My New Memoir – The Smoking Nun

The Smoking Nun is a story of passion, love, conflict and betrayal. Set in the era of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War, I tell the story of my struggle between the contemplative life I loved in the convent, and the movements for social justice which called me out onto the streets. And then I reveal the story I held secret for decades – the story of a forbidden love affair, perhaps a #Me Too story. I invite you to read The Smoking Nun and tell me what you think.

Here is a preview:

To hear my radio interview on ArtistFirst, The Doug Dahlgren Show, click here. Interview begins at 02.35

A Boy with No History: A Review of Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

This blog was formerly posted on October 26, 2015

A Boy with No History: A Review of Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

“When you share stories you change things.”  Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese is a novel that is all about stories.

British Columbia

Wagamese takes us to the wilds of British Columbia sometime around the turn of the 21st century, and to anOjibway family. A 16 year old boy desperately needs to hear his father’s stories, and the father must share them if he is to find any peace.  But will he be able to do so? And if he manages to begin, will he be able to finish? And how much will we be changed as we are drawn into an existential world we all recognize: a yearning to know ourselves, to know others, to make sense of life and to belong?

“The kid,” Wagamese’s protagonist, lives largely in a world of silence and beauty. The 16 year old spends weeks alone in the hills farming, and knows every detail of the creeks, hills, plants, birds and beasts.

He was big for his age, raw-boned and angular…he’d grown comfortable with aloneness and he bore an economy with words that was blunt, direct, more a man’s talk than a kid’s…. The old man had taught him the value of work early and he was content to labour, finding his satisfaction in farm work and his joy in horses and the untrammeled open of the high country…and if he was taciturn he was content in it, hearing symphonies in the wind across a ridge and arias in the screech of hawks and eagles, the huff of grizzlies and the pierce of a wolf call against the unblinking eye of the moon. He was Indian.

But this boy, who knows the life of the wild so well, does not know himself because of “a hole in his history.”  He does not know where he came from how he got his name – both extremely important for First Nations peoples. He lives with “the old man” who has taught him how to survive, but he does not know who the old man is. He does know he has a father, a man who enters the boy’s life for just a moment about every three years. A drunk, a liar and a man of broken promises, the father appears just long enough to break the boy’s heart one more time. Most of all he wants to know about his mother. Could she be the woman he saw in town?

When he is 16, the boy gets a request from his father to come to him and reluctantly saddles up a horse to begin the long trek to the city. He has been summoned before with promises that led only to bitter disappointment.  Now he finds his father in skid row, drunk, in bed with a woman and guzzling “hooch.” This is nothing new. But this time his father is clearly very sick; he tells the boy he is dying. The kid needs to know more.

“How do you know you’re getting ready to die?”

“The liver,” [his father] said. “She’s shot. All kinds of crap making its way into my body now.”

“From drinking, I suppose.”


His request? That the kid take him up to the ridge and bury him like a warrior – sitting up and facing East.

Like a warrior?? Angry, disgusted, the kid walks out, slams the door. But duty speaks louder than anger, “he’s my father,” and so he returns,  and they begin the “medicine walk.”

The father knows he owes his son stories. But can he bear to tell them? It will be a long walk through the wild. The two proceed very slowly: the father tied into his saddle, drinking, the kid walking, making camp, hunting for food, starting out again.

Vietnam War

The 16 year old is frightened, not knowing whether he can handle what will happen. He is angry and wonders whether, or how much, his father will tell him before he dies. How much of the hole in his history will this sick, drunken man fill in?  Will he learn anything that explains his father’s story? Will he ever know the meaning of his name? Who the old man is? Will he know about his mother? Who she is? Where she is? Or will his father take her story to his grave also?

The dying man’s stories come in small pieces, slowly. Stories of love and great loss, stories of war, stories of the joy of the rhythm of work, of brief well being followed by betrayal, self-destruction, self-loathing and “the drink.”

In between the pieces of story there is silence and the kid’s occasional angry “plain speech” wrapped in his gloriously gentle, loving care of the man he begins to think of as “dad.” Each bit of story helps the boy. But death is approaching his father rapidly. How far will he find out? Will he ever hear anything about his mother?

Wagamese is a poetic story teller whose magnificent portrayals of British Columbian wilds frame the internal worlds of the kid and the torturous yet beautiful medicine walk of father and son. There are longing and mystery, tears, horror and sweetness for the reader.

Richard Wagamese is a prolific Canadian writer. An Ojibway himself, living outside of Ontario, he has worked in many venues. He has authored 13 books, one of which, One Story, One Song, was awarded the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature. He is also known as a newspaper columnist, broadcaster on both radio and television and a documentary producer.

The author uses great detail to transport us to the wilds of British Columbia, but his style is so sensual, with phrases full of forward motion, that I never became bogged down or bored. The story was always on the move, like the medicine walk, replete with vivid pictures of the kid and of his world:

His life had become horseback in solitude, lean-tos cut from spruce, fires in the night, mountain air that tasted sweet and pure as spring water, and trails too dim to see that he learned to follow high to places only cougars, marmots, and eagles knew.

Medicine Walk is the story of one Ojibway family and yet a story for all. Ancestors, family heritage, the giving and meaning of names have paramount importance in First Nations. Stories pass on not only this rich heritage, instilling a healthy pride in one’s identity; they also create community, entertain and transmit timetested ways of surviving physically, emotionally and spiritually.

Some of the richness of heritage and storytelling has probably been lost by those more familiar with highly individualized cultures where “reinventing oneself” is a regular undertaking. Nevertheless our hearts resonate to the importance of “where we come from.” And somehow we know that the television set has not satisfactorily replaced the telling of stories in the evening, when the day’s work is done and we sit together around the fireside or out on the porch.

10 Books You Need To Read this Spring

Medicine Walk is a captivating book because it is a captivating story beautifully told. It makes us afraid, angry, disgusted, hopeful, and terribly sad at different moments. It is a redemptive story, but one that allows scarring to remain. Neither the son nor the father can bring back the years lost. Great losses and pain leave scars on us. Sometimes scars equip us to give more to others. In any case, to ignore or wipe them away renders a story shallow.

Medicine Walk is a tale about a 16 year old Ojibway boy and a drunken father, it is also, somehow, our story. Because of this, reading Medicine Walk is medicine for us as well.

What journey by plane, boat, bike or just your feet have you made that has changed you?


Does Memoir Tell the Truth

Originally posted on Readers Unbound, July 29, 2015

Does Memoir Tell the Truth?

“But other people in my family have a whole different memory of what happened. You said ‘tell your truth,’ but how do I know what’s true?”

Elbows planted on the table, the young woman leaned into her words while her large eyes sent out beamsMore than a Story of light from under the rim of her straw hat. Her question was addressed to me as leader of a four-dayworkshop on Writing Memoir. We were in the Twin Cities atUnited Theological Seminary’s Summer Institute.

Do we tell the truth when writing memoir? What is truth, anyway? Johnny Cash asked that question, and Pontius Pilate, and hundreds of philosophers throughout the ages.

I understood her dilemma. During my years as a psychotherapist I heard many stories from couples in distress: fights, promises, indignant accounts of how much he/she was spending and for what, shame laden descriptions of social gatherings. I don’t think spouses ever told the same story, yet almost all enunciated their truth with passion and certitude.

“If John would only admit what really happened, everyone would understand.” “What is wrong with Mary that she just makes things up in her head?” I often heard comments like these once spouses listened to one another’s accounts. Of course there are people who lie with impunity, but most of my clients seemed to hold on to their story with the strength of a lion protecting her cub.

Every day witnesses are sworn in court to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” but whose “truth” do they tell? The reality is that each of us sees only what we can see, and even that is colored by our own expectations.

A family is on vacation, walking in small groups, a mother stops to put her toddler in his stroller, teenagers flirt with passers-by, grandparents pause to look in a shop window. Shouts are heard; everyone turns. Two figures shout obscenities flailing their arms. A gunshot splits the air. Someone lies on the sidewalk.

Police interview family members, who report what they saw and heard.

“It was a man and a woman.”

“Two women and they both came out of that building.”

“Two women and a man standing behind one of them.”



Even if each held a video camera, the views would have been different. And our minds are not video cameras! We are influenced not just by what we see and hear, but what we expect to see and hear. We can only see through our own lens, a lens shaped by our own histories, values, hopes and fears.


And later? When the grandmother tells her friend over coffee back home? And the teenager captivates the locker room? The mother sits before her computer thirty years later to write a memoir?

Stories change over the days and years. They merge with other stories; time and place may shift; elaborations and omissions abound. Our story becomes part of our “life themes”: a boy hunting adventure, a mother torn between career and children, an old man mourning his youth. Our stories become illustrations of universal themes: love, rejection, insult, heroism or cowardice and on and on. The members of the audience enter into the experience because they too know love, betrayal, victory and can “go there” with the storyteller. True, we may never have risen to the protagonist’s heights or sunk to her depths, but we recognize the desire even while stopping short of the deed.

And dialogue? I will always carry the memory of classmates bullying me because of my accent. Of course I cannot repeat the exact words. The truth that needs telling is the way the insults struck me like stones. Details – a girl sticking her finger in my face, a boy calling me “furner” – allow the reader to experience the strength of the blows with me.

And here we come to the core of memoir. Is my memoir really about me? Yes, in the sense that I am the protagonist of my story, as you are of yours. And, yes, because it is my search for the meaning of my life. But memoir is not a videotape. Even if I could produce one, it would not be interesting to many people since I am not famous. Famous people may be subjects of biography or autobiography, in which case accuracy matters.

Ann teaching Writing Memoir at UTS 2015.

Of course the memoir writer must not abandon factual reality. A memoir is not a novel. Good people cannot be turned into abusive monsters for the sake of drama, and a childhood in New York City cannot be transplanted into a small French village.

And while memoir is about truth and the voice of truth is the voice of the author, there are actually two voices engaged in this truth telling.One speaks from the past, another reflects on the past from the vantage point of the present. The experience of the six year old takes on new meaning for the sixty year old, as she ponders the threads of her life journey. What connection is there, or might there be, between the story of the child and choices made later in life? The memoir writer is on a quest to understand her life, to find pattern and meaning. The reader is invited to join the quest, as Vivian Gornick does, intriguing us in Fierce Attachments.

I lived in that tenement between the ages of six and twenty-one. There were twenty apartments, four to a floor, and all I remember is a building full of women. I hardly remember the men at all. They were everywhere, of course – husbands, fathers, brothers – but I remember only the women. And I remember them all crude like Mrs. Drucker or fierce like my mother. They never spoke as though they knew who they were, understood the bargain they had struck with life, but they often acted as though they knew…It has taken me thirty years to understand how much of them I understood.

“What is true? What story do I tell?” the young woman asked.

I urged her to “Write what you know.” Her memoir will be her story, but not hers alone. She will be the protagonist; the human experience might be called the subject. And I will enter in because it is strangely familiar.

In the end, good memoir lets me know the “other” who is not so very different from me after all.

What story have you read about someone who seemed so different from you, as you began the book, but not very different by the final page?