No one is an island: writing memoir on the boundaries of self, others and world

When you set out to write a memoir, it’s natural to assume that the focus is going to be on you. Yes, it’s your story, but no one is an island; it would be a pretty dull account if you tried to simply talk about yourself without including your constant interactions with other people, along with the historical eras you live through, and the physical landscapes you inhabit.

Indeed, if you analyze most published memoirs from what I call a “personal, political and planetary lens,” you will see these different registers of experience interacting in just about every scene.

For example, as I began writing childhood memories as I worked on my own memoir, What I Forgot…and Why I Remembered, I quickly noticed the sharp contrast between the peaceful, relaxed memories I had of spending weekends and summers at my family’s country home in upstate New York, and the harsh, fearful memories that stuck with me from all the weeks I spent at our primary residence in Manhattan.

To explore this contrast is to explore how my sense of self was affected by the social and physical landscapes I inhabited as a child:

It’s the long, slow twilit end of a long, slow, perfect summer day. As the sun goes down behind the mountain to the west of our little house, the pulsing chorus of crickets swells to a hypnotic pitch, and bats fly in swift circles around the peaked roof of the house, dipping and twirling like the aerial acrobats they are, intent on catching their dinner. I sit on the hillside above the rock garden, watching for the first fireflies in the meadow grass, blinking earthbound echoes of the stars coming out in the hazy summer sky overhead. In the deepening dusk, the lamps in the house glow with a warm golden light; I’m waiting until Mommy finishes putting my brother to sleep, so she can read me my bedtime story. Although I can read myself now, I still love Mommy to read to me, and we are in the middle of one of the most entrancing books I’ve ever encountered: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which we borrowed from the library. The idea of being pulled through a painting into another world delights me and tickles my imagination. But the truth is there is nowhere I would rather be than right here, on this peaceful darkening hillside, waiting for Mommy to call me in for bedtime.

In my childhood memories, the gentle, undulating peacefulness of the country contrasts sharply, over and over, with the angularity and discomfort of the city.

I’m in second grade and for some reason all of us kids are sitting on the floor in the gymnasium, waiting. I notice a ripple going down the line of kids towards me, and suddenly my neighbor has cupped her hands over my ear, leaning over to whisper urgently, “FUCK! Pass it on!” I look at her uncomprehendingly and she repeats it impatiently, gesturing at the next person in line and telling me again to “pass it on!” So I do, although I have no idea what I am saying. Later, at home, I ask my mother what FUCK means, and gather from her explanation that it is not a nice word—not a word I should say out loud.

Not long afterward, I am in the bathroom stall at school, and among lots of graffiti hearts with initials etched inside them, I read a large, angry proclamation: FUCK THE JEWS! My heart starts beating hard, and I can’t stop staring at this. Why would someone hate the Jews enough to write this in public? Do they hate—me?

 

These old memories from my early childhood are interesting precisely because they show how my thin-skinned, sensitive childhood self opened to or recoiled from the outside world.

From ecosystem studies we know that boundaries are the most lively and dynamic spaces in nature—in the boundary between a forest and a field, for instance, you’ll find more different types of plants, and more bugs, birds and animals to go with them.

The same is true for people: it’s our boundaries with other individuals, with social groups, and with the world around us that bring us most alive.

Taking a focused look at these liminal spaces of interaction can teach us a lot about who we were at specific times in our lives, and how we have ended up as we are today, sitting quietly writing it all down to share with others.

 

If you’re in the Berkshire region, join me on December 9 in Great Barrington for a three-hour writing workshop called “Take it to the Limit: Writing on the Boundaries of Self, Others and the World.” There is nothing more stimulating for a memoirist than writing and sharing in good company!

You can register here; walk-ins also welcome.

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