Category Archives: memoirs

Making the most of a ghost…

How do you commune with the dead?

I know this sounds morbid as hell, but the question comes back on me every so often, like a bad aftertaste.

Why bother, and why care? I don’t believe in any afterlife or reincarnation, so why is the need for mental continuity so compelling?

I think for me, especially where my mother Angela is concerned, it’s because she represents the most significant unfinished conversation in my life.

As a kid, I can’t remember more than a dozen words Angela ever really spoke to me. In any memories I have, she didn’t make my lunch, she didn’t play with me, she rarely spoke with me one-to-one, and I cannot remember one clear “I love you” . I believe that she must have loved me, for I can see it in her face in a few photos from my babyhood, but she wasn’t “there” in my life very much. She just wasn’t a presence, parental or otherwise in any meaningful way.

I think this present-yet-absent theme explains the attachment issues I have with women, and why I tend to treasure the women who mother me in their own ways. I’ve had a few woman friends who’ve baked cakes or sweetbreads for my birthday, and it has always touched me very deeply. There’s something about the time and effort taken by a caring person to create a treat that triggers my sweet tooth (not to mention dopamine), and that I may enjoy over multiple sittings. It’s taken me a long time to see these little acts of kindness and friendship in a balanced way, and not let them get blown out of proportion.

All the same, the sweet taste of a treat made just for me helps to eclipse the bitterness left inside my gut. It came from a little boy who didn’t understand that some women are not wired to be nurturing mothers or to be demonstrative or affectionate in general. Such may be the nature of introversion or depression, or a product of how my mother was raised.

So as I’ve gotten older and less subjective, I’ve tried to see my mother Angela in a whole-person kind of view and accept and understand her nature, and not internalize it as any form of personal rejection. It’s a simmering-down of the neediness that peaked in those one or two occasions where I can remember that we had some one-to-one time. Inside me, that little eight-year-old boy needed attention from his mother and needed to know that she saw him and loved him.

Over the years, it hasn’t been easy to depersonalize and detach from someone who sat in such a symbolically significant position, but that’s what happened gradually, as our family broke up and we lived apart and disconnected from each other. It has happened to all of us to some degree, but it was especially so with my Mother. Gradually, from my age of nine to twenty nine, Mum went from being my familiar mother, to being a curiosity and a worry inside our home, to being a lost person whom you no longer knew (and whom you feared no longer knew who you were), and ultimately a stranger you never saw anymore.

If that arc doesn’t describe the downfall of a relationship for all of us (me, my sister, and especially for my Dad), then I don’t know what could.

Although I accept how and who she was, I’ll never know if she ever truly wanted to be a mother, or if it was family pressure that ultimately cast her in that role. I don’t really think she ever became her own person. I think her mind became a kind of depressive hell, which she ultimately gave in to. It’s possible that she might have found fulfilment in a different relationship or via a deeper connection with her creative artistic and musical impulses.

So I sit here and wonder what I would say to her if we could speak for a moment. I suppose the simplest and most direct thing is “I love you” . The voice is mine, and so is her answer.

My True Life web shrine is almost 20 years old!

True Life is almost 20 years old!

I cannot believe that, actually. It has only just hit me that I’ve been adding little bits and pieces to this True Life project since about 1998. Back in 2015, I congratulated myself for importing my 51 original stories into this newly redesigned WordPress blog. (It was a huge improvement over my original hand-rolled php site.) Here’s another page that gives the history and breaks down the major beats of this project, from day one…

I hope to keep adding to this space, adding my stories, images, audio clips, and personal reflections on growing up in different places, with a family that had a lot of internal and external challenges to face.

Today, I think there are closer to 60 stories, and almost 40 blog posts, but there’s still a lot more to say…

Sound: The next frontier…

I’ve spent many months helping my brother-in-law to complete his (mostly audio) online memoir. I reflected on the experience, I was reminded of the directness of speech and the power of sound; the way spoken words trigger imagery that sticks with you, and how the nuances of pace, tone, and inflection seem to add so much subtle yet evocative meaning. Content and context seem so much richer when you listen.

In my bro-in-law’s voice, I can hear his passion for his memories, his regret over his losses, his enjoyment of the good times, and his questions about what his future might hold. These can be difficult to write about even for a seasoned writer, but it can be simpler and more direct to just say the words out loud.

A raw, straightforward storytelling can be powerful on its own, but I feel convinced that for my own uses, I need to make something a little more acoustically elaborate. I want something that uses background sounds to set the time and place. The best podcasts and radio broadcasting that I’ve ever heard have used place-sounds and ambient noise to create a soundscape – an acoustic landscape that sets the stage – an equivalent for being there. As examples, the podcast “Serial” did this quite well, as did another podcast about Richard Simmons. Each of them added just enough background tone and noise that you might visualise the immediate surroundings of the speaker: how sunny it was in a crowded mall parking lot, or how much traffic was on Rodeo Drive that day. it offers context that helps to build engagement and empathy.

I think a couple of tracks added like that would give my own stories so much more immersion for the listener – extra dimension and impact.

So, I’m searching for free (or creative commons) sounds and, ironically, visualising how editing and mixing might proceed using a tool like Audacity.

Update: I did make a little audio piece for my earliest story, “Peanut and Brittle”.  I will be doing more of this for other stories too…

Damaged, but reliable…

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It’s just a piece of hardwood. An old stick…

It’s held steady a couple hundred pounds of wrinkled, bruised, and broken old man. Like my old man, over thirty years ago.

This cane was James Evan Love’s kingly reward for completing weeks of physiotherapy and for surviving five strokes and a fractured hip. It was the stalwart sceptre he’d earned by graduating from wheelchair to walker to quad-cane to wooden cane. It made him look even older than he was, but it kept him on his feet, where he wanted to be.

It was a symbol of his triumph and recovery, but it was also a symbol of his hard-earned weakness and degradation. He would never walk without it again. He had become diminished and slow. He was finally, at sixty-four, an old man. The tiger was toothless…

Dad died a difficult death in 1989, pretty much coughing himself to death through pneumonia. I was hollowed-out and exhausted by losing him, and relieved for both of us that he was no longer in pain.

I was desperate to keep some of his belongings – the things he used most often or the things of his which I thought said the most about him. I kept Dad’s wheelchair for a while, later loaning it out to a different relative, and then to the grandmother of one of my wife’s best friends. Eventually, the chair came back to me and I wheeled it over to the care home next door. Dad’s beat up wooden cane stayed propped up in the corner of my room for more than thirty years as a silent echo of how we lose people and power.

A few months ago, I suffered a painful back injury, and as it got worse, I found myself unable to get out of bed or even roll over without blinding pain. After admitting myself to ER and getting some painkillers, I returned home and began to slowly get up and shuffle around. It would take me a few minutes of agonizing wriggling on my stomach to get to the foot of my bed, and then another 30 seconds to screw up the courage to push my hands over to my dresser where I’d lean, standing, and catch my breath before trying to walk to the bathroom. I measured the spaces between reachable surfaces and objects that could support my weight. Everything seemed so far away. Walking had become a highwire act with no net.

Walking hurt like hell and was a scary and tender prospect. My lower back could spasm at the slightest strain, and when it did it hurt like a cattle prod. I pondered the idea of buying a cane for myself. I didn’t want to be infirmed and incapable like an old man. I saw myself shuffling around our apartment in my sagging cardigan, talking to my cats, and sweating and swearing at the slightest effort. I stopped shaving, and white whiskers peeked out of my cheeks, reminding me of him, looking bristly-chinned on a Sunday morning.

I started to notice Dad’s cane again, and I accepted it once I began accepting my situation. I went practical and determined in my thinking: I was going to have to be able to walk if I was going to heal properly. Just use the bloody cane, I told myself.

So Dad’s cane became my cane, my centre of stability, and my most reliable tool. I did heal fully with the help of a Physio and some hard work. In fact, I’m probably in better condition now than before my back injury.

When I look at our cane now, I don’t just see a broken old man. I see the hard work that you must do and the help that you must be willing to accept in order to get back on your feet again.

Writing with sound

For months, I’ve helped my brother-in-law compose his life story into a blog. For him, due to accessbility and mobility issues, audio recording is the best way to capture his stories. It’s easier for him, but also it’s more personal. His words, his voice, are ringing in my ears – nobody else’s. It’s one-to-one.

As I’ve helped him edit his stories, I’ve thought a lot about the effectiveness of speech and sound. I used to enjoy listening to rebroadcasts of old-time radio dramas late at night, and I’ve gotten drawn into podcasts like “Serial”. It’s the atmosphere that’s created by the slightlest of ambient background noises or sound effects. It doesn’t take much to draw me into a moment.

So, I’ve been thinking of building little audio narrative pieces into the stories in my True Life project. It could use a soundtrack, some spaciousness, some emotion and personality. I’ll add what I can…

Turning that inner voice into an outer one…

Since about June of 2017, I’ve been helping my brother-in-law to record his memoirs into a web site. Working with him has inspired me to look at my own memoir project with fresh eyes.

Although he doesn’t focus on it to any significant degree, a big underlying aspect to his life story is the fact that since he was born, he’s had Cerebral Palsy and very limited mobility. However, in spite of negative prognoses from doctors when he was born, and various societal barriers in front of him as he grew up in public school and took his post-secondary education, he has managed to beat the odds.

With the support of his family and friends, today, at the age of sixty, he continues to beat the odds and make his own life. He gets himself to wherever he needs to go to run his life relatively independently, and remains able to communicate, socialize, and express himself.

His memoirs project…

In the last few years, he’d been slowly developing his memoir as a book with a local publisher. This process gave him an outlet for his many stories, as well as the satisfaction of knowing that one day, others could read his story and appreciate his life journey.

But his print publishing process was limited by his lack of funds, and had to be postponed when he became deathly ill in December of 2015. Throughout 2016, he healed, got stronger, and explored his options. He prepared for transition out of his father’s house and Pearson Hospital, and into an assisted living situation. Rather than dampen his spirits, facing his own mortality and adapting to a new lifestyle only seemed to harden his resolve to tell his story.

For him, typing seemed arduous and editing a long document by himself using a mouse and keyboard in something like Microsoft Word struck me like a distant goal at the end of a lengthy and frustrating learning curve.

So throughout 2016, we discussed his project and the ways he could benefit personally from surfing the web. I found a low-cost internet service so he could enjoy wireless at home, and bought him an inexpensive tablet. As I indoctrinated him to the web, and sites like Facebook and YouTube in particular, he took to it like a duck to water, motivated by instant access and immediate gratification. Information, entertainment, news, sports, and even people now became available to him.

I encouraged him to go digital and online, instead of relying on (for him) costly paper-based publishing. I created a free blog for him, and as we worked together to write his story, it became apparent that text was really holding us back – the written word was not a good solution for someone with his unique challenges. Even Google voice typing was not really effective: we struggled to get his narrative translated into text, and finally had to give that up.

Nonetheless, he was an effective oral storyteller, and a passionate speaker where his life stories were concerned. So it occurred to me that we should abandon text altogether and just post his stories as audio recordings, accompanied by pictures and some brief summary text.

This was the right choice for him: he loves to talk, and loves to listen to his stories. With production now aimed more at his strengths rather than weaknesses, he’s able to drive his project forward on his own terms: he hand-writes ideas for stories and records the audio himself whenever the mood strikes him. Then, we review it together, and he suggests which images might accompany it. I edit and post the completed audio files to his blog.

What this means to me…

What I take away from this are a few lessons:

  • Adaptability is crucial. Usability (and philosophies like UDL) promote technology that adapts to the needs of the user. Terms like accessibility, affordance, interface, and ergonomics relate to this, in my mind. Touch-screen mobile devices have levelled the usability playing field in a massive way.
    Lesson: Adapting a process and medium to fit someone’s strengths has changed the game entirely.
  • Digital is liberating. Paper and printing are not dead by a long shot, but the major drivers of online traffic (in our case, Google) have created enough free online services to allow people on a fixed or low income to create their own content.
    Lesson: Digital self-publishing is empowering.

For me, it feels like I should begin adding audio recordings to my own stories, here in my True Life project. It will open the stories up in a new way, allowing me to use music, sound effects and the emotion in my vocal performance to add a new dimensional depth to my stories.

Confessions of a Pack Rat

My memories are captured in thousands of files, folders, emails, and websites – and somehow, my pack rat nature has allowed me to preserve most of the digital evidence of my life since about 1998.

The Digital Studio Space

My desktop is a collection of hardly-used capturing tools: a flatbed scanner (that also does slides), a graphics tablet I used for one illustration job seven years ago, a digital camera that has been supplanted by my smartphone, and various bargain audio and video analog-to-digital conversion devices. I still have VHS tapes and audio cassettes that testify to past projects.

It must be something in the blood: my grandfather (and namesake), Ernest Clarke, was a prolific photographer, and I have his prints, negatives, slides, and 8mm film to prove it. His mission seemed to be to immortalize his wife and especially, his daughter Angela. He was somewhat compulsive about it, from the scores of evidence he left us, ranging from photos of native elders probably taken in the 20s, to colour home movies he shot in the 1970s. He’d have gone crazy with digital.

Recently, I upgraded my windows PC to windows 10, and bought myself a 3 terabyte external drive for backups. My desktop PC and all its peripherals and programs constituted my modern digital studio space – my personal workplace for explorations, communications, study, and networking. my grandfather Ernest had a little painting easel tucked in a corner of his basement for working in oil. The tools are different, but I suppose the drive is similar.

With the advent of mobile touchscreen devices, something happened that I didn’t expect: my tablet and laptop took me away from my desk, and kept me either on the couch or in a Cafe (and often digging through Facebook).

Soon enough, I found I was using my smartphone and tablet for almost everything, and rarely ever using my PC for anything (except for banking). That shift in behaviour seemed to change me from a creator into more of a consumer. For quite a few years now, I’ve spent more time surfing and consuming other people’s bytes than I have creating and promoting my own. I think. So, with the spiffed-up desktop environment, I’m probably now in a better position to focus on building my own content again.

So, that covers tools, but what about content? Who and what am I writing and imaging about?

Preserving People, Real and Imagined

I have worked, side-by-side or remotely, with hundreds and hundreds of colleagues since 1992, when my full-time career really kicked into gear. Each person I have met has taught me something about them, and about myself. Some of them were characters, and some of them are bound to become them one day.

Sometimes it’s true that “Hell is other people” . In some social groups, there are always manipulators and cajolers, liars and criers, who use your niceness against you, or use sympathy to gain your confidence and trust. If you don’t let these folks, damage you too badly, they can provide valuable learning regarding human nature. I’ve found that once I recognize the evils and virtues in somebody else’s character, I begin to see them in myself.

Thus, the memories of people you’ve known can be great inspiration for personal memoirs, or raw material for fictional characters.

Space, the Final Frontier

In my profession, I have treasured my semi-private offices or cubicle spaces. Having a little bit of solitude and at least some form of blinders provides an emotional and mental buffer zone, and helps one to concentrate.

However, too much isolation tends to raise stress levels in me, most likely my mind needs a break and a little interaction with someone every few hours. I often forget to do that. it’s important to listen to your heart and mind, to recognize when you need to be alone, or when you need to socialize.

The Real Undiscovered Country is Inside

(Well, I’m on some kind of Star Trek riff, now.)

The value of forming bonds with friends and family is obvious: we need to belong with and to someone, and want to feel part of something bigger and more secure (perhaps) than ourselves.

The hard lessons for me were learning to listen to the voice of my internal judge, to know how much sharing, emotional intimacy is enough with each person, to say enough, but try not to say too much.

Generally, I have a hard time discarding people and objects once I have assigned some sentimental attachment to them. So, I tend to collect people and things.

Interpersonally, I can’t always judge my emotional boundaries and moments quite right, but I tend to keep my doors wide open for anyone to walk in.

Memories are subjective, elusive, permanent, and recurring…

Memories are like dear friends, and bitter enemies. Both burrow down under your skin. They find your emotional nooks and crannies, remind you of your strengths, and expose you to your weaknesses.

Memories can seem as immutable as stone, as unchanging as the mountains, and as permanent as the Earth.

But I have learned that memories are more like chameleons: they take on the colour of your current outlook, and their themes and tone  reflect your own. They’re my own little constructs, my personal little fantasies, performances that I continually re-stage in my own private playhouse.

The stories that I’ve written for myself probably started in my head as soon as I could think. Like James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man”, the language and models that I built have evolved with me, over the years.

Memories age and mature with you, like your reflection. You just can’t trust them- they’re as slippery and subjective as you are. For me, memories are the ghosts I live with, the echoes of old events and past ideas, reflections of my life and past visceral emotions.

Some memories used to be exceptionally strong, but have waned with experience and considerable reflection:

  • The chest-puffing pride when I was eighteen and would talk about my Dad, or hear his words come out of my mouth. I demolished his pedestal years ago, and put the pieces to better use in rebuilding a platform for myself.
  • The bitterness and mistrust that I held against richer, happier kids, and their functional families. I secretly resented every other kid I saw, certain that they were so much better off than me. Eventually, after high school, I tarted to get over it.
  • That feeling that I was unique in my life experiences, wiser and more resilient than my peers, and just plain special. This was mostly my own defense against self pity, isolation, and misery. It worked sometimes, but it was mostly a mask behind which I hid my fear and insecurity. I don’t worry about hiding that much anymore. After the age of 45, me and my insecurities began to feel much more secure in each other.

Each of these little treasures have waned with time, going from opaque, well-rehearsed scrolls to delicate, dried-out parchments that have degraded with age, and worn down to near transparency.

I can see right through those old narratives now. They still have occasional influence on me, but most of the time they’re not very convincing anymore.

Considering Responsible Storytelling…

I’m an amateur writer of fiction and non-fiction. I’m not a reporter or a journalist. I’m not a researcher, or an academician. I’m not scholarly.

I like telling a colourful story, and I love evocative imagery, and poetic license.

In creating my meagre attempts at fiction, there’s wiggle room: I’m not very dependent on historical accuracy or elaborate world-building, IMHO, the reader will likely allow minor inconsistencies if the characters and story are well-formed and worth caring about.

However with biography, I think it’s different. If your subject is someone else you must contend with, and pay respect to, narratives that have already been developed around your subject – especially other people’s real experiences and research.

Even if the subject is yourself, you’re not immune from certain factors: the reality of the other people you’ve known, who you are writing about, and what you can or should ethically reveal which may affect others.

In my case, I think I can almost write anything I want, with the following ideas in mind:

  1. I cannot embarrass or hurt my parents, since they have both passed on, but I could cause embarrassment or discomfort for other family members who may not agree with my stories.
  2. The things I say about other people, places or events still reflects back on me and my character. All art is a form of self portrait.
  3. Rule #2 means that if I embarrass someone else, by definition I am embarrassing myself.
  4. Save your work often kids.

(I had written two or three more really good, well-written points here, but I lost my edits somehow and had to start over. Re-doing, starting a new draft of even a small section,  is my creative Kryptonite. I almost become paralyzed with indecision about whether or not to continue at all. Technology can totally kiss my ass.)

Anyway, on the topic of responsibly biographies, here are a few articles I’m going to read and books to consider, to see if they help me to think more about  ethics and responsibility in biographical writing:

Back to a Shrine, Online…

My passion for biography waned years ago, particularly regarding this True Life project. It’s like a form of burnout, and was probably due to a number of factors:

  • In discussing the past with my sister, I was reminded of some very terrible times, and instead of seeing them objectively, like a reporter, I felt them viscerally. I had not really let myself feel them the first time around, and I became angry at my Dad all over again.
  • I was happier in my present, and found myself less interested in discussing my past. I didn’t feel as special either, because I’d learned that my past suffering was really very minimal compared to some of the things other people suffered. I didn’t feel the need to get attention by telling my story. I didn’t even want my colleagues to know much about it. I had nothing to prove, and emotionally had receded a little…
  • The novelty of writing – the excitement of calling myself a writer and of exploring the art form – had been lost. Been there, done that (or so I felt).

So over the past few years, the only writing I’ve done has been occasional journaling, or bits of short-form poetry online in Facebook, and a couple of brief short stories featuring my proxy, Jack Owen.

But…

A recent Google search on my own name (ego, thy name is John) led me to searching for my parent’s names, and then an old feeling started to resurface: I’m trying to keep them alive.

In fact, I want to read about their story myself! I truly believe that the Internet is my go-to global memory, even as an extension of my own memory. Maybe I want to keep them “alive” online as a way to reconnect with them. It’s like visiting a gravesite. The stone is still there and will stand the test of time. Funny how the ephemeral Internet feels permanent to me. It’s a place where I can preserve the pieces I have. One day, I will forget things – I will lose the last of it. Some of my web pages might outlive me though. Maybe.

As angry as I am at my Dad even 30 years later, I don’t want his name to disappear. He burnt bridges more than he’d ever have admitted, but he doesn’t deserve to disappear. My Mum died alone and largely forgotten in Riverview. How will she be remembered? By web-shrining their memories, how will I be remembered? Will I finally be the good son who kept the memories together, who tended the garden that they abandoned? I have no idea, but apparently the need hasn’t left me yet.

In my online personal and professional life, I use Google like a mental scrapbook, a photo album, a repository. I started putting images and stories about them online in 1998, and I told myself a web-based shrine would help me to remember their stories as time passed and experience faded in narrative.

I think I’ve just felt the fear of forgetting tap me on the shoulder. I’m still the only one who can tell my story the way it needs to be told.

I should back at it now…