Dia de los Muertos, NaNoWriMo, and your family history

Today I went to our history museum to see the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival. I love this celebration, kind of like the Japanese Obon time but more colorful and fun. Both these celebrations honor family members who have passed into the other realm. We welcome them back to the earthly world to enjoy relationship again and then send them back to the spirit world. Incense, candles, flowers, and favorite foods are involved, and dancing. They are beautiful ways to remember the dead.

Dia de los Muertos and pretty falling leaves got me thinking of our limited time on earth. We never know when we will be called away.  I want to finish writing my dad’s family history while he and his brother can read it, as a way to honor them as well as all their ancestors, and so they won’t be forgotten. My families on both the Dutch and Japanese sides had hard lives, so I especially want to honor and show respect for what they went through personally, historically, and culturally. Thanks to them, I am here today.

November is NaNoWriMo–National Novel Writing Month. Writers worldwide have started rough drafts of their novels, aiming to crank out 50,000 words by month’s end. That’s about 200 pages. Instead of writing a novel, you can use this challenge to work on your memoir or family history . My goal for the month is to finish my dad’s family history book, which looks to be about 100 pages. It’s almost done, actually, but I need to insert photos, work on a cover, and get print copies mailed out before Christmas. Surely I can do this despite a lot of busy days ahead.

Won’t you join me by working on your family stories? Begin by writing what you know. Thanksgiving with the relatives is the perfect time to gather more stories to add to your collection. Maybe this time next year, you and your ancestors’ spirits will be dancing together over a book of treasures.



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World Alzheimer’s Month: writing memoir to help others

CalmerWatersCoverDuring September, World Alzheimer’s Month, I read Barbra Cohn’s memoir/self-help book, Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Barbra cared for her husband who had early-onset Alzheimer’s and wrote the story of their journey as part of a reference book to help others walking that path. I would have liked to have read this book while I was caring for my mother on her Alzheimer’s journey. There is so much more I could have done to comfort us both.

I have read a number of books on Alzheimer’s caregiving, both memoirs and self-help books. Barbra came at this from a different perpective. She is practiced in various spiritual healing methods and has a background in health and nutrition, so Calmer Waters is a book for “care partners”—both caregiver and Alzheimer’s patient—to give ways to be healthy, to try to rise above, and to de-stress both the body and situations.

In Calmer Waters, Barbra mixes in the story of her husband’s care journey with words of wisdom, ways of soothing, and healing therapies based on spiritual philosophy. She includes other caregivers’ stories and their tips for coping and for soothing their care partners. This is whole body, non-drug therapy and philosophy and can easily be combined with religious beliefs. The final section includes articles written by teachers and facilitators of various healing techniques, such as aromatherapy, massage, music and art and water therapy, and so much more. Even a few things I’ve never heard of before. This is a jam-packed book of resources for people open to holistic methods of calming the body and emotions. Pick what sounds good for you as caregiver and for the person with dementia at whatever stage they are in.

I think self-help and nonfiction guides are best when they include life stories, to help the reader understand and to feel the comfort of shared experience. A great many people write their memoirs because they think it will help others in similar situations. As Barbra did, it also helps to include resources—your own learned wisdom and perhaps that of others, and lists of outside resources such as websites, books, or organizations. Even my Poems That Come to Mind book of short poems about the Alzheimer’s experience has some resources listed in the back.

I love Barbra’s reason for writing Calmer Waters. She hopes the book can “make the Alzheimer’s journey less painful and transform it into a profound spiritual experience.” Amen. I experienced some exquisite moments with my mother, and if you are a caregiver, I hope you can find such moments, too. Calmer Waters can help.

Barbra Cohn writes The Healthy Caregiving Blog.

PS: Similar to The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, my mother loved when I read to her from her own memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight. If it is not too late, write down stories!

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Learning empathy through stories

St. Louis is boiling over with anger again. After Ferguson and Michael Brown, there is Jason Stockley and Anthony Lamar Smith. Or rather, Anthony Smith was . . . Our black people here–and all across the nation–are fed up and angry that their stories are being ignored. Michael Brown and Anthony Smith are not exactly the best poster-men for this–they are not “babies” who were “murdered” for no reason by “those racist police”–those are some of the emotionally-charged words people have used. But, their stories are symptoms of a way bigger story going on, and we are so slow to change that story.

The reason a bad story is slow to change is likely because it is not the story of the majority of people in power–in this case, meaning that in the U.S. it is not a white people’s story. Not even a poor white people’s story. And so the majority finds it easy to ignore that story and even to make surface judgments that “those people” deserve what they get, that it’s their fault they have that story. When it is not your story, it is easy to make judgments based only on the first sentence, skipping the middle due to lack of interest and dismissing the summary ending as “garbage.” I like to learn the whole stories.

I read memoirs to learn about others’ lives. To step into their shoes and experience their environment, what they felt, why they did what they did. Taking the time to learn in depth about others teaches empathy and understanding. Our political leaders ought to read memoirs of everyday people, especially of people who are struggling. If you are angry at protesters, you should listen to their stories–the entire stories. Our particular protesters in St. Louis have many reasons to be angry and fed up, and our police have good reasons to be nervous around black men in crime-ridden neighborhoods, as in our country full of guns they have reason to be nervous at any traffic stop. There is an intersection of these stories nobody is seeing as everyone is too busy shouting at each other about the “garbage” last lines.

So I have signed up to do my part to address part of this bigger story. My church is making this easy for me. Yes, not all Christians and churches are bad! I will join others at an after-school program at our church to tutor youngsters from the struggling black neighborhood in our town. After a terrible tragedy, our police and townspeople began to listen to the stories from this neighborhood and have since been trying to build bridges, to build stories of hope and togetherness.

Let’s not shut people out. Listen to their stories, and then be the change you want to see.


Posted in multicultural, overcoming, relationship | Tagged , | 4 Comments