Sunday, January 25, 2015

Being accountable

Today I awake exhausted, my mind in a fight with the past: I'm not at ease. Somewhere on the edge of the shelf beside my bed or under a pillow is Louise Hay's You Can Heal Your Life. I am not supposed to nurture thoughts of the past and future projections; positive affirmations and living in the present, leave no room for regret or shame. (Note to Ms. Hay: I know you're working your magic, in spite of this regression.) Were it so easy to tame beasts that have been my lifetime dream-whisperers, I wouldn't need a book; in fact, I wouldn't own numerous books that teach me, in one way or another, to live in gratitude.  

Since beginning Hay's book, I've been substituting a positive thought each time I notice a self-recriminating one. I deserve happiness is one of my favorites. It sounds hokey (and should my students stumble upon this, they will discover the truth about me; I am hokey), but these affirmations do work (in which case, hokey-ness aside, this might be helpful to said students.) And since it's impossible to not think, why not think good stuff?

In the background Christa Tippett's voice hums from the radio, drifts to my sleeping alcove. And with that I come alive, awaken to my fortunes, my umpteen gratitudes: the ability to lounge in bed on a lazy Sunday, my new (and long overdue) Netflix membership, my day ahead that involves an elliptical machine and a Netflix flick, and still later, a coffee with friends, and the list goes on. 

One of these days I will return to my watercolors.
Gratitude is an immediate mind shift. It moves me from deep self-centeredness to the outer world. To what must be done. To what is possible. Gratitude is an eye-opener. A miracle.


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

On my mother's birthday

Last week I began reading Louise Hay's You Can Heal Your Life. A friend insisted I read it when I  chastised myself, an unfortunate habit I have. I went to the Strand and bought it that day. Thus far, its mantra of living in the present is medicinal. I especially love "whatever you choose to believe becomes true for you" and ". . .clean the rooms of my mental house."

A Hungarian beauty, 1955.
Hay's book was my mother's bible; now, eleven years after her death, I wish I had thought to read it when she did. What might our relationship have become? But as I write those words, I see I'm back in an unchangeable past; I'm undoing the forgiveness the present insists upon. And so as I read, I imagine my mother with me, our voices a duet as we battle similar demons. My mother is beside me, her face moist, her eyes brimming.

East New York 1952.
Today is my mother's birthday. I've been looking forward to this day all month, knowing I would honor her from a loving perch. My mother believed in the adage, "There are no accidents." I confess to not liking that expression much, simply because I can't accept that awful events in peoples' lives are there by design. Nevertheless, today I hold my mother's bible close, finding comfort and compassion. 

The little urchin on the left is my mom.
   

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Life in motion

Ah. . .the sweet luxury of two more weeks until Spring semester begins. I sip my coffee slowly (this process begins at 5:00 a.m.) and relish in my recent addition of wifi. Propped against my pillows, laptop at hand, I send emails for work (still in need of one more class). Then I'm ready for one of my favorite ways to start my day: a letter to the editor at the New York Times.

Since letters must be original and exclusive, I'll only say it has to do with community colleges. The greater point about writing these letters is the supreme satisfaction I get in making my opinions known. Published or not, I care enough about my reactions to others' words to engage in the dialog. I think I always cared, but didn't believe in what I felt and thought. Somewhere along my growth as an adult, I settled into believing. It's a nice place to be, a place I never take for granted.

The day stretches before me, although a search for work is a job in itself. At some point there will be a yoga class. A stop at my currently-favorite cafe. A guest blog entry I promised. Volunteer work this evening. Simple and mindful pleasures that comprise my day. These, too, I never take for granted.

Writing pulls me through the early morning haze of complex dreams. My arm lengthens and reaches out the window. I'm still, but I'm travelling miles away and freshening my mind. 

It's time to open the blinds. Put the laptop back on the desk where it belongs. Take my whole self out into the world. Get in motion.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Becoming

I notice a direct link between the fewer articles I've published and the more blog posts I write. One of the beauties of a blog post is the immediacy. There's the desire to connect via words, and then, voila, words, sentences, paragraphs, a cohesive whole (hopefully) is ready, and my hope, a reader appears.

I get pleasure from knowing my voice is in the world; I get pleasure, too, from the slow, meditative writing a blog requires, because revision is unlikely. But I also don't churn myself around, turning thoughts into fully realized stories that tell more than what they appear to. I need that kind of writing too. That very hard work.

This isn't a roundabout way of saying I'm going to close up the blog shop. Dear readers, if you're out there (whoever, however many you might be), I like talking to you. It is simply my way of saying, I need to become a writer again. (Thank you J for reminding me, I am always becoming a writer.)

I'm back from Pittsburgh where I gave a talk at an MFA residency. From my side of the podium it went great; I loved meeting writers, imparting everything I could to make their writing lives successful, regardless of who is and isn't publishing their work. And as always, whenever I put pen to page as I did in preparing my talk, I discovered the genesis of myself as writer. It began with other writers.

I loved to read, loved to be carried away by stories; they shaped me into the person I would become and made me comfortable with the person I already was. Words are power, especially when connected into beautiful sentences; if they change person after person after person, imagine how the right sentences can one day change the world.

I don't know what my next project will be. I want to write a fun, torrid novel; yet I'm drawn to what is happening in the world. My essay voice calls on me to make sense of things.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

My library card

I have a deep fondness for my Brooklyn Public Library card and have held out on updating; it's nostalgia, selfishness, and the fact that my card is a memory trove. I got my card (well, not this exact one) at six; I learned to love reading and libraries then. My parents were struggling, didn't go to school in America. And so it was the library and my teachers who taught me to love to read. Who presented me with bookcases, chock full of wonder. With mixed emotions I accept my new card (forced upon me [sort of] because the old was unreadable).

A day that goes down in childhood-terror infamy: I was seven years old and had my own key to our mailbox. On my way up to our apartment, I picked up the mail from the boxes below the staircase. Inside was an envelope, containing a black and white photocopy of the books I'd checked out and not returned. There was a fine...maybe $1.25...$1.50. Dread engulfed me. I was in for it; I had broken the law. I hid the envelope in my briefcase, the keeper of many of my young secrets. I sweated through supper, my bath, tv, and then I lay in bed for hours, tortured by fear. Would I go to jail? Would my parents?

My bedroom door was ajar; the tv's hum drifted in along with the low light from the living room. My parents were still awake. I opened my mouth to call for help and no words came out. The tv was turned off, the lights shut. They were about to go to sleep. How much torture could I take? Out of the depth of my stomach a voice rose up, "Mommmmmmy!"  She rushed in. "What is it sweetheart?" I got out of bed, took the envelope out and showed it to her. I was hysterical.

"I'm going to jail," I cried. My mother held me and told me it was nothing. We would bring back the books and pay the fine. She told me to never hold things in. I never loved my mother as much as I did at that moment.

The next day after school we went to the library. While my mother took care of business, I looked for new books. I couldn't believe they still let me take out books. No one was mad. 

My mother taught me right then so much of what I would need to know in life: nothing is as bad as I think (not even close), sharing always feels better, fix the problem, go back to living. And yet, I didn't get the lesson. I would struggle throughout my adult life over tiny things, worry myself until I was dazed. My mother knew this about me, of course. "Don't keep things in," she'd remind me. "Shoot it out!" But I usually couldn't.

One day many years later when my parents visited, I stopped to get my mail. My mother and I were going through a rough patch. We were disconnected. There was a postcard from the library. I showed it to her. "Remember?" I said. Waves of memories came upon us. We swam to each other.  .  

Sunday, December 28, 2014

On my father's birthday

Reading to My Father
(excerpt from The Ambivalent Memoirist

Last night I began reading The Book of Lights, by Chaim Potok. This story of a rabbinical student enthralled by the Kaballah took me to my father’s bedside. I imagined him as he was at the end of his life. I sit beside him (in this imagining), reading aloud.

           When God decided to create the world, He first produced a flame of a scintillating lamp .

           My father presses my palm and smiles; he loves the sounds of the Orthodox world these words create. And how appreciated I feel, bringing this joy to him, giving my father an end to his life that is a perfect circle. For he was born into the world of Orthodoxy. And it is this world I battled against as a young girl in my efforts to be American. When my father spoke Yiddish on our Brooklyn streets, I turned my face, as if I didn’t know him; when he went to shul on Shabbos, carrying his siddur and talis, I pretended he was like the American fathers on television, going to work.

           In keeping with the complicated ironies of my life, it is my father’s home I now often wish to discover. Tell me about the Talmud, I insist to my father in this bedside fantasy. And Kaballah! Explain this, too. My father pats my hand and smiles. His stroke has rendered him speechless. But for us, understanding has always been on a cellular level.

           My father’s love, a wrenching and gorgeous miracle.

***

Early at Starbucks this morning, I ran into a neighbor. We chatted about my upcoming (and amorphous) move, former employers and Emerson (of all things). After that, I met another neighbor, more chatting—complex early morning stuff, most likely the remnants of REM sleep. And in the midst of all this brainy conversing, a voice inside said I must get home and write my father—not a letter, but the beginning of his story.

           My father was born in 1915. The distance between his village and my mother’s was an hour by carriage. In fact, the possibility of my parents’ meeting in Europe, had there not been a Hitler, would have been entirely possible.

           As a young man, my father worked in Muncash at two jobs: he was a grocery distributor and a window dresser. My favorite detail of his life as a young man was how he enjoyed visiting Muncash, a city hectic with caf├ęs and young people laughing and dancing.

           When I close my eyes I see my father as a dashing young man, with his high, aristocratic forehead, his longish nose, his avocado eyes.

           I wish I could choose a moment of the past and freeze-frame it, like a photograph. I would insert myself into a time machine and travel back to 1939 when my father was twenty-four. I would sit across the marble table from him in Muncash, sipping an espresso. I would ask a stranger to snap our picture. I would seal it in my mind’s eye.

           I would wonder if my father recognized my own avocado eyes.

 ***

When I think of my father, my brain settles, my breath slows, a certain kind of peace descends.

           Many years ago, Chaim Potok was among my favorite writers. But I feared reading him when his words took me to a sorrowful, lonely place. The book was Davita’s Harp, a coming-of-age novel of a young Jewish girl who yearned to connect with the religion her parents rejected. The book took me deep inside myself even though that wasn’t my story, not on the surface at least.

           There, in the pit of me, is the door to my father’s home, the door I wish to knock on.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Our last class

After years of teaching, it's still hard to predict how a particular lesson will go. Classes have their own personality, and like all of us, moods and attitudes shift. The word "presentation" is often met with anxiety. Sometimes the last class, when the dreaded presentation is given, is lively and creative. Sometimes it's pure drudgery; students drag themselves to the front of the class, respond to the pre-arranged talking points, and pray no one will ask them questions.

I understand; I was a college freshman once. The first time I spoke in front of the class, my hands visibly shook. In fact, twenty-five years later, the first time I gave a reading, my hands shook. But are fear and nerves a good enough reason to do away with the process? Once, a shy student gave her presentation to me alone, in the adjunct office.

Wednesday at around 5, a few emails trickled in: I don't feel well. I have to pick up my mother from the hospital. Class began at 6. I thought we'd be out and on with our lives by 7. A quick few words, then done. That's not how it went. Students took the stage (aka front of the room) as if they'd been waiting for it their whole lives. They led discussions on immigration, racism, gender inequality, and sexual orientation. They offered solutions, such as educating kids when they start school that everyone is equal. They were passionate. A male student asked a female student, what does 'women can be who they want' mean? She responded: If I own a business, I should be able to hire men to work for me. I thought of the Virginia Slims ads from the days when cigarettes and feminism lined up. You've come a long way baby.

Student presentations, especially when they're impassioned as they were the other night, get me to reflect on my own ideals and solutions. As a Jew and a daughter of Holocaust survivors, I feel I should fight anti-semitism. Friends post horrific articles to Facebook about synagogues burned, people shot. But that doesn't feel like my war.

I like the concept and the reality of kindness. It allows me to make the world better in the smallest, easiest, and most manageable ways. I began several years ago with bus drivers. Every time I board and get off a bus, I say thank you. I smile at the porter in my building. I say hello to the people who bag my groceries. I chat if they're chatty, even if I'm not.

But I digress.I'd had plans to go to a party after students rushed through their talks. But they surprised me. Maybe that was their thank-you and their kindness.