Quiche and Old Friends

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Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

This week, three longtime friends and I met for breakfast at a newish café. We’ve been getting together for at least twenty-five years – no one remembers exactly how long – and I guess you might say we’re “set in our ways.” But things have begun to change.

For many years, we got together at a diner midway between our homes, each of us ordering our favorite breakfast special – the #2, two eggs with bacon and toast was most popular. Then the business started going downhill. It changed owners and the food and service weren’t as good as we were used to. We tried a new spot down the road, owned by a young couple, and were pleased at the fresh nutritious breakfasts and the friendly service at a reasonable price. All natural, nothing frozen, local produce, because we were now into the twenty-first century and conscious of healthy eating. Fast forward just a couple of years – and I do mean fast –  and the couple opened a branch farther away in a sweet little town. It sits beside a creek in an old mill reclaimed for office space and our new breakfast spot.

The food is upscale and we’ve changed with the times. Instead of the bacon and eggs special, we have a choice of quiche and fruit cup, scrambler of the day, lattes and cappuccinos and other good stuff that feels so trendy. We sit at a high-top table and don’t mind climbing into the chairs because we have other things to complain about: our aches and pains, to be sure, and our spouses’ health issues. We share concerns about life and politics and church activities. And we’re still the same friends who love and support each other. We’ve had our problems: marital strife, job loss, deaths of parents, diseases and broken bones. The hassle of  “customer service” is a frequent topic.

So why do we still meet? Yes, it’s therapeutic to vent, but even better, we share and rejoice in our joys. One friend moved to Florida a few years ago, but she joined us this morning on her way to her summer home in the Adirondacks.  Because she still misses us and online doesn’t feel the same. Gray haired, grandmothers, retired, we are still active, vital women doing good work in the world. We try new things. We ate quiche. And we talked for two hours, just like always.

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Do you have old friends? Tell us about them in the comments for a chance to win a signed copy of Meredith Jaeger’s novel, Boardwalk Summer. Set in California in 1940 and 2010, two young women generations apart follow their dreams, unraveling a family secret and a love story.

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This month’s giveaway is a signed copy of The Gardener by Irish novelist Thomas Dunne. And the winner is:  cyclinggrandma! Check out her blog too!

The Irish Complaints

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Puffed up Irish pigeon, St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin, on a cold April day

I’m just back from a week in Ireland. The brogue is still in my ears, and this morning’s gentle rain and greening lawns remind me of the island I left yesterday. I’m in that jet-lagged head-space, neither here nor there and moving around in a kind of daze. With that in mind, I’ll share a few impressions and ask you a question at the end.

Our group of 45 American tourists traveled by bus from Galway to Dublin, viewing a wide range of landscapes and getting a taste of the history, the people, and the charming pubs, snug and cozy in the April chill. Our first three days were sunny, with temps in the low 60s. “It’s like this all the time here,” said a young barkeep with a wink that made me smile.

I come from a culture notorious for complaining, often with good reason. Polish people had it tough in the old days with all those Cossacks invading and now it’s stuck in our DNA. And let’s face it, Americans have taken up the cause in recent years. It was a nice break to get away from CNN and MSNBC. I marveled at the cheerfulness of the Irish people, friendly and laughing despite the gloomy weather.

And I wondered about Americans, the ones on our trip, and the ones I encounter in my daily life. Me too, of course, for I’m a complainer raised by complainers, and I struggle to rid myself of the habit, not with a faked rosy outlook but by re-framing.

My husband would surely say I saved my negative comments for his ears alone, but I really noticed, this past week, how many little things people turn into catastrophe. One lady “hated” the breakfast at our hotel. Another “couldn’t stand” the heat in the dining room. Two people at dinner said the Polish people collaborated with the Nazis, the proof being “all the camps were there” and the world was a mess because of “radical Muslims.” My husband and I politely disagreed, but they weren’t really listening. The service was slow, the waitress “didn’t need or deserve” a tip. Can you imagine the look I got when I tipped her anyway?

Our flight home was cancelled, and we found out at 5 a.m. in the hotel lobby, with suitcases gathered around. Worst-case scenarios spread but, in the end, we were rescheduled on a flight that brought us home just three hours later than planned. I watched two good movies on the plane and had a nice long nap.

The line at immigration in Newark was long, so more doom-saying ensued. “Have you ever seen it like this?” “This is ridiculous!” Etc. Etc. Etc. In fact, we were only in line for 20 minutes or so. Not bad for re-entering a country where we aren’t refugees and have good homes, our own cars to drive there, and people we love waiting for us.

Yes, this blog post has been a big complaint about complaining. I haven’t changed, but I did try to re-frame. Or, writer that I am, rewrite!

How do you handle negative experiences? Tell us your tips in the comments section and you’ll be in the drawing to win a signed copy of The Gardener by Seamus Dunne. This paperback was a happy discovery at Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway. It’s a perennially relevant novel about a former German soldier living in Ireland and how he handles his town’s reaction to a band of gypsies.

This month’s winner of the anthology containing my story, “Dinner for Five,” The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory, is Bobbi Smisko. Congratulations, Bobbi and thanks for your comment last month!

Lipstick Print on a China Cup

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Photo by Pexels

Coffee doesn’t like me anymore. It upsets my stomach. But whenever I see someone walking down a city street, lidded paper cup in hand, I want one.

In my early 20’s, coffee and a cigarette started my day. On the way to work, I stopped in the lobby of the Erie County Welfare Department to buy a coffee and a buttered roll before stepping into the elevator. In college and away from home for the first time, coffee made me feel alert, ready for anything. Safe. An anxious kid, holding and sipping that hot dark cup of Joe made me feel sophisticated. Like I belonged to the tribe of grownups.

This thread winds back to my two aunts at our family’s Formica kitchen table, talking and laughing. Their coffee was light and creamy, and the rims of their cups held the print of their red lipstick. Cigarette smoke plumed from an ashtray. They cared about me and I loved them back.

Follow the thread even farther back to an open house at Bigelow Sanford Carpet Mills, my Uncle Clarence standing beside a loom so high it reached far above his head, or so it seemed to me. Laughing, he offered me a cup of coffee and I was mute, serious. My father said it was a joke, my uncle was only kidding. I was too young for coffee, for sophistication.

I grew up to love the bitter taste of strong black coffee, but now it bothers my stomach. I switched to decaf then tea in the morning. I thought I’d build up a ritual with tea, evoking England, gentility, scones….

But old habits are hard to break. Once or twice a week, at coffee hour after the church service, or during a morning of writing, I treat myself to a cup of Joe. Because I’m forever captured by the image of red lipstick prints on the rims of china cups. The stamps of women who loved me when they were younger than I am now.

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What about you? Is there a habit you can trace to your childhood? Comment here and I’ll put your name in the drawing for a copy of The Collection: Flash Fiction for Flash Memory. One of my stories is included in this beautiful anthology of stories for the memory impaired (or the short of reading time!)

The winner of last month’s drawing is Marielena Zuniga. She gets a signed copy of Anna Quindlen’s novel, Miller’s Valley. Congratulations, Marielena!

 

 

The Space Between Stories

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I’ve heard that writers write to make sense of the world. That’s certainly been true for me. And yet, the world seems to have become even less understandable over my lifetime. Aren’t we supposed to become wiser with age? What is the reason for the interpersonal division in our country? We seem to be on ever more opposing wavelengths.  We can’t even talk to people we disagree with without insulting them, in person or online, so we mostly just give up.

Author and speaker Charles Eisenstein says our world looks so crazy because  we are in “the space between stories.” The old story said our society was sound, our ecology was fine and our economy was just. But that old story is falling apart, and many of us are afraid. We want to go back , when life was safe, stable. As progressive as we like to think we are, a friend and I recently shared a longing for the “old days” when folks aspired to work in a shoe store or deliver milk on a truck. It feels as if the world is falling apart around us. We feel alienated, unsure of our place. We are in what Eisenstein calls “a period of true unknowing.”

We are between stories.

Who knows what the next story will be? I am hoping for one called “We Are All In This Together.”

Many of us have rejected the old duality of this or that, one or the other, Republican or Democrat, us or them, liberal or conservative, male or female, East or West, cat people or dog people….okay, just kidding. But really, haven’t you noticed the breakdown of the old story? The old roles bind us no more. Women are now empowered in fiction and movies, men in the programs we watch are stay at home dads with real feelings, and even gender can be fluid. Voters give up, feeling alienated from our leaders. Young people are calling BS. We’re all restless, looking for a new story to explain our place in the world.

“We are the one’s we’ve been waiting for,” said the poet June Jordan, the author Alice Walker, and the lyrics of a song by Sweet Honey in the Rock.

Looking for signs of the new story gives me comfort. Maybe this is the time I was meant to be alive. What do you think? Are we really “in the space between stories?” Do you like that idea?

Comment on this blog and I’ll put your name in the hat for an autographed copy of Miller’s Valley by Anna Quindlen. Set in a small town in the 1960s, it’s the story of every woman who has had to leave home to find herself.

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The winner of this month’s drawing is  suppressionisminart. She wins a hardcover copy of The Moment of Truth by Damian McNicholl, the tale of an American female bullfighter who travels to Mexico to follow her dream, a great example of the story for women.  Congratulations!

The Not To Do List

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Image by Pexels.com

It’s the end of January, and according to businessinsider.com, 80% of New Year’s resolutions have been broken. I’m no longer a “business insider,” if I ever was, having left the corporate world 27 years ago, nor did I make any New Year’s resolutions. But like most people, I have lists of things “to do.” They are useful reminders, and so satisfying to check off when completed. But what takes their place? Another to do list! It’s an endless daily process, and while it certainly helps me remember what I need to do next, that list can get overwhelming. Recently I came across the idea of a “not to do” list. Business writer Michael Hyatt writes here about how and why you need one to succeed at work. https://michaelhyatt.com/do-you-have-a-not-to-do-list/

Since I’m not reporting to anyone but myself these days, my not to do list is aimed at getting out of my own way so I can be happy, a lifelong quest I’m getting pretty good at. Since I believe it helps to write these things down, here’s my 2018 Not To Do List:

  1. Spend time with people I don’t like.
  2. Watch TV every night.
  3. Eat anything that doesn’t taste delicious.
  4. Compare myself to someone else.
  5. Take the best parking spot.
  6. Ignore my feelings.
  7. Say yes when I want to say no.
  8. Silence my voice.

What do you think? Is a “not to do” list is a good idea? What would be on yours?

Comment here on my blog and I’ll put your name in the drawing for my next book giveaway: The Moment of Truth by Damian McNicholl. Based on true events, it’s the story of a female bullfighter in 1950’s Mexico faced with all that the machismo culture can throw at her.

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The winner of last month’s drawing is Mary Lou Baldwin. She gets an autographed copy of The Promise of Pierson Orchard by Kate Brandes. Congratulations, Mary Lou!

 

The In Between Time

This is the week in the year when I feel most in-between.  Thanksgiving and Christmas are over and a New Year waits in the wings. I feel like the director of a play in which I hold back the actors for just another moment. Not yet, it’s not quite time, we’re not ready, please wait.

This is the week I launder the tablecloths from Christmas dinner, recycle dented gift boxes and toss out leftovers nobody wants to eat. It’s the week to relax and enjoy the pile of new books I received and to binge watch The Crown and A Place to Call Home, an Australian drama my husband and I both love. We’re both retired from our careers and enjoy artistic pursuits and volunteer work, but this week even those things take a back seat to just lounging and reflecting, reading…and eating.

As a writer of creative nonfiction, I’m a “reflector” by trade. This in-between time seems made for me. No rush, nowhere I have to go. I’m preparing for a party in the New Year, but even that feels relaxed, checking if we have enough wine, beer, plastic ware and ice.

I journal every day, but this week I read about other people doing the same. The newspapers, internet, and even TV all offer stories about new resolutions and looking back. It’s quite a lot of pressure to do something.

But not right now. I took a year off from teaching to finish my first novel. The second one is outlined, but I just can’t get into it yet. I have a new memoirs class coming up in March, so I need to plan. I’ve published four essays this year, and I’d like to write more. I finished editing A Woman of Worth, a project I’d been working on for a couple of years.  I have an idea for another book-length memoir. But none of these projects is calling me right now.

I could be anxious about that, but I feel lucky I can stay here a while. The kids are grown and living their own lives. Whatever I choose to do or not do is up to me. The weather is freezing cold and we’re in between snow storms here in southeastern PA. I know another one is coming but we’re not sure when.

So, this is the week I ignore the inner urge to “do something productive.” I read over the Christmas cards and newsletters, remember the leisurely conversations shared with family and friends by the fireplace, and allow gratitude for the love, warmth and companionship that graces this time of year.

There is a certain pressure to make a “to do” list for 2018. I know I work best when I choose one project to put most of my energy behind. This in between week feels a bit uneasy, but I’m going to stick with it. If we hurtle from project to project, we don’t fully appreciate what we’ve accomplished. We don’t allow ourselves to enjoy having written, being published, hosting a dinner party, receiving gifts. I’ll meditate every day and let myself off the hook for productivity for now.

What about you? What do you do when you’re not sure what to do next?

Comment and I’ll put your name in the drawing for my next giveaway: The Promise of Pierson Orchard by Kate Brandes.  Written by an environmental scientist, it’s the story of what happens when fracking comes to a rural community, told through the eyes of a family already breaking apart. Speaking of what to do next! You’re sure to enjoy this balanced look at both sides of the environmental debate.

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The winner of last month’s drawing is Nannette Benson-Nicol. She gets an autographed copy of An Uncertain Path by Sandra Carey Cody. Congratulations, Nannette!

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.