Writing My Life

At five, standing in my grandparent’s garden.

When I told a friend a while back that I’m in the process of writing a memoir, she asked me what it was going to write about. I struggled with what to tell her. I wasn’t very clear yet myself, but trying to find words that I thought would serve the purpose, I said, “Well, it’s about my life, how I came to be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and how I’ve brought peace into my life.”

Sufficing as a fair to middling, but far too general a description, it didn’t answer the deeper questions that had been rolling around in my head when I started the writing. “What am I going to include?  What do I want to say and why do I even want to do this?  Am I up to the challenge of reliving some of the darker moments of my life?”

In my first conversations with myself about writing my life, I didn’t have a clue as to how to start.  So I started with stories as they came to me. I published some here, on this blog.  I wrote the happy stories, avoiding the dark stuff, not ready to spill the beans and their big stink. Slowly, I started allowing the ghosts waiting outside the door into my studio and began digging deeper, becoming more honest with and about myself.

Many have told me that I’ve lived a fascinating life and should get it all down on paper. They told me it would be helpful to others who’ve suffered through undiagnosed PTSD. Many people don’t understand that it can be caused by lesser events than living through a tsunami or being a veteran of a cruel and arduous war.

But my first concern was just getting it all out of my internal storeroom, knowing that once I started getting my shame out, I’d feel lighter and happier. I could downsize my memory bank, just as I was downsizing my belongings and living space. I felt that writing through my struggles, I could begin to put the fragmented pieces of my life back together, reaching a new understanding of who I am and how I got to be me.  I knew it could open up the doors I’ve kept locked for far too long and giving me a new perspective on where I’ve come from.

As I was trying to get started on this project, I was diagnosed with Endometrial cancer, which grows in the lining of the Uterus. I was told by a number of doctors that if one has to have cancer, this is the best kind to have. It’s easily treated, depending of course, on its stage when it’s discovered.  Even so, I was extremely frightened. Cancer is the killer in my family. Heart disease has rarely been an issue. All of my relatives, who have passed on, died of complications and the affects cancer had on their bodies. We’ve had cancer of the lungs, bladder, esophagus, nasal cavity, and colorectal cancer.  I found it disturbing to think that unless I’m run over by a dump truck or die of some other external cause, my life would most probably end in the same kind of suffering that my forebears in death went through.  I did not want that for myself.

Treatment for my cancer was a simple hysterectomy, removing all of my reproductive organs. As long as it would be gone, I didn’t care about the loss of parts of myself. At my age, I wouldn’t be needing them anyway. I now visit my Oncologist twice a year to be rechecked and to date there has been no reoccurrence. I’m told that the chances of it returning are rare and should it show up again it is treatable.

While spending several months recuperating from the surgery, I decided that there was no time to worry about cancer and its potential return.  I had no time to feel sorry for myself or the events in my life that had brought me to this moment. I wanted a new a perspective on how to proceed through the rest of my days. Life has been hard and cruel at times and I still bear the scars of child abuse. I’ve struggled with depression, extreme anxiety and spent years thinking of myself as broken and unfit. I learned about and began to accept that I’m an HSP, or a highly sensitive person. Whatever the cause, whether genetic or learned over time, I am an introvert, who has continuously tried to be the extrovert that I thought everyone expected me to be.  I was constantly at war with myself, feeling unworthy of the good things in my life, wondering what was wrong with me, and why I couldn’t reach my unthinkable dream of being just like everyone else.  In a word, Normal.

My cancer has given me a second chance at life. With the help of a therapist whose specialty was treating trauma, I had already begun the journey.  There was much healing to be done, both from the surgical standpoint and from years of blaming, hating, and abusing myself, because I was different and didn’t seem to fit in anywhere.

I can say with confidence that the most effective part of the healing process has been my memoir writing and allowing myself to relive certain aspects of life.  It has been difficult, but I’ve also discovered the many joyful times I spent with my parents, who unable to cope with their own lives, abused me and my brothers.  I’m learning about forgiveness. I’m learning to love myself and that I am worthy, and a good person.

I’m still at work on my memoir and cannot say how long it will take me to finish it. I need time to navigate through my memories and often need to take breaks between the intense chapters in order to reground myself. Being able to laugh at myself and to be joyful about my newest perceptions is constantly rewarding me.  When I’m finished writing my life and it hopefully becomes a book, I will be most happy if those who read my words will find within them, peace and a new perspective on suffering.

Are you writing a memoir or keeping a journal?  Are you finding it easy or difficult to write your stories?  Do you feel that writing about your life is an opportunity to heal the most painful parts of your journey? 

A Whirlwind Trip Down Memory Lane

My neices, Julia and Anya.

Last week Bill and I flew up to Vermont to do a tour of our old stomping grounds.  We visited family and friends, made new friends, and revisited homes we once lived in. We spent every minute living in the rush of memories and events that took place over a span of fifteen years. It was a trip I’ll never forget.

Arriving in Burlington, we spent our first evening with my brother Zed, his son Ben, and friend, Terri.  The next morning we had a lovely breakfast with Ben’s sweet mom, Brenda, and then drove south down the Champlain Valley, with spectacular views of the Green Mountains on the left and the Adirondacks on the right. Lake Champlain inserted itself every so often between us and the New York State line. It was startlingly beautiful and I wondered why we had decided to leave this unforgettable landscape. But then I remembered the long winters, heavy snows that blanketed the countryside and the biting cold that once upon a time I found invigorating.

Zed with Mousse, Bill, Ben, and Terri on our first night in Vermont

In Rutland, we turned west toward Killington where I spent my college years waiting on tables and making beds at my parent’s ski lodge. I drove that route five days a week in sun, snow, and subzero temperatures to Castleton State College where I earned a Bachelor of Science degree in elementary education.  Killington is also where Bill and I first met in 1962 when he fell in love with Vermont, bought three and a half acres of land and began building a round, stone ski chalet that was finally finished just before we were married in 1965.

The Round Rough House

Driving up the mountain gave me goose bumps and as we drove into the driveway at the round house, my anxiety over revisiting the past in-person, turned into pure excitement.  We were met at the door by current owners, Wiley and Kay, who moved there from New Orleans, after Katrina destroyed their city and peace of mind.  They, coincidentally, are friends of very old friends of ours, who out of the blue discovered that their New Orleans friends were moving into a house in Vermont built and designed by their Virginia friends. We had a delightful time sitting and reminiscing about the process of acquiring the land and building this one-of-a-kind house that is still known in the area as the Round Rough House. Ralph and Carol, our mutual friends, drove up from Washington, DC to be at this meeting of the new owners and us old owners.

Looking down into the livingroom area.

After a delicious meal we pressed on toward our next destination. But before we left the area we peeked in on the Summit Lodge, built and run by my parents. I thought of Hernando, our gray Sicilian donkey, who wandered about the property and often welcomed guests when they arrived with his large floppy ears pinned back ready to take a nip out of any hand that reached out to him.

Lots of old stories, both good and bad, haunted the drive further west to Quechee where we spent two nights in the lovely Apple Butter Bed and Breakfast. Exhausted and overwhelmed by the pace and intensity of the trip so far, we fell asleep to the rumble of thunder and rain on the roof above our heads.

We headed over to Meriden, New Hampshire, the next morning to spend the day with my nephew Jesse, his new wife, Lisa, and Jesse’s two girls, Anya and Julia, two of the most beautiful little women I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. They live in my brother Reid’s house that he built years ago in a sunny glade.  I played with five-year-old Anya, pushing her on her new “horsey” swing and tried to get Julia to play. I did get a kiss out of her at one point, but she’s only two and a shy little munchkin.

While he was still alive, Reid often rented out his house to earn some income, while he lived in the old red barn a short distance from the house. It is still filled with his belongings. Jesse invited us inside to see if there was anything we might want as a keepsake. It was the very first time ever that I stepped into that barn and knew for certain that my brother had been a hoarder.  Jesse has done some cleaning up, but much stuff is still where Reid had left it.  Imagine three floors of barn packed to the rooftop with junk of unimaginable quantity. There are bits and pieces of metal, several refrigerators, a basket overflowing with cork floats, a few antiques, several beautiful birdhouses that Reid built and wove from tree limbs, along with notes he wrote to himself on scraps of wood tucked in every nook and cranny.  I was deeply touched and saddened seeing for myself the way my brother had lived. He had been happy at times but underneath there always seemed to be a bed of burning anger, fear and blame.

We met with Amanda, (Anya and Julia’s mom) and her partner, Liz, the next morning over a stack of blueberry pancakes with real maple syrup, then drove north to St. Johnsbury where our kids, Mark and Lisa, were born. We had a reunion with old friends whom we haven’t seen in years.  All teachers, they had come together along with Bill in 1973 to create The Peacham School, an alternative private school for grades 7 through 12.

Our house in Danville.

The following day at our old homestead, Circa 1844, in Danville, the Dowsing Capitol of the World, we soaked in the memories of planting the now huge weeping willow out back and fishing for blue perch in the pond we had dug, now surrounded by a tangle of trees and shrubs. I imagined I heard the sweet sound of bells that my sheep and goats wore around their necks.  There I learned to spin yarn from the fleeces of my flock, dye the yarn with natural dyes, and then weave those fibers into a variety of products I sold at craft fairs. Invited to see the inside of the house as well, I traveled back in time to the winter when we couldn’t see out of the picture window on the north side of the house because the snow was drifted so high that it was almost touching the eaves.

The Pond

Later we returned to Burlington where we flew out early the next morning to return home.  My brother, Zed, had arranged a reception for us where we were introduced to his friends. I was extremely honored by the hospitality and love that we found ourselves surrounded by in every place we visited.

Happy and delighted to see my people, I was also overwhelmed, sad, and missing those who are no longer there. We’d visited Vermont two years ago for Reid’s memorial service, but had only two days. In the midst of moving and a new job for Bill, sadly there was no time to explore the roads we had once traveled.  This trip wasn’t much longer, but as Bill put it on our last day there, “We dotted all of our ‘i’s, crossed all of our ‘t’s and made peace with a segment of our past lives.”

The only remaining willow tree we planted.

Vermont is a very special place.  Those who live there are true Yankees: fiercely independent, highly spirited and able to withstand whatever the climate and the land chooses to throw their way.  Last August when Hurricane Irene raged through the state with torrential rains and flooding, everyone came together to clean up and make things right again. Independent construction companies rushed out to rebuild roads and bridges after the storm without being asked to.  There are still scars remaining but the spirit of the place reigns far above anything still needing to be fixed.

Zed and Mousse.

In The Company Of Ghosts

Jamestown, May 2012. Archeological digs in the foreground and a replica of the structure of the barracks in the background.

Time can only disclose or unfold itself in our now, and as it does, all of time and all the world unfolds too.

Adam Frank,  Time and Again

One afternoon, not too long ago Bill said,” Hey, let’s go to Williamsburg next weekend. It’s been on our bucket list for years and I’m ready.”  We’d put it on our list of nearby historic sites to see thirty-three years ago when we first moved here to Virginia, along with those other in our back yard sites, like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Ashlawn, the home of President James Monroe, and Montpelier where James and Dolly Madison lived while our country was just a young thing.  We’ve already visited those places and always enjoy the opportunity to dig into local history as it plays into the history of our nation.

I hemmed and hawed, feeling somewhat lazy. I wanted to write and tend to the garden. Those two activities shine as regular excuses, frequently keeping me from living the more spontaneous life I want to live. But after a good night’s sleep I changed my mind, figuring it would be good to take a weekend off.  At my age, you never know how close you are to running out of time and it’s important to do enjoyable things. Besides that we’d be able to tick it off one thing from our massive bucket list, which includes “dream” trips to Hawaii, South Africa and Mongolia.  Williamsburg, being less than two hours away, is not in the same category as those other three, making it much more affordable.

So on a lovely spring morning we packed up the car and headed out for an adventure.  We took our time, choosing one of Virginia’s most historic and scenic routes rather than the Interstate.  Along that tree-lined corridor, huge plantations flourished and tobacco became king after the British began settling in Virginia. A number of those old homes have been restored and are open for tours. We’d once visited several of them on a quick day trip, always believing that in-person, hands-on visits to places of historic value make the everyday mundaneness of any era extremely enlightening.

With the exception of a history course in college, the study of the past had always been a bore for me.  All I ever needed to do was memorize dates and I passed with flying colors. In the classes I was forced to take in high school, it seems that the whys, hows, and wherefores didn’t matter a whole lot.  But as I think about it now, maybe I just wasn’t that interested at the time, finding attractive young men more to my liking.

In Jamestown, we went directly to the spot where British entrepreneurs arrived in May of 1607, establishing the first permanent colony in what would eventually be known as The United States of America. Wandering through the museum that houses thousands of artifacts as well as human remains gathered in archeological digs, we saw old tools, rusted knives, pottery, bits of jewelry and so much more, all used by those first settlers and those who followed in their footsteps.  A fascinating exhibit of a grave with the remains of a thirty-something year old man, showed how historians go about learning about whom the deceased might be. The kind of coffin a person was buried in, along with other bits and pieces found in the grave, and hand written, personal journals of the time, make guesses fairly simple.  But DNA not always possible is always the clincher.

Outside, on that sun-warmed afternoon, we went on a short but informative archeological tour with a National Park Ranger. We watched as fragments of the past were uncovered while we stood looking down into the trenches, where everyday aspects of life in the early sixteen hundreds came to the surface. Everyone we talked to, rangers and archeologists alike, spoke of how exciting it is to work in a place where history unfolds on a daily basis, bringing change to their perspectives on what life was like for those early settlers. It was impossible for me not to feel the presence of those long-gone souls as they went about their lives struggling to survive the difficulties they were faced with on their arrival in this new world: extreme drought, infestations of biting insects and internal unrest among the local Native American population who were at war with one another.

I thought of my father’s parents who came to this country from Poland early in the 1900s. My grandmother, Michalina Podhajecka, not yet seventeen, arrived at Ellis Island on March 16, 1911. My grandfather Wladislaw Zabski, later know as John Walter Zabski followed in September of 1912.  I felt their presence and those of so many others on a visit to Ellis Island several years ago. Their journeys were not trips of discovery, but a response to conditions in their homelands. They had heard the talk about jobs for all in the land of the free and made their way toward new lives, leaving family, friends and known reality behind them.  I can only imagine the mix of terror, heartbreak, hope, and excitement that must have accompanied them on their odyssey to find the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Though my forefathers did not face the same difficulties as the early British who came to an unknown land to discover natural resources that they could take back to England and to expand the British Empire, their struggles must have been similar in that they came not knowing what they would find.  It is one thing to venture out from familiarity, returning to it at the end of each day, and quite another to leave it behind forever, in many cases never experiencing it again.  Both are ventures into the unknown yet choices that effect every tomorrow like the expanding circles caused by dropping a pebble into a pool of still water.

Mesmerized and excited by what we saw, Bill and I reflected on where we might be today had we chosen to be historians and/or archeologists rather than the artists that we are. What ifs follow all of us all through life as we go about making choices based on the circumstances we are dealt. Frightening intersections in our lives where we must choose which road to travel are shrouded in mystery and though we make plans for the future based on which road we decide to take, we never know exactly where we’ll end up. And we have no clue how our actions will affect the future.

At my age I have no intention of crawling down into a muddy pit digging through soil and rocks to find a piece of pottery, a gold coin, or an old rusted belt buckle, but I certainly love the thrill of piecing together the lives of those who came before me.

Though we didn’t have enough time to tour all of the sites, we were equally enthralled the following day when we visited the location of the battle at Yorktown where in 1781, along with the French, we defeated the British in the last battle of the American Revolution, finally bringing independence to our United States of America. Though we celebrate 1776 and the signing of the Declaration of Independence as the year we gained our freedom, it wasn’t until the signing of the Paris Treaty in 1783, that we became truly free and out from under British rule. In this 2012 election year my bewildered perspective has become more hopeful by seeing what our forefathers were able do even when chaos and disagreement ruled the day.

At Yorktown, I found the peacefulness of that long-ago battlefield quite eerie as I reflected on what happened in that place where I was standing. Though I saw cars traveling slowly along a country road and other evidence of our 21st century world inserting itself in the distance, I found myself wandering all sides of the line of battle. British, American and French flags waving in the breeze across a large expanse of field indicated the positions of the differing armies. I thought about the men who fought here. On all sides, seven hundred and eighty lives were lost here. The number of those injured is unknown, but it must have been significant. What were their hopes, fears, and dreams? Where had they come from and what had they left behind? Where did the survivors go when all was said and done? What does it have to say about our world today? What will those who inhabit this place five hundred years from now think about when they look at what we have left behind?

Those questions naturally led me to think of my father who fought in Italy, France and Germany during World War II.  Married to him the day before he joined the army, my mom always said, “He came home a man I didn’t know.”  He obviously suffered what can only be described now as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He was moody, abusive, angry, and fearsome, making life difficult for himself and the family.  So that I could better understand who he was, part of me would have liked to be with him as he fought his way into nests of Nazis, killing them and watching as his own men were killed. Those of us who have never experienced war have no way of knowing what conflict is really like. All we can do is wonder and imagine our way to understanding and that is not the same as being there.

At home again, I still feel a pull toward immersing myself in the world of history and archeology. But I’m quickly reminded that my journey into writing memoir is similar to the work of historians and archeologists. As I excavate my memories and the lives of my family, I’m discovering relics that inform me of who I am and where I come from. I am a writer and an artist as well as an archeologist and a historian. I am all of those when I spend time talking with a cousin five years my senior, who knew me as an infant. I read through my father’s military records telling me how and where he courageously fought in World War II. I wander in and out of memories and wonder how he must have felt when he first walked into the concentration camps that he liberated at the end of the war. I wonder what exactly influenced my grandparents to come to this country from Poland. What did it feel like to leave their homes with only a few belongings, arriving in a strange, new land where they couldn’t speak the language?  Never having asked them those questions when I had the opportunity, I can only imagine what they might have said.

All I really know is that one day when we are grown enough, we set out on a great adventure. We go down one road and then another. We stop to listen at the crossroads to what our hearts tell us and then we move on. At times it’s a struggle.  At other times it’s less difficult.  It is never perfect and we don’t arrive where we thought we would.  We can never imagine what we will discover about the past or what we might contribute to the future. Each of us is like that pebble, dropped into a still pool, continually changing the status quo.