Family history – we all have a story

The word “history” has its origins in the Greek language, from words which stood for “learned”, “wise man” and “finding out”. One could almost say it is a wise man who finds out and learns about his story.

I believe it is important for all of us to find out more about our family history for many reasons. At a basic level, it is important to know the medical history of our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, in order to take the necessary precautions to enable a healthy life. I’ve always been conscious of my mother’s late onset diabetes, in fact it is my motivation for maintaining a healthy weight. Similarly, my father’s battles with cataracts and glaucoma, ensure I regularly have my eyes checked.

The history of our relatives also goes a long way to explaining their behaviour, or the decisions they might have made. In my own case, I have always favored naturopathic and homeopathic medicine over the western norm, without ever having a concrete reason. My father, despite regularly seeing a doctor, often refused medication and believed more in “mind over matter.” Could our viewpoint have stemmed from my grandfather, my father’s father, who was an iridologist and homeopath, who insisted on treating his family instead of taking them to western doctors?

And while I’m on the subject of my father, to me he was blatantly different to other fathers. He worked and he came home, he never stayed behind for a beer or socialised.  He didn’t like to go out and only did so when my mother forced him to join her at parties or functions. He was obsessed with security, there were locks on every door and window in our house and I was never allowed to keep my window open at night. I did, but I learned to shut it as soon as I woke up. My father also stocked up on everything. He had multiple tissue boxes and rolls of toilet paper. The cupboards were full of soap, light bulbs, pads of paper, empty cassettes, toothpaste, deodorant and more. It has only been lately, as I’ve learned more about his past that I’ve managed to make sense of his odd behaviour. He was an officer in the Germany army, not a Nazi, but someone who was drafted against his will. He fought in some bloody battles, was injured in a few and was eventually captured and made a prisoner of war. No wonder he had rather strange behaviour.

The more I look into my family’s history, the more I connect things to my life today. So, in the memoir I’m working on, I hope to outline further information about my father and his family, in order that my boys will be able to read it and understand where they came from. When I finish it, I will begin on my mother’s side of the family.

No matter where we come from, no matter what family we have, we all have a history which makes us what we are today and I believe it is important to learn about it.

Procrastination

“We must be diligent today. To wait until tomorrow is too late. Death comes unexpectedly. How can we bargain with it?” Buddha

And yet, I seem to be all too willing to procrastinate. It has been months since I’ve even looked at the memoir I’m meant to be writing. Sure, in that time, I’ve written a couple of short stories, blogged and entered a writing competition. I’ve read other peoples’ memoirs and books and articles on memoir writing. I’ve opened my memoir on my computer and read through it, again. But I haven’t managed to rewrite a single sentence.

How would I feel about that if tomorrow I found myself on my death bed?

“Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives, that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.” Pope Paul VI

But, I argue with myself, what if the things I want to do cost more money than I have? What if I want to travel, living in various countries for months on end, perhaps never returning home? How would I support myself? What if what I want to do is learn more? How would I pay the bills, eat or clothe myself while I am studying history, philosophy and literature? Or rather, what if they prevent me from earning money? What if I am never able to make a living by writing?

These questions pose another – if I am asking myself how I can possibly afford doing what I want, do I really want to do the things I say I want to do?

I guess I’m not an adventurer. I want to do more with my life than work from 9 to 5, five days a week, but I also want to feel financially secure. I want my cake and eat it too, as long as it’s gluten free, dairy free and fructose free. And by the way, these dietary restrictions mean my cake will cost a whole lot more!

So, where do I go from here?

Well, as soon as I post this blog I’m going to open my memoir and begin the rewrite. I have no more excuses. The house is clean, the laundry is washed, I have food in the fridge and it’s raining outside. Actually, I’m going to open it now. Before I post this blog.

“The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed. Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second we can turn the tables on Resistance. This second, we can sit down and do our work.” Steven Pressfield

The Courage of Memoir

I am not a courageous person. I will go out of my way to avoid conflict. I will accept responsibility, even for things I haven’t done, to avert tension and unpleasant situations. Although I have been rebellious in many ways, I prefer my rebellions to be private. I don’t often publicise my thoughts beyond my group of friends, especially my political views. So, I am probably not the best candidate to write a memoir. But I have. When my father died, I felt motivated to write about our often fraught relationship. Even as I wrote I soon realised I was turning the focus on a time of his life, instead of concentrating on us.

Then I took it to an editor for a manuscript assessment realised I have only begun to write a memoir. My words now need to be ripped apart, mixed with emotion, and then bound back together with my own personal reaction to the events I’m attempting to tell, or rather show the potential reader. I must force myself to open my life to anyone who chooses to read my work. It is one of my greatest fears. Even more important to me is protecting my family. In a convoluted way of thinking, I can criticise my parents or my ancestors, but I immediately flair up if someone else does.

There are writers who expose both themselves and their families extremely well, seemingly without hesitation. Karl Ove Knausgaard does it so well in his autobiographies. Speaking about his fear of his father, he writes “When I could see him I felt safer with him, and in a way that was what mattered most.” Later he gives us examples of how his father finds enjoyment in tormenting him:

“Can’t we put on the heating?” I asked. “It’s freezing in here.”

“Fweezing?” he mimicked. “We’re not putting on any heating, however fweezing it is.”

I couldn’t roll my “r”s, never had been able to say “r”, it was one of the traumas of my late childhood. My father used to mimic me, sometimes to make me aware that I couldn’t pronounce it, in a futile attempt to make me pull myself together and say “r” the way normal Sørland folk did, whenever something about me got on his nerves, like now.

I just turned and went back up the stairs. I did not want to give him the pleasure of seeing my moist eyes.

Reading those lines made me squirm, ashamed for him and his father, but at the same time I felt envy that he was brave enough to write in the way I would like to.

I’ve just finished reading Nadja Spiegelman’s memoir I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This, and I was blown away with her writing, envious of her ability to expose the good, the bad and the ugly of herself, her mother and her grandmother and their entwined relationships. Spiegelman poignantly describes her teenage battles with weight, which was the catalyst for fights with her mother. At one point, when she denies eating the snacks her mother had hidden, the fight escalates:

“Menteuse, menteuse, menteuse!” she screamed at me one day. Liar, liar, liar! Her trembling red face, too close to mine, was all that I could see. Her spittle hit my cheek. I lost control of myself. I slapped her, very hard. My palm stung. She reeled back, her eyes wide with shock.

If there is one thing I’ve learnt from reading these memoirs among others, is that courageous writing is possible. Just like learning that vulnerability is not necessarily bad, it is possible to learn how to write courageously. Perhaps the best teachers are those who have already done it.

 

Disciplining the self

I have spent the last week or so wondering if I am motivated enough to quit my job and attempt to make a living from writing. I still haven’t come up with a definitive answer, mainly because although I like the idea of being a full-time writer, I’m also drawn to a regular pay check. I dream of being able to spend my day at home, in front of the computer, in my pyjamas. Or pacing the floor, holding a cup of coffee while contemplating my next manuscript. Or trolling through the boxes of letters, photographs and other bits and pieces I brought with me from my parent’s house, because I just know there are stories hidden in them.

Except if I quit my job I’m pretty sure I couldn’t afford a floor to pace on, or the coffee, or pretty much anything barring bread and water. Perhaps even bread would be out of the question as I only eat gluten free bread and it is expensive. There have been many writers who have struggled financially, but I have to be honest with myself and admit I have no intention of joining them. I like where I live and I enjoy a decent wine with my meals.

So, does my desire for a roof over my head, a floor to pace and food to eat mean I should cling to my day job and throw my full time writing dreams out the proverbial window. Probably. Does it mean I should give up writing? Definitely not.

What it does mean is self-discipline. I have to be tough on myself and force myself to sit in front of the computer even when I would rather watch the latest Scandi Noir thriller, or meet friends for a drink, or even spend time soaking up what little summer sun we have had. The housework needs to be put on hold. The list of books I want to read must grow longer. The shopping I would like to do will have to wait.

In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “The one quality which sets one man apart from another – the key which lifts one to every aspiration while others are caught up in the mire of mediocrity – is not talent, formal education, nor intellectual brightness – it is self-discipline. With self-discipline, all things are possible. Without it, even the simplest goal can seem like the impossible dream.”

So, bring on a serve of self-discipline! Perhaps I can wash it down with a decent glass of red.