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

Risking A Fall To Get What You Want

Elizabeth Walking Her Path - 2011

That was me yesterday standing on the edge of bridge so I could get a better shot. I felt pretty safe up there especially as it wasn’t my first time. I climbed up back in May of 2008 right after I had rented my house to strangers, quit my job, turned down another job offer, and sold my car and most of the stuff I’d spent my whole life accumulating.

You see I had a plan for a new life and there was no room for excess stuff. I was traveling light which meant hanging on to only the things and people that mattered most to me.

John and I were still a new relationship back then having only met in person three months earlier, but I knew I was doing the right thing in leaving for love like I did. Having lived a pretty full life for my then 47 years, I knew that sometimes risk was necessary even if when the outcome couldn’t be predicted.

Some folks back home in Georgia thought I was crazy for selling off my stuff and essentially moving to a country where I would be considered a visitor and only allowed to stay for six months out of the year, but I believed that no matter what happened I’d be okay.

I have always believed the Helen Keller quote that, ” Life is a grand adventure or nothing at all ” so off I went … following my heart to Cornwall all wide open with the possibility that the risk involved might yield the best possible results.

And as most of you know, it did!

If however, you’d had a window into my life and events the year before I met John you might be surprised that I had ever been willing to risk a single thing for love. What happened then is an old story with a modern twist and not one you’re likely to read here, but I’m sure it will turn up in the book I’ve been working on recently. I haven’t gotten very far with it yet. Most of it exists on index cards right now as I run through my memories mining for the events that have mattered the most.

There’s all kinds fear in writing memoir such as who might read it and get upset, who might remember it differently, and the really big one, what if revealing the past affects your present in ways you can’t control and ways you don’t like.

Having heard my stories since we first met, John has encouraged to me write them down. By stories I mean my true life stories, not the fiction ones which may have a thread of truth through them, but come mostly from my imagination.

During my recent summer of  ” Lost and Found ” a few other people echoed the same message to me. Some of them were only repeating what they’d said before encouraging me once again to put my real life into words more permanent the occasional musings over coffee or a shared meal.

My longtime friend Patrice, and newer friend Greta Jaeger are two of the people I’m referring to. Both of them not only gave me ” the talk ” about writing my story, but they paid for dinner too. Greta works as a life coach and did such a good job over appetizers that I jokingly said I felt as if I should write her a check for a session as she left me with so much to consider.

My friend Carla Johnson did the final wrap up a few months later when she asked me some pointed questions about writing and my goals. Carla can cut to the heart of something with the skill of a surgeon and after years of working with medically fragile people, she knows how to help expose the truth without leaving you bleeding.

This post finds inspiration from many people, but the biggest push came from reading the revealing email below that I received from Marianne Elliot this morning.

I subscribe to more than I can read these days so most things like this go into the trash pretty quickly. This one caught my eye because I was interested to read about an event she had to cancel, one that for whatever reason did not work out and how she choose to see it as an opportunity to try a new way rather than an excuse to dwell in the negative messages that most of us tell ourselves when we feel afraid or overwhelmed by circumstance.

I’ll leave you with her email (along with another photo of me from 2008 ) and hope you find some encouragement if you need a little today.

Marianne Elliot’s email,  Subject: Ever fallen flat on your face? I just did. And here’s how I’m dusting myself off.

” You know the Creative Flow workshop in Berkeley I’ve been telling you about for the past couple of months?

Well, it just didn’t take. 
Maybe it was the wrong workshop. Maybe it was just the wrong time. Maybe I’m terrible at marketing. Maybe no-one likes me (I know, I know. Lots of people like me. But I did wonder that for a moment. I am human after all.)
Whatever the reason, we just didn’t get the sign-ups and had to cancel. I felt like I had really put myself out there for the first time in the US by offering up an in-person workshop, and had fallen flat on my face. In front of all of you. And all my creative friends. 
I felt a bit like I used to in school when I would try a new trick with my skipping rope and end up tripping myself up, landing on my ass. Face flushed. Heart racing. Ashamed. 
But I’m not a little girl any more. Thank goodness. These days I can recognise my own shame and fear, and I know that we all share those experiences. I also know that sometimes things just don’t work out and even though you might have something to learn from it, it doesn’t mean that you are a failure. 
It might just mean that you should try it a different way. 
So I’m trying this a different way. Instead of the weekend workshop I’m teaching a 90 minute Creative Flow yoga class at 10am this Saturday at the Teahouse Studio, 1250 Addison St, Ste 20, Berkeley.
I understand that an entire weekend was a lot of time, and $380 was a lot of money, to commit right now. So instead lets practice together for 90 minutes. You just need to bring $25, a yoga mat and a journal and pen. We are going to do a little bit of writing to explore how opening the creative flow in our bodies can support our creative work. But you don’t need to consider yourself a ‘writer’ to do this. I promise!
If you’d like to come do a 90 minute class with me this Saturday please RSVP to teahousestudio@gmail.com
On the other hand, we’ve had great sign-ups for the Off the Mat, Yoga in Action workshop atYoga Pearl in Portland next Wednesday. There are a few places left though, so if you were thinking of coming and just hadn’t registered yet, you do still have time. That one runs for three hours (from 5.30-8.30pm on Weds 17th) and costs $50. You can learn more about it here and register here.
And thank you – for being here to witness me as I learn these lessons and for being so encouraging along the way. 
Marianne “

Elizabeth On The Edge - May 2008