Food Glorious Food

Chicken Soup. It’s the best treatment for the common cold, according to some researchers. The vegetables, the chicken, the heated water—it’s therapeutic. Many claim there’s a placebo effect: it only heals if you believe it will. And still others say there is no medicinal value in the recipe at all. But it’s irrelevant to me. When I’m not feeling well, my mother’s Matzo Ball Chicken Soup is my drug of choice. It’s more soothing than anything in my medicine cabinet.

Better still, it’s a remedy for all types of sniffles: those resulting from cold and flu season and those that come from the stress of work or family or general life craziness. One spoonful and I feel my body begin to rebuild.  Without a doubt, it’s my number one comfort food.

com·fort food ˈkəmfərt fo͞od/ noun noun: comfort food 1. food that provides consolation or a feeling of well-being, typically any with a high sugar or other carbohydrate content and associated with childhood or home cooking. (Oxford)

That definition sure rings true for me. I can remember my mother mixing together mysterious ingredients and producing a nectar that smelled like perfection. My husband’s comfort food, on the other hand, has no smell at all and comes ready-to-eat from a box. Frosted Flakes, 100 percent synonymous with childhood, remains on our shelf today and is a vestige from his youth when the cereal greeted him every morning.

Is there a food that brings you comfort? A recipe from your very ethnic Grandma? A mix of calories that would make your cardiologist cringe? A box from the grocery store shelf? Comfort foods usually bring contentment beyond their ingredients. They remind us of the people who created it or enjoyed the meal with us. Often, they are about our childhood.

If you have a special comfort food, share it when you write your memoirs. If there is a family story to accompany it, share that too. And definitely include the recipe to ensure the tradition is preserved (you can’t forget the dill after all!). Comfort foods are hard to come by and, like meals and life stories, should be shared with those we love.

Your Life Story in Six Words

Could you summarize your life story in six words? It’s an interesting task. About one million people have done just that and posted their title onto Six-Word Memoir, a popular website launched back in 2006.

As a professional memoir writer, six words don’t carry me far. But as a game player and one who enjoys introspection, the challenge grabs me.

Here are some six-word titles featured on the site:

  • Sometimes you just need to laugh.
  • All he wanted was to win
  • Hope was my Dad’s middle name.
  • I lisp, I get speech therapy.
  • Someone called us orphans. Not true.
  • The purity of a child’s eyes
  • Mom tired of wrapping Christmas presents

Churches, synagogues, boardrooms, and schools are using the six-word challenge as a “break the ice” tactic, a way to introduce individuals to each other in group settings. Certainly, one can imagine the benefits of starting a meeting in this thought-provoking way.

But I like the idea of sitting quietly and pondering the concept alone as well. What is the main theme of your life? What is your life philosophy? What years-old memory comes back to you again and again?

And how can you express it in six words?

Maybe your six words could serve as an eventual title of your many-thousand word memoir. Maybe it could serve as a chapter title.

Or maybe it could just provide you with an opportunity to reflect. If the challenge appeals, spend a few moments drafting your six-word memoir title. And if you’d like help drafting the rest of your life story, please let me know. I’d be delighted to help.

You and Your Co-Pilot: The Theme of Your Life

Oprah has a new book in the works. No, it’s not an autobiography. It’s a recipe book titled, “Food, Health and Happiness: 115 On-Point Recipes for Great Meals and a Better Life.”

A recipe book? Why is a recipe book the focus of a blog on a personal history site?

Well, read what Oprah had to say about her newest venture:

“When I come upon something useful, something that brings me pleasure or comfort or ease, I want everyone else to know about it and benefit from it, too. And that is how this cookbook came to be. It’s my life story—the lessons I’ve learned, the discoveries I’ve made—told through food.”

Aha. You knew it would tie back.

Most everyone can identify a theme that has co-piloted them through their life. A struggle, a passion, a quest. For Oprah, evidently, it’s her relationship with food.

Barack Obama wrote “Dreams from My Father” with a focus on the role race played in his young and adult life. My mother-in-law wrote her story as it was lived through each of her many homes. A former client relayed his memoirs as they intersected with the jobs he held.

What would be your theme?

It’s an interesting question even if you’re not in the biography business.

But if you are interested in writing your life story—or are looking for help to do so—think hard about it. What themes have accompanied you through life? A love of teaching? A search for family? A passion for travel?

For some people, a theme simplifies the memoir writing process. It provides them with a focus, an anchor for their story. For others, the theme is so obvious, so ever-present, they can’t imagine telling their life story through any other lens.

If a theme resonates with you, consider aligning your story along with it. And, take the Oprah approach. Share what lessons you learned, what discoveries you made as they relate to that theme.

Share your life story, and allow your co-pilot a chance to speak too.

The Story Behind the Story

Everyone has a story. That’s the theme of this website and the basis that guides every personal historian I know. And when people are ready, they tell their stories: in a private journal, through face-to-face conversations, or with the help of a professional memoir writer.

But what we don’t talk about often is the story behind the story.

What prompts someone to finally sit down and share? The specifics are as varied as the individual authors, but as a professional memoir writer myself, I do see some common themes.

Often the prompt isn’t something, but someone. A son or daughter, a grandchild, or someone else close makes the convincing case that a loved one’s story is worth telling. Maybe there is some prodding involved. A plea or two. But the story behind this story is clear: I am loved. And my family and friends want to preserve my journey.

Sometimes the prompt is a personal misfortune. A serious diagnosis or injury. A death in the family. One’s mortality—a vague notion never really contemplated—can no longer be denied and there is much to share. And an urgency to share it soon. The story here? Seize the day. Preserve memories, lessons learned, messages of love…before it’s too late.

Then there are the stories that are launched because of a joyous event. One’s triumph over tragedy—poverty, abuse, disease, hardship—should be celebrated and many want to share their recipe for success with others. The story behind this story is obvious and the writer cannot wait to put down their words: I survived! And you can too!

And finally there are those who need no prompt. They’ve wanted to write for years and the time is finally right. Experience, wisdom, and perspective have come together and they feel that sharing their journey through writing is something they simply must do. The story here? I have a valuable life story, and it’s time for me to tell it.

Whatever your prompt, listen closely to its call. Because the truth is every story, once written, contains all of these messages. Everyone will leave behind someone (or many someones) who will want their story preserved. Everyone should seize the day before it’s too late. Everyone has survived a hardship (or ten) and should share their secrets for survival.

And everyone has a valuable story to tell and should take the time to tell it.

Please let me know if you’d like my help.

Tell Me What (Little Things) You Did Over Summer Vacation

It’s “Back to School” season, which means millions of grade school children are being greeted with their first academic assignment of the year. For decades teachers have treated it as a near-obligatory transition to the classroom: “Tell me what you did over summer vacation.”

Younger kids will draw pictures of themselves at the pool or beach. Tweens may write essays about first experiences at overnight camp. Truth be told, I don’t remember what I shared many moons ago when I completed those September assignments. But as a parent, I do recall the stories my now-13-year-old son shared with his grade-school teachers.

I eagerly anticipated seeing his drawings of Cancun, where we went one summer a few years back. I imagined him creating pictures of iguanas or his leap from a 30-foot cliff. One August we spent a week in Maine, hiking the breathtaking trails in Acadia National Park. We’ve done a cruise to Bermuda, a week at an adventure park in West Virginia, a trip to Albuquerque.

I was proud that my husband and I were able to provide my son with such experiences, exciting memories to bring home and share with friends and teachers. Memories to hold forever.

But none of those memories ever made it to that back-to-school assignment. Instead, I read that “Ethan and I had a sleepover” and “I burned leaves with a magnifying glass.” Once he wrote about a movie he saw.

Really?

I must admit that as a parent, I was a little bummed. Those vacations weren’t easy to arrange. Or free for that matter.

But as a personal historian, I get it.

“Tell me what you did over the summer” may be a child’s first personal history assignment. “Think back,” the teacher is saying. “What is important to you? Who is important to you? What events had an impact?”

As an adult writing a full personal history, you may be amazed with what you recall from yesteryear and what has slipped away. Maybe you don’t remember the iguanas or cliffs of Cancun at all. But the plane ride? You were above the clouds for the first time! The trip to Maine is a blur but you can still hear the crowd from the first Mets game you saw on the way home.

What you remember all these years later is the story. The memories that last are key to understanding who you are and how you came to be the person you are today. When you write your memoir, follow the guidance of teachers everywhere: “What is important to you? Who is important to you? What events had an impact?”

Often, it’s the little things.