The Pros and Cons of Writing an Autobiography

“Because this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself : ‘How alive am I willing to be?’” – Anne Lamott

Whether to create an autobiography is my latest writing dilemma. I go back and forth almost every day. I kept a journal from Junior High School on, so I certainly have the material to work with. I also have lots of pictures from my past. Don’t get me wrong. My goal is not to punish anyone. I just want to write something that some might enjoy reading some day.

PROS

I certainly don’t want to get stuck in my past, but on the other hand, wouldn’t it be interesting to see where my mind was at in 9th grade? In college? In my 30s in comparison to my 60s? As a psychologist I would love to study my own transition from my early beliefs as a naive youngster to what I now like to call older and much wiser. Perhaps a study of how a liberated woman’s mind developed, starting in the mid-1950s.

I like to believe my life had meaning. One way to pass on that meaning is to write about it. As a member of the transitional, mid-Baby Boomer generation, from the conservative, sexist 1940s and 50s, to the 60s, 70s and beyond, I wish to acknowledge how much our country changed especially in terms of women’s lives and roles. I lived a non-traditional life of first building a career and delaying marriage. I chose not to have children, choosing instead to get to fully know myself before I brought anyone else into my life.

I lived most of my adult life working and single, enjoying the freedom that brings. I experienced a divorce (at age 45), which at least half of Baby Boomers have been through. I also spent a few years studying the trends in Baby Boomers in my 50s, and then wrote a book about them.

I have a graduate degree in psychology and studied midlife love for a few years after my divorce. I also opened my own version of a dating service in the early 2000s. That’s how I met husband number two, while trolling for matches for my women clients… My second book tells this story: How to Believe In Love Again.

I feel I have lots to share with other Baby Boomers and their children and grandchildren, eventually!

CONS:

What a lot of work! Do I have the stamina at this late date?

I certainly don’t want to get stuck in my past. As far as I’m concerned, I have already spent too much time thinking about what happened ‘back then.’ It seems to be one of my obsessions, and yet I do appreciate all the enticing memories I have from so many trips abroad and a few great love affairs. (You know who you were!) I find my trips down memory lane to be fantastic entertainment for when I’m sick and stuck in bed for days… It just seems like this is the right time to set the record straight in my own mind (before I lose it…LOL!)

“Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” – Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss)

And then there’s the whole question of seeing the past honestly and calling an asshole an asshole. On that topic I’m afraid I agree with my hero,

Anne Lamott: “Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

As Anne says, acknowledging and telling our truth is what aging is all about!

But you can’t get to any of these truths by sitting in a field smiling beatifically, avoiding your anger and damage and grief. Your anger and damage and grief are the way to the truth. We don’t have much truth to express unless we have gone into those rooms and closets and woods and abysses that we were told not go in to. When we have gone in and looked around for a long while, just breathing and finally taking it in – then we will be able to speak in our own voice and to stay in the present moment. And that moment is home.” – Anne Lamott

Are all illnesses caused by our minds?

You cannot control how other people receive your energy. Anything you do or say gets filtered through the lens of whatever they are going through at the moment, which is NOT ABOUT YOU.

I met a new person this week who has me quite perplexed. After speaking to her for only a few minutes, she offered me quite a bit of advice. She diagnosed my problems as, “You need to get out of your head to attract good health and healing.” Her swiftness and certainty was disturbing and mildly annoying considering the fact she does not know me at all. She apparently believes all physical ailments are simply a manifestation of emotional problems. Solve those and the illness disappears. This left me wondering, if I told her I have lung cancer, would she recommend better counseling?

To deal with my confusion I spent some time today talking with my favorite health professional about my exchange with this self-defined “healer.” She first emphasized to me that there is no certainty in the field of medicine. That is why they call themselves “practitioners.” Even what may seem like a perfect diagnosis after months of testing and analysis still has no certainty. So for someone who describes herself as a “healer” to decide after just a few minutes of conversation that she knows how to “fix” me is absurd. That same health professional I once told to “Walk a mile in my shoes!” when she suggested that she knew how it felt to be constantly out of breathe while dealing with a severe head injury. Since then my friend has read and recommended the book: “My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey” by Jill Bolte Taylor Ph.D., who experienced a massive stroke at age 37. Now I believe my friend has a much better understanding of what I deal with every single day.

Blaming the victim?

I never forgot an image from my counseling internship at a rehab hospital 25 years ago. I went in to speak to an elderly lady and the first thing she said was, “Why is this happening to me? Doesn’t God love me anymore?” In other words, what did I do to deserve this illness? First of all, we all will die of something. I do not believe we “cause” everything that happens to us. Did Jill Bolte Taylor, a Harvard-trained brain scientist, cause her own stroke? Did I choose or cause myself decades of bronchitis and extreme breathing difficulties? Did I somehow choose to almost die numerous times from hypoxia? What about genetics, air pollution, and my choice to live a stress-filled life in a number of foreign countries?

What do we hope for when we make ourselves vulnerable to others?

What I need from others when I tell them about my difficulties in breathing and concentration is caring concern, non-judgment and, most of all, compassion. I crave exactly what David Richo lists in his book “How to Be an Adult in Relationships.” Drawing on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, David recommends we offer others our attention (observing, listening, and noticing the feelings at play), acceptance of them just as they are, appreciation of their gifts, limits, longings and affection.

After a lifetime of carefully observing how others respond to pain, I was disappointed with this recent acquaintance. Some run away from pain or change the subject. Others immediately try to “fix” me. When they suggest that they have simple answers to complex problems I have been dealing with for decades, I know they do not know of what they speak.

Please prepare now for unexpected outcomes

I’m sad to learn that my friend Rena Kaplowski died yesterday, even though she went the way she wished, in her sleep. Her passing has been a bit of a wakeup call for me and perhaps should be for millions of us. Rena had just turned 67 when she suffered a devastating stroke. Weeks of unconsciousness and intensive care followed, and she had just been moved to a rehab center when she passed.

Rena had not signed an advance directive form like Five Wishes which allows each of us to guide important medical care decisions that might be made if we should become seriously ill, decisions like whether we would like to be given life-support treatments. You may think that your loved ones and doctors will know what you want when you are very ill, but in reality, everyone has different wishes and it’s important to make them clearly known. Expressing your wishes in an advance directive helps to empower your family and other loved ones, and your doctor to make the best decisions when the time comes, and avoid disagreements about what to do next. Completing a form like “Five Wishes” can help you and your loved ones gain peace of mind around difficult end-of-life decisions.

The best time to fill out an advance directive form is now, before you face a health crisis. Because life is unpredictable, it’s best to be prepared. Anyone over the age of 18 can use the “Five Wishes” form. It is also a good idea to review and possibly update your Five Wishes advance directive when you experience significant life events like marriage, divorce, having children, or being diagnosed with a major illness. “Five Wishes” was written with the help of the American Bar Association’s Commission on Law & Aging and is used widely in all 50 states. Federal law requires medical care providers to honor patient wishes as expressed.

Remember, you will always make your own health care decisions if you are able to talk with your doctor and understand what is being said. This directive only takes effect when you are too ill to understand or communicate. If you are unable to make your own decisions or speak for yourself, an advance directive and the person you chose to be your healthcare agent, can help direct your care with your doctor.

Why am I here now? Family History!

Somehow, all of the happenings in my family right now are stirring up many questions for me about my family background. The death of my father in 2020, the dementia of my Mom now and the birth of the first member of the next generation of our family has me wondering how all of this came about.

Why am I here? What and who participated in the creation of our family and why?

Top: Photo of my parents’ wedding in 1951 in Kansas City, Kansas

Luckily, my Mom spent a few years searching for the answers to these exact questions back in the early 2000s and produced a detailed family history called: Generations: Our Grandmothers for all of us to learn from. So this week I decided to sit down and read it cover to cover. It also included many family photos I had never seen before. What a gold mine of genetics and social history from a family whose roots go back to farming in eastern Kansas in the 1800s and railroad development in the Kansas City Kansas area.

Top: Great-Grandma McGrew on her wedding day in 1907

What struck me first was how large families were back then, and how “romances” developed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the case of all of my great grandparents, they met because so many lived in boarding houses where family members mixed. In the case of my Great-Grandma McGrew, she was sent to live with a different farm family to help out, because her own family had too many mouths to feed. She ended up marrying the only son in her adopted family. The McGrews greatly valued education, so even though the closest high school was ten miles away, they made certain that their only daughter, my grandmother, finished high school. She taught elementary school for two years and then ventured out to the big city to expand her horizons in business school. She then secured a job as a secretary in Kansas City where she soon met my grandfather.

My Mom describes our Carter background this way: “If there is a unifying “track” to the story of the Carter family, it would be the Santa Fe Railroad and its development over time as the history of railroads was unfolding in the West.” My Grandpa Carter, his father, and most of his brothers worked on the railroad their whole life, but Grandpa was determined that his two sons would not. He also believed strongly in education as the primary path to a better life, and my Dad and uncle’s lives certainly proved that point. My dad and Uncle Bob were the first Carters to not only finish high school, but also finish college and graduate school. My dad swore by the advantages of a good education and it worked out great for him and his kids.

Developing your mind and allowing it to go wherever it wishes, opens up so many doors and windows on life! It also allows for so much freedom in determining where we go next. I cannot even imagine how different I would have been without my love of learning…

Why I now believe in love

On this special day for Mike and I, I would like to reassure any of you who have lost all faith in love that it is absolutely possible to find genuine, life-changing love no matter what your age, but you must truly believe in it and have some sort of faith that it can happen to you.

On our wedding day — Sept. 2005

Mike and I got married 16 years ago today. Why? Because we could see no reason not to. We were as in love as two 50 year-olds could be and convinced, after only eight months of knowing each other, that we had each met our match. After 50 years of “shopping around,” I knew I had met a partner worth my love and total trust in him. And he has done everything he possibly could in the past sixteen years to convince me of his unconditional love and loyalty.

When I first met Mike, he had some serious job-threatening health problems, but I knew he was the best person I had ever met. In the long-run his own experience with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome only served to make him more compassionate with those who also suffered. Since then his health has improved greatly and I am the one who struggles with dyspnea (shortness of breath) and head injuries. He still loves me completely.

When I met Mike I had no job and no great prospects for work any time soon. So he encouraged me to get some career counseling. That is what finally convinced me to follow my passion for writing. A freelance career and four books followed as well as my popular blog “Midlife Crisis Queen.” Mike opened up a whole new world to me and I loved it!

This is what love can do for you…

But most important to me, my heart’s desire was to believe that there were great people in this world who could truly care and commit to a lifetime of love. This is what I received, and so much more…

This is how it worked for me..

Useful lessons in love from old movies… Check out “Lydia” from 1941!

I have become a real fan of Turner Classic Movies since my most recent brain injury the end of April. Actually even with my first traumatic brain injury back in 2008, I found watching movies to be most soothing and helpful in helping me re-learn language. After that first bike accident I could barely put a sentence together immediately afterwards. Apparently I hurt the part of my brain that does language.

This week I watched a great 1941 movie called “Lydia” starring Merle Oberon. I found it rather ahead of its time in terms of sexual liberation. I have learned that in old movies when two lovers share a passionate kiss, that should be read as a sexual encounter in today’s language. Anyway, Lydia, an elderly woman who never married (a spinster in 1940s speak), is suddenly confronted with the four men she has loved in her life as a sort of review of the important transitions she went through. This in itself reminded me of a reoccurring dream I had for years before I met Mike. In my dream I’m standing in front of a room of past lovers. So what do I do? I stand up and shoot myself in the head…

MERLE OBERON & ALAN MARSHAL in ‘LYDIA’

But Lydia is quite gracious to the three past lovers she is suddenly confronted with. These three men have always loved and cared for her, but she could never truly love them because she was deeply and tragically in love with another man whom she only knew for an intense few days when she was young. This sailor named Richard, deserted her soon after they met, but kept sending passionate letters promising love in their future. After most of her past life and loves have been explained, Richard, the man she had pined for forever comes by. After a great line about them all being “old and crusty” the man Lydia loved so passionately forever looks at her and does not even recognize her! OUCH!

What a great summary of intense youthful passion! Hormones can be such a major part of early love. They most certainly color our memories of what may later seem like the best times in our lives. But then the times when love first blooms is always excitingly poignant and unforgettable. The discovery that another person who you find quite attractive actually “loves” you is better than most drugs, and yet it is best to consider that you were on a certain type of drug when it happened. You were young and so insecure and just hoping someone would come along and make your life better. You were projecting all of your greatest wants and needs on to this one person who is probably at least as messed up as you are. Later, when you realize your life is not any better, and perhaps worse with this person….oops!

There are a number of great lines in “Lydia.” One is when she describes her lustful sailor man as: “bad and wicked, and as marvelous as they come, and I am so idiotically happy I can’t think!” Pretty tough to think when you are hopelessly in love and the hormones are raging! Another great piece of advice: “Don’t give your love to a phantom!”

I could relate well to this 80-year-old movie. That’s a miracle in itself! I have had my share of ill-fated love affairs. A few asked me to marry them, but I never did, not until much later in my life. I say, try not to be too hard on yourself for the silliness of your many past bad choices…

Open your heart to those you love. Sometimes it will turn out great. Other times, not so much...