Sunday Stories: Memoirs, Light the Corners of My Mind...
On memoirs, memories, destiny, The Long Way Up/Down/Around, Surrender(ing), and how you'll never know if you don't ask
We do not remember days, we remember moments.
Almost exactly 20 years ago, while working in the newsroom of the Chicago Sun-Times one November afternoon, I answered the phone to hear my best friend Kelley’s voice on the other end.
“U2 is going on a bus tour across the Midwest,” she said.
“No, they’re not,” I answered with all the confidence of someone who had been a fan of the band for 20 years already and knew they hadn’t done a “bus tour” since I was in grade school.
Kelley insisted there was something to the rumor as the intel had come from her sister, who, at the time, was working in the department of Live Nation that dealt with riders—the documents that dictate, for instance, what a band or performer had in his/her/their dressing rooms backstage, i.e., no brown M&Ms (Van Halen) or two boxes of cornstarch (Trent Reznor) or “20 white kittens and 100 doves” (Mariah Carey.)
I called Alison for more details and learned that it wasn’t U2 the band, but it was Bono and it was a bus tour. After a few more hours working the phones and sending flurries of emails, I learned that the tour was humanitarian rather than musical. It was, I would soon learn, called “The Heart of America Tour” put on by Bono and the new organization he’d founded with Bobby Shriver called DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa.) Its launch would be in Nebraska on Dec. 1, 2002—World AIDS Day—and would proceed east from there, passing through Chicago, and ending a week or so later in Nashville.
I remember driving home with my husband from our respective newspaper offices in downtown Chicago and telling him the tale. A year before, we’d both met and spent a convivial evening of conversation and Sauternes at a posh hotel bar with U2’s then-manager, our beloved Paul McGuinness. I still had his email address.
“What do you think,” I asked Maury. “Should I ask him if there’s any way they’d let me tag along and write about it for the paper?”
Maury paused briefly to consider, and then, about a quarter-mile east of the Austin exit on the Eisenhower Expressway, turned to me and said: “You’ll never know if you don’t ask.”
So, I asked.
Paul pointed me in the right direction and several dozen emails and phone calls later, Jen Bluestein, the newly-minted communications director for DATA, who was a complete stranger but eventually would become one of our dearest friends, said OK, fine, meet us in Lincoln, Nebraska.
And I did, landing in the middle of a blizzard to begin an adventure that continues in significant ways to this very day. On that trip I met, yes, Bono, but also Agnes Nyamayarwo, a nurse, AIDS activist, and mother of 10 from Uganda who was HIV positive. She’s got the kind of warm energy that you can feel before you see her if she’s walking up behind you. The gentlest of spirits with what I described at the time as “sad eyes the color of molasses,” her story, as I learned it from her telling it day after day in public on the tour and even better in quiet, private moments off stage on buses and truck stops, in hotel lobbies and church pews, was transcendent in a world-transforming kind of way.
Were it not for that trip, we would not have gotten involved in an organization in Malawi that worked with children living on the streets, most of them orphaned by HIV/AIDS. Were it not for Agnes’ story of adopting her niece’s little boy after the young mother died of AIDS-related complications, I wonder whether, a few years later when we met Vasco on a trip through Malawi, I would have thought to try to help in the way we did or have the courage to follow through when the bureaucratic (and elsewise) going got tough.
Agnes has been on my mind recently as I read her moving memoir Finding Solace: A Journey of Hope After Tragedy that was published in September, and again as I listened to all 20 hours, 25 minutes and 18 seconds of the audio version of Bono’s simply outstanding memoir Surrender, that recounts how the singer met Agnes in Kampala six months before all three of us met in a Nebraskan blizzard. (In fact, I’m presently on my way to Los Angeles to hear Bono tell more stories from his memoir tonight at the Orpheum Theater. I’ll share more about that experience on U2.com later his month.)
Memoirs and memories are my work, artistic and spiritual, these days as I prepare to take out a proposal for a new book that is a memoir of a kind for which, please God, my wonderful agents will find a good home. Memoir is my favorite genre to read and well as write and I always read a couple new ones when I am preparing to dive into my own pool of memories again, looking for buried treasures.
In the last little while, I have read some wonderful new (or new to me) memoirs, including Richard E. Grant’s achingly beautiful A Pocketful of Happiness, about a nearly 40-year relationship with his wife Joan Washington who died last year; Jenifer Lewis’ empowering (and hilarious) Walking in My Joy in These Streets, and Belden Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice. And on Tuesday, Patti Smith’s latest memoir, this time a photo-driven journey called A Book of Days arrives on bookshelves everywhere.
When I am writing, as I have been these last few weeks, I often have something running in the background—sometimes music, sometimes a show (one that I’ve seen before, sometimes many times, such as Schitt’s Creek, Brassic, or lengthy classic films such as Lawrence of Arabia, Scorsese’s magnificent Kundun, or the 2005 documentary Into Great Silence about Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps.
Earlier this week I returned to a trio of documentary series featuring the actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman—The Long Way Round (2004), The Long Way Down (2007), and The Long Way Up (2020). All three series are essentially buddy adventures on motorcycles—the first a nearly 20,000-mile trip around the globe from London through Russian, Kazakstan, Mongolia, Siberia, Alaska, and across the continental United States to New York City. The second series followed McGregor and Boorman from John o' Groats in Scotland through 18 European and African countries to Cape Town in South Africa; and the third (this time on state-of-the-art electric bikes with fully electric Rivian trucks carrying the support crew) from Ushuaia in Argentina through South and Central America to Los Angeles, shot in pre-COVID 2019.
All three are wonderful and if you’ve not seen them, I encourage you to seek them out. I believe Apple-TV might be the only streaming service in the States that has all three. Anyway, this week I started from the beginning way back in 2004 in the days before Go-Pros and the ubiquity of camera drones. It’s a bit more rough-and-tumble than the subsequent journeys and there is a two-episode arc about the duo trying to cross Mongolia that is powerful—particularly if you know what happens next.
Calling the routes McGregor and Boorman traveled through much of Mongolia “roads” would be generous. Practically impassible, filled with boulders or mud or both, the men struggle to stay upright on their bikes. In one sequence, McGregor falls and falls again and again, off the bike more than he’s on it. It’s exhausting and frustrating to watch. They’re headed for Ulaanbaatar, the Mongolian capital, where they are due to visit an orphanage supported by UNICEF, with whom the production has partnered to feature its essential work among some of the world’s most vulnerable.
After their support crew end up flipping a truck on its side, a frightening turn of events in which mercifully no one was seriously injured, McGregor and Boorman discuss whether it would make more sense to head back north into Russia to bypass the difficult Mongolian passage and adhere closer to their production schedule.
“Maybe the point is that it is such a struggle and we just struggle on,” McGregor says. “What Mongolia means and how it feels and what a cultural and spiritual place it is and it’s beautiful and what a terrible shame it would be to miss that on this trip of a lifetime because the roads are difficult. Who knows how many times we’ll pass this way?”
This is where I always have to pause the replay and wipe my eyes. What I know now that I didn’t know the first time I watched Long Way Round is that a few days later at the orphanage in Ulaanbaatar, McGregor meets a toddler girl named Jamyan who, sometime after production wraps, he and his then-wife adopt.
Now a young woman, Jamyan joined her dad for a few days in the 2020 Long Way Up series, at one point telling the camera, “I don’t know how he chose …obviously I’m happy that he chose me, like I don’t know where I would be, and I don’t really want to think about that,” she says. “I don’t know what possessed him to think, ‘Oh, we should adopt a child’— like, I don’t even know. I’m not gonna question it because I’m never gonna find the answer, so I’m just gonna be glad that it is what it is, ya know?”
Theirs is an affectionate and tender relationship, one that reminds me of the one I share with my son, Vasco.
I wonder how many times McGregor has thought about that moment by the side of a rocky, nearly impossible road in rural Mongolia where he almost turned north and went to Russia, skipping the rest of Mongolia. The moment when he made a decision to keep going, a decision that changed his life and Jamyan’s forever.
Countless times, and with a kind of awe that surpasses description, I’d imagine. I understand.
I can picture exactly where I was sitting on the second seat of a van that had seen better days, staring through a hole in the floor to the dusty road below us, when our host asked if we’d mind making one more stop to meet one more kid. “He’s just kind of special,” the man told us, without elaboration. We’d spent the day visiting dozens of other children and teens at a drop-in center in Blantyre, Malawi. It was a long, difficult, beautiful, heartbreaking day, and a big part of me just wanted to go back to the bar at Pedro’s Motel where we were staying, have a cold drink, download the photos I’d shot, and process all we’d seen and heard.
But in that moment, Maury and I looked at each other, shrugged off our fatigue, and said, “Sure, why not?”
An hour later we met the boy who would become our son and my only child.
Moments become memories. Moments become memoirs.
Memoir, in any form—written, oral, on film, in a song, in a painting or a photograph—can transport us in through time and space, to split-second decisions that change the world, whether it’s the world in us or the world entire.
And they echo the mantra I will leave you with once again this Sunday evening:
Remember that you haven’t met yet everyone you will love and you haven’t met yet everyone who will love you.
Be brave and kind.
With love and profound gratitude,