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The alchemy in writing memoir

(Excerpted from my book-in-progress.)

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Writing is like alchemy. You introduce the chemicals of awareness and the muse. Once you begin to write a story from your memory, the memory is changed. The experience itself will never appear the same in your mind. Because now there is a third. It is not just you and your experience. There is the witness, the potential reader –even the muse–watching over the work. You might even say God is watching.

And when there is another witness, you can’t help but see that this witness was there all along. It was guiding you, when you thought you were alone. It was helping you gather these experiences so that today, you could put them down in some kind of order and make sense of them.

Life isn’t random. It is highly orchestrated for our awakening. It is highly orchestrated for us to pay close attention to what is happening in our hearts. Because if you don’t pay attention, you can easily fall prey to thoughts of victimhood or on the flip-side, an inflated sense of self, or both, and then your heart is not open and you will not taste the full extent of the sweetness in a concord grape just off the vine, or you will not see the humor in a chicken joint that when you press it just so, it splays out a set of claws like your own private horror show.

You will miss it.

So that is a reason to write. Or to do any art, or any reflection.

In the alchemy of creation, you realize that what is real is highly changeable. Even time, which can, at any moment, collapse upon itself. I can look at the evergreens outside my window and I see the row of pine trees in my back yard where l lived as a child. The trees where I climbed, hid or played tag with my sister and the neighborhood kids. I can see the three boys that my sister and I played with down the street in elementary school, as vivid now as the cardinal that hops from branch to branch outside my studio window. If I close my eyes to remember, I can see that in some area of my mind, these events are still occurring.

And just like that, the scene will change. And just as vividly is my spiritual teacher, twenty-plus years later, standing at the door, holding a large feather he wants to show me. I don’t remember the significance of the feather, though I think it was an eagle feather given by a Native American tribe. His eyes hold deep compassion, his face almost expressionless, fully relaxed as if asleep, except his eyes are bright blue pools of keen awareness. He is taking in the scene of me working at a large wooden desk, tucked against a wall in a basement office of the meditation center where I worked and where he ran meditation retreats. I pushed my chair back, unable to stand the intensity of his gaze, and ran to give him a hug.

“I am so grateful for you,” I tell him, and then he tells me about the feather. I am like a child, or a kid sister, eyes wider than I ever remember them being. Through no effort of his own, but simply by his open nature, this teacher has reminded me of the child I was, the one I had locked away for safe keeping.

Writing memoir is a stroll through the temple of memory, but it is not a museum of the dead. It is living. It is pulsing with life. Some parts of the temple are frescoes that invite you in and make your heart flutter with recognition. Some parts are headless chickens, flapping as their lifeblood pours out onto the clay floor. But even these memories are pulsing with some unknown factor. Maybe it is the witness, the writer, who sees the memory anew. Sees the hidden meanings that were not there before. Sees the story within the story, the witness saying, “ah, look!” when previously, there was judgment. Something, then, is being undone. Something is being remade.