A Thread To Weave

George Chale Watson
George Chale Watson, complete with a long beard, in the foreground of the photograph with other Queensland Surveyors.

A challenge when writing an autobiography is identifying a place to begin. When I run my Lived Experience courses I provide participants with a number of exercises to help them tap into the vast reservoir of memories that each of us has.

Invariably a single thread materializes, long enough to begin weaving. The writing of George Chale Watson, my Great Grandfather provides a thread I am repeatedly urged to pick up.

It feels like he is demanding that I acknowledge the extent to which his thinking has been passed down to me. As I stand in his shoes for a moment  I understand why I have been driven to establish collectives, to give so freely. It is as if I am re-experiencing fragments of his memory.

The Bancroft Manor and Estate

The Woolloongabba Exemplars commune was on the western shore of Lake Weyba amidst the now rural residential area of Doonan. In 1894, about 200 people, led by a deeply religious land surveyor, George Chale Watson, (Heather Blakey’s Great Grandfather) established this socialist utopia where everything would be owned collectively, and each would work for their common good.

Taller Leñateros is Mexico’s first and only Tzotzil Maya book- and papermaking collective. Founded in 1975 by the Mexican-American poet Ambar Past, the workshop is dedicated to documenting and disseminating the endangered Tzotzil language, culture, and oral history. Read Jessica Vincents piece about this wonderful collective at Atlas Obscura.

“I hadn’t been walking long before I spotted an unusual sign outside a sad-looking, graffitied colonial house: a black-and-white etching of an ancient Maya riding a bicycle, wearing an enormous feathered headdress that fluttered in the wind behind him. Next, to it, a handwritten…

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Gathering Lived Experience Narratives

Len runs a small coffee house and offers a range of eclectic collectables in a historic building in a small Central Victorian town. When I called in for coffee we talked about the writing courses that I offer and he invited me to bring my coffee to the kitchen and observe some ‘performance art’. As he prepared a batch of his very popular scones we chatted and he told me that if I hadn’t seen the work of Agnes Varda then I really needed to check out her award-winning documentaries that focus on the lives of ordinary people.

Personally, I am not particularly interested in the lives of celebrities. Rather I am interested in building a small library that documents the lives of more humble folk, like Len, who lead lives away from the bright lights of flashing cameras.

Sarah Krasnostein is a writer and a legal researcher with a doctorate in criminal law. She clearly thinks similarly. Her book, The Trauma Cleaner documents one woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster. Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife. This book is a love letter to an extraordinary ordinary life. In Sandra Pankhurst, Krasnostein discovered, purely by chance, a woman capable of taking a lifetime of hostility and transphobic abuse and using it to care for some of society’s most in-need people.

Who will you interview?

Establish a Memory Palace

It has become popular for people wanting to enhance their memory to learn how to create memory palaces. Sites like Insanity Mind Upgrade Your Brain explain that basically, a memory palace is a mental structure that can help you memorize anything in an easy and sticky way. By applying this technique, you can quickly memorize what you need and remember it at the time you need. offer step by step instructions.

My mind, functioning as it does, immediately turns over this idea and I begin thinking about how a writer, seeking to improve their memory and fill their pages with richer details, might apply this technique.

Did you know, for example, that the technique was employed by the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the novel series Hannibal written by an American author Thomas Harris? In several passages of the novel, Lecter was described as mentally walking through an elaborate Memory Palace to remember facts. That’s the basics of the Memory Palace technique.

I can come up with some more ideas of my own about how I might use this technique. In a recent class where we worked with Memoir Maps, we found we were literally pulling out extracts from our memory palace books. Postcard Memory Palace is an interesting application.

Check out history and science! What do you think? How will you stock your memory palace? How could you apply this method to art or writing? I am interested to hear how others might adapt this!

Remembering Beloved Toys

On the wings of the black crow come the spirits of old, treasured, discarded, lost, forgotten, dearly beloved toys who have made a significant contribution to our lives. 

 

Teddy

I was twelve as I recall, old enough to leave him far behind,
but he’d spent every day with me for as long as I remember.
His fur was worn, his ear torn, but his love was true and pure.
He was my ally, my closest friend.
When I was whipped and that was often,
not saying I didn’t deserve it,
he was there to comfort me.
He romped with me in meadow and in woodland,
snugly riding in my knapsack.
He slept with me and listened to my chatter.
When I was sick with measles and with mumps
he sat patiently and waited till I was well again.
His name was Teddy,
just plain Teddy.

When my father passed beyond and my world turned upside down,
Teddy was ready to console.
When we were forced to move from the country into town,
“Toys must go,” my mother said, “you’ll play no more.”
She snatched Teddy from my arms and put him on the trash.
All I remember clearly is the fire
and Teddy on the trash heap with flames licking all around.
His beady eyes turned black and blistered as he stared in pain at me.
Through tears I watched as Teddy turned to ash.
I have other Teddies now, collector bears with moving limbs all dressed in finery.
I never have forgotten though and often think of him and the joy he brought the child in me.
If there is a Teddy Heaven and he is looking down,
he knows I love him very much, did, and always will.

Vi (c)February 2002

Cook Up A Memoir

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.

Source:  Kay Marie Porterfield, M.A. 2001

 

Life is Adventuring – Colour Outside the Lines

WHEN MISS NORMA WAS DIAGNOSED WITH UTERINE CANCER AT THE AGE OF 90, SHORTLY AFTER THE DEATH OF HER HUSBAND OF NEARLY SEVEN DECADES, SHE WAS ADVISED TO UNDERGO SURGERY, RADIATION, AND CHEMOTHERAPY. BUT INSTEAD OF CONFINING HERSELF TO A HOSPITAL BED FOR WHAT COULD BE HER LAST STAY, NORMA ROSE TO HER FULL HEIGHT OF FIVE FEET AND TOLD HER DOCTOR, “I’M NINETY YEARS OLD. I’M HITTING THE ROAD.”
— DRIVING MISS NORMA – ONE FAMILY’S JOURNEY TO SAYING “YES” TO LIVING

If you own this story, you get to write the ending.
~Brené Brown

After reading Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande Miss Norma’s family decided to take her on the road with them and spend an extended period of time travelling all over the United States.

When my husband was first diagnosed with cancer and had recovered from the operation to remove the mass in his bowel we spontaneously booked flights to Europe and spent six months travelling around the United Kingdom, Scandinavia and Western Europe. We hired a car and, at a time when there were no GPS or Google Maps on our mobiles, navigated our way, through countless countries. We never had a specific destination, only finding accommodation when our day was done. Sometimes we stayed in one place for a few days but generally, we kept moving.

Ours was an amazing trip of a lifetime where my husband got to visit all those places friends had talked about. Needless to say, I can totally relate to the families decision to hit the road.

In our case cancer returned with an aggressive vengeance. Having borne witness to my husband’s long, futile battle which involved coping with the devastating effect of chemotherapy and radiation treatment on his wellbeing, I applaud Miss Norma’s decision to give surgery and treatment a miss.

Miss Norma has passed now but, as reviews such as this reveal, her legacy lives on, inspiring others to make the choice to live.

You can purchase a copy of Driving Miss Norma at Book Depository or other bookstores. Driving Miss Norma’s Facebook, which recorded much of the families journey can still be found online and there is also a Miss Norma web site.

The Magic Gate,
Elizabeth Layton
1987

Depression is an affliction Elizabeth Layton overcame. Art enabled her to say ‘yes’ to living. Mrs Layton, a native of Wellsville, Kansas…a few miles north of Ottawa, took her first art class at the age of 67. She had heard from a sister in California that art might help depression, which she had suffered from most of her life, so she enrolled in a drawing class at Ottawa University. The instructor, Pal Wright, just happened to be teaching contour drawing. He encouraged her to draw, and draw she did. For up to eighteen hours a day, she hovered over her makeshift drawing table set up in a corner of her bedroom, pouring out the fears, guilt and anger of her troubled life. Six months later, she announced to her family that she was no longer depressed. She felt free at last.

It is said that what distinguishes Elizabeth Layton’s drawings from others is their breadth, their freshness, and their expression of hope. Few artists have depicted such far-reaching social concerns such as capital punishment, homelessness, hunger, racial prejudice, AIDS, ageing and the right to die.

How will you, how have you said yes to living? What steps are you taking to own your ending?

Rendezvous in The Departure Lounge

When we think of Departure Lounges the image of chaotic, sterile, Airport Departure lounges, filled with crowds of people, sometimes lying sprawled out on furniture that has not been designed for resting, springs to mind. Certainly, Google immediately thinks of airports when you punch in the words ‘Departure Lounge’.

Because my mind has an inexplicable way of manipulating ideas and refashioning them to suit wild creative schemes, I have I found myself contemplating what a more private  Departure Lounge, space where I could arrange a rendezvous to farewell someone making their exit from this planet, would look like.

I also contemplated what spaces would be the most appropriate for me to be reunited with loved ones who are out there somewhere. For example, I am pretty sure my father would enjoy wandering and chatting in the mother of all vegetable gardens. Up until his death, he maintained a wonderful garden that supplied vegetables to various members of the family.

I think my mother would enjoy meeting in a space like this, especially if I had gathered together the writing group she loved coming to at my place when I was still living in North Fitzroy

The more I think about it I understand that our meeting places would magically transform and reshape themselves depending on who I was meeting. Older ancestors, who have not kept up with the dramatic changes that have taken place here on planet earth, would need to be considered.

As I write I am filled with a sense of anticipation. I find myself excited by the prospect of spending some time, not only with my husband, parents, my eldest brother, dear old friends and precious companion animals but also with grandparents and great grandparents I never knew. It is becoming a rather big list of people and companions to make contact with.

Of course, a challenge is to decide where each of these people would feel most comfortable. However, I do think that this plan beats meeting at a gravesite in an unmanicured cemetery. But, don’t get me wrong! For some time I have loved taking a picnic to historic cemeteries where I find some wonderful backstories on headstones.

Just think of the information that you will have after meeting like this. It may add a whole new chapter to your memoir.

Have a think about it! What will your Departure Lounge look like? Where would you prefer to rendezvous? Do you have a favourite haunt that is familiar to both of you? Who do you want to meet? What would you like to say to them? Is there any unfinished business to deal with? Perhaps you might prepare by formally writing to invite them to meet you in this particular place.

To help Sarah Wiseman does offer courses at Daily Om that involve guided imageries designed to help you meet and communicate with ancestors who have ‘passed over’. I loved the courses I signed up for. I found that Wiseman gave me more ideas about how to communicate with those on ‘the other side’.

Believe me! This can prove very therapeutic.