Thursday, March 30, 2017

"Sunflower Stories" - How Keeping a Journal Can Save Your Life

In honor of Guy Giard, a humor colleague, fellow AATH member, and all around genuinely nice person, I am republishing, "Sunflower Stories." While sharing the progress on his autobiography, Guy recently shared how many journals he has kept, and how they provided him with a lifesaving outlet. I too, benefited from the lifesaving affect of keeping journals. And even though now, journaling has turned into blogging and other self expression, I cannot let go of those dozens of notebooks, and the messages they have for me.

Sunflower Stories
©by Noreen Braman
(written as Noreen Manfredi)

"The books crouch in the corner
their blackness casts a shadow
that reaches across the room.
Even with my back turned,
I feel their ominous presence.
My own words,
from long ago,
can no longer remain hidden."

The books occupy an entire file drawer, their cardboard covers and yellowed pages shut tight against dust and light. I rarely read them now, and yet, I cannot relegate them to storage in the basement or even move them across the room. I need them near me as I write; I need to hear their faded whispers, see their familiar shapes. They are not pleasant, these chronicles, and for years, just their presence terrified me.
I didn't start keeping a journal because I understood the therapeutic value of writing. I didn't even know that putting thoughts on paper was a marketable skill. Back when I was a silent, moody adolescent at Churchill Junior High School, a friend and I began writing to each other utilizing a coded language that only we understood. Based on a combination of real words and made-up words, we soon became fluent note-writers. We kept these notes in a binder, and recorded all the events, major and trivial, of our lives. Although confiscated more than once by unimaginative teachers, the topics our school-day messages were never revealed.  

Most of our correspondence centered on my family, and my ongoing battle to try and make sense out of chaos. Writing in code gave me permission to express my true feelings about my alcoholic parents, their treatment of me, and the misery I felt as a 13 year old social outcast. Soon, the notebooks were filled with notes by me, to me.

I tried, for a while to get someone to listen to me. In my journal I find entries about the school nurse, and my frequent visits to her office. I read them incredulously, not remembering ever being that desperate for a sympathetic ear.  I am also struck by the cold response I received, and thirty years later, my face grows hot with embarrassment. Without my books, I might not recall today how my stepfather hit me so hard that I lost consciousness and wet my pants. His threat to leave me behind in a trailer park while the rest of the family moved into a new home might have faded. And possibly, I may have come to believe that the night my mother chased me with a scissor and burned my sister with a cigarette wasn't all that bad.

"Mist parting - or is it cigarette smoke
faces behind
young innocents
Who robbed their cradles?
half-filled glasses left,
the child tastes and vomits.
If only the adult could so easily purge
the slaughter of childhood."

If I read on, I find that most friendships hinged on my ability to shield my friends from my real life. On several occasions, someone I considered a close friend tells me to stop talking about my family; my confidences are too depressing. I began to think of myself as the rock in the Simon and Garfunkel song, touching no one, with my books and my poetry to protect me.
My parents' lack of interest protected my journals from discovery long after the secret language had been discarded, and made me feel secure enough to write uninhibited. Storing my emotions between the covers of composition books kept me from becoming completely invisible.  Since then, no one has ever read my journals, although I've tried several times to arrange the entries in some sort of sensible, publishable order. Each time, the terrors of long ago come back to life and I can hear my mother's voice, slurred and hoarse, raised in fury. I can feel my stepfather's hands around my throat, closing tightly and lifting me off the floor.
"The eyes
how the eyes could frighten
even the voice
would terrorize.
the look, the sound,
and no escape.
no reasons either,
being the child was reason enough."
Those nightmarish images consistently creep into my writing. Fear of my mother's eyes created dark poetry, and unanswered pleas to God for help led to stories where insensitive, egotistical authority figures suffer tragic losses and painful deaths. At a writer's conference, someone compared my work to Shirley Jackson, sending me to the Public Library for a marathon summer of Jackson reading. While best known for her short-story "The Lottery," Jackson was also very successful writing endearing anecdotes, columns and books about family life. Her work thrived like a sunflower plant, with roots in the darkness, and blossoms always turned to the light. Although I cannot remember who exactly made the comparison, I will be forever indebted. It was as if, my own dark work had suddenly been brought out into the sun. 
Recently, I completed a short story about a mother staying at a hospital with a sick child. Somewhere during the writing process, the mother began to control the direction of the story, haunted by memories from her own childhood as she sits powerless by the bed of her son. She recalls how, as a child, she summoned the vision of a mythological creature to her side for protection. It was a memory from my own childhood, long buried.

"Through the window, the young girl could see the horse clearly as it galloped alongside the car. With little effort, the horse kept pace, hooves barely striking the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike. The luminous white color of his coat and the dazzling brilliance of his snowy wings almost blinded the child. It was, after all, the winged horse, Pegasus, who shadowed the station wagon. The girl, oldest of the three riding in the back seat, struggled to stay awake. She knew that if she fell asleep the magic would be broken, Pegasus would disappear, and danger would envelope the family."
At home, I was expressionless, forbidden to show anger, unwilling to show hurt. I never had the chance to talk about things that mattered to me, never allowed to voice an opinion. Because there was no one at home to talk to, it was my notebook that I turned to express my feelings about what I was studying in school, who was tormenting me on the school bus, or what boy broke my heart long before I ever went out on a real date. I recorded, in detail the night that my stepfather woke me up and made me go out to the family car to drag my drunken mother into the house. I helped her into the bathroom, where she promptly fell and wedged herself against the closed door. In my notebook I wrote that she spent the night on the bathroom floor.  During my teenage years the pages were filled with threats to commit suicide or leave home, and the conclusion that no one would notice, either way. 
Despite all this, my later journals are covered with collages of upbeat images, flowers, castles, sunshine and jokes. I practiced elegant penmanship and used bold, vibrant colors. During long, lonely school vacations I kept track of songs played on the radio, and began writing an epic fantasy that is unfinished, but still fermenting, today. 
The books cover almost 30 years of my life. With some silent stretches there are still entries about my future husband, the births of our children and some of our best and worst marital moments. Like Shirley Jackson, my writing, too, is a garden of sunflowers, stretching from darkness to daylight.
A long time ago, at an ACOA support group meeting, someone told me that your past makes you what you are today. Fulfilling a wish to change what has already happened would also mean monumental personal changes would occur; changes that would create a different person. So, I've come to accept the journals, and what they represent. Slowly, I've begun to make peace with those terrible memories. The writing that I kept private has grown into a marketable skill. I've learned to write happy while still maintaining enough raw emotion to put up a good fight on the editorial pages. The popular culture that passed me by in the 60's and 70's has been fuel for nostalgia pieces that serve as little journeys of discovery for me, and my poetry has reflected this growth.
"Now I shall sing
mournful hymns
joyous love songs
in the hope that she will hear me,
she always hated silence.
Now I shall sing
without fear
without doubt
in the hope that she will love me,
I always hated her silence."

The written records of my life serve as a tangible and bittersweet reminder of where and who I've been. Like a night sky constellation, the books form an unchanging pattern that consistently guides me through the shadowy unknown. So until I'm sure that they have served their entire purpose, I think I'll keep my journals right where they are, close by so I am never out of touch with the past that continues to mold my future.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

World Poetry Day and the Start of Spring

Here are two poems I wrote a while back that I am sharing for World Poetry Day, and for the start of Spring!

Spring Enters the City

High over the Hudson spired aeries
gleam in the sunset, casting long shadows
below in the streets
where scurrying commuters
follow prescribed paths.
At a sidewalk table rich coffee steams
delightful for so late in the day
and a woman with red shoes pauses to savor
the gift of spring in the city
hands wrapped around her cup.
Daylight lingers at the corners
shining through the scaffolding and posters
that hide the skeleton of the Russian Tea Room,
just two doors from Carnegie Hall
where families laden with flowers
await their children's debut performance
on the hallowed ground.
Later, they pour from the edifice into a night
bursting with light and sound
from city doors flung open to the warmth.
Travelers taxi to the river, ferry-bound
and turn their faces to the skyline
now enrobed in strands of light
a great lady of night, bejeweled, becalmed,
as spring enters the city.
©1999 Noreen Braman

The Hyacinths

The hyacinths have raised their heads
above my muddy flower beds
their optimistic growth will bring
my garden to the brink of Spring.
©2010 Noreen Braman

Thursday, March 16, 2017

For World Happiness Day and National Poetry Month 2017

The Last Race

The last runner of the relay is making her sprint
feeling the strangeness of the desire to slow
she carries hope in her hand
the last light creature from Pandora’s box
Encased in human form.

Can golden apples thrown at her feet
make her slow down, turn away
stop to examine their worldly beauty
consider other beauties around her
expanding her time, ignoring the clock?

The finish line no longer the goal
rather examination of the path
reflection of the race from its start
with all stumbles and missed passes
still time to change the course.

The medal to be won is but a shroud
awarded as the sun dips below the horizon
no looking back into the settled darkness
 lines on the track blow away
the stadium as in Sarajevo, turned into a graveyard.

The last runner slows her step
opens her arms to slow feel the wind slow her
steps onto the wet, uncharted grass
breathing in the scent from a far off garden
she will take her time to find.

©2017 Noreen Braman

Monday, March 6, 2017

Pursuing Happiness with Forgiveness in Preparation for International Happiness Day

The United Nations declared March 20 of each year as the International Day of Happiness. Below is a statement from their International Day of Happiness website, that explains that happiness, on a global scale, depends on much more that being in a good mood.

"Climate Action for a Happy Planet

What is the International Day of Happiness? It’s a day to be happy, of course! Since 2013, the United Nations has celebrated the International Day of Happiness as a way to recognise the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world. The UN just launched 17 Sustainable Development Goals that seek to end poverty, reduce inequality, and protect our planet – three key aspects that lead to well-being and happiness.
The United Nations invites each person of any age, plus every classroom, business and government to celebrate the International Day of Happiness each year on March 20."

Here, in the United States, we are lucky enough to live in a country where "the pursuit of happiness" is considered a civil right. I suspect "the right to be happy" was left out because of understandable legal complications that might arise from citizens demanding that the government provide them with happiness. Yet, as the United Nations points out, governments are intimately involved in the happiness level of their citizens by their work in the areas of poverty, inequality and protection of our planet. It appears that having a Happy Planet is their theme for this year.

So, toward that end, and considering Earth Day occurs a month after International Happiness Day, I urge you to not only pursue happiness for yourself, your family and your community, but also for you planet. Although 7 possibly Earth-like planets have recently been discovered, I don't see humanity being able to move to any of them anytime soon.

To help you in these pursuits, I am going to be sharing links as I discover them, to point you in the Happiness For You and For the Earth direction. And if you have any ideas, or know of any community-based activities, let me know!

To start off,  Action for Happiness would like you to take a Happiness Pledge and get some Happiness materials. 

Live Happy offers this Happy Acts calendar of things you can do this month. Today, the calendar encourages you to forgive someone. That someone could even be yourself.


Today I forgive myself
for not understanding
the life you lived
the pain you endured
that shaped your life
and the demons that pursued you.

Today I forgive myself
for not forgiving you
once I became an adult
experiencing life
learning the family heritage
in all of our blood.

Today I forgive myself
today I forgive you
mourning your loss
and the unfinished conversations
withheld in anger
regretted too late.

 ©2017 Noreen Braman