the geography of memory

My MFA mentor Jeanne Murray Walker recently came out with a new book: a memoir of her experience caring for her mother through ten years of Alzheimer’s. A poet, playwright, novelist, and essayist, Walker is a veritable renaissance woman, and I was blessed to work with her for a year.

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The Geography of Memory is more than a memoir of Alzheimer’s. As the title suggests, it’s a meditation on memory itself, and told in such lucid prose that it’s compelling for any reader, even those whose lives have not been touched by Alzheimer’s. In prose as in poetry, she writes clearly and honestly. Her writing is like an open hand, extended, and inviting the reader to see their own stories in the narrative.

SPU’s low-residency MFA program in creative writing meets on Whidbey Island in March. It’s a small cohort, and the March residency is particularly quiet and intimate. For three Marches, I remember gathering in the main room in the evening to listen to Jeanne read aloud from sections of the book-in-progress. I was always spellbound by her storytelling, and I could tell we all looked forward to the book’s release.

It came out this fall, and being several months post-graduation, I confess I was a little homesick for everyone, for sharing in the rhythms of writing and deadlines and residencies. I went to Powell’s and picked up a copy of the book. I’m now working several part-time teaching jobs, and I found myself looking forward to that little window of time at the end of each day when I could curl up with the book. I could hear Jeanne’s voice in the prose, and recognize sections she had read to us.

But beyond my personal connection to the author,  I was also moved because of a recent experience working with people in various stages of memory loss. This summer, I facilitated eight weeks of creative writing workshops with Write Around Portland, this time at a local assisted living residence.

Our first workshop was bewildering. I didn’t have a reference point for an encounter with dementia. As is so common in America, I tend to spend most of my time in the company of people from my own age group– and not much time with the very young or the very old.

A few of the residents talked to me about relatives I’d never met as if they had only just left the room. Some were sharp and present, and contributed clear suggestions to our brainstorm for group guidelines. Others wanted to take the floor and tell the whole group a long and elaborate story. One resident fell asleep halfway through our hour workshop. The staff reassured me it wasn’t me, she just did that sometimes, and had asked to be gently awoken.

It took another session or two before we hit our stride together. I learned patience, adjusted my expectations, and changed my definition of a succesful workshop. I began to see participants bonding with each other and with the volunteers who wrote for those with vision or coordination problems. Themes began to emerge in each participants’ writing. They shocked and delighted me with their vivid memories of being six years old in an old stone house in the midwest, or crew on an Atlantic fishing boat. I loved the way they lined up disparate imagery. I felt honored by their openness. On the page, they often expressed their anxiety over the confusion they felt, their fear of death, their amazement at the change they’d witnessed.

Our time together was often painful. Two of the members died before the eight weeks were up. But there was joy in our workshops, too. We celebrated each person’s writing and laughed at funny stories. I began to see their writing in a new way. I began to see a strange and particular beauty in the way stories surface out of the sea of memory loss.

Maybe it isn’t fair for me to say so, having spent just an hour each week with these writers, these people with families and histories. Caregivers and children might have a different perspective. They’re witness to repetitive behavior and storytelling. Their own histories may be implicated in the creative weaving a person with memory loss can make with strands of time. I don’t have the experience with which to test my statement, don’t have the perspective of someone who has really gone through the labyrinth.

The Geography of Memory gave me that perspective. It’s a firsthand look at the pain, frustration, and yes, beauty, of memory loss. Jeanne manages to tell her mother’s story and her own story in a way that honors both, and lets the deeper story through. The deeper story is the one she writes about toward the end of the book:

Although most of the accounts I’ve read about Alzheimer’s are characterized by horror, the truth is, even my mother’s final months were not relentlessly grim…

…I saw flashes of tenderness and humor even in my mother’s Alzheimer’s ward. I felt what I often feel when I am walking on the nature trail at Haverford College, where thirty species of trees shade the meadows, where a nimble resident heron stalks fish in the stream, and every May a snapping turtle creeps across the running path and stands, blinking for hours, patiently depositing her eggs.

There’s plenty of evidence that in spite of suffering, our universe is ordered by a force that is not chance, not brutality, not evil, but goodness.

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