Veteran’s Writing Project: The stories that must be told

I am honored to have an excerpt from my memoir published this month in O-Dark-Thirty, the magazine of the Veteran’s Writing Project. Here is a description of the project written by the editors: “O-Dark-Thirty is the journal for the Veterans Writing Project.   Our editors curate the works submitted to this site. We have two sections. The Report is our hub. It’s where the vast majority of our work will be based.We chose the title The Report because of this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. In our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, we have seen with our own eyes, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. The Review is our quarterly journal. It will be a little tighter, more closely edited. It might have themes. It is our plan to present the finest literary writing we can find. One of the tenets upon which we built the Veterans Writing Project is the idea that every veteran has a story. This site is where those stories get told. Sure, there are other places to hear or read the stories: around the bar, on a road trip, in some other journal. But like the man says, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” This is our journal. It was conceived by and designed for, is run by, features work written by, and provides voice to members of the military community.” My story, What the Dog Understood, describes a […]

Writing Down the Ham Bone: Healing the Griever Within

I borrowed part of the title of this essay from Natalie Goldberg whose generous craft book, “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” offers great sustenance to writers. Her’s is a healing book to encourage writers to get on with life, to feed the writer spirit, to be attentive to place, to memory and experience. I’ve been grappling with writing about healing from grief, specifically how I survived the death of my husband in Vietnam in 1969, and then the tragic death of my father after a construction accident in 1981, and my younger brother’s death from AIDS in 1989. I’m not special in my experiences. It is rare to meet anyone who has not experienced a generous helping of tragic events. But, my question is: How do we share these experiences among ourselves? How do we decide what to do and what to say? Can we pinpoint things that are helpful? Being a lover of cooking and the sharing of food, some old culinary memories bubbled up as I thought about living through tough times. I can’t say that I desired anything to do with eating in the aftermath of learning that my husband had been killed when I was twenty-three, but I do remember the presence of food in that difficult time; I remember people gathered around me at the dining room table and in restaurants where others ate and I sat in stunned silence.I remember kindness and encouragement without pressure to participate and eat. When my grandmother died in 1972, a basket arrived on our doorstep even before the funeral. It contained a […]

Nutrition and the Stress of Tragedy

Naomi appeared lean and fit, although a bit pale, when she arrived for her appointment in the Nutrition Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital. At first glance, before taking her history, I thought she might be a long-distance runner, an ice skater, or a gymnast. I had counseled many elite athletes over the years. They usually wanted to know what kind of foods would enhance their performance and if it was true that some nutrients or supplements made it easier to build muscle. Sometimes they had an eating disorder brought on by the constant competition to be strong, but look thin. As soon as Naomi began to speak, I realized that her nutritional challenge was completely different. “My mother thought I should see someone,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “I can’t eat – I have no desire to eat – in fact I feel full all the time – but also empty.” She described a feeling of heaviness in her chest, lack of concentration, restlessness, difficulty sleeping and frequent tears. Further conversation revealed the source of her emotional and physical state: Three months before, her fiancé had been killed in Iraq. Many people don’t realize that learning terrible news – being suddenly and powerfully aggrieved – triggers an automatic physical response. It’s not a sign of weakness or inability to handle emotion, it is the body’s way of trying to stay safe. Both the physical stress of athletic training and the emotional stress of a sudden tragedy can create the same reaction in the body. As we battle to survive, stress hormones are released from the adrenal glands located just above the kidneys. As these hormones surge throughout the body, they enable us […]

Writing When the Time is Right: Memoir and Emotional Events

On this New Year’s Day, I am stuck on a thought: When is a writer ready to write about an emotional life experience? Most writers of memoir say that we need time and distance to enter the reflective process, especially with a highly charged memory. We know we have been transformed, but how? Transformation (healing, movement of ideas, change) occurs slowly over weeks, months and often years. Each person responds in their own rhythm with the revelation and understanding of how the event is part of the big picture – the story. For those who want to nudge the process along, taking notes and keeping a journal is useful. Then, at the right moment, a voice says: Write something, now. Surprise yourself with ideas about what happened. Go as deep as you can, for now, always asking: Is this true?   My mother and I were more like sisters than mother and daughter. She lovingly tolerated me when I was a child, but a deeper, more collegial bond emerged when I became an adult. I was surprised when I felt “orphaned” after her death on January 1st, 2008 at 12:00 noon.  I was sixty-one and thought it odd to feel bereft of a parent in this way. I had witnessed her decline for years and I watched her battle against impending death during the four preceding days and nights that it took her to depart the world. The sudden awakenings, the furtive looks, the grasping for my hand, the noisy, ominous breathing, the calming effects of morphine doses – only during the last four hours of her life did she seem […]

Giving Thanks: Healing and Resiliency after War

Those to whom I give thanks today. As much as we might feel alone in the aftermath of tragic life events, there are many surrounding who have open hearts.   The veterans of Alpha Company of the 2/22 Infantry Division found me by posting their words of tribute and thanks to my husband, Capt. David R. Crocker, Jr., on the virtual Vietnam Memorial wall. My reunions with them since 2006 have provided a consistent strengthening of my spirit with their stories, communications, love and support. Without them I would not have had the courage to visit the  Memorial Wall at a reunion in Washington, DC in 2008. Without them I would never have heard the stories of what a great leader Dave was until his death in Vietnam in 1969. To those people who wonder if there is a benefit to being in contact with old comrades, please don’t hesitate. Take the chance. It may feel uncomfortable, even painful, to imagine meeting people from that difficult time which many have tried to forget, but what you will find is joy; pure joy. Living through the experience of war, losing friends in front of your eyes, needs to be shared. Find your old friends from far away and embrace them. They want to provide support and comfort. Visit www.vietnamtripledeuce.org and www.22ndinfantry.org to get started and reconnect. The members of the Gold Star Wives (GSW) have battled since their formation in 1947, with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, to assure that spouses […]

What’s So Funny? Humor in Non-fiction Writing

Not long ago in a writing workshop, a colleague offered to read a personal essay I had written about a difficult life experience. My kind friend reported back that he felt as if I was dragging him, sad and depressed, to the abysmal end of the story. “I don’t want to feel as if I’m being forced to feel bad,” he said. “Where’s your sense of humor? And you’re not having any fun, either.”   Humor? I didn’t see anything funny about the story of my trip to Washington, DC, to see my husband’s name on the Vietnam Memorial for the first time – but – maybe I was taking myself a little too seriously. Perhaps Colette, the French writer whose husband locked her in a room to keep her writing, was right when she said that total absence of humor renders life impossible. Humor in nonfiction writing demands taking a firm, self-confident position about our “self” and then flipping the situation upside down. Writer Leigh Anne Jasheway calls this creative misdirection; engaging readers by taking them someplace they don’t expect to go, choosing words and metaphors that make readers giggle without knowing why. She says a smiling reader wants to read on even if the topic is inherently sad.   Where was my sense of comic relief? Obviously, I had forgotten that humor creates a bond with readers and cuts down on tension and anxiety. People need to cry and laugh. Humor fosters a sense of immediacy, a close personal connection. There was little to joke about in my essay, but there were some curious ironies that […]

Grandparent’s Day and 9/11: A story of resilience

Most of us associate the month of September with the tragedy that occurred on 9/11/01. We don’t think of Grandparent’s day which traditionally arrives on the first Sunday after Labor Day.  Seldom do we consider these two events side-by-side in relationship with each other. For my friend Paula Clifford Scott, September 11, 2011, was especially cruel and poignant because, not only was it Grandparent’s Day, by chance, but it marked the 10th anniversary of the death of her only daughter and granddaughter. On 9/11/01, Juliana Valentine McCourt, age four, and her mother, Ruth Clifford McCourt, departed from Boston on American Airlines flight 11 headed for a vacation in California. Ruth’s best friend, Paige Farrelly Hackel (Godmother to Juliana) was on the second plane, United flight 175. The dream trip for mother, daughter and Godmother included the Deepak Chopra Center for Well-being and Disneyland.  Before departing for the airport, Juliana explained to Grandma Paula how she had decided which of her favorite stuffed animals would accompany her on the plane. “Bunny Rabbit can stay with you, Gramma,” she said, “he’ll take care of you while I’m gone.” Eight children between the ages of two and eleven died in the three planes lost on 9/11.  How do grandparents survive with just the memory of the tiny hands and fresh faces of their grandchildren and the knowledge that they themselves are still here, alive?  Knowing that the unspoken order of life and death – who should depart this earth before the other – has been so tragically turned upside down.  Deep sadness, rage, disbelief, guilt, even becoming physically debilitated […]

Finding words: grief and trauma in memoir

How many times have you heard, in the aftermath of a traumatic event, people who say, “I just can’t talk about it right now.” Most of us know this experience of feeling lost for words, as if the “right words” have not been invented to pinpoint the feelings. Yet,  memoirs about traumatic life experience abound these days and it raises the question of when – how soon after? – and how – what will be the structure? – of writing about the death of a parent, spouse, or sibling, or an experience with addiction, domestic violence, war, or any number of experiences that traumatize by their swiftness, or repetition over time. My feeling is that, first, the body tells us when we’re ready to write. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal emerges during the process of psychotherapy following a life-changing experience. Others say that they began with a fictional account, a short story or novel, and then realized they needed  to tell a true story.   Whatever the starting point, it’s important to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time and reflection to be ready to heal. Some people wait a long time – decades – to begin writing. Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir, describes one example. She says, “Tove Ditlevsen’s Early Spring …was first published some forty years after some of the events it describes and demonstrates an extraordinary insight into childhood – one that clearly required many years of reflection before it could be written.”  I began writing about my husband’s death in Vietnam […]