Kate Braestrup’s memoir transforms grief into love

by Jerry Waxler

Author of Memoir Revolution: a guide to memoirs, including yours.

At the beginning of the memoir, “Here If You Need Me,” Kate Braestrup takes us into her home, sharing her romantic, mutually respectful marriage to a state trooper, their love for their children, and their plans for the future. It seems like an ideal relationship. And then bam! In an instant, her partnership is torn asunder by an auto accident. The cereal bowl from which Drew had eaten an hour earlier sits in the sink while his body lies across the front seat of his police cruiser, the life crushed out of it by a broadside collision.

Now that Drew is dead, Braestrup continues to let us into her heart, this time to cry with her, while she learns the ancient lessons of grief. In order to raise her young children and get her life back on track, she enrolls in school to become a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church. After graduating, she works as a chaplain for the State Game Warden Service in Maine. Traipsing around the countryside, she comforts loved ones while the wardens searched for lost children, potential suicides, and accident victims. If the search ends with a death, she offers the survivors condolences, embraces, and support.

On her journey from grief back into full connection with the living, Braestrup sets her sights beyond her personal experience. Through her study to be a minister and her work with the public, she raises huge questions, and then through the magic of storytelling makes me feel that together we can understand it all. As a result, this memoir turns out to be one of the most intelligent, loving, and compassionate books about life and death that I have ever read. It is one of those rare books I feel pulled to read again, and in fact, it was only after my third time that I began to tease it apart to see how such a simple story could carry me so far.

Her job with the game wardens takes her through the woods and across streams. With them she flies through the air, drives across ice, awaits the recovery of swimmers who had fallen 70 feet over a waterfall, stands in frigid silence as divers search for a body beneath the solid surface of a river, holds a mother’s hand as the wardens search the woods for a missing child. Through Braestrup’s eyes, nature becomes a backdrop for life, and also a backdrop for death. A tree grows through the skeleton of a dead body. A bear plays with a skull as if it’s a toy. After the death of her husband, Kate Braestrup dresses his corpse with her own hands, certainly the most affection directed towards a dead body that I have ever considered. Her relationship to his earthly remains expands my notion of death, by embedding it lovingly within the natural order.

Despite her religious training, or perhaps because of it, she treats people with equal tenderness no matter what their affiliation, or even if they have no interest in religion at all. To her, religion is simply one of the ways humans have chosen to explain love. Take for example this incident in which she consoles the brother of a woman who killed herself. The brother asks Braestrup if she thinks a suicide victim can receive a Christian burial. Here’s what she says.

“The game wardens have been walking in the rain all day, walking through the woods in the freezing rain trying to find your sister. They would have walked all day tomorrow, walked in the cold rain the rest of the week, searching for Betsy, so they could bring her home to you. And if there is one thing I am sure of, one thing I am very, very sure of, Dan, it is that God is not less kind, less committed, or less merciful than a Maine game warden.”

At the center of the book lies the great theological question, “How can an all powerful compassionate God allow evil in the world?” Attempting to answer this question is known as “theodicy” and whether we know it has a name or not, many of us grapple with it. If we conclude that suffering proves God cannot exist, we cut ourselves off from a valuable source of hope. For example, after my brother died of cancer, my dad landed on the “God can’t exist” side of theodicy. His choice drained his vitality. My mother responded to Ed’s death by extending her search for truth, a decision that allowed her to become an increasingly generous and spiritual person.

Braestrup steers through the battle of good and evil with exquisite finesse and dignity and comes up with an inspirational message. After a particularly horrifying crime was committed in the woods of Maine, she quotes the devil who threatens all goodness by claiming his forces are legion. In the aftermath of that crime, the community, whose hearts had been broken, stepped forward to care for those who suffered. Through Braestrup’s eyes, I feel this outpouring, and I agree with her that the multitudes of people are basically good. After making this case she throws it back in the devil’s face, asserting that he’s wrong about which side has the real advantage. “No,” she says. “We are legion.”

Guided by her images and explanations, the theodicy problem collapses into a tribute to love. From a psychological standpoint, I suppose grieving might mean simply recovering poise. Her story shifts the focus and shows how grief can extend what it means to be human. In fact, I wonder if this is the central challenge of grieving, to return from the loss that rips apart your soul, while accepting the presence of hope and goodness in the universe.

Writing Prompt: Consider the things, people, or opportunities you have lost. Write a story about that loss, but instead of letting the story lead you towards your pain, start from where it hurts, and move forward from there. Describe how you regained sanity, confidence, and the other things you have needed in order to maintain your healthy connection with life. Take advantage of tips from the Hero’s Journey, and focus on the allies and amulets that helped you proceed on your quest.

Notes

For another memoir of grieving see Joan Didion’s “A Year of Magical Thinking” in which she describes with exquisite insight her relationship with the person who is no longer here, and how her mind works and doesn’t work during the year following her tragic loss.

See also “Losing Jonathan” by Robert and Linda Waxler about recovering from the loss of their son.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on this blog, click here.

Story extends my optimism to infinity

by Jerry Waxler, author of Memoir Revolution: Write Your Story, Change the World

When I was 20, I fought desperately against my future. I refused to become an adult until I understood why I should. Looking back years later, I see my rebellion against the future was a big mistake that caused me and my parents much suffering. I eventually made it through that period, having learned many lessons. The one I treasure most is that my impression of the future profoundly affects my energy in the present. As a result, I have cultivated a habit of optimism, always looking for the good that is coming my way.

That optimism is being put to the test, now that I’m sixty, and I’m looking down the line at what looks like the downward slide at the end of my journey. To maintain my enthusiasm today, I need a more positive image of where I’m going, but it looks so uninviting. Fortunately, over the years, I have amassed an enormous amount of life experience. So to find out more about how to improve my fantasy of the future, I go back to the beginning and learn how my impressions of the future shaped my life.

What I thought the future would be like
As a child, I watched nice families like Ozzie and Harriet on television. The kids had adventures and learned lessons, while the parents stood by to guide them. As near as I could tell, once you grew up the party was over. By the time I was ready to become an adult, I believed life’s journey would look like this: Grow up, get a job, raise a family, grow old and die. After growing up, the rest looked flat, boring, and uninviting.

Chart of expected life

Heaven and hell didn’t help
The ideas of Judaism that I learned in my own home, and Christianity that I gleaned in the broader culture confirmed my worst fears. According to some renditions, after death, I could go nowhere, or to heaven or hell. In any of these options, my soul would continue without further challenge until the end of time.

Heaven forever

Secular learning didn’t improve my view of the future
I thought surely, within the vast universe of knowledge, there must be some compelling reason for living. So I poured myself into a broad search of science, math, history, politics, and philosophy. I found many interesting perspectives in each of these fields, but they gave me no path to work towards, nor any reason to strive in the human drama. In fact, nihilism injected darkness into my heart that poisoned my momentum even more.

Unable to find an impression of the future that appealed to me, and feeling disconnected from society I began to unravel. Protests against the world turned inward against myself and against life. I stopped eating. I was barely able to move, work, or socialize.

Eastern views added nuances to the future
My confusion about the future was tearing me apart. Thanks to a variety of compromises and insights, inch by inch, I came back to life. One perspective that motivated me was the Eastern philosophy that after each death, there would be another birth, with more challenges, opportunities, hopes, and dreams.

Eastern view of life and death

This chart seemed infinitely richer than the one I previously visualized. I loved the idea that even when I can’t see immediate results, my actions today will cause repercussions tomorrow. These beliefs helped me dispel despair, and expanded my vision beyond the tiny fraction of life in front of me. But it left many questions about how to make the most of my time on earth.

Instead of seeking absolute meaning I began to connect with people
As I regained momentum, got a job, and formed relationships, I realized that my zealous pursuit of Knowledge had blinded me to the people in my life. Once I loosened my obsessive grip on ideas, I became aware of the enormous satisfaction I felt with my friends, family, coworkers, and community. Social connections made me feel more balanced and more at peace with myself and the world.

My life path was not so boring as I had anticipated
By the time I was 35, I had achieved a stable lifestyle, with a job, a committed relationship, and day-to-day comfort and purpose. This stability, which I had fought so hard against when I was younger, became a blessed victory. While the future still looked flat, those first 35 years were far more complex than I had originally expected. I had made false starts, was distracted by illusions, addictions, and dreams that just didn’t work out. With diligence and assistance, I reached upward, out of these valleys and fulfilled my potential.

More interesting than I thought

Lifelong growing
When I was 50, I returned to Villanova University for a Master’s degree in counseling psychology. My education loaded me with insights into how to help people grow, and my understanding of the human condition became deeper. It occurred to me that the journey of adulthood had now turned upwards, and that by striving, I was not only helping other people grow. I was continuing to grow, myself. This added another feature to my increasingly interesting chart.

Still growing after all these years

What draws me to the next step?
Now I’m sixty, an age traditionally associated with the end of adult responsibilities, and I fear the downhill slide. And so, my enthusiasm is undermined by my old bugaboo: fear of the future. I am tempted to follow poet Dylan Thomas’ urging to rage against the dying of the light. But that risks repeating the mistake of my youth, angrily fighting with the future rather than embracing it.

How telling the story of my life exposes wisdom about my path
A few years ago, I began to write a memoir. On the surface, such a goal may seem to be a frill, a bauble, a celebration of the past. But the more I search for the organizing principle that will make my life worth telling, the more wisdom I discover in the act of storytelling.

I discovered there are two sides to every story, the inside and the outside. Looking from the outside, I see homes, families, and cars. People go to work, vacation, or the movies. But at the heart of the story, there is a character whose desires drive the story forward, while the obstacles help the character grow. At first, the inner story seems invisible to an outside observer, in fact it propels the story forward and keeps it interesting.

Focus on the inner story expands my vision of the future
Inside my character, I feel curiosity and energy. I am compassionate and want to serve others. I notice this tendency in other people, watching many people, including my parents, develop along these lines into their seventies, eighties, and beyond.

My grandmother often claimed she felt young. I never understood how this was possible considering her slower walk and older skin. Now I am experiencing this strange phenomenon myself. I look in people’s eyes and see a glimpse of something timeless in them too. As I chart my life, I realize it is the inner story that continues to grow.

The inner story continues to grow at any age
To find a wellspring of energy today, I consider the shape of my story over the last sixty years. Through the years, I kept thinking the future might be boring, and year after year, I was proven wrong. The character in my story continued to evolve, to gain insights, to become more nuanced. Then I look at other people, at the whole person, their eyes, their hopes, and I read or listen to their stories. By focusing on the inner story, I see them grow. My understanding of the inner story has expanded my vision of the future.

Extending my optimism towards infinity
I have heard many beliefs about what happens after death, from a welcome by angels, to reunions with family, the wise guides who will lead me farther, and even a coaching session to prepare for the next birth. I don’t know which of these ideas are true. But that’s okay. With each passing year, I watch my inner story growing, and with just a well-practiced slip of my optimistic pencil, I can let my chart of the future extend upward, right off the edge of the paper. This visualization of the future gives me the basis for an invigorating, hopeful, and more satisfying life today.

Beyond the visible

Memoir of an American yogi – read like a writer

by Jerry Waxler

I’ve read excellent memoirs about a spiritual journey and reviewed two of them on my blog. You can see these reviews by clicking the links for Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies” and Martha Beck’s “Expecting Adam,” Both of these books stayed engaged in the author’s dramatic unfolding. Not all books about spiritual searching stick so close to the writer’s feelings. It’s a common tendency to shift from personal experience to explaining the teachings. I have nothing against using personal experience to teach. In fact, it can form the basis of an excellent teaching book. [see my book review of two books that teach] However, too much teaching may detract from the dramatic tension. To keep the reader turning pages, be sure to convey the unfolding of your own dramatic tension.

To understand more about the dilemma between drama and information, consider a memoir by Donald Walters, called “The Path, One Man’s Quest on the Only Path there is.” This memoir straddles the two goals, teaching quite a bit about a spiritual path while staying connected with the author’s journey. Walters is the disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of another spiritual memoir, “Autobiography of a Yogi.” I read “Autobiography of a Yogi” in the seventies. Steeped in the rich, diverse spiritual culture of India, it is an extravaganza of occult and mysterious perspectives. When I came across the memoir of his American disciple, Donald Walters, I thought I could continue the journey started in the Autobiography of a Yogi, and learn about another memoir in the process. [Note: Walters’ memoir, “The Path” is also available from audible.com.]

The book starts with Walters growing up with his American parents in Europe in the 1930’s. Walters was well educated, preparing him to become a high-powered participant in the world. Since adolescence, though, Walters discovered he was not content with the ordinary goals of growing up and making a living, so he searched for deeper meaning. After stumbling upon Autobiography of a Yogi in a bookstore in New York, Walters went to California, met Yogananda, renounced worldly life and became a monk. Since he found what he was looking for, the original dramatic tension was resolved. At least it was resolved partly. I still wanted to know how he would relate to life in a monastery, a lifestyle so different from his past and from his culture.

Then, much of the middle of the book showed me events in the monastery and conversations with Yogananda that all ended with some spiritual point, or principle. This emphasis on teaching might have stopped the action of the memoir, but I stuck with the book anyway. When I make it to the end of a book, I can learn a lot by asking “What was it about the book that kept me turning pages to the end?” For one thing, as a student of world religions and spirituality, I found interest in the teachings themselves. And despite a heavy dose of Yogananda’s teaching, the book kept me in touch with people, through dialog, and anecdotes. As the characters grew older, I continued to empathize with them, wondering how their understanding would evolve.

Walters’ first climb as a young seeker ended when he found his teacher. On the next leg of his climb, he was integrating the teachings and applying them in his life. Gradually, I began to notice another dramatic theme unfolding. He started to take on duties as a minister and a leader in the organization, shifting the story arc from a young man who looked up to others to a teacher who had to learn how to lead. This is a problem I’ve had to face over the years, feeling discomfort as I made a gradual transition from beginner to elder, from student to teacher. I was curious to see how this transition worked for him.

Finally, there was a dramatic twist. The story shifted again, keeping my interest still further. Walters spent his entire adult life serving the organization that was founded by Yogananda, the Self Realization Fellowship or SRF. Then, he was forced out of the organization. That was an enormous blow, apparently undermining his life’s work. And yet, in a way it was expansive, showing him and the reader one of the fundamental dramatic tensions in the spiritual journey. To find spiritual insight, it’s natural to gain insight into our personal relationship with a higher power by absorbing the teachings of a group. Entering the group creates paradoxes and dramatic tension between the individual’s needs and the organization’s. Walters show us the mounting tension. As he became more deeply aware of his own spiritual development, he was asked to take on more responsibility for the group. Then, finally, when he was forced out of the SRF, he was on his own again. How poetic! He went full circle, or as the Greeks call it nostoi or “coming home.” Walters’ story shows us how the group helped him find his spirituality, but the fulfillment he achieved, in the end belonged to him.

Writing Prompt:
If you want to write about spiritual unfolding, sketch out the story arc that will keep the reader engaged. What drove you at the beginning? What questions about life needed to be answered? What obstacles did you overcome to reach those insights? What events will show your growing awareness, and the breaking down of previous walls? How will the unfolding story finally show that you relieved the tension you introduced in the beginning?

Wisdom evolves as you live your memoir

By Jerry Waxler

To research the memoir she is writing, QuoinMonkey visited her childhood home. At first the lush vegetation crowding the house looked like the work of a zealous gardener. Then she realized the house was vacant and surrounded by weeds. To get her arms around this disturbing sight, she posted on her blog a photo and a haiku named “You Can’t Go Back“. Another blogger, ybonesy, commented that the weeds were trying to consume the house. I tried to lighten the mood with physics, pointing out that seeing your childhood home is a sort of time travel, like when you watch a star and realize you’re seeing the light it emitted a million years ago. I appreciated the opportunity to brainstorm the passage of time: the haiku, the photo, time travel, and return to the earth. Yet I was still unsettled, wishing I knew the appropriate response to seeing a childhood home turning decrepit.

Later I was listening to the audio memoir, The Path by Donald Walters, a disciple of Paramahansa Yogananda. As a young seeker he tried to penetrate the secrets of the universe by reading the Bible, but he was upset by the story of Adam and Eve being thrown out of the Garden Eden for eating the fruit of wisdom. Walters complained, “What sort of God would want us to remain in ignorance?” As I pondered this question, an insight leapt into my mind and for the first time the story of Adam and Eve made more sense to me than it ever had.

When I was young, all I saw in this story was the deception of the snake, and the disobedience against a direct command. I cried, “No. No. Not the apple! You have it all. Stick with the pleasure.” Now, I realize how much depth there is in the story. They were young, naked, and sexy, but physical pleasure wasn’t enough. Their temptation was for knowledge. Instead of being ignorant and self-involved, as I had first supposed, I now see them as courageous. They chose wisdom. In exchange, they must grow old. Now, as I grow older, I’m seeing for myself the terrible price of that bargain. I lose everything, including eventually my own life. In exchange, I want to enjoy every bit of the wisdom that is owed me.

A few days after I had this insight, I was teaching a memoir class, and one of my students wanted to write about his spiritual unfolding. A number of events over the years had convinced him that there was more going on in the universe than he could see on the surface. He glimpsed this transcendent aspect of life through visionary experiences, unexplainable “coincidences,” and inspirational insight. He wanted to write about what he had observed. It would be a sort of work of art to express the way the universe had made itself known to him through his life.

In my opinion, the journey towards spirituality is a wonderful topic for a memoir. I recently read two such memoirs, one by Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, and the other by Martha Beck, Expecting Adam. Both books rely on a fundamental storytelling technique, called the “character arc” which stimulates the reader’s curiosity to see how the protagonist grows. To create this sense of development in your own memoir, look for your evolving wisdom. Even in a collection of essays, show how you started skeptical and self-involved, and then gradually understood more, until finally you understand a lot.

Over the decades our childhood home grows old. Even our body becomes less fun. Yes, I know all the hype, and believe me I’m hanging on to my body for dear life, but the progression is pretty obvious to me already, and I’m only sixty. So if the body is aging, becoming less enchanting, less thrilling, finally less sexy, why should anyone want to keep turning pages to the end of the story? To find the closure to this tale, the redemption, the reason you or anyone would want to get to the end, I suggest we go back to the beginning and look at the bargain God made with Adam and Eve. Unfolding wisdom is the reward. Look for that wisdom and share it with your reader. The evolution of the central character will make a good story to read, and incidentally will also make a good story to live.

Writing prompt: What stories illustrate the evolution of your wisdom? What incidents in your life exposed a guiding hand, a compassionate presence, a coincidence that “couldn’t have happened.”

Anne Lamott’s Memoir, Traveling Mercies

by Jerry Waxler

I’m an Anne Lamott fan. I loved her book, “Bird by Bird,” in which she writes about writing. But when I saw Anne Lamott’s “Traveling Mercies, Some Thoughts on Faith” I had mixed feelings. Even though it is shelved with other memoirs, I didn’t know what “thoughts on faith” meant. Finally I broke through my reluctance and read it, and now, I’m an even bigger Anne Lamott fan.

It turns out there are some really interesting lessons memoir writers could learn from this work. First of all, consider the storyline. My favorite example of a memoir with a simple storyline is George Brummell’s “Shades of Darkness.” He grew up black in the segregated south, joined the army, got blown up in Vietnam, and came back, blind. He went to college, and then became the director of the Blinded Veterans Association. Another memoir with a straightforward storyline is Brooke Shields’ “Down Came the Rain.” She wanted to get pregnant, but couldn’t. Then she had a miscarriage. Then a baby. And then she struggled to overcome post-partum depression. These are big sweeping events, and on any page of the book, I know exactly where I stand in Brummell’s or Shields’ life.

Anne Lamott’s story goes something like this. She was a child. She played competitive tennis. She grew up. She had a father. She had a son. She drank a lot. She got sober and got faith. That’s about the best sequence I can explain. I know about a number of incidents that took place in her life. I know she lost friends to cancer. I know a lot about her beliefs in God. In fact, I know a lot more about the way Anne Lamott thinks than I know about the other 8 billion people on the planet. And I know some of the most profound moments in her life. But her essays didn’t walk me through a sequence of steps, so having just finished it I can’t say, “I see how the events of her life progressed from beginning to end” the way I can with George Brummell’s or Brooke Shields’ life.

That’s interesting for memoir writers because it demonstrates the vast range of possibilities for what is a memoir. If you think your life is too ordinary to be worth writing, read this book. You’ll see that ordinary events can turn into extraordinary stories. She writes about taking her son snorkeling. He lost his flipper and they saw dolphins. She hates her hair and eventually decided to go with dreadlocks. She tells lots of stories about her friendships, and an endless string of attempts at romance. It seems she can turn anything into a clever, uplifting, enjoyable, and sometimes laugh-out-loud essay.

With her expert style, humorous and sophisticated turn of phrase, and complex organization, her writing reaches inside her mind, and shares profound insights with readers. Offering this much insight requires commitment. And the fact that she has such commitment fills me with hope and cheer, not only about the human condition in general, but also about the potential of what we writers can accomplish. We really can share magical parts of ourselves if we work at it. And when we do it well, people want to read what we’ve written.

But there’s a sub-lesson I’d like to add to this. A passion for the fine turn of phrase is only one of many gifts a writer can offer a reader. Your main goal is to bring your authentic self to the page. Your insights into the dynamics of your own life become a window through which readers peer into a different life than their own.

As you try to learn about memoirs from reading Traveling Mercies, and you try to understand how it is organized, you might wonder if it’s even a memoir. It’s certainly not like most other ones I’ve read. It’s more like a collection of essays that add up. She tells a wonderful, powerful story (all her stories are wonderful and powerful) towards the end of the book about her son Sam. He is not a writer. Since he is only 8 he still has time to learn. For now, his creative passion is to find garbage and turn it into art. To show us what this looks like she describes Sam building an elaborate castle on the beach, not just from sand, but from all the dross that floats up onto the sand. Eventually her son has created a masterpiece. That’s not a bad model for Anne Lamott’s book, or for that matter her philosophy of life. Take whatever you get, even if it doesn’t seem like much and turn it into something beautiful.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.