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



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: 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!


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. 

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


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,

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.


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


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?


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

This month of June in our house is a breath-holding time, suspended in waiting.

        At the end of May, we attended our younger son’s graduation from college. He followed us home in his car, ready and eager to go on with his life. Over the next three weeks, he arranged interviews by phone and Skype and in person, and this past Monday, landed a great job in his field, in the city he loves. The search for a place to live takes up most of his time now, and it’s all going on in silence, online, which only adds to the hushed sense of waiting around here.

        Meanwhile, it’s summer. We want to take trips. I want to finish revising my novel. He’s not happy because he doesn’t have his own place yet, and we’re not happy because he’s not happy. The tension hangs over everyone but the cat. Oblivious, she continues sleeping at our feet or running up and down the stairs alongside us, meowing at her dish morning and evening.

        All my mindful self-help Buddhist knowledge, what there is of it, is called into play. This month will never come again. I tell myself in my journal and in my head on my daily walk: Focus on the beauty of the day lilies and hydrangeas. Breathe in the fragrant candle. Feel the tendons stretch in your hand therapy exercises.

        Peace does not come easily. Unless: I accept the tension, the anxiety, the waiting. Let it come. Do not fight against it nor fall into a hole of depression over it.

        This June offers me another chapter in my imperfect life. Another challenge to not be challenged by it. Just be in it. So hard to do, letting go of worry. We want to control the outcome, and so we pray hard for the future and visualize success, because the alternative – utter helplessness over events and people – is so frightening we think we cannot bear it. But maybe we can. Maybe I can.

        The advice and suggestions and support and hugs have all been given. And just like I walk through the rain, I walk through this time of breath-holding before the next phase. And the next.

Authors In Bloom Giveaway Hop

The contest has ended and the winner of my giveaway prize is:

YJ Wang

who will be receiving a signed copy of my memoir, Off Kilter, and a package of imported Polish candy.

Congratulations to YJ! And a big thank you to everyone who took the time to stop by here and enter the contest. I hope you enjoyed visiting all the authors’ pages.

I’d love for you to follow me and also visit my website for news about my memoir classes and the progress of my new book, a time travel novel about an ancestor from 19th century Poland.

Happy Spring!

And here’s my Gardening Tip:

Since I like to write about my Polish heritage, I’ve decided to give you some spring gardening tips from the Poland of yore. In days of old, there was a folk belief that the egg brought life to the field and assisted in the growth process. Polish farmers placed an egg between vegetable rows to protect against insects. Some buried an egg near fruit trees to increase their yield. Egg shells thrown on the field were thought to increase the yield of rye and protect wheat from blight. Women buried the shells of colored eggs in the garden where they grew madder, its roots used as medication for colic. 

Of course, you can also use the half-shells to start seeds indoors. Just be careful when you crack your eggs open, raw or hard-boiled, so you have two nice-sized halves for a bit of soil and a seed or two.

I’m going to try the egg shell routine in my little garden beside my townhouse. Can’t hurt, can it? So after I eat my Easter eggs (not the chocolate kind), I’ll save the shells and place them in the soil where I hope to plant a few annuals next month. Have you ever done this? Let me know if it works, please!

Now, here’s something for your taste buds:

I’m posting the following recipe, in her own words, in honor of one of my favorite Polish American relatives. If you’d like to read more about her, and see her photo, check out my essay, “You Have to Eat Lunch,”  in the latest issue of  bioStories. 

Ceil’s Potato Chip Cookies

Cream together 1 1/2 cup sugar, 1 cup Crisco and 1 cup margarine.
Add 1 egg and beat well with cream mixture.
Add 3 cups flour, 1 cup nuts or coconut, 1 1/2 cup potato chips and 2 tsp. vanilla.
Mix well and drop by tsp. on ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake @ 350 for 10-12 minutes.

Please don’t forget: UNgreased cookie sheet. There’s plenty of grease in these cookies already! 

Don’t forget to visit the other authors involved in the hop, 
conveniently located on the link below:

Authors in Bloom

Knowing When to Stop


Today, a story I’ve been working on for years was published online in bioStories. I remember the first time I shared it aloud in a writing workshop at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. At the time, I thought I was just writing a nice story about my aunts and why I loved them. They were nice ladies, and they were nice to me.

The instructor at Penn said it made her think of what we lose, sometimes, when we get what we want. In the essay, I mention reading in one of her books that Gloria Steinem realized her apartment didn’t look like a home. She went on to make it more cozy for herself. My aunts never had that problem. They were housewives of the 1950s and their homes were Cozy with a Capital C. I loved visiting them both.

That teachers’ comment led me deeper into the story, closer to what I was trying to say.

Still, it took years of revision and another writing workshop before the piece was good enough to find a home in print. I went over the ending, especially, many times. As a writer, and as a teacher, speaker, and human person, I find I have a tendency to repeat myself, to say what I mean over and over. And then I write or say more to make sure you really got it. This time, with help, I was able to stop at exactly the right spot.

Do you think I did? What’s your ‘blind spot’ as a writer? As a person?

A Talk with the Pharmacist’s Daughter

One of my favorite memoirists is Patricia Hampl, and one of her books is titled, The Florist’s Daughter, so I quite consciously modeled the title of my latest article after her book. Back in the 50s, when I was growing up in what was then a small city in upstate New York, my friends and I often walked into Krupczak’s Pharmacy to pay a nickel for a sheet of pink newsprint with the lyrics of the top 40 songs played on the nearest rock and roll radio station, WTRY.

When I grew up and left town, my mother sometimes gave me an update on Mary Ann, the Krupczaks’ daughter, who became a lawyer and eventually the first female attorney general of New York State. My mother was no feminist, but both she and my dad were proud that a fellow Polish American, and one from our town, made it so high in the political world.

Fast forward forty or fifty years, and I’m writing for a new online paper in that same town, now a much smaller depressed industrial shell surrounded by big box retailers and the occasional remaining dairy farm. The editor asks me to write something for the Polish American issue of Upstream his literary magazine. Immediately I thought of Mary Ann. I found her on LinkedIn,  shot off a few email questions, and with her reply, was back in the old days on Hibbard Street, buying an ice cream cone from her parents’ store. Then I was a young woman of the 70s, first puzzled, then inspired by feminists like Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug…and Mary Ann Krupsak, who knew them both and many more.

Life takes strange turns sometimes, and where we end up cannot always be foreseen. I’m so pleased I got to know Mary Ann better, if only via email, and to add another page to this chapter in the history of the women of Amsterdam, NY, in honor of Women’s History month.

To read the full article, follow this link:
The Pharmacist’s Daughter – An Interview With Former Amsterdamian & NYS Lt. Governor Mary Anne Krupsak

Broken Handed Writer

Exactly one week before Christmas, I slipped off a step inside my house and broke my left hand. Suddenly, I was on a forced winter vacation. I can’t write, can’t knit, can’t quilt, and can’t drive. What I can do is read, watch TV, take long walks, and think about all kinds of stuff.

I’ve already written a memoir about how I came to be the woman I am. Now, my unexpected limits have me contemplating the present. What do I want to do next? Where do I want to go?

Questions like that used to make me sad. Writing my memoir, Off Kilter, taught me that suffering was my way of operating in the world. For a long time, I believed I had to pay my dues for every happy moment with some equal measure of pain. But somewhere along the way, the pain bucket got so heavy I couldn’t carry it anymore. Perhaps it was the day a friend told me I always looked a little sad and I realized I was more comfortable that way. I was always asking myself how I could be “good enough.” There was never a satisfactory answer. Nothing I did was good enough for my internal judge. When would I get to be happy?

Sine then, I’ve come to re-evaluate that question. I’ve decided it’s me who gets to say. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, people are as happy as they make up their minds to be. It wasn’t so easy for him, either; he is said to have been depressed many times in his life.

There are days when it just seems like too much work, with my hand in a cast or brace, to do a simple thing like take a shower. It’s such a big production: even with the help of my husband, even as we giggle at our reflections in the mirror while he blow dries my hair. ,There are days when my back gives out due to stress, or lack of exercise, or lack of the right kind of exercise. You can see where I’m going with this. On those days,the old familiar mantle of suffering beckons. I want to wrap myself in it, but then I remember: it really is a choice. For much of my life, I chose to be sad. Way back when, it seemed like a good idea. Today, not so much.

This morning, sunlight angles into my dining room, touching the soft gold carpet, making shadows of the backs of my chairs, making me remember moments like these : My son brought home a bag of my favorite cookies. My husband stood ready to put my socks on my feet without being asked. My friends brought lunch and stayed for hours. Others took me out for a drive. They told me, without words, that I am valued. It’s time I told myself the same thing.

This sudden, forced vacation will soon be over. Unlike many others, my disability is temporary. My prayer this morning, is that I will remember to take time to enjoy the sunlight and shadows, when I am once again doing all those other things I miss.

Hardships, even little ones, connect us, don’t they? It’s how we learn compassion for ourselves and others. For that knowledge, I am forever grateful.

(Typed using Dragon Naturally Speaking.)

Publish Before I Perish

I’ve been working on my novel for several years now; I have lost count of how many years exactly. At workshops given by experienced novelists, I always learn something that will make my story better. I love the process of adding subtext, developing characters, and using place mini-crises to move the plot forward. But some days, like today, I allow myself to feel discouraged by all I have to do before I am finished.

Because I read writers’ newsletters, blogs and social network posts, I know many authors are churning out thousands of words a day, publishing their exciting novels, meeting with agents…and I wonder if I am too slow. Will I ever be ready to say “it’s done?” Will I live that long?
Although I’ve always loved to write, it was only after my fiftieth birthday I began to take my writing seriously, to send my work out into the world, to make money from it. Feature stories for the local paper, magazine articles and personal essays take me hours, days, weeks to complete. I don’t think it has anything to do with perfection. I just want my work to be the best it can be.
Some Monday mornings, it seems I’ll perish before I publish my first novel, which may well be my only novel. I can’t just throw it out there, unvarnished, not when I know better. The only thing to do, I guess, is to get back to work.
Let me know if you find an easier way. Please.

My Body, My Self

Here’s another Six Sentence Sunday excerpt from my memoir, Off Kilter:

“Recently, I’ve begun to think of scoliosis as a metaphor for my life. I’ve struggled to please teachers, employers, parents, boyfriends, husbands, twisting myself into someone I can’t be. I hurt when I do this, because it’s not natural. But when I stretch my Self, instead, the results are different. When I’m reaching for my personal goals—to be a good mother, wife, friend and writer—I feel my balance return. And the sense of relief, as I become more the woman I truly am, is simply grand.

My Weekend as a Travel Guide

This past weekend, I got to open a window and peek into other people’s lives.

For the memoir workshop I taught at the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference, attendees submitted pieces a few weeks in advance for critique. And as always, the stories were heartfelt, moving and inspiring.

A little black girl and her family traveled through the 1950s South, searching for a bathroom they could use without being arrested.
A man visited his father’s people in Ireland, people who played the violin after working a long day on the farm.
A woman fought fiercely to preserve land threatened by development.
A young doctor’s growing numbness in her feet led to a diagnosis of MS.
A woman became her father’s caretaker and learned an important lesson about herself.

So many different ways to tell a real life story: the historical context, the ecology of the land, cultural memories, the messages of illness and more.

Memoirist Patricia Hampl said “memoir is travel writing, …notes taken along the way…”

Last weekend, I was honored to be a guide for a small part of that journey. I am still basking in the afterglow.

Six Sentence Sunday

This Six Sentence Sunday post is an excerpt from my memoir, Off Kilter, published in 2008 by Pearlsong Press.

“I wish I could draw in your mind a picture of that place, exactly as it was, warmly lit by a clear sunlight making sharp shadows on a concrete sidewalk. Beside the sidewalk, up to its very edge, grew clouds of Queen Anne’s lace, sky-colored chicory, purple and white clover and the flowers whose names I still don’t know, the red-orange ones my mother called firemen.

I believe the sounds and smells and the picture are the makings of my childhood solitude, protected and holy. They transformed my loneliness into a safe, enriched, alive state of being, of perfect awareness of each blade of grass and waving flower. There is a place where nature is an open-armed friend, always waiting to welcome and enfold me in its breeze’s caress, its warm sun’s kiss, its clear, illuminating light. This is the place I am from. “

Invitation to a War

I was at Staples making copies of handouts for my memoir class, when I saw something so chillingly off kilter, I can’t get it out of my mind. Someone had left a copy on the machine. It was an invitation to a child’s birthday party. A party for little boys. A boot camp party.

The mission,the invitation said, was to report to basic training at the stated address on a certain date and time. Be prepared to run Basic Training drills, it said, testing accuracy, survival, agility, endurance, strength and balance skills. You will also participate in other Survival Games. You will be wet, tired and dirty by the time you complete your mission, so please bring a towel and change of clothes. Dinner and Birthday Rations will be served. Please RSVP to the Base Commanders.

Researching this type of party on the web, I found that some parents have the kids bring items to send to troops overseas. That’s great, but the idea of a boot camp party still creeps me out.

I loved my boys when they were little, as I’m sure this parent loves theirs. I gave in to them on lots of stuff that didn’t seem important enough to fight over. But toy guns were a big no no. People gave them guns anyway, and I explained how I felt about playing at violence but let them keep the weapons. My boys thought I was kind of silly about this, and grew up to be gentle, sensitive young men.

We have been, as a country, at war for over ten years, reacting to a criminal attack on our soil by a handful of terrorists. We can’t seem to figure out how to end these wars we started. If we throw birthday parties where little boys are encouraged to play at war, how will we ever learn?

Things Off Kilter

The first known use of “off kilter,” says, was in 1944, just two years before I was born, to describe the state of furniture and other structures. The definition is “not in perfect balance. A bit askew.” Synonyms are bizarre, eccentric, unconventional, far-out, and kooky (also kookie) as well as the British “rum.” As in, she’s a bit rum. I kind of like that. It accurately describes my life and my personality. You see, if you are off kilter, you don’t have to pay much attention to the norm. Us off kilter folks, we can pretty much do what we like, as long as nobody gets hurt. And really, whose life is ever “in perfect balance?”

Off Kilter is also the name of a 5-man Celtic rock band formed in 1997. These guys have performed at the Canadian Pavilion of the Epcot Center in Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida ever since. They hail from Kentucky,Florida, Ireland and Puerto Rico – how off kilter is that? And one of them has a Polish surname: Scott Zymowski! That was enough to pique my interest, to be sure. Next up: a trip to Epcot?