Steph Jagger, EVERYTHING LEFT TO REMEMBER: My Mother, Our Memories, and a Journey Through the Rocky Mountains

Steph Jagger, EVERYTHING LEFT TO REMEMBER: My Mother, Our Memories, and a Journey Through the Rocky Mountains

Zibby speaks to life coach and bestselling author Steph Jagger about her thoughtful and staggeringly beautiful new memoir Everything Left to Remember: My Mother, Our Memories, and a Journey Through the Rocky Mountains. Steph describes the incredible road trip she took with her mother, who has early-onset Alzheimer’s; her and her family’s journey from unconscious denial to conscious grieving; and all the beautiful things she has learned about herself in the meantime. She also talks about her love of nature and travel, which are the foundations of her writing, and hints at her experimental new project.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Steph. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Everything Left to Remember: My Mother, Our Memories, and a Journey Through the Rocky Mountains.

Steph Jagger: Thanks for having me, Zibby. I’m so pleased and honored to be here.

Zibby: Your book is beautiful. Your relationship with your mom, the way you wrote about it, the ambition of going hiking — not hiking, but camping, rather, and going on this big trip with your mom, who had Alzheimer’s, it was really beautiful. Really, really beautiful.

Steph: Thank you.

Zibby: Maybe you can tell everyone a little more about why you decided to write this memoir. Just start with that.

Steph: Gosh, in a lot of ways, I feel like the memoir decided to write me. The book itself is about a journey that I took. The backbone of it is a journey I took with my mom about ten months after her diagnosis with early-onset Alzheimer’s. I took her camping. We did a road trip. We traveled through a handful of different national parks of the West and were camping, as you said. We did do a little bit of hiking. We did some horseback riding and some whitewater rafting. I really, at the time, thought, before her memory goes in entirety, I wanted to kind of mine her for her story and get her to tell me all of the things that she hadn’t told me through our life. As I went on the trip itself with her, it was such a realization that, really, what I was looking for was me, was my story, and to let my mom and to let our moms have their life and their stories. Even if we don’t end up knowing the entirety of them doesn’t mean we can’t learn the entirety of our own interiority. When I did the trip with her, I didn’t go anticipating that I would write about it. Then when I was on the way home, quite literally, on the flight home, my mom was settled into the seat next to me on the plane and coloring in her coloring book, and I started madly writing in the notes app on my phone.

By the time we landed, I was like, uh-oh, I think this is probably a book. I sat down to start writing it shortly after that. It really felt more like calling, like I had to, than, oh, I think this would make a great story, and I’d really love to write about it in that kind of way. I do feel like in many ways, it wrote me. I get that a lot. People are like, oh, my gosh, the undertaking of someone with Alzheimer’s on a road trip like that. A lot of us have this view of Alzheimer’s and dementia as — the image we have is late stage, often old age and late stage combined. I think it’s really important to start giving a view of Alzheimer’s and dementia that happens to younger people and the early stages. Usually in the early stages, people are still trying to hide or cover up. There’s a lot of shame. Actually, my mom was very — she was Jane Fonda-fit, first of all, going into this thing. She was pretty with it. I have a lot of videos of her on that trip. It wasn’t what people imagine in their heads. Wait a second, you took an Alzheimer’s patient, who we usually think of as eighty or ninety and in many ways, maybe not able to move, etc., you took them whitewater rafting? It’s like, no, no. I took a woman in her late sixties who was very fit at the very beginning stages of her journey. It was wonderful. I did learn a lot about her, but I learned so much more about me.

Zibby: It’s amazing. You’re such a good advocate for her. In the whitewater rafting that you were talking about, you were quietly, okay, so she’s not going to remember any of these instructions. Let me just set the stage for you, you say to the guide. He’s like, all right, can she paddle? Here, I’ll just keep her right behind me. I feel like you so nicely took her along in everything and just made the accommodations you needed without making it a huge deal everywhere you went.

Steph: That was important. That was a journey for me, actually. I remember the first interaction. I took her horseback riding. At that stage, it was a little bit taboo, even inside of my family, to say outright she had Alzheimer’s. Even that was a journey. I started off by saying she has some memory issues, etc. Then by the end of the trip, it was like, oh, I should just tell people. There’s nothing bad about this. This is just like saying somebody has diabetes. I became more and more, really, to be honest, more and more honest through the whole journey with her, with the actual situation that was going on, but also with myself, which is the sign of any good, what is going to turn into memoir. You are becoming more truthful even with yourself as you travel through this. That was a beautiful part of it. It was important that some of the guides, as they’re going through all of the safety precautions, that they know she’s not going to remember. She’s not going to remember your name. She’s not going to remember the name of the horse. She’s not going to remember anything.

Zibby: Why did your family not want to call it what it was? Was it denial? What do you think it was?

Steph: I think there’s a couple of different things. Alzheimer’s and dementia and various different degenerative brain diseases, it’s starting to change, but certainly in the past, they’ve, for whatever reasons, come with, it seems like, a bit more shame of, our brain isn’t functioning. The person is right there. They know you, but they can’t remember. I think they sometimes have shame about that. I think this is a specific categories of diseases, there’s a lot more of it that is hidden. Not to say that there aren’t other disease that people kind of hide and don’t want to talk about. That’s a second thing. Our private health journeys, there’s a lot of people that don’t want to make those public. There’s another component within families. There’s such a deep grappling with, what is going to happen? What am I going to lose? The anticipatory grief involved, it kind of feels like, if I could just prolong talking about it, maybe I won’t hit the grief so soon. I think there’s a lot of hesitancy to even say the words because that means you’ve got to start dealing with any sort of grief and loss that comes up. I’m a memoir writer and a coach. I’m okay saying the words. My journey through grief has been, like most people, pretty excruciating, but there’s also been some gifts. It was Brandi Carlile that said mysticism is the most practical thing in the world. The only thing about it is it’s found smack in the middle of grief. I feel like that conscious grieving as opposed to unconscious denial of it has been a big part of my journey that I do my best to embrace. I honor everybody else’s journey. It is excruciating, but I think that’s one of the big reasons that people don’t like to talk about it. The more I talk about it, the more I’ve got to face it.

Zibby: Tell me your whole journey into writing to begin with, how you got into everything. Take me back.

Steph: Way back. I’ve always, always loved writing. I was a little girl in my closet making up stories. I always journaled. I always loved storytelling and writing. I never went to school for it. I didn’t do an MFA. I didn’t do any of that. When I started to travel a lot in my twenties, I just noticed myself writing more and more and more in my journals. Eventually when I did one of my big trips, I started a little update newsletter for my family and three best friends. That actually turned into my first book, Unbound, which is about a ski journey that I took. For me, I noticed that the combination of travel, specifically, travel that’s nature focused, words just end up spilling out of me. When I got back from that first ski journey, which was what the first book was about, I actually found — this is a great story. Before I left on that trip, I fell down a rabbit hole on the internet. I was not a writer.

Zibby: I thought you were going to say you fell down. I was like, oh, no. That’s not a great story at all.

Steph: No, no, no. I tumbled down a rabbit hole on the internet. I landed on, for whatever reason — I was from Vancouver, so I think it must have been through Danielle LaPorte. I landed on Linda Sivertsen’s webpage, the Book Mama. I fell in love. I was like, it’s too bad that I’m not a writer. Otherwise, I would do one of these retreats. Then I shut it down and went on with my life. I went on my ski trip. I moved to the States. I originally am from Canada. I just kept getting a knock on the door to write and write and write, so I started in earnest to write my first book. Then that summer, I similarly fell down a rabbit hole and landed on Linda Sivertsen’s page. I was like, I recognize this. I had this flashback to, oh, my gosh, this was a webpage I’d seen years ago. I need to know this woman. A week later, she had started the Beautiful Writers group, the online portion of the writers’ group. I signed up for that. I was well into writing my first memoir.

Then it was, quite honestly, that first book — this is a rare story, but it was like a magic carpet ride. I did a proposal in a month. I got an agent. The book sold the next month. It was very quick. I do feel like Linda has been an angel for me in that way. We have been in contact since early days of me being in that writing group. For me, it’s just, writing pours out of me when I travel. I now can get a pretty quick sense of when something wants to become a larger story. That’s the way of expressing my own interiority. When I go out into the natural world and I’m surrounded by an exterior awe and beauty and a larger, unspoken story, it just seems to be like, okay, that’s a match for what I feel like my insides are like. Now how do I translate that experience? All wild and not “trained” and not MFA’ed. I don’t know how to use grammar and all of that stuff. Thank god for editors.

Zibby: Grammarly is there for you. I feel like this should be an ad. Not sponsored by Grammarly. Although, I should call them. Anyway, I should go back and figure out what percent of people I’ve had on this podcast actually have MFAs because I don’t think it’s that high. I really don’t. I can’t imagine more than ten percent. If I had to guess, maybe five to ten percent. I don’t know. I don’t think the formal training is what makes you a writer. That’s mostly craft. The story is inside. Not to minimize.

Steph: Absolutely. That’s what I’ve always thought of, is myself as more of a storyteller. I do have a screenshot of a note — it’s on my computer — a screenshot of a note from one of my high school English teachers saying, “Never stop writing.” I used to turn every assignment, no matter what the subject was, into a creative writing assignment. I remember being in university and receiving a C mark and being like, “The only reason I passed you is because, you did not do the assignment, but this is beautiful writing.” I was like, okay.

Zibby: I did that too in a history class. I did a historical fiction something instead of — I was like, let me make this into something I want to do. By the way, Linda was on this podcast very recently. She had me on her podcast. I have her book, Beautiful Writers. She’s great.

Steph: It’s gorgeous. It’s a beautiful braiding of a multitude of stories. I don’t know how she managed to do it in one book. It was amazing.

Zibby: Have you found that percolating feeling for your next project yet?

Steph: Yes. This book was supposed to come out in 2021. Hello, COVID. I think my pages were due March 2020. I handed them in and was about to take myself on a little “Congratulations, you completed your second book” retreat, and the retreat got cancelled. I thought, oh, okay. Then of course, everything got pushed out. There was a big gap between when I handed pages in and the book coming out. I did start writing in that time. There’s definitely more. What I’m working now, similarly, it’s memoir, but it wasn’t travel. What I said before, too, of, oh, my gosh, I always write when I travel, we were landlocked. We were here in our houses. This feels to me a little bit more like the potential of a memoir of my imagination. Everything is true, but it all happened inside of my head. Is that a memoir? It is not? Is it fiction? Is it not? There is what I would call pretty experimental stuff going on. I just feel no rush around it. My experience after publishing both books is six months after publication, I get this itch. Oh, my gosh, I have to know what’s next. I’ve really tried to resist that this go-around. Just let the divine timing of it be the divine timing of it. You don’t need to rush. We’ve all been through a fair bit. It’s been moving in these kaleidoscopic — sometimes it feels like life is moving very slow over the last three years. Sometimes it feels like it’s moving at lightning speed. I’ve just been trying to pay attention to what the book wants to be and how quickly it wants to move. We will see, but there is some experimental writing going on in the background.

Zibby: Interesting. Going back to your journey and this book, Everything Left to Remember, when you say you’ve learned more about yourself than anything else, when you reflect back on the takeaways and how you changed as a person or all of that, what are some of the main things that you got out of that?

Steph: I think the biggest thing, if I was to sum it up, would be, this journey and the writing of it felt to me like the completion of initiation into archetypal mother. What I mean by that is it felt to me, when I was moving through that, if I’m speaking archetypally, like a very maiden thing to demand more from my mom, especially at that time. You’ve just received this diagnosis. Now give me everything. That feels to me as I look back like a very maiden request. Also, how human, a request out of desperation and grief and fear of loss. I feel the journey that I went on really moved me into archetypal mother. To me, the quintessential question is, what will you allow to be created through you? That could be businesses. That could be children. That could be love. That could be words. There’s so many different ways that we as women get to answer that question and answer that call. That really felt like, turn the lens inward for a moment. Dear maiden, put down your swords that you’re carrying and kind of marking the external world up. Turn internally. Quest for, what is it, truly, that you would like to be created through you? What kind of energy do you want? What is the story that wants to come through you? Then, of course, that moves into, how do you nurture that into actual being? That really feels like the journey. My first book is, inarguably, a maiden’s voyage. I love that book. I love that younger version of me that was so fierce in the world. This feels like a real movement into including that ferocity, but kind of a softening into creation.

Zibby: I love that. Do you have memoirs that you are obsessed with or that you love or that made you want to be a memoirist or any of that?

Steph: Oh, my gosh, I feel like anything Terry Tempest Williams and Sue Monk Kidd and Robin Wall Kimmerer. I could go on in that kind of category. There’s a blending of the philosophy and spirituality and ecology and nature that I’m absolutely obsessed with. I just read Qian Julie Wang’s book, Beautiful Country. That is unbelievable. How she carried the voice of the child through was just unbelievable. E.J. Koh, who lives in Seattle here, she wrote a book called The Magical Language of Others, which I read just after finishing my book. I finished my book. I’m all proud of my evolution as a writer. I read her book, and I’m like, oh, I’ve got a long way to go. Those are a handful, for sure. I would say Annie Dillard. These are writers that are blending especially story of female initiation — it doesn’t always have to be mother/daughter — and nature and ecology and their surroundings. I’m fairly obsessed. That’s a go-to for me.

Zibby: You’re making me want to read all these books, getting back into the outdoors, even. Here am I in New York City. Your reverence for nature is infectious, really.

Steph: That’s the other point of the book. As you said, what was the journey that you came into? What did you learn? If my mother is going to go, what mother will hold us? That, to me, is mother nature. That’s been a longtime relationship that I feel like anytime I feel unmothered or unmoored in the world, that’s the place I go. I feel there is a reverence. You are right. That is the correct word for it, for sure.

Zibby: I’m so sorry for the loss, the way it has happened. I know mother nature can be there as a substitute. I’m sorry it couldn’t be easy.

Steph: Thank you. It’s both/and, that loss, my mom. She is still here. I do get to visit her next week. She’s up in Canada. I am excited to be able to see her next week.

Zibby: When you talk about the loss, the grief, I felt like you had used those terms even though she is alive, which is why I said that. Is that okay?

Steph: Absolutely. Especially with degenerative disease, this is the landscape. There’s acute loss and grief happening day to day. There’s anticipatory grief happening all the time. Those are ever-present even though the person is still living, so absolutely, those are the right terms.

Zibby: What is your relationship now? How often do you see her?

Steph: COVID and borders have thrown a wedge in how often I was able to visit from 2020 through to about 2021. I was able to go visit. Really, the long story is, over the last two and a half, three years, I’ve really only been able to see her about three or four times, which has been excruciating. Maybe the spiritual, mystic, mythologist, archetypal person in me is attempting in some way to prepare for — I think this might be part of the anticipatory grief, but is attempting to prepare for having a spiritual relationship with her. I’ve been doing my best to feel the grief of not being able to see her as often as I would like, but also to move into a place where I’m beginning to develop a new and different relationship with her. I feel like there’s a transition happening.

Zibby: I feel like you also wrote so beautifully about your dad and his caretaking.

Steph: Oh, my gosh, he’s a prince. He is a gem. To be quite frank, I feel like it’s a living, breathing The Notebook. They’re high school sweethearts. Their love story is epic. I don’t get into the — to the degree in the book about their love story, but it’s really, really, really unbelievable. He tells me still to this day that he’s — and I’ve watched it. Especially at the beginning stage of her Alzheimer’s, I watched them fall more in love with each other during that time. Even to this day, whenever I see him, go in and visit her with him, he is just still so in love with the babe. That’s what he calls her. That has been one of the greatest gifts of my life, point blank, to see their love story and to grow up in that. Then to see its evolution and its deepening through this journey with Alzheimer’s and dementia, I can’t think of a bigger gift in my life in the midst of not a gift.

Zibby: What is your day-to-day life like now? What do you do when you’re not doing your experimental new book?

Steph: I still do writing. Obviously, there’s still tending to do with this as an author. There’s still tending to do with book publication and promotion and all of that. On the other side of things, for about ten years now, I’ve been doing private practice coaching. I run retreats that are really about exactly what I was talking about before. Women, I feel, move through or have an opportunity to move through four master initiations. There’s maiden. There’s mother. There’s autumn queen. There’s crone. The business over the last handful of years has tended to work with people who are moving through those types of initiations and transformations in their life. That’s been happening for ten years. A lot of my day-to-day looks like private practice inside of coaching. I’m not a therapist, but to give people an — that’s what it looks like. I’m on Zoom having an hour-long conversation, usually, with a variety of different clients. Then we do different retreats, which have just restarted again this year and have been such a joy. You know this. You’ve been doing so many events. It’s such a joy to be back with people and connecting on that kind of energetic level. I’ve missed that so much. That’s also what life looks like. Sometimes I’m doing three-day weekends or four-day weekends, usually in some sort of nature-based setting, with a handful of different women really looking at the stories of our lives. Some are writing retreats. Some are not. It really is looking at, what is the narrative that we’re living in? The root word of narrative comes from knowing. How do we sink into our lives in a deeper and richer way to understand or hear or live and breathe into the aliveness of those narratives and those knowings? I love that side of the work too. I feel so grateful because listening to hundreds, if not thousands now, of stories of women in their own lives has created a richness in my own storytelling that I am eternally grateful for.

Zibby: I love that. Last question. What advice would you give to aspiring authors or to the clients that you see to keep them going or all of that?

Steph: To aspiring authors, my advice would be don’t look too far ahead. As soon as I told people I was going to start writing a book, people would always ask, where are you publishing it? My advice is to just say, I’m writing it. I’m writing. I’m writing. I’m writing. Sit down and write. There will come a time where you might have to think about, should I get an agent? Should I get a publisher? I think there’s a lot of people that get held back from the actual writing because they think, I don’t have those things yet, so I guess I can’t or shouldn’t write. I’d say, hold up, write. That would be my main advice, is just to get into that and do that. As you said, in the other realm, in the coaching realm, my advice for women, I really feel like all wellness is being right with time, which really, to me, means, is my physical body, my mental body, my emotional body, my energetic and spiritual body, all four of those, are they in the same place at the same time? So often, our emotional body is in the past. Our mental body is shooting forward to worry about X, Y, Z. Our physical body, we are disassociated from them. That is my main advice. What can we do to bring all of those bodies to the same place at the same time? That feels, to me, like my definition of thriving and flourishing in this world. It’s a little bit different than just what we’ve come to know as mindfulness. This is a more — no pun intended — embodied kind of way of getting there. That’s not my advice for other people. That’s my advice for me when I wake up in the morning. Am I all here?

Zibby: That’s the best kind of advice. What do you live by? That is the best. This has been so interesting. I’m so inspired by you. Again, your book was absolutely beautiful and poignant and really soulful. I’m not surprised that you are that way to chat with. Thanks for coming on.

Steph: Thank you, Zibby. This has been a lovely conversation.

Zibby: Thanks for waking up so early. Take care. I hope I see you in person. Take care. Buh-bye.

Steph: Thanks, Zibby. Thank you. Bye.

Steph Jagger, EVERYTHING LEFT TO REMEMBER: My Mother, Our Memories, and a Journey Through the Rocky Mountains

EVERYTHING LEFT TO REMEMBER: My Mother, Our Memories, and a Journey Through the Rocky Mountains by Steph Jagger

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