2019- Ready or Not!

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As the old year ends, I feel an urge to finish what I started, as if I need a clean slate to begin 2019. And then I laugh. As if that’s ever going to happen.

Just last month, I stopped reading a book I hated. It was for my book club. Which I’m dropping out of. I didn’t like the story or the characters or the writing. Or the members of the club. Or the hard wooden chairs we had to sit on. Can I quit now? It wasn’t worth my time, but I don’t like to leave anything unfinished. 

I have a half-done quilt on my sewing machine, wrinkled clothes waiting on the ironing board, and a Christmas tablecloth with stains I haven’t managed to remove. And then there are all the short stories and essays in progress on my computer.

My kids grew up before I was finished raising them. Wait, I wanted to say, I’m not done. I forgot to teach you to ice skate…or to make a pie…When they walk away, I still want to wrap my arms around their ankles.

My parents died before I understood them. I didn’t ask my dad what his childhood was like. I forgot to ask my mom if she ever doubted her faith.

I dropped freshman organic chem. I didn’t care about the experiments, my grades were awful, and a boy said I was taking the place of someone who had been drafted to fight in Vietnam.  

I dropped friends who moved away. Staying in touch was too hard in our busy lives. Or maybe they dropped me.  

It’s okay. If we hold on to everything we start, our lives would be a spaghetti-ball mess we could never untangle. Life is about choices.  

A new year is about to begin, a turn of the calendar’s page, opening more possibilities. What will I choose to start this year? What will I finish? And what can I quit in the middle of, knowing full well that “enough is enough,” that forcing myself to complete something that is no longer important is just a waste of my precious time? Time I could use for the things that matter.

Do you always “finish what you started?”

Comment on this post and I’ll put your name in the drawing for a copy of The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer, a practical book about inner peace and freedom.

The winner of last month’s drawing is Susan Berrodin. She will receive a copy of Old Friend From Far Away by Natalie Goldberg. Congratulations!

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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Eye Contact

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Going to physical therapy reminds me of the nail salon. The manicure clients don’t look at each other and prefer to gaze into space, pore through a People magazine, or stare at the TV mounted high on the wall.

At physical therapy, it’s much the same, except for the magazines. There is no TV and we are too much busy to read. Our determined looks and occasional winces remind me we are all in this together. Everybody is trying to do something physically difficult if not impossible.

The husky fortyish guy prone on the table with his knee wrapped in a huge white bandage looks like he’s about to break into a sweat when all he is doing is lifting his leg a couple of inches. The old woman across from me furrows her brow as she oh-so-slowly climbs up and down a little step-stool.

I make faces when my therapist forces my fingers down toward my palm to encourage my hand to make a fist. “Just two more times,” he says and pushes hard on my knuckles. “It’s hardest the first time. It gets better after this.”

The woman at the next table with her hand wrapped in an ice pack says “That’s not true.” Not what I want to hear. I just can’t do it and it hurts. But I can’t scream here. Nobody else is doing that. I can’t cry either.

The little boy across the room looks about eight or nine and he is doing the exact same hand exercises I am. All by himself. He looks serious but he’s not crying or wincing. I can be as brave as this little kid.

I catch his eye, smile and ask, “What did you do?”

“I fell off my bike,” he says with a shy smile, then goes back to work.

I’ve been coming here twice a week for over a month. In all that time, I engaged a couple of other patients in a sentence or two, but the kid is the only one I’ve asked about his injury. Now I want to poll every patient in the room: “What did you do?” I want to tell them I broke my hand. I don’t know why. Maybe I think I can forge some kind of bond over our shared pain and misery. Maybe I think we can encourage each other.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m doing therapy again, this time after shoulder surgery. Different, smaller office, same silence. No TV but they do have magazines nobody reads. Everybody’s working hard. I still try to make eye contact with the other patients but I quickly see how hard that is while you’re trying to focus on a nearly impossible task. I say a silent prayer for us all and get back to work.

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Have you ever been in a situation where you want to make eye contact with someone? Did you succeed? Tell us in the comments section and I’ll put your name in the hat for a drawing to win a copy of Cathy Lamb’s wonderful novel, The Language of Sisters, about family secrets and communicating beyond words.

The winner of this month’s drawing is Judy Mitten! She wins a copy of Styx and Stone, by James W. Ziskin. Congratulations, Judy, and thanks for your comment!

Quiche and Old Friends

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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!

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!

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.

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.

Joyce Carol Oates and Her Happy Chicken

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

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

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

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

View all my reviews

Her Sister Was a Chimp

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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

View all my reviews

Happy Mother’s Day? (or not)

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

LINDA C. WISNIEWSKI

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

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

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The Layers of Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Simply Christmas Birthday Cake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Veterans’ Day Salute

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

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

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

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

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

Origami Morning

Origami Sample

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can I make something else?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Knitting Knotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Namaste,
Kat

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

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

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.

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. “