When Memory Fails You

The Ghost Next Door by Wylly Folk St John. Illustrations by Trina Schart Hyman

I’ve read Kyran Pittman’s work for longer than I can remember beginning with her first blog, Notes to Self. I think I found her around 2006 when I discovered there was a community of folks doing something called ‘blogging.’ Her talented husband, Patrick created a logo for me back in 2007 which helped me track time through old emails, but I’d be hard put to come up with an exact date.

All this chatter about memory, dates, and Kyran Pittman is due to a comment I left on her  website, Planting Dandelions a few days ago.

It turns out that in addition to our expat identities as women who married and moved for a love met online, we both collect owls.

Owls you say … stifling a small yawn perhaps.

I’ve loved owls from childhood when I read a book written by my Aunt Wylly called The Ghost Next Door. Kyran recently wrote about her owl collection and asked if any of her readers had collections as well. I left a comment sharing a brief bit about how my aunt was responsible for the start of my owl collection and how her book had influenced my choice of collectables when she’d asked me around age eleven if I had a favorite animal I might like to collect.

Everything I said was true except my memory of the book cover which is ironic when you consider that it’s been sitting on a bookshelf in every place I’ve lived over the last 40 years  except for those that occurred during my transient time in the military.

In my comment I said there was an owl on the cover with love in its eyes, but as it turns out the book cover I was recalling was not mine above, but the one below, a reprint from much later and one I’ve only seen online.   

See what I mean … there’s the ghost child Miranda holding the owl with love in its eyes.

Kyran left a followup comment to mine asking where she might see the book cover and it was then I remembered that my first edition copy had the owl on the title page and not the cover.

You’re probably thinking ‘ so what ‘ unless you write or read memoir and know how important it is that your memories are accurate. Kyran will know exactly what I’m talking about as her book, Planting Dandelions is a memoir and is as she says ‘ … about becoming a family, while still belonging to myself. ‘

I write a lot about family and sometimes I can check in with them to see if our memories match knowing that while some of our experiences may mirror each other, how they affect us and what we remember, may vary a great deal.

Writing memoir is tricky. There are some things you can never forget as much as you might wish you could, while other memories shift just as my cover story did leaving me with an uneasy feeling about future stories. You can bet I’ll be tighter on fact checking in the future.

My brother-in-law, Leon is a writer, editor, and blogger and he has a cute disclaimer at the top of his blog that reads: ” Warning: The following contains opinions and ideas. Some memories may be accurate. ” I loved the ‘ may be accurate ‘ when I read it thinking how clever his warning was, but after my little mixup I wonder now if perhaps he was being more serious than cute.

There are things about The Ghost Next Door and my aunt that never get confused and I’ve written about her impact on my life and inadvertently my daughter Miranda’s in other posts on my blog. You can find them if you use the search space. (I’ve left you a clue below)

Aunt Wylly’s books were always mysteries filled with the kind of delicious clues a curious girl needs growing up, particularly when her home life is such that she needs a more pleasant distraction. Her books made me think and it does not surprise me that the still unfinished novel I began during NaNoWriMo has evolved into a mystery with a fantasy twist. As much as memoir appeals to me, I do like the freedom of making things up as I go when sorting out the plot lines in my novel.

Gifts From Wylly Folk St John

Gifts From Wylly Folk St John

I’ll leave you with the image above of two owl gifts that my aunt gave me when I was a girl. Both sit on a bookshelf in the studio space where I do most of my writing. The book is written in French, a language I never learned, and I’ve had it since it arrived in a birthday package on my 14th birthday.

I kept it all these years because it was a gift from Aunt Wylly never knowing that 34 years later I would marry a man in another country who would speak French and be able to read it aloud to me.

There are loads of memories that connect me to my aunt, some of which I may remember differently from time to time, but all tender and all connected to love.

Margaret Harper, Wylly Folk St John, holding Pam Jones, & Elizabeth Harper

Margaret Harper, Wylly Folk St John, holding Pam Jones, & Elizabeth Harper

This photo was taken at my aunt’s home in Social Circle about the time I made my owl preference known. I couldn’t know then how much influence she would have on my life or how she would affect my writing years later.

Looking at her smiling in these last two images, I can’t help but notice there’s a bit of an owlish look to her and I’m surprised I never saw it before.

Thomas St John with Wylly Folk St John

When Your Name Is Irene

Bodmin Moor (Click to Enlarge)

Even though we are a long way from the threatening fury of Irene’s arrival, it has been the topic of conversation here. Last night at the pub we shared a table with some friends from the village chatting over the week’s events with, Ian and Irene.

You may remember Irene from the photo below. It was taken at the pub back in January and she’s sitting in exactly the same place as she was last night while we talking about the hurricane that has so many Americans now running for cover.

I know Hurricane Irene has been spreading herself around and she’s caused millions of dollars in damages as she’s blown through the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the Bahamas in her flight plan.

That Irene and our Irene have nothing in common, but she did share a few of the comments and jokes she’s had to endure since Hurricane Irene made the news.

Irene & Elizabeth

John is the weather watcher in the house. Most days, I barely pay attention to what’s happening weather-wise. That seems to have changed since he gave me Dora and I find myself feeling a bit grumpy lately that the weather has made it so uninviting to ride.

Living in Georgia, I took good weather days for granted. In Cornwall, we have a fair amount of rain and it’s usually not an issue for me, but it’s been cool and wet for the last week and I find that despite a long hot summer in Atlanta, I am not ready for summer to be over here.

Summer Flowers - August 2011

We’ve got a break in the clouds so I’m heading out in a few minutes to squeeze in some exercise and move my moodiness out the door. I’ve got loads to do today and no reason to whinge on about weather and inconvenience when so many are in such a scary situation.

Thank goodness we have ways to track deadly storms and prepare for them. I have friends scattered up and down the eastern coast of the US and I’ll be tracking their movement, watching as they hopefully provide updates on Facebook and Twitter or blog about their experiences with Hurricane Irene.

Here’s hoping you stay safe and dry wherever you are today.

Inspire Or Enflame – The Power Of Words

When I was the not so sweet sixteen year old you see below, I thought my dad often talked a load of rubbish. Okay, I would not have used the term, ” load of rubbish ” as that expression has only crept into my daily language since marrying my British husband and moving to Cornwall, but it sounds nicer than what I actually said to him about his way of speaking when I was a teen with an opinion on everything.

Elizabeth Harper - Christmas 1976

I ridiculed my poor father unmercifully about the way he spoke every time he gave me what I saw as a lecture, choosing to focus on how he was speaking rather what he was saying. Looking back, I can see that he was trying to inspire, but his word choices then only enflamed the attitude of a teenage girl who could finally speak her mind without fear of being slapped in the mouth. Having moved to the safety of his home from my childhood house of horrors, I pushed almost every boundary that he and my poor step-mom suggested or imposed.

Soft spoken and always careful to use both good diction and the right words, if he lived here in the UK, one might be tempted to say his speech was a bit ” posh.” I remember many conversations where he would try to impress upon me the importance of speech and the perceptions of others particularly if one had a tendency to sprinkle too much color into a conversation with the use of what I would have referred to as swear words and he would have called profanity.

Pushed to his limit

My father died just over 20 years ago and I can’t remember how many times I’ve told this story since then. It’s been a funny way to share who he was with people who never had a chance to get to know him. People like my daughter Miranda who might have enjoyed a chat with him about her sometimes colorful speech had he lived.

Gene Harper WIth Granddaughter, Miranda

The only time I heard him swear

When I was dating my high school sweetheart, I was so ” Scott this and Scott that ” during those days that I’m sure my dad was concerned about the amount of time we were spending together. First loves can be life changing and I would bet that he was worried about the possibility of things like s-e-x and teen pregnancy.

He would never say it, but I think all of his talk of 11:00 curfews and the safety of not being out too late had something to do how often he would see us in a clinch like the photo above. I’m sure it made him nervous.

Once when I was arguing with him over my desire for a midnight curfew like everyone else, he launched into his safety talk again to which I countered smugly by saying that anything that could happen after 11:00 could also happen before.

I did not let it go at that, but kept pushing, whining on and on about how I was missing out on all the fun things that friends got to do who didn’t have to be in at such an early hour. We were driving down our long gravel driveway having just turned off the main road when I said something that pushed him over the edge and he slammed on the brakes making the car slide briefly on the loose rocks as he said, ” Dammit, Elizabeth! “

His voice went high in both pitch and volume with his temporary loss of control shocking him into silence. I don’t know what he was thinking in that frustrated moment having been pushed to the point of swearing which was something he never did in my presence and I would guess not at all. Seizing on the opportunity, I slipped in a comment that I thought was funny, but was actually condescending and sarcastic.

My response to my dad’s outburst

Feeling very sure of myself and my quick response, I lobbed a zinger at him saying, ” Pop, if I couldn’t swear any better than that, I wouldn’t do it! “

As you might imagine, this did not go over well and all conversations about curfew ended with my being grounded for the next month. No dates, no nothing, only school and church and a serious talk later about how not being able to find a better word than a swear one was a sign of a lack of intelligence.

Lack of intelligence

The lack of intelligence talk was one I had heard many times before when I tried to fold swear words into my casual conversations with my father. I can’t remember why I did it, I think shock value must have been a partial reason or wanting to feel as if I fit in with the crowd at school. It’s funny though, I don’t remember using bad language at school because I already knew on some level that the people I wanted to like me were not people who used trashy language.

My view now

I think my dad was partly right about swearing, but I also know that it’s never a black or white situation. The trouble for me occurs when people use it to shock. By people, I am referring in this situation to bloggers and writers I read online.

I find gratuitous swearing a distraction and dislike how it takes me out of the writer’s story. Not because I am prudish or never swear myself, but because based on the overall tone and style of the blogger, it just doesn’t fit. I think the test for me is if I am humming along totally into the writer’s words and bam, there it is, a word that doesn’t fit except in my mind to shock … I tend to lose interest in the blogger.

Which is really less about losing interest and more about losing trust

This is not to say that a writer can’t change their style and shake me up a bit, but it needs to flow, not hit me like a ball I didn’t see coming. If I’ve willingly gone to a baseball game, then I know there’s a chance a ball might come my way, but if I’m just walking past a grassy meadow, on a path I take regularly, and a ball comes out of nowhere and hits me in the head, then I tend to want to avoid walking past the meadow in the future. I might creep back from time to time, but I will certainly be on guard in a way that doesn’t allow me to relax into the story in the way the writer likely intended.

There are also those bloggers I read who are terribly funny and shocking with their bad language and wild stories. I may read in disbelief at times and wonder if sharing what they say and do on the internet might be troublesome later, but I enjoy them because I know what to expect.

Yesterday, I caught an unexpected hard ball to the head. It’s happened before with this blogger and I had gone back even though something was not really right for me. As I said earlier, when someone writes a particular way and then tosses out something that seems purely designed to draw a crowd, it’s like shouting fire when there is none and I don’t trust it. I think this writer has the power to influence and inspire and I am disappointed when it seems her goal is really to start a fire in order to see how many people show up.

As John said yesterday, that’s her choice and I agree with him. Likewise, I have a choice and after dodging one too many balls, I’m leaning towards not to reading her anymore.

I’m tempted to send her an email with a link to this post before I unsubscribe, but I’m not sure any healthy debate would come of it and I’m not interested in uncivil discourse. I am interested in hearing your thoughts. Have any of you encountered a similar situation and if so, what did you do? Did you say anything to the blogger or just disappear?

I think my dad would smile knowing that for all the times I was rolling my eyes and looking bored and disinterested at his talks on the power of words and choosing the right ones, I actually heard him.

Could it be the way he said it …