On Writing a Memoir, Part III

It is an odd thing, this whole memoirishness. 

poets-pen.jpegTo read a memoir is to sit in someone’s living room drinking beer and eating Cheetos as someone outlines plans to save the world, or at least make it a little less shitty.

Except for a few cases, their stories are rarely intended for their own self-aggrandizement. Instead, they act as a window, a prism of sorts that divide up a fully lived life into its constituent parts for our amusement and awe. Once we happen upon these parts, it is for us to find ourselves within them.

Although not entirely without a modicum of gravitas, I am embarrassingly unknown. A small-town guy writing for other little guys, but with a tale to tell. What I can offer is a fireside tale told by a friend you just haven’t met yet. A regular guy with a story for other non-luminaries out there.

For my part, there’s an unquenchable thirst to read the journals of other next-door Joe’s like me. Those who put in writing what had previously been stuck in memories, photo albums, iPhones, shoe boxes, or desk drawers. Ordinary people become extraordinary through telling their story. We become greater than the sum of our parts as we are willing to share something of the remarkable, the redemptive, the road made a little straighter, the discoveries we’ve made along the way. Memoir is the result of someone’s self-discovery in writing.

I have loved such stories my whole life. Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, C. S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, Kathleen Norris’ The Cloister Walk, Deal Hudson’s An American Conversion, Augustine’s Confessions, Henri Nouwen’s The Road to Daybreak, Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss, Will Ferguson’s Beyond Belfast, Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club among scads of others.

These stories invite me to ask, how am I also the statesman? The conqueror? The activist? The poet? The World War II code breaker? The rock star? Can it be that my horizons grow in reading the exploits of those great ones of whom I can only dream? Do their larger-than-life stories strike a chord, even a strident one, with folks-next-door like me? Like you? What is it about their stories that make us buy the books, makes women sigh and men jealous?

When I first dove into The Seven Storey Mountain,

Thomas Merton (1915-1968)

was surprised to discover Thomas Merton, an artsy intellectual, Trappist contemplative who, on his worst day, was hipper and smarter than I will ever be. I’ve read, jaws agape, of the jaw-dropping exploits of British navy explorer Ernest Shackleton. I soil myself at the notion of being anywhere near the same impossible scenario. I get lost in parking lots, let alone a frozen continent significantly larger than the country of my birth.

To read of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., even Steve Jobs, requires a suspension of disbelief since I’m normally polishing off a chapter in between building retaining walls, preening what’s left of my hair or pealing potatoes for dinner. But then I discovered something, or rather, someone(s).

A good memoir is one in which a writer who, although more famous and established than myself, can bring themselves closer to my ilk. They are just regular folks, or see themselves that way (even if their bestseller status denies them the qualification). They are “small,” but with big stories. Anne Lamott for example, whose disarmingly genuine and authentically humorous depictions of her coming to faith give courage to those like me who would venture to do the same.

Kathleen Norris, whose writing and teaching career places her in a broader orbit, still writes for artsy-fartsies like me; those who consider themselves “thinking contemplatives” and a little rough around the edges. Another example might be naturalist philosopher, poet-academic and farmer, Wendell Berry. Now, there’s a guy I can relate to – a farmer who writes poetry – good poetry, and novels that bespeak our common life and run-of-the-mill experiences that hold within them the hearty smell of dung in the boots and the glint of heaven.

The idea that someone with whom I might share the frozen food aisle at Safeway has written a personal retrospective, complete with spiritual ups and downs, relationships won and lost and the polished and buffed exteriors that don’t always line up with their guts, is tacitly satisfying. Taken together, these individuals have emboldened me to see my own journey, a little pedestrian and squishy by most standards, as still mineable for universal truths, frequent tears and the occasional belly laugh. They encourage me to find out who I am becoming and write in the process.

And this is the end of my beginning. I may not be famous enough to dwell among whomever is the star du jour. I may not be old enough to be particularly interesting  – unless you ask my boys for whom I am an animated skeleton with opinions. I may not be young enough to be on the cutting edge of anything. Most anything sharp about my edges has long ago been dulled to a coffee spoon. I’m smart, but not quite smart enough to produce those clever turns of phrase about the deep stuff destined for the thick books sold in packs of two, the other being a dictionary.

Courageous? Perhaps, but not quite brave or selfless enough to reach out quivering hands into a crying world like those grand souls whose hands have done so before, often at their peril. Their tales provide the templates from which I glean my own courage.

Smart and edgy like Merton? Working on it. Leader with bravery and character like Shackleton? Um, sure, let’s go with that. Articulate, and passionately dedicated like King or Ghandi? I do good, I guess.

They say the devil’s in the details (whomever they is). But, ultimately, God authors the story. I get to put together the puzzle. And who doesn’t love a good puzzle? 

I’ll Carry You: Companions On the Dark Journey

He no longer knew the day. There was no more separation between the sweet, calm of morning light and the creeping fingers of night. All had turned to the grey ooze of nothingness. For him there was only the long, unending dark of time’s unwieldy march onward, onward, ever onward – the relentlessness of burning necessity. All that once was had thrust its long, oily arm down his parched throat and wrenched from him all remaining strength. Hope was but a word, void of substance, reality’s parody of happier men in better days.

Or so it seemed.

There was another; a soul knit to him not by mere chance, but by sheer devotion. It was the kind of centripetal friendship known only among the angels and those about to face their doom. The lostness of his friend only served to drive deeper the tent peg of determination into the heart of this one whose sole purpose was to keep a promise of shared horizons in common sojourn; to be his companion on the dark journey.

I am speaking of course of the intimate friendship of two hobbits from the Shire on their way to the dark places of the earth. To Frodo, Sam acted as a rudder to his often-drifting ship, one minute finding safe harbor only to be yet again thrust out to the merciless winds of destiny. There is a solidity in Sam, someone who faced many of the same trials and dangers but who allowed Frodo to consistently rise above his circumstances and claim his mission. He was friend and encourager, acting as scribe and bard to the stories amassing between them.

Earlier in my career I encountered an existential crisis of epic proportions. One man saw me coming a mile away. He seemed to understand this crisis along with the naïveté and emotional insecurity I had brought with me to my new ministry. While others berated me, he would buy me lunch and just listen. He would sit, often for hours at a time, saying precious little as I fell apart, shamelessly blubbering in public. He saw me not in my role. He saw me. I hadn’t even a language to properly define this friendship. All I knew was that he had become a lifeline for me. He had become without me really even knowing it, an anam cara; a spiritual companion – my Samwise Gamgee.

Says Henri Nouwen, America’s favorite priest, “We have probably wondered in our many lonesome moments if there is one corner in this competitive, demanding world where it is safe to be relaxed, to expose ourselves to someone else, and to give unconditionally. It might be very small and hidden, but if this corner exists, it calls for a search through the complexities of our human relationships in order to find it.” Thankfully, I did not have to look for it. It found me.

One cannot define spiritual friendship. One must experience it. My friend once said something I have never forgotten: “It’s okay to be weak right now. Climb on my back and I’ll carry you.” On the slopes of my own Mt. Doom, the last thing I needed was clever theology, well-reasoned arguments, clichés or Hallmark spirituality. I needed a friend stronger than I with the perspective and truth to carry me to the place where all that bred darkness could be cast into the fire and new life could emerge.

I enjoyed a true spiritual friendship, even if at the time I had little understanding of such things. Frodo knew what it was to be carried by another. I, too, know this experience.

Now, in much more spacious surroundings, I seek to be that small corner where another can climb on my shoulders and be carried to new places of light and hope where Mordor’s blackness must ultimately succumb to God’s peaceful Shire.