Saturday, October 6, 2012

Memoir is laden

More laden than I thought it would be. I mean, digging into the narratives that made our lives what they are, and after more than six decades of it, you wonder why you wanted to stir all that up again.

Where the story took place...
And yet, there lies the story. What I keep coming to as I dig and mine and create my jewels out of deeply buried gems (how's that for metaphor?!) is that these stories never go away. Come to them fully again and they are as fresh as ever, as real as ever. Which means they are also still there to be learned from, to find wisdom in, (never end a sentence or phrase with a preposition). Lower your cup into the well, see how the water tastes after all these years.

In my case, the bitterness is mostly gone, but the sorrow and the love remain. Both are healed. Both are as fresh as ever. To be learning again from stories one thought were over is actually a gift we can claim at any time. We can break them open with a new perspective. We can let life change the lens. We can heal them by seeing them in a different light, removing judgment, bitterness, self-loathing and doubt, from that lens. I think one of my hopes in writing this book is that it is an invitation for the kind of revisiting of our own life stories that can free them from some of the awful distortions that come from this repressive, fearful, culture. We are in crisis mode here in this world; how do we want to go about living in that? Hiding so much truth about ourselves is not equipping us well to deal truthfully with that crisis.

Mother and daughter
Digging deep into family roots and narratives, I made incredible new discoveries that reshaped the book project itself - because the discoveries reshaped my family narrative. As I dug deeper into my parents' histories and those of my ancestors, I began to see the stories of my parents' generation, and therefore mine, the infamous baby-boomers, in a way I had not seen them before, the roots of what has made us so unable to see the crisis, much less deal with it honestly or forthrightly.

The way of life of the post-World War II 'middle class,' the sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters of immigrants, war veterans, and people shaped by the shock and misery of the Great Depression was built on fiercely repressed narratives of loss and shame, humiliation and rejection of the past, tearing up of immigrant roots and therefore identity and 'place,' trauma and extremely difficult family stories.

The baby-boomers were given a load to bear here. We were made to serve that repression and to prove to them that their attempts to rise out of all that pain and shame worked, to erase it from our own histories and consciousness, to never see them in the negative light of their real internal pain and fear.

And yet, for all my parents' efforts, meeting them in the core of their real human stories was exactly where every broken place between us was healed. Not only that, I found in their stories a resilience and endurance in struggle and suffering that are qualities we need to reclaim if we are going to get through the crisis time with our integrity and our future intact, or even possible. Rather then bury their struggles, we need to resurface them to gain some badly needed wisdom and perspective for how to go through hard times - but this time without all the repression and moralistic judgment, without the need for external justification, or proper images made up to protect us from the real stuff of our human condition, or even our basic humanity.

Dad, Milwaukee's Mr. Music
Writing this is hard. The best moments of a story like this are revealing, exactly what they did not want, except on their terms. But those are also the moments that show them at their most real and most human, the place where all the possibilities for forgiveness and letting go lie. In order for this to happen, you have to go to the stories with complete honesty and respect, without judgment, with as few hidden motivations as possible, with compassion and heart, in order to tell them truthfully, to honor them as they ought to be honored, to demystify them and return them to the human stuff that we all are, no matter the external layers we try to build around the truth of ourselves to protect us from being seen as we truly are.

Of course, this revelation is not only about the subjects in the narrative; it is more than anything else revelation about the writer. It is the most vulnerable kind of exposure. You have to tell all the story necessary to make your point in telling it at all. And that begins with why you chose to write it to begin with. That is about me, not them. And that point requires the most terrifying honesty of all.

Takes a lot out of me as this story is moving towards its crescendo. Stay tuned. Despite the deep disquiet, I can hardly wait to get this thing out into the world.

Margaret Swedish

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