You Can Love Your Enemies, But You Don’t Have to Invite Them to Dinner.

The holidays can be complicated for adult children from dysfunctional families.

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When parents abuse, neglect, or otherwise injure their children through exposure to conflict and parental misbehavior, and force children to protect the “family secrets,” those children develop a host of disorders. Bulimia, anorexia, fire setting, self-destructive behaviors, personality disorders, substance abuse, anger issues, criminal activity, phobias, PTSD, depression–the list is long and exhausting.

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Recovery from those conditions is also a long, exhausting, and frequently painful ordeal. Encounters with toxic birth families can cause setbacks and slow the process even more.

Toxic families of origin pose very real dangers to survivors of child abuse, whatever age they might be. Well-meaning people, even therapists (who should know better), may be oblivious to those dangers. Adult survivors of child abuse may be urged to “make amends” with their abusers, to “reconcile,” to “clear the air” with these people who injured them so badly.

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Do not approach…back away slowly…

Logically, of course, it doesn’t make sense. The kind of person who would harm an innocent child, a sweet, helpless, adorable little person who only wants to love and be loved, is definitely the kind of person who will, given the opportunity, abuse an adult. The parents, and various other toxic family members, know the former child so well that they have no trouble selecting his or her vulnerable spots. They will be able to inflict severe mental, emotional and/or physical pain.

The holidays can be particularly rough, with their emphasis on families. Conflicted survivors may find themselves lured into horrific situations by their former abusers and family members. It is normal to long for the love and respect denied you as a child. It is normal to desperately want a family to love, and to know they love you in return. But if you are still in contact with your toxic family members and live in hope of a future that never materializes, why not do something nice this year for someone who will actually appreciate it? Why not do something nice for YOU, for a change?

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You deserve to be treated with love and respect. Searching for love and respect in a toxic family, though, is like searching for a delicious holiday meal in a dumpster.

This year, instead of reaching out to toxic family members and re-experiencing the abuse you suffered as a child, why not cut yourself free? Why not celebrate with those who truly care about you? Even if the only friend you have in the world is a goldfish, it is 100% certain that goldfish will be kinder, more pleasant, and vastly better company during the holidays than a toxic family. And good news for those who are frowning at the screen because they don’t even have a goldfish–the pet stores are running holiday sales right now on aquariums and supplies.

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Christmas Started It, I Swear.

It is impossible to forget about or skip Christmas. It doesn’t matter how hard you try.

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Once August hits, the craft stores load up on green, red and gold supplies and ornaments and pre-decorated trees. By October, all the stores have joined in the Christmas extravaganza, and glittery stuff and pretty lights and overpriced bizarre gifts crowd the aisles. The entire month of November is pretty much a run-up to Christmas now, with Christmas radio stations in full swing and Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales flyers showing up in mailboxes (both email and USPS) weeks in advance.

I didn’t always hate Christmas. It forced the issue, and it threw the first punch.

When I was a child, Christmas was the best day of my year. Any impossible present dream could be realized with a letter to a magic elf. The world outside and the world in the television set both became more beautiful, covered in twinkling lights and gorgeous decorations, and a sense of wonder and peace was everywhere. Gorging oneself on cookies and candy and pie was not only allowed, but encouraged–lucky children might even get to help Mom or Grandma make the treats themselves! Seldom-seen family members and friends appeared and slept on couches or in sleeping bags in the living room. Christmas had its own movies, its own music, its own mythos.

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It wasn’t just a special day, it was a sacred day. Christ-centered carols were sung, and a baby in a manger remembered. Even church was affected, and there were parties and devotionals. The sacrament meeting closest to Christmas was very short, which endeared it to my child self.

At least once, I’d find myself sitting quietly, usually near the Christmas tree, and I’d feel what everyone called “The Christmas Spirit,” which was mostly the Holy Ghost, but also something additional, some magic peculiar to the season. And I’d be so happy.

I would have loved for those days to go on forever, but they didn’t.

It wasn’t one thing that ruined Christmas for me, it was many things. My father abandoned his family for several months when I was a young adult, leaving Mom with almost no money for Christmas; if not for food storage and kind, anonymous people, it would have been a hungry Christmas, too. Christmas morning we were treated to the sight of our mother in tears; Dad had sent expensive gifts for each child, and she could afford only a few small things. I felt sick as I empathized with her pain, and seethed with anger for my father.

I thought when I married and had my own little family to make Christmas for, things would be different. We didn’t have much money that first Christmas, but we were creative with what we had. Newlyweds are always poor, we told each other. It’ll get better.

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Only it didn’t. A couple years in a row, Jim’s employer (and sadistic father, unfortunately) made sure not to pay him for several weeks before Christmas, so that we’d have no money for presents, or even a nice dinner. Christmas was the time of year we took treasured things to the pawn shop, and hoped we’d be paid in time to rescue them. Christmas was the time we had to accept offers to buy things (like Jim’s cherished ’68 Olds) we didn’t wish to sell, in order to pay the gas and electric bills. And when we caught on to the sadistic routine and tried to save money in advance, well, winter was still the time of year when, inevitably, the car would break down, or our child would get sick, and need a doctor’s visit and an antibiotic which we couldn’t afford–unless we spent the meager amount we’d managed to save for Christmas.

I found myself feeling horrible things at Christmastime–anger towards my father-in-law, frustration with the impossible job market, desperation when I looked at my little girl, who was filled to the brim with hope for Christmas presents, treats and a decorated tree by an overwhelming cultural force I could not contain nor protect her from. I could not deny the existence of Santa with everyone around her asking if she’d sent her letter, if she’d been a good girl, what she wanted for Christmas. She knew what was supposed to happen at Christmastime. And of course we wanted to provide everything for her, and it killed us when we couldn’t.

Most of the Christmas presents were homemade out of scrap materials and found items by my very inexperienced and inadequate hands. A $10 check from a cousin once provided us with money to buy a couple of presents, just in time. We swallowed our pride one year and went on food stamps to provide Christmas dinner and treats. And of course, as the youngest family, we were  expected to travel out-of-state to visit our parents, and scraping together the gas money was a misery in itself. Eventually, we stopped visiting them altogether. It was too hard; they had more resources than we did, and could visit us. It turned out we were wrong, though, and the road didn’t go both ways.

How I grew to hate Christmas. When you live at a subsistence level, every extra expense is a tribulation. Just like doctor’s visits and car repairs, Christmas came like a thief each year and stole whatever savings we’d been able to set aside.

But WORST OF ALL, I was completely unable to feel the elusive Christmas Spirit. The magic and wonder and gratitude of the season were gone.

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Our finances improved over time, but no matter how I tried, I could never turn our home into a beautiful Christmas Wonderland. We didn’t have money for nice decorations, and the cheap ones fell apart. We’d learned to dislike Christmas music, which was mainly NOT about Christ anyway. The baking and the sewing and the shopping were exhausting, and I always felt inadequate to the task of creating Christmas for my children. Nothing ever turned out the way I wanted it to. I couldn’t even do something as simple as put tinsel on the tree, because the kids and pets would eat it!

But every year, I tried. Every year, I thought, maybe things can be different. Maybe this year, the magic will come back. Every year, I hoped I’d feel that special warm glow. And every year, I was disappointed, and all the work and effort seemed to matter little.

Then at last came the year that I knew the bad luck that haunted us every Christmas was no accident.

I had bought a wreath that year; nothing fancy, just a little grape vine wreath with holly and a plastic poinsettia on it.  I hung it by the front door. Look at me, I thought, extending the olive branch.  Befriending the season.  Meeting it halfway.

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The next day, when my family and I returned home from shopping, I noticed an extra decoration on my wreath.

I looked at the wreath, playing ‘what’s wrong with this picture,’ and thought, “I was sure I didn’t buy the wreath with the bird on it.” Well, I hadn’t.  A sparrow had chosen to depart for the heavenly aviary in the sky while sitting atop my wreath.  The feathered corpse hung by one foot from the grape vine, dangling inside my Christmas peace offering.

“You know,” I said out loud, possibly to Christmas, “If I’d wanted the wreath with the bird, I would have bought the wreath with the bird.”

Then I laughed until my sides ached, because good grief, Christmas hates me back.

How many people can say Christmas hates them so much, it gave them the bird?

My biggest beef with Christmas, however, doesn’t involve crude gestures like the one Christmas made with the wreath. It involves the tiny shred of hope I CANNOT KILL that rises every year in response to the carols, and the lights, and the lovely Nativity sets, the hope that says, maybe this year, things will be different. Maybe the magic will come back.

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And it never is, and it never does, and Christmas is always a bitter disappointment, and I cry through part of it, and sulk through the rest. I LOVE December the 26th, because the next Christmas is a whole year away.

This year, we’re decorating strictly with Pokemon figures and ornaments and pictures. Forget Christmas? It won’t let us. Focus on something we like better? Oh, yes, that we can do.

Wish us luck.

 

 

 

Why Millennials Deserve Respect, Admiration, and All the Avocado Toast They Can Eat

Once upon a time, there were Dinosaurs. tyrannosaurus-rex-284554__340They had ruled the world for millions of years, and they were confident, rich and powerful. They didn’t like change, though, and they especially didn’t like the weird feathery flying things that had appeared without warning in their forests. a-flock-of-birds-2811043__340

Fast, free of many constraints, and always singing, these little guys drove the Dinosaurs crazy. The Dinosaurs thought the birdsong was meaningless noise, and devalued the ability to soar and thrive in an environment they themselves couldn’t understand, much less experience.”They never DO anything,” the Dinosaurs complained. “They don’t respect gravity. They never help us blaze paths through the fern forests. They don’t even act like us. They are worthless.”

Although the Crocodiles’ lineage was nearly as old as the Dinosaurs, they perceived the newcomers differently. crocodile-66886__340Observant and patient by nature, they saw how building nests in the trees rather than in the mud helped protect the eggs from predators. They noticed that the sounds the creatures made could broadcast a warning to everyone within earshot. They admired the little fellows’ ability to soar up and over the landscape and find food and new territory. Over time, the Crocodiles partnered with the new critters to some extent; their tiny beaks were amazing at cleaning bits of meat out of the Crocodile’s teeth.

And then the asteroids began to fall. All the mysterious feathered animals gathered together  and made an ear-splitting racket. birds getting outThe Crocodiles were alerted, and when the flock flew off, they followed. crocodile-2697279__340The Dinosaurs, however, were oblivious to the danger and didn’t even recognize the need to escape or change their habits until it was everlastingly too late.dinosaur-2525442__340

Are you sick of all the Millennial-Bashing? Me, too. Know what all their critics have in common? Age and ignorance. Radio commentators blast them as the most worthless generation that ever lived. News sites share outrageous accusations, like; “(Millennial’s) Avocado Toast Addiction is Costing (Them) a House.”

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Social media is crawling with posts blaming the Millennials for everything from the decline in morals to increasing pollution to the poor economy to  inner city crime to the loss of old-fashioned values.

There’s a reason the word “crotchety” is applied to those of us who are getting old. It fits. Yes, older people have always blamed younger people for all the social problems they don’t like (and usually caused themselves). It’s still a lousy excuse for emotional abuse.

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The Millennials haven’t had a chance to impact long-standing problems like pollution, crime, or the economy, not yet. These are problems the Grand Old Generation, the Baby Boomers and the Gen X’ers bequeathed to them like stinky gym socks. They just got here. What they do have is a radical new way of viewing the world, and ideas that just might save it.

So to all you Dinosaurs from the “ME” generations out there:

You think they “don’t do anything” because what they are doing is incomprehensible to you. You can’t think like they can, you can’t embrace constant change the way they can, you have no idea how to network–trust me–compared to them. You think of the Internet as an abstraction, something you can use to market your crafts on Ebay or improve sales in your business. They know the Internet is a place, a community, and they know how to survive there. You’re so busy complaining about the feathery flying things that are suddenly all over the place, you’ve failed to understand that you are becoming obsolete.

Several years ago, a teenager was found frozen to death outside my daughter’s high school. The police didn’t know who it was. The adults thought it would be best to keep the students in the dark until the teen was identified and the parents were informed. What no one on the outside knew was that as soon as the body was found, the information was disseminated to the entire school. Those high school teens investigated, at the speed of text, and found out which teens were out of contact. In TEN MINUTES, they’d narrowed it down to two people. In another seven, they’d located one of the missing, and knew exactly who was out there in the snow.  From there, it took only a few more minutes for the information to spread to all their contacts, and the parents of the girl found out not from the police, but from a mutual friend, that their daughter was gone.

You may have heard of the six-degrees-of-separation theory, which states we are all connected a lot more intimately than we realize. These Millennials have leveraged their connections in such a way that they know exactly what is going on at all times and in all places; six degrees is impossibly far apart. Information is power, and you would not believe (and perhaps would sleep better not knowing) the degree of power these young people have.

You say they are over-sensitive and thin-skinned, but these are people who know more about bullying, virtual stalking and abuse than you can imagine. You think they are to blame for the decline in moral values, and say they are too wary of deep relationships, when it was your generation that reared them on a steady diet of pornography, “free love,” divorce, narcissism and violence. The Millennials didn’t supply themselves with M-rated video games. They didn’t create the pornography that links to any and all content online.  They didn’t create the transparent or lingerie-look clothing lines in all the stores that you criticize them for wearing. They didn’t invent the loose morals you decry–you’re the ones who popularized those. (Woodstock, anyone?)

Many of them had to raise themselves, some in households with substance-addicted parents, some in homes with absent parents, some with single parents who were out working two or three jobs to keep food on the table. They grew up in a scarier world than you did, and they did a fine job surviving there, without much help, thank you very much. How dare you blame them for not displaying the values it was YOUR responsibility to teach them? Where were you when they needed you? Why weren’t you modeling what they needed to learn? Why didn’t you pass along what you knew? If you don’t like how they turned out, guess what. It’s partly your fault.

Like every young generation, they are idealists, and they want change, and they have hope, in spite of the discouraging, despairing voices of their elders. They grew up being told the world was on the skids and the environment was toxic and people were no good, and evil lurked behind every smile, and you think they’re OVERSENSITIVE?

Yes, right now they are young, and not in control of most of the resources, and you can lord it over them and mock their lifestyles and feed them despair. You can treat them like garbage, hold them to impossible standards and make them work for $9 an hour and pay through the nose for any kind of education. But they are getting wiser, and they are figuring out that they don’t need you. Your well-being depends on their future support, and it is support they aren’t obligated to give.

Now a note to the Crocodiles:

You have a chance to help these amazing young adults, and the power to open doors for them and give them the benefit of your wisdom and experience. You have a chance to show humility and allow them to teach you some of what they know. You probably won’t sprout your own set of wings, but you can listen, and you can learn, and you can benefit, and you have a chance to thrive in the new world they will create.

To you Millennials:

You are breathtaking and beautiful. You embody the hope of the human race. And you are welcome to chow down on all the avocado toast you care to eat.

Let’s Hear it for the Supporting Cast

Is there an unsung hero in your life, someone whose unselfish actions created the updraft on which you soar?

akroyoga-1753837_1920Behind every tale of incredible individual achievement stands the silhouette of the person or people who sacrificed to make that triumph possible.

Behind every Olympic figure skater is someone who got up before dawn every day to sit on a freezing wooden bench and watch a child fall on the ice. Behind every self-sufficient person with severe disabilities are numerous therapists, caregivers, trainers, and paraprofessionals. Behind every elderly person who is lucky enough to remain in his or her own home (after complications due to advancing age have made self-care impossible) is at least one self-sacrificing family member or friend.

This world-changing yet under-appreciated supporting cast is made up of heroes who give their time, talents, and resources to open up the world for others.

Yes, Helen Keller was amazing, and she was an inspiration to many people, but where would Helen have been without Anne Sullivan? Anne devoted 49 years, her entire adult life, to Helen.

Yes, it is wonderful that a young woman with severe disabilities was able to serve a mission. But her teenage sister, who gave up over a year of her life to provide extensive care and support and make that mission possible, is the one whose sacrifice staggers the imagination.

Yes, it is amazing that someone who was hit hard by polio and partially paralyzed was able to win a gold medal at the Olympics. But the incredible stamina, planning skills and selfless devotion of the person’s spouse supported that dream until it became reality.

Is there an unsung hero in your life, someone whose unselfish actions created the updraft on which you soar? Please take a moment to show them how much you appreciate them, and thank them for all they do.

As for my hero–Jim, thank you for everything you’ve done to show your support for me and for our family. I’m amazed that anyone could be as wonderful as you.

 

 

A Time and Place for Forgiveness

beach-2010507_640If you want to cross the English Channel, and have your name officially ratified and posted in the short list of successful Channel-crossers, you are allowed only a swimming cap, goggles, and a swimsuit. (Wet suits are only allowed in a special swim category, and are not otherwise recorded as a qualifying swim.) You will, however, be accompanied by a support boat. While you can’t touch the boat without forfeiting, the boat will carry your supporters to cheer you on and provide moral support, food, and drink.  In a very real sense, you are the only competitor, but you aren’t forced to make the swim alone.

In the healing-from-traumatic-events endurance effort, you are the only competitor, but you may have any number of supporters. Therapists, friends, magazine and book authors, a healing community…the list is endless. Unfortunately, you are bound to meet up with people who don’t understand the nature of the event, and seem oblivious to what you really need, and when. Some people, in their rush to help, can do you serious harm.

Imagine you’re a hopeful swimmer, and have just leapt into the rather chilly waters of the English Channel, ready to begin your journey. The supporters in your boat aren’t all on the same page as you are. Some came prepared to offer useful assistance, but one person either doesn’t know how to help, or wants to save you a grueling ordeal, so she tries to cut to the finish. She tosses you a huge, fluffy towel, cozy and warm from the dryer.

Of course, it is soaked immediately, and hampers your movements, and if you aren’t quick and don’t toss it away fast enough, it may even pull you under and drown you. If you protest, she will insist she meant it for the best, and she will be horribly confused at your lack of gratitude, and oblivious to the danger she’s placed you in. She may even act like there’s something wrong with you, and insist it worked for her, and everyone else she’s ever known. She may be persuasive enough, and may shame you enough, to trick you into retrieving the towel. She’ll then proceed to blame you if you drown.

That fluffy towel would be appropriate at the end of the swim; it would be welcome, and wonderful, and the recipient might even feel inclined to give the generous supporter a big hug.  But in the beginning, well, the most charitable thing you can say is that the person offering the towel is ignorant and misguided. Other less charitable labels may also come to mind, but of course you would never say them.

No sooner had I started my journey, and begun to heal from the abuse I survived as a child, than unenlightened people urged me to cut to the finish. “What you have to do,” they’d say, sounding wise in their dangerous ignorance, “is forgive him.”

Forgive him? I didn’t even know how badly I was hurt! I hadn’t worked through any of the pain, fear, anger, or imposed shame. It was the worst possible advice, but it was also the most popular. Forgiveness, some people thought, was a short-cut everyone should take.  Many of these people had endured similar experiences, and claimed they had “forgiven” their abusers, but the not-so-surprising part was, none of them were healed. They were still carrying all the shame and pain and anger and fear, and it leaked out in inappropriate ways at awkward times, as their minds tried to force them to feel the buried emotions and take action to get rid of them (minds have a powerful desire to heal, even when their owners do not). Substance abuse, domestic violence, abusive patterns that repeated themselves in their own families; they were still embroiled in those challenges. Their “forgiveness” was denial in disguise.

Truth is, forgiveness isn’t even possible in the very beginning, especially when you haven’t yet processed everything the person has done that needs to be forgiven. Trying to force forgiveness can nip your journey in the bud. It will quickly soak up the freezing water, and bind itself around your limbs, and leave you gasping.

But what about at the end of your journey, when all the work is done and the feelings have been felt and the memories recovered and drained of any pain or emotion? At that point, you can truly forgive the sinner without condoning, accepting or denying the sin, and it feels wonderful.

The Concept of Audience Obligation

 

When people give of themselves unselfishly, for our benefit, what is our response? Why do we so often decide to give nothing back?

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Yesterday, our incredibly talented Relief Society pianist (and I’m not just saying that because she’s my friend) adapted the prelude music into a work of art. I sat and listened, eyes closed, and wondered if anyone else heard the beauty of her music. She was giving the entire room a gift, but most of the people in the room were too busy chatting to notice.

My son’s college orientation was packed with students and parents well before the auditorium doors were scheduled to open. Instead of leaving us all standing and staring at one another over the doughnut trays for an extra half hour, the doors were opened, and the college Jazz Band, down on the stage, began to play for us.

They were brilliant. They were enthusiastic. They played for an extra half hour, dredging their memories to pull up last season’s songs,  just for us. My son and I  clapped after every poignant solo, and after each number; he was in Jazz Band for many years, we know how these performances are supposed to work. But in that packed auditorium, only a few people joined in and shared their appreciation of the Jazz band’s efforts.

A group of local artists hung their paintings in our city’s Civic Center for several weeks. None of the paintings were for sale; the artists wanted only to share captured beauty with concert-goers, to lift and enrich their spirits. A signature book was placed at the end of the exhibit, where people could offer comments or thanks. Although hundreds of people passed by and admired the paintings, it was never necessary to turn to the next page of that book; only a few took the time to respond to the artists.

We are all busy; we have much to do; our private thoughts are invaded and jumbled by bright, noisy notifications, events and ads we didn’t ask to see or hear. In the heat and chaos of our daily lives, have we forgotten our obligation to those who freely share their talents with us, who never ask for, and seldom receive, anything in return? Have we closed ourselves off from an essential part of our humanity?

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Do we forget that the funny videos we enjoy on YouTube are created by people just like us, people who could use an encouraging word once in a while from their fans? Do we fail to notice the work of the muralists who transform the bare, ugly walls of inner-city office buildings into riots of color? Do we ignore the flower boxes planted facing outward toward the street, for us, not the homeowners, to enjoy?

When people give of themselves unselfishly, for our benefit, what is our response? What is our obligation? And why do we so often decide to give nothing back?

When I was a child, I attended a rag-tag circus. It was tiny, with only a few performers and some trained dogs and horses. The crowd was small as well, the trickle of fees barely enough to sustain the circus until it reached the next small town.

circus-231549__340The ringmaster, after hearing the initial lackluster response of his crowd of ladies, gentlemen, and children-of-all-ages, took the center ring a second time. He encouraged us to show our appreciation of the show, urging us to applaud, to stamp our feet, to holler if we liked, to laugh out loud, to react in any way at all. As the audience, he told us, it was up to us whether the show soared or flopped. The performers, even the animals, lived for the applause, he said. They would perform so much better, would stretch themselves to put on the best possible show, if they knew we appreciated them. As an audience, we shared an obligation.

I screamed myself hoarse that day, and so did most of the other children.  I believe the performers were encouraged, the horses were more inclined to arch their necks and prance, the trapeze artists were urged to greater heights, and the funny clowns and their dogs were egged on, all because of the response of that crowd. I learned something that night I never forgot. Audiences are not meant to be passive. All performances are interactive.

The next time someone gives you a gift, whether it’s a street musician, a sidewalk artist, or even the barista who takes the time to sculpt the whipped cream on your hot chocolate into a flower, please remember: if you enjoy the gift, take a moment to show your appreciation.  Much obliged.

 

Memoir = Memory Noir?

Writing a book about the past is like assembling a decrepit jigsaw puzzle after the box has rotted away.

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The colors are blurred and faded, the edges have missing tabs, and some pieces have vanished altogether. Clues to the identity of the image appear only in fits and starts as sections of the puzzle are compiled. Many of the details can never be recovered. So why bother?

Perhaps we write about the past to gain an understanding of it.  Or maybe we feel this is the best way to set it aside and move forward into a brighter future. Or could it be that we write because we know someone out there, someone a lot like us, is struggling to muster the strength to get through another day?  We write because reading the stories of people who’ve spent time in the trenches, survived, and found their way to the surface again can rekindle hope in a despairing heart.

Authors who dug deep into their own pasts in order to drag the truth into the light gave me hope and strength in my own blackest hours. The chiaroscuro book I’m writing is my own attempt to pay it forward.

HJ