Memoirs in the morning

Or, Everyday Brilliance, Childhood, and a Holy Yes.

At night, I read what you might call personal development or self-help books. Maybe they are spiritual books. Currently, when I first crawl underneath the sheets and prop my pillows up, what I’m doggedly keeping my eyes open for is my third Brené Brown book, Rising Strong. I just love her. I love how she presents her research through stories. I love how she cuts right to the center of everything in our lives that we don’t like to talk about, like shame and failure.

For a while, in the morning after I wrote in my journal, I was reading personal development books of a different bent: books on productivity or personal finance. More “practical” things? But recently, I went to a workshop led by a woman named Anne Krook about how graduate students in the humanities can leverage their skills to find careers outside academia. It wasn’t an ordinary “alt-ac” workshop. She seemed to speak right to the heart of the matter, like Brené does. Dr. Krook treated us holistically. I’m not sure how to better articulate that. She just seemed to talk about us less like we were fresh off a factory line with a button you can press for research skills and a lever you can pull for committee work and more like we were humans with long, rich histories of building lives and forming identities.

It was refreshing. Dr. Krook recommended some books to read at the end of the workshop, and I promptly went to the public library and checked out the only one from her list that was available. She recommended it because the writer dropped out of a PhD program and built a career from the fabric of her interests, but I devoured it for different reasons. It’s called A Homemade Life, by Molly Wizenberg, the brilliant writer behind the Orangette blog. It is a memoir, with each vignette of her life tied to a recipe for something delicious she remembers from that time. I enjoyed it so much, and I want to make every recipe in it, so I ordered my own copy, which arrived yesterday.

Since then, I turned to the other memoir I checked out from the library that day a few weeks ago: Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. I’ve never been a big memoir person. Yes, I studied them for my Masters thesis. But reading them for fun? No way. I’ve always been a fiction gal.

Yet here I am, devouring Wild. I cried in the first chapter.

Now, I read memoirs in the morning. Memoirs in the morning. I like that. It sounds like the name of a writing workshop at a community center or something.

And a funny thing has happened since I started reading Wizenberg and Strayed. I went to my bookshelf in my living room one day (ugh, those gorgeous built-ins that surround a big window–they’re why we rented this house in the first place), and I pulled down my collection of books about writing that I’ve accumulated over the years. There’s all the familiar favorites: Anne Lamott, Stephen King, Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron.

Now, I read a little swatch from those in my stray five or ten minutes here and there. And I opened a new Evernote folder and I called it Writing. At the top of each note, I write a quote from Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones about what writing should be:

“Our task is to say a holy yes to the real things of our life as they exist.”

And then under that, I write a holy yes to something in my life. It’s a little different from this blog in that it’s not focused on cultivating courage or peace. Sometimes it’s angsty and sometimes it’s dark.

For one, reading memoirs made me remember that I used to write. From the time I was very young to my sophomore year of college, I filled notebooks with stories and character profiles and plot outlines. I wrote passionately, with a sort of laser-focused intensity, without fear. I felt like I would die without writing.

And then I didn’t write for me for about a decade.

But now I’m learning how to do that again, the kind of writing in which you positively lose yourself and let the story go where it wants to go. I remembered that writing like that used to constitute a core part of what I considered my identity, before I crushed it out after one creative writing professor said my story held no interest for him. That was the semester I changed my major to English.

Second, I’m remembering something else since I started reading memoirs in the morning. I’m remembering how gloriously, delightfully rich the details of our lives are. It’s so funny when you contrast the fact that we’re sort of just these structures of flesh and bone and muscle bumbling around with the fact that we’re filled with hopes and desires and fears, with a great capacity for finding the divine spark within ourselves.

Lately, I see the details of my day-to-day existence like I’m looking up close at them through a magnifying glass. Like I’m an alien and I’ve just landed on earth and I can’t believe everything that constitutes a human life. Last summer, I had to step way, way back, almost like I was floating above myself, to first see the vision I had for my life and understand that I wasn’t living it, and then analyze all the things that needed to be cleared away for the vision to become reality. Now that I’m intentional about my life, I find that I have cleared space to appreciate the commonplace.

Simple acts like spreading peanut butter on a slice of bread, or lying on a towel in my backyard, feeling the sun warm my skin and listening to a bee buzz around the azalea bush by our back door, or crossing the street during the golden hour in a sea of people–these humble occurrences suddenly feel rich with meaning.

It’s obviously not like that all the time. Some days I’m stressed out and tired, and I just want to get home so I can take off the bra and makeup, pull the hair back off my face, and eat ice cream in front of the TV. I just wanted to record this shift and link it with my memoir reading. The connection is clear. In the prologue to Wild, Strayed writes of the Pacific Crest Trail that it was

“a world I thought would both make me into the woman I knew I could become and turn me back into the girl I’d once been” (4).

For me, too, they are the same.

More and more, I’m finding that this return to my girlhood is a crucial piece of my journey. The little girl I once was already knew all these great secrets about life and being. I just forgot them in the process of “growing up.” I let other things crowd the scene. I’m a TA for a children’s literature course right now, and this idea also seems to be a recurring theme in the stories we read. If we can return now and again to the simple wisdom of our childhoods, combining it with the experience of adulthood, we can become better than we are now.

What was something you loved doing when you were a kid, something to which you unquestioningly devoted your time, that you perhaps gave up at some point to make room for more “adult” things in your life? What would happen if you cleared some space for a return?

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