Reconstructing MYSELF

I’ve been working on this project, Reconstructing My Mother, since 2005 when I signed up for a memoir class at the Taos Summer Writers Conference.  The instructor letter said, among other things, “Send 10-25 pages of your manuscript…. bla bla bla”

Yeah. After the word “manuscript” my vision blurred then my brain went into panic mode.  MANUSCRIPT?!  I’m supposed to have a manuscript?  

And even six and a half years later I still sometimes hear that voice in my head that says  MANUSCRIPT?!  I’m supposed to have a manuscript? Only now I really have to have one in order to complete this MFA.

When I describe this manuscript I have some nice little marketing spiel I’ve come up with that explains it:

In RECONSTRUCTING MY MOTHER we follow Jennifer’s journey to get to know her mother who died when she was 13.  Set against the backdrop of turning 40, watching her only sister battle breast cancer and losing her father, ultimately the book is about Jennifer getting to know herself.

I remember in that first workshop at the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference  Greg (who is now my adviser at UNM) said in his critique (outloud in front of everyone):  “Jennifer is searching for something she’ll never find.”  He wasn’t being mean (though it did make me cry and think what the F*&% does he know?!).  He was enthusiastic about the story potential in my work.   I can’t even count how often since that first workshop I have heard him say something along the lines of:  “If a guy goes on a journey to get something, and everything works out great and he gets it….   it’s not a STORY.”

But the more I write this thing, the more I realize it is not only about “getting to know myself” it’s about RECONSTRUCTING myself.  I didn’t understand that many of the obstacles I would run up against would be my own self:  insecurity, fear, procrastination, you know, the ones I wrote about in the post from three days ago…  I didn’t understand how important  “getting to know myself” is in terms of creating a memoir with an engaging voice rich with reflection and wisdom, sprinkled with a little humor–at least that is my hope for the work.

I’m having to dig deep, go back to dark places in the past, and places that are just gray and muddled, the edges of those memories softened over time.  I don’t want to dwell in the past, but in order to understand the present, to understand myself, I need to understand where I come from.  I need to cull through those memories, those defining events in my life and determine if they fit in this story:

Nothing is less real than realism.
It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis,
that we get at the real meaning of things.

~Georgia O’Keefe

I am not broken, I am not torn apart in bits, but I need to identify the pieces  and reconstruct them into a narrative arc that tells a story, that tell the story I want to tell about loss and what it means to navigate grief, and what happens when we don’t go on that grief journey…


The Next Big Thing

Why is it when you I have a project due, something BIG like, say a dissertation,
you I suddenly find other things to do?  Bigger, shinier things?   Instead of  just finishing the thing, I dream about what’s next, I plan my garden, I get BIG ideas–I have a million of them, none with earning potential, of course.

In fact, my whole life is full of unfinished projects in the closet:  a half crocheted afghan, a beaded necklace with no clasp, a jacket that needs new buttons…  I have boxes and boxes filled with artistic potential:  art supplies, beads, found objects, magazines. And the writing:  essays, poems, stories languishing in files on my computer or half formed in my head.

Writing has become my metaphor for life.  All the obstacles I engage in the process of writing are the same ones I find myself up against in my own life, obstacles which are for the most part self-made, obstacles which I must learn how to overcome in order to find success.   The one I’m up against now is my desire to quit, I’m battling a compulsion to go drop this book and go on to the next project, find a job, anything to avoid finishing this thing….

But I know it’s all about fear.  If I finish this dissertation, and then turn it into a publishable book (or at least something I can proudly send off to an agent) I will have to succeed or fail on the merits of my work. I won’t be able to tell myself that the reason I didn’t succeed was because I didn’t try, or because I didn’t really want it in the first place. I will have confront my propensity for unfinished projects.  I will have put my heart and soul into this thing, this book, and I will have taken it as far as I can take it…  and still, it may not get out there into the world.

And this scares me.


May I have a second (or seven) of your time?

Not calling after a date is one thing.   “Forgetting” to return a call (or two or twenty) from that friend who you now realize is craZy (and not in a good way) is   socially acceptable.  But not replying, in any way shape or form, to not just a job application (from a highly qualified candidate) but to a follow up email, is downright unprofessional.

I realize every open job these days must get a gazillion applicants.  (Though in this case it was a Graduate Assistantship on campus with a limited pool of applicants: only graduate students would be eligible.) I know everyone is busy busy busy, overwhelmed with email, and probably even doing extra work because budget cuts necessitate doing not only your own job, but the job of your co-worker who was laid off or not replaced when he retired.  I know that you don’t care about my employment status or my feelings.

But still.  I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

And if one of those highly qualified applicants wrote a personal email follow up inquiring if the position had been filled SIX  SEVEN DAYS AGO….  well then, I think a reply email would be the professional response.  You know, because this is a business.  Or a university, or whatever.

How long does to take to hit the reply button, type “Yes,” then tap the send button?

Seven seconds.  That’s all it would take. (I timed it,because that’s the kind of detail oriented person I am.)


 January 28 is the anniversary of my mother’s death.

Sometimes I forget, but my body always remembers.  I become achy. I want to hunker down in my own house, stay in bed longer than usual.  Here in Albuquerque it’s easy to chalk it up to winter–January is the coldest month–but it’s neither winter nor the cold that makes me weepy.

It’s been 34 years and most of the time I don’t get bogged down with grief and longing for something, for my mom, but writing this dissertation means I’ve been dredging up the memories; I’ve been deliberately putting myself back in that time when I was a messed up teenager.

Last week I was at the Children’s Grief Center, where I co-facilitate a bereavement group for teens.  During our facilitator check-in I mentioned that the anniversary of my mom’s death was coming up.  I said I was feeling a little sad, but I was glad to be there as a volunteer.   A couple of people came up to me after the check-in and asked if I was okay.  I said “Yes,” and I meant it.

And then, two days later I had a meltdown in front of my professor and two of my colleagues.   Right there at Winnings Coffee.  It was weird.  I started the meeting feeling good about my pages, about the state my dissertation was in.  (I’ve made peace with the fact that at the time of my defense it won’t be perfect, but it will be defendable. )  We were talking about my latest revisions, and all of the sudden a thought came into my head–that my mom wouldn’t be there.  That my dad wouldn’t be there.  I felt this flush of sadness simply overwhelm my body and I started to cry.  And then I felt stupid for crying.

I know grief comes in waves, and I know that even years later you can feel the loss, that sometimes something triggers the feeling of loss.  But Geez! it’s been THIRTY FOUR YEARS.

I explained to my colleagues that the following day was the anniversary of my mom’s death, and to please just understand that sometimes I feel emotionally unstable at this time of year….  I dried my tears, pulled myself together, and we moved on.

The next morning Suzanne called.   I was buried under my down comforter listening to the radio and just about to start feeling guilty for not being up and about…

“I know you said that today is the anniversary of your mother’s death.  I don’t know if you do anything special….”

“No. Mostly I just feel weepy,”  I said.  Since I’ve been volunteering at the Grief Center, and writing this memoir, I’m much more aware of these kinds of feelings, and much more willing to be open about them, speak of them matter-of-factly.

She invited me out for a walk and showed up an hour later, holding a lavender plant, our mutual friend Cassie in tow.  We spent the morning walking along the Bosque trail, talking and laughing.

A four mile walk may not be something specific I would choose to do to honor my mom, but it was great way to hang out with good friends, get fresh air, enjoy my favorite part of Albuquerque along the Rio Grande (the only place where there is water) and not feel alone.


February 1 (today) would have been my Dad’s 79th birthday.

This anniversary isn’t as tough emotionally.  I had more time with my dad. He was older when he died (though he could have lived longer had he taken better care of himself).   I’m spending the day working on my dissertation, the thing that will get me the MFA degree.  My dad worked hard, worked a lot, he was smart. He had two master’s degrees, so I think he’d be proud.

Maybe I’ll go for a walk later….