Autobiographies are by far the most popular genre in literature. My experience mentoring over 150 adults in completing and sharing a “Life Map” project in a supportive group reinforces this fact. For many of these adults, their Life Map turned out to be one of their best learning experiences. And that in spite of the fact that for about eight percent of adults this “experiment” in self-writing and exploration came up against a “darkside event” or difficult life-chapter that put up a real roadblock.
As a New Yorker and a frequent contributor to the New York Almanack, I have launched a new book titled Understanding My Life’s Journey: Creating and Using a Life Map for Spiritual Growth and Personal Mission (Xlibris US, 2023). I discovered this ancient practice when a colleague helped me recover my sense of direction during a very difficult and dark church conflict.
I do not exaggerate when I say that it restored my sanity and got me back on track with a sense of mission and purpose. One of the things that makes Saint Augustine such a towering figure in world history is that he inaugurated a brand-new form of literature with his Confessions written in 397 AD. Technically called a “spiritual autobiography,” that seminal work is the prototype for all autobiographies, self-writing, and this practice I call Life Mapping.
I have no photos of many of the important events in my life. To remedy that I used my artistic talent to re-create these using Microsoft software, Paint and PowerPoint. These vignettes are teachable moments that punctuate my life story or bookend the chapters in my life. I will share eight of them here to introduce the book and highlight my own Life Map. Let the reader beware: This New Yorker came of age in the 1960s. I hope you enjoy my collection of vignettes.
This first vignette captures the earliest memory I have. I remember taking the Staten Island Ferry with my mother from Manhattan to the New Jersey shore, then by train to a summer cottage in Millington, N.J. I was around three years old, and this was very frightening.
Getting onto the Staten Island Ferry involved walking down a narrow bridge extending through thin air from the Terminal to the boat. Add in the loud noise of the boat grinding against the pier and poles, with the screech of tires and beep of horns from boarding vehicles. Then the narrow walk along the edge of the huge ferry, a fence barely protecting a passenger from the swirl of the cold water below. I held onto my mother’s hand for dear life. That was my lifeline. One slip and I would slide right through the safety rails. Happy was I to stand on the opposite shore.
The train then took us the 40 miles to Millington Station, where we were picked up by Grandpa Eberle for the short ride to the cottage tucked back in the woods. Warren C. Eberle was publisher of the Manhattan Tudor City View from 1941 through 1969. My earliest memory is one of the items included in what Narrative Psychologists call “Life Review,” another term for self-writing or autobiography. This recent branch of the social sciences regards Life Review as “an essential developmental task,” like learning to walk and talk (Robert Butler in The Life Review).
Another tense moment in life came in August of 1955 when two hurricanes brushed upstate NY, Connie and Diana. With no advance warning in those days us kids knew something bad was up when the wind rose to a dull roar. The vignette pictured here shows the front of our log cabin on Twitchell Lake in Big Moose, NY.
French Canadian woodsman Joe LaPointe immigrated to the Adirondack Mountains after the Second World War, working as a logger and handyman in the area. On one of his wood-chopping visits to our camp, he had noted a mouse going in and out of a hole about fifteen feet up the trunk of a big maple.
As the wind whipped up, Joe remembered and hurried to our camp in his guideboat, just in time to hear my dad yelling “Everyone get in the camp.” Joe came running up the path hollering, “Get out of the camp NOW.”
We kids turned around fast and ran down the path toward our neighbor’s camp, heeding the last loud order. With an ear-splitting “CRACK,” the wind split that tree into three pieces, one taking off the back porch, the others crashing on both sides of the cabin. There is a good chance that tree could have killed more than one of us. Looking back on it now, I think God sent an old Adirondack lumberjack to protect us on that day.
This third vignette was a teachable moment that became a “hinge event” for me, kicking off a new chapter in my life. I grew up in the Battle Hill section of White Plains, my house located where a noted Revolutionary War battle had been fought. A Mr. McNulty hired us neighborhood kids to do his yardwork, and for pay he let us choose a plastic toy from the factory he worked for. He had a box full in his garden shed.
One Saturday he noticed my interest in an old war helmet on the windowsill, which he gave me. As I walked proudly in the front door of our home wearing my new prize, my Dad yelled at me to remove it from my head and never wear it again. I was shocked. He then sat me down and explained what Hitler did to the Jewish people. He was a Second World War veteran and had witnessed Nazi atrocities firsthand. It troubled me that just eight years before my birth a world leader had murdered some ten million fellow human beings!
That brief confrontation triggered for me a lifelong search for what could cause such depravity. At White Plains High School I did a book report on Hitler’s autobiographical rant to try to plumb such evil. “Something is terribly wrong with human nature,” I reasoned, such hate and racism all too common. Existentially, this really worried me. The chapter in my life that followed “A Dream Childhood” I named “A Dark Cloud Appears” (1956 to 1961). I never saw that helmet again.
This vignette shows one of my most memorable events at Twitchell Lake. Here with brothers Tom and Dave our dad was taken out on a camp-out north of our lake, three miles by trail and then by map and compass to a stream too small to have a name.
A book on campcraft had us making natural shelters of stick, bark, moss, and pine boughs, so the lean-tos here were to keep out the weather. Fire-building, cooking arrangements, and camping details were all up to us kids.
Dad wrote this up in a book he had published late in life, his autobiography, with good humor on our mishaps and adventures, including getting across a stream with heavy packs, finding a missing fishing pole, and cooking bacon. He said:
“We had carefully made our beds before dark — you are supposed to find or make a natural hollow for your hips, then remove all roots, branches, twigs and stones, then line it with fern fronds or balsam boughs … One of the boys interlaced branches and covered the whole with large slabs of moss and bark to make himself a nice, relatively rain-proof cabin for the night…The only sounds were the gurgling of the little waterfall nearby and the soughing of the breezes in the pine trees … [then on making it across a narrow log on the return trip] I had survived my ordeal and could now consider myself a full-fledged member of their hiking fraternity. Perhaps the giant leap over that stream had helped to bridge the Generation Gap!”
It was a good time of bonding that remains special to me today. The last two chapters in my book pick up on how to turn a Life Map into our memoirs and how to pass our legacy to our circle of loved ones. My parent’s legacy to me went way beyond genes, character, and accomplishments. As I express in my book:
“From them I received my loyalty to my wife, my passion for art and writing, my love for nature and the wilderness, my commitment to learning, my community activism, and my love for people who are different from me racially and ethnically. The faith in God Dad and Mom embraced later in life has become a crowning part of my legacy, taking a central place in my vocation and calling.”
I think it was my high math SAT score that got me into Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. It was definitely not my English score. RPI is in Troy, the tri-city area including Albany and Schenectady. One Friday afternoon in my freshman year, two buddies headed with me to a fraternity party. We stopped for a few beers and a few puffs on the way. As we walked, I looked up at the road sign and it read “SHERRY RD,” my last name. Pointing up, I said “Hey, this is my road, see?” And they played along, “Yes,” and “Wow!”
They told everyone at the party that I had a road named after me in Troy, NY. We had fun with it. I did know that my dad had grown up in Troy, so maybe there was some family connection. Later I learned the history of my great grandfather John Sherry, Troy grocer and city father. John lived in a mansion called “Climber’s Rest” on the same hill RPI was built on and had given the city of Troy its first public park, bordering the RPI campus near this sign. Six-acre Beman Park was named after the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, now the chapel for Troy’s Russell Sage College. John was an elder in that church. So, when I told my friends “This is my road,” ironically, it was, and I did not even know it. Isn’t life just like that. You find out lots of important things later on, and sometimes, too late.
My career at RPI did not last too long. If you blinked at this engineering school, you were in academic trouble. After dropping out of RPI, I rented a little house with a couple of buddies on State Route 9, just above the Latham Circle.
One day we debated the question of whether a person is more (or less) creative under the influence of marijuana? We thus planned a “psychedelic experiment” for Friday eve, purchasing sheets of parchment paper and readying brushes with the large selection of oil paints down in the basement.
Friday came and contrary to former President Bill Clinton, we did inhale. We then went down to the basement for the experiment. I remember a smudge in the middle of my sheet, which in my state of mind morphed into a very distinct head of Jesus. Under my brush this became Christ crucified in a conflicted world marching on through time.
We crashed and got up in the morning to check on our results. A low creativity consensus was easy to make for their paintings. When they viewed my painting pictured in this sixth vignette, one blurted out immediately, “Holy Cow, Noel, you met God last night.” The other added, “I’m callin’ you ‘pastor’ from now on.” And so began a strange new metamorphosis in my life! And since one of the criteria for good self-writing is simply telling the truth as honestly as I can, I have to disclose this: I did not drop out of RPI — I flunked out.
Narrative Psychologist Dan McAdams included life’s low and high points in the autobiographical memories that went into the thousands of “Life Story Interviews” that he and his colleagues collected. This seventh vignette captures my nadir or low point, getting wounded in Vietnam on my last patrol.
Here’s how it happened. I turned down a secure job “in the rear” at our First Air Cav headquarters, about seven months into my one-year tour. Yes, I did. I also switched units from Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion of the 7th Division, to Alpha Company, 1st of the 7th, continuing combat missions in a fast- changing Vietnam.
Richard Nixon got elected President on his promise to get the US out of Vietnam, and in 1971 that meant no new troops coming in. My Alpha platoon of 50 men whittled to half-strength, men shuffled to other units while the Vietcong stockpiled weapons around Saigon for their final push to topple the government of South Vietnam. Intelligence kept sending us into these areas. 25 feet into the jungle on my last mission, I encountered a deep muddied trail that was like “main street” for enemy soldiers transporting heavy equipment. We noticed booby traps and other signs of buildup.
Two of us carried the 40-pound radio, and it was my turn to run patrol. I walked up to the other RTO and he knew what I was going to ask, “No way, it’s your turn!” The next day I was due to return to the rear and take my R&R in Sidney, Australia, before taking the “freedom bird” back to “the world.” My short-time calendar was marked off, save about two weeks on the year.
The next morning our “green” West Point lieutenant led twelve of us on patrol up a dry streambed, getting into contact and driving back an enemy soldier. Those of us with over six months combat experience urged withdrawal, pounding the area with artillery and a bomb drop, then the return of our whole company. The Lieutenant said, “We’re going in.” It was a guard post for something much bigger.
One of our men, Willie Horton picked up a piece of wood covering a tunnel entrance, setting off a booby trap and wounding four. He died in transit on the medivac helicopter I called in. We took fire the whole time extracting the four. The biggest concern at that point was being surrounded and taken as POW’s or worse. Returning to our camp, the soldier in front of me forgot to warn me of the booby trap wire across the trail, as I looked about tensely, left and right, for enemy soldiers. And I missed the trip wire.
The blast was sudden, and my first thought was “That’s it, I’m dead!” The next thought assured me that if I was thinking that … I was still alive, but in bad shape. No pain, but I took a blast from a grenade to my left ankle, with shrapnel up and down my legs. I went down, and Bill Nauroth took charge, upset at the lieutenant who had not ordered the removal of the booby trap earlier that morning.
It was a US smoke grenade used to signal location, which the enemy had short-fused and filled with TNT, nails, and other metal scrap. Bill removed my boots, cut my fatigues and was able to wrap the wounds to stop the bleeding. He probably saved my life. Time slowed way down for me, with what I remember as a “stream of consciousness,” the faces of my loved ones, passing one after the other, like an old-fashioned filmstrip.
A second medivac helicopter came right in and up I went in a “rigid litter” with three more wounded men. What a helpless feeling rising through bamboo, the swirl of helicopter blades above, AK-47 rounds cracking around me like a whip. No one was hit, and they kept me awake on the journey back to the field hospital in Ben Hoa, where I went right into surgery to have larger pieces of metal removed.
The next day the Red Cross brought a phone to me, my parents on the other end. “Hi Mom and Dad, I’ve been wounded but I’m OK. I’m on my way home.” I can only imagine their angst at that moment. I think they presented me with a Purple Heart that same day. The blast had numbed all pain, but a day later it took morphine to manage it. My journey home had begun. “Thank you, Bill, and thank You, God: I’m alive!”
After reaching the darkest moment in my life on August 6th of 1971, I reached a “zenith” or high point by the end of the year. Recovery from wounds in Vietnam in August took months, in and out of Walson Army Hospital at Fort Dix, NJ. My mom had been part of a prayer group at Ridgeway Alliance Church in White Plains, and in retrospect I believe God answered her prayers.
For me, the year 1971 ended with a cascade of key events. Falling asleep on December 21st, I cried out to God uttering what I now recognize as “the skeptics prayer,” asking God for help with a life that had become aimless, and now with a very serious disability. The next evening at a holiday party, Jeff and Marjean Marks led me in another prayer, one in which I invited Jesus to be my “Captain.”
For me it was like a light going on inside a dark space, my soul, with real assurance of forgiveness for a life I had been wasting and power to turn over a new leaf. In a real sense, I found myself identifying with Jesus’ prodigal son, recounted in Luke’s gospel.
Evidently, news of a sinner’s conversion travels fast, because the next day the pastor of Ridgeway Alliance Church, Rev. Dahl Seckinger, called me on the phone and congratulated me on my faith decision, asking me if I would consider coming to his Christmas Eve service to share my testimony. That word “testimony” generated a lengthy silence on my end of the call. I knew about a person testifying in court in a criminal case.
Was I in some kind of trouble, I wondered. After asking what he meant by “testimony,” he laughed and said, “I mean, tell your story, what happened to bring you to this decision.” “Yes,” I said, “I could to that,” though the thought of standing up in front of a large group of people was frankly terrifying. Well, I did testify at his Christmas Eve service, though in my nervousness I did not say much. On top of that I mispronounced the book of Job with a soft rather than a long “O.” Clearly, my Vietnam low-point had gotten me dwelling on that Biblical character known for suffering multiple losses.
Now aware that this word “testimony” has another connotation — “a public profession of religious experience” — this last vignette captures “My Testimony,” publicly declared on December 24, 1971. Right after that service, Jeff and Marjean introduced me to an au pair from Denmark who was residing and working with Marjean’s family in Bronxville, NY. She had a funny name, Ingelise! I liked it, though in my shyness and her limited English I think we only exchanged a weak handshake and a soft “Hi.” That woman become my wife, and now best friend of over fifty years! What a way to end my challenging military Chapter, which in my Life Map I titled “Caught by the Draft” (December 1969 to 1971).
My collection of PowerPoint vignettes has now grown to over sixty, becoming my signature way of telling my story. The many adults sharing their Life Map projects in my groups have done so using all kinds of creative means and methods. Psychology professor James Dillon has facilitated spiritual life writing since 1974 with hundreds of students at the State University of West Georgia. Dillon observed that adults in his spiritual autobiography groups discovered the “inner continuity” that ran through their lives via resonant images. His comments hint at the aha moments and creative sparks that accompany a project like this:
These images are dynamic and typically very simple — a blooming flower, a shooting ray of sunlight, the peeling of an onion, wandering in a desert, floating down a river, building a house, climbing a staircase or a mountain — but they are powerful and meaningful for both author and reader alike.
My main purpose for this book is to help anyone tell their story and make deeper sense of their life through the reflection offered by a Life Map project. Such a project can also enable real “proflection” going forward, the clarifying of a sense of mission, purpose, or destiny.
Writing a project like this out into personal memoirs also opens exciting possibilities for legacy and impact. Narrative psychology has discovered that a coherent Life Review finds a way to integrate “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” and so I include a chapter on “Redeeming the Darkside in my Life.” My project helped me to process my combat PTSD.
A person feeling drawn to lead a group like this would find this book to be a practical and ready guide. The book can be purchased here.