Playing with Perspective

My first memory is of a tiny speckled bird shell. I remember wind blowing and dark earth. I cannot say where it was except that when I was three, we lived near Penhold, Alberta. I wrote a short story based on this momentary glimpse of innocence and wonder, and it brought back feelings about my parents, siblings, and summer picnics. Somewhere inside me, that curious child still lives.

I loved the outdoors back then. I was fascinated by caterpillars and feathers, dandelion seeds and ants. I loved to touch, smell, taste and observe the world around me. I noticed that round rocks roll and leaves fall down not up. In those days, at the playground, I tested my ability to climb, jump, swing and twirl. I developed physical strength, coordination and balance, as well as social skills, creative game playing, problem solving, confidence building, and a connection to people and place. At the time, I didn’t realize I was learning. It was all play to me.

What is your first memory?  Is it a small snippet without context? Writing about this memory in the present tense may bring up feelings about the experience. Feelings do not know the date and are just as powerful to your Child as they were when the feelings first arose.The gift of this approach to stories from childhood is described by Alice Miller in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child…”the experience of one’s own truth make it possible to return to one’s own world of feeling at an adult level – without paradise but with the ability to mourn. And this ability does give us back our vitality… awareness of old feelings is not deadly but liberating.”

Your story is unique because it is your perspective on events, a viewpoint that may be far from the factual truth but very accurate in terms of emotional and intellectual insight. Memory is unreliable because it comes to you as a reaction to a present event and manifests as a fleeting glimpse of a scene from childhood, an emotion such as fear or fun, an impression of a person, even a reaction to a smell. I recall tears welling up in my eyes once when I smelled pipe smoke. I turned toward the smell expecting to see my father smoking his corncob pipe even though he had passed away 30 years before. This is the power of memory.

Now, as I near “senior status” I’ve been visiting a new playground – the one in my imagination – where I can grow by playing with perspective. I’ve learned a great deal about my inner world by writing from my senses, feelings and especially, from my imagination. I can creatively capture a moment in a poem, a sentence, a story or vignette. I do not want to miss the miracles that occur every moment of every day, the way a Child perceives the world, free to explore and experience with the joyfulness of an open heart and mind.

I experienced this today when I stepped outside into cold winter air. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky. Chickadees hopped about in the spruce tree beside the deck. Snow glittered. As I write this now several hours later, I remember the feeling of cool air on my skin and the aliveness of the moment. I set aside my complaints about icy highways and wind chill factors and instead, choose to see the world with new eyes. This is the gift of your Inner Child.

 

Camping Revisited

 

I can revisit places and experiences from the past when I write stories, essays and poems. Now that I am older and wiser, I see things in a different way. On our last camping trip of the season one year, I discovered that storytelling also contributes to my growth.

Early in the summer, we took our RV to Long Lake Provincial Park, a well-kept, family-oriented getaway spot. Most campers abide by the late-night quiet rules, and aside from busy weekend afternoons when the jet skis and power boats roar up and down the lake, we take the most pleasure in nature at the sites with a view of the lake, some tall trees, and a reedy beach for the dog to have a swim.

Now, on our last outing of the summer, the cool October wind blows across the lake and makes us shiver as we step out of the truck to set up our trailer. Golden aspen leaves shush above us and a lone gull cries as it skims the whitecaps. After lunch, we hike up the trail and sit at the picnic table we used in early September. The breeze funnels down the road and whisks the leaves into mini-tornadoes. The grey ash in the fire pit is cold and lifeless with no hint of the snapping, fluttering and huffing warmth of our previous visit. No campfire smoke hangs in layers in the treetops either, and only the smell of leaf rot rides on the wind.

The sun is a white disk hidden behind a thin layer of cloud. The watery light intensifies as clouds thicken, and then, without warning, sunshine comes up like theatre lights. It sharpens the angles of the wooden posts, and defines the shadows of picnic tables on the grass. There are no lawn chairs in the sunny spots and no awnings for shade.

Down on the beach, the playground swings are pushed by ghosts, and the squeals and shouts of kids are silenced at the water’s edge. The only creatures on the sand are three gulls sleeping with their heads beneath their wings. I miss the sounds of summer the most: the laughter, the weekend neighbour tentatively playing Puff the Magic Dragon on a guitar, wind chimes plinking at the trailer down the way, and the faraway murmur of people in boats out on the evening water.

I take the best from each campsite: the view of the lake with boaters buzzing by, seadoos bucking and kids on tubes screaming with excitement; the one close to the boat launch where the dog has the best spot to dive into the cool lake and fetch her sticks, then return to shake water all over me. At that one, I could lie on the dock at night and see starlight reflected on the water. A third one has a picture window view onto the wilderness, spruce trees towering above dead poplar trunks full of sapsucker holes, the setting for a moose dripping marsh grass from its muzzle.

I have memories of childhood camping beside a stream somewhere in Ontario where raccoons ate the marshmallows right out of the picnic box; my sister’s pet turtle got away into the forest; we slept in a canvas tent big enough to fit all eight people in our family; my mother mending a rip in the roof with a curved surgical needle, dental floss and paraffin wax. I remember the taste of hot chocolate at the campfire and the evening warbling of loons.

I know I can never go back to these special moments from childhood or to the adult camping trips at Long Lake but I can recreate the emotions they engender. I can take details from a movie, pictures from a magazine or a story I read, and mix them together. Then I can recall the sound of the wind in the trees, the way ducks fly in formation at the edge of the lake, and how the stars pop out at night just when the light is nearly gone from the sky, and write to record.

The truth is, I can revisit my whole life this way. I can retell a story in a poem or a short vignette to re-experience pleasure or fun. I can also bring to mind a painful story and give it a new ending from the lessons I’ve learned. I can rewrite my life to heal.

The past is gone. All I have is the present moment when the Storyteller in me connects to you, the Reader, through our shared human experience. Our stories can unleash powerful emotions, allow us to explore difficult topics, bring new self-understanding and awareness of what is important. This is the gift of writing as legacy.

 

 

Koffee with Kathie

“It is story that saves us. –

Sandra Benitez in A Place Where the Sea Remembers

 

The older I get, the more I wonder about my life legacy and the values I will leave behind one day. In recent months, when I am with older people, especially my old friends at the lodge, I am aware of time passing, how hours and days disappear. I notice the weeks and years flying by, and I feel my mortality.

I visit the Lodge once a month as a volunteer. In my Koffee with Kathie Reminiscence Group, the elderly residents bring me face-to-face with the fragility of life. I am privy to the joys and difficulties of growing old. Brain function diminishes, eyesight dims, thoughts lose clarity; bodies fail; friends die. Some of them are complainers who are dissatisfied with the food, the company at dinner, or simply with the weather. And then there are those who appreciate bread pudding with whipped cream for dessert, apartments with walk in tubs and housekeeping staff who make their beds each day. This group laughs and their eyes crinkle and their smiles reveal gaps where teeth should be. Moments of delight at the small things makes it all bearable. The twinkle in their eyes brings me happiness.

I’m convinced delight is the precursor to a long life. At my sessions, whether they are telling stories about women’s work like sewing or cooking, clothing fashions in 1935, gardening on the farm or favourite Christmas traditions, the conversation turns to childlike pleasure at memories from long ago.

I’m beginning to do this myself when I recollect events from my own past.

In a speech for my local Toastmasters group, I re-enacted an event from my life when I was a naive 12-year-old enamoured of a biology lesson on reproduction in fish! When I spoke about my coming of age, I could appreciate a childlike innocence so unlike the worldly view of life children now.

When I am with elderly people who are bitter and resentful, I wonder if it is because all their lives they have felt invisible and unheard. There are those who, at this late stage in life, still harbour ill feelings for their mothers or grieve brothers killed in World War II. How sad they are unable to savour the pleasure of bright flowers that decorate the tables, the dance music on Friday afternoons, and the entertainment the recreation staff bring them every day.

I believe we all desire a life in which we feel loved and at peace. If there a gift in memory loss, perhaps it is living in a facility where other residents become like family. Perhaps, it is the gift of story told in the moment that creates healing. Perhaps it really is story that saves us.