The basics are to write what you know to be true, and if you are famous or intend for a mass audience to read your story, change a few details and/or throw the word ‘allegedly’ or ‘maybe’ in there so the reader does not take it to be a reliable concrete story/ you don’t piss people off. In Schwartz’s essay, there is the mention of Frank Court waiting to publish his memoir until his mom died, and perhaps that is the real test about how truthful a work is—what would your mom think? Would she be mad but know it to be true?
Just like love, the more we study memory, the more it studies us. My writing and meditation teacher, Bill Scheffel at Naropa spoke about dynamic impermanence—which is made up of three points: there is what we think we know, there is what we perceive, and then there is the way things actually are.
I happen to have a really good memory, down to the exact wording of a quote from years ago. But the more I read these days, the more I think a lot of detail is unnecessary.
The emotional truth behind a story is something, but what about a somatic truth? About the way something feels in your body?
As a Jewess I light a lot of candles. My daughter also loves smores. Over the last couple of years I’ve developed a kind of shudder around flames. When I noticed it the other evening, and paused, I felt a memory for an event I was not present for. Bill Scheffel was a teacher, mentor and friend to me and on July 8th 2018 he completed his life by lighting himself on fire in his car. A devout Buddhist, he had researched self-immolation and believed it to be a way to die that benefited others, that surpassed enlightenment.
My friend Melina and I drove out to the spot where he died when we flew out to Boulder for his suhkhavati—a Buddhist death ceremony. It was quiet and beautiful, with a view of the foothills of the rocky mountains. It was early morning when he killed himself and he used an accelerant. This was a very intentional way of dying. When I light a flame now, there is a memory without words, only how it feels in my body. I try not to think about the specifics of it too much, but I still wonder about the moment he lit the flame, the space before the sound, him sitting in his car, because he was California baby, until the end.
One of the mind training slogans from Bill’s teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, is to regard all dharmas as dreams. Another word for dharma when it isn’t capitalized could be ‘phenomena’ or the basis of reality. The essence of this slogan is, to let go of fixed ideas. But I will always remember Trungpa for his encouraging talk about basic goodness and that everyone must love something—this is the point of tenderness where compassion can root—even if they only love tortillas. He would tell his listeners to cheer up and do a good job.
Recently I was super pregnant with a baby that was not mine (surrogacy) and found myself awake at night thinking about all kinds of people I had encountered and known in my life. And I fantasize sometimes about being wealthy enough to hire a private investigator and track down my best friend from 1st grade who moved away and the French boys at camp and then holding a massive party where I pay to fly everyone in and have the best time ever.
I once read an article about what happens when people are close to dying, it is common to dream about people they knew when they were young, neighbors or childhood friends etc… And so I think wisely, some part of me must be preparing to die, remembering all these people.
But at night when I remember to recite the bedtime Shema, to thank Gd for my life and to ask for love and protection for the growing, changing list of people in my life, the earth, I pray that all the people I have ever met will know that I appreciate having known them. That I wish them the best , that they are precious, and life is too short not to keep going. I can relax and let it go, at worst, the earth is waiting for me to come home, once I have remembered to remember.