It’s 1966, March 4th, and the snow is silently falling, whispering down onto the deserted University of Illinois campus at 8 AM on a Saturday. The moment captures me in its powerful silence, the snowflakes as large as cars, perfect and whole and individually sprinkling to the earth. It’s a black and white etching of a day, the spindly trees reaching toward a grey sky, the substantial brick buildings of the campus suggesting solidity and time.
In those days, I was a bereft girl, still unaware of the toll my childhood had taken on me by the absence—and the wars—of my parents and grandmother. It was a blessing to be unable to know it fully yet, still protected with what I now know as “defense mechanisms.” I had pushed the darkness away in my mind but it always hovered with hints of its dark secrets, putting its hand on my body which led to being sick a lot.
This moment on March 4th seemed to suspend me from my chattering mind, endless spools of worries, the tension that made my back ache. The silence had invited me into it and caused me to reflect, to take in that perfect moment of snow and quiet, my monkey mind at peace. I was connected to the whole world.
Today, as I always do on March 4th, I celebrate this day as my “spiritual holiday,” a celebration of being alive, of “marching forth into spring.” That day so long ago had always seemed special, and I celebrated it as many Midwesterners do after such long cold winters—eager to embrace the nascent spring hiding just under the snow. In my memoir writing, I’ve tried to capture that moment many times, but it’s like music—just out of reach of adequate words. I’ve painted it, and created etchings of bare branches in snow, comforted somehow by its starkness.
I was surprised today with a new insight about this event that happened so long ago—and I can blame many things for it—particularly memoir writing and the gifts it keeps on giving.
People liken memoir writing to “peeling the onion,” a term often used in psychotherapy to describe the gradual evolution of the story being told and the insights gained. Or it can describe the unraveling of the persona that we wear in the world, as the work of insight, grieving, and finding new perspectives continues. I tell my memoir students to just keep writing and see what new stories and ahas rise up unannounced out of the muck of the confusion of our memories and reflections.
Finally, I found the timeline and context of my March 4th memory—which was linked to the theme of my memoir!
The urge to celebrate marching forth had everything to do with the incident I describe in my book Don’t Call Me Mother—where my mother refused to introduce me to a jeweler friend of hers, leaving me miserably by the cold door of the shop where the real and metaphorical cold wind of Chicago froze me out. As we left and I confronted her about her cold shoulder, she said, “You know that I go by ‘Miss Myers.’ No one knows I’ve been married and so I can’t have a daughter, can I? Don’t make a fuss, my life needs to stay the way it is.”
In shock, I tried to understand her then, and for the next 30 years, I’d try to change her. I’d visit her in Chicago and endure her whisking me through back doors, and later she did the same with my children, admonishing us not to tell anyone that we were hers. This theme winds through my book, and informs much of my life.
I began to realize that my forward-looking promise to “March forth” every year, which I have celebrated since 1966, was about the need to move forward despite my mother’s rejection—which had occurred a few weeks before that first snowy March 4th. In the silence that blessed me that day, my spiritual self, or God, or whomever it is that helps bereft and lost children, touched my heart and mind, offering me hope that if I marched forth, I would make it. I would find my way.
I wish you all a Happy March 4th, and may you march forth into healing, into joy, and find your true voice.
On the subject of thanks-giving, I remember a poem by e. e. cummings this way:
Thank you god for this amazing day,
for the leaping greenly spirits of trees…
In my twenties, I discovered e. e. cummings, his flashes of wit and image and fragmented verses that somehow reassembled themselves in my mind as I read them as wholly delightful and encouraging–enlivening. I didn’t know then that I was struggling with what would be called depression later, or a version of it, the result of growing up with ever increasing verbal and physical attacks by my grandmother. Later I would find out that she was suffering from depression, and that her striking out at me was a result of a disease that was undiagnosed and untreated. This same grandmother had books stacked up beside her bed, read everything from novels to serious tomes of history, and who encouraged my creativity in music, art, and taught me to think beyond the rigid structures set up in school. She had traveled on ships to Europe between the wars, and saw enough of the world that she understood the Midwest where we came from was not the be-all and end-all of life. That there were castles to visit, art to view in museums in London, landscapes that were amazing and mystical.
But when she was shouting or ranting, I learned to turn toward beauty for comfort, I learned to be thankful for what I had, which was many good things: friends, nice clothes, the ability to play the cello and piano and transcend the painful “regular” world. Later, when I discovered e. e. cummings and other writers on my own, when I discovered the transcendent power of art, especially the art of Van Gogh, the thanks-giving became a day to day antidote to the darker issues yet unresolved. Later in my life I brought in therapy, journaling, memoir writing, and teaching–and these would become my guides for the gritty internal work of healing.
Thanks-giving is something we need to offer ourselves every day, and offer others as well. The exchange “thank you” can be immensely powerful, a giving circle that returns and creates ever-evolving circles beyond ourselves. Therein lies grace, the peace making power of connection, compassion, and communication.
I wish you a beautiful Thanks-giving, with all the trimmings on this amazing day!
Today is March 4th, a date that for 46 years I’ve called my “spiritual holiday.” In 1966, still encased in the rigid expectations of a girl who’d grown up in the fifties in a small town with a Victorian grandmother in the Bible Baptist belt—you can see the picture, right—I experienced a moment that lifted me from that world. I was almost twenty, and was supposed to get engaged, married, go to church, raise children and maybe teach music in the public schools. I was also someone who desperately wanted security, not growing up with either a mother or a father. Luckily my grandmother rescued me and took me to live with her—all this is captured in my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother—but the years of awakening, the step by step movement into finding out who I was, is a much longer story, as it is for all of us.
On March 4th, 1966, I walked in the silent soft snow on the University of Illinois campus early in the morning. I was alone amidst a few bare trees etching the white sky. Each snowflake was individually wrapped like a present, fluttering toward me in a perfect picture of the peace of a snowy day, no wind, a black and white singular moment. It wasn’t as if a voice spoke to me exactly, but a sweet shiver moved up and down my body, giving me the sense that the life I was looking for was yet to come, but I would have to break out of the mold of expectations to find it. I would have to fly away from the world of expectations and illusions of security.
We all know that though steps of our development all add up eventually –as we become a whole person. Each step becomes lost in the blur of memories, except for a few that stand out. I call these “turning points” when I teach my memoir students. I ask them to collect a list of these moments to help them remember, to help them gather these points of light.
As I grew up, I had gotten used to fear guiding me, of having a sense of doom, of things going wrong—as they often had with my family—mother, father, and grandmother ending up in hate for each other, at times each of them refusing to speak to me, but my basic nature was optimistic. After all, when you have seen everyone melt down all the time, watching them as they tore each other apart, it just seems natural to find a new way to see things. As a cellist and pianist, I knew that music could lift us away from our sorrows, and I knew that books could navigate me away from an unpleasant reality. I was one of those flashlight under the covers kids. The arts held a promise of hope, as did this perfect moment on a snowy day, on March 4th.
I have celebrated Marching Forth on this day all these years, sharing it with my friends and family. It’s a day to celebrate being alive—which we should do every day—but just in case we forget, we can create a special day for ourselves.
What is your special day of spiritual awakening? How do you celebrate it?
I knew that I’d enjoy my conversation with Mark Matousek at the National Association of Memoir Writers monthly teleseminar to discuss writing a spiritual memoir the other day, but I had no idea of the magic that would happen on the call. I’m often the one who helps to guide people to write about the darker moments of life in their memoir, and sometimes I feel that my voice is alone in the wilderness—such a point of view is not all that popular. After all, don’t we all want to just write about the happy times? Don’t we all try to avoid the dark stuff because it is a drag, it’s painful, and we hope it will all go away if we don’t think about it? So it was a surprise to me find in this first “meeting” with Mark, someone with whom I’d never spoken until the teleseminar, to discover that he’s a person who’s journeyed into the dark forests of life, and has come out again with a great deal of wisdom about the journey that can enlighten the rest of us.
Mark grew up without a father in an emotionally stressed family situation, and later was diagnosed with a life threatening illness. When he wrote his first memoir Sex, Death, and Enlightenment, he thought it would be his last. “I had to get everything in that book; I was also learning how to write. My next book was easier, because I knew how to focus and choose.” He sees the journey into the tough places as a way to find redemption. He says, “You can’t get to the truth by half measures. You have to write it all out, all the secrets and the pain, and then you will find your awakening.”
In my work as a coach to help people write a spiritual memoir, we soon discover that the tough stories are waiting to be born onto the page, so they tumble out almost accidently or through hints and metaphors before developing into fully formed stories. Often writers begin a topic that’s seemingly innocent or pleasant only to find out that the deeper topic that has been suppressed or denied rises up and flows out of the end of the pen or types itself into the computer, often to the consternation of the writer. Mark and I agreed that there’s a part of us that wants to heal and to taste all the possibilities of life. If we dampen down parts of ourselves, then that potential can’t flower beyond our sorrows.
I was blown away by a couple of quotes from Mark’s books:
“Whatever it takes to break your heart and wake you up is grace.”
“Darkness carries the seeds of redemption.”
I resonated deeply with these quotes—they reflected my own experiences with the pain of not growing up with my parents. Through my teachers, I’ve been guided to explore my path into the darkness, being promised that if I’m patient, I’ll find the light. Sometimes I was kicking and screaming all the way, but I could see that they were right, and through that process, which included writing my memoir Don’t Call Me Mother, I found a new perspective, the light that appeared on the other side of the dark stories and memories. I had to write my way through them. Mark said, “Terror is fuel,” a comment that’s right on. This concept appears as well in my book The Power of Memoir, and in articles about the transformational power of writing. With Mark, it was easy to connect about this spiritual philosophy, as he has lived it in his books, his life, and his teachings.
Mark knows that the healing power of writing guides us toward redemption. He says that first we should write to capture our real emotions in language—“It tames and contains.” Then we create stories, and through story we redeem our experiences. Our discussion reminded me of a quote from Dr. James Pennebaker— “Story is a way of knowledge.” Dr. Pennebaker has done years of research about the power of writing to heal and transform.
Mark said many amazing and true things about writing the journey of learning about our deeper self, and how we can express this journey in a spiritual memoir. I’ll summarize some of them here.
- The essential truth in memoir is truer than fact.
- Write about a secret you never have told anyone—this opens the door to your deeper self.
- You can’t get to the secrets truths by half measures. If you are too cautious, you won’t say enough.
- Finding your darkness is just the beginning—our “regular” life context needs to be cracked open in order for us to be reborn.
- Don’t tell anyone what you are writing—keep it private.
- If your writing scares you, keep going. You’re getting closer to the truth.
The writers that work with me in my memoir workshops talk about this frequently, bemoaning the truth of these points at times, but celebrating the rewards of the deep inner work too. I’m so grateful to have had such a rich and deep conversation with a man who’s been on the wisdom path for a long time, a man who has been through the dark forest and out the other side—he’s learned from the darkness how to celebrate and honor the light in his life and the light in the world. What a joy it was to share these ideas, and to groove on the same wavelength with him for an hour.
Learn more about Mark Matousek by visting his website. I also encourage you to learn more about Mark by visiting his Facebook page, where he’s writing a lot lately about his forthcoming book, Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good.
And you can obtain an audio recording of our conversation at the National Association of Memoir Writers website.
Write one of your powerful and true stories. Ten minutes will get a good story started. Explore your secrets, crack open the door to the unknown within you. You will be rewarded!