I am currently reading Old Friend From Far Away, Natalie Goldberg’s 2007 book on memoir writing. It’s been sitting on my iBook shelf since 2010 –– one of my first ebook purchases after I got an iPad, which, for the record, is the best 50th birthday present ever. Writing Down the Bones sits on the shelf right beside it.
Old Friend talks about memory and mind and writing memoir as an expression of your life through “something”. It is Goldberg at her most inspirational, most practical, her best.
The book is, not surprisingly, filled with exercises. They’re grounded in detail, meshed in feeling. Start with I remember, she tells her readers, and follow it wherever it goes. And so I do. Don’t worry if this takes you in an unexpected direction, she tells her readers. And so I don’t. Allow the meanings to reveal themselves, she tells her readers. And so I do that too…
I remember my father coming home from work on rainy summer afternoons when my friend Roma and I were playing in the basement.
A large rectangular room with white walls, a gray concrete floor, and shelves along one wall, we often played ‘store’ there. One of us would be behind the makeshift counter. The other would come in to purchase candy from the jars filled with caramels, chocolates and mints that had been carefully gathered on Bellevue Beach and now occupied one small part of one shelf. When the shopkeeper had them on hand, tiny brown paper bags –– the kind you rarely see now –– would be filled with the requested number and variety of sweets. When no bag was to be found, we’d just pretend fill pretend bags. And pretend money held tightly in a small hand would be released and placed on the counter when the hand opened. We’d have a grand chat while the transaction occurred. Then the pretend cash register would accept the coin and change would be returned, and the happy customer would leave, chewing on a candy while the shopkeeper made sure the shelves were neat and organized.
My dad would come to give me a hello kiss and find out what we’d been up to all day. Sometimes he’d produce a treat. A small stack of legal-sized paper made us jump up and down with excitement.
We closed the shop and pulled up chairs to the shop-counter-turned-table. We’d locate pencils from another shelf and start filling our blank canvases. Words. Pictures. Entirely new worlds that hadn’t existed before.
I remember running to my father with my creations. I remember him smiling.
I remember my mother telling me she had opened one of my writing notebooks and started to read. The small locked diaries that were popular in the 1970s were private; notebooks without locks apparently were not. No one else had ever seen the words penned before I went to sleep at night. They were me on a page. I felt a deep-rooted fear, and a sense of anticipation at the same time.
I had to stop reading though, she said. Because she didn’t know how I could know the things I seemed to know when I was still so very young. It was too powerful and she couldn’t read it. She promised she wouldn’t open my notebook ever again, unless I asked her to.
I remember, in that moment, wondering if I should ever write another word since my mother couldn’t read what was in my heart and soul. I remember, in that moment, thinking she said my words were powerful. I remember in that moment, my father’s smile.