There are a number of ways to promote nonviolence and uplift, the themes of my Saturday Evening Post. One of them is writing and sharing a memoir.
This past month my wife and I took a four part course in writing memoir. Memoir is different from autobiography because it emphasizes the feelings and emotions of historical, anecdotal events in one’s life. Memoir allows us to access the stories of our lives for their meaning and significance, and, when shared, they become a powerful human bond among us. During the class we chose several specific memories that we wanted to record in writing, and then we had the opportunity to share it with the class for feedback. Although we were all a bit shy at first to share at such a personal level, we soon learned how gratifying and enjoyable it is to be so personally present to the lives of others. So as each read from their memoir for the day the rest of us listened with gentle smiles of rapt attention and recognition of our common humanity.
As the course moved on my classmates and I began to talk of a wider impact from our shared stories. The heartbeat of any meaningful community is comprised of the stories we tell each other. Writing in the style of memoir provides the opportunity to reflect on our memories and stories for their deeper meaning and feeling, and the experience is truly a blessing for both the writer and, when shared, the listener or reader.
But the more important takeaway from our memoir class was a profound experience of our common humanity. Our stories recounted memories of fear, courage, discovery, affection, and life changing decisions: stories about tending our children, the process of leaving a marriage, the importance of a childhood possession, the affection of a grandparent. Our class members had a good number of similarities - age and ethnicity in particular - but we also came from radically different childhoods and adult struggles. Yet there we were smiling with deep affection for each other’s ability to cope and grow through life's challenges.
And I began to reflect on how memoir classes could be used throughout society to illicit that bond of shared humanity. Many of our communities are so divided and polarized. For many our ideas of the “other” come from whatever news or TV programs we watch, or from the often biased opinions of those most like us. So I’m imagining networks of memoir classes consisting of as wide a variety of people as would be willing to join such a group. And I imagine them writing and listening to stories of memories of grace and loss and success and love and courage in their unique lives. I imagine a Black veteran, an Republican dairy farmer, an Hispanic businessperson, a grandparent to a transgendered child, a homeless person, a retired nurse, an undocumented refugee, and a young foreign student seated around a table writing and sharing their memoir entries. OK, that’s a bit idealistic, but you get the point. All these folks would have incredible stories to write and share. And they most certainly would come to share a deep strain of their common humanity as well as being totally intrigued by the differences in their lives. And the world would become a much more friendly and inclusive place s a result.
A more realistic plan, besides the possibility of sharing our memoirs, is to share our life stories with not only our friends but with those we would assume are quite different. I’m thinking, of course, of a memoir class or a writing group composed of those who voted for Trump and those who didn’t. When we do have opportunities to engage with those with quite different life experiences we expand both our awareness of ourselves and the awareness of the person we get to know. We would do well to seek those opportunities.
The memoir, or some sort of variation of deep personal sharing across our varied humanity, may not be the most obvious means of nonviolent peace building, but surely it is most effective. I encourage social groups at church, in book groups, and more challenging, groups organized across the class and social spectrum, to simply invite a small portion of each others’ stories - memoirs, if you will. Let me know if you’ve given it a try!
As an example of a memoir segment, and for those willing to take the time to read it, I am sharing one of my “relatively safe” contributions to the memoir class entitled “My Afghan” written in response to a memory of a childhood object. After I finished reading one of my classmates said that she, too, had a beloved family afghan that her son now owned that contains the same memories of comfort I expressed - a lovely common sharing.
I was seldom sick when I was young, fortunately - chicken pox, mumps, flu, a cold sneezy and wheezy enough to keep me from school. But those were special times, homebound under the care of mom, some chicken soup and - most importantly - under the care of our family afghan. I remember the thermometer stuck under my tongue, the isolation from my friends, and just being sick. But all that was made better tucked away under my afghan.
I don’t remember the afghan’s origins, who it was in our family who spent the many hours carefully knitting its various sections, but it proceeded my childhood. The overall design was a a zig-zag mixture of all the colors I most like - lots of strong dark blue, some purple, some orange and light blue. Although I liked the colors, what was more satisfying was the feel of it: the texture of wool that had holes big enough to put your fingers through. And also the sheer size of it all - bigger than most blankets - so as a child I could get fully covered over twice and still have extra to pull up around my shoulders. But mostly it was the sweet smell of it, the smell of comfort and childhood security. A smell that seemed all my own.
Fortunately I still have that old afghan. It’s survived years of storage all packed up in various boxes and chests before I had my own home and spread it across the back of my reclining chair. It’s now kind of patched up here and there, my having carelessly shared it at times with some moths. But the color, the texture, the wonderful wrap-around size of it, and - most deliciously - the sweet small of childhood memory still persists to this day as I wrap myself in it on cold mornings, or those days when, even now, I just need comfort.