Whether we loved or hated family dinners, they were an important part of childhood. Some of us ate food made from recipes handed down from generation to generation. Others of us ate dinners in which the secret recipes came off the back of boxes and one of the main ingredients was a can of cream of mushroom soup. Often when extended family gathered or we ate at our grandparents’ homes, the menu was different.
Family recipes can trigger childhood memories and can serve as a useful framework for organizing family remembrances. Cookbook memoirs are relatively simple to write and can be easily illustrated with family photos and duplicated at your local copy centre if you wish to give them as presents.
Go through your recipe file and pull your tried and true recipes (the ones you and your children loved) as well as those that were passed down to you. Make notes about any memories those recipes bring up. Are there any family stories that were handed down with the recipes? If so, write them down.
Brainstorm about the food you ate growing up, both around the family dining table and larger family gatherings, church socials, and dinner parties. If you need to do some research, contact older relatives and ask them for their memories as well as their recipes.
Don’t forget comfort food. My favourite was always bread and butter pudding.
Did your parents or grandparents survive the Great Depression or live on a farm? Did your grandparents or great grandparents come here from another country? If so, how did that affect their attitudes about and tastes in food?
What were your mealtime rituals as a family? Do you have pleasant memories of them or less than pleasant memories? What was your favourite table to gather around? How was it set and what did the room look like? By adding sights, sounds, tastes and smells to your stories, you’ll make them come alive.
Write about how you learned how to cook. Who taught you? What was your biggest kitchen disaster? Your biggest triumph? How has meal preparation changed from when you were younger to now?
Remember that you are probably writing for a younger generation of readers who haven’t even seen a flour sifter or a turkey baster. Don’t take cooking expertise for granted. When you copy the recipe directions, you may need to amplify them.
Find a way to organize the recipes by putting them into categories. You might choose to divide them into desserts, main dishes, salads and the like, or you can organize them into sections that focus on the cook in question. My own memoir cookbook has a few unique food groups: Stick to Your Ribs Vittles, Second Breakfasts, The Way to a Man’s Heart, Sunday Dinners, Celebrations, Funeral Food and Putting Food By.
Dear Heather I would like to be remembered for looking after my grandma. These are some of the things that I do for her. I get my grandma tea. I massage her back, I put cream on her legs and I help put her duck away.
I would also like to be remembered for looking after my animals. Here are some of the things I do. I take my birds outside, I give them water and I fill up their food containers
from Laura K
Susan Varley’s ‘Badger’s Parting Gift’ is the book I turn to when I want to give a small gift to someone who is bereaved. It is also the book I pull out in a Lived Experience Narrative or Writing for Wellness Workshop when I want to touch on the sensitive subject of death
I encourage you to watch this video and spend some time remembering not only the parting gifts of those you have loved but your own legacy. What are some of the footprints you will leave in the sand?
To make a footprint take off your shoes and socks and put your foot on your journal page. Trace your foot and then carefully draw in the toenails.
Meditate upon your footprint and consider some of the footprints that you have left behind, the things that people will remember you for, your parting gift. On each toe, write an impression that you have made, a footprint that you have left behind.
Choose one toe and circle it. On the sole of your foot write more information about this particular event and why it stands out.
Now make a footmark in your visual journal and write a letter explaining why you will be remembered.
Footprints also provide a great way to set goals. On the soles of your feet write about the footprints you want to leave behind. Fill a shoebox, decorate insoles, make shoes, write on the bottoms of old shoes, pull out your baby shoes….. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.
“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.”
E. B. White.
“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” Maurice Sendak
“Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else … may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.”
We do ourselves and our children a disservice if we shield them and ourselves from difficult emotions. Happily many beautiful children’s books are now helping children make sense of loss and grief. One of my favourites is Badger’s Parting Giftsby Susan Varley. Varley’s book provides concrete ways to deal with the grief associated with the loss of a loved one.
Over at Brain Pickings there is a wonderful article about Oliver Jeffers poignant The Heart in the Bottle which also addresses how to cope with the emotions associated with a significant loss.
Another thread that can also be picked up when talking about unbottling emotions can be found in the work of Elizabeth Skye. Skye. Unbottling the Tragedy of Stolen Relatives, a project she initiated, explores the use of pottery to visualize data and tell stories on missing and murdered indigenous women, girls, and two-spirit people.
In this work, Skye is consulting with families of MMIWG2 to create personalized, unique bottles representing individual MMIWG2 cases, with the aim of creating an impactful representation of MMIWG2 data, and fostering critical dialogue on this violence.
Skye is creating hand-casted bottles inspired by the shapes of liquor bottles, as a means of representing the history behind the epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls. Colonization has led to indigenous women and girls being objectified, and like alcohol, consumed and discarded—as empty liquor bottles pollute our homelands, the grief and trauma of the violence against our women and girls pervade our communities.
The bottles created in this work are thus also a representation of the relationship between violation of Unčí Makhá (Mother Earth) and the violation of women and girls. Each bottle will have a label reminiscent of the missing person labels that historically were printed on milk cartons; this is to make the bottles recognizable as calling attention to stolen relatives, and to criticize the irresponsible negligence of federal and local law enforcement in handling MMIWG2 cases, many of which are missing person reports that they fail to adequately document or publicise. The care involved in consulting with families, hand-casting each bottle and creating personalized labels is a reclamation of the sacredness of MMIWG2, and an honouring of the unique spirit of each stolen relative. Bottles will only be made with families’ permission, and the information printed on each label will be determined through consultation with each family. Source: Sovereign Bodies Institute.
Promotional material for a conference about unbottling the vulnerabilities of cities facing the threat of natural disaster included this image of a bottled city, presumably shielded from disaster. Those of us who have read Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death know that barricades are rarely impenetrable. Prince Prospero who reigned over the kingdom in this tale deluded himself when he thought you could keep out the dreaded Red Death. Even the youngest children who I read the opening of this story to know that this story is not going to end well and that the Red Death will prevail.
One way to unbottle emotions is to keep a journal and write unsent letters.
Consider how you will you unbottle some of the emotions that Bessel Van Der Kolk maintains are stored in various parts of the body?
Van der Kolk’s book ‘The Body Keeps the Score’ conjures, in my mind, the kind of scene we see on television when someone like Anthony Green is standing in front of visuals, keeping score as they come in from all over Australia.
One way that we begin to unbottle emotions in a Lived Experience Narrative Course is to undertake an extensive body scan. We systematically search, with a good torchlight, all the hidden crevices and locate all the hermetically sealed places where things which need to be unbottled are hiding, but emitting all sorts of toxins into the body.
Upon completion, we mark things on a template like the one shown here and then contemplate which hidden emotion we can unmask.
Originally I applied an exercise that involves tracing around both hands and creating fun characters on each finger tip with young students in the primary schools.
Initially, we read the classic short story, ‘The Bad Deeds Gang’ and extracts from ‘The Body’ by Stephen King. Time permitting we watched the movie, ‘Stand by Me’ which was based on King’s, ‘The Body’.
Inspired, students loved creating opposing gangs, with gang leaders not to be messed with, weaker characters who could be manipulated and so on. They loved developing stories about the characters in each gang, the family dogs who followed them and writing detailed accounts about some of the altercations that took place.
Not to miss out on all the fun I have found that adult participants in a Lived Experience Course enjoy remembering the gangs that existed in their school days. Similarly, they find it cathartic to recall the bullies who led some gangs that existed back in the day and the long term impact that some of the schoolyard relationships had on their lives.
In a recent Writing for Wellness course, this exercise was applied to effectively draw out material that could be included in any Lived Experience Memoir.
After tracing their hands I asked participants to identify, on five fingers of one hand, the people who had a positive impact on their life (living or dead) and then to identify five on the other hand (living or dead) who had created some issues for them.
Once you have identified these people you may spend some time interviewing them, writing unsent letters to share with them the influence they had, engage in dialogue (active imagination) with them, create detailed portraits or fit them into a piece about a pivotal time.
In 2001 my late husband and I visited Delphi. For me, reaching Delphi was the climactic moment of our six month trip throughout the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and Western Europe. It was my opportunity to all but swim in the famed waters of Castalia, waters said to be a source of inspiration for so many poets and writers. My husband suggested we bottle some of this magical water and I decanted it into small bottles and gave it to those who worked closely with me and believed in its power. Not all of us can reach creative springs like the waters of Castalia but we can take the time to undertake a holy well meditaton.
The first thing I want you to do is to get into a comfortable position. Make sure you are as comfortable as you can be and that your clothing is loose and not binding. Some people like to lie down when meditating, but I often find that it’s easier to fall asleep (which in itself isn’t a bad thing and the dreams you can have is amazing) but I prefer to prop myself up so that I am neither lying down or sitting upright. Also, if you do keep on falling asleep during meditation perhaps it would be better if you change to another position like comfortably sitting in a chair or in the lotus position. I do believe, however, that you should find a position that is comfortable for YOU! Also, if you do fall asleep you should not worry about it as that was meant to happen and perhaps you should try the meditation again sometime.
Take three deep breaths and on the third deep breath close your eyes.
I want you to feel totally relaxed starting with your head. Feel the muscles in your face start to relax, especially with your jaw area. Do not clench your teeth and feel the stiffness fade away. Continue to feel the relaxation in your neck area. Feel it relax and all the day’s tensions leave your body. You are now relaxing your shoulder and arm muscles. Feel them go slack and become as light as air. Feel your torso relax and your heartbeat slow. Breathe deeply and slowly. Do not think of things that have happened today only think of the here and now. Let your back relax and all stress leave your body. Let your legs relax and feel weightless.
Breathe slowly and relax your whole body…
Think of yourself walking on a path on a warm summer day. The path is well worn and you already seem to know the way, and you feel as if you have walked here so many times before. You see before you lush green rolling hills and in the distance a large wooden bridge. As you continue to walk to notice that the path becomes a bit steeper and rocky, first going up and then going down the rolling hills. You exert yourself to walk the path but it feels good and you are enjoying the pace. As you continue to walk you notice that it is late afternoon and there is a slight breeze. It is quiet, except for the bleating of the sheep grazing nearby and the songs of the corncrake and other small birds.
(One Minute Pause)
You walk a bit faster now and the bridge is so close that you can see the wooden moss-covered beams covering the bridge in a green and brown canopy. The bridge spans a small stream and hazel trees grow near the bridge. The gurgling and bubbling of the water feels relaxing. You stop on the bank to pick up, crack and taste the nuts and scoop up the cool clear water to drink. As you pause you see salmon and other fish swimming in the crystal clear stream. The sunlight glints on the water and catches your eyes. Take some time to rest from your long walk and enjoy the cool stillness of the bridge. Refreshed from your break you continue over the bridge into a dense forest filled with huge trees.
You are not afraid as your feet move steadily along the thick carpet of leaves and moss. The vegetation is thick and sometimes the underbrush is thorny and scratches your legs. It is dark and hard to walk but your feet always seem to know the way. The smell is very earthy and very fresh and you breathe deeply. As you continue to move through the forest you hear people talking and laughing in the distance, the more you walk, the closer the sound gets.
You soon start to see a light through the trees and the trees and undergrowth start to get thinner. As you walk on the path through the forest, you suddenly come into a clearing surrounded on one side by cliffs. You see men, women and children dressed in colourful clothing – the women have colourful wreaths of different types of flowers on their heads while the men are carrying flowering branches of apple, pear and other types of flowering plants.
In front of you, at the base of the cliffs, you see running water flowing into a round stone well and you are drawn towards it. One of the women walks up to you, gently takes your hand, leads you toward the well and says with a soft smile, “Welcome, we have been expecting you”. As you get closer to the well, you notice that it has been decorated with beautiful flowers, seeds, branches leaves and shells. Much care has been taken in making the design with the natural materials…..
“Go ahead”, says the mysterious woman, “Look deep into the well…the well guardians have much to tell you”. You walk around the well sunwise three times and then you gaze deeply into the inky black depths of the well and the well reveals a vision for only you to see…
(3 to 5 Minute Pause)
Near the well you notice a silver chalice. You take the chalice, dip it into the well and drink deeply. The water is cool, refreshing and healing. You drink until your thirst is sated.
Looking into the well you take a personal item of jewellery or a coin or another item and toss it gently into the deep water. As you do so you thank the divine presence that revealed its message to you. When you are done, you turn from the well and notice that all of the villagers are gone, including your otherworldly companion.
You walk back toward the forest and into the deep canopy of trees retracing your steps. The path seems easier now somehow and you make it easily through the forest. As you walk and retrace your steps you start to become aware of your physical feet. Listen to my voice. Even though you may not want to return to the here and now, you must. You feel your feet and legs now and you are starting to become aware of things around you. You start to feel your physical body- you are aware of your own breathing. Your arms are feeling heavy and you can move them around if you want…wiggle your fingers and stretch. You feel the floor beneath you and when you feel that you are ready you can open your eyes…
Edgar Allen Poe’s story ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, like ‘The Woman With Hair of Gold’, as told by Pinkola Estes, tells us much about the toxic nature of secrets. Both the dismembered heart and the golden hair of the murdered woman tell their tale and eventually bring about justice.
In Chapter 13 of Women Who Run With Wolves Pinkola Estes not only spells out just how secrets can slay us but also provides tangible ways of opening the secrets.
In Lived Experience Narrative Workshops we talk about ‘airing the dirty linen’. To ‘launder’ we undertake a body scan that involves listening to what the heart and other parts of the body have to say about secrets that long to be released. Then we work with mandala templates of hearts, colouring and noting scars and secrets that are seeking to be released from the lock proof places where they have been stored. Once secrets have been identified we focus on one and write a stream of consciousness for twenty minutes. We share what we are able to share and the homework is to develop the piece further.
From experience, I know that this can lead to some exciting, incredibly diverse projects. Perhaps Australian author, Gail Bell, began like this. She is one author who has been willing to bring into the sharp light of day shocking family secrets.
I am currently listening to an audio recording of her award-winning book. The dust jacket outlines the basic story for us. “When Dr William Macbeth poisoned two of his sons in 1927, his wife and sister hid the murders in the intensely private realm of family secrets. Macbeth behaved as if he were immune to consequences and avoided detection and punishment.
Or did he? Secrets can be as corrosive as poison, and as time passed, the story haunted and divided his descendants. His granddaughter, Gail Bell, spent ten years reading the literature of poisoning in order to understand Macbeth’s life. Herself a chemist, she listened for echoes in the great cases of the nineteenth century, in myths, fiction, and poison lore.
Intricate, elegant, and beautifully realised, The Poison Principle is a masterful book about family secrets and literary poisonings.”
Having shown the group my little red suitcase, filled with a lot of photos and ephemera that was on my fridge in the house I left two years after my husband’s death, I asked them to bring along a case or a shoebox full of bits and pieces. We will randomly draw something out, spend some time closely examining the photo or item, dig deep into the well of memory and write freely for twenty minutes.
“The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of because words diminish them–words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.” The Body by Stephen King
Participants who join one of my Lived Experience Narrative courses are responsive when I stress that we are not going to try to begin at the beginning. Instead, I make it very clear that to begin we will work with a number of prompts, build up a collection of material and then, piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle.
As a facilitator who effectively draws material from people, I am rather fond of leaning on techniques used by literary giants. There is little dispute that Stephen King is a literary master who has the power to help us break open the lock.
The opening of his novella ‘The Body’ captures the reader’s attention immediately. He begins, what has been regarded as a piece of autobiographical work, by alluding to the perils of keeping secrets locked away. Then, when he writes “I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw a dead human being. It happened in 1960, a long time ago… although sometimes it doesn’t seem that long to me” we are taken to a pivotal time.
With this strategy in mind, I encourage participants to identify pivotal times. One way of doing this is by ‘making descansos’ or by creating ‘hisstory snakes’ and then choosing a moment to flesh out in more detail.
One participant who was compiling a biography about her mother talked about her being banished from her small community to go to Melbourne to have her illegitimate child. She talked about her standing on the railway station platform, suitcase in hand, ready to leave her family and the small country town she had grown up in. I suggested she begin by having her pack her suitcase ready to go.
Another woman began to tell the story of her uncle by beginning with the moment the ship carrying soldiers back from World War 1 docked at the Melbourne port.
Autoethnography is a form of qualitative research in which an author uses self-reflection and writing to explore anecdotal and personal experience and connect this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings.
One way to get into writing about your lived experience is to begin by writing about something as simple as the story of your life as a writer. When you tackle this task write creatively, focusing on as many concrete events as you can. Give your story a beginning, middle and an ending. Make your story interesting rather than telling about it in ‘this happened, then this’ fashion. Make sure to include memories of childhood and adolescent writing experience.
Here are some questions to consider as you begin to work.
Do you remember being taught how to write?
What principles were you taught?
Where did you write?
Do you recall any products of your early writing experiences?
What made you like or dislike writing?
When you write now, how do you feel?
What emotions circulate through your body?
Do you feel as if you are a subjectively or emotionally different person when you are writing? Characterize these differences?
Is writing a rational, emotional or spiritual experience for you? Explain or specify.
Do you feel compelled to write or do you avoid writing as much as possible?
Describe the best and worst writing experiences of your life. What made each memorable? How do you write?
Where do you write these days?
Is writing integrated into your daily routines?
Do you write every day or only when you must?
What are your work habits as a writer? How do you get started?
From what sources do you draw inspiration to write?
How many drafts do you typically write?
Do you write with the door open or closed?
In restaurants, bars, or coffee shops?
What is your ideal writing environment?
How do you organize your space for writing?
With whom do you share what you write?
What are your revising or rewriting habits or patterns?
Do you have someone to rely on as an editor, critic or writing buddy?
How do you know when you have finished writing a particular piece?
Do you act “professional” as a writer?
What does “acting professional as a writer” mean to you?
What forms of writing are you engaged in, e.g, poetry, journalism, short stories, memoir? Which do you enjoy most? Why?
What are your hopes and aspirations as a writer?
What are your fears and apprehensions?
What kind of future do you envision as a writer?
What would you like to accomplish?
What will you need to do to achieve this goal?
What obstacles are in the way of your writing?
To what extent do you get distracted by social media, e-mail, text messaging and phone calls?
How can these distractions be overcome?
Do your family members and/or friends understand the importance of writing to you?
Are you able to keep them from disturbing you while you are working?