Coming Alive In Dangerous Times (1961-1983): Chapter 5
[Editor's note: this is the final installment of GEO foundin-member Len Krimerman's new memoir. You can read the preface and introduction here, and the first four chapters here, here, here, and here.]
What My Memoir Taught Me, When I Wasn’t Looking
In many ways, what has surfaced in this memoir is not what I initially intended. Much has emerged during, and from, the writing itself — through unexpected nudges and messages that eventually led me to a new and unforeseen way to come alive.
At first, I only wanted to write and share my stories, feeling that they might offer a different and very largely overlooked side of a rebellious time, and one often misunderstood and maligned. The first nudge came a month or so into the writing. The stories were unfolding easily enough, though some of the earliest ones were hard to recall fully. But after I finished the initial draft of all three periods (chapters 1-3), I felt that something was missing. Though I liked the stories well enough, I wasn’t sure what messages, if any, they would hold for the lives of my readers. Or for that matter, what messages my stories held for me, and my own future life.
After much rumination and debate internal, an answer slowly surfaced. I began to sense that some of what was missing was a vivid and direct connection with my readers, similar to what I had enjoyed within the learner-directed Inner College, and while working with Willimantic’s cooperatively-run chicken processing enterprise.
But now I had to confront two tough questions: what that connection would actually look like, and how to bring it about. I considered reading my stories through an online webinar, but that required a good bit of technical acumen I didn’t possess. Moreover, in my own experience of webinars they often seemed to retain, rather than reduce, the disconnection between authors or facilitators and their audiences.
At this point, maybe a month or so after finishing my first draft, I browsed the web for “memoirs”, hoping to find a model or two for my own; that is, memoirs that had – or at least tried to have – the sort of close connection with readers I was earnestly pursuing. No luck on that score.
What I did find were numerous references to Howard Thurman: a memoir and an autobiography he wrote; an illustrated biographical memoir for children by Kai Jackson Issa and Arthur L. Dawson (illustrator) of his Great Hope. Still in search mode, and aching to learn more about this fellow, I travelled to a site that contained his coming alive quote, along with many others.
This as they say was a game changer. My memoir would do more than shine light on my own coming alive experiences. It would also – by drawing on the quote – somehow attract readers to the dual tasks of responding to my own memoir and sharing their own ways of coming alive. The lack of connection would be substantially reduced. Of course, just how this would be accomplished still perplexed and eluded me. But at least a good part of the end was in sight, even if the means were still obscure.
These, however, were not far away; I actually found some of them on the same search list of “memoirs” that had led me to Thurman and coming alive. For among the items on that list was Jerry Waxler’s The Memoir Revolution. As we saw in the Introduction, the revolution Waxler describes is two-fold. It involves, first of all, an explosive increase in the quantity of memoirs and memoir writers:
In the twenty-first century, memoirs have exploded from a specialized niche into a central feature of our literary and popular culture. Aspiring memoir authors fill writing classes, and published authors appear on talk shows. We’re in the age of the memoir....I decided to call this trend the Memoir Revolution.
Secondly, going beyond quantity, Waxler sees memoirs playing a new role in social change, and on a global level:
By exploring our lives and sharing them, we are breaking out of isolation and drawing together into a global community in which we empathize with each other’s race, religion, gender, economic and geographic history, infirmities, strengths, and longings.
I could readily grant Waxler’s first point, but it wasn’t clear to me that or how today’s new cohort of memoirists and their more numerous memoirs were actually enabling an empathetic global community. Additionally, Waxler appeared to be holding onto the narrow idea of memoirs as primarily made up of written words. Perhaps, I conjectured, coming alive memoirs could help fill those apparent gaps?
Perhaps. But simply writing a different sort of memoir, focused on one’s coming alive, might not guarantee that these memoirists would break out of isolation, or help to form any sort of community, global or otherwise. For a genuine Memoir Revolution, so it seemed to me, something additional would be needed.
At this point, through the very process of writing the memoir, I had already strayed quite a distance from my initial intentions. I didn’t know where exactly I was headed, but couldn’t help feeling that something novel might be struggling to emerge. I had gone out on a shaky limb by wanting a direct connection to my readers, and by advocating memoirs that emphasized coming alive experiences. Why not take the idea of a Memoir Revolution even further?
Even Further, by Memoir Magic
Slowly more pieces of the puzzle emerged, often almost magically, and through what are sometimes called “synchronicities”: events that not only happen together, but – unintentionally – work harmoniously. Unanticipated gifts, for example, would arrive at just the right time from sources as much unaware of me as I of them.
One evening while driving home, I listened to a Terry Gross interview on NPR with singer and song writer Nick Lowe. Mostly, Nick sung his new and older songs, and talked about his most recently released CD. But at one point, Terry asked him about his “approach to song writing”. Nick’s response sent chills down my spine, as his words resonated what I had been stumbling towards in writing my memoir.
According to Nick, his best songs have been written piece-meal, at unpredictable times, and by being patiently receptive and listening for them. Not so much by design, plan, intention, or goal-directed effort, but by letting them arrive on their own. Here’s a quote from his interview:
I think the best songs that come to me are the ones that you sort of listen for. The ones - when I listen to some of my old stuff, I can tell when I had a good idea, but I forced it through, and I can hear myself - the bit that I've written, which sounds clunkier than the stuff that just sort of comes.
And…the older I get, the more I think it's this listening. You listen for it, and you have a bit of patience. And it'll come until it sounds - to me, the best songs I've written, I think, are ones that I can't hear anything - any of myself in it. It sounds like a cover song, like somebody else's song - really something you've stolen wholesale off a radio that you've listened to in someone else's flat.
I quickly realized, or maybe decided, that the message for me in Nick’s interview was to become more patient, less fearful of not knowing where things might wind up, and more receptive to gifts from sources unfamiliar or unknown; e.g., messages in dreams, from friends long missing, etc. In that way, the memoir itself could guide me to my next steps.
While writing the first chapter’s stories, I already had one such experience. I was having trouble remembering some key New Orleans stories, as well as some important details about those I did recall. At that very point, my department head received an email from Brian Ampolsk, asking him how to contact me. Brian had been a student and friend of mine back in the 1960s, and once we had connected, he was delighted to send me many of the stories, and details, that I had been hunting for unsuccessfully.
Eventually, what came through this more receptive approach was the notion of a Memoirista Revolution, something I imagined might take us further towards an empathetic global community than Jerry Waxler’s account of a Memoir Revolution. But who or what were “memoiristas”, and how did they connect with coming alive, especially if this was understood as a very personal experience of separate individuals?
Not to worry. As I brewed over these new and unexpected questions, more gifting magic intervened. Kate, one of my editors, sent me the following epigram, saying only that she thought I might appreciate it.
Appreciate was way too mild a response! Kate’s gift was awesomely, if unintentionally, right on target. Memoiristas not only come alive and empower themselves, they also help enable others find and express their own voices. Coming alive was of course a vivid personal experience, but it was more than that. It was a way to offer the beauty and fulfillment of this sort of experience to others as well.
Concretely, I now saw memoiristas as going beyond telling their own stories, and becoming peer mentors – sharing their memoir journeys and their coming alive experiences, guiding and supporting other memoirists. Much as I have tried to do in this memoir.
Seen in this light, memoiristas can bridge the gap between the solitude required for reviving and reinterpreting one’s personal stories, and the solidarity of offering a safe refuge where others can find support to come alive in their own ways. The ultimate aim of a Memoirista Revolution is to undo the silencing of the discounted and disempowered, offering resources and encouragement so that every voice has the fullest opportunity to be heard, appreciated, and grow stronger. (Very much like the public homespace tradition described in chapter 3.)
Consider again Muriel Rukeyser’s marvelously wise statement: “The world is made of stories, not of atoms.” I’ve always loved that thought, and its implication that if the voices and stories of others are silenced or discounted, our own world will shrink and depreciate. But now I saw it as yet another gift, one that could help me clarify, more fully understand and communicate, the mentor role of memoiristas.
But what concretely might this grassroots revolution of memoir mentors look like? By what steps would it get started?
One answer to these legitimate questions is offered by a feature of my own memoir: mentors could receive time or labor credits, which in turn they could use to receive the same sort of mentoring from other time bankers, either locally or globally: “Each One Mentors, and is Mentored by, Others.” Requests could be sent to one’s time bank seeking people who wanted support for writing their memoirs, and who might also be interested in becoming memoiristas. If too large a group responded, it could split into two or more smaller ones.
Taking this road has lots of advantages. Fueled by labor exchanges, a Memoirista Revolution would run on the basis of mutual aid, good old neighbor-to-neighbor assistance, thus making it available to anyone, regardless of their income or wealth willing to exchange their labor for memoir assistance. A local memoir affinity group could start with just three or four people, and grow over time by word of mouth or reports sent by email to all members of a time bank. Its reliance on face-to-face communication might well generate fuller and better understood feedback, as well as more genuine forms of support for first time memoirists.
Over time, we could see mentoring groups based on labor exchanges collaborate with and learn from one another. They might decide, for example, to request mentors from one another, so as to receive feedback from different perspectives. My own memoir was assisted – and most certainly enhanced – in just that way: editors from both my eastern Connecticut hour exchange joined with ones from several distant time banks – California, Colorado, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, and elsewhere – to offer constructive editorial advice. Given their geographical diversity and my own very positive experiences, I would guess that time banks are typically splendid sources of editorial assistance.
Finally, time banks are an especially good starting point, as they appeal to a wide range of people – older and younger, as well as long embedded and newly arrived neighbors, activists and non-activists, and from many diverse occupations and backgrounds. My own time bank has attracted folks with many different levels of income and education. Given this diversity, time banks might well contain people using divergent forms of expression and communication, who could exchange with, learn from, and create collaborations with, one another (thus addressing question 6 in chapter 4).
But what can really be expected from a Memoirista Revolution? Can it substantially generate wide-scale change; e.g., help create camaraderie on a global scale, across borders of nationality, gender, and ethnicity?
Questions like these sometimes tempt me towards this famous aphorism of G.W.F. Hegel, a German philosopher of the 19th century: “The Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk.” None of us is wise enough to predict much of the future; we’ll need to wait till day’s end to see what sort of change, if any, actually emerges. There’s truth in what Hegel wrote, but it still strikes me as an evasive copout.
I’ve thought a lot about such future-focused and wider scale questions, and have come up with a couple of responses. They seem to be pulling me in two apparently conflicting directions, but at least, so it seems to me, they are not evasive.
On one hand, I feel inclined to dismiss questions about what might or might not or will or won’t happen as misguided. Why not recognize the Memoirista Revolution as worthwhile in and for itself? Wouldn’t the world be a better place simply because some or many of those silenced were enabled to tell their coming alive stories?
Maybe “changing the world” is not the core aim of a Memorista Revolution – if this means putting in place some pre-identified ideal society. Just as our own memoirs are written primarily for our own benefit (see chapter 4, p. 1), to enable our own voices to sing and come alive, so the Memoirista Revolution aims at liberating ourselves and others from the silencing which surrounds and stifles us. To me, it would be an amazing blessing if Chinua Achebe’s lions began to tell their stories forcefully, even if only among themselves, and the hunters remained unmoved. A new found and common power of expression could herald the beginning of many secession-based experiments.
But another part of me feels sure that a persistent and inclusive Memoirista Revolution would contribute substantially to larger scale social and political transformation. Having come alive together through a process of mutual aid, memoiristas would prefigure a very different sort of culture than our alienated and competitive one. They would in a phrase embody developmental leadership, and in turn become very well positioned to help renew established institutions, or create and experiment with new ones. This could all occur within their own families, backyards, neighborhoods, workplaces, community organizations, and even significantly affect governmental priorities and processes.
In short, memoiristas could well become champions and ambassadors of a renewed democracy. This is actually the theme of that “Power of Story” issue of Yes! Magazine I mentioned way back in the Introduction. That issue provides case after case of people and groups often discounted or silenced who – by transcending their own silence - have turned their lives around, while empowering others as well.
Perhaps both of these answers contain parts of the full truth. In any case, they both point to yet another way I’ve been changed by writing this memoir.
When I first started thinking of doing a memoir, had anyone asked, I would have given memoirs little or no role in reconstructing social and political life, in “changing the world”. Now, however, I find myself facing in the opposite direction, my view of memoirs having been immensely, albeit gradually, altered.
In particular, this memoir experience has made me realize how coming alive experiences could be essential for – and were missing from – efforts to regenerate or democratize democracy. How Dewey’s call for renewal of democracy by each new generation might also be a call for people to come fully alive. I now think that the absence of such experiences, and the lack of appreciation for their importance, is a major source of the passivity and alienation felt by so many within nominal democracies.
C. D. Lummis describes this disastrously common phenomenon as the “loss of public hope”. In his book, Radical Democracy, he tells us that:
In Japan, where I live most people have private hope. They believe that privately their lives will go well – that they will find work, earn adequate money, live in comfort....Most, however, have no public hope. Their attitude about the future of their country, or the future of the world, is typically one of bland despair. They talk easily and vaguely about the probable continuation of the destruction of nature, of the unlikelihood that they will ever achieve popular control over the entrenched political cliques that run their government, about the inevitable death of freedom in the techno-management society of the future. The belief that none of these things can be avoided by the action of mere human beings (which is to say, that democracy is impossible) has become common sense.
How to get beyond this epidemic loss is no simple matter, but I now believe that coming alive experiences, and the memoirs based upon them, along with the further solidarity of a Memoirista Revolution, can play a crucial role in restoring public hope and renewing democracy.
I would not have thought any of this, had I not begun – and to listen receptively to – my own coming alive memoir.
Moreover, guided by these new memoir-generated beliefs, I have begun to feel drawn to living as a memoirista, and to the power and potential of joining with others drawn to a similar aliveness path.
Coming alive memoirs, if we attend to them, can alter our lives, and lead us towards unexpected and new ways of coming alive. This happened to me, and as you create your own story, you may find this to be your experience as well. In my own case, this memoir has
- moved me towards a concrete way to directly include readers, respond to their likely questions, and invite them to create their own memoirs;
- helped me discover and clarify a genuinely new, unorthodox type of memoirizing – based on coming alive experiences, peer mentoring through labor exchanges, etc.;
- taught me to view my memoir as a living and magical collaborator, and to listen receptively to where it was leading me;
- sent me the message of a memoirista revolution, which connects the most personal and individualized of experiences with the tasks of overcoming the silencing of disempowered voices, and of building inclusive communities in which all of our stories are heard and appreciated.
All of these have guided me in a single direction: I have now decided to become a memoirista myself, and to actively offer support to those willing to participate in birthing a memoirista revolution. In the Epilogue which follows this chapter, I’ll go into some details about this, and extend readers an invitation – actually three invitations – to join in.
One final point. Though I have drawn contrasts between the Memoir and Memoirista Revolutions, I don’t see them as rivals or as conflicting. Both encourage, support, and guide more memoir writing by “the rest of us”, rather than leaving this to our culture’s Heroes, Celebrities, or VIPs. Of course, there are important differences, but I still see the latter as one of many forms of the former. As we’ve seen, it departs in several unconventional ways from typical memoirs. But it also provides offers a path by which the global community goal of the Memoir Revolution can be understood, supported, and become manifest. Much as alternative currencies and labor-based exchange systems can complement conventional money systems, so the Memorista Revolution can complement expert-driven memoir mentoring.
More concretely, nothing in the Memoirista Revolution prevents memoiristas from seeking feedback and resources provided by mainstream writing mentors, or from drawing on the enhanced beauty and clarity of what experienced mentors can add to one’s own stories.
EPILOGUE, with THREE INVITATIONS
An “epilogue” typically looks backward, and adds a comment or conclusion to some piece of writing. So this section will be more like an epi-prologue, as in it I try to open some new doors, rather than concentrating on what’s already been written.
New doors opening? Specifically, I’ll be raising and responding to these future-facing questions:
Where do we go from here? How might a “we”, based on coming alive memoirs, come to life?
In response to these questions, let me offer three very practical invitations for your consideration.
First, please view my own memoir as “open-ended”, and eager for continued critique and renewal. That’s how I see it, as forever imperfect but perfectible. I welcome responses to it, and will continue to update, amend, and correct it, based on your comments. These can be weaved into the memoir either anonymously or by crediting you by name, depending entirely on what you are comfortable with.
Second, you should feel encouraged to create your own memoir, and to seek out peer mentors within the time bank community, or anywhere else for that matter. If you encounter any obstacles locating peer mentors you can work with, please let me know, and I will try to find someone to recommend who is a good match.
Last, I invite you to consider becoming a memoirista, a pioneer builder of the Memoirista Revolution. This you can do in many diverse environments; e.g., by bringing together a group of friends or family; in a school or college class; or more broadly, within a neighborhood or town, or a church, synagogue, or mosque.
At this point you may feel that some or all of these invitations are overwhelming or out of reach. But consider that:
- there is a potentially supportive infrastructure in place: that is, peer mentors within hour exchanges or time banks; and cost-free publication online from GEO (geo.coop), via e-books;
- everyone’s stories are welcome, regardless of previous writing experience, level of income, ethnic or religious background, native language, etc.;
- coming alive memoirs can be any length and can focus on anything from a single events to a lengthy years of life;
- they can focus on the experiences of solitary or independent individuals, or on common experiences shared by more than one person; e.g., growing up within the same family or in the same village or town; attending a class taught by the same teacher; working in the same enterprise or organization, etc.
- they need not be written, but can be spoken and recorded, and may be enhanced by images, photos, graphics of all sorts;
- above all, we construct our memoirs to come alive in renewed ways and to find or regain our own voices; they are not offered as entertainment for or to be judged by others, though we will be delighted if others can find grounds for hope in them.
NOTE: Keep in touch! My memoir-specific email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Go to the GEO front page
Len Krimerman (2015). From Memoir to Memoirista: Coming Alive In Dangerous Times (1961-1983): Chapter 5. Grassroots Economic Organizing (GEO). https://geo.coop/story/memoir-memoirista