Not About Gratitude

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My friend is 95. She is dear to me, a sweet woman who is frail but feisty. Can you be both? I think so. She is kind and hospitable when I come to call, and offers me food: an apple, an orange, a cup of tea. The feisty part comes out when she argues with her caregiver about what to wear, and when to stop talking and get dressed. Over the last year, I have seen her mental sharpness fade. On the phone, she asks me over and over what time I am coming. She cries easily, missing her husband who died years ago. She talks to a life-sized photo of him propped on a chair in her living room, facing the couch where she sits. I know it’s not him, she says with a smile, but it makes me feel better when I talk to him.

I bring food because it gives us something to do together, and is easier than trying to hold a conversation as she repeats herself, asking me the same question over and over, and generally making me crazy. I bring two cups of coffee and bagels with cream cheese. She enjoys them after she gets up and down for sugar, milk, and paper napkins for us both. I give up trying to get her to settle down and just wait her out. She’ll get there.

We had a visit scheduled for the morning after the 2016 presidential election. She had the TV on when I walked in. How can Donald Trump be president? she screeched. I was in tears but she didn’t seem to notice, or maybe she did and understood.

She likes to tell me about her childhood, growing up black in New Jersey. I asked her how she could stand it, being always put down, even by so-called friends, and told you were second class. She said you have to decide you’re not going to be angry all the time.

I think a lot about what she said. I’m a little bit angry every day since the presidential election. I hate what I see – the incivility, the overt racism, the ugly nationalism. In my youth, there was hate and violence too. But I was white, and young, and sure the country would get better, more egalitarian. More compassionate. It did, for a while. I worked for the state government in the Great Society; I was a bureaucrat in the War on Poverty during the Lyndon Johnson administration. Sure, there was waste, and too many rules. But now, the subject of poverty hardly comes up in the public sphere, and not because poverty is gone. 

Some days, it’s hard holding on to hope. I’m older too. Will I live to see a better day? My friend is getting ready to leave this life, and talks about where she’s going next. She’s not angry, that’s for sure. I almost envy her.

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Do you have hope for our country? How do you hold on to it? Comment below under “leave a reply” and you might win a copy of Old Friend From Far Away, a book on memoir writing by Natalie Goldberg.

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The winner of last month’s drawing is Carolyn Ferris Gombosi. She gets a copy of Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, a beautiful story of grief and resilience. Congratulations, Carolyn, and thanks for sharing your thoughts here!

 

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Boo! What Scares You?

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 It’s almost Halloween, and in my corner of the world, you can take a haunted hayride, visit an abandoned penitentiary, or dress up like the walking dead. You can, not me. I don’t like to be scared. Come October, I’m all about comfort. Hot apple cider, knitting in my rocker while I watch the Hallmark Channel, curling up by the fire with a cozy mystery.

I like the way lighted windows look on a fall evening, as if the people inside are safe and warm. When I walk through a neighborhood, my eye is drawn to the windows on the top floor. I think of the nineteenth century poet Emily Dickinson, writing in solitude in her upstairs garret. Comfortable, safe and out of sight. I can’t even begin to tell you how much that appeals to me.

When I was small, my home was an anxious place. I carried a fantasy of safety around all day like a little purse. In my imaginary future, I would read and write all day, gazing down at the people in the street below. Maybe I’d sew a little – doll clothes, or pretty skirts. And I’d have a handsome boyfriend who’d come to visit.

Emily Dickinson seems prune-like now, in her white shirtwaist and long brown skirt, a black ribbon tied around her neck. She sits ramrod straight, unsmiling, her whimsical poems her only voice. I don’t think I’d like her. If I had her cloistered life, I’d want to run for the hills. Escape the self-imposed prison and travel the world, or at least a few hundred miles around my home.

But I realize I don’t know anything about her. Maybe she had a boyfriend, maybe she liked scary stories, maybe she was nothing at all like I imagine her. Maybe she took a risk now and then.

Risk is the thing that scares me, Halloween or not. Calling strangers to ask them to support a cause. Walking alone to my car at night. Waiting for surgery. Watching the nightly news.  Risk of harm to my physical or mental state. And fear of the unknown – cancer, dementia, a storm, a war.

But fear is a funny thing. When shared, it seems to lessen. Maybe that’s what Halloween is all about. Scaring ourselves together, to make the goblins run away. Shall we try? What scares you right now?

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Be brave and comment on this post, and I’ll put your name in the hat for a copy of Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala, who lived through a tsunami that killed her entire family. It’s a terrifying and beautiful story of grief and resilience.

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The winner of last month’s drawing is  Judith Heffernan Elmy. She wins a copy of Mary Jo Doig’s new memoir, Patchwork. Congratulations, Judy, and thanks for your comment!

 

 

 

 

 

Dizzy Time

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It’s been one of those days. My usual treatment for benign positional vertigo doesn’t feel like it worked. I’ll give it 24 hours. The crystals in my inner ear have been slipping out of their little vestibule, off and on, for something like twenty years, and when they do, I get dizzy. Since I discovered a great PT practice that specializes in this, my episodes are shorter and less debilitating. For a few days or even weeks, I feel off balance walking, get dizzy when I first get out of bed, and when I turn around too quickly. After the PT moves my head and upper body this way and that, poof! All better! Today, not so much. My at home instructions say don’t go to the dentist or hairdresser today as tilting your head back can knock the crystals out of whack again.

My hair appointment was for an hour after I left the PT office. What to do? I asked my stylist not to wash my hair (sigh, that’s the best part!) and to just wet my hair and cut it. She took a long time, and when I finally walked out, my hair was too short. I should have been paying attention, but I was worried about getting dizzy again. It will grow out, but darn it. My hair is way too short.

I turned on the TV at lunch to see old men who don’t believe or let’s face it, care, that some women have been sexually assaulted. What they care about is installing the accused on the U.S. Supreme Court so he can help overturn a woman’s right to choose. I realize I have been angry about this case ever since it started. At first, I thought “I’m not a #MeToo survivor.”  But I get dizzy when I’m anxious, and today it’s all coming back.

The grad school adviser on the phone with a department head, leaning around his desk to check out my legs. “Yeah, she has nice ones.” Why didn’t I get up and leave?

The relative who rubbed himself against me from behind at a cocktail party, then asked if it was good. “You men, always asking if it was good,” I joked. Why didn’t I smack him?

The college boy who did the same at a kegger, shouting “I humped her!” to his friends. I kept on walking. Why didn’t I turn around and kick him?

Report it? In those days, we pretended it hadn’t even happened. Why? Did we think it would stop? That it “wasn’t so bad, if we weren’t raped?” And why bring it up now, after all these years? Because I remember it as if it happened yesterday.

It’s making me dizzy to think about this endless trashing of females, this excusing of bad male behavior. And mad as hell. I’m glad the conversation is happening, but damn it, let’s move it forward this time. Let’s not make it worse.

What do you think? Women, men, #MeToos and not #MeToos. I’d love to hear from you.

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This month, I am offering a review copy of Mary Jo Doig’s powerful memoir, Patchwork, the story of one strong woman’s journey from abuse to a life of her own choosing.  Comment on this blog and you could be the lucky winner!

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Cathy Lamb’s novel,  The Language of Sisters. goes to last month’s commenter, B. Lynn Goodwin, author of the memoir, Never Too Lateand manager of the Writer Advice website. Take a look at both, you’ll be glad you did. Congratulations, Lynn!

 

 

 

 

Big Girl Pants

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It was raining lightly when I got to the Borough Hall Station. I saw the sign on the street; all I needed was to find the entrance. People walked snappily by, like they knew where to go, and I wanted to look that way too.

When I was young, New York City was my dream place to live and work, the apex of my career girl life. In the 1960s, we called grown women girls and didn’t think anything of it. You could count the career girls in my upstate New York mill town on two hands: teachers, nurses, one doctor. Was a “private secretary” a career girl? My parents wanted me to go to Mildred Elley Secretarial School in Schenectady. But like Richard Russo’s mom, who lived in a nearby town, I longed to be Elsewhere.

It took a while. After college, there were business trips to midtown on the train to and from Philly, and whole days in big convention hotels with other librarians. Post-career now, I write and teach. I want to write well, to learn how it’s done, and so I travel to writing conferences in the literary city, sophistication town, like the big girl I want to be.

Sometimes I’m still the scared Catholic schoolgirl inside, remaking herself late in life. After two times crossing the street in drizzle, I found the subway staircase from the street. A young black man held a door for me as I deliberately stepped down. I thanked him, pleased that of all the busy people, he stopped for me, because he saw me looking uncertain. My son who lives in Brooklyn said, take the 2 train uptown, it’s best, to Times Square, then the 1 right across the platform to 50th Street. On the 2, a young Hispanic woman offered me her seat. I smiled no thanks, then saw the sign: Please give seat to the elderly or disabled. Okay, fair enough. I feel slow, unsure, and frazzled by the rain, the confusion, the tangle of people in every direction. My son was right; I got off the 2 and the 1 was right across from me, waiting. It all seemed to work for me that day. It has to, my son’s girlfriend says, in a city this big you have to be civil.

At 50th, I walked upstairs and took out my foldout laminated map, walked to 6th between 53rd and 54th  and laughed as I spotted my conference hotel.

People around me paid no attention. Cars, buses, and taxis clattered by. Storefronts glittered, the rain stopped, and my heart lifted like the red one on the T-shirt I refused to buy because it’s too tourist hokey. I heart NY. I really do.

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Have you done something you were scared to try? Big or small, share it in the comments and I’ll put your name in the hat for a copy of Styx and Stone: an Ellie Stone mystery by James W. Ziskin. Ellie is a career girl in 1960s New Holland, New York, a thinly disguised version of my home town of Amsterdam, who travels to New York City.

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The winner of this month’s drawing is Cheryl. She gets a signed copy of Dorothea Benton Frank’s By Invitation Only.  Visit her terrific blog, Mind Kind Mom. Congratulations, Cheryl, and thanks for your comment last month!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lipstick Print on a China Cup

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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 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!

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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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?

 

 

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.

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.

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.

On Balance Again!

The Epley Maneuver works! For me, anyway. My physical therapist repositioned the little rocks in my head, called otoconia, by taking me through a series of head turning positions. The first time made me very dizzy for about 15 seconds, then…I was cured!

I have more exercises to improve my sense of balance, but I am happy to be able to drive, walk and return to normal life!

This week I drove to a few local bookstores to promote my memoir, Off Kilter. It’s hard work but fun meeting the owners of these independent stores.

And, I worked on my novel about a Polish ancestor from the 18th century….