By Jennifer Browdy, PhD
Although I didn’t fully realize it when I wrote my memoir, What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered, the practice I call “purposeful memoir” follows the four stages of the Work That Reconnects spiral.
What I Forgot begins with gratitude for the warm and loving childhood my parents created for me, as well as for the opportunity to form a deep childhood connection with the natural world. I wrote about how, when I awoke to the climate crisis in 2011, I was overcome with grief and anger over what humans were doing to our planet and went through a potent stage of honoring my own pain for the world. To help me find my bearings in the new, harsh reality of our tumultuous epoch, I drew on the new and ancient wisdom of women writers I had been studying for years—fierce, wise women like Rigoberta Menchú, Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde and Joanna Macy herself.
I ended the book by setting out my intention to “go forth” with others to realize my vision of “active hope.” What I was envisioning, I see now, is a form of the Work That Reconnects that draws on my training and experience as a longtime professor of literature and writing. I’ve come to see that purposeful memoir is a contemplative practice that can benefit anyone who wants to understand our present moment more fully, in order to more intentionally create the positive future we yearn for.
I’ve come to see that purposeful memoir is a contemplative practice that can benefit anyone who wants to understand our present moment more fully, in order to more intentionally create the positive future we yearn for.
Embarking on the Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir
In offering the process of purposeful memoir to others, I use the four elements—Earth, Water, Fire and Air—as potent metaphors and organizing frameworks for different stages and aspects of our life experiences. Earth is the childhood ground of our being, birth to age 12, the years when most of us are as connected as we will ever be to our Mother Earth. Water represents the teen and young adult years, ages 13 – 23, when we join the larger cultural stream of our time and place, and either start going with the flow or swimming against the tide. Fire represents our passions, which can ignite in us at any time of life, as well as the trials and tribulations we all face during our individual life journeys, and the challenges faced by societies and by the planetary community. Air is the space of reflection, which we engage in daily through dream, memory and contemplation.
I also invite people to undertake what I call “aligning the personal, political and planetary” in their life experience: setting our own individual experience into the broader, deeper stories of our communities, including the larger Earth community of which we are all a part. As we do this, we explore the historical timelines of the decades we’ve lived through, taking note of how specific events, unfolding in particular places and communities, have had an impact on our personal lives as well as our generation.
Aligning the personal, political and planetary in our life stories involves both gratitude and honoring our pain for the world. For example, we consider our ancestral lineages, both physical and spiritual, with gratitude for the role our ancestors played in paving the way for us; and we also honor the pain and suffering that they went through as individuals, and/or that communities went through in their time and place, including the larger Gaian community. We consider the new science of epigenetics, which shows us that traces of the psychology of our ancestors persist in our own orientation to the world. Through our writing, we declare our intention to become a strong link in the chain between past and future, cultivating the legacy we want to pass on, while jettisoning that which no longer serves us or our world.
Engaging in the Alchemy of Purposeful Memoir
As I’ve gone on with this work of introducing others to the process of purposeful memoir, I’ve recognized how people can become stuck in the pain they feel for themselves, their communities and our world. While honoring our pain for the world is essential, it is only one stage on the spiral journey towards “the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible,” to quote Charles Eisenstein. I’ve developed some techniques of purposeful memoir that help us see our own life stories “with new and ancient eyes,” nurturing the spark of positive creativity that is essential for the courageous momentum we need to “go forth” productively into the world.
In my “Alchemy of Purposeful Memoir” workshop series, I invite people to look back on their life stories with an initial focus on positive qualities that we want to see more of in ourselves, our communities and our world. We go through another spiral, coming from gratitude for where these positive qualities have shown up in our lives, and honoring our pain for those challenging moments when the positive was lacking. Then, seeing with new and ancient eyes, we give ourselves permission to engage in what I’ve come to call the alchemy of purposeful memoir. By vividly re-imagining a challenging life story in a more positive light, we release ourselves from the hold of that old story, and are able to “go forth” with courage and joy into the next stage on our ever-spiraling journey.
The practice of purposeful memoir explores the past in order to better understand the present, and to envision the future with more clarity and intention. I believe that this “new and ancient” technique is emerging now to help those of us who are awake to “the pain of the world” to come to grips with how we got to this perilous moment in human history—on the personal, political and planetary levels—in order to see our way more clearly into the thriving future that it is our task to co-create.
Purposeful Memoir as Active Hope
One of the most challenging questions I ask myself daily is the one Mary Oliver set out so beautifully in her poem “The Summer Day”: what is it I should be doing with my “one wild and precious life,” at a time when so much is at stake, and there is so much that needs attention?
My own answer to that question has come to me through my deep engagement with the practice of purposeful memoir. Through this essential inner work of understanding our own individual lives more fully, as well as the social and environmental landscapes in which we’ve lived, we clarify our intentions for the future, and fortify ourselves for grounded, effective action in the world. Through this essential inner work of understanding our own individual lives more fully, as well as the social and environmental landscapes in which we’ve lived, we clarify our intentions for the future, and fortify ourselves for grounded, effective action in the world.
Through this essential inner work of understanding our own individual lives more fully, as well as the social and environmental landscapes in which we’ve lived, we clarify our intentions for the future, and fortify ourselves for grounded, effective action in the world.
In her own memoir, Widening Circles, Joanna wrote of her early forays into the Work That Reconnects: “I learned…that the pain for the world which I carried around inside me was widely and deeply shared; and that something remarkable happened when we expressed it to each other. Instead of miring ourselves in doom and gloom, the opposite…happened. We…turned some key that unlocked our vitality” (180).
Joanna quotes the poet M.C. Richards, who wrote: “Learn to move in the world as if it were your lover” (199). One of my workshop participants wrote about her experience of the practice of purposeful memoir invoking the same principle: “I’m a little in love with this writing workshop—the leader, Jennifer, so engaging, generous and encouraging. And the women so earnest, intent on digging into their psyches to meet the questions of the day. Where does inspiration come from, in what secret places in our being might it be hiding? And what emerges? A force from some mysterious place tugs at us, pulling up memories, ideas, feelings from both past and present, colliding. This brings me to life! This feels like love.”
I believe that purposeful memoir, informed by the Work That Reconnects, offers another key to open the door of positive engagement with the world we love. We take the practice of “active hope” into an exploration of our own life journey, and as we honor our “one wild and precious life,” we develop the loving capacity to act in the service of nurturing that life force we call Gaia. Through the “widening circles” of aligning the personal, political and planetary in our individual and collective lives on the planet, we expand the rings of love that go rippling out from our deep inquiry. Our practice of purposeful memoir becomes the center from which we can begin to do our part, in our own sphere, to create the thriving future we envision for ourselves and our world.
Anzaldúa, Gloria and Analouise Keating, ed. Light in the Dark/Luz en lo oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality. Duke University Press, 2015.
Browdy, Jennifer. What I Forgot…And Why I Remembered: A Journey to Environmental Awareness and Activism Through Purposeful Memoir. Green Fire Press, 2017.
Browdy, Jennifer. The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir: A Writer’s Companion. Green Fire Press, 2017.
Eisenstein, Charles. The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible. North Atlantic Books, 2013.
Lorde, Audre. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. Crossing Press, 1982.
—–. Sister Outsiders. Crossing Press, reprint edition. 2007.
Macy, Joanna. Widening Circles: A Memoir. New Catalyst Books, 2000.
Macy, Joanna and Chris Johnstone. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. New World Library, 2012.
Menchú, Rigoberta and Elisabeth Burgos, ed. I Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. Second Edition. Verso, 2010.
Menchú, Rigoberta. Crossing Borders. Verso, 1998.
Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D. has taught literature, writing and media arts at the college level for more than 30 years and is currently chair of the Languages and Literature Division at Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Her memoir, What I Forgot …And Why I Remembered was a finalist for the 2018 International Book Awards. Her writer’s guide, The Elemental Journey of Purposeful Memoir, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. She provides coaching and manuscript review for authors in fiction and nonfiction, and offers memoir workshops widely, including at Kripalu, Bioneers, and upcoming at Findhorn, Scotland in May 2020. JenniferBrowdy.com.