Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Reader’s Digest, Socrates, and the Meaning of Michelangelo’s Stumps

While staying at my mom’s house for my grandmother’s funeral, I picked up a Reader’s Digest and found an article titled “The Story of Your Life” by Joe Kita. Kita explores the value of writing a memoir for the average, um, Joe. According to Kita, you don’t need to have accomplished anything particularly dramatic in life or have skeletons in your closet to write a memoir. Telling your own story helps you gain perspective, see connections, and understand your life in new and often helpful ways. Life is complicated and messy, and writing memoir helps a person organize the mess and make sense of it. Kita quotes Stephen King, who said, “I write to find out what I think.”

I’m sure you see the relevance of Kita’s article to what you’re reading right now. Tad obvious, isn’t it? Questioning my Intelligence, indeed. If you haven’t read my very first blog essay, here’s a snippet from it that illustrates my point:

Having an MA in English predisposes a person to appreciate pithy aphorisms, so my quest to find myself will begin with guidance from Lord Acton, who wrote this little gem:

"Learn as much by writing as by reading."

I’ve read plenty, so now it’s time to write my way out of this existential crisis, to bridge the gap between the competent, educated woman formerly known as Susan Raihala and this Mommy person who wipes bottoms that aren’t her own and says things like “Because I said so!” and “Hands out of pants!” daily.

Welcome to my blog.

By the way, I wrote these words a year ago and still say “hands out of pants” daily.


This random Reader’s Digest article encouraged me in writing this blog, and it certainly helped me write my grandmother’s eulogy. Grandma’s life story was not dramatic or flashy, and she had no dirty skeletons in her closets. She kept a very tidy house full of laughter.

After the funeral service, my young niece, looking quite shocked, told me, “Aunt Susan, you’re bad!” I asked her what she meant, and she replied, “You made people laugh at a funeral.” Oh, the horror! When I was her age, I’d probably have thought the same thing: funerals are serious, sad events, aren’t they? Levity has no place, does it?

I explained to my niece how important it was for everyone to remember the funny stuff about Grandma, before the osteoporosis crippled her. We needed to revisit those happy memories as we said goodbye. Yes, I made people laugh at a funeral. And they were comforted.

My niece, however, seemed unconvinced. Perhaps I should give her a subscription to Reader’s Digest for Christmas so she can learn from its regular column “Laughter, the Best Medicine” just like I did when I was little and living in Grandma’s house.

Words are powerful things, for good and ill. They build up and tear down, motivate and destroy, comfort and lacerate, induce laughter and provoke tears. The words we use create and shape our reality, sometimes unpleasantly if we aren’t careful. Early in my adult life, I talked a lot about my depression and the pain and suffering that went with it. Gradually, as my brain chemistry sorted itself out, I stopped needing to talk about the bad stuff. I got the words out, and they did me the courtesy of going away.

Sort of. During that time, I kept journals. I only wrote in them when I was depressed or angry or frustrated—emotional and in the moment. Anyone who reads them now would think I was a horrible train-wreck of a person because only the bad stuff got written. There was plenty of good stuff going on at the same time, but I didn’t need to make sense of it or to purge it. The bad stuff needed purging, so that’s what I wrote.

I still have these journals. I don’t want to read them again, which some people might say is cowardly. I know better. They are dangerous. As I reorganize my house over the next few weeks, I’m going to shred those journals. I don’t want anyone reading them and feeling hurt by my words. Especially me. It’s time to clean house.

Memoir is different from those journals, anyway. My old journals whine a tedious “woe is me” lament. Memoir, on the other hand, examines events from some distance and puts those events in perspective. Memoir turns memories into meaning. Reflection, perspective, and honesty are critical to this process. So is compassion—for oneself and for others. A healthy dose of humor also helps.

Most people think their lives aren’t worthy of memoir. Socrates—no ordinary man himself—said, “The unexamined life isn’t worth living.” Bit melodramatic, Socrates, but he had a good point. Ordinary lives, examined carefully, really do become extraordinary. Many of my essays take ordinary events and show how meaningful and rich they are. The essays take small things—Snuggle-Bunnies, for example, or a piece of Godiva chocolate—and fit them into the bigger scheme of life.

Writing—good writing, at least—isn’t about a great mind putting down great thoughts in great prose. Thank goodness because my mind is far from great! Good writing is about discovery and evolution. The best papers I wrote in college and graduate school started from ignorance, with a question I wanted to answer. I once wrote a twelve-page research paper because I wondered why there were so many tree stumps in Michelangelo’s art. I never answered the question of Michelangelo’s stumps in my paper; I just explored possible explanations for their presence. The professor liked the paper so much he advised me to turn it into a master’s thesis.

You don’t need answers to write interestingly about a topic; you just need questions and a curious mind. In fact, the best questions rarely have an answer. They have lots of answers.

Or no answer at all.

“Learn as much by writing as by reading,” Lord Acton said. He was right. Words—and how we use them—shape our attitude and our perceptions of the world. After a year of blogging my life and writing little mini-memoirs of my experiences, I’ve learned to move more confidently toward the positive, to at least try to see the humor in unpleasant situations, to take a bigger perspective so the little troubles don’t take over, to walk a little further down the road of forgiveness, to examine my life as the wonderful gift it is.

Thanks for joining me during this first year of questioning my intelligence. I’m having a blast and hope you are, too.


  1. Thank you for this. I appreciate what you are saying about writing, but the thing that speaks to me at this moment is the destruction of the destructive. I too kept a journal during those oh so difficult times when I thought I was so very deep. I re-read a page or two and threw them all out. What a load of junk it was. So freeing to get rid of past bad things. It leaves room for the good to come in. As you know by my word of the year "less" I presently have a desire to get back to the "Uhaul" life and not be weighed down by the unnecesary. More room for the good questions to be answered. Now I'm curious about the stumps.

  2. Yes, I think life is all about asking the Big Questions and asking them again. Seeing how the "answers" change.

    I've been journaling since I was 11 years old. I've wrestled with depression throughout my life and my journals reflect that.

    Last summer I took a 15 year segment of my journals and re-visited my life. Like you I was afraid it would be too dark, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a girl who wasn't wallowing but was struggling and doing far more things right than I ever gave her credit for.

    What I did burn were all the letters I wrote to my husband before we were married. They were boring, and there were aspects of that girl that I just totally wanted to bury and forget.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!