Sep 212015
Cemetery photo with saying representing a fata morgana

The stories of the past aren’t a fata morgana, they’re just waiting for you to give them voice.

Cemeteries don’t deserve their spooky reputation. Sure, they’re full of dead people (cue my father-in-law’s obligatory joke about “people just dying to get in there”), but they’re more than that.

They are the final resting place of our grief, a place where we can go and pay respects, one of the places where we can grope for some sort of continued connection to loved ones. They’re that and more.

Cemeteries are places where long-forgotten stories intermingle.

Odd as it makes me—and admittedly, it probably registers low on all the things that make me odd—I enjoy the cemetery where my parents are buried. I have from the summer they died. Though I found no connection or consolation from visiting their graves, I took an immediate liking to their neighbors.

Oakwood is a place where joggers jog and dog walkers tarry. It’s a diverse community of those who died too young, brave veterans—some harkening back to the civil war, elderly widows reunited with the loves of their lives, and plots of posthumous family reunions. The stories float around—just beyond my grasp, a fata morgana of stories of life journeys.

My friend John Kingston introduced me to the concept of fata morgana. It’s a superior mirage; the shimmering band of light that you often see on the horizon, particularly in warm weather. It’s an unreachable apparition, a seemingly apt metaphor for the stories of the past.

However, here in Michigan, fata morganas on roadways pale in comparison to their appearance in other parts of the world. For instance, in the Straits of Messina, between Sicily and mainland Italy, fata morganas are known for the show they put on, refracting light into castles, cliffs, and ships.

A fata morgana

A fata morgana at sea

The weather doctor, Keith C. Heidorn, explains the phenomenon: “In a Fata Morgana mirage, distant objects and features at the horizon appear as spikes, turrets or towers, objects with great vertical exaggeration rising from the surface… Literally, Fata Morgana means the Fairy Morgana, a reference to the English legends of King Arthur’s enchanted sister Morgana, who dwelled in a crystal castle beneath the sea.”

Fata Morgana of Stories

Perhaps the comparison is backward. In other words, perhaps it’s the fata morgana that’s like those stories of the past, waiting to be told. They appear—a visual prompt, appealing to the imagination. They hover, just out of reach, just out of comprehension, begging to be conjured into narrative.

A fata morgana is made of refracted light, dissipating upon approach.

The stories we seek don’t dematerialize. In fact, the opposite is true.

The stories intermingling in cemeteries (as well as in shoeboxes, ignored journals, and that list of well-intentioned things we plan to get around to), don’t scatter and lose definition as we approach. The details of the life, if only the start and finish, stay in focus. And, with creativity and care, the focus sharpens, the longer we look. They wait, patiently through the ages, for our research and imagination to bring them to life.

Stories often hang out in the netherworld, a world not unlike the proverbial tip of the tongue. They’re just waiting for someone to give them voice.

Your Turn:

It doesn’t take much fairy magic to transform those castles in the air into beautiful family tales. Turn a fata morgana or two into a narrative that will continue to connect your family to their past and their heritage.

Sep 142015
Telling your own story illustrated by handwritten journal

Do you have to decide between telling your own story and telling family stories? I think not.

Deciding whether to tell your personal memories versus family stories is the memoirist’s version of “Who ya gonna call?” (Cue Ghostbusters music in the background.)

Perhaps the question is wrong. You don’t have to decide between telling your own story versus telling family—or even ancestor—stories. This isn’t a case of choosing “All of the above” because you’re not sure of the correct answer.

Your family’s story is part of your story

Telling stories of family members, particularly those who feature strongly during your growing up years, is undeniably part of telling your own story. Those relatives are part of who you are. They’re also part of how you became that person. They represent role models, not to mention the basis for a lot of your anxieties. And, whether or not you’re into “genealogy,” when you record the episodes of your past, you’re documenting parts of your family history. Telling their story is telling your own story.

Stories of Loved Ones Ground Us

If you read this blog regularly, you know my grandma passed down a collection of memories and stories. (See The First Treasure Chest of Memories.) Not only did she include some basic description of who begot whom, but she also included stories about her relatives. Those stories help us digest not only who grandma was, but the family that raised her was. Which means we understand our own heritage. Now grandma’s story is part of my own story.

You are part of your family’s story

For some reason, this one is often a sticking point. Most people are quick to see how their family story is part of their past and their development. What some family story compilers are slower to embrace is that the episodes of their own past have a place in the family story. Family historians are notoriously over-reticent about themselves. Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard of documenting life journeys and historic events of their ancestors.

However, that’s a mistake, and not only because it leaves a hole in the family story. As wonderful as ancestor stories are—and they are wonderful—they are no substitute for telling your own story. Putting yourself on the page allows you to connect with both present and future loved ones. My grandmother included genealogical information and that helps me form a connection with those ancestors. However, that connection pales in comparison to the one I enjoy with my grandmother.

Telling your own story and family stories

We all write best when we write about something over which we’re passionate. Follow that passion. When approaching a subject, go with the story that resonates the most with you. For instance, one particular grandparent story will stand out to you. Perhaps its’ the story of a beloved (or wicked) grandparent. On the other hand, perhaps telling your own story means writing about how you never had a relationship with a grandparent or how you feel now that you’re the grandparent.

As Jeff Goins points out, telling your own story is good practice; they make you a better storyteller.

Sep 082015
What I did on my summer vacation picture from childhood

Remember having to write “What I did on my Summer Vacation” essays? Well, sharpen those pencils

Where did the opportunity to tell all your peers “What I did on my Summer Vacation” go? Here in the USA, as September rolls around, it’s not just the kids that are in back-to-school mode. Everyone is looking forward. They’ll ask you, “How was your summer?” but it’s clear that a monosyllabic or few-syllabic response is preferred. “Fine.” “Hot.” “It went fast.”

When you do have an adventure to talk about, not many people are geared to listen.

That’s why you should be writing, not waiting for someone to ask!

Narrating—or the opportunity to narrate—“what I did on summer vacation” is a lost art. Remember
when that was the first homework the teacher assigned?

I was one of the few elementary students who liked the assignment. Climbing trees, playing in the creek, and watermelon seed fights mixed with close friendships and visits from cousins seemed worthy of narration.

Most kids dreaded it. Some figured it would be a contest on who had the most interesting summer and they would be the clear loser. Others struggled with the writing part. Some questioned why the current year teacher couldn’t come up with a more imaginative topic. Writing about being stuffed into the way-back of a station wagon with siblings and without air conditioning was hard to make into compelling reading.

But back then, as now, teachers had their reasons. It wasn’t just to assess their students’ ability to string words together into comprehensible sentences and paragraphs. Teachers then (and now) collected clues about their charges’ personalities. They gained insight into who the kids spent their time with and what their family unit looked like. It was the first step in figuring out what made the monsters students tick.

The Lost Art of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”

And therein lies the lost art of writing about summer vacations and travel adventures—giving hints and insights into your life. Weave clues to the things that really matter to you into what you did, where you went, and what you saw.

Your Turn

Summer vacation can be wet

Even less-than-flattering photos bring “What I did on my summer vacation” essays alive

Try your hand at writing your own “What I did on my Summer Vacation” essay. Be sure to include:

• What made the trip memorable?
What type of relationships did you have with your companions? Were they co-adventurers, partners in crime, or co-cell-mates of the RV?
• What do you treasure (hopefully not resent) most about the people you spent time with? How did they affect your travels and your enjoyment of your time?
• What part of your summer vacation was tradition? How did this trip demonstrate those traditions? Break from them?
• If you traveled, who choose the destination and why?
• If you were disappointed in your time, explain why.
• Photos with and without people.
• What did you like most about your trip or free-time?
• What did you like least (besides it coming to an end)?
• Your personality!

If you come up dry or our looking for a more creative bent, apply some of Christina Hamlet’s “Table Topics” ideas for What I Did on My Summer Vacation into your writing.

Aug 042015
Anticipation marked on a calender

Anticipation of the big event can make a great story.

In the aftermath of major events, anticipation is often overlooked. If we get around to preserving the story, we capture the event itself. Seldom do we go into the preparation, the excitement, and the looking forward to—or dreading—of the event.

Anticipation is part of the story too

Because anticipation–or dread–affects our memories, it’s often a part of the story—a part that will help readers understand us better (or the family member or ancestor we write about).

For instance, Gretchen Rubin points out in Psychology Today that anticipation is a major component of the happiness generated by an event. We anticipate, savor, express our gratitude, and look back and reflect. Likewise, in an aptly titled article, Anticipation Plays A Powerful Role In Human Memory, Brain Study Finds, Science Daily reports, “the simple act of anticipation may play a surprisingly important role in how fresh the memory of a tough experience remains.”

I’ve seen both sides of anticipation this summer. On the happy side, anticipation of meeting my son in Europe has carried me through the 90 days of missing him (not that I’m counting). Because his internship in the Netherlands is unpaid, he’ll need a loan to get him through his senior year of college. A condition—well the only condition we’ve actually discussed—of that loan is that he’ll travel with his mommy for two weeks at the end of his internship.

It’s probably not the most fiscally sound decision I’ve ever made, but as the flight day approaches, I’m giddy with excitement. I’ve obsessively planned our itinerary, taking over 700 ancestral events (births, baptisms, residence, deaths, and burials) into account in deciding what to see. I’ve booked cozy-looking affordable B&Bs, and calculated travel distances. I corresponded with friends I haven’t seen in 20 years and planned visits. I’m so excited that sometimes my feet don’t actually touch the ground.

Some anticipation is dread.

Stories of dread can matter as well.

As I helped my dear friend set up our church’s fellowship hall for her mother’s funeral reception, I saw that dread first-hand.

The event had, in one sense already transpired, but the final goodbyes were yet ahead. That dread expressed itself in the siblings’ painstaking efforts to make the goodbye meaningful. They bought orchids for each table and carefully re-potted each one. Mementos, collectibles, and photos were lovingly placed on the display table. Each item highlighted their mother’s personality and the importance of relationships and family to her.

Perhaps focusing on the smaller details gave them a respite from contemplating the big, heartbreakingly final, picture. But those of days drawing together, planning, and seeing to is a part of their family history. They matter because they illustrate the family dynamic.

Write about moments of anticipation.

These moments of anticipation are stories—stories often lost. They’re stories of how we cope and what makes our hearts sing. They’re stories of how our emotions are mixed, not just internally, but with family members.

Try writing about anticipation in your family’s life. These might include:

  • A child going away to college
  • A move
  • A trip
  • A wedding
  • A new baby on the way
  • Waiting for a diagnosis
  • Waiting for a doctor’s appointment after receiving lab results
  • Throwing a party
  • Waiting for a visitor to come
  • Frantically cleaning and cooking for family coming to visit

Your Turn

When has anticipation colored days, weeks, or months of your life?

Jul 162015
A couple trying to remember somethings and not others

Understanding why we remember some things and not others might help facilitate recall.

Have you ever wondered why you remember some things but not others ? Have you ever wondered why some things come back to you seemingly out of the blue? You think to yourself, “That’s funny, I haven’t thought about that in years.”

Actually, it’s better than funny. The science behind how memory works is fascinating and cool.

Obviously, “How Memory Works” is a topic far beyond the scope of a single blog post. But it is fun to take a look at what scientists call episodic or autobiographical memories—the events of our pasts.

The memories we have and are able to recall are critical to how we think of ourselves. Researchers Martin A. Conway and Christophe Pleydell-Pearce explain, “autobiographical memory is of fundamental significance for the self, for emotions, and for the experience of personhood, that is the experience of enduring as an individual, in a culture, over time.” Continue reading »

Jun 112015
Happy Father's Day Story

Your Father’s Day Story might not fit the card shop mold, which is all the more reason to tell it.

Father’s Day isn’t always about the idyllic childhood or the perfect nuclear family.

It’s not always a “Hallmark” holiday. A day the lucky among us (including me) celebrate and remember the strong men that were positive influences in our lives. We give the ubiquitous tie or black socks to replace the ones that the washing machine ate to the men we love. We barbecue dad’s favorite meat on the grill. And yes, we spend time at the card shop deliberating. Continue reading »

Jun 042015
Foot in mouth

Big Foot in mouth (again).

Have you ever said something and as soon as it left your lips, you would have given your eye-tooth (I don’t actually know which one that is) to have your words back again? Failing that, you’d like to dissolve into the woodwork and never be seen again?

I have. On more than one occasion.

We’ve all had moments when we’ve had to try to bandage our dignity as we extract our foot from our mouths. Share them!  I’ll go first.  (You’re next, though. Misery loves company.)  Continue reading »

May 062015
Emotional furniture of your memories of your first home

As you write about memories of your first home (or any other place), include some emotional furniture.

When I first heard the prompt “Write about your memories of your first home,” my first reaction was, “Oh yeah, write about the place I can’t remember.” I wasn’t alone. The woman next to me offered aloud, “My first home after I got married?” She grew up as a military brat. She couldn’t even remember the number of home she had lived in, much less any details about the first one.

Of course, she was right. There’s several ways to adapt this prompt into something that will resonate with you and your readers. The point is to get your memories to paper and to connect with others through your stories. For instance, in addition to writing about your actual first home, Continue reading »

Apr 102015
Write about average and it comes alive

When you write about average, others look at the details and see something a lot more compelling than simply “average”.

Average gets a bad rap. Well, not so much a bad rap as not enough rap. We seldom hear about him or her.

For instance, you never see Average’s mom post about his achievements on Facebook. “Congratulations to my son Average who achieved something that most kids achieve.” Instead, we see the parents of Average’s friends posting about their kids achieving all the things Average tried to achieve, but fell just a tad short. “Congratulations to my child Superior who achieved something momentous. My kid is wonderful beyond belief and worked so hard. #mykidisintheroomwithme #Imjustanattentionwhore.”

Okay, the hashtags are imagined, put in my head by a hilarious teenager. (I’m withholding her name to protect the snarky.) But the post isn’t imagined. Its equivalent passes through our news feeds on a regular basis. Continue reading »

Feb 262015
Memories Family Stories and community learning

Memories, family stories, and community learning were all featured on this episode of Dear Myrtle’s Wacky Wednesday

Dear Myrtle, “Your friend in Genealogy since 1955,” was the would-be storyteller’s friend on her February 25, 2015 Wacky Wednesday show (embedded below). And, as the guest on her show, I got a great taste of community learning. Continue reading »