Maybe you — as I did — spent hours last week watching the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh to the Senate Judicial Committee, to determine Kavanaugh’s fitness to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, a lifetime appointment granting him tremendous power.
As you may know, she accuses him of assaulting her sexually when she was 15 and he was 17.
A question on many people’s minds is, how well can anyone recall something that happened over 35 years ago?
Pretty well, say scientists, if the memory is of a traumatic event. That’s because of the key role emotions play in making and storing memories.
On any given day, our brains store or “encode” only some of the things we experience. “What we pay attention to is what’s more likely to get encoded,” says Jim Hopper, a teaching associate in psychology at Harvard University and a consultant on sexual assault and trauma….
“The stress hormones, cortisol, norepinephrine, that are released during a terrifying trauma tend to render the experience vivid and memorable, especially the central aspect, the most meaningful aspects of the experience for the victim,” says Richard McNally, a psychologist at Harvard University and the author of the book Remembering Trauma.
That’s because a high-stress state “alters the function of the hippocampus and puts it into a super-encoding mode,” says Hopper, especially early on during an event. And “the central details [of the event] get burned into their memory and they may never forget them.”
Whether it’s sexual assault victims or soldiers in combat or survivors of an earthquake, people who have experienced traumatic events tend to remember the most essential and frightening elements of the events in vivid detail for life, says McNally.
I find this dismissal of another’s memories appalling — and of course, politically expedient for Republicans.
As someone whose life changed forever at 14, thanks to a traumatic event (thankfully, not assault or abuse), I think those who challenge early, brutal memories, even if they’re fragmented, both arrogant and unscathed.
I won’t get into every detail, but my mother had a manic episode on Christmas Eve when I was 14. We were living in Mexico, far from friends or relatives, not that any relatives ever cared that I was an only child in the care of a mentally ill mother.
We had no phone. We’d been there maybe four months, so even schoolmates were still acquaintances.
It was basically terrifying.
That evening, driving recklessly down Mexican highways, she endangered my life and that of two other people with us before driving into a ditch at midnight on the edge of an industrial city I had never been to.
I ended up taking care of another girl my age, alone, for two weeks, before returning to Canada to live with my father — for the first time in seven years.
Image used with permission from its creator Aaron Reynolds; a card from his deck Effin’ Birds
Some moments of that evening, and what came next, are etched into my memory.
But some others?
Not at all.
I never lived with my mother again.
Nor would I ever again allow her, or anyone, to endanger me like that.
If you’ve suffered trauma, let no one try to dismiss what you already know.
If you haven’t, don’t inflict further pain on anyone by disbelieving or questioning them.
Sometimes you read a book and think…how did the author survive this?
The best-selling Canadian memoir “North of Normal” was that book for me in late 2015. I immediately started following its author, Cea Person, on Twitter.
I told her how much I admired her memoir and her ability to survive a childhood spent living in tipis in the Canadian wilderness with a family with very few boundaries.
An only child, she also had few friends and very little contact with others beyond the chaotic and isolated world her family created.
Cea, whose book was optioned as a possible film, and whose next book, “Nearly Normal” will be published by Harper Collins in early 2017, very kindly agreed to do a Q and A with me for Broadside, which we conducted via email.
When did you first decide you would write this book?
I first decided in my teens that I would write it — one day. I knew I had a crazy story to tell, and I just trusted that the right time to write it would reveal itself. I was finally prompted to start writing it at age 37, when my mother was ill with cancer and my marriage was falling apart. I knew I had to look into my past to find answers to my present.
(Her book is somewhat similar in tone and experience to the American best-seller The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls.)
Did Glass Castle strike you as a better/worse/wholly different sort of childhood than yours?
I think our childhoods were equally hard in that we had to struggle to have dignity and get our basic needs met every day, and to try to make our parents realize how misguided they were.
Jeanette had siblings, which in a way was probably both a comfort and added burden to her troubles, whereas I was on my own — so I think we were probably equally challenged. I would love to chat with her one day, but haven’t had the opportunity yet.
Was it hard to remember and to recreate your early life?
Yes, I had a hard time with some memories, my mother and family members helped me fill in a lot of details and straighten out the chronology before they died. I also used photos, but I didn’t keep journals. Also, I used storytelling devices to recreate some scene details and dialogue, as remembering every detail is of course impossible.
Did you ever study writing?
I did not take any writing classes — I just wrote and rewrote my book (about 25 times!) until I got it right! I would not recommend this method to others who want to write their memoir, however 😉
What other books like that one were helpful in conceiving of and structuring your own narrative?
My structure and narrative came from many drafts of trial and error, trying many different voices and structures until I found the right one. I was a lot like a person feeling my way through the dark with no idea where I was going! But I must say that all that experimentation really benefitted me in the end, because I really know what does and doesn’t work for me now — and I was able to complete my second book in a fraction of the time it took me to write my first.
I remember being greatly inspired by Angela’s Ashes, White Oleander and She’s Come Undone. As I read them, I dreamed that I could one day write a book that would move people as much as I’d been touched by them.
Can you describe the writing process — how did you decide what to include and what to exclude? It’s a tough job with memoir to know what’s (most) important to the reader as it may have felt most important to us, the writer.
For me, this was by far the most challenging part of writing. In the beginning, I really didn’t have a clue what I was doing, because I didn’t know where I was going to end up.
This is key: you should know where you will end up before you begin. Once I decided that my story would go right up to present day, things became a lot easier. Deciding that three-quarters of the story would be devoted to my childhood was also an important decision, because it determined the pacing.
I also knew that I had to begin with my grandparents’ history before I was born, because that information was critical to the reader understanding their motivation for moving to the wilderness. After that, I literally just made a long list, chronologically and in point form, of all the scenes that I wanted to include in my book.
Then I asked myself how and why each scene was critical to the themes of my story. If I couldn’t find a connection, I either scratched it or found a way to make a connection to my story in the way I wrote that scene. As I wrote each into my book, I would simply cross it off my list. This list waxed and waned as I wrote, but it kept my vision of what I wanted to convey to the reader clear. The scenes at first were pretty bare-bones, and I went back and filled them in and connected them to each other in later drafts.
For me it’s about keeping the momentum going and not allowing negative self-talk to sabotage my process . . . so if my excitement about a scene starts to wane, I’ll move on to another one that I’m excited about and go back to the dud scene later, with a better attitude.
How did you find an agent?
I actually queried for agents four times over the six years it took me to write the book. On my second round of query letters I actually got one, but he wasn’t able to sell the book. I went back and rewrote it many times after that, and when I finally did get it right I had offers from five agents. After so much rejection, it was exhilarating! I got my dream agent, Jackie Kaiser, who has been the best thing to happen to my writing career.
Was this a difficult book to sell?
As I mentioned, I had some false starts and difficult times when I wondered if I should just give up. The whole writing/querying/selling process was extremely hard to go through. But I always had this feeling that if I just stuck with it, I would find success.
When I finally got my agent, she sold it in Canada within 24 hours and then in the US in a bidding war between three publishers. So, I have experienced the full range of writer’s dismay and joy!
How long did you take to write it — and what were some of the toughest challenges in doing so?
Six years of writing, and besides the challenges mentioned above, there was the tough part of wondering how my family would react to it, reliving difficult memories, and mostly just finding the time to write at all.
When I started writing it I had a toddler, no childcare, and a business I ran from home, and when I finished writing it I had three small children and no childcare. I wrote the book in ten-minute increments and during stolen moments on the weekends when my husband would take the kids to the park for a few hours. I still think it’s amazing that I got it written at all!
What sort of reader reaction did you get and do you still? Do you get personal emails from people with similar untold stories?
The reader reactions have been by far the most amazing and rewarding part of this whole experience. I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who related to my story in one way or another—the mental illness, counterculture family, young single mother, little girl who never fit in—all of these are elements that people have related to.
I’ve also been shocked by the number of people out there who’ve told their own stories to me that are similar to mine. And I’ve been humbled by the friends and acquaintances I assumed had led “normal” lives who revealed their own troubled pasts to me after reading my book. It’s funny, because when my book first came out I was expecting some negativity, but it’s been completely positive. My readers were my inspiration for writing my second book.
Were you at all concerned (many memoirists’ fear) how your own family would react? How did they?
Of course it was a concern to me. But I also knew that I had to tell my truth, and that if you tell the truth fully and show your characters as human, both good and bad, there isn’t much people can get upset about. I think that if we are upset about being written about, we should probably take a look at ourselves and the choices we’ve made and why.
In my case, because it took so long for my book to be written and published, most of my family had passed away by the time it came out. My father was the only family member who was in the book that was still alive and/or that I was in touch with, and he embraced it wholeheartedly after he got past his guilt. There have been a lot of people who knew me and my family when I was young, who stayed with us in the tipis or knew my grandfather in more recent years. I was afraid they would find my writing about my past too unvarnished, but they have come forward to tell me how well I captured the Persons in all their strengths and weaknesses. It’s been amazing.
What were your happiest memories of that childhood?
Riding my stick horses through the meadows, close moments with my mother and grandparents when the rest of the world wasn’t yet a concern to me.
The constant instability I felt, never knowing what was coming next, fear of losing my mother to the cops or to her boyfriends, the open sex and drugs, feeling I didn’t fit in, feeling like a freak from the wilderness, knowing my mother and I were reliant on her boyfriends for our survival, wondering how I would ever escape and find the life I wanted.
What strengths do you think it gave you long-term?
Definitely resiliency and courage.
I’m very proactive — if something isn’t working for me, I change it. I’m always striving for something better for myself and my family. And I have a deep appreciation and gratitude for the life I’ve created now — the stability, my wonderful husband and children and friends.
Wisdom can be slippery for me, because the little realizations I have don’t always stick with me long enough for me to change my habits, and I think a lot of my current happiness comes from the reality I’ve created for myself rather than the lessons I’ve learned from my past.
I don’t know that there’s any one thing that I know for sure, except that I value courage, strength and the ability to laugh at life and oneself perhaps more than anything else in people. I have learned that I can do anything if I want it badly enough — I wanted to have a normal life, to have a modeling career, a happy marriage and to write my book, and I achieved all that by being tenacious.
I have my grandfather to thank for that — he succeeded at the lifestyle he wanted against all odds, and though I wanted the exact opposite of him, it was his courage that inspired me. Also that we so often repeat the patterns of our family members despite our best efforts, and recognizing those patterns are key to changing them — but they are sneaky!
Thank you, Cea!
Your book is extraordinary and I’m so grateful you made time to talk with me for Broadside.
Use-ta-ville…The place you go back to that’s now gone.
“It used to be…”
We’ve all got them, the places where we once lived or attended school or loved visiting or eating in or shopping at. As life changes, sometimes at a dizzying pace, it can be comforting to re-visit these spots. Many are filled with memories — great dates, a proposal, a graduation, a terrific meal — and the physical place becomes a touchstone.
It’s been such a lovely respite, while awaiting a train or a friend, to browse its well-edited selection of books and cards. I’ve made some great discoveries on its front tables over the years, and was thrilled when my own book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” briefly ended up in their front windows.
I grew up in Toronto, a sprawling city of 3 million people, and moved to New York a long time ago, but I still go back once or twice a year to see old friends and to enjoy places I’ve been visiting for decades.
Like Courage My Love, one of the city’s best vintage clothing shops and The Papery, a great little stationery store I once sold my home-made envelopes to when I was in high school, and — for many years — a beloved cafe called The Coffee Mill, which served strudel and espresso and schnitzel on its lovely outdoor terrace and cosy interior.
It closed in September 2014, after 50 years in business, back in the day when those kinds of foods were exotic to white-bread WASPy Toronto.
We also lost a favorite restaurant on Queen Street, Prague Deli, who had renovated it into an even more welcoming spot, a perfect refuge on a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon. Gone.
Toronto also recently lost the 65-year nightclub, the El Mocambo, where the Rolling Stones once played.
I often go back to my high school, Leaside High School, to talk to the students about what it’s like to make a living as a writer. It’s very odd, but also oddly comforting, to walk those terrazo-ed hallways once more. It looks exactly the same!
Every city, especially when there are millions or billions to be made flipping and developing commercial real estate, loses bits of its past, and we stand by helplessly mourning all those lost memories.
One of my favorite Manhattan cafes, Cafe Angelique on Grove Street in the West Village, disappeared overnight in the fall of 2014 when the landlord demanded $45,000/month in rent — for 1,000 square feet. My lasting memory of it now was a lunch I had there with a fellow journalist I’d long admired and listened to on American Public Media’s business show, Marketplace.
Now its gutted space is one more about-to-be-gentrified spot filled with a mega-brand.
One of the most poignant of these moments happened for me early in my courtship by Jose, my husband, who grew up in Sante Fe, New Mexico. His father was the pastor of a small Baptist church and they lived in church housing — all of which was torn down and replaced by the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.
So we stood admiring one of her legendary paintings as Jose said, wistfully, “This used to be my bedroom.”
All that’s left of his childhood home is a small courtyard with an apricot tree, whose fruit his mother used to make into jam.
Is there a place like this from your past you (still) miss?
A few days ago, we attended a memorial service in suburban Maryland for a family friend of my husband’s, a handsome, distinguished architect whose work spanned New York City and Detroit and who helped design JFK Airport.
I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but what a glorious service!
What a powerful reminder of the complicated, messy, loving lives we lead.
How we are often both reticent and expressive, if perhaps not when, where and how others might most have needed or wished for.
How our smallest words and deeds can, unwittingly, leave a lasting mark.
How much we crave connection, even as we blunder and stagger and do it so imperfectly that forgiveness is sometimes the greatest gift we are given.
How, for some fathers, their children are their greatest joy.
What did his friends, children, grandchildren and colleagues remember?
— He baked bread in clay flowerpots
— His amazing home-made pizza
— He loved classical music — and Rodrigo’s exquisite Concierto de Aranjuez was part of the service, played simply and beautifully on a gleaming black grand piano. A lone trumpet also played the Navy Anthem and My Funny Valentine.
— His service in WWII, inspiring a young seaman, a grandson in his medal-beribboned uniform, to tell us that’s what inspired him to join the Navy as well
— His midnight rescue, done calmly and gently, of his niece — out on a first date — who had locked the car keys in his borrowed car, with the engine running
— The day, as a Columbia School of Architecture student, he discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting New York City, staying at the Plaza Hotel. He jumped into a car, drove downtown to the Plaza — and, with no formal introduction, invited Wright back to campus for their 4:00 ritual tea. Wright, who then was paid $30,000 per lecture and had a New York Times interview scheduled that day, spontaneously agreed. (Now that’s chutzpah!)
— His three marriages; (as one female relative said, to loving laughter, “I kept hoping…”)
My husband clutched the late man’s brother’s hand, our dear friend, while I held Jose’s, knitting a fierce rope of love, something rough and strong to hold fast to.
We exited the church into brilliant fall sunshine to discover a raft of cellphone messages from Texas; my husband’s own half-brother, a man 24 years his senior, had suffered a major stroke and would likely not survive. He died a few hours later.
This, barely three days after Pratt Institute, where I now teach two classes, lost a female student to suicide, on campus.
It has been a week of death, of mourning, of loss, of remembrance.
Of our impossible, inevitable, inescapable fragility.
The first time I met my husband, the evening ended with an unusual flourish when he took off the red silk Buddhist prayer shawl he’d worn as a muffler and wrapped me in it. Its soft folds smelled of his cologne, 1881.
I love fragrance, especially those created by L’Artisan Parfumeur, Diptyque, Creed, Joe Malone and Hermes.
Have you ever sniffed “Diorissimo”, created in 1956? It’s like stepping into a huge field of lily of the valley and jasmine! As a teenager, I used to babysit for a woman who wore it — her home smelled so delicious as she prepared to go out for the evening.
Scent has such tremendous power.
My late stepmother, a ferocious creature, wore Caleche, a crisp number by Hermes. I’d like to wear it as well, but still consider it “hers.”
One of the craziest/sexiest beaux in my past wore Kouros. If I smell someone wearing it today, my knees still buckle a bit at the memories…
On the worst days, a few smells can instantly soothe me — Earl Grey tea, fresh lilacs, pinon, the ocean, dried, sun-warmed pine needles, sweetgrass, Roger & Gallet’s carnation-scented soap, well-worn leather, Balkan Sobranie loose pipe tobacco, a clean dog or horse.
Catholics are accustomed to one of my favorite smells — that of the incense, swung vigorously from a censer, during Mass — which Episcopalians use much less frequently, often deriding its use as “smells and bells.”
Jose and I share an unlikely childhood memory of Maja soap — a favorite of his father, (a Baptist minister in New Mexico) and my mother, (a sophisticated bohemian traveling the world for years.) It was created in 1921, and is Spanish, still made by Myrurgia.
I wear a British scent created in 1902 for men, Penhaligon’s Blenheim Bouquet, which Burberry designer Christopher Bailey recently named as the smell he’s been wearing since childhood. The bottle is elegant, understated, with a stiff gray grosgrain bow and a little bulbous cap.
As someone working alone at home most of the time, I can (sadly) go for days without putting on nice clothes or make-up.
One of the challenges of becoming an expatriate — which I did, leaving Canada in 1988 for the U.S. — is leaving behind much of your personal history: the schools you attended, the playgrounds where you skinned your knees, the parks and ravines you walked through with your family, favorite shops, restaurants, libraries or street corners.
I lived in Toronto ages five to 30, so most of my formative and defining memories lie there: first boyfriend, newspaper job, apartment.
It happens when you live far away, even across the country.
Re-visiting my past remains, however silly or nostalgic, important to me. Some of the memories are painful, and I want to re-make them with a happier overlay, while others are pure joy, like once more taking the ferry across Toronto’s harbor, to the islands there, the sun glittering off the water and the gulls circling overhead.
Another well-traveled path I take, and will do so on our current visit north, is down the terrazzo hallways of my old high school.
I’ve been going back there for years as a guest lecturer on writing, speaking to senior students. I was badly bullied there for a few years when I was a student, so it’s a sweet vengeance to be welcomed back as a successful alum.
It’s odd to be there as an adult, not as the eager, excited, nervous young woman I was then, dying to start university and get on with my writing career.
My name is on a wall, lettered in gold in elegant Gothic script, with all the others who won Ontario scholarships, awarded to those with the highest averages in their graduating year. It’s comforting to see my name there, to feel remembered — even if my classmates’ children have already graduated from those same classrooms.
In May 2013, I returned to the Grand Canyon for a four-day trip, camping alone in a tent. I was excited beyond measure to get back there — my last time was June 1994, and I hiked 12 hours in a day, climbing out exhausted and crusted with the salt of my evaporated sweat.
But I wanted to return for another reason, to make that 90-minute drive back to Flagstaff knowing I was coming home to a loving spouse; when I returned from my previous trip, my then-husband walked out for good.
For decades, I’d associated one of the best journeys of my life with one of its most unexpectedly painful moments.
In May 2008, Jose and I traveled to Mexico, back to Cuernavaca, to the apartment building where my mother and I lived when I was 14. I used to walk up the hill to my school, where two tall, narrow windows offered an extraordinary view — one of Popocatapetl, the other Iztaccihuatl, two volcanoes far in the distance.
I used to look out my second-floor window into a field, and assumed it was long since built up and paved over. But it was still a field and our building, at the corner of Copales and Naranjos, appeared unchanged as well.
I wanted to wave to my 14-year-old self, with her waist-length blond hair, listening to Creedence on her record player, and say: “It’s going to be OK. Really.”
My mother suffered a breakdown while we were there; the details too arcane for this blog, but it abruptly and permanently ended my time in her custody, making that apartment and the field and the hill the last place that I lived in her care.
Down the road is a small waterfall, its cul-de-sac filled with plant nurseries. I bought three small pottery palomitas there — unglazed doves — that hang on our balcony in the summer, small, happy memories re-created.
And, when Jose and I went to visit his hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, we visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It has a small courtyard with an apricot tree — the one his late mother used to make jam from.
The museum now stands on the land where his late father’s Baptist church, and their home, once stood.
“This used to be my bedroom,” he said, standing before some exquisite and priceless canvas.
Each one of of us is Homer’s Odysseus, journeying, probing, questing but perhaps ultimately compelled to return to Penelope, to that place of safety, familiarity and love. I am not being literal here, I am not saying we are all the male hero archetype who dutifully returns home to the stoic wife after his manly adventures. My suggestion is that on a profound, primal, ancient level, we are all borne on the same unstated dynamic that is best described as the journey and the return.
We set out on our voyages understanding, or maybe just suspecting, that the journey and its concomitant adventures and challenges, will not be indefinite. There will be an end. There will be a settling. And there will be a return. The return becomes whatever the traveler determines to be home. And home is the place of belonging.
Home can also be the opposite of that, highlighting the sense of not belonging, the sense of otherness. Home then, embodies a strange paradox in that it can be understood as both happy assimilation into place and tribe as well as being one’s concept of defiance, individuality and difference.
From this interpretation we can see how identity is closely connected to home. Are we a product of, or a reaction to where we are from? And what happens if you are dispossessed of a birthright as indelible as belonging? How do you keep your identity if you have no place to which you can return?
There is—I don’t think this would offend anyone—nothing here. The main drag runs past the county courthouse, the old jail, Silverton’s two eateries, and the gas station, which holds a freezer that doubles as the town’s grocery store. The rest of Silverton is shuttered businesses and silent residential streets. The edges of town bleed into the farms and wastelands of Briscoe County…
Silverton may be thimble-size, but the thimble contains multitudes. Nearly every human is kin, for starters. On Main Street one afternoon, Tom waved to an old lady sitting on a front porch, then decided to circle back around and park. It was his mother. We stood on the porch and discussed the tornado that ripped down the street years ago, 21 people killed…
During my week in Texas, my days were spent roaming 21st-century Silverton with my great-uncles. By night I lost myself in its late 19th- and early 20th-century history. I grew up hearing of this microscopic town as a mythically happy and industrious place. My great-grandmother Bethel lived to 98 and told us stories about weekend-long dances, epic horseback rides to school, and the joy of putting on her Sunday best just to stroll Main Street.
Do you ever re-visit places from your childhood or past?
He’s met hundreds of re-enactors, some of them the descendants of the men who fought those battles.
It was extraordinary hearing him describe some of these people and how emotional these encounters and re-enactments are. In the same landscapes, unchanged two centuries on, they’re re-making history, lost in time.
I read a lot of history, for pleasure, hungry to know how we got where we are, politically, economically, philosophically. So I understand this impulse to try and feel what it might have been like to live 100, 200 or 500 years ago.
I’m intensely curious about what other lives are like — although there is a very large gap between a temporary dress-up fantasy of 19th or 18th century life and living it as it was — without anesthesia, antibiotics or a woman’s right to vote or own property.
I once owned, and wore, a Victorian combing jacket, with its own internal cotton corset. Paisley wool, with drifts of lace and ribbon, it was a glorious garment and I walked very differently when I wore it: more slowly, more deliberately. It was an intimate encounter with the woman who might have worn it then.
For my first wedding, I wore a cotton dress from about 1905, complete with a eyelet underskirt. My maid of honor wore a Victorian dress. I wasn’t trying to be anything or re-create a moment, but had hated every contemporary wedding dress I tried on.
I bet this is part of the fascination with the HBO television series Game of Thrones, which I occasionally watch. And steampunk. I love the Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Canadian actress Rachel McAdams, for their stylish re-creation of period London. The films Moulin Rouge and Ana Karenina did this well, too, although the jewelry worn by Keira Knightley, (Chanel, carefully placed) was entirely wrong for the period. If you’re a historical accuracy maven, it’s fun to see when they get it wrong, or right.
I’ve had two experiences that moved me back in time to the 18th and 19th centuries. One was riding in, and driving, a horse-drawn sleigh through the woods of Quebec, much tougher than it looks!
The other, best week ever, was crewing aboard Endeavour, an Australian replica of a Tall Ship. We slept in narrow, swaying hammocks, climbed the rough rope rigging dozens of times a day to furl enormous, heavy square canvas sails while standing 100 feet in the air on a narrow footrope (just as it sounds.) We handled lines (ropes) so heavy and thick that two of them filled my forearm. I’ve never been more cut, more exhausted or more empathetic to the lives of the men who worked aboard whaling ships and other marine craft. Dangerous as hell!
I fantasize about living in Paris in the 1920s, England in the 1600s, with Elizabeth I on the throne and turn of the 20th century Vienna, when some of my favorite artists — Secessionists like Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele — were alive.
I’d also like to have been a British or American or Canadian woman in the 1940s, when women first poured into the workforce en masse, although the loss of loved ones to WW II would have been terrible to bear.
I’m also somehow drawn to Edwardian England. (Hello, Downton Abbey and Parade’s End) but above stairs, please!
Do you ever wish you could time-travel back in history?
I can hear all you young un’s stampeding for the exits.
That old fart? OMG!
But today is my bloody 55th. birthday and the hell with it. Consider the alternative!
I’ve never been happier, and am grateful indeed: loving husband, good health for us both, a new hip and a pain-free life, my Dad still alive and healthy at 83; dear friends; work (finally!) in abundance. Whew!
So, as I celebrate, I thought I’d share what I’ve learned over the past few decades, some words of wisdom, (aka WOWs).
The greatest love of my life has been the work I chose, writer and photographer. From 12 I knew this was what I wanted to do and I shaped my university studies accordingly, learning French and Spanish well enough to work in both languages, in Montreal, France and Spain. It has not been a smooth and uninterrupted ascent to fame and fortune; I could have made a hell of a lot more money doing almost anything else.
But I know my words have changed lives; one woman wrote to me after I published this medical story, and said it saved her life. No paycheck can beat that.
WOW:Invest the time to find out who you are and what you do best, and in what situations. Find workplaces that allow you to thrive, not merely survive. If you can’t, use your talents and skills as a volunteer, mentor or friend.
My second greatest love has been that of/for my second husband, someone who for years I thought, “Nah, we’ll never make it.” We’re really different! We fought ferociously at first, and, on occasion, still do. But he’s the most affectionate, expressive and loving person I’ve ever met. Lucky me!
WOW:Don’t give up too quickly on a new sweetie, even if it looks a little challenging. Maybe you need to grow into this one. Maybe s/he needs to grow (up) too!
Many women, especially, are terrified of it. Get over it. Stand up for your principles. Speak your piece calmly, fairly and confidently. Not everyone will like you. Some people will get angry and rude and attack you. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It just means you’ve pissed them off. Big difference.
WOW:Get comfortable speaking your mind publicly, like — blogging! You can, and must, also write letters to your elected officials, to newspapers, magazines and blogs you disagree with. Question your teachers and professors. If you never disagree with or question anyone, what’s up with that? Time to reality-check your certainties.
The first time it happens, you think it will kill you. My first husband, for whom I’d left friends, career and country behind, abandoned me two years after our wedding — and was re-married to his next wife within a year. That hurt like hell.
The first time a client cheated me in my freelance business, I was 19, and stunned. But I did then what I do now — hire a lawyer. Works every time!
WOW: What role did I play in allowing this?
This one is huge. As 19th. century British poet Rudyard Kipling put it:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…
WOW:Bad things will happen to every single one of us: job loss, divorce, illness and death of loved ones, financial or health struggles. A mean boss! An unfaithful lover. Whatever. Try your very best to deal with it calmly and thoughtfully.
Send for help! Hire lawyers. Get second or third medical opinions. Save money so you have breathing room in which to make smart(er) decisions. The ability to remain lucid, centered and helpful will pull you through most shit flying your way. And others you least expect, watching you handle shit gracefully, will help you because they so admire your sangfroid.
No one likes a drama queen. No one.
Nope, there’s never enough — if your desires are insatiable. Save 10-25% or more of your annual income, no matter how broke you feel. Once you have a f–k-you fund and serious retirement savings, you’ve got choices. Without those, you’re toast.
If you don’t save money now, who exactly do you think is going to save your broke ass when you’re old and sick and tired and no one will hire you?It’s no joke.
WOW:That designer handbag or shiny new car won’t pay for chemo or put your kid(s) through college. What are your priorities? Fund them consistently for a life that matters to you, not just one that enriches others.
The greatest gift in this lifetime. Nurture your pals through good times and sad. Show up for the funerals of their kids and wives and husbands and parents. Write thank-you notes. Remember their birthdays and favorite flowers or food or wine. Some of them will ditch you. Some of them you’ll outgrow. Others will appear and grow further with you where you are now.
WOW:Never take people for granted. Show them how much they matter to you!
Get a passport and beat the hell out of it — only 30 percent of Americans own one, and most of their trips are to Mexico and Canada. I’ve been to 37 countries, (so far), and it’s the best investment I’ve made, even when alone and ill in Venice and Istanbul.
Even better, and tougher, live in another country, culture and language. I lived in London ages 2-5, Mexico at 14, France at 25. I moved to New York, knowing no one, with no job in sight, when I was 30, leaving my native Canada behind.
All were life-changing, and for the better.
Only by getting out of the comfy, cozy bubble of what you know and like and think is “normal” can you truly realize that all values are relative.
WOW:Especially for women, travel alone is an essential way to gain strength and independence. There are cute boys (and girls) and kind strangers everywhere!
What are your defining values?
Mine include: ethical behavior, non-stop creativity, curiosity, lots of loud laughter, fierce hugs, loyalty, doing your absolute best, under-promising and over-delivering, sincere apologies. Beauty is everywhere: a bird’s call through the silent woods, a smile from your sweetie, an ancient painting on a gallery or museum wall, the light on the lake at sunrise.
WOW:Find joy in every day. Savor it, share it and celebrate it. Make time to be alone and quiet and reflect on who you are and where you’re headed in life. If you’re unhappy, figure out why and fix it. (Yes, it can be hard.) Cherish the people who nourish, challenge and guide you, in work and play and family and community — and shed the toxic ones. You know who they are.
In your teens, 20s and 30s, you just assume — most of us — that you’ll be healthy. You can work crazy hours, eat crappy food, never take breaks. After the age of 40, it starts to change. After 50, you’re fighting to stay alive to 65, after which, statistically, you’ll make it to your 80s.
WOW:Don’t take fitness for granted. Enjoy and safeguard every bit of health you have. Get your mammograms and teeth cleaned and Pap smears and annual checkups. If your behavior patterns (or others’) are destroying your mental health, find a good therapist. If you “can’t afford” health insurance, cut out every conceivable cost from your life and get some.
I think this remains an under-rated quality, especially in young women. Physical strength and stamina will see you through extended periods of work, travel, study, care-giving. Emotional strength will see you through almost any crisis, holding it together so you can make decisions or find wise, trustworthy people to help you make them. Spiritual strength means you’re not some greedy, mean pushover. Intellectual strength will prove its worth when you skip junk distraction for challenging material and smart companionship. It glows.
WOW:Weakness is deeply unattractive, whether you’re 16 or 66. Weakness demands others rescue you from your own (lousy) choices. Don’t choose to be weak!
How badly do you really want it — the job, the sweetie, that friend, the trip overseas, your Phd, losing all that weight?
Few accomplishments come quickly or easily, and those who give up and walk away too soon cede the field (bye!!!!!) to those of us who keep showing up and take your place. Both of my books, both of which have garnered reviews that made me cry with relief and gratitude, were rejected 25 times. Twenty-five! If my agents had given up….?
WOW:If your goal is too easy, what’s the point? Find coaches and cheerleaders to help you get there. After you arrive, champagne!
Without it, we’re just walking bits of meat, getting and spending until we die. In an era of stunning income inequality, of long-term and widespread unemployment, of political gridlock that threatens the very notion of democracy, we must recognize others’ humanity and connection to us and take action. Whenever you shrug and turn away, you deny your best impulses. Be a Big Brother or Sister. Find a volunteer position that feeds your soul. Commit to a life partner who shoves you back onto that path when you stray.
WOW:“I want to be happy” is not a great life’s goal. I want to help others be happy is.
If you, like me, are a strong personality with a few too many opinions, you’re bound to create some enemies along the way. It happens. You’re fine as long as you have allies. Assertive and powerful women especially need them. Enemies aren’t worth fussing over, but don’t be naive about their envy, insecurity and determination to mess you up. (See: allies.)
WOW:In every job, class, workplace, freelance gig, nurture as many relationships as you can. Receptionists and secretaries are the gatekeepers to power. Stay in touch. Send cards and flowers for special occasions. Write thank-you notes on your personalized stationery with a real pen. Keep a supply of stamps at hand for this purpose.
Such an old-fashioned word. So essential. I decided to marry Jose when we went out to rescue my mother after she was found lying in her bed for days, immobilized by a large brain tumor. Her mattress was soiled. We had to make sense of her condition and deal with her house and dog and doctors, in a few days. Jose didn’t hesitate to leave work, pay thousands of dollars to fly us out overnight, and even scrubbed her soiled mattress.
WOW:You can choose your sweetie and friends because they’re funny and cute and like the same music and food. We all do, especially when we’re younger and life is still mostly fun. But when the shit hits the fan — which starts around age 45, when friends and family begin to sicken and die — character will separate the wheat from the chaff. Character will propel the right people to your side in the chemo suite and the funeral parlor and the NICU. Choose wisely.
Thanks for being part of Broadside — we’re now 1,463 worldwide.
As spring sunshine slowly warms the earth, you can smell the new season. Where I live, in a small town north of New York City, the pungent and specific odor of fresh wild onion — their thin, bright green sprigs poking up everywhere — is one I look forward to every year.
One of my most powerful scent memories, decades old now, was driving through the North Carolina night down a winding rural road when a huge, delicious whiff of wild jasmine suddenly filled the car. Yum!
Some of my favorite smells:
Jet fuel (I’m going somewhere!)
Balkanie Sobranie pipe tobacco, lit or unlit
Maja soap, a classic with the most elegant black tissue paper wrapping
I recently finished a three-week trip and my camera kept reminding me that its memory card was full, so — on the fly — I’d ruthlessly edit images I didn’t think worth keeping to capture a few more.
Memory is one of our most precious attributes.
One of my favorite films (and also my sweetie’s) is After Life, a Japanese film from 1998 about memory and how precious it is to us. The film’s premise is that, after you die, you will be forced to choose only one memory of all those you have accumulated. Which would you choose?
My mother was diagnosed this year with dementia, and I know it will likely worsen, so memory has become more of an obesssion with me. How much longer will she remember her life, her travels, her friends?
Her only child?
Here’s a new book, wildly and widely reviewed, about memory, “Moonwalking With Einstein” by Joshua Foer.
And what of hideous memories, the ones we so badly want to forget but which, so annoyingly, seem the hardest to get rid of? For me, these would include the night my husband walked out of our brief marriage, for good; the night my beloved red convertible was stolen; watching my Mom (who came out fine) heading into a six-hour neurosurgery…And our memories shift our perceptions, altering how we create and recall new ones.
I stayed on this trip at a resort hotel whose motto is that they create memories, an interesting idea. I brought home several from that trip, perhaps the most indelible being a dog-sledding expedition of about 90 minutes that took us along a tree-lined trail, across a barren, wind-swept frozen lake, alongside a river whose waters were so clear and blue we could see all the way to the bottom.
The dogs kept looking back at us as if to make sure we were still there. Wind clawed at my cheeks so viciously I feared imminent frostbite. A winter sky was as white and impenetrable as the snow on the Rocky Mountains around us.