Saturday, June 30, 2007

Journal Assignment VII: Recurring Dreams

Have you ever had a dream that kept returning night after night or once in a while? Was it disturbing, frustrating, interesting, explainable? According to recent TV sleep aid commercials featuring Abe Lincoln and a small talking animal, your dreams may miss you if you don't sleep well, but some of us sleep well and don't appreciate our dreams very much.

What, if anything, is your recurring dream trying to tell you? Sometimes putting it down on paper helps you figure that out.

My "Lost" Dream

For many years, I've had a recurring dream. I call it my "lost" dream. It comes in many versions, with different settings and participants, and it has become more complicated over the years. Still, it's the same basic dream. No matter where I am in my dream, or with whom, I'm lost and vainly struggling to get somewhere, a place I never reach. When I awaken, I have feelings of deep despair and hopelessness, and it's always a great relief to realize that it was only a dream.

My dream began sometime while I was in elementary school; I can't remember exactly when it started. In early versions of the dream, I was usually trying to find a classroom in a school resembling the one I was attending at the time, but the scene was always different enough to be confusing. I was always alone and late for an important test or activity, and I just couldn't find the room. In reality, I was always the good student, the one who never missed a class or came late.

As a teacher, I continued to have the same dream. Then, my class was waiting for me, but I couldn't seem to find the right building or the right room. The dream expanded to huge museum-sized buildings, far larger than any I ever taught in. I walked for miles down seemingly endless corridors, and then up or down stairs to repeat the process again on another floor, and sometimes in other buildings. In reality, I can't remember any serious difficulty finding my classrooms anywhere.

In later years, the scene shifted to Chicago or a similar large city, where I found myself in an unfamiliar neighborhood, sometimes with my husband or a friend or acquaintance I hadn't seen in years, trying to get home. Sometimes I didn't remember where I lived. Sometimes there was no means of transportation available, and I was unable to walk. Sometimes I had no money. Sometimes I was stranded in a cavernous building with no visible exits, where I wandered about in a state of panic. The surroundings were always mysterious and threatening, and if anyone was with me, he or she remained strangely passive and unable or unwilling to help.

I remember one "lost" dream in which I was at a six-corner street intersection where three streets, one diagonal and the other two at right angles to each other, crossed. I found myself trying first one street, then another to get to some unknown destination. I always seemed to be going the wrong way on the wrong street. In reality, I seldom get lost, and I ask for help if I do.

After my retirement and my husband's death, my dreams became more disturbing. I woke up sad that my husband was not really with me any more, or that I had no classroom or students to find.

My recurring "lost" dream obviously reflects my basic insecurity, my depression, and my compulsive desire to be dependable and prompt, and yet in real life, I've never felt as frustrated and hopeless as I've felt in my dream. In general, my life has been a happy and successful one. Of course I miss my husband, but he's been gone for seven years now, and I've gone on with my life. I live comfortably, and I think I've found myself by writing and encouraging others to write.

I haven't had my dream lately. I hope it's gone, but if it comes back to haunt me, I'll try to laugh it off as a relic from the past and think positive thoughts. I'll also try to remember all the details and write them down. Maybe there's a good story lurking somewhere in my subconscious mind.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Journal Assignment VI: Names and Nicknames

What is your name? How did you get that name? What does it mean, or what does it represent? Does it seem appropriate, or do you wish you had a different name?

Do you have a nickname, or have you had a series of them throughout your life? Humorous or serious, what did or do they mean to you and/or to the people who gave them to you?

Either of these questions is worth thinking and writing about. Here is what I wrote, mostly about nicknames:

What's in a Name?

My first nickname was "Marky." I'm not sure where it came from, but my theory is that my young niece and nephew invented it when they couldn't say "Marlys." Today, as adults, they still call me Aunt Marky sometimes, while no one else does. It's certainly an inoffensive nickname, but I have learned to appreciate my real name and to hope that everyone will use it.

I haven't always accepted my uncommon name gratefully. When I was in elementary school, I tried to give myself a new name. In my imagination, I was a famous red-haired writer named "Marilyn May Marshall." I had a popular, attractive red-haired classmate named Marilyn, and I admired my father's red hair, while I hated my own common dark brown; I can't say whether either the real Marilyn's attractiveness and popularity or her, or my father's, red hair were factors in my imaginary name. As I grew older, "Marilyn" was forgotten. Of course no one ever called me that anyway.

In college, I acquired another nickname, "Mentally Marvelous Marlys May Marshall," or just "Marvelous Marlys" or "Marvelous" for short. It was a play on my "3M" name, but I think it was also an unflattering reference to my apparent egotism, My problem was actually shyness, not pride. Yes, I was a good student, but I didn't flaunt it. The honor roll always appeared in the college paper. Once a fellow student peeked at my report card and said, "Hey, there's someone with all A's!" I just smiled, but I don't think academic overachieving was in fashion then.

I think one of my college roommates invented the "Mentally Marvelous" nickname. We're still distant friends today, but I don't think the nickname was intended to flatter. It was easy to make fun of me for being an overachieving nerd, not to mention my being shy, fat, unattractive, and unpopular. College kids can be cruel.

That nickname might have gone away if it hadn't been for the college's band and choir director. My roommate, a music major and talented singer, worked as his secretary, and she passed my nickname on. I was a band member for two years, last chair clarinet one year, next-to-last the other. I seldom bothered to practice, being much more interested in journalism and literature than in music, so my minimal musical skills were easy to laugh at. I was obviously insecure and easy to tease.

When I encountered the director at my thirtieth college reunion in 1984, he not only remembered me, but greeted me as "Mentally Marvelous Marlys." My husband, who was with me at the time, laughed uproariously. He'd never heard me called that before. I laughed too, but with a bit less enthusiasm. The director still remembered me and the nickname at our fiftieth reunion in 2004. He has since retired, and I hope that nickname retired with him.

Perhaps it was all really in fun. I was, indeed, a shy, insecure, antisocial nerd, but I plead innocent to the charge of pride. At this time in my life, it certainly doesn't matter. I may have been "Marky" and "Marilyn" and "Mentally Marvelous" when I was younger, but now I'm just Marlys Marshall Styne. Thanks to my late husband, the "3M" pattern has been broken. Now it's only two, and sometimes just one.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Journal Assignment V: My Favorite . . .

Do you have a favorite color, a favorite food, or another preference that has lasted a long time? Why not write about it? Here is what I wrote about my favorite color, red, specifically as a color for cars.

My Red Cars

When I bought my third bright red 3-Series BMW at the age of sixty-eight, the salesman, a senior himself, expressed surprise at both the color of my trade-in and my identical choice for the new car.

"I'd have thought you'd prefer silver," he said.

No way. I remember stepping into the parking garage at my mother's retirement complex in Minnesota a few years eaarlier and noticing a sea of full-sized four-door Buicks and Chevrolets, the majority of them silver, with a few blue and black ones here and there. So much for conservative car colors! They reminded me of senior stereotypes, of the common white-hair-and-thick-eyeglasses appearance of virtually everyone who lived in that complex. Red was my color.

Of the nine cars I've owned, five have been red (the first one was a Corvair) and two almost red: one was bright orange and the other burgundy. Only two, the convertibles of my rebellious between-marriage years in the 1960's, were not red at all. One was yellow and the other aqua, both with black tops and interiors.

It's strange how cars' colors mean different things to different people. I've heard that red sometimes symbolizes youthful rebellion or mid-life crisis, as in taunting one's unfaithful ex-spouse by driving an expensive red sports car. I understand that some drivers avoid buying red cars because they are said to attract extra police attention on the highways, and I know that my husband was stopped while driving my car once. However, he was also stopped while driving one of my mother's blue Buicks, so I don't think color was a factor.

I'm not a fast driver or an especially good one, so I think it's an advantage when other drivers can see and avoid me. To me, red is simply the color a car should be. It's a color that makes me happy.

My husband usually drove either a government car (he was a Deputy U.S. Marshal for some time) or a car of his own in some muted color, and red was definitely not his favorite. Still, he enjoyed driving my first two BMW's, and his last vehicle was a bright red Ford Ranger pickup truck! Perhapps my strange fascination with the color had a subtle influence on him. Perhaps we both depended on the color red to keep us young and active. He's gone now, but I'm still trying, driving a red 2003 Mini Cooper (see above).

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photo by the Author

Sunday, June 17, 2007

New: Updates and Additions

From time to time, I'd like to include reader contributions If you try one of my assignments and send it to me, I may add it to this blog as either a link (if you have your own blog or web site and want to put it there) or as an addition here, as long as it's 500 words or less. I will do this only with your permission, of course, and the choice of what to include is mine (and yours, of course). For examples, see Updates under assignments II and III.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

My MyMemoirs Column

My long-promised MyMemoirs column has just appeared on eGenerations (formerly Seniors/Boomers Grand Central). The format is not complete; changes are still going on at the site, but there's been rapid progress recently.

Go to, click on "Connect," and take a look (or try the direct link below). Please rate my column and comment on it. If you're 50 or older, why not join eGenerations? It's free and still being improved, so as a member, you'll have your chance to help determine the site's future course.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Journal Assignment IV: Mementos or Souvenirs

From the July, 2007, issue of Prevention,"The Sweet Science of Souvenirs":
"New research shows that people who use mementos or photos to remind themselves of good times better appreciate their lives and are happier." - Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, Professor of Psychology at University of California, Riverside.

What are the meaningful mementos in your life, the souvenirs, the things you keep not because of their monetary value, but because they remind you of good times? Writing about one or more of them and the memories it/they evoke can help you tell your life story.

Look around your house or apartment, or even search a box of nearly-forgotten mementos from the past. What memories arise? What was going on in your life when you bought or received the souvenir? Why have you kept it? Write about it, and share if and when you're ready. While I chose to write about a collection of small mementos here, a single especially important one may make a better story.

It's the Little Things . . .

The photo above shows eight items from my extensive collection of travel souvenirs. My late husband, Jules, warned me on our first motorcycle trip that I could not buy any souvenir measuring more than three inches tall (we carried only motorcycle saddle bags), and even on non-motorcycle trips, I have continued to follow that rule most of the time. I'm not a shopper, and a small souvenir that reminds me of a country is usually easy to find at the airport or in a tourist shop--inexpensive, too. Today, such souvenirs save suitcase room, and they've become a personal joke that reminds me of Jules' advice.

The tackiest, least attractive souvenir above is surely the plastic lobster from Maine (foreground). We bought that on one of our first motorcycle trips, and I've never had the heart to throw it away. As a midwesterner, I'd never seen lobster pots, and I'd probably never seen real live lobsters in local restaurants at that time either; we didn't go in for fine dining very often in those years. I eventually decided that a whole lobster is too much trouble to eat, but then (probably in the late 1970's) it somehow seemed exotic, even as rendered in orange plastic.

In the background is a very inexpensive set of Matrushka dolls from Russia. The three dolls inside dwindle in size to one only slightly over an inch tall. Today, I wish I had bought a more expensive set, but that was our last motorcycle trip together (in 1990), and the three-inch rule was still in effect. The Russian trip was one of our most memorable ones, the only one to which I devoted a whole chapter of my book.

The next row forward contains an elephant from Thailand, a replica of Copenhagen's Little Mermaid, and a Venetian glass cat with a fish visible inside. The latter makes me think of a much larger, heavier solid Venetian glass cat I bought here in Chicago years ago, also with a fish in its stomach. That cat still sits in my living room, and my main memory of it is that it fell from a high dresser in our old house and struck me in the eye, causing the worst black eye I've ever had! It's so heavy that it did not break, of course. The smaller version seems safer.

The next row begins with a koala bear from Australia, followed by a decorated cart from Costa Rica and a Norwegian viking ship. Each represents a different wonderful trip. The cart looks like one we saw from the deck of the Cunard Princess as we sailed through the Panama Canal. I guess it was there for tourists to see rather than for any more practical purpose, but I appreciated its picturesque qualities.

These souvenirs, shown temporarily arranged on a granite counter top, usually reside in my china cabinet, where they join many, many more. There's a leaning tower from Pisa, an Eiffel Tower, a penguin from Antarctica, and from my last two trips, an ashtray made from Mt. Etna lava in Sicily and a leprechaun from Ireland, among others.

I have a feeling that when I get ready to move, someone will advise me to clear out the clutter. But behind each memento is a story; they represent important moments in my life, and I'll probably keep them always.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photo by the author.

Update: 6/19/07: I just found a writing contest (no cash prizes; small fee to enter) that relates to this assignment. It is the 6th Annual First Person Arts Memoir Writing Contest. The deadline is August 15, 2007.

Here are a few details:

Short Memoir (up to 3,000 words), fee $10.
Short-Short Memoir (up to 500 words), fee $5.
Theme: "Objects of My Affection." Focus on your relationship to an object or objects that have special importance to you. How has this object impacted, influenced, or changed you?

I have no connection to this contest; I may or may not enter it, but it sounds interesting. Yes, I know that writers should be paid, rather than having to pay entry fees, but that isn't economic reality today.

For complete information and entry forms:

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Journal Assignment III: What Would You Do?

(Hey! Response to this new site has been underwhelming, to say the least! Let's review what's going on here. The idea is to write for fun. Nothing will be shared without the author's permission. Nothing will be "graded." You can get helpful comments, and they will be private. It doesn't matter if you think you can't write as well as I do, or you write better than I do, or if you're not sure. Just write! E-mail me up to 500 words on any assignment, or one you make up yourself (put Write your Life in the subject line) and I'll make helpful comments. Remember: I'll keep it private if that's what you want.)

Imagine the following unlikely scenario: You're over seventy. You're relatively healthy, financially secure but not fabulously wealthy. You don't have any unpaid bills, and you're living well.

Suddenly, an eccentric distant relative leaves you $5,000; it's a legacy with strings attached. You must spend the money only on yourself, and a trustee will check it out. No giving it to your children or grandchildren or your favorite charity.

Your assignment here: Write about your plan to use the money. It may be a serious or a ridiculous plan, but have fun! Here's mine:

A Gift with Strings (and Wheels)

If I received this sudden windfall under the conditions described, I'd hire a limo or taxi service to pick me up every Thursday morning at 8:15 and deliver me to the Chicago Cultural Center at Michigan and Randolph for my volunteer shift at the information desk. This weekly schedule would continue until the money ran out or I decided to end the arrangement.

Why such a plan? Taking the Broadway CTA bus during the morning rush hour is getting more and more difficult. Today, I waited fifteen or twenty minutes, only to be confronted with a bus that was not only filled, but overflowing. I waited another fifteen minutes (fortunately I'd started out early). The second bus was full too, but there was some standing room in the aisle, at least. A kind young woman offered me her seat; I accepted, and I thanked her profusely. My knees are not what they used to be.

Even seated, riding the rush hour bus is an experience I'd prefer to avoid. The bus was hot, crowded, and chaotic; few standees heeded the order to "step to the back of the bus," but I'm not sure there was room in back anyway.

Progress was slow. It's construction season in Chicago, so barricades narrow State Street, and cement trucks and other construction vehicles slow traffic considerably.

Would a limo be faster? Not necessarily, but I wouldn't care. It would arrive regularly, the driver could choose his own route, and I could relax in air-conditioned comfort door to door.

I don't think I have any rich relatives, but I'd surely like a car and driver. You potential benefactors out there--are you listening?

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Journal Assignment II: Photographs

One of the more interesting journal exercises or life story prompts involves a photograph from your collection. Pick a picture, describe it, and explain the time frame, the circumstances, what the picture means to you today, or whatever. You can even create your entire life story by writing about a series of pictures, old and new. Here's an example I used in my own book, as well as in a 2006 post to my other blog, "Never too Late!":

Show and Tell

My first photo album (one of many) dates back to the late 1930's. The first photo in the album, apparently taken at school when I was about six or seven and in the first grade, shows me standing behind a desk and in front of a blackboard, hands on my hips (or what would later become hips), staring straight ahead with a look of pride and determination that seems to say, "So there!" or "Look at what I did!"My dark hair is in long corkscrew curls, held back by a small barrette of some kind. I am wearing a plaid dress with a light background, but of course the photo is in black-and-white, so I can't tell what colors are in the plaid. I hope it was at least partly red.

Behind me on the blackboard is my artwork: a primitive chalk drawing of my first cat, consisting of a circle for a head, triangles for ears, an oval for a body with short, straight lines sticking out on all sides to represent fur, plus a tail. Under the drawing, in crooked small-child-style printing, is my cat's name, PURRCILLA MEWRIEL. I don't remember Purrcilla, but I assume that her name came from one of the books my mother read to me so often. She loved cats, and so did I.

That picture was taken by my teacher about sixty-seven years ago. I no longer remember the teacher or the occasion, but I love the picture and would never throw it away, despite its torn and faded condition. I have a few earlier snapshots from my mother's album, but this one is the first that shows me on my own, facing life without a parent or anyone else visible.

In this picture, I see pride and independence and determination, as well as a plump face suggesting my lifelong weight problem. I was probably shy and reluctant to participate in that show-and-tell exercise, or whatever it was called then, but once I'd finished my creation, I was obviously proud of it.

I see the picture as a primitive metaphor for my long life: I've never been confident about doing anything, and yet having done it, I've been proud and rather defiant, being surprised by any appreciation or praise I've received. I've also appeared arrogant sometimes, my way of hiding my shyness, and I see that in the snapshot too.

I don't know what my classmates thought of my presentation; they probably concluded that I would never be an artist (I still can't draw). They probably wondered why my cat wasn't named something simpler, like "Fluffy." Perhaps my inner writer was already emerging. I doubt that I was yet planning to be first in the class and graduate as valedictorian about eleven years later, but I like that look of pride and determination. Still, if I could talk to that child today, I might say, "Lighten up and smile, little girl. You'll make it!"

Tell me about one of your pictures via e-mail. I won't share it without your permission. Find my e-mail address in my "complete profile," and use Write your Life in the subject line.

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Update 6/17: Writer Cheryl Hagedorn has accepted the challenge and tried this assignment. See her journal entry at

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Journal Assignment I: Observations

Writers need to warm up, just as athletes and musicians do. While this assignment may not seem to have much to do with writing your life story, it does have to do with an important first step: regular journal writing. The idea is to find at least a few minutes every day or so to write: not for the public, but for yourself. If you're already a writer, you know this. As I try to get this blog started, I plan to offer an occasional writing assignment (strictly voluntary, of course) and ask you to share an occasional journal entry when you're ready. What's more, I'll begin each assignment by sharing at least one of my own journal entries. Pick any assignment you like, or make up your own.

Every day you read, hear, see, or experience something interesting--perhaps not world-shaking, but interesting. You hear an outrageous statement on radio or TV, or you see a clever advertising sign, or a strange phenomenon, or you meet an interesting person. You read something enlightening or shocking or just plain interesting. Write about it, perhaps one hundred or two hundred words or so. Here is what I wrote this morning:

Clothes Make the Man--or Woman!

A trendy men's clothing store on my block features a chalk-white mannequin in each window wearing only a sign that reads, "Clothes make the man. Naked people have little influence in this world." -- Mark Twain. How true!

As usual, Mark Twain, one of my favorite writers, got it right. I'm sure that the store owners are emphasizing business and political and social influence for their well-dressed young male customers, but have you ever considered how important clothes are to us "wrinklies"? (I got that term from Christopher Buckley's satire,

Consider the typical senior body, male or female, naked. Ugh! Yes, I admire the real women in the Dove ads, but most of us don't look that good, at least after 70. I surely don't!

I'm one of those rare women who hate to shop, so my wardrobe lacks a lot in style. Also, it seems a little late in life for me to have much influence in the world, unless I can help others a bit.

Still, I am very thankful for clothes, all clothes. They not only keep me warm during a Chicago winter, but they hide my many body flaws. It's amazing how much better a simple pants suit can make me look!

That trendy store is targeting neither senior men nor women of any age, but its window signs speak to us all. While some people may over-emphasize style to the detriment of their budgets and their schedules, Mark Twain was right. What would we do without clothes?

To read what I wrote about an article in today's newspaper, go to today's post in my other blog, "Never too Late!" (you'll find a link on the left). Now, it's your turn. Write a journal entry and share it via e-mai. Put "Write your Life" in the subject line. You can find my e-mail address by going to my "Complete Profile" link here under "About Me." I hope to share the best contributions , but if you don't want that, just say so when you e-mail me. And click on "comments" below to let me know what you think about this blog and this assignment. I'll hope to hear from you!

Copyright 2007 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Here it Is!

This is my new blog for Seniors and Boomers, and/or anyone who wants to or needs to write. I want it to be a place to discuss writing memoirs or life stories, and your participation is welcome! Find my e-mail address in my "complete profile" here, and e-mail me with Write your Life in the subject line. Neither your work nor my comments on it will be shared without your permission.

My own published memoir is Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor, and while it's no best seller, writing it has changed my life for the better. I hope to be able to show you how writing about our lives, whether in a private or public way, can help us to discover, to heal, to reinvent, and to share our valuable memories, lessons, and experiences with future generations.

Please leave your comments here under any post. Also, check out my other blog, "Never too Late!" at It covers many topics, but writing is one of them. Please comment there too, and sign my guestbook!