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SHEILA MERLE READS AT SPRING STORIES FROM BROOKLYN AND BEYOND SHOWCASE

Life Story Club Contributor

April 29, 2021

This is the story of the wedding of my late husband, Michael, and me back in 1982. We met at the end of ’79 at Esalen Institute on the Big Sur coast of California. One of the first humanistic psychology workshop locations in the U.S. Here was a relatively straight medical doctor from UCSF meeting a post-hippie new age alternative health teacher. Where else could we have met? He was visiting an ex-patient, Gregory Bateson, a famous philosopher psychologist, whom Esalen invited to live thereafter medical treatment had done all it could for his cancer. And I was delivering a massage table to Gregory’s wife who had studied Prager movement education with me. Michael and I were pretty much together from the day we met. So at the time of our marriage, we had known each other two and a half years.

After one year together, we bought a house in Mill Valley, a charming community in Marin County. After another year, we were in the hot tub with his kids. When he proposed, they were 10 and 12, he got down on one knee in the water and had his MIT ring, which was a napkin ring. I had always said, “I would never get married.” I didn’t see the point. But when he got down on his knee and said, “Would you marry me?” I thought, “Hm, I’ve never tried that before.” So I said, “Yes.” His kids thought we were joking. It took them a while before they believed that it really happened. Several months after that, we had the ceremony at our house. We found a non-denominational person who held a certificate like I do to be able to marry people. And we developed our ceremony with him. I wanted to have a small group for our wedding and then a larger group for the reception, which apparently is done. But they’re usually in two different places.

This was all at our house. Michael was not sure about this, but with an hour of separation between the two events, he agreed. I had the dress my mother got married in, which was my grandmother’s friend’s wedding dress from the 1890s. We had it worked on by a person from the costume department of the de Young Museum in San Francisco, who moonlighted and fixed it for me. I had a smallish waist, but she still had to let out that 16-inch waist, a few inches to fit me. It was a gorgeous Jacquard cream silk satin with puff long sleeves and tiny hand-covered buttons at the wrist. It had a slight bustle shape which I let hang down no bustle from beneath it which is what they use to have them I don’t know why stick out their bum, six or eight inches behind them. And it had a very small train.

Katie and Andy Michael’s kids were in it. Michael rented the same tails for himself and his son and Katie had a beautiful dress. Fringe [inaudible 00:03:41.799]. Friends pitched in for the ceremony. And we had a close group of friends, maybe 12 to 15. One couple, we had just met, offered to do all the flowers and they’re still friends of mine 40 years later. Other friends worked on the food. And so the day of the ceremony came and friends were helping me to get dressed. I got a teddy. I think you call it with a one piecy thing with snaps at the bottom. And I had a garter belt. So I had a garter to throw. It was underwear I never used after that, but it really made me feel special. I did my hair with rollers, but I forgot to look at the back of my head in the mirror. So in the ceremony, the back of my hair still had the roller lines, not the rollers themselves thank goodness. But the roller lines, I only discovered this later from the photos of the wedding and was embarrassed for a decade or so, but age helps these things. The ceremony was lovely. I was told like all things emotional. I don’t remember much, many of the specifics it’s on videotape somewhere, but how will I ever watch a videotape? When that ended, I changed into my reception dress, which it turned out Michael didn’t even like on me, but I also thank goodness didn’t know that till later. We were waiting for the reception, and his boss arrived early. That was a very awkward moment because his boss was nonplussed that there were already people there and that the ceremony had already happened. Still, we had a lovely reception in the backyard.

It was on the hall very simple the whole day. And I really liked being able to celebrate the ceremony with closer friends and then have the party be a larger group that we didn’t necessarily know as well. Our neighbor opened the first bottle of champagne out in the backyard and nearly took my mother’s eye out with the cork. So we had several disconcerting events happen that day, but on the hall, I remember our wedding is such a sweet mixture of things that went right, and things that went wrong, but didn’t really matter. Being able to wear that beautiful dress and Michael and his… Well, I think it was called a morning suit, It’s not really tails. It had a gray vest or something… Anyway, to marry my love, to be surrounded by a group of friends that were our chosen family with the ceremony accompanied by Shota, a patient of Michaels and a professional piano player who also played True Love for our wedding dance. And my mother played some of the music on the piano before and after. She was a wonderful piano player that could pick up almost anything by ear. And even later in life, when her osteoarthritis had almost displaced her finger joints, she continued to play up until she died at 83.

So it remains a charming mixture of the day. And I don’t regret at all choosing to get married. We stayed together until 2004 when he passed away from a congenital disease. So we had 25 years together, 22 of them married. His second marriage, my one and only, and definitely worth it.

April 29, 2021

A Memorable Celebration

Life Story Club Contributor

April 15, 2021

What came up is the story of our wedding, my late husband, Michael and I, back in 1982. We met at the end of ’79. So we had known each other two years. After one year, we bought a house together in Mill Valley, a charming community in Marin County. And after another year, we were in the hot tub…for some reason, we hadn’t seen his kids much for the first year, or months, many months. Anyway, we were in the hot tub with his kids. They were 8, 9, and 10, 11, somewhere in there. And his first time we went in with them, we went in naked and his ex-wife threw a hissy fit because they told her. And so, we were wearing bathing suits after that. And so, we were in the hot tub and he got down on one knee and had his MIT ring, which was a napkin ring. And I had always said I would never get married. So, he got down on his knee and said, “Would you marry me?” And I thought, “I’ve never tried that before.” So, I said yes. His kids thought we were joking.

And several months after that, we had our ceremony at our house. We had found a non-denominational person who held a certificate like I do to be able to marry people and, with him, developed our ceremony. I had wanted…Michael was not sure about this, but I wanted to have a small group for our wedding and then a larger group for the reception, which apparently is done, but usually, they’re in two different places. And this was all at our house. So, I had the dress my mother got married in, which was my grandmother’s friend’s wedding dress from the 1890s. And we had it worked on by a person from the local…the San Francisco Museum who was moonlighting and fixed it for me. I had a small waist, but she still had to let out that 16-inch waist a few inches to fit me. And it was gorgeous cream, silk satin, and puff sleeves and all-long sleeves and tiny waist and slight bustle, which just hung, and then a train, very small train.

And Michael’s kids were in it. Michael rented the same tales that he rented for himself and first son, and Katie had a beautiful dress. And friends just pitched in and we had a close group of friends. One couple we had just met and they offered to do all the flowers and they’re still friends, you know, 50 years later. And other friends worked on the food. And so, the day of the ceremony came and friends were helping me get dressed. I got teddy, I think you call it, the buttons under the crotch. I mean, snaps and I had garter belt. So, I had something to throw. No, oh, I don’t remember all that. Anyway, it was underwear I never used after. And my hair was done, only I forgot to look at the back of my head. So, the back of my head still had the roller lines, not the rollers themselves. Thank goodness, but the roller lines. I never combed it out. And I had a dress to wear at the reception. So, we separated them by an hour.

So, the ceremony was lovely. I don’t remember much, it’s on videotape somewhere. And that ended and we were waiting for the reception and his boss arrived early. So, that was a very awkward event because his boss was nonplussed that there were already people there and that the ceremony had happened. So that was a little awkward. And I changed into my reception dress, which it turned out Michael didn’t even like on me. But I didn’t know that until later. And we had a lovely reception in the backyard. It was, on the whole, simple and I really liked being able to celebrate the ceremony with closer friends and then have the party part be a larger group that we didn’t necessarily know as well. Our neighbor opened the first bottle of champagne out in the backyard and nearly took my mother’s eye out with the cork. We had several strange bits of events happen.

But on the whole, I remember that day as such a sweet mixture of things that went right and things that went wrong but didn’t really matter. And being able to wear that beautiful dress and Michael in his…I think it was called a morning suit. It’s not really tails. It had a gray vest or something. And just to be surrounded by a group of friends that were our chosen family. And my mother, she played some of the music before. She was a wonderful piano player that could pick up almost anything by ear. And even later in life, when her osteoarthritis had displaced her fingers almost, she continued to play up until she died at 83. So, it remains a charming mixture of a day. And I don’t regret at all choosing to get married.

We lasted ’82 to…oh, he was 39. Let’s just say he was 40 and died at 62. We were together 25 years and married for 22 of them. It was a sparky marriage. I mean in the sense of re-triggered each other’s childhood wounds fairly easily and that would lead to distressing encounters, but then we’d come back together. This lifetime, I think we rubbed…we were the emery boards for each other. We rubbed off a lot of each other’s rough edges. And so, I hope if we’re forever together again in a future life that will be smoother and we get to profit from the fruits of that. So, there’s my story of my only wedding.

A Great Personal Feat

Life Story Club Contributor

April 8, 2021

As I age in this more aged category in which I live, I do see more grace in my life, but in contrast to Joanne, I feel like I’ve lived through my life pretty much alone. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good life. It’s just, I don’t see the connection with others as strongly as Joanna does. So what popped up in the question, what am I proud of, was quite mundane. I taught bodywork, Trager bodywork for many, many years and traveled to do that. I traveled to Europe most consistently as well as North America, and was about to go to Japan when I had my stroke. But I spoke French. I still do. And so I taught my first overseas time was going to France because Dr. Trager himself was supposed to teach there, but had an illness and could not go.

And so, even though I was a brand new instructor, because I spoke French, the institute chose me to go over there. That was quite an experience, filling Dr. Trager’s shoes when I had just started this whole method, that… there were some adventures there. But then a few years later, a teacher I had supervised on his path to becoming an instructor had a connection in Italy and was invited to teach the beginning training there. And that was his only…his authorization to teach at that point was beginning training. So since I had been a supervisor and friend, he asked me if I’d like to do the intermediate there. So they invited me to Italy. I spoke no Italian. I spoke a little Spanish.

So the first year, I arrived in this glorious, what they call a factoria, which isn’t a factory, it’s a farm, more like a farm where they grew something for…or grapes, for sale, for wine, and they grew their own vegetables, and it was a 400-year old Villa. And I stayed in the princess’s room. And the story was that she was…she fell in love with a doctor in…many centuries ago, and that was not considered appropriate, for a princess to marry a doctor. A doctor was the lower class. So her father shut her up in this room, in the villa, for many, many years. And I got to stay there. And it was decaying, you know, that beautiful decay.

But anyway, the first year, I taught in English with a translator. And I loved the Italian spirit. I loved that. So when I got home, I searched for an Italian teacher and found a woman in Mill Valley where I lived, and studied with her for five years and taught in Italy each year, three weeks…for three weeks. And each year I spoke a little more Italian. And that was fun because they were fun, and to understand what they were actually saying and being able to communicate with them was wonderful.

And what I’m proud of is the fifth year, I taught the whole class in Italian, including all of the body parts and the muscle names and everything. So that was really wonderful because I love being able to communicate. And so learning new languages for me, means new people with whom I can communicate. My German, however, I only have three sentences left of my German, which I’ll tell Edith one day, which is a story about teaching in Germany. So that’s something I’m proud of.

And I must say that looking, you know, as I gained more wisdom in my later years, looking back on my life, I see how we could call it grace has come in, that I feel more and more like I’ve lived what I was meant to live in this lifetime for the growth I needed to do, or the growth I set out for myself before being born, if that exists. So I’m feeling much more at peace with my whole life and appreciating my whole life more than I ever did when I was living it young. Although there were some great moments, those little voices in my head judging myself and, you know, telling myself I’m not enough, were pretty strong throughout my life. And now I can see with amused love that that was a part of who I am too and part of what I needed to go through in this lifetime.

And just very briefly, the second question…the first question of how would I change my neighborhood? I would have had them be a more friendly neighborhood and welcome me in when I moved here, and invite me to things when I was new in the neighborhood. But I have to say my part in that has been imagining, inviting them over and getting to know them, and I never did. So there was one event finally, a few years ago, that I happened upon a couple of people talking about, and then when I asked, they invited me and it was the one neighborhood gathering I had been to, but there have been none since, nor have I followed up. So I can see looking back how much…two things, if I think of a thing, I feel like I’ve done it. So I didn’t invite the people over. And that I have…I want other people to make it happen for me. And that doesn’t work that well. It’s really up to me. If I have an urge, it’s up to me to do it, and that’s another piece of wisdom that’s come in later life. So thanks.

When I Hear the Word Beauty

Life Story Club Contributor

April 1, 2021

I trace my relationship to beauty back into my childhood. Although it wasn’t very awakened then, but I remember loving the puddles in the street, you know, after a rain when it’s calm again. And the surface of the puddles I now know reflected the oil, but then it was just magical the iridescence and the soft rainbows of color all iridescent and shimmering.

And I remember being transfixed by those and looking as if I could see through to another world. And I think this idea of another world has been a thread throughout my life. As Joyanna said, now as the concept and the feeling of beauty has developed throughout my life, I experience beauty in all of my senses. And I mean, the first thought that came to mind when I thought about this topic was nature, certain scenes in nature that take me into awe, but it’s also a physiological sensation that changes in my body that go along with the perception of beauty.

I am so blessed to live on water where I can look at the effects of light on water and different times of day just have that feeling of calm come over me. That calm water can bring just the visual of it. And the greenery of my garden in front of the water. I mean, I can have little seconds of perception of beauty at any time. But otherwise, in nature, just certain scenes bring about that awakening to beauty at certain times, and not every nature scene.

I remember the feeling of being in the redwoods when I was a child, going to Muir Woods here in California. And there was something about the silence and the sparkles of the dust motes in the sunlight which were magical, and discovering art and stained glass windows in France when I studied there. And I didn’t and don’t relate to all art, but certain art just takes me into a zone. Often, it’s abstract art rather than representational.

And then as I developed my palette, certain tastes would take me to that space of deliciousness in my body that relates to the sensation of seeing a piece of art that moves me. And then introduction to music. I mean, in my childhood my parents played certain pieces of classical music. But I don’t think music took me on a journey until discovering in my hippie years certain rock music, with a little herbal assistance would take me into just this flowing state of living the music in my body as I danced with it.

And as I grew and matured and grew emotionally and psychologically and spiritually, music could take me, not just rock music, classical, soft jazz, certain songs could take me into that zone of sometimes awe, sometimes just intense pleasure, sometimes wafting on waves of pleasantness, waves of connection with something larger than me. And touch sometimes, especially when I receive bodywork that involves movement, or bodywork that involves deep pressure, I can go into this deep zone of relaxation or connection, spiritual connection or emotional feeling.

So, in a way, for me, all the senses can take me into a zone I call beauty. And as I’ve developed spiritually throughout my life, it takes me back to that childhood of looking into the cuddles and thinking that was a gateway into a world beyond. And for me now, many of the various experiences of beauty take me into contact with something larger than myself, than my little restrained ego, the part of my ego that keeps me blocked, into a perception of perhaps a larger self, perhaps a connection with a higher power even if that exists. It can also be something as simple as seeing a baby’s toes, I just got that image.

So, it’s connected with pleasureful sensations, wonder, awe, connection. And I’m so grateful that having developed over the years an acute in the sense of very perceptive sense of my body, and of spiritual connection to something larger than myself, that beauty is the doorway sometimes into that very deep and special place of pleasure, wonder, awe, hmm and dancing can take me there. My mind is popcorning a little bit.

But moving my body, even though I’m restricted to sitting a lot of the time now, I’ve developed a set of micro-movements in my spine that brings such a feeling of pleasure of liquidity of my body. That again takes me into that sort of cosmic soup that’s so delicious. So, beauty is really where my brain is occupied too much of the time when I can let it expand or focus in. It can come from focusing in deeply or expanding outward, to get outside of the confines of intellect, into a place where my mind, my brain can be something larger than itself.

It’s really a profound experience, and it may come in just tiny seconds, glimpses, or a longer period of delight in life, and in what may be beyond life. It makes the thought of this spotty mind dissolving or ceasing to be. It gives me a sense of wonder of not knowing at what lies beyond, that makes even death not frightening anymore. 

How My Career Influenced Me

Life Story Club Contributor

March 18, 2021

Such a great topic for me. I love being at this later stage in life where I can look back. and looking back, I really see, I mean, as Joanna said, we can interpret life in different ways and we can choose interpretations. And I like to think now that I’ve been somehow guided into exactly what I’ve needed to develop personally and spiritually throughout my life.

So I was born and raised in a well, first lower class than suburban lower middle-class culture and I always felt like I didn’t belong. I always felt like there was something more, especially in the suburban life of the sort of constrictive values and women’s place in that world. And it just never sat well with me. So when I left at age 18 to go to college, I really felt like I was finally perhaps living my life. And I did get to study in France like Beverly’s daughter, and that really opened me up.

I just loved being in another country. And coming back to the US and judging some of our cultural norms with respect to France. And finished up at Berkeley. Then had to live with my parents again, out in Moraga, in a senior townhome settlement. And then I became, I studied French and I became a foreign language tour guide. So that was nice. And, you know, in San Francisco, and… But when I was sent to do the Sausalito tour and well, first of all, I was hired because I said I spoke Spanish, but I really spoke French, not Spanish. So I had to memorize the tours in Spanish and luckily could understand enough. But boy, when they asked me questions, I was at a loss. Anyway, they, he assigned me, it was a small agency run out of a home to the Sausalito, the Marin County Sausalito tour.

I was raised in the Bay area and I never knew about this. I felt like I was back in Europe and I just…so I discovered the No Name bar and hung out there when I could and found a flat, I mean, a funky apartment in Sausalito and my life changed. And I encountered what I would have called Bohemians, I guess, it was slightly pre-hippie. And then the hippie era started. And I just dove in and ended up moving out to Forestville to a sheep farm. And the commune sort of gathered around. And I just finally was feeling I was living. And while I was living in Sausalito, I turned on the TV one day and discovered yoga. So that started this body-oriented thread in my life. I’d been very intellectual and I just longed to get out of that.

So the threads that have continued throughout my life is exploration of the body. And throughout the experience in Big Sur, I was guided into a massage career, but then, I mean, just a massage experience. Then I left to travel around the world at 25 with a French woman who ended up… We split up in Bali because she met the man there that they’re still married 55 years later, whatever it is. And I went on alone and finished my travels around the world in what we call the hippie trail.

And when I came back, I fell into running this woman’s massage studio and I got certified. And this was sort of alternative. This was not just massage, this was massage with a bath and a glass of plum wine, and it was sort of the alternative world. And through that in Berkeley, I fell into the whole beginnings of alternative health and the body and body psychotherapy-oriented skills and fell into therapy and just, it was such an exciting time.

And through that and having my own massage workshops, I ended up finding this work called Trager, which involved meditation and hands-on and teaching people how to take care of themselves. And that became my career, teaching it and practicing it for 30 years. Now, before I had fallen into this in Sausalito, I’d had a brief stint as a dress designer because I’d always loved clothes, and making Renaissance clothes for the Renaissance fair. And then as I traveled and got into the body work, I sort of fell away from the clothing but always loved it and loved home design.

And after 30 years teaching Trager around North America and Europe, and I was supposed to go to Japan to teach. And I had a stroke at age 53, and my a very interesting, not interesting, but a very minor form of stroke. And so I stayed home after that and resigned from Trager and went into image consulting and home staging. Which brought back out the clothes and design and interior design.

When I was 12, when I was asked what I wanted to do at the graduation, I said, interior designer or psychotherapist. So, you know, these threads are just woven throughout. That I have to say that bodywork, especially with the spiritual overtones, getting into my body and living in it has been the richest experience of my life. And being able to share that with others of how to come into and through pleasure because Trager is not a painful work. It’s very gentle and yet opens the body and the mind and quiets the mind. It’s just a beautiful form of work.

So the threads throughout my life of taking this intellectual person, who’s quite bright and learn things quickly into aesthetics and then into the body, and having that be my form of personal development, and spiritual development, and ability to share with others has been such a gift. And then falling back into the clothing world. And I’ve tried painting I’m hopeless. I mean, I can do dots. I would have been a great Aboriginal painter, but that’s about it.

And then home staging, working with colors and shapes and, and I’ve done mosaics in some of the photos you’ll see behind me, you’ll see some of my mosaics. But throughout my life, I’ve just been developing these threads all the while. I mean, my intellect is much less functional, although I’ve kept up French and learned Italian, I love languages. I’ve lived a very rich life. I just wish. I mean, I wish that the demons of thinking I’m not good enough and thinking there’s something wrong with me, you know, those voices in my head were strong enough to diminish the pleasure I took in my life. Whereas looking back, it was just a really, even glamorous, but not my style and fulfilling sort of life.

But it’s only, now that those voices have lifted, I can look back and see how much I’ve lived a charmed life. And part of that is due to being born white. And part of that is due to being born in California and raised here where the cultural pressures about being a subservient wife were not as strong, maybe as on the East coast or the Midwest. I’ve been able to live a life of expansion.

And just now I’m beginning to explore the undercurrents even though I consider myself a great liberal, and have black women friends and all of that. There are still some really disturbing threads of unconscious racism in me. And I’ve just signed up for a course in that. And I’m always looking to expand and explore and uncover the darker places within me that I can bring into the light. And this is the one that’s surfacing now, and I’m very glad.

I also have taken into improv theater, which just scared the hell out of me, but I’m doing it. Done it for four years. I do 20 hours a week or so. It’s just been exploring, letting my imagination come out. It’s just, I feel really blessed. I feel really blessed and blessed to have found this group and some friends of you women who I feel connection with, even though we’ve lived very different lives.

A Time I Did Not Accept Defeat

Life Story Club Contributor

March 25, 2021

First, the idea of not accepting defeat. I don’t have a particular story, but throughout my life, if I’ve wanted something, and get told no or the rules and stuff don’t let me do it, I will search and search or have searched and searched to find ways around it, some aboveboard, some sneaky. And part of that, I think, is just wanting to get my way. And part of it is a love of exploring all the possibilities.

No, I can’t. I thought I had an example, but it’s not there. So, I can be very tenacious. I have less of that quality now, and less of a need to get my way. And it feels so much more relaxing to approach life that way.

The overcoming fear, the one example I’m sure I’ve done it a lot because I’ve done such strange things in my life in terms of travel and activities that I’ve done, the one that’s more current is when I started improv theatre. I’d known about it vaguely, but then a woman in my French conversation group, I found out one day, maybe five years ago or so, that she did improv. And I noticed, you know, a little fear intake whenever we talked about it. But I was intrigued once I heard what it was.

And so, this went on for a couple of years. But I was too afraid to try it, not at the conscious level, but at the unconscious level. And then I heard about three years ago that she was selling almost everything and taking off on a permanent sabbatical if that can exist on her own quest, I guess. And so, she wasn’t gonna to be my link to going any more. So, I pushed myself, and I said I’d go.

And I went to actually her farewell evening. And I was just on edge. I had my, I think we say my heart and my throat, and that feels like the real sensation. And we did some games, warm-up, and then scenes, and I had no idea what that meant. But I had gone, and the teacher was really nice. But I was so afraid of being judged. I mean, that’s part of it. I just wanted to be good at everything. And it was so hard to expose myself in front of others and not be good at something.

And added to that was my fear of going into a strange group, the belief that I would not be liked, because it had happened enough times before. At least I interpreted that that had happened so many times before. But I went back after she had gone. And so those dual prongs of fear, of just doing it, the improv theatre games and scenes, and then also a new group that had been together a long time and being the stranger. And I went back, I gulped and went back.

And then the teacher did his first intro class because he had, the class was so big of people who’d been doing it, and new people like me coming in that he did a foundations class is what he called it. And there I was with other newcomers, and it was all games. And games are easy to do. You’re told what to do. It’s a simple thing, it’s often funny, but it stretches us. So, that made it a little easier. But still that fear.

And I just can say I’m very proud of myself. I kept going back. I think I kept going to the evening class and took all the foundation classes he offered over a year, probably three of them. But I kept going to the more advanced class too. I can remember some firsts. We were at that time in the Marin Shakespeare Company office space they had just leased and were building up. And after getting used to doing regular games, he said, “Okay, it’s song night.” And the game is you’re given…the group suggests a song type, you know, anything from Gregorian chant, to rap, to pop, country. And then totally separate from that you’re given a subject matter, that’s the farthest thing from that possible.

So, I think my first one was something, it was opera, and the subject matter was something off-color. And I was so nervous. And I think of myself as a good singer. I had been in my past. So, I felt like I had to do it really well, and I couldn’t, you know, I just couldn’t. And I was so pleased that we did this again. We’ve done it maybe a few times, maybe once a year or twice a year. And we did it a couple of weeks ago. And I just looked forward to it. I was so excited because something shifted over time. I stopped being worried about being judged. I stopped worrying about whether I was doing it right.

And during COVID, I have dived in or dove into so many different improv workshops and gatherings, up to 20 hours a week all over the country and Europe. And so, now I’m thrown up against that feeling of, “Oh, I’ve been doing this three years, I should be good at it,” and then flopping. So, I still get that little, aah, so from time to time. This week I’ve had it, even in groups where I feel more comfortable.

I’ve also identified that it isn’t necessarily that people don’t like me, although that’s true in some cases, because I can have a very strong personality that polarizes. But it’s also true that somewhere inside, it’s my problem with feeling like I belong, that I have somewhere inside the feeling I don’t belong. So personally, I love having new things to work on in myself, in my personal, emotional, or spiritual path. So, this is just another thing to play with, to work on, so that when I do leave this life, I will have done as much growth and sharing of that growth and sharing with others how I’ve done it so that maybe I can help other people along the way.

So, clearly, improv has been the measuring stick, that’s not the word I want, has been… Well, it’s the growth sector in my current life to face fear and do it anyway. Thanks.

On Being a Woman

Life Story Club Contributor

March 2021

March 2021

Sheila Merle Johnson reads at Stories from Brooklyn and Beyond Showcase

Life Story Club Contributor

December 12, 2020

Sheila Merle is from Novato, California in the San Francisco Bay Area. She retired from a 25-year career as a Trager Movement Education Instructor, and then 10 years as an Image Consultant and a Home Stager. She is enjoying an expansive and joyful retirement exploring Improv Theater, voiceover acting, French, Italian, dancing and other fun pursuits.

Sheila Merle is an endless source of inspiration to me with her positive attitude, involvement in a seemingly endless list of Zoom workshops and events, and her generous and joyful spirit. It is my great pleasure to welcome Sheila Merle!


This is a story about my late husband and I interviewing his grandmother before she passed away. My one marriage which happened late-ish in life at age 39 was to the last of my many Jewish boyfriends over the years. My husband’s name was Michael Stuhlbarg, which is translated from German as chair hill. I always joked that his family invented the skiing chair lift.

The family immigrated from Russia through Germany to the U.S., and his grandparents came in through Ellis Island. On one trip to New York, we found their names there, and it was quite moving. Michael’s grandmother and grandfather were nicknamed Momo and Popo. I don’t even remember their real names. After Popo had died, we made one trip to Cincinnati where Michael was from to interview Momo, who was very old and frail but quite bright in her mind still.

We brought a little tape recorder, for this was many decades ago, with a little handheld mic plugged into her rest home. He went through questions about the family, how they immigrated, their experiences in the early days, his parent’s upbringing, etc.

At the end of the interview, Michael asked, “Momo, do you have any wisdom for your progeny?” Of course, we were awaiting the great wisdom of life that comes with age. She was in her late 80s or maybe early 90s. We were hoping to learn from it ourselves and translate that wisdom into something we could apply to our lives. She sat back in her rocking chair, eyes closed, rocking, and thinking deeply.

Then she opened her eyes and leaned forward. Both Michael and I leaned forward as well, in breathless anticipation. He held out the microphone towards her, and she opened her mouth and said, “Buy real estate.” While we may laugh at the incongruency of this response and our expectations, it is really the story of immigrants who came here, having had their families wiped out in the pogroms in Russia, going to Germany under duress, and then leaving Germany because of the Jewish persecution there.

So having built their wealth such as it was here, through real estate, it was a very important piece of wisdom for her to give. This is the familial wisdom from a past generation, but so far, none of the family has really followed it, including Michael and his brothers. In fact, I’m not sure any of my stepchildren or their children even know this story. So it’s my job to transmit it. Sadly, I have no idea of where the recording of that interview with Momo is. I’ve never come across it in all the moves I’ve made since Michael died. Thank you.

A Love for Learning and Personal Growth

Life Story Club Contributor

November 5, 2020

For me, this period on Zoom, which coincides of course with the COVID restrictions, has been a period of taking care of myself in expansive ways. I used to think of taking care of myself as getting quiet. And I must say that looking back at these seven or eight months now, it’s been so wonderful to be on Zoom. My horizons have expanded worldwide, and I’ve been able to pursue my interests, not just by going to things locally, but by joining international groups, some on Zoom and it’s been exciting and nourishing.

My discovery of the Reimagine Festival of Life, Loss and Love, which I knew about the organization before COVID. But now they went online, and the number of events just blew up exponentially about grief, which not so much is important to me. But facing end of life, making life resonate, taking care of the paper matters, meeting people, meditating together, discovering a Zen master in New York. And he led a couple of meditations where we left on a flying carpet and went to somewhere special in the world, and I immediately went to the tropics, which is what I love.

And we were to meet a wise person and he was my wise person and we had wonderful interactions. And it was just delightful experiences. And I came back from those two meditations, just feeling so happy and enriched, and then meeting other people through Reimagine that have become online friends, including Joanna. We showed up at so many of the same events and found out our interests are so similar. And then being able to do improv theater, not only with my local groups online, but I’ve taken classes with improv theater in LA, with Hoopla in London. I’ve about to take two more classes with two other London or English groups. I’ve been looking at doing it with French groups.

Anyway, it’s been an expansion. And I think one of the ways I take care of myself is doing improv. It both satisfies the childlike delight I get when my mind and others’ minds go to the absurd, that’s one of my favorite types of humor, and when my own mind goes to associations that are not only absurd but delightful. And it also incorporates learning, which I love, brings with it some of the not so fun moments of judging myself, but growth has always been very nourishing for me, both personal and spiritual growth. And I feel I get that too through improv.

And then I get to speak French with people and Italian people from all over the world and keep up my languages. It’s been a really wonderful time. And I recognize that being with people in person tends to trigger my fear of rejection too much. And I’m reading people all the time, their little expressions and body language and on Zoom, I can’t really do that. So it’s like the safe version of being with people. And that has been really nourishing too. I also have been doing meditation with Tara Brach and Rick Hanson. And one of the things I’ve gotten from Rick Hanson lately has been to reprogram the brain to create new neuron pathways. One of the ways is when we are looking at something beautiful or something nourishing, to not go away from it so quickly, to stay looking at it or stay feeling…stay with feeling the echo or the reverberation of that experience.

So I have in front of me and my backyard, this beautiful lagoon, and I’ve been able to catch myself sort of looking at it and then quickly going back to my work and to catch myself saying, “Wait no. Go back, spend 30 seconds. Take it in.” Look at the birds. There’ve been so many birds. The egrets have been landing on my dock. And spending that little bit more time to take in the visual nourishment, I feel is also doing something for creating more positive pathways in my brain. I mean, I am pretty happy in this last phase of life. So this has been a very rich and good time, both taking care of myself and experiencing happy moments.

My Trip Around the World

Life Story Club Contributor

December 3, 2020

I studied French in high school. And I actually picked going to UC, one of the UCs because of their program abroad. And so in my junior year, I was accepted into the year abroad in Bordeaux. And I packed up … I traveled just heavier than I do now. But trunks were a thing then. So my parents and I packed up a trunk, and I went on the charter ship of students. So we sailed to France. I don’t remember much about the boat but I bet it was fun. And then I studied in Bordeaux, and I had a roommate. I can’t remember her name. We were assigned an attic space that had been the maid’s quarters in an impoverished aristocrats’ home.

Anyway, so we hit it off, and we were the two blondes, and we hitchhiked places with our knitting needles in case anything happened. I don’t think I knitted, but she did. And so we each had our knitting needles. And one weekend, we decided to hitchhike up to the American army base at Angolan for two hours, maybe hitchhiking, and we were picked up for the first time. We’ve done quite a bit of hitchhiking, and it was always these businessmen.

And this time we were picked up by a very elegant Parisian woman who lived in the wealthiest part of Paris in her DS, which was the wealthy automobile to have and it was shocking for us. But it was lovely. And I guess I sat up front and we made quite a good connection. And she invited me to Paris, and I came to visit at one point and she had a charming young son in his early teens, I think, and a snotty older daughter, who was in her late teens. And she had that typical Parisian snobbishness of the bourgeois people and an American student.

But a year later, after I got home, she contacted me because she’d finished a year at Tufts. And she came out to visit me and wanted to go to Big Sur. Now, I was born and raised in California, but my parents didn’t have money. And their idea of travel when I was young was to go to Redding and rent a motel with a swimming pool, because we lived on the … almost the wrong side of the tracks in Berkeley. So she wanted me to take her to Big Sur because a cohort of her from Tufts was working at the Big Sur Inn. Well, I’d never even heard of Big Sur, I’m in my early 20s.

And so I had a little Morris Minor convertible, a very rare English car, but in those days, it was 300 bucks, and my parents had reupholstered it for me in red, in red Naugahyde, of course. And so, Isabel and I, she turned out to be nice by that point. America had rubbed the snobbishness out of her, and she took me to my first visit to Big Sur, which was incredible for me. I was at the age where I could appreciate its beauty. And her friend worked in Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn, which is, and was, and probably still is the most charming place in all of Big Sur. Deetjen had built it out of barn wood and driftwood, and it was just incredible.

And the manager of the Inn was Ed something, and he was really out there on the New Age Edge and the New Age Edge hadn’t even really come in yet. This wasn’t the hippie era yet. This was the ’60s, and he really adopted her and people he just adored he gave these bells to. Well, he gave Isabella a bell but not me. I felt badly about that. She ended up coming back and working there. So I visited it many times after that either as her guest if they had an open room.

So I was finished school and was living in San Francisco as a foreign-language tour guide. And then I moved to Sausalito, which was my dream place. It was like a European village, and met up with some hippie people and became a hippie. And went … eventually moved up to Forestville, where my ex-lover came and was rebuilding my house with barn wood. And one day this woman named Dominique came to visit Ron, and we ended up two weeks later leaving on a trip around the world.

So you never know who you’re gonna meet that’s going to change your life. And being picked up in France to go get a hamburger changed my life later on. And with the thread that went through my life for many years, I’ve lost touch with Isabel now, but that led to my trip around the world on which I had many adventures as well.

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