Friday, November 28, 2014

What is my story?

Day two at Kripalu and I am taking a writing class. I'm here (in this class) because I want to pick up some tricks for my upcoming creative writing workshops. I'm not here to write or to discover new material or overcome writer's block or put pen to page--even though I need and want to do all of the above.

And so because I'm not here for any of these things--which means not forcing any words upon myself--they all happen. It doesn't hurt that I'm a teacher and can't mess around with another teacher's prompts and free writes.It doesn't hurt that she (Lara Tupper) is an excellent teacher.

The topic for today: What's your story? In yoga-speak that means, what are the stories you tell yourself about yourself, that define you? Are they who you are today or narratives from the past that linger?

While sitting on cushions, leaning against a backrest in a warm, cozy room, one of my stories rises to the surface: I'm too old to start my life over. Not even from the beginning...say, be twenty or thirty and have a life ahead, but from now: Can there be a next career? A next city? A next book (metaphorically), rather than merely, a next chapter?

While on the bus from the Port Authority to Lenox, the snow-capped mountains invited me to change my life. Live here! they said to me. Teach in a university tucked away in a small town, down a winding road, up a hill, someplace where there are lots of trees! (Yes, I know, Columbia. Central Park. But that's not what the mountains had in mind.)

A rush of adrenaline went through me recalling myself ten years ago, applying to MFA programs all over the country. I was on an adventure (or so I thought). I ended up staying in New York because, well. . .as much as I wanted to change my life, I was equally afraid of doing so.

This morning, I share my one-sentence story with the group; many heads nod. I'm not alone, and if there is anything one learns at a place like Kripalu, it is that none of us are. We're all here working out the last sentences of a story, even though we've turned the page.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

On writer's block

A few days ago I held a writing workshop on "Idea to Rough Draft." A participant asked, How do I deal with writer's block? It was a question I should have been prepared for, not just as a teacher, but because it was perfect for the class theme. And yet, I felt stumped. I'd never had writer's block, or so I thought.

In a non-touchy-feely way (I regret), I told her something like, Sometimes you have to sit to write, whether you want to or not. It's like exercising. You may not feel like it, but you do it. Another participant had a better and more sensitive approach: write to the writer's block. As it questions. Student #1 thanked her; because she sat close to me, I felt her relief. This morning, I feel my own relief, as I've been plagued by an unwillingness to write (not sure it's a block) for several months. I call it my new interest in painting (possibly), my lack of an idea (absolutely not true), my hesitancy to return to the solitary world of the writer (very true). But this last, most serious one, I'll punch holes in, for as a writer and rather shy person, whether I write or not, I spend a chunk of time in solitude.

One thing I've noticed is that I haven't written anything because I'm afraid of making a mistake. And yet, I've always been a writer who is in it more for process than publish. This same fear jumps out at me when I practice painting. As a brand-new artist, every single thing I paint is practice. And yet, I hesitate to take risks, to go bold or wild or crazy. I follow my teacher's instructions in spite of a continuous inner dialogue that says, make a mess. As a teacher, I know that students who aren't willing to make a mess will likely not get to their best material.

I want to start a novel; I want to get so lost in my characters, I break through the wall of solitude. I want to break through another wall, the one that says, it's over kiddo. No more writing. As I told the student in my workshop, I do have to discipline myself, sit, type something. And as touchy-feely student said, I will ask that wall, what purpose are you serving?

Saturday, October 11, 2014


I awake thinking of clouds. This isn't a foreshadow of how I see my day (although it is raining) or my emotional state. I'm challenged in my painting life in how to paint clouds, the hardest subject I've encountered (not counting my 4-week misstep into painting the nude).

Since beginning my watercolor lessons, I see the natural world in a new way. I took clouds for granted; they were there or not, up in the sky in the external world, or deep inside myself, in need of a bolt of thunder to release their gloom. This morning I picture their shapes, soft and creamy like puffs of whiteness, long and lazy, dark and threatening, streamers through the sky.

In my mind's eye they are simple yet complex subjects. Do I leave my paper white and paint around the cloud shape? (Cheating) Do I paint the whole thing and then tissue off a long lazy strip (a technique much harder than it appears)? Do I do a bit of both?

I awake and think, these cloud-thoughts I didn't,  I couldn't, have imagined having a mere few months ago. And now, they are natural, like awaking to write. Which brings me to, since taking up watercolors, people ask me: is the process similar to when you started writing?  

In some ways yes, but in most ways no. In my early writing days I wrote because I couldn't not write and I loved every second of it. The rewards were immediate and intense. My whole being connected to the page, the keyboard; words flew out of me so fast I had no idea how they had remained stored inside. I didn't think of process or discipline or commitment or talent. I was in the process--whatever that meant--discipline and commitment--why would I not return to the work every second I could? And talent? I knew I had it. Through the years, there is so much more I learned about writing, but  a way with words and craft? I had them. Maybe it was genetic or a legacy from my mother, a born storyteller.

Painting is completely different. I do it not because of talent, or love, or because I'm intrinsically a painter. I began because I needed to begin something new. I thought learning to paint watercolors would be fun. I stick with it because I like the discipline and because I'm keeping a commitment-pact with myself. So far, the learning has been difficult, tiring, inspired (I have a teacher who gives 300%), and once-in-awhile, when I veer from assignments and technique, it's fun. The process, the trial and error, absorbs me and tells me to stick with this, see where it leads. And so I return, observe myself returning, picking up my brush or buying new colors (yesterday: cobalt blue and Payne's gray) and those simple tasks are a reward.There is no goal of publication (or an audience) or of perfection. 

The painting below is my first mountain-scape without following instructions. (Note the clouds.) The leaves on the right, on the stained background, are my fun project.

Thursday, October 2, 2014


A Holidate (excerpt from The Ambivalent Memoirist)

On Yom Kippur, I have a date with my mother. The conflicts I had when she was alive never accompany me on these meetings. I’ll find her in the pews at the synagogue where I’ll say Yizkor. My grief will join us, for it arises during prayer as if for the first time.

As awful as grief is, there’s something alive and free about crying fresh, hard tears. I remember when my father passed away, a friend told me, “Enjoy your grief.” I understood immediately: one day the pain would lift, and with that relief, my connection to my father would fade. Today, I’m not sad, although I have a distinct wish to recapture a Yom Kippur past, in fact a very specific ritual.

After the shofar was blown, signifying the end of the twenty-four-hour fast, my mother and I raced home from shul. As we ran, my mother lit the cigarette hidden in her glove. At home, we prepared the table with delectable foods. We licked the salt off our fingers from the Nova Scotia lox, the white fish that fell out of its ripply golden skin.

I miss running home with my mother, waving to my father across the pews, gathering with my girlfriends in front of a synagogue to look for boys.

I miss not knowing what the future will hold.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Comfort zones

In yesterday's English class, we read "Silent Dancing" by Judith Cofer Ortiz. This essay about a family's immigration in 1952 from Puerto Rico to New Jersey, led class discussion to one of my own vulnerabilities: the emotional risks of living outside one's comfort zone.

In "Silent Dancing" Cofer Ortiz portrays her parents on opposing sides of that zone. Her father wants the family to assimilate, get out of the barrio. Her mother wants to stay in El Building, their first home in New Jersey, where the grocer sells food with labels she recognizes.

As my class talked about these opposing wants, I recalled my own history with comfort zones. My mother yearned for the home she'd left, an ocean before I came to be. I longed to find my mother's home, to return her to the comfort zone she'd been torn from. 

Had I by some miracle found that place, that would have involved a trade. My mother whisked back into her shtetl, like a genie in a bottle. And I? Well, not there. That would have been okay because I was in my comfort zone whenever my mother was happy. As much as she loved me--and she loved me profusely--I think she would have chosen that bottle.

That oversimplifies who my mother was--an Auschwitz survivor who lost her teenage years, and too, her mother just a year before that. And, too, it oversimplifies me--a daughter who--I would much later discover--had an impossible task: to cherish the mother who'd suffered such loss, and also grow up grounded enough to leave the comfort zone, when my own life came calling.

Ah. Comfort zones. I asked my class. Is it ever okay to stay inside your comfort zone? I was thinking, yes, certainly. I pictured myself in a little cocoon, taking my time to crawl out into the world. Students' hands shot up. No, young man in the back said. No, young woman on the left said. No, no, no, no (and so on). You don't grow. You don't experience things. You might as well not be alive. (Last words.) 

Those last words hit me hard. I'm fond of comfort zones, staying in the box, feeling okay exactly where I am. That can't always be bad. (Can it?) Choices that bring me anxiety, fear, discomfort? I struggle to not run from them. (And it is a struggle.)

I think I have a good enough digression to my watercolors. This morning I was irritated with myself for my woeful rendition of a stormy landscape. The remedy seemed (for a few moments) to quit watercolor altogether, or practice one after the other (after the other) until one was perfect. In other words, stuck in my comfort zone or as far from it as I could get. I free myself (without struggle) and reveal to you, the landscape below done in class with teacher's help. On the right, my second try.


Friday, September 19, 2014


Many years ago I was a "devotee" of The Course in Miracles. A spiritual psychotherapy, the course (when I practiced it) helped me to sidestep crises by sitting with an upset, waiting for clarity before acting. The idea behind it was that emotional triggers in the present--the things that upset or cause me anxiety--often have their roots in the past. When acting upon those misdirected feelings, well. . .hello, misery. I've been living in that place for the past few days. And this time, I am pausing, waiting for clarity, for insight, and yes, a Miracle.

I've been thinking a lot this week about the impulse that makes me take immediate action; the goal is to rid myself of discomfort, get what I want. My real aim is certainty. I want to know how things will unfold, what the other person thinks and feels, where all this is going. And so, even business dealings can sometimes resemble a romance (when this happens, game over).

Feeling uncertain is my Achilles heel. And yet, I work at a craft with so much uncertainty built in. There is never a guarantee of publication, of people liking what I write, or that after spending weeks or months on an essay, it will morph into anything I'm happy with. Yet I continue. Inside myself is a block of certainty. I write for myself, and this is available to me as long as I want it. I write because the process steadies and soothes all my uncertainties. When a business dealing goes awry--and I'm up at 2:00 a.m. (not a romance, I know)--I stare it down on the page. Maybe you, too, Dear Reader, have wrangled yourself out of a deal, or a romance, or an anything. If I think you might have, and my words touch you, then more certainty that I should keep doing what I do. 

In a few months I'll give a talk to MFA students about writing. The uncertainty of a writing career is what comes to mind and how to build a solid foundation of belief and certainty.  I want them to know that being able to write for oneself is a gift. I want to say, write with certainty, regardless of how your work is perceived. The world is fickle. Today's bestseller is on tomorrow's sale table.

Ah. . .finally I can get in something about how my watercolors are going. This week of practice was frustrating and wildly uncertain. I got stuck on a sunset landscape. I left Saturday's class believing I understood the directions and would remember the demonstration. At home, I recalled nothing. I wanted to give up when my sunset looked like a smashed sunnyside up egg. I carried on and became obsessed. It was a great distraction from uncertainty. Whether I did it well or not, there was no guarantee. Somewhere between the neatness of the one on the lower left and the mess on the top left is what I'm aiming for.  (Later that day: the new one on the right. A stormy sunset.)

Thursday, September 11, 2014


Standing on line at Starbucks, my attention drifts to the miniature black and white cookies on the counter. I travel back to 1959, recall the window display in the bakery on Utica Avenue--the one my mother worked at--with its large, round cookies, half dark chocolate brown, the other half waxy-ivory. They were half the size of my face, yet looking back, I recall bragging that every bite I took had a bit of both flavors. I don't know how I managed it.

Now, my fingers trail the plastic wrap and press against the puffy package. I smile to myself, recognizing my sweet nostalgia, my yearning for a time that precedes the stresses of today, that precedes the knowledge of how my life would unfold.

Childhood moments, one after the other, roll into stories. There were those cookies, made so precious by our frugality, our picking and choosing what and when to devour our morsels. My mother and I--and all my delicacy jaunts involved my mother--would stroll through a specialty store, also on Utica Avenue but down a ways near Empire Boulevard. We'd buy almonds, golden raisins, chocolate covered cherries, and our most favorite--De Beukelaer wafers. They were in the shape of a Nestle's bar, long and thin, but layered with creamy chocolate and crisp wafers, to a 1/2" thickness. They were so good, we almost couldn't eat them.

My mother put the wafers in a cabinet behind the dishes --a place I would one day keep my cigarettes after I gave them up but occasionally indulged. When we were being mischievous, likely when my father was at shul and my brother, up to no good, it was time to open the cabinet, reach in for our stash. We ate gleefully, piggishly, licked our fingers, loved one another to pieces.

Ah. . .I am finally getting to the point of this post. . .stories. My second day of Eng 101 and students have returned to class, confused and lost in their assignment--come in with a few ideas for our first essay: significant childhood events. Some have lugged heavy, horrible events--the death of a parent, an abortion, being bullied, robbed at knife point. Others are empty--I'm only 18, not much has happened yet. I tell them, stories are everywhere, every second. I tell them about buying coffee and noticing the cookies, the place I traveled to. They look at me blankly.

The story before me is that I don't always know how to reach my students. I listen to their groans; a student pushes, Well, tell us what to do. I don't want to make a wash of the assignment. Struggle and frustration are good. I walk around the room and look at each person's event; every single one is begging for a story. And so what they feel (I think) is insecure. I reassure them, and we move on.

Later I take my own insecurity to my next class. No one has a problem with the assignment. And so it goes.