Memoir is the French word for memory which is commonly used to describe the writing down of one’s experiences. If you have ever wondered about doing this, Pilgrim, then this Tab could help you get started. I recently spent about an hour a day for four months writing down my life story as a way of preparing for retirement. I was especially curious to discover any long-term threads of purpose which had become woven throughout the tapestry of my life (Carole King).
I was also hoping that by reconnecting with the most meaningful moments of my life my psyche might prepare itself for this new role as an Elder in the community. What had I really learned in the past years and what of that might be helpful to others? Writing memories did show some lifelong themes threaded through my life including my love of animals, a spiritual bent and my musical, artistic talents.
Other themes appeared as well which did not thread through my tapestry so much as arch over it, like a rainbow, curving over the diversity of the landscape of my life. These themes included my adoption, my immersion in Franciscan Spirituality and my direct service to the disadvantaged and poor.
This tab features two writing exercises, which I have tried and found helpful in writing my life. They might assist you in getting started writing about your life too. The first skill has to do with making a time line to organize and remember the data of your life. The second skill is a reflection which can allow the data you have listed to become a full memories or stories.. While making a time line can help you put the facts of your life in order, reflecting on these facts cam help them become more transparent to meaning.
NOTE: These exercises are not designed for anyone whose memory recall is primarily painful. They are not therapeutic tools but creative writing exercises. If you find that memory recall is leading you into distress, then please pause and talk over your feelings with a friend or a professional before continuing.
Here is a sample memory from my childhood.
A Christmas Memory
One of my favorite Christmas memories is of walking to Midnight Mass with my Dad when I was twelve and finally old enough to be an altar boy. I remember it as a clear and dark night, and feeling very excited to be staying up past my bed time, not to mention that it was Christmas Eve.
As we walked down the alley behind our house toward the Church on the next block, I could see my breath clouding before me in the cold air. The stars were shining brightly overhead and I felt so happy that suddenly I thought for sure I could hear them singing.
When I told my Dad he stopped and listened for a moment.
The thing is we hadn’t been talking much to each other in those days. I hated the little league practice he drove me to, while he was sick and tired of hearing Fur Elise over and over and over on the piano.
So we ended up without having much to say to each other beyond swapping cordial daily hellos and commenting on the Weather, the News (me) or Sports (him).
We didn’t really argue with each other. There were no actual problems to sort out, but there was a vague, unspoken sense of mutual disappointment lingering between us.
On this Christmas Eve however, we felt connected in a real way because of the whole strangeness of breaking our routines and going out late in order to serve in Church together, he as an usher and I as an altar boy.
Dad told me that what we were actually hearing was the choir warming-up, coming through an open window. But yes, now that I mentioned it, they did sound a lot like stars!
We smiled, shrugged our shoulders and continued on together through the cold night toward the warm Church lights.
2. Make A Time Line
One good way to get started writing down the basics of your life is to create a personal Time Line noting chronologically the specifics of your life. How you do this is up to you, but here are a couple of examples, one simple, and the other complex. The goal of a time line is to set out the details of your life so that your imagination can see them altogether at one time and create an image of your unfolding life.
Here is a simple time line you can begin with and modify according to your own style or need. Use as large a piece of paper as you can find. I used a newsprint pad: 12×18.” My friend used butcher paper.
1. Draw a line with your birth year at one end and the current year at the other.
2. Note any and all of the following on the time line:
Where did you live?
Who did you know? How well?
What did you do with your time?
3. Select any event from your time line and try to describe it in one page, giving it a beginning a middle and an end. First quickly write the memory down all the way through, then read it aloud as you are rewriting it. Then stop, take a break and work on another memory. Come back a day later to polish the piece.
A MORE COMPLICATED TIME LINE OPTION: I made a time line in three steps, creating two charts and one drawing. The first chart was a year by year listing of where I had lived and with whom, as well as the other significant persons to me at that time. The second chart was a year by year listing of my jobs, my volunteer projects, my creative projects, and my music ministry. The third page was a picture of a tree, which I half drew and then completed with key words from the two charts. I made the words into the roots, trunk, branches, and leaves of my tree of life.
Rather than just a memory here is a testimony.
A Spiritual Bent
I have had a spiritual inclination all my life that is strong and sincere. In my childhood, I was known to the adults of my neighborhood as the “newspaper boy” but to the other kids I was the go-to person for wild bird and pet bird funerals.
As the twig is bent, so it grows. Spiritual reasons have been a major part of all of all my major life decisions since leaving home at 18 years of age to enter the Franciscan Seminary. I was with the friars for 30 years and have been back “in the world” for 16 years now. All this time, and even now that I am retired, I have found that my spiritual bent “doth guide and comfort me still.”
The most inspiring, spiritual words from my own tradition are these words of Jesus known as the Beatitudes.
Blessed are those who mourn…
Blessed are the meek…
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice…
Blessed are the pure in heart…
Blesse are the peacemakers…
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus not only relates to poor people by feeding the hungry and healing the sick he actually comforts them, as when he said, “Blessed are you when others revile you….” This good example led me to spend most of my life trying to offer basic human comfort to persons in difficulty from Portland to San Francisco to Los Angeles.
Truth be told, I haven’t ever felt very comforted by the actual doctrines of most world religions, including my own. In fact, compared to these simple beatitudes of Jesus, the doctrines of religions seem artificial, dry, and not at all nurturing.
However, in sharp contrast to my struggles with religious doctrines, as a musician I have always felt at home with the devotional practices of world religions, including poetry, music, dance, meditation, art, dramatic ritual and processions. The artistic tenderness with which I behold the world is another part of my spiritual bent.
So I realize that my spiritual bent has two dimensions. One is practical and struggles for social justice solutions within this beat up world, believing the very Catholic idea that faith without works is lifeless. The other dimension of my spiritual bent is more mystical and prefers music, color, and poetic words like these.
. 3. Seeking an Arc
One way to understand any moment of our lives would be to reflect on how time and our own maturing have altered some of our perceptions about our own lives. Here is a simple focusing exercise that can help animate self-reflection.
Looking over your time line, pick four of the most important events of your life and ask yourself three questions about each of them.
How did I think/feel about this event when it happened?
Has time changed my thoughts or feelings about this event?
What might this change, or lack of change mean?
Write a one page reflection on each of the four experiences, considering how your understanding of them has changed or not over time. Consider how it is that time alters the unfolding of our lives or the mission of ourselves. Read aloud. Rewrite. Set aside. Return and polish.
Here’s yet another memory.
Easter was a chocolate and ham based extravaganza for our extended family. While I never quite believed in the Easter Bunny, because he didn’t have a name, still our early morning discovery of Easter baskets was the best part of the day as far as I was concerned because of the chocolate. This included several little foil wrapped eggs, some hollow, some solid. They sat on the fake grass of the basket beside the jelly beans, marshmallow ducklings and fuzzy little toy chicks: all surrounding a larger egg or a bigger bunny, either of them hollow, but chocolate. Alleluia.
Later in the morning, we would have an Easter egg hunt over at my cousins’ house, where the family would gather to search for brightly colored hardboiled eggs out in the back lot, where the Irish Setters romped. Fun dogs, fun cousins, but really, hard boiled eggs instead of chocolate?
Then my older cousin Mike would get us to play some all-age game like crack the whip or kick the can, that in turn would lead us back into the house for a ham dinner with sweet potatoes, scalloped potatoes, peas, corn, rolls, Jell-O salad and green salads, pecan pie, chocolate cake. Alleluia.
Now, from a distance, I can see how the real meaning of Easter was so well captured by our simple family traditions: giving children sweets, bringing the family together to share a meal and rejoice in another safe passage from winter into spring, from the bare twig into the colored bud and from everyday life into chocolate sweetness. Alleluia
When my cousin, Mike died last year I was stunned to realize that he wouldn’t be leading us in crack the whip anymore. He who had been one of my boyhood heroes died of cancer, that same stuff they just scraped off my nose last week. I looked up to him so much that I still feel odd about having survived him.
Surely one of the basic themes of Easter is that being organic, Life is capable of slogging right on through death into new life, given even half a chance. And so it is I imagine these sweet as chocolate memories of Mike and our family celebrations blooming again this Easter in my heart alongside my own aching, but healing nose. Alleluia.
And even if that might amount to something of a bittersweet affirmation, it is nonetheless sincere.