Tarn Wilson on writing memoir, understanding our parents, and her book “The Slow Farm”

If you like beautifully-written  books about  unconventional childhoods, put Tarn Wilson’s  The Slow Farm on your reading list.   This is a fascinating book in so many ways: as a memoir,  as a look at the hippy subculture, as a story about memory, as a reflection on what it means to grow into the realization that our parents are imperfect people.  Tarn is a friend of mine from way back, and she’s also one of my favorite writers (check out her website tarnwilson.com for a sampling of her brilliant essays), so I’m thrilled to have her here today for a Q and A.  Read on to learn more about her book,  about writing memoir, and about what happens when you let your two-year-old play in the woods without adult supervision (see what I mean about “unconventional childhood”?!?)

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Give the one-minute summary of your book.

The Slow Farm is a memoir of growing up with my hippy parents on a remote island in British Columbia in the early 1970s.  My father was an idealist, and the story explores what happens when his counterculture dreams begin to crumble.

The story is told from the point of view of a small child, but between each chapter, I include “artifacts” that reveal the larger cultural forces shaping our lives, such as letters, photographs, timelines, newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and my favorite, excerpts from Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing.

What are the challenges of writing a book about your early childhood?

I have vivid memories of early childhood, starting from about two years old.  Early in the writing process, I experimented with strategies to access even more memories, such as focusing on the senses, writing about photographs, and drawing memory maps. However, the memories didn’t initially organize themselves chronologically or in a traditional story arc.  It took many years of reflection to discover the themes and shape of the story. It was also a challenge to find a voice that captured the innocent perspective of childhood, but was not limited by it.

One thing I found fascinating as a parent is how “hands off” your parents were — at the age of four they let you go off and wander in the woods on your own!  That’s only one of the many things that made your childhood unique.  When you look back on it as an adult, what parts of “you today” do you attribute to your parents’ parenting styles?

Great question, Ginny.  If I were a parent, I wouldn’t let my two and four year old wander in the woods or swim in the ocean without supervision! At the same time, having escaped death and major injury, I’m grateful for the gifts of my parents’ philosophy of childrearing.  I’m comfortable in silence and solitude.  I’m self-entertaining. Most of all, I think when parents give their children some unsupervised free time, they have room to develop their imaginations, to experiment with new skills and interests, to fail, and to try again—all of which develop resilience, self-sufficiency, focus, and endurance. I believe when children are constantly monitored, they focus on the reactions of their parents rather than on the pure joy of exploring or mastering a new skill.

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How did writing this book change your understanding of your parents?

 Before writing this book, I was stuck in my child perspective, which is narrow and limited. Early in the process, as an exercise to broaden my view, I wrote every scene from the point of view of each family member.  It was a revelation to realize how young my parents were. (When I was born, my mother was 20 and my father was 25.)  That alone explains many of their choices. I also saw more clearly how my parents were formed by their own childhoods and roles in their families. Most importantly, I realized how profoundly my parents were shaped by their times—how much we all are.  I researched the historical events that shaped their generation, read the counterculture books and essays my father loved, and listened to my parent’s favorite musicians. I saw the ways in which my parents’ decisions were in dialogue with powerful cultural forces. I began to understand, not just where I fit in my family, but where my family fit in the flow of history.

A major theme of your book is the theme of idealism giving way to reality.  Can you say a little bit more about that as it played out in the lives of your family?

 I have a theory that most of us all come into this world hardwired to worship our parents.  It’s a survival-of-the-species strategy.  As infants and children, we need to learn so much, quickly and efficiently, in order to navigate our new, complicated world, so we absorb without question everything our parents say or believe.  Slowly, as we mature, we become part of a larger universe, develop our reasoning skills, and begin to see our parents’ weaknesses.  This can be a painful process, which we all do with different degrees of graciousness.  If our parents have many faults, we may go through periods of anger.

Becoming a mature adult means, eventually, seeing our parents in their fullness:  understanding the forces that shaped them, accepting their limitations, and acknowledging their strengths and the gifts they have given us. Some people do this naturally—most of us have to go through the process again and again as we fall in love, make a new friends, or learn to see ourselves clearly.

In that sense, my story is everyone’s story.  But my memoir has an extra layer.  The counterculture was highly idealistic: hippies believed they had the power to create heaven on earth, to live in love and harmony with each other and the land, to eradicate war, to bring equality to all.  When the dream didn’t materialize, they had choices to make.  Some hippies I knew changed with the times and become successful business people, albeit with an eco-groovy bent.  Some turned to drugs to escape disappointment or to maintain the feeling of love, connectedness, and meaning—and got lost there. Some tried to continue the lifestyle and lived on the shrinking margins. Most had to find some kind of balance between noble social ideals and the necessary practicalities of day-to-day living.

For the rest of his life, my father seemed pulled between his hippy ideals and his desire to be a successful entrepreneur. He didn’t know how to reconcile the two, so he’d pendulum between the extremes. Both my sister and I are in fields that serve the community (city planning and teaching) but like having a regular paycheck.  The students I teach today seem to have reached a perfect balance: they are neither as naïve as the hippies, nor as materialistic and self-serving as those I graduated with in the 80s.  They hunger to make a difference in the world, seem to have a realistic sense of difficulties, and are committed to the work.  It’s inspiring!

One unique aspect of your book are the “artifacts” that are included throughout — bits of letters, photos, the books that shaped your parents’ philosophies, etc.  Say more about those.

The artifacts allow me to keep the child voice while still providing adult context.  I thought very carefully about where to place the artifacts; however, I don’t analyze or interpret them.  I hope that leaves room for readers to engage with the story and develop their own conclusions.  For example, I place quotes from Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Childrearing (such as ones that advise parents to avoid the enforcement of table matters, let children swear, and expose them to adult sexuality) next to scenes that show that philosophy in practice. I hope readers will arrive at their own complex conclusions about the counterculture lifestyle.

What advice do you have for other aspiring memoir writers?

There are wonderful resources for memoir writers: local courses, online courses, and shelves of useful and inspiring books to encourage and guide.  But, usually the biggest obstacle for anyone hoping to write a memoir is a sabotaging interior voice. It will tailor its message to your favorite insecurities, but will usually sound something like this: Your story isn’t important enough to write. You don’t have time. You don’t have skill. You don’t have a story. Writing your memoir is self-indulgent and narcissistic. You will upset your family. If you have trauma in your life, the message might argue your story is too dark to share.

All these messages are self-sabotaging distractions.  If you have a persistent desire to tell your story (through memoir, poetry, painting, performance, storytelling etc.), honor it. I believe it is a divine impulse, and that impulse is leading you to healing, to understanding, to a greater sense of your own wholeness. If you are like most writers, your process will be challenging: you will have to fight your own self-doubts, wrestle with the language, learn new skills, perhaps re-live uncomfortable memories, and be willing to see yourself and your past with fresh eyes.

Although everyone’s process is different, most new memoir writers benefit from a regular writing practice, in which you generate new material—quickly, without judgment, and without a too defined sense of where you are going. (If you solidify your story too early in the process, you may miss important discoveries.) Once you have a mass of material and, hopefully, some themes which have surprised you, you can begin to discover the organization of your story and refine your language. (A book I recommend to help you craft your raw material is Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer.)  Whether or not your work is ever traditionally published, your story will polish and transform you, and that will be worth the effort.

 The Slow Farm is available from Ovenbird Books and from Amazon.com.  Be sure to check out tarnwilson.com for a look at Tarn’s essays.

Smartphones and daydreams

William Wordsworth

I have to give William Wordsworth credit for writing some of my favorite poetry ever.  I also have to thank him for inspiring my latest column, which is about an all-too-common struggle.  Maybe you can relate?

I have very few stare-off-into-space moments these days. Nearly every minute is filled with something claiming my attention. I can’t blame this entirely on my two young kids, nor can I blame it on the teaching job that claims vast amounts of attention 10 months out of the year. These are factors in my busy-ness, yes, but there’s another, more insidious force that always seems to fill the empty spaces in my life.

That force is the Internet.

Earlier this year, my high school students and I were reading William Wordsworth’s famous poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud.” In the poem, the narrator recalls walking alone through the countryside and coming upon a lakeshore covered with thousands of daffodils. In the last stanza, he says that when he finds himself “in vacant or in pensive mood,” the memory of those daffodils comes back to him, filling his heart with pleasure.

I’ve read and taught this poem countless times, but this year, the words “in vacant and in pensive mood” struck me anew. Is there a better way to describe daydreaming? Wordsworth perfectly captures that state of not actively thinking of anything else, not actively doing anything else . . . just being open to wherever our thoughts lead us.

And it hit me: I am rarely in a vacant or pensive mood anymore, because there is always something to fill those empty moments. It’s a small rectangular something that I carry in my purse.

You can read the rest of the column at The Catholic Spirit.

Old photographs, new technology — the pluses and minuses of going digital

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Photographs have been on my mind lately.  Earlier this summer, my husband and his sisters started the process of getting old negatives and slides transferred to digital files.  In the course of doing so, they’ve found all kinds of family pictures that haven’t seen the light of day for decades.

And in the course of making a memorial website for my mother-in-law Joan, we’ve been reviewing all sorts of photos from her life.  We’ve seen her as a young girl, as a beautiful bride, as a stylish traveler in the terrific photo above (PanAm Airlines!).

Photos mean a lot, no doubt about that.

Since getting a digital camera and a Smartphone, I never seem to develop actual prints anymore.  I used to order some periodically and send them to Joan, who I knew liked to have actual hard copies of snapshots of the grandsons to share around (I wish I had sent her a lot more than I did).  But most of the photos that I snap now end up on Google or on the computer.

And I have mixed feelings about all of this.

When you have young kids, a digital camera is a super thing.  You can instantly assess a family grouping and see whether everyone is smiling, whether anyone is looking down.  When the boys were first crawling and walking, they’d move so fast that sometimes they would be out of the shot before I knew it; with a digital camera, I knew to take another one.  And it’s certainly less expensive than developing a roll of film that may contain a bunch of duds.  You can also share digital photos so very easily (this blog post is proof of that).

And yet there’s something about holding old photographs that is romantic in the broadest sense.  Those black and white photos with the white scalloped edges, the Polaroids, the small square color photos from the 60s and 70s where the color seems slightly off — they are a past you can hold.   Somehow it is nice for these photos to take up actual space, to exist on their own independent of technology.  It’s almost a spiritual experience to leaf through an old album, or to turn over an old snapshot and see an inscription like Christmas 1944 written in old-fashioned cursive on the back.

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My family on Easter, 1974. A tie like that needs to be recorded for the ages.

And while on the one hand, technology helps us preserve photographs for the future, I am all too aware of my tendency to leave photos languishing by the hundreds on the computer, where they don’t see the light of day.  I always think,  “Oh, I’ll make an album with those someday,” and then I never do.  Will members of my family even find these photos in the future?  Will they even know of their existence if they are not sitting in a box or album somewhere?

I don’t want to turn the clock back to the time without digital cameras, for sure. But have we lost something in the process of making the shift from film to digital?   I think so, and I’d love to find a way to get it back.

What about you?  How do you handle family photos?  Any thoughts on the digital vs. film debate?

Grace and kindness personified

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My very kind and beautiful  mother-in-law passed away on Monday following a brief illness.  It is hard to believe; we saw her just four weeks ago when we went back for a visit, and all of this is so unexpected and awful.  I want to pay tribute to her here, though I write this knowing that anything I write pales in comparison to the lovely soul she was.  But I am going to try.

If you spent even five minutes in Joan’s company, you could tell that she was a class act.  Even better, Joan was class plus kindness.  Even though she was beautiful and gracious and stylish and well-read and intelligent, she did not have a snobbish bone in her body.  She was warm and loving and humble and real.  I’ve known her for thirteen years, and I don’t think I have ever heard her say a bad word about anyone.

From the first time I met her, she welcomed me and made me feel so at home.  I’ve never been able to relate to mother-in-law jokes, not even in the slightest, because she was the polar opposite of the stereotypical overbearing force.  She was comforting, thoughtful, quietly encouraging.

Joan also wrote cards rather than emails, something that is increasingly rare these days.  It is hard to think that there will not be anymore of those, written in her neat cursive, in our mailbox.  They were always very newsy, full of information about what she and Bob were up to, which was usually a lot; she was very active in volunteer organizations of different kinds in the community, and her absence will be felt by more than just her family and close friends.  She was the epitome of a civic-minded person whose involvement was driven not by a need for personal accolades, but purely by a love of the community of Oneonta, New York, where she lived.

She was such a terrific grandmother, too, whether she was sending cards for the boys for holidays or playing endless rounds of tic-tac-toe with Matthew  (she lost with much better grace than her young grandson did).  When we visited them in New York he loved to play badminton with her, and it’s not every woman in her late seventies who can keep up with a kid’s boundless energy.  She loved the boys so much, and I am grateful for the memories we have:  for the photos of them sitting on either side of Grandma as she reads a bedtime story, for the times we rented boats and spent an afternoon enjoying the rocky wooded beauty of Otsego Lake, for the joy in her faces when she saw each of her young grandsons for the first time.

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I was looking around the house the other day and thinking about all of the gifts Joan has given me over the years.  There is the small pewter angel, the plaque saying “How Does Your Garden Grow?” (she knew I loved gardening), the Hummel figurine she gave us when Matthew was born, so many sweet and thoughtful things.

Then I thought about the best gift she gave me.  That gift is Scott.    So much of the person he is comes from his mom.  It’s a gift not just to me, but to everyone who knows him, who encounters the gentle strength that he learned in large part from her.  A great mother is a beautiful, powerful thing.

These past few days, the idea of the communion of saints has been such a comfort. When my friend Mary died, I got such solace from picturing her up in heaven, still her wonderful self, only healed from the illness that she suffered.  I feel the same way about Joan.  I have no doubt that she continues to care for and love us, only this time from a perch in heaven, where there is no such thing as illness and where her body and strength are restored to badminton-playing levels.

The other day, when I told the boys that Grandma Joan had died, Matthew wanted to know what she was doing now.  I told her she was arriving in heaven, and that people she loved were probably running out to greet her.  I like to picture her being welcomed by her parents and her brother Jerry, and other friends and family who went before her, so overjoyed to be with her again.

Those of us here will miss her terribly.  But somehow it helps to think of her still surrounded by love, by people who love her, and to know that her love reaches out to us still as we navigate this new world without her.

And these words help me, too:

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: “There, she is gone.”

“Gone where?”

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says “There, she is gone,” there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout “Here she comes!” 

  — Henry Van Dyke

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I love you, Joan.  Thank you for everything.

Mary in the hall, with flowers

Everything in the vase came from our own yard.  That’s a very nice feeling, somehow.

Where are you finding beauty today?

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