve us well. It's a 'way of being' passed down from ancestors, those who left so much misery, want, and suffering behind to come to America to become something other than who they were back in the old country. And many of them suffered a whole lot when they came here - degrading work and poverty, hallmarks of early immigrant life.

Croatian ancestors
They brought with them strong identity-based cultures that became the roots of strong identity-based neighborhoods, politics, nationalism, religion, and more. But they also buried a whole lot of the suffering, shame, humiliations, exploitation, and fear that shaped them and the lives they created here. That repression left marks on their behaviors and values, on the choices they made, and, whether we descendents like it or not, that impacted who we turned out to be, the choices we, too, have made.

We learned avoidance of troubling emotions, deep-seated insecurity, fragile egos. We inherited, often unconsciously, an identity-based orientation to the world which has fed a lot of the racism, rejection of cultural diversity (the famed 'melting pot' often being the stuff of folklore rather than reality), and the nationalisms and religious fundamentalisms raging through the culture these days.

What I found in my own search was that if you really go to the source of these narratives, what shaped these immigrants and the lives they invented here, the secrets were not worth the toll they have taken on our lives, our families, our culture, and our poor planet Earth. They just aren't that terrible! They are merely human, just the stuff of what it means to struggle through life.

Exposing the 'secrets,' the hidden narratives of their lives, seems important now - in part to take the air out of them. This is not a work of exposure for exposure's sake (a phenomenon in much memoir writing, sadly), it is not to titillate, or to vent anger and resentment. Quite the opposite. This needs to be a work of great compassion, of real forgiveness and understanding. As I write the stories of my ancestors, I am humbled by what they endured and cannot even imagine how I would have lived through some of their hardships.

Remnants of my ancestors' lives in Michigan's copper country
I have been lucky in this project to have a wealth of original material with which to work, ancestor stories that go back generations, to the old country, to villages of weavers and cottagers, farmers and farmhands, stories of poverty and feudal systems, of so much misery, illness, and death, but also of tremendous courage and resilience.

Sadly, in leaving these stories behind, in believing firmly that one of the ways we become 'good Americans' is to live as if these contexts and narratives did not shape our lives, that life only began when we became 'successful' here, we have lost needed wisdom and insight to understand why we have arrived at this moment of so much crisis on so many levels - including a culture-wide incapacity to address these crises in any meaningful or effective way.

To address the crises and the growing cacophony of our increasingly crowded and diverse world, the only thing many of us know how to do is to retreat into those identities.

Understanding their roots, knowing what shaped them and how and why they were passed down to us, and then exposing how they shape our life choices now, is a very threatening work. And it is crucial.

Memoir can become a fierce and important cultural tool to help us probe the deep fissures among us and see where they came from, why, and how to bridge them. Opening these narratives can help us find the insight we need to get shaken out of patterns of thought and behavior that have brought about so much harm within this culture and in our personal lives and communities.

We have mistaken our individual lifestyles, consumer habits, gated-communities, competitive economies, resentment of 'the other,' racial and ethnic divides and tensions, as something 'natural' to the human, a sad commentary on Homo sapiens sapiens if ever there was one. We have mistaken these things for identity, for who we think ourselves to be, and then we cling to them fiercely. Any threat to them feels like a threat to our very selves, and then, look out! - we end up with, for example, Paul Ryan economic policies fed by one of the most shallow thinkers of the past century, Ayn Rand and her cultic worship of fierce, selfish individualism.

Old miner's house, Keweenaw Peninsula, U.P., MI
I worked with a healer and adviser who once said to me: "We are meant for connection, and we are meant to live completely open lives." Sit with that statement for a while and you begin to perceive how threatening it is to a culture that is based in precisely the opposite, how our socio-psychological orientation is towards severing connections and living closeted lives. Of course, the latter allows us to invent ourselves outwardly to present to the world the false construct of whatever ego-based identity makes us feel 'okay,' behind which we feel less vulnerable, less fragile, less mortal, less insecure.

Memoir-writing can help us break through to some truth about ourselves. How we go about it matters. We need to come to terms with who we are in this culture pretty quickly if we are to step back from the brink of an imminent falling-apart into chaos and social collapse. We will find in our narratives places of deep connection, recognition that in what we often think of as unique, painful, shameful, and embarrassing within our own family histories are simply common threads in the lives of 'ordinary' human beings struggling through their lives.

There is real wisdom in that, if we care to tap into the source.

All photos: Margaret Swedish

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