Taming Monkeys


Photo courtesy Pintrest.com

You’ve been there. A well-deserved nap is interrupted by your doorbell. The final edits before a deadline are postponed by a knock on your office door. Your long-awaited day in the garden is extended by a neighbor who stops to ask which side of her house is the most ideal for gardenias.  Some of us are much better at ignoring distractions that hamper our days than we are ideas that derail our minds.

Random thoughts are often unwanted visitors. We don’t recognize that some hijack our energies away from priorities. We feel in our minds like children in candy store or a spook house, far too excited to make good decisions or afraid to escape without being hurt. Thoughts engulf and rob us of confidence in the power to choose fresh initiatives; ones we’ve never thought of before.

Quiet meditation is a powerful means of transcending thoughts. Its practice, intended never to be perfect, helps us delete extraneous and nurture essential notions that align with our goals. Meditation is not mysterious. It is an intensely personal process of reducing mental noise to clarify deeper wisdom.

Brian Tracy, one of the top success authorities in the world, recommends solitude as a means of gaining insights that will save months and years of work. Too often, we work to deserve time to rest our minds rather than resting our minds to allow more focused and productive efforts.

Buddhists call our random thoughts drunken monkeys that jump around screeching and chattering, sounding alarms and promoting fear and caution. We cannot kill our mental monkeys, because what we resist will persist. Instead, we can calm and over time, tame them.

The monkeys are tape recordings of our past experiences; anxieties and imaginings that distract from our true potential. We need to deny them the power to define us. Meditation is a start.

To meditate, find a quiet place. Assume a position, either sitting or lying down, in which you are least likely to move. Stillness allows total concentration on your breathing as it flows in and out. Set a timer for five, then 15, then 30 minutes as you gain experience. Once the timing starts, forget about it. Breathing is the only thing you must do in these moments. Allow your body and mind to rest.

Imagery is a powerful guide for the process of releasing thoughts from your mind. Here are indoor and outdoor examples to try:

  • See yourself walking down a hallway toward a bright light at the end. Doors on either side are opening to slow or stop you:  people, obligations and ideas ask you to wait for “just for a moment.” Gently usher them back inside, close the doors and keep walking. The thoughts aren’t gone; they will wait until you return. For now, you have a destination beyond thoughts. You are finding your essence by ignoring the urgent and allowing your higher self to emerge. Once you walk into the bright light, you will be closer to a simple, unencumbered view of who you are and what you might accomplish in an hour, a day a week or a lifetime.
  • Envision walking along a sandy shore toward a sunrise. Waves are lapping in and rushing out. Your bare feet are printing a straight path in the sand. Gulls are swooping over the water and beach. You hear them, but keep walking. Waves are washing high over your feet. You feel them, but stay on course. Random ideas, breezes and passersby come along. Patiently dismiss them one by one, not attending to anything but breathing on your quiet, cleansing journey. By the time you see the sun fully over the horizon, you will witness the power of a rested mind and its new visitors:  hope, freedom and inspiration ready to be explored.

You’ll benefit from meditation as much as you do sleep. Much like work on a life story, it is a catharsis for your psyche and soul. The more busy and harried you feel, the more confused about what to do next, the more meditation can help.  Best of all, it is accessible, private and free for you to use in pursuit of peace.


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Recovering Hope

Scary diseases help us grow wiser. They convince us that we’re not invincible; that the healthiest habits and an aversion to vices aren’t good enough. We are still going to die one day.

At 60, I was the perfect age, so it really wasn’t shocking that in September, I learned that I had stage two breast cancer. I don’t use “diagnosed” because it sounds too clinical. I don’t call myself a “patient” or “survivor” because they are too passive and aggressive, respectively. Besides, I’ve never been patient and I’m still struggling against the unwelcome visitor and its physical havoc.

The invasive tumor was ushered out with my right breast. Microscopic remains are being radiated 25 times so that they die. I’m taking an estrogen suppressant for 10 years so that I don’t, at least from this particular episode. I’ll be reconstructed in the summer to look almost like the woman next door.

Even if my cancer is eradicated for now and I improve my diet, pray, meditate and exercise daily, some affliction may spring up again. We just can’t predict our future. While chastened and weakened at the moment, I might enjoy a few or many more years on earth. With a fresh perspective, each day brings welcome potential for a new story. I’m energized to make it riveting.


Janette Dennis


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Weathering the Inevitable

My recent client work in an adult day care setting has calmed me down. Interviews are slower, but answers more honest. Memories are dimmer, so families get more involved. My subjects are teaching me patience and acceptance for the frailties a long life may bring. I’m upset when I can’t remember a password, but they have learned to trust loved ones and professionals who step in to help. Some of my favorite responses to questions follow:

  • You think I know?
  • Ask my wife. Her marbles are in her head, but mine are all over the floor.
  • My daughter can look that up; she has all my stuff.
  • I think I wrote that down once.
  • I’m not sure when my husband died, but I miss him every day.
  • How old am I?  90? Imagine that! ‘Happy birthday to me.’
  • No problem. I can wait.
  • No, I don’t remember any favorite music, but I like Elvis. “Jailhouse Rock?”  Yeah. I’ve never been arrested, but use that as my song.
  • Oh, Marone! That was a while ago…
  • Life is just a bowl of cherries.

Work with older clients demonstrates that being positive is the perfect antidote to aging’s realities. Surrounding ourselves with caring family and others will soften the blow to whatever value we place on our mental precision. Still, we are ultimately alone in our bodies and minds. Trusting in a higher power, while seldom stated, seems to be a common practice among survivors to older ages. Otherwise, in addition to love, what can explain their smiles?

Janette Dennis



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Getting Around to Where You’ve Been

Lately, I’ve had a series of story inquiries and projects for 90-somethings and those who love them. “Hurry,” I think, “before it’s too late,” and then I learn that the potential subjects are more lucid, healthier and readier than most of us to tell their truths. They feel an urgency to explain their accomplishments and choices. Why? Because they finally have the courage to face their own mortality.

In many cases, losing the fear of death leads to losing the fear of life. Living Stories clients have freely explored their abuse, internment, divorce, war service, cancer, alcoholism, poverty, clinical depression, abandonment and many other negative life experiences in full detail through a rear-view mirror. Compassionate listening works magic as it unearths long-buried secrets to interlace with facts, figures, pictures and incidents in an effort to bring a single human life to the page.

People who describe the circumstances others dread and avoid transform themselves by reducing the power of sad memories. Discussing and writing about events and associated feelings enables them to move on without regrets. Often, the story-teller is so euphoric about finally expressing himself that he is incredulous to see how much his story informs and delights others.

It’s easy to procrastinate about telling personal stories, but our dramas are both exclusive to us and familiar to those who will read them. No one lives without joys and pain. The riveting difference is in how each of us has survived. If you live to 90, maybe it will be easier to start, but why assume that you have that much time?

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Now or Never?

A 75-year-old client recently began work with me on his life story. After a couple of enthusiastic meetings and discussions, he ran out of details, memories and answers. The facts about his challenges with a lifelong disability had become blurry, and I suggested that he request medical records as specific references to bring incidents and feelings to light. He shied away from what he saw as a cumbersome task. Embarrassed, he apologized for contacting me and “wasting my time.”

I’m going to contact him again in a couple of weeks, wondering whether he’d like a visit. I’m sure he will, as he enjoys company. The sad truth is that others would appreciate hearing his story, which is one of rising above physical limits to succeed in a career, at home with his parents and in relationships with friends. I’m hopeful that there’s a way to reenergize his project; to help him see that it will enlighten others.

Life writing is scary. It uncovers and reviews pains and secrets no one has ever known; ones you can hardly remember. It is only for people who believe deeply in the power of truth and who are ready to unveil, with some help, long-forgotten events. Writing them down, exploring their messages and value and recalling them from the wiser and thankful perspective of today is life-changing.

No one can tell you when the time is right, but many clients have told me they are glad they found the strength and a structured opportunity through which to speak.

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They are part of life, aren’t they? We know it, yet always mourn a little for the past; the predictable and the familiar. In my own case, I have moved from Wheaton to West Dundee, IL and am engaged to marry on August 2 of this year. My business telephone number has changed to 630/248-7060, and my website will reflect that as soon as possible. All other activities of LivingStories.us remain the same; writing for life, one story at a time. Happy Summer!

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It’s all in the Details

mustangAsking me to help write your life story is like taking your car to a detailer. You will entrust a valued possession to a professional who specializes in presentation. It’s certainly not something you do every day, and each step in the process is a revelation.

Detailers and life writers pay attention to myriad items that create great impressions. First, we discover what to keep and what to relocate; organizing storage compartments and memories into logical places for easy access. We want everyone in the car or reading the story to understand where it’s going and why.

We also take out the things that need washing, vacuuming and repair such as dusty reminders of trips and relationships past. Together, we find things long forgotten and now relevant to describing a life and its lessons. We leave no mat unturned or cubicle unexplored in our quest for the story.

Once the main unveiling is accomplished, we’ll look at the isolated parts so vital to illustration. We will brush away particles so that the bike you lost in 1930 will shine like new again. You’ll see Grandpa’s wry smile and feel him lifting you from a swing in his callused, strong hands. The jobs you lost and landed in 1960 will rush back in riveting emotion. Your scenes will be polished and written with clarity and the perspective of hindsight.

Photos enhance stories with visual support and a sensory appeal to strengthen your message. Yours will be selected and improved with technology to make your story come alive beyond its words. They will serve as the glass in your car that allows us to see what’s inside as the driver uses them to stay on the road.

When you finally see your car/story, your surprise will become delight. Everything so familiar is refreshed and ready to share. You will gladly offer a ride or a read to those who value your company and wisdom. 

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Memoir Magic

Memoir Circle 12-18-13This year, I have been pleased to facilitate a memoir circle that meets monthly in my home. We learn from each other more about ourselves than we could ever discover alone in front of our journals, pads, tablets or computer screens. That’s because we listen.

I’m thankful for the memories of a year filled with new insights, fresh expressions and freedom to explore who we are through writing. It’s one of the few unfettered practices we have; one that starts within and without the aid of electronic devices. What’s finally shared is sometimes amusing, often scary and always helpful. 

Last night, Marilyn wondered whether her dad’s sadness at Christmastime was tied to the losses his grandmother bore after the Civil War. Glennette and Patricia described the major roles their colorful aunts played in their care and education. Kitty read of the difficult life of her grandmother, an immigrant at the turn of the century, and the devastation it dealt her youngest child, Kitty’s father. Susan shared a letter to her six-year old granddaughter describing her own life at six, and Christina wrote of her accomplishments in music and the hard-won award of traveling through Europe with student musicians in high school. Next time, I’ll be ready to offer a mother’s perspective on my child’s first two decades.

Recording our memories is never mandatory and no one can force us to share them. Yet, when we open ourselves to the experience, we change. No longer guarded as closely, our secrets shine forth and bind us with others in a common cause:  being precise about where we’ve been, where we’re going and what messages we have for those who follow. What could be better New Year’s resolutions?

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Restoring a Life

Image (6)My current client’s father is pictured here with his two brothers. The photo was taken in about 1900. When we tried to place it in his story, the client said, “If you can’t brighten it up, leave it out.”

I’m taking a course in Photoshop to learn how to restore treasures like these to their former glory. That’s what we do in writing about lives. We coax memories from the shadows, brush off their dust and clarify convictions that have deteriorated from neglect or just the passage of time.

Telling a life story involves restoring all the photos of the past; even those that were never taken. Our pictures will never look exactly the same, just as we’ve never felt the same way twice. Experiences change us, and retelling them traces and illustrates who we’ve become. The process of remembering reveals more details. The exercise of looking back for perspective makes the past—its pains as well as its joys—important again.

When I work with my clients, I am helping them to reexamine their lives. Together, we decide what to explore and how to express, in words and pictures, its essence. We articulate an honest, intimate picture that is both cleansing to the teller and clear to future generations. We “brighten up” a life so that all may see it better.

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The Leap

This is an essay I wrote in a workshop 13 years ago at the beginning of my foray into life stories. More than a completed assignment, it was a conversation with myself. Last night, my Memoir Circle embraced its message as a challenge to dig deeper in writing. Its thoughts apply to anyone attempting to craft a memoir for themselves or another person/couple.

It occurs to me that there are parallel distinctions between living and thriving, writing and authoring and autobiography and memoir that, if explored, will offer some perspective.

To live is to survive day to day, hour by hour, letting events happen and reacting as needed, worrying that some will be painful and longing for pleasant things of the past. To thrive is to seize each moment, confident that whatever presents itself will be enjoyed, accepted, managed or changed through positive action.

To write is to link words together in a congruent, correct whole; carefully constructed and punctuated sentences becoming paragraphs and paragraphs evolving into longer works. To author is to create; to share what’s internal; to let words paint pictures of the soul; to become intimate with rather than to impress the reader.

An autobiography is the complete account of a life; an objective story in chronological order illustrating how the author was born, how he lived and how he is preparing for death. A memoir is an opening of the heart; an intentional, cathartic sharing of pains, tragedies, joys and accomplishments that an author believes will nurture self-understanding as it connects her with others in compassion, commonality and mutual respect for life.

The challenge in authoring a memoir is to set aside writing perfection while rising above anxiety, shame and pride. It is a microcosm of the challenge of thriving, in that it requires awareness and authentic effort versus habitual reactions and rationalizations. For a writer who believes that good writing is simply grammatical precision and factual content well presented, a memoir is a terrifying plunge into feelings that if left unremembered and unexpressed will haunt and remind her that the bridge to authorship was beyond her precipice.

Janette Quinn


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