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Enjoying the Little Things in Memoir

Eileen Toomey reflects on how her mother taught her to enjoy the small joyful moments during challenging times and how she gets to revisit those "glimmers" as she writes and revises her memoir.

By Eileen Toomey

March 21, 2024

Waiting for a mammogram the other morning, I sat next to a little table decorated with a whitewashed, Mod Podge-ed stack of books tied with a gingham bow. Written on the three separate spines were the words:   

ENJOY

THE LITTLE

THINGS

This advice made me think of my memoir, “You Were All Average: Tales of a Canaryville Girl,” which I wrote in last year’s Memoir Incubator. My mother empowered her children with humor and acceptance to meet life’s biggest challenges. She instructed us to appreciate “the little things” and reminded us often of specific moments of laughter or beauty within our own family. Later, when faced with my husband’s stage four cancer diagnosis and subsequent immunotherapy side effects, I channeled those skills—to isolate and inhabit the best moments—I learned from my mother. 

This advice is trending in popular culture now. An article in USA Today identifies these instances as glimmers. “Glimmers are small moments that spark joy or peace, which help cue our nervous system to feel safe or calm. Experts [and Theresa McHale] say this mindset shift can make a positive impact on our mental health.” Researchers have found that glimmer-type experiences release neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. Over time, regularly training our brains to focus on these glimmers can tangibly boost happiness. (“‘“Glimmers’ are the opposite of triggers. Here’s how to embrace them,” by Sara M. Moniuszko, USA Today, March 23, 2022.)

It’s the same with writing. The act of writing uncovers a myriad of glimmering moments. I feel a dopamine rush when I construct a beautiful or impactful sentence on a linguistic level or uncover a forgotten image that brings me joy. My mom has been gone for many years, but I can visit with her when I write: lunch at the Colonial with Aunt Dorothy and Aunt Rita, waking up at 5 a.m. to chase John Paul II in the Popemobile when he visited Chicago’s Grant Park, or gallows humor about my father pouring Seagram’s into his thermos every morning. 

I have read a lot of memoirs. The ones that quickly rise to the surface of my memory feature glimmers in the writing. In “How to Say Babylon: A Memoir,” Safiya Sinclair writes about sitting with her mother and her aunties on the beach and the joy she felt as a child hearing their laughter. I can see the glimmers in “Angela’s Ashes” when Frank McCourt and his little brother join his father in the singing of the Irish rebel fight songs, or in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” when Maya Angelou recounts the community of growing up in her grandmother’s store. Those images that stay with me have the power to transcend specific times and places to become universal.

Now that I have finished my first draft and am well into revisions, I appreciate some of the personal glimmers developing in my own manuscript: when I fell from my bike and my father urged me back on, or when I met the coolest new friend in college and she danced like a dork during “Stop Making Sense,” or writing about the cut-glass clink of the ice when Lake Michigan froze each winter. I hope these moments also transcend the particular to become joyfully universal. 

When my name is called by the nurse, I smile and brush the bow on the pile of books. 

ENJOY – THE – LITTLE – THINGS. 

Yes, thanks to my mother, I will.  And thanks to my memoir, “You Were All Average: Tales of a Canaryville Girl,” I get to revisit these moments and share them with my readers.

Eileen Toomey

Eileen Toomey’s works have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, The Rumpus, Oyster River Pages, and more. Her poem "Immunotherapy" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Red Bank, NJ with her husband, Michael.

Eileen Toomey’s works have appeared in Cleaver Magazine, The Rumpus, Oyster River Pages, and more. Her poem "Immunotherapy" was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Red Bank, NJ with her husband, Michael.