Ellen Blum Barish

Ellen Blum Barish

During the time I have been writing a memoir – a story that touches on family, psychospiritual health and the cultural zeitgeist – my mother died, my father has been contending with cancer and socio-politically speaking, it feels like there’s a new world order.

For the writer working in long-form personal narrative, these are no small things. These real-life, real-time developments impacted the trajectory of my tale as well as the container. They not only shifted the position of the lens I was writing through, but replaced it.

My story begins with a trauma that occurred in traffic in the early 1970s. I was one of four passengers in a car that collided with a Mack truck when I was 12. Though the crash was devastating on its own, most of my story explores what happened after. How the people involved felt, or didn’t feel, in the months and years to come. The ways in which family and friends responded, or didn’t. The emotional, physical and spiritual impacts.

It’s the nature of memoir that family members are key characters, even if they don’t merit much ink storyline-wise. In mine, how my parents responded to the aftermath of my car accident laid the groundwork for how I would ultimately look at health and illness. So as I watched my parents navigate their own health crises, I began to better understand the whys in their behavior. People are who they are, and they show up most poignantly in the midst of illness and impending death.

When I began my memoir, I believed I was writing about a trauma experienced by a young girl. But it began to shape-shift into a story about how a trauma reverberated through a family like the rock that’s thrown into a lake, sending ripples through the water.

As for the world feeling like it was breaking daily into a million pieces, I began to see how the news cycle and social change was also a part of my story.

I understood that “the times” were a factor on the front end of my story. The cone of silence that came down after the accident is clearly a character of the early 70s and the pre-electronic age. It was the days where children were seen and not heard. A time when we didn’t openly discuss what we now very openly and publicly discuss. A time when there were fewer ways to quickly connect.

But until recently, I hadn’t considered the current state of affairs as an overarching factor in my story, as something that may very well have brought me to page in the first place.

I believe we are, right now, experiencing brokenness. From devious politics to heated race relations to all manner of natural disasters to the coronavirus, so much of what we know and have relied on is shattered.

But brokenness isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

It can allow us to see what isn’t working; what we might revise, rebuild, renew.

Brokenness is also part of our natural laws. Seeds must first decompose before they break through the ground in order to become what they are destined to be.

Over the course of my rewriting – I’m now in my seventh revision –  I’m thinking that brokenness of our times may have sparked my desire to return to this old wound. That the desire to dig it up and make sense of the pieces came from a deep urge to heal. To more deeply understand my story. To get right with God. (Allah. Yahweh. Jehovah. The Lord. The Divine. The Universe. Holy Spirit. Whatever words best describe your faith.)

That’s when I realized that spiritual threads were the connective tissue in my story. A spiritual prompt had stirred my soul. Without intending so, I was writing a spiritual memoir.

As it turns out, healing and repairing what has broken has origins in mystical Judaism, which I have been studying for some years now.

In the words of Rachel Naomi Remen, a physician and author who has written on mind and body healing through a Jewish lens:

“We are here,” she writes, ”because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world.”

Because we need to heal ourselves before we can heal the world, right?


Upcoming Writing Workshops

I’ll be at Ice House Gallery in Evanston for four Monday nights in March.

Starting a new session of my six-week Wednesday afternoon writing workshop in Skokie on April 22.

Teaching a one-night class at StoryStudio Chicago on April 28

Three days at Denver’s Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in June.

For more details, go to the Workshops page of my website. 

Leave a comment

Your name
Your email address
Website URL