A lot of people get depressed when they turn forty. I was thrilled. I figure I was pretty much born forty, so it was a relief to catch up with my real age. Now for the first time I get to act immature, because I’m forty-one-and-a-half but act like I’m forty.
However, even if I have always been forty, I have not been able to avoid the famous alteration of perspective that goes with hitting middle age. I would not call it a midlife crisis; nothing so dramatic as that. (Unless you consider abruptly deciding to move to Japan the result of a midlife crisis.) I’m more inclined to call it a midlife assessment. What have I done so far and how did I get to where I am now? What do I want to do with the time I have left? Even though we have fabulous longevity these days, something about hitting forty in chronological time rather than dispositional inclination makes one realize that not all choices are open anymore. The expansive phase is drawing to a close; it’s time to choose wisely and follow through. Or so it seems to me now.
Some people do this by getting a red sports car, others by having an affair; neither of which holds the slightest appeal for me. Instead I’m opting for the third-most-predictable response: writing a memoir.
In truth, the idea for the memoir came about before I hit forty and started having these middle-aged thoughts. Inspiration came from my friend Macy Halford, another American living in Strasbourg who has just published her own memoir, My Utmost. Hers is a beautiful book. She grew up with the devotional My Utmost for His Highest—a book well known, and in some cases second only to the Bible, in large swaths of American Christianity, although its author Oswald Chambers has remained something of a mysterious figure. I’d heard of the book but it certainly played no role in the formation of my piety, and for that matter I’ve had no firsthand experience of the fundamentalist Baptist world of Dallas that was Macy’s childhood church. And yet I found her book fascinating and compelling. It would have been so easy, too easy to write an angry memoir of accusation—and let’s face it, those are the kind that get the most press coverage—but it is the extraordinary gentleness and mercy Macy shows toward a world she left behind that moved me the most. It’s a story of someone pressed toward a false dualism who has tried her best to resist it, despite the lack of rewards on either side for keeping up the conversation. Anyone who despairs of the polarized state of American culture would do well to read her story.
Anyway, hearing about someone else writing a memoir made me wonder, idly at first, what kind of memoir I would write, were I to write a memoir at all. My life would seem to be unpromising territory: while I’ve written quite a lot about the things I care about, I have not written much at all about my own life or episodes in it, and my life overall has been pretty happy and free of such bestseller material as war, abuse, addiction, or a string of impressively poor choices. What’s the attraction in a memoir that invites no sympathy, not to say Schadenfreud?
Pretty certainly the story of my whole life—an autobiography rather than a memoir—would be fairly dull (and thank heavens for that). But as I pondered the question I came to zero in on 1993, the year when Slovakia became an independent nation for the first time in its history, and my family moved there. With the long view of middle age, I can see now how much that year was the linchpin of my life, the year that changed everything, despite the fact that I stayed in Slovakia only one year, while my parents and brother stayed for a total of six. More to the point, the year was full of good (often hilarious) stories adding up to a perfect Aristotelian arc, something real life rarely obliges us by doing. It's a self-contained tale with many wholesome morals-of-the-story to be drawn therefrom. Not to mention all the fried pork.
The idea may have stayed just an idea were it not for two extraordinary serendipities. The first was that my mother discovered that her parents had saved every single letter the four of us wrote to them during that year in Slovakia—typed, printed, and mailed! It’s an amazing record of our immediate experience without any time to filter and digest it. Thank goodness there was no e-mail as of yet! As I read through these letters, I was honestly amazed at how much I’d forgotten, despite all that I’d remembered, and this in turn has triggered all kinds of other memories that may have well stayed buried in the substratum of my brain forever.
Second, and even better, was the discovery that my high school friend Colleen had saved every single letter I wrote her—“my diary that talks back,” as I nicknamed her. Let it suffice for now to say that there were things that happened during the year that I told Colleen but definitely did not tell my grandparents. Parts of these stories I did remember but—surprise to end all surprises—I did not remember them accurately. In fact, by the time I finished plowing through the thirty-plus letters I wrote that recorded every conversation, inference, and glance in blithering detail, what I thought I’d remembered was turned almost completely upside down. If I’d tried to write this book without the letters, it would have been not just incomplete, but false. That was quite a lesson to learn! I’d been warned in a couple books I’d read about memoir-writing to be prepared to have my memory seriously called into question. I thought that would apply to trauma stories only; I had no idea it could happen even in parts of life remembered fondly. Hopefully the intrigue suggested here will be enough to have you pre-order the book on Amazon… in a few years.
All of which is to say, I am pleased to announce that this is my major project at the moment. I hope to have it done at least in draft before we move to Japan later this year. In the months ahead you’ll see many posts pertaining to all things Slovak as I fill in the vast gaps in my knowledge of my ancestral homeland and as I get to reading Slovak literature. Even if you are one of those poor souls who has been deceived into thinking that Prague and the Czechs are in every way superior to Bratislava and the Slovaks, I promise you will be every bit as enchanted by this funny little land as I was all those years ago.