Bits of Christmas Light

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My Jewish friend once said he felt left out at Christmas, that the sparkling lights on the trees and buildings “are not for me.” A teacher we both knew told him about the pagan origins of the festivals of light celebrated around the world at the darkest time of the year. “The lights can be for you if you want them to be,” he wisely said. But what if all is not peace and light?

It’s a fraught time of year, I find, with trapdoors of angst, regret and disappointment. If I’m not careful, I fall in. Flashes of memory come and go. Dear faces I’ll no longer see. Sweet voices I won’t hear again.

Some years, I was so lonely I couldn’t wait for the holidays to be over. Other years were so frantic with shopping, traveling, and family dysfunction, I was too tired and anxious to be full of good cheer. A close relative used to joke with me about wanting a Thanksgiving table like the one on the wine commercial – big, happy family, everyone getting along. Then we’d laugh and say: “Those people are actors!”

This week, as I dug out my fancy salad recipe for Thanksgiving, I remembered my mother working hard in her kitchen. She was a good baker, but got pretty strung out when she put on a holiday feast. I wish I could have understood her better when she was still alive. Next month, when I bring out my vanilla-stained cookie recipes, I will think of my mother-in-law and her son’s favorite peanut butter cookies with a chocolate kiss in the center. I wish I could talk to her now.

I’ve come to realize that these winter holidays can be just what we need “if we want them to be.” No one knows where the path may lead, but there are things we can hold on to regardless.

Often, it helps to write or read about them. In the absorbing new novel,  An Uncertain Path, by Sandra Carey Cody,  an unexpected and tragic accident links the lives of two young women, unknown to one another, and sets them on a path they never imagined.

We had an unexpected loss in our own family this month, and our path through the holidays will feel different. But that’s okay. These days, Change is my new middle name. My perspective has shifted quite a bit. I focus on the things I love about Christmas: spending time with friends and family, making and sharing traditional food, listening to special music, driving around to see the lights, attending a Christmas Eve service.

I don’t care anymore if my holiday season is as good as anybody else’s, or like the ones gone by.  In the fullness of time, they all run together anyway.  My wish for you is that these short days are filled with all the peace, love and warmth your heart can hold.

Now it’s your turn. What’s the most important part of the winter holidays for you? What can you do without?

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Post a comment and I’ll put your name in the drawing for a signed copy of An Uncertain Path.  

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The winner of last month’s drawing is Donna Galanti, a wonderful writer herself! She gets an autographed copy of A Time of Fear and Loving by Alice Orr. Congrats, Donna!

Time Enough

 

Seventeen years ago this fall, I collected acorns from my driveway and put them in my pocket as symbols of rebirth. When I entered the hospital for major surgery, I took the acorns with me, as well as these affirmations for the surgeon: “I am very pleased with this operation.” “Linda’s surgery is a big success.” “Linda will heal quickly.”

He was, it was and I did. Life went on, as it does, and I got older. A big birthday last year jolted me into a state of anxious rumination. Had I done enough with my life? Short answer: No. So, what’s an older woman to do? I journaled and pulled my spiritual reading off the shelf. I started a new spiritual practice, lighting a candle and reading something inspirational, then journaling about it for 20 minutes, first thing in the morning.

That year of rumination is almost up, and I’m pleased to say the anxiety is going away, albeit slowly. Somehow, I realized I had done quite a lot. That the years I remembered as preoccupied, worried, angry or scared were my learning time. The twenty years since I began writing about my life have been my practice time. Some of my work was published, much of it not. Some of my time was spent writing, much of it not.

Yesterday, after an outside appointment, I thought of stopping to pick up some birdseed, or to spend that coupon from the clothing store, or maybe pick up a latte. But my writing had taken over part of my mind and so I drove straight home and sat down at my desk.

One reason I’m motivated to write these days is the example of other women like myself. Women like romantic suspense author Alice Orr. Her latest novel, A Time of Fear and Loving, is the fifth in her Riverton Road series. I met Alice through the International Women’s Writing Guild. She is a former book editor and literary agent who suggested I turn my complicated first novel into a trilogy, advice I am happy to say I am following.

Alice is the author of 16 novels, 3 novellas, a memoir and No More Rejections: 50 Secrets to Writing a Manuscript that Sells. She is a mother and grandmother, and she’s not letting the passage of time get in her way.

I hadn’t read romantic suspense since I was in my twenties, but reading Alice’s work reminds me how much I loved this genre. I was pleasantly surprised to find her series is set in the North Country, the beautiful part of upstate New York near the river town where I was born and raised. In this latest book, a young widow investigates the disappearance of her old friend and soon runs into a long ago crush who is now a police officer with his own issues from serving in Afghanistan.

So, here’s the question: how does the passage of time affect you? Do you ignore it? Do you use it to motivate you? Something else? Comment on this post and I’ll put your name in the hat to win a signed copy of A Time of Fear and Loving.

I’d love to read your thoughts.

The winner of last month’s drawing is Susan Schoch.  I’m sending her my copy of Dorothea Benton Frank’s Pawley’s Island.

 

Mercy, mercy me!

 

20140308_043253Maybe it’s my Polish Catholic upbringing, but the themes of forgiveness and mercy are showing up in the books I choose to read. And a glance at the magazines near the supermarket checkout would lead us to believe we have much to forgive. Whether it’s how to be a better parent or spouse or cook or lover, our culture says we are doing it all wrong. We need to work harder to correct our ways.

I’m all for self-improvement – to a point. The older I get, the closer that point is to where I am today: human, imperfect and perfectly okay. Self-blame is corrosive and saps our energy. I’m encouraged by the recent upsurge in magazines about simple living and authors who advocate getting rid of self-doubt.

All this may explain why I related to Dorothea Benton Frank’s 2005 novel, Pawley’s Island.  When artist Rebecca Simms loses custody of her children to her cheating husband, her self-esteem is already at rock bottom. She judges herself harshly for simple mistakes until a retired female attorney with her own guilty conscience comes to her rescue and learns to forgive herself in the process.

Often, it’s our friends we turn to when our self-image needs a boost. I count on women who have known me for decades or just a year to remind me I’m worthy of love, despite my mistakes. They teach me that mercy is for everyone, including me. They have also, on occasion, come up with some good solutions for knotty problems, but only when I ask. Most of us, most of the time, can figure things out for ourselves. We just want our pals to be there, cheering us on through the sticky parts.

What about you? Have your friends helped you navigate those days when you wanted to pull the covers back over your head? I’d love to hear about it. This time next month, I’ll randomly pick one person who comments to receive my copy of Pawley’s Island.

And speaking of next month, come see me and a bunch of other writers on Sunday,  October 15th at the Prallsville Mill  in Stockton, New Jersey, for River Reads. Lots of fun – wine, crepes, readings, signings and workshops!

 

Justice and Mercy

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” – Psalm 23:6

This beautiful phrase from the Bible comes near the end of the prayer that begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” When it popped into my mind today, I thought it was “justice and mercy,” but on looking it up, I found the above translation.

I had been thinking about my essence, and how it informs my writing, after a workshop I took this weekend with Corey Blake at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York. In Corey’s interactive exercises, I zeroed in on the important role judgment and forgiveness have played in my life. Justice and mercy are my touchstones. But there is a very subtle difference between justice and judgment, isn’t there?

In my memoir, Off Kilter,  I wrote about learning to stop judging my mother (and myself) and to just do what makes me happy. I recalled an incident from my childhood. During recess in elementary school, I was unjustly accused of a malicious act that was an accident. The school principal was a nun who showed me no mercy. She had me stand beside her at the entrance to the building as all eight grades of students streamed indoors, staring at me on the way to their classrooms.

Until that day, I was a “good girl.” I tried very hard to do what was expected of me. But it didn’t matter to Sister Principal. And so, for the first time, I understood what it felt like to be one of the “bad kids,” the ones who were held up as examples of how not to be.

We rarely saw what these kids had done that was so bad. We only saw their embarrassed or defiant faces as our principal put them out for public viewing like criminals in the dock.

And now I was just like them. From good to bad, in an instant. I threw a snowball at another girl, aimed at her back. She turned and got it in the face, and there must have been ice inside, because her nose was bloody. I apologized, crying just as much as she.

My pleas went unanswered, and I wondered how guilty the other “bad kids” were. Did anyone ever stop to consider whether they had meant to do wrong?

I was so traumatized I never stepped a wrong foot again in that school. I knew that my intent would not matter if my actions caused damage.

Have you ever experienced a personal injustice? What did you learn from it? Does it matter to you if people misjudge you?

Let’s talk about it. Comment below.

When Things Were Not So Different

The following is a blog piece I wrote last year and never published. I think it’s time to let it out into the world.

Today I went to a life celebration for one of my memoir students. Lee was 93, a sweet and gentle man who smiled at his own frailties and took seriously all my suggestions to make his writing better. The gathering was small but filled with love and laughter as his family recalled his attention to detail and his endless storytelling.

It’s been a tough week here in the U.S. of A. Another mass shooting, angry ranting in the media, social and public, about the merits of gun control and the true tenets of a religion whose extremist members are suicidal would be killers.

Added to that is the ever present fact that I’m not getting any younger. No moisturizer or beauty sleep will iron out the wrinkles on my face. No amount of zumba or chiropractic will stave off forever the aches in my back and knees. I feel the pressure of time. Enjoy life, now, while you can, I tell myself. Use each moment to live your best life, there may be no tomorrow.

How can I reconcile my desire to accomplish certain things, to savor each moment, and to rewire my brain for happiness with the outside world and its horrors?

Can I stop watching the news? Cut off my social media? I’ll know it’s there anyway.

Hearing about Lee’s long and full life, at the funeral home this morning, at the lunch the family hosted afterward, and in his stories in my memoir class, I understand why this man was so loved. He was kind, he was gentle, he was tender. He lived through another horrific time: the Second World War, and worked as a young scientist on a secret project in the desert, far from home. And went on to establish a family and a network of friends, a home and a lifetime of useful work.

My mother once told me of the sad and lonely wartime Christmas holidays, for three or four years in succession, when she missed her husband and three brothers, all of them in mortal danger, knowing she’d only hear from them weeks after a letter was written, hopefully always by them and even then not knowing for sure they were all right.

We’ve been through tough times before. The world is like that. This is our time, and we can hide from that truth or use our time here to make our patch of earth and sky, the place from which our light shines forth, warm and suffused with love. A comfort. Like Lee.

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Imperfect Nation

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photo by Eric Duvauchelle at unsplash.com

Since the recent presidential election, I have struggled for words. Today’s calendar has unlocked me, bringing back the feelings I had on this date in 1963 after the assassination of President Kennedy.

I am angry. I am sad. I am shocked.

I have read columns and blogs and Facebook posts to figure out what happened and why.  I didn’t want to add to the noise. If I said anything in print, it had to be good.

Paralyzed and at a loss, I recalled these lines from the poem Anthem by the late Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

So here goes.

The president elect pulled the scab off our national infection and the pus is oozing out.We have long covered over the ugly symptoms of hate and tried to ignore them but now, with this election, we see how they fester. We can’t look away. And it hurts. Oh, how it hurts.

This essay  by Charles Eisenstein opened my eyes a little more and had me nodding in agreement.

So what do we do now? Michael Moore has a pretty good list. David Brooks offers some thoughtful advice. There’s loads more: Wear a safety pin, write your elected officials,  march on Washington,  speak up and donate and share your imperfect offerings.  Mr. Rogers said his mother responded to scary news by telling him to look for the helpers. Now we can be the helpers.

Before the election, I tried a little experiment to understand why any of my Facebook friends would vote for a man so divisive. I still don’t understand why racism and misogyny were not deal breakers for them. But I’ve been reading that  many people felt forgotten. In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called for a Marshall plan for the poor in America, black and white. Maybe that’s an idea worth revisiting, beyond name-calling and labeling.

And finally, this: In her book, No Ordinary Time, a great comfort to me these past two weeks, Jan Phillips encourages us to “practice speaking as if your life were a manifestation of your words.” To me, that means say what you want to see. Imagine that.

That Wall

 

That wall by Sandis Helvigs at Unsplash.com
Photo by Andis Selvigs, unsplash.com

“I want that wall,” she says, and my back arches like a cat’s. I know exactly what she is talking about, and it’s not a Pink Floyd album. A leading Presidential candidate wants to erect a wall to keep out immigrants and my petite blond massage therapist likes the idea.

She leads the now rankled me down a quiet hallway to a dimly lit room in the spa I visit every month. The soft music and floral scent are pleasant as always, but her words have unnerved me. She looks like the same woman who is so good at working the kinks out of my back and shoulders. We have shared opinions about many things: raising kids, her brush with breast cancer, my back pain. I like her. A lot. And I can hardly believe my ears.

“I want to be Donald Trump’s massage therapist. I wrote to him.”

I sit on the chair to remove my shoes and my words rush out, too fast.

“Are you kidding? He’s a racist bigot.” My friends have been saying it for months. In here it sounds like a knee-jerk liberal talking point.

The young woman shakes her head, her wiry curls bouncing. Her dark eye flash. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

My mind goes to his face on the TV news – every day, all day, angry, vitriolic, threatening.

“I’m just shocked,” I say, holding a sock in my lap. “I don’t know anybody who likes him. I’m 180 degrees from where you are on this.”

“Well, I’ve had it with Obama. I can’t afford my health insurance.” She taps a foot. “Anything going on with you today?”

I say no, just give me a regular tune-up. She knows my issues – side pain, my need for pillows under my knees and stomach, stiffness in the hand I broke years ago – and reads up on them to better help me.

“Okay, I’ll give you a minute to get comfortable.” She leaves the room closing the door behind her.

Comfortable? How do I get comfortable with a woman I like voting for Donald Trump? I undress and lay face down under a blanket.

When she comes back I imagine her touch is unfriendly. I tell myself nothing has changed but my attitude toward her. Which means everything has changed.

I can’t let it go. “You can’t afford your health insurance?”

“No, I’m just a lowly massage therapist.”

“That’s too bad,” I say. And that’s all. I’m not going to argue during my massage. Instead, I concentrate on my slowly relaxing muscles. We are silent for the next 50 minutes.

On the way out, I don’t reschedule as I usually do. I’m still shaken. I think I’ll quit and tell the manager it’s because of her inappropriate political remarks. But then I’d have to go somewhere else for my body work. Shall I give up my principles for convenience? Or do I try to convert her to the “good” side?

In no way do I want to add to the rancor all around us these days. I believe strongly that most people just want to be heard. I teach my students to write their personal stories, to express themselves on the page. But this is the first time someone I like has come out in favor of a candidate I abhor and I don’t want to hear it.

My husband does not share my outrage. “He won’t win,” he says. But I’m not so sure. Now that I’ve heard from my young massage therapist, I wonder about all the others like her. As we progress toward the future, some people feel left behind. They want someone to blame for that. And they want what they perceive to be a strong leader, someone who says he will protect them.

My friends post anti-Trump messages online comparing him to Hitler, ridiculing his hair and other body parts. It’s way too easy, on social media, to get carried away with the vitriol. No one is standing right there, looking back at us. Someone we might know. And like.

Today I made another appointment for massage at the same spa with the same therapist. I don’t plan to bring up politics, but if she has something more to say, I plan to upgrade my listening practice. Maybe I’ll ask a few questions. That doesn’t mean I’ll ever support her choice. But I may learn something. And she may feel heard. We’ll take it from there.

One Thing At a Time

 

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photo credit: Wojtek Witkowski at Unsplash.com

Writer Louise DeSalvo has been a favorite of mine ever since I picked up her memoir, Vertigo. Because I love to read, write and teach memoir, I recommend her work and delve back into it for my classes. Writing as a Way of Healing and The Art of Slow Writing are two treasure troves of advice, quotes and tips from famous and successful authors as well as very personal anecdotes and helpful encouragement from DeSalvo herself. For the past ten years, her words have kept me going when I needed a friendly push to keep telling my own story.

Often, I find my mind spinning with ideas. I have a hard time deciding which one to focus on. Which writing project best deserves my attention? Which is a waste of time? I don’t know. I want to know. Ahead of time, before I even write it.

The next novel, a short story, a personal essay? I have files of unfinished pieces. I open one and get bored with it before I finish reading the entire draft. I reach for Slow Writing. I flip to a highlighted page. “In writing, it doesn’t matter what you choose to do; it only matters that you choose to do something.” Yes, but isn’t there a best thing to write today? Apparently not, or at least, there’s no way to know what that ‘best’ thing is. Like meditation, just sitting down and doing the practice is the answer.  I know from experience that the “best” way to meditate is to just do it. Let the crazy thoughts fly in and out and focus on your breath or mantra. In writing, DeSalvo says it works best if she focuses on one decision at a time. Write five hundred words. Develop the characters. Add details. Line edit word by word.And so on. One thing at a time. I can do this.

DeSalvo says it gets easier with practice and I believe her. Because most things do. Meditating. Exercising. Healthy eating. Cooking. Why not writing?

What about you? Do you have a book of writing advice you love? What do you do when you can’t decide what to write?

 

 

Your Attention, Please

 In his book, Buddha’s Brain, neuropsychologist Rick Hansen says what we  give our attention to literally changes our brains. It’s called neuroplasticity. I like the metaphor he uses: our “attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and your self.”
This week, like many people, I’ve been giving my attention to fear because of the terrorist attacks in Paris and the barrage of news and social media posts about “smaller” recent attacks in Beirut and elsewhere. If that weren’t enough to kick my occasional vertigo into high gear, there is that particular American terror of a deranged gunman who can walk into a school or movie theater on any given day. And so I search for the reasons why, and how “we” can prevent these acts and protect ourselves and those we love.
On one level, it makes perfect sense. According to Hansen, in order to survive, our ancestors evolved to constantly scan their surroundings for threats. But are we really so unsafe? I won’t quote the statistics here about the likelihood of a gunman or a terrorist in your city or town or neighborhood. Statistics are floating all over the internet this week, and you can find what you need to prove any point. Instead, think about this: What if focusing our attention on danger is exactly what we don’t need?
Fear of terrorists and gunmen leads to fear of “the other,” i.e., anyone not like ourselves, our friends, our families. We start scrutinizing our neighbors. And fear makes our evolved brains scramble for all sorts of creative ways to protect us. Like keeping “the others” out of our country, city, neighborhood. Passing laws, writing angry letters, passing judgment on people because they resemble the latest evildoers.
The world has always been a dangerous place. The Middle Ages, Pearl Harbor, the Holocaust… as Gilda Radner used to say as her comic character Emily Litella on Saturday Night Live, “It’s always something.” Sadly, this twenty-first century horror is our “something.”
Yet for most of us, the world is safe. We don’t like to think about that, because we’re afraid of “letting down our guard.” But for most of us, most of the time, we are essentially okay.
After a treatment for my vertigo, I was surprised at the change in my mental state. From sadness at the killing of innocents and the demonizing of strangers, not to mention the gloomy rainy day and my creaky aging body, I drove away feeling light, safe and cared about. I saw that something could be done to help my dizziness. And I took that in, because Hansen says it activates the left frontal region of the brain which lifts my mood and grows neural pathways of inner contentment.
Yes, we should care about the suffering of others and do what we can to help. So I’ve decided to devote one hour a day to news and social media posts about the state of the world. Surely I can learn what I need to know in one hour a day and support my causes. Surely the dead are not served by my fear.
I plan to savor the lightness of feeling cared for, the smiling faces of people I meet, and the good all around me if only I pay attention long enough to see it, take it in and make it part of me.
What about you? How are you coping today?

Joyce Carol Oates and Her Happy Chicken

The Lost Landscape: A Writer's Coming of AgeThe Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age by Joyce Carol Oates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not a big fan of her fiction, but I teach and write memoir, so I picked this one up and am I glad I did! Though when I got to the chapter written by her pet chicken, I rolled my eyes. She is such a good writer that I couldn’t stop reading what the chicken said!

Some of her childhood and adolescent memories foreshadow what she will write about in her novels: incest, murder, child abuse. The lost landscape of her youth (and mine) is poignantly portrayed – rural western New York State, the 1960s. Discovered that she taught at Detroit when my husband was a student there (he doesn’t remember her but he does remember the 1967 riots she describes) and that the radial Weathermen’s bomb blew up a townhouse in New York a few blocks from where she was doing a photo shoot for Vogue. Evocative of her era (and mine) as a young woman, and a loving homage to her parents, this memoir is a wonderful selection from a famous writer’s “life and times.”

I was interested that she doesn’t believe a memoir should have a narrative structure, because our lives are not lived that way, yet she acknowledges that memoir is selective, like picking “up a handful of very hot stones.” One “has to drop some, in order to keep hold of others.”

View all my reviews

Her Sister Was a Chimp

We Are All Completely Beside OurselvesWe Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Told from the point of view of a woman who was raised alongside a chimpanzee, as an experiment, this novel raises big questions about human treatment of animals, especially in medical and psychological research. Karen Joy Fowler’s name has been on my radar for years, but this was the first book of hers I read, and I will be reading everything else she has written. I was completely taken by the beauty and emotional power of her metaphors – “bad mood walking,” “the whole of the Internet laid out before me like a Candy Land board,” and “the government can’t be wrong about everything; even a stopped clock, etc.”, so much that I stopped to read them aloud to my husband. She had me laughing to myself and feeling very sad many times as I read this novel, and I read it slowly, savoring the story, the words and the strong poignant voice of Rosemary Cooke, protagonist and sister to a chimp named Fern.
This novel is about love, family dynamics, politics, what we do when we don’t want to face the truth and what happens to us when we do. Fabulous.

View all my reviews

Happy Mother’s Day? (or not)

Thought I’d bring this out again, because I still feel this way. Enjoy the day!

LINDA C. WISNIEWSKI

It’s that time of year again, when arguments against Mother’s Day appear, at least against the way we celebrate the holiday in the United States. It’s too commercial, mothers aren’t any more special than other women, some people had bad mothers, some mothers don’t like their kids, some women want to be mothers and can’t, some miss their deceased mothers or were given up for adoption, etc. etc. etc. On days like this, I don’t think we’ll ever run out of things to complain about.

Ann Lamott wrote in Salon in 2010 that she raised her son NOT to celebrate Mother’s Day. She didn’t want him to feel obligated. This sounds to me like the worst kind of manipulation females have been accused of for centuries, probably because it was the only way we could exert any power over our lives. “Oh, no, don’t worry about me, I don’t want…

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The Layers of Forgiveness

On a recent Sunday afternoon, my husband and I took the train to Philadelphia to see the world premier production of a new play at  the Arden Theatre Company. Under the Skin, by playwright Michael Hollinger, was one of the best plays I have seen at the Arden where we have been season ticket holders for the past three years.

While trying hard not to give anything away, I want to encourage anyone who has a parent or has been a parent to see it, and so I will offer a short summary and review here. The play is no longer at the Arden, but I hope it continues to be produced at theaters around the country.

Raina is a young mother who cannot forgive her father for not being there for her. . Her father contacts her because he needs a kidney and she might be a match. At first, she is outraged, but as the story unfolds she learns more about him and herself. Now she is raising a child of her own, and to her horror, she loses her temper and calls her a name. There are some big surprises in the course of this two hour play, for all four characters: Raina, her father Lou, Lou’s former mistress and her son. Some of the characters play more than one part which only serves to accustom the audience to seeing the interchangeable flaws, feelings and behavior among human beings.

Most people vow to raise their children differently than they were brought up. And many of us end up disappointing ourselves, as we become aware of carrying the same mistakes forward. We judge our parents, then we judge ourselves. It’s not a big leap to go on to judge other people we meet.

Why do I want you to see Under the Skin? Because there is so much keeping us apart these days –  fear and terrorism and war and economics and racism – and because a little thing like going to a play and sitting quietly with others for a couple of hours, paying attention to a story not all that different from all our stories, could move you closer to a sense of inner peace.

 

A Simply Christmas Birthday Cake

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At Christmas, or maybe just because it’s the end of the year, I try to make everything perfect. Big and little worries come out and tug at me to fix them. But I can’t.

It’s just a holiday, that’s all, I tell myself, albeit a big heavy one laden with all kinds of expectations. It does not have to be so fraught. Like December 26th, it’s just a day until we make it something more.

Going downstairs this morning, I saw the photos of my family on bookshelves, some gone, all of us older, and perhaps because I was ruminating on life’s imperfection, I saw them in their flawed beauty and I loved them. Each one has strengths and quirks and weak places, traits that make them who they are. And I wonder whose story shall be next. My mission as a memoir writer is to bring them all to light.

Do not worry and whine about how hard it is, I tell myself, or how widely your words are read. Love it and do it.

In the kitchen, I see the cookbook, open to the page for Simply Cheesecake. My husband wants it for his birthday cake. He and Jesus have the same birthday and guess who has felt overlooked on December 25th since he was a little boy?

The origin of the recipe is lost in the mist of time. It has been published in two fundraising cookbooks, one for my faith community where you are welcome if you are open-minded, and one for Dining for Women, a nationwide giving circle of bighearted women. Openhearted church, generous women: two communities where I am welcome, with or without my perfect cheesecake.

Lighter than the densely packed New York style, my cheesecake can be served with or without topping. My husband has chosen strawberries and whipped cream this year, and I plan to whip the cream myself, no pressurized can of chemicals for me. This will be a pure and natural gift of love. I slowed my worried mind and made a list of what I’ll need, and felt calmer, knowing I can grab that list and go, or even let him, the one who actually enjoys grocery shopping, take it and run.

Sipping my coffee, relaxed, I remembered that when I slide that cake into the oven, I will bless it with the sign of the cross, a salute to my mother, who made the sign before the open oven door whenever she baked. I wonder if she did it as a salute to hers.

Feeling close to her, I look down at the cheesecake recipe in the open cookbook on the table before me.  “After one hour, turn off the oven,” I read, “and leave the cake inside for one more hour. Do NOT open the oven door at any time!” I never have, in all the years I’ve baked that cake. Will it “fall” if I open the door just a crack? Why chance it, I reason, after all that mixing and blending of cheeses and sour cream, eggs added one at a time, vanilla. Even when it’s done, after two hours in the oven, one with the heat turned off and the DOOR CLOSED, the cake needs to set, to cool on a rack then chill in the fridge. I don’t question the magic and the mystery.

My thoughts turn to the friend who tells me every time she bakes this cake, and I realize: This is my specialty. I don’t do everything well – who does? – But this I enjoy, both the making and the serving. It is my birthday gift to my husband– this year we will light long thin candles for him to make a wish on – and the Christmas dessert for the friends who will join us for dinner. All this cannot be rushed. And it’s damn near perfect.

photo credit: Flickr.com by quinnanya, Creative Commons licensed.

Elsewhere: my review of Richard Russo’s memoir

ElsewhereElsewhere by Richard Russo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So here’s a memoir focused on a man’s relationship with his mentally ill mother. You’d think it would be sad, depressing, frustrating. Not so. It’s all about survival and resilience. True, some things don’t get better: the author’s hometown of Gloversville, NY, went downhill after the glove factories closed, much like my neighboring hometown of Amsterdam, NY, when the carpet mills moved out. Russo writes about the pollution and the disregard for workers’ health, and the common identity and pride of place, lost when manufacturing left so many American towns in the mid-twentieth century. In that context, he gives us the story of his mother, Jean Russo, trying over and over again to reinvent her life. After her husband left, she was unable to break free of her parents and “live independently.” It was a life’s dream she was unable to realize without the constant help of the author.

When I wrote Off Kilter, my own memoir about growing up in Amsterdam with an unhappy mother, I tried to show her tenacity and resilience, too, and can only hope I did it half as well as Russo.

“What nourishes us in this life might be the very thing that steals that life away from us,” he writes near the end, noting that his “paralyzing anxiety at the thought of returning home” is his mother’s legacy. Gloversville is described so well in this memoir(and in his novels, by other names) it’s hard to believe he wasn’t there just the other day, and maybe that’s because the place where we grew up remains a part of us always.

Written with a novelist’s sensitivity to the story hidden in every life, “Elsewhere” is a beautiful testament to love, survival and putting one foot in front of the other, just to see what happens next. Russo’s message: even if we can’t, in his mother’s words, make “it all work out,” we keep trying. That’s what it all comes down to, for all of us.

View all my reviews

Who Are Your People?

Thrilled to be a guest on Birth of a Novel this week!

BIRTH OF A NOVEL

I’m especially pleased to have Linda Wisniewski as a guest this week. I’ve known Linda and admired her writing for a few years and a year or so ago we became critique partners. 

LindaWisniewskiPic
Writing about ethnicity

by Linda C. Wisniewski

When I was a child, the image of America as a “melting pot” appealed to me. Everyone would be welcome and blend in with the rest of society. As an adult, I saw the risk of losing some of our most beautiful stories when we assimilate into one homogeneous whole. Today I like to think of America as a “mosaic” where everyone is beautiful in her or his own way. Many readers agree. Memoirs about culture and ethnicity often make the best sellers list. Stories like Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and Carlos Eires’ Waiting for Snow in Havana invite us into the strange (to us)…

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Happy Mother’s Day? (or not)

It’s that time of year again, when arguments against Mother’s Day appear, at least against the way we celebrate the holiday in the United States. It’s too commercial, mothers aren’t any more special than other women, some people had bad mothers, some mothers don’t like their kids, some women want to be mothers and can’t, some miss their deceased mothers or were given up for adoption, etc. etc. etc. On days like this, I don’t think we’ll ever run out of things to complain about.

Ann Lamott wrote in Salon in 2010 that she raised her son NOT to celebrate Mother’s Day. She didn’t want him to feel obligated. This sounds to me like the worst kind of manipulation females have been accused of for centuries, probably because it was the only way we could exert any power over our lives. “Oh, no, don’t worry about me, I don’t want you to feel you have to buy me presents, take me to brunch, yada yada…” I love Anne Lamott’s writing but this time I have to disagree.

What’s missing here is communication. We don’t know how to talk to people. If you don’t like Mother’s Day, ignore it. Really, you can do that. If you like it, go ahead and enjoy it. I plan to. Mom is the best job title I ever had.

But if you don’t like brunch, or candy, or flowers, or your mom was mean to you, or your kids moved far away and don’t call, find a way to talk to someone. Or write. Without attacking or being defensive or justifying bad behavior. Don’t let anybody make you feel guilty. And don’t try to make others be who you want them to be. Just talk and listen.

 

Here’s a picture of my mom, Lucille Smitka Ciulik, and her mom, Marianne Rutkowska Smitka. The older I get, the more I understand them. And love them. And think of stuff to tell them.

Best way to celebrate Mother’s Day: Call your mom. If you can.

A Phone Call Brings a Nice Surprise

 

St. Stan's Elementary School in Amsterdam, New York
St. Stan’s Elementary School in Amsterdam, New York

Recently, my friend from kindergarten called. I hadn’t heard from her in several years, and we had a nice long chat, exchanging addresses, emails, cell numbers and news. Her name is in my memoir, Off Kilter, in the chapter about a field trip to the Shrine of Martyrs. As we talked on the phone, a few hundred miles apart, we remembered, together, our emotionally fraught upbringings. Neither of us could talk to our parents, and our teachers were strict and frightening nuns. Maybe not as bad as the ones in the movie, Philomena, but you get the right idea if you picture them.

Was there something in my horoscope about “women from the past” contacting me this month? I’d believe it. It was so nice to talk to someone who knew me when I was five, who remembers what my world was like back then, who shared that world. There is nothing like it. And for just about an hour, a part of me was back there, five years old again, with someone who wanted to hear everything. Who wanted to tell me everything.

Is there someone you have known since kindergarten? Are you still in touch? What if you gave them a call? Like, right now?

A Veterans’ Day Salute

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My cousin Wayne rode into town with his mother on the Sunday afternoon train and arrived at Grandma’s house wrapped in a whiff of danger. My sister and I were good little girls who knew how to  behave. We sat on Grandma’s porch glider, careful to push off gently, toes to the floor, rocking slowly with just a tiny squeak on the backstroke. When Wayne arrived, things got kicked up a notch. His bottom bounced onto the seat and he pushed off the floor with both feet, the glider squeaking like a rusty gate. Wind whistled past our ears.

The grownups said to stop it right now, but Wayne couldn’t resist temptation. A few minutes later, he’d start again, faster and faster, until we heard an awful scraping sound as metal hit wall. “If I catch you doing that again…” his mother frowned.

“Let’s play inside,” I suggested. Wayne dumped a bag of green plastic soldiers onto Grandma’s coffee table and arranged them into battle scenes. Then he showed us his bag of war comics. For my sister and me, he was the perfect Sunday playmate, who brought us the fun kind of danger where no one got hurt.

After high school, Wayne joined the army and was sent to Vietnam where he earned three Purple Hearts. When he came home, we watched an antiwar protest on TV. “They ought to send ’em all to Vietnam!” he said. I was a college student, against the war. I didn’t know what to say. I loved my cousin, but he wasn’t playing soldiers anymore. I wished we could all go back in time and sit on Grandma’s glider again.  Our eyes met and his grin collapsed. “Nobody should go there,” my cousin said, looking at the floor.

Previously published in a different version in The Rocking Chair Reader, Adams Media, 2005.Image courtesy of Gualberto 107, http://www.freedigitalphotos.net.

Origami Morning

Origami Sample

 Her little fingers fumbled with a sheet of yellow construction paper. An over-sized white camp T-shirt hung down over her ruffled skirt. Her bright pink sneakers matched the headband in her jet-black hair.

Inside the activities room, nineteen other kids, ages five to twelve, sat at tables scattered with sheets of colored paper. A middle-aged Chinese American woman demonstrated how to fold paper into origami flowers. I was learning, too, and having a hard time of it.

When I answered the call last spring for volunteers at a Chinese Culture Camp, I imaged a fun-filled week with little children, maybe something like the days when my boys were small. Instead, it turned into quite the unexpected challenge.  The arts and crafts were so complicated, I felt inept from the start. The only thing I was good at was untangling yo-yo strings and handing out snacks.

I work best when I have explicit instructions. Do A, then B. “Help them with this” was not remotely clear enough for me, and that was all the training I got. The first morning, I wanted to go home. I thought of saying I was sick and had to leave. The second day, all morning, I practiced another excuse: I forgot, there is somewhere else I have to be!  But I couldn’t find the right time to say it.

The third day, the children sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in Chinese, complete with hand signs, and I was hooked. I wanted to be with them, to bask in the joy on their openly eager faces. At snack time, I put out bags of pretzels, helped little hands peel oranges and passed out water bottles.

Still, no day was easy for me. And origami made me feel just plain stupid. Although I concentrated on the teacher’s flying fingers, my folds all went in the wrong directions. I followed her from table to table, watching her turn ordinary construction paper into beautiful flowers. But try as I might, I just couldn’t do it. I felt a tug at my shirt.

“Can you help me?” The little girl with the pink headband asked. Uh oh.

             Do not fail this child, I thought to myself. Breathe and focus. I picked up a sheet of bright red and working slowly so she should follow, carefully turned my precise folds of paper into… a crumpled ball. She threw her own paper down on the table.

“I want to go home!” she said with a frown. Me too, I thought.  But I was one of the grownups, the people who are supposed to know how to do things. My face felt hot.

“Can I make something else?” she said.

“Of course,” I said with authority, my grownup shoulders relaxing. “You can make anything you want.”

“I need scissors,” she said. I could help with that. She took them from my hand, snipped here and there at her folded paper, and opened it, triumphant, to display a lacy pattern of holes.

“Can I hang it up?” The walls and windows were already plastered with coloring pages and paper snowflakes autographed in crayon.

“Yes, you can.” Her little shoulders wriggled. “But put your name on it first.”

“I need some tape,” she said. I could help with that, too. I held the chair steady as she climbed up and taped her work as high in the window as her little arms could reach. Sunlight poured through the holes of her design.

“Beautiful,” I said. She smiled back at me. I believe she thought I meant the paper.

Have you ever wanted to just quit and, as my mother used to say, “Pick up your marbles and go home?”  Did you leave or did you stay? 

 

Rest When You Are Weary

Today I’m back from a week in the mountains, where I wrote for 2 or 3 hours every day, went on long hikes and read. A retreat I had planned all summer, hoping to finish revising the novel I’ve been working on for years.

What happened with the writing:

I found plot holes and plugged them.
I tied up loose ends in the story.
I found ways to make the main character’s actions believable.

But…

I didn’t finish.
I figured out how to make the story better, which means:
I have about 25% more of the novel to draft, then revise. I have been writing long enough to know that means more than one revision.

The good news:

My story is really fun to write and spending so much time on it makes me eager to keep going.
After months of struggle, it’s all coming together.
I know exactly what to do to “bring everybody home,” which means all major characters reach a satisfying conclusion.

Now I’m back in my regular world where:

Laundry must be washed, dried and put away
Phone calls and email messages need replies
I need to get some exercise today

But I’m tired, physically, mentally, even emotionally. The end of things, even a vacation writing retreat in the beautiful mountains, always makes me a little sad.  And writing, even when it’s fun and good and rewarding, makes me tired.

The weather is gloomy now, which doesn’t help. So I’ll put off the to-do list for later. First, I’ll curl up with a good book I started this week: The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro. And maybe I’ll take a nice little nap.

Why not? Do you need a “good reason” to rest besides being just plain tired?


Knitting Knotes

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This is the second in a series of posts by Kat Kowalski, protagonist of my novel in progress, Memoirs of the Queen of Poland.

Now that I’m back from my journey, I’ve thinking more about life in the 21st century. It seems like everyone blogs these days, especially writers, and I wonder if we do it just to get our voices “out there,” and if we take enough time to think about what we truly want to say, what truly needs saying.

My intention is to write here every month or so, after considering carefully what it is I need to say.

For this month, I’ve been thinking about my relationship with knitting, and how I love it. It soothes me, heals me, makes me feel useful. But I’m usually doing something else at the same time. Watching TV and knitting. Talking to someone and knitting. The excellent memoir writer, Louise DeSalvo, was an inspiration to me when I began to write my own story. She says “I can’t seem to write unless I knit a little.” That got me wondering: Is writing a kind of knitting? We weave our words together like yarn, following a pattern, always with the end product in mind. And is knitting a kind of healing, too?

These days, there is so much heartbreak and pain in the news. I don’t want to watch it anymore. In fact, I’m not sure I want to watch TV at all while I’m knitting. Meditating always helps me feel better, if I can get myself to sit down and actually “do” it. And knitting, all by itself, is a form of meditation, if I do it mindfully. I’m going to try this and see how it goes. Knit and meditate. Or knit and pray. Or just knit and breathe.

What’s your take on crafts and writing and healing? Do they go together?

Namaste,
Kat

Kat’s Tales – first in a series

This is the first in a series of posts by Kat Kowalski, protagonist of my novel in progress, Memoirs of the Queen of Poland.

Ever since I came back from the nineteenth century, I have wanted to tell my story. It’s taken me a few years to get it all down on paper. Life intervenes, right? Stuff to do, things to take care of. But now it’s done and all I have to do is tweak it a little, then find an agent and publisher. All – hah! Any writer knows that’s easier said than done. Meanwhile, life goes on. Or not.

For twenty first graders last week, life ended in a mass shooting at their school. Here in the U.S., hearts are broken as we wonder why. How do we stop this from happening again? Gun control? Better mental health care? Armed teachers in schools? The President said “we are better than this.” Are we? I believe we can be, but only if we do the work.

With my new perspective on history, I know that children have been killed before, in cruel ways, in large numbers. And many forms of violence once thought to be part of our national character are no more.  So I believe columnists like Buzz Bissinger are wrong.  In the darkest times, it’s easy to despair, to feel hopeless. Change is hard. Getting to a safer society will be very hard. It will take a long time. As Martin Luther King once said, “I may not get there with you.” But that’s no reason not to keep walking and working for a better world.

I’ve seen a bit of history. And I believe with all my heart that when people do the work, it does get better.

Small kindnesses

This little story is from Chapter Nine of my memoir, Off Kilter.

Practicing the piano was a nerve-wracking challenge, thanks to my father. He sat in an easy chair nearby and made tsk noises with his teeth when I hit the wrong key. I kept on, though, in spite of the anxiety. Playing the piano was one way I could strike my own chord. I could put feeling into my fingers, and expression into the notes I played. No one could say I was wrong to feel that way. It wasn’t me, after all, but the music.

After a few years, my teacher, Mrs. Winslow, enrolled me in a competition at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. There I would play the pieces I’d been practicing for weeks, careful of my fingering and posture at the bench. Everything counted – hitting the right keys, playing at the correct tempo, holding my wrists parallel to the keyboard and remembering to do all this at the same time.

On the day of the competition, I’m sure my family, all four of us, looked scared as we climbed out of our black Chevy sedan. We were scared of something almost every day – new places, strange people, unexpected events. This day had the potential for all three.

A familiar man in a tan windbreaker stood in the parking lot. He walked confidently away from his car, shook my father’s hand and greeted my mother. I knew his daughter, one of the other piano students, but I was too shy and nervous to meet his eyes.

He squatted down to my level. “You go in there, Linda, and knock ’em dead,” he said. A light breeze ruffled his dark brown hair, then lifted my fear and carried it away.

Inside the building, I won my first blue ribbon.

Do you remember a time when someone you barely knew paid you a small kindness? 

Small Kindnesses, a novel by Fiona Robyn is available for free on Kindle all day November 27th! 

And be sure to check out all the other “small kindnesses” post today at Writing Our Way Home!

You Reading This

Do you know William Stafford’s poem, You  Reading This, Be Ready? He wrote it a few days before his death, in the early morning hours, on the couch where he often wrote. In the poem, he asks the reader “what do you want to remember?” It’s a good question for me, a memoir writer, and for you as well. 

That day, I looked up from the poem and saw sunlight illuminate the townhouses across the street, their white trim and gray siding, their gray flagstone garages, and I loved the uniformity of living here, in this neighborhood, in one of a neat and tidy row of houses, part of something bigger than myself, in a place where I belong.  Brown oak leaves clung to a tree outside my window, fluttering in little gusts of wind, not breezes because it was already November and we’d had some little bit of snow.

Just as I looked out, the elderly man who lives across the street limped out his door and to the curb, then crossed to the bank of metal mailboxes. He disappeared behind the oak tree and a moment later emerged with his mail, envelopes and flyers tucked beneath his arm as he hurried across the street again, turned to look down the sidewalk and went back inside.

I cherish my solitude. I need great chunks of time, and a space with a view of the world outside, my little world, to process my thoughts, to understand what I want and what I need to do. Watching my neighbor go out for his mail lets me be a part of the little world of my neighborhood and tells me that alone here in my writing study/quilting studio, I am not alone in the world.

What do you see when you look out our window on the world?Image