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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Comfort of Words

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I read today that Joyce Carol Oates describes sitting down at her writing desk as “low dread.” Hmmm. Just how I see America today: “low dread.”  What new horror will our president and his enablers bring upon us? Crying children torn from their parents, closing the door on immigrants because of their country’s majority religion, taking healthcare away from millions who cannot pay out of pocket…I could go on. But I won’t.

Low clouds cover the sky as I write outside on my deck, as if someone unrolled the batting I sew into a quilt and spread it over the world I see. Birds chirp, but is that a happy sound or a frantic cry for help, like the sparrow under attack on my porch last month? I think I smell something burning, go inside and search my house, but no. It must be outside, or in my head. “Low dread.”

I know somewhere the sun is shining. I know it’s above those batting clouds. But how far? I know they will part, even here. But when? What comfort is here for me now, on a day with a lowering sky?

I turn to this poem from my writing teacher, the late Judi K. Beach.

No Matter How Dark

There is always the possibility
of light. The deepest forest spills its
leaf to leaf like rain, falling.

At the far end of the tunnel,
light dilates as you drive closer
and darkness falls behind.

No matter how dark, the light
finds a way in. The night of no moon
is sequined with stars.

Even this blackness, this treading
in ink, this ebony residence, this
vulnerability to the opiate of despair

has light, though your eyes
have not yet adjusted to it, looking
as they do to the well-lighted past.

There is always a time of blindness
moving from bright into black.
Remember the sun

is making its way to you and remember
how far light must travel. Somewhere
the sun is rising and somewhere

it is high in the sky. In your house
this night, this fortnight or year,
the sun will find the loose clapboard,

the east-face of your sorrow.
Your world is
turning toward the light.

p.107, How Far Light Must Travel, 2007, Fithian Press

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What words do you turn to for comfort? Share them in the comments for a chance to win a signed hardcover copy of by invitation only, the new novel by Dorothea Benton Frank. Family drama, comedy and a Lowcountry landscape – great for beach or poolside reading.

Congrats to this month’s winning commenter, Linda Hehn! She will receive a signed copy of Boardwalk Summer, Meredith Jaeger, whose mom also happens to be my cousin. Set in California in 1940 and 2010, it has #MeToo, racism, single motherhood and a whopping big family secret.

 

The Space Between Stories

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

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

We are between stories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Not To Do List

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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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.

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.