I never meant to write a memoir.
My love affair with words long ago turned me into a raconteur. My friends think I’m a good conversationalist. My sisters think I’m opinionated.
“I kissed the Blarney Stone,” I bragged after my first trip to Ireland.
“No kidding.” They said.
Throughout my career, my colleagues frequently begged me to immortalize my pedagogical wisdom in print. Some wanted a handbook for children’s choir directors. Others wanted a reference book on classroom management, student motivation, curriculum design, or even a “how to” book for organizing a community children’s choir.
In that “first life”, when I was a musician and conductor, I developed the efficient, clear writing style my young performers and their parents needed to ensure they’d arrive on time, at the right venue, in the right uniform. Through the diaries of my adolescence and the journals of my later years I developed an easy comfort with writing truth as I knew it. Describing experience by manipulating words into emotion has always been a release, a satisfying endeavor, but a book—that felt more like a burden than a pleasure.
Besides, I was too busy creating and refining these aspects of my own career to find time to write a manual for someone else.
“Maybe someday,” I’d reply unconvincingly. “Maybe after I retire.”
As retirement loomed, I worried about my artistic self. Where would I find the depth of engagement I had experienced through music, teaching, conducting and performing? The kind of engagement that had ignited my spirit day after day for decades on end.
“How about that book?” They persisted.
I made no promises, but the summer after I retired, I packed a plastic bin full of documents, plan books, curriculum files and organizational materials. I’d begin the book at our summer cottage in North Carolina. Not as an artistic outlet, but as a time filler while I searched for something as creative and meaningful as music. I’d work on the manuscript in the early morning hours, on the screened-in porch that overlooks our garden and the white water river that splashes along the far end of our property. In the afternoons, we’d hike, and swim and celebrate my retirement. Together we’d plan the next phase of our life.
On departure day, I placed the heavy bin into the trunk of my car, then continued prepping the house for a six week absence. The phone rang. A bit of business—only a few minutes, but before I hung up, my wife, my partner for 25 years, moved her suitcases from my car to hers, left a note on the kitchen counter and drove off.
I didn’t make it to the cottage that summer Someone caring for me moved the crate of reference materials from my car to the corner of my TV room where it still sits, staring at me. During the year after she left, I spent all my creative energy finding my way through the mire of shock and trauma that had become my life.
When summer rolled around again, I was ready to return to my cottage in the mountains and I wanted more than anything to write that book—not the music pedagogy book, but the memoir of my personal, creative journey from devastation to recovery to reinvention.
In Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver wrote about a similar sudden, unexpected loss. The character eventually realizes that maybe her husband wasn’t meant to be with her forever—just long enough to be a “doorway to herself.”
That summer in North Carolina, alone at the cottage, I wrote 30,000 words, discovered a new artistic expression, and entered the doorway to myself.