December 18, 2010

Why I came to writing so late ...

With thanks to Daisy Hickman (Twitter friend and soul par excellence)

I published my first book at age 60. You might argue that I was a has-been before I began. I argue, “It ain’t over 'till it’s over.” Inside that bravado lies a question I was unable to address until my world cratered.

I stood at a distance from this question, I, who began writing with my life’s breath in 1987 when my first piece, an elegiac tribute to my mother, was published in The New York Jewish Week, at the time of year between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—the time of self-reflection for Jews. It was not the best thing I’ve written, but it was a beginning, way too late. 

Freda and Gerson, my mother and father
My mother died in 1990, my sister in 1993, my father in 1999—all from long, tortuous and serious illnesses while I remained well and strong. In 1996, I left my corporate job when I was 50 and went off to grad school to do the work of my life: To write. I now believe that work sat in wait for reasons I had yet to discover.
Ann, my sister, and Mary, me

When I turned 60, The Woman Who Never Cooked won Mid-List Press’s First Series award and was published. The writing of that book I thought—and I thought is the key word herebrought me through the grief that lies inside the stories.

But that year, the year the book was published, my husband left me for reasons he couldn’t explain and that I couldn’t understand. The bottom of my life fell out from under me. I cratered.

My memoir tells the good, the bad and the foolish that was me after he left (I'm still working on the self-discovery this book explores, how I swooned and wept, the ingenue in a romantic comedy of my own making; you'll have to read the book to get that story.) but what I want to explore here is where the writing comes from and why it had lain in wait.

I was on Twitter one day when I saw a quote by Marianne Williamson, posted by someone else, that hit home: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure” from A Return to Love, a book I have now read and found deeply candid. 

Because I grew up in a household of illness—goodness, yes, but linoleum halls were my home away from home—I grew up with the fantasy that my being alive took lives. The child could not understand.

The adult wrote this, when the last of the three was dying:

I think my father knew I wanted to abandon him. Did he know that I asked myself, What has he to offer me now, to give me? That I thought, What he wants from me is too much. My mother’s and my sister’s slow, painful anguished deaths that filled my years with long linoleum hospital halls, while my father sat in the orange chairs in the waiting places for the families of the sick. While he sat distant, apart, I went to the gurneys and the bedsides. I walked down the halls to the elevators that led to the operating room where one day they cut off my sister’s leg and then one day cut off the other—the diabetes. While I held my mother’s hand and felt the blood inside her fingers slow as if the blood that bled into her brain came from that hand, reversed and went another way, took a wrong turn, and that left her hand crooked and bent like his, while I went with her to the room where they put her in a tube to look inside her brain, to confirm the stroke, the bleeding in her brain, while I did that, while she lay in the tube unconscious, he sat in an orange chair in a waiting room.

I think now, Why were those chairs, plastic-leather-cushioned or hard-curved-molded in all the rooms where he waited, all orange? Like the unexplained orange on the forehead in that poem: “the night nailed like an orange to my brow.” My father was nailed to my brow. He sat in his wheelchair with his arm around my head. Bent and angled bones that would not straighten out. I felt no blood coursing through him, no soft flesh pressing down on mine.

No way out.

The way he felt while he sat in the orange chairs?
(from “To Swim?” The Woman Who Never Cooked)

As raw as this might seem to you, it still did not get at the conscious understanding I needed to write the memoir (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story. I had known that aggression must be part of the writing, but I feared what must be done to create: Say the unsayable. I don’t mean that the writer must crush another. I mean the writer must crush herself.

My path to that end was to rediscover the past in the therapist’s chair—not in the writing chair. It took me way too long to get into that chair, but I have to thank for that chair my husband’s announcement, Oh so Greta Garbo, “I need to live alone.” If he had not left me—and he was the straw that broke this camel’s back—if he had not sent me on my journey, I would never have written the memoir that dares to go without fear to the heart of the matter: the question, Who am I?

You have your reasons for waiting or for writing. I have mine. I know this: The little girl in this photo wrote the memoir and she wrote this piece.

And I know this: those of us who choose to create art, whether we succeed or not, must have as our mantra: Bird out of the cage, bird on a wire.

Note: I wrote this essay for the blogger and wise soul Daisy Hickman. Go here to read her intro, her wise words and Natalie Goldberg's on memoir, and then read everything Daisy posts for the heart and soul of this woman.

December 02, 2010

On the lyric and the short story

"Make room for the roots!" --Stanley Kunitz


Hoping here for guest bloggers soon: Rob Pluta, Daisy Hickman and Susan Tiner. In the meantime, I thought it was time for me to ponder the writing process with you and with the hope that you will comment. 


For today: Leavings, poems and the short story as lyric.

I believe that the poem and the short story share the quality of concentrated language to express both feeling and thought.

Kunitz and Bishop and Paley

I put these two poems “My Mother’s Pears” by Stanley Kunitz and the much anthologized “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop with the story “Friends” by Grace Paley for this reasons: All deal with loss. 

The day before I drove my oldest child to college, the day he really left home, for his returns since then have been visits, I sat across from him at a French patisserie on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C.—not a very good cafe, a copy of the real thing—and I thought not about his leaving but about the way he first came, of that moment when the doctor cut the cord and gave him to me. Both loss and gift. At the time, both my mother and my sister were dying of long term illnesses. So loss was on my mind and has been ever since.

Kunitiz, Bishop and Paley, these three writers in these three pieces, express loss and give meaning to it.

Stanley Kunitz

More than a decade ago at age 90, Stanley Kunitz won the National Book Award for his poems, “Passing Through.” I heard him read “My Mother’s Pears” the year before at the Library of Congress’s Academy of American Poets celebration of its chancellors. And it was one of those poems that produced an audible sigh among the crowd as if we all said together, “Yes, that’s how it feels, the memory of what’s been lost and what remains.” We saw his scene, with the shovel in his hand, his mother in her kerchief, his sisters in their middy blouses, and conjured up our own.

My Mother’s Pears           
        by Stanley Kunitz, Passing Through, "New Poems"

Plump, green-gold, Worcester’s pride,
            transported through autumn skies
                        in a box marked Handle With Care

sleep eighteen Bartlett pears,
            hand-picked and polished and packed
                        for deposit at my door,
each in its crinkled nest
            with a stub of stem attached
                        and a single bright leaf like a flag.

A smaller than usual crop,
            but still enough to share with me,
                        as always at harvest time.

Those strangers are my friends
            whose kindness blesses the house
                        my mother built at the edge of town

beyond the last trolley-stop
            when the century was young, and she
                        proposed, for her children’s sake,

to marry again, not knowing how soon
            the windows would grow dark
                        and the velvet drapes come down.

Rubble accumulates in the yard,
            workmen are hammering on the roof,
                        I am standing knee-deep in dirt

with a shovel in my hand.
            Mother has wrapped a kerchief round her head,
                        her glasses glint in the sun.

When my sisters appear on the scene,
            gangly and softly tittering,
                        she waves them back into the house

to fetch us pails of water,
            and they skip out of our sight
                        in their matching middy blouses.

I summon up all my strength
            to set the pear tree in the ground,
                        unwinding its burlap shroud.

It is taller than I. “Make room
            for the roots!” my mother cries,
                        “Dig the hole deeper.”


Elizabeth Bishop

Elizabeth Bishop’s beautiful villanelle, with its similar understatement moves me with its specifics that get larger and weightier as the stanzas progress--from lost keys and lost hours to the loss of the gesture of the one she loved.

                        One Art

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent,
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

            —Elizabeth Bishop from The Collected Poems

Frank O’Connor on the short story

It is this use of the specific in the concentrated moment that I think the poem shares with the short story. Frank O’Connor in his study of the short story, The Lonely Voice (sadly, appears to me to be out of print; I own an old copy and will try to photograph it soon), says of the short story writer, “Because his frame of reference can never be the totality of a human life, he must be forever selecting the point at which he can approach it, and each selection he makes contains the possibility of a new form as well as the possibility of a complete fiasco” (p.21). It is this selection process of each moment and word that I think the short story writer shares with the poet.

Annie Dillard on prose

Annie Dillard in Living by Fiction in her chapter on prose styles and speaking particularly of what she calls “short prose objects” (the short-short perhaps?) says that “fiction in this century has been moving closer to poetry in every decade” (p.114). And perhaps later that is explained when she speaks admiringly of what she calls “plain prose”: “This prose is craftmanlike. It possesses beauty and power without syntactical complexity” (p. 118).

Grace Paley

Grace Paley writes this kind of simple, concentrated prose. She carefully selects her moments and her words and in so doing creates new form and humble, carefully crafted prose that honor her characters and the world.

Some biographical background:

She was born in 1922 to Jewish immigrant parents. Her mother was 38 when Grace was born. Her father was a successful family doctor. Her sister Jeanne was 14 and her brother Victor 16 at the time. The story goes that neither knew their mother was pregnant until the birth--that their mother Manya never mentioned it and that she was a fat woman who just got a little fatter. Grace grew up surrounded by adults, (her father’s mother and sister also lived with them). When she was 13 her mother developed breast cancer and was ill for many years until her death after Grace was married. She married Jess Paley in 1942 when she was 19 and a half, had two children, Nora and Danny. She divorced Paley after 25 years of marriage and later married Bob Nichols. She lived most of her life on Eleventh Street in lower Manhattan in the Village. And most of her stories are set there in the apartments, the streets, the parks. She is widely known for her political activities: opposition to the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, her outspoken concern for environmental issues. Some call her a feminist. She published three short story collections: Little Disturbances of Man in 1959, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute in 1974 and Later the Same Day in 1985. Her Collected Short Stories appeared in 1994 and was a National Book Award Finalist. She never wrote a novel, though she tried once and was sorry for it. She has said in explaining that choice, “Art is too long and life is too short.” She died recently but lived until most of her life with Bob Nichols in Vermont.

For all of her much publicized political activities, her work is art and never propaganda. She wrote only poetry until she was over thirty (published a poetry collection Leaning Forward in 1985, and I think that her study of poetry is evident in her work: the concrete details, the weaving of conversation, and the use of a narrator who often speaks to the reader. As in the story “Friends,” her focus is individual lives and families, but the world with all its social ills is present. She writes with a belief that there is a moral framework to our lives, there is an “ought,” if you will, to what we do. We see this in the story’s final words, when the narrator says, Anthony “was right to call my attention to [the world’s] suffering and danger. He was right to harass my responsible nature. But I was right to invent for my friends and our children a report on these private deaths and the condition of our lifelong attachments.”

That report comes in details that do not move in clear chronological order and that pile up on one another to realize the losses life demands we sustain and the hope that our connections with one another offer.

            A few examples (page numbers are from The Collected Stories):

•            On page 303: “Our dear Selena had gotten out of bed. Heavily but with a comic dance, she soft-shoed to the bathroom, singing, ‘Those were the days, my friend...’ ”In the phrase, “soft-shoed” she gives us the image of dance but also of bedroom shoes and shuffling and illness.

•            On page 306, “Still we couldn’t move. We stood there in a row. Three old friends. Selena pressed her lips together, ordered her eyes into cold distance.” In the phrase “cold distance” she evokes both Selena’s impending death and her determination.

•            And right there, in the next sentence, when the narrator says, “I know that face,” we find Grace Paley’s characteristic authorial voice. She uses a shift to the present tense to put us inside the narrator’s head for another story.

•            One last example on page 310: the narrator who can right in the middle of the story speak out to the reader: “Because: People do want to be young and beautiful. When they meet in the street, male or female, if they’re getting older they look at each other’s face a little ashamed. It’s clear they want to say, Excuse me, I didn’t mean to draw attention to mortality and gravity all at once. I didn’t want to remind you, my dear friend, of our coming eviction, first from liveliness, then from life. To which, most of the time, the friend’s eyes will courteously reply, My dear, it’s nothing at all. I hardly noticed.”

            One day, after my children had left home and my mother and sister had died, I read this story out loud in the car to my husband who was driving us somewhere. When I was done I wept at the sadness and the joy of all those conversations in the story. I wondered how Grace Paley had achieved this weaving of talk and comment and picture, as I sat there crying for my own losses and my own joys remembered.


I recall now that first birth and close with the joy that is my son: To birth, to life!

November 07, 2010

Frank Orlando on Sex After Sixty, Sicily, The Mafia, Food and Self-Discovery

Frank Orlando guest blogs today. How might this have happened you? might ask. Okay so maybe you wouldn’t ask that. Frank found me when I was Internet dating, he “friended” me on Facebook and has been a loyal follower of this blog and then he joined the Facebook page for (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixtystory where supporters hit the “like” button to help get my memoir off the ground. Please do that for me, dear readers. But in the meantime …

Ah, sex after sixty—Frank will need to read the book to see if he’s in it. Ah, social media.

I give you Frank Orlando:



Frank Orlando was born in Cleveland, where he says, “I grew up anyway. My father moved from coast to coast, finally settling in San Clemente, California. I stayed in school until I was old enough to join the Army and spent three years followed by seven getting a college education finishing at San Diego State. With my Journalism degree, I took jobs on five newspapers in five different states before getting a job with the Coachella Valley Water District where I wrote press releases, publications and stared at the wall for 18 years. I left the desert for Vancouver, B.C., then took acting lessons in Hollywood and did extra work for two years. Bored, I left for the Monterey Peninsula where I watch waves and dream of foreign lands.”

Imagine

“Imagine,” John Lennon’s song of anarchy and freedom, got me to thinking about the belief we have in Hollywood romantic comedies and how that contrasted, as real life often does, with what happened before and after my trip to Sicily with Tamme. 

First, I have roots in Sicily. So, or Alora, as the Italians say, it was a bucket list topper. I don’t like to travel alone so I started asking ladies. Got turned down and then started asking, as a joke, every woman I talked to, emailed or was introduced to. Tamme, my nephew’s ex-wife, accepted eagerly and began sending me incentives to taking her.

She had just celebrated her 30th birthday and I would be seeing my 70th in Sicily.

Yes, yes, there were people to consult: my nephew, sister and close friends. Nephew, Sister—no apparent problem, not yet anyway. My friends, however, were universally shocked. Screw them, I thought. Eventually, most reluctantly said “Have a nice trip” whatever that means. More on this later.

Food, Sex and Rom-Coms

I have little illusions about my performance as a food critic or sexual participant. So, what follows will be a not sophisticated, but appreciator of both. The food was comfortable for me. I’m a city guy and my first taste of fresh sardines and anchovies, surprised. Moist, firm, less salty and delicious. This kept happening. The thing I discovered about the food I ate is that it was simple good and uncomplicated. Florence could be complicated, Rome as well, but here, it was just good.

There, overlooking a marina in Cinisi, 10 minutes from the airport and the site of our hotel, we got our first antipasto. I was intimidated by three different kinds of local fish, cheeses, olives. There was a fish entrée during which my jet-lagged memory fogged over, exhausted.

I had my first canola, something I had come to know as “Momma’s masterpiece.” Another Hollywood ending bites the dust. Nowhere in Sicily did I find that taste, and I came to understand that there may be treasured, ancient and secret recipes, but necessity of the moment, serendipity, availability of local resources, all change a recipe. Momma’s creations were unique to Italian influences in an early 20th century Cleveland, Ohio.

Then, I ate in Sicilian restaurants, not homes. The restaurants were neighborhood places inhabited by a few late season tourists starting at 8 p.m. and coffee bars for insomnia addled old men in mid-afternoon: my favorite time to take pictures, late afternoon as orange light warms jagged surfaces. 

Shadows, soft and a burst of light would drift through the branches ringing the church piazza and we kept coming back to this place to settle in our minds and talk about the new, old things we saw.

This, as most of this trip was, was fun. Tamme, seeming to drive like she was auditioning for a NASCAR slot, yelled in late afternoon Palermo traffic, “This is like a video game, I love it!”


My license had expired while I was in Italy and anyway, I just didn’t want to drive through the maniac traffic where believers in a better life after death steer their Vespas at you like demons bugs about to splatter on your windshield. Tamme was not intimidated having been a truck driver in recent years. Her father was a truck driver, her stepfather as well. Anyway, dying in a traffic collision is almost worth it for the misconceptions that would follow reports of mine and Tamme’s demise.

About those misconceptions. Tamme and I emailed outrageous things to each other in the weeks that preceded our trip. I have, all of my life done this. Let you shrinks figure out why. As a joke. After a while I wondered what might come of this. With an adventurous past, both well known to our friends and to unbelievers everywhere, it was natural to think something sexual was going to happen.

The package I booked included one, double bed.

Nothing happened. No, really. Nothing. Tamme announced, on the last leg of our trip that “I’d sleep more comfortably if we had two beds.” That answered all my questions and the tone was set for the trip. It wasn’t possible and we would have had to give up a wonderful view of the beach and marina—and pay 50 Euros more a night. We slept comfortably without contact for the time we were there.  So, another Hollywood ending bites the dust.

We tour Sicily

Shopping was great and interesting. Tamme, with her proud truck-driver taste, shopped low end. There were plenty of these shops in Palermo, shops not much bigger than closets selling items you’d find in a Los Angeles covered swapmeet. Bins of cheap, Chinese and Indian made bras, bangles and beads along with coffee bars, auto body shops, law offices and the occasional designer clothing store. It seemed chaotic as is much of the history of this island.

Occupying a geographic central spot in the Mediterranean Sea,

 it has been a country unto itself, then a colony of the Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Spanish, Swabian, Norman, Bourbon and whomever else had ambitions in the area. It wasn’t a part of Italy for most of this time. So many Sicilians immigrated to the U.S. that there was foolish talk of a 51st state.

We wound our way down from Cinisi to Palermo to Agrigento. a normally two-and-a half  hour drive. Tamme cut an hour off this doing “what I could never get away with in Canada.”

Did I forget to mention that? I picked Tamme up in Calgary, Canada where she lived in a house her husband left her as part of the divorce settlement. It was a chance to visit with my sister who lives in a nearby community.

Tamme didn’t have a positive image of U.S. citizens, accepting the stereotypes of loud, rude, badly dressed and aggressive geographic idiots. “Not all of them,” she diplomatically qualified. I’m not badly dressed, quiet, courteous and non-loud.  A red flag went up. Her biggest complaint, however was:  “They don’t even know we’re up here.”

Yeah, I guess a lot of us are that way, the ones with a lot of money and little time for courtesy—but hell, we’re mostly just folks with as many assholes with money as anyone in Europe, South America or, Canada.

The Mafia?

Look, I’m a movie fan, a Pacino, Brando, DiNiro fan in particular. I couldn’t go without seeing Corleone, the name for the “Godfather” family. The city itself was mostly hilly, with narrow, one lane streets beneath buildings seeming to tilting toward each other. The time was that four hour break Italians take, putting in a few, halfhearted hours afterwards followed by wine and food. We were hungry, wanted a rest from Tamme’s spilling like a flash flood through back roads that frequently degenerated to gravel.

We saw the crumbling ruins of Torre Saracen, called Soprano Castle. Throughout Italy guides told me of a temple that could become a mosque that could become a church and on and on. One conqueror would raze and build over what it couldn’t convert. These ruins could have been a victim of Allied bombing or retreating Germans, Greeks, Romans, Spanish, French, destroying anything they saw as useful to the new guys. Garabaldi, the unifier of Italy pretended to be attacking Corleone and instead took Palermo. There wasn’t anyone awake to tell us, only the ghosts of hordes of bloodthirsty soldiers who ravaged this land.

The worst, however, were the homies called the Mafia. Corleone was the home of the capo di tutti I capi, the boss of bosses Salvatore “the beast” Riina, was captured in Palermo, his successor, Bernardo “the tractor” Provenzano was captured in Corleone four years ago.

I recently read that Sicilians were throwing off the shackles of Mafia control. I find it difficult to believe. This countryside has seen millennia of brutal reprisals for any move toward cultural independence. They have a fatalism that accepts that there will always be bosses, just shut up. We saw only one sheepherder and a single shopkeeper in this village. We stopped to foolishly, touristy, take pictures of the sheep. I got out of the car to taste the white grapes across the road.  But no Mafia. Yes, the proprietor eyed us suspiciously. Yes, there were some young men lounging around this wine, gelato bar with tables outside. They faded away as we sipped the wine. I, affected by all the media Mafia attention, got more uncomfortable and left after the first glass had been drained.

The wine bar offered ugly looking deli meat, so we left looking for more appetizing places to raise my blood sugar. In the midst of all this architectural rustica, was a large hotel, restaurant. Empty, but we were seated. A wedding party was going on below us and the kitchen was open!

Tortellini

Let me say a word about tortellini, Wonderful. I didn’t see any Mafia guys, (I think) but I did see tortellini when I handed the menu back to the hostess and said with gestures, “surprise me.” The tortellini (part of the wedding feast downstairs? It would have been impolite and take more gestures than I wanted to make to ask) was served on a plate where several kinds of cheeses teamed up brilliantly, filled me and a secondi piata seemed illogical—sleep seemed the next logical step.
Ain't life grand!


So, Tamme had only Italian rock stations for company back to Cinisi.

The trip back from Sicily involved four changes of planes, lengthy to barely adequate layovers, bad sandwiches, diet coke and finally, landing in Calgary and discovering lost luggage. I was too tired to be angry about anything, so I just hugged Tamme goodbye and went to my sister’s home.

I’ve been home for a couple of weeks now and I’m getting pissed off—everybody believes me when I tell them nothing happened with Tamme.

Self-discovery?

I might end the story there except something of importance happened that I didn’t mention.

And, I made Tamme cry. It was the next to last day in Sicily and all our presents for people back home had been bought except for the rosary for her Grandmother, her Nanna.  We asked all around the church square in Cinisi, but everyone said we had to go to Palermo.

What the hell, we thought, one more shot at that bar where we had so much fun and I got wasted on the German beer there. The bar was closed, it was Sunday and we had no way of knowing when it would reopen. So, we drove around looking for a church. We found one and after a while as she fiddled with the radio dial trying to find rock music in English and navigated traffic. Eventually, she found Madonna singing about being a virgin and I said: “Y’know, Madonna played Evita in a movie.”

“Ya,” she said, “that was so wrong, Evita was white.”

“Madonna is white,” I said.

“She’s Italian, isn’t she?”

“And Italians aren’t white?

What about Spanish? Portuguese?

There was silence from Tamme. I broke the silence saying “Wow,” over and over again. When she asked why, I couldn’t hold it in. I was shocked at the depth of her cultural ignorance. I was shocked at my own reactions. Was I insulted and if I were, doesn’t that make me a racist.

This made me angry. Angry that she considered me and all Italians, non white and by definition less than her, less than a racial Nordic person.  I questioned her intelligence, her racial arrogance.

“I didn’t mean to call you a n-n-nigger,” she said sobbing, now as we merged back onto the chaotic city street.

I recoiled at the word, I think maybe Tamme did too. I had given up using that word many years ago and became militant about my son using that word. It was not a word a white person should use, I said whenever the subject came up. The word today is used to hurt someone when a white person says it. I can’t make judgments on what a black person says.

Here, hurtling down a Sicilian highway, I wasn’t going to create more of a problem than had already happened. I don’t think Tamme, or me for that matter, is an intentional racist. Not intentional, but the instinct is there and isn’t always easy to repress. It’s ironic how one’s feelings about race, one’s own ethnicity and how it is viewed by others all are different.  This also made me question my own motives in making Tamme cry. Was I beating her over the head because nothing was happening in the bedroom?  Am I that kind of person?

There were many questions about me that I wasn’t prepared to answer. Maybe I still am not prepared.

October 09, 2010

Cathryn Wellner on the risks the storyteller takes

Cathyrn Wellner graces these pages today with her guest essay. 

Here’s some background: Cathryn is part of an international network of storytellers. These courageous folk operate in the oral tradition of Homer.

For a decade, between careers as a school librarian and later as a community development consultant, Cathryn performed as a storyteller, spoke at conferences, and offered workshops in Canada, the U.S., and Europe. Initially her audiences were almost all school children.

One of Cathryn's first experiences in storytelling, for a book store audience in Rochester, New York

Gradually, she says, she began to understand the hunger we all share for stories and how deeply healing they can be and worked less with young audiences and more with adults. Cathryn tells us, “It is not an easy way to make a living, but it is profoundly satisfying, and there is no retirement age. I still perform occasionally and recently taught a session in narrative medicine to nursing students, via Webinar.”

With pleasure, with honor, with debt to her wisdom and generosity, I give you Cathryn Wellner.





Taking Risk
                                  by Cathryn Wellner

The places I am hurt most mark the places I am least tolerant, most vicious. Where I have been gravely injured and am most healed, these form the scant geography of my wisdom. Where I have never been hurt at all, where I have never lacked for resource or nurture, these are the stories I find it most difficult to perceive. ~ Joanne Arnott, “Storytelling: A Constellation” in By, For & About Women
 Writing truth

This quotation came back to me as I read Mary L. Tabor’s literate, eloquent, joyous and painful memoir, (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story. There were times, as I read, I realized I was holding my breath, anxious about the next revelation. I know why. Mary has worked through her pain, resolved her confusion, and risen like the Phoenix. But while she was writing the blog that became a book, she was still in the middle of it. She has told me—and you can see this for yourself in her book—that the writing process, not of catharsis, but of the creation of something ‘other’ gave her life a fullness that, she says, “only the attempt to create art can do.”

But on the page, you will still see the rawness of her journey. That journey made me look at the sore places in my own heart. In spite of the passage of years, I still have stories I am not ready to lift out of the journals and letters where they lie like ogres ready to eat my soul. Mary’s book inspires me to complete the work I need to do before I can have the courage to share them. Her book has set in motion some important healing in me. Time to take the coverings off some old wounds and let healing air onto them.

So it did not surprise me to learn that one of Mary’s readers reacted with alarm to something she read in (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story. No one can write that honestly and not rake fingernails over someone’s soul wounds or deepest fears. When a reader recoils because the door to her spiritual closet has been flung open, the monsters released, the writer can’t help but feel responsible. Yet if writers hold back from the searing stories, we are left alone on our perilous journeys.

Sometimes our words are daggers to another’s soul.

During my years as a traveling storyteller, I occasionally knew I’d hit the explosion button. Sometimes the story that triggered the response was so innocuous I was completely flummoxed. Other times, I knew the story was difficult but hoped my telling would lead listeners to safety.                         
Cathryn telling stories at the Belfast Yarnspinners gathering, well-known Northern Irish storyteller looking on
Early in my storytelling career, one story blew up in my face. It was the account of a child who was the butt of teasing. I thought I had dealt with my own complicated reaction to her plight. So I launched the new work with a group I figured would be receptive.

As the story unfolded, the temperature in the room changed from warm to frosty. Though the remaining stories were among my sure-fire audience pleasers, they might as well have been blocks of ice. They did nothing to thaw the room.

I’d never experienced that kind of sudden freeze. Fortunately, a friend was in the audience. We had coffee together the next day. As I shared my distress, she gently asked questions that helped me see I had not fully processed the difficult emotions the story triggered in me. I had told it too soon. The audience felt my discomfort, and it set off their alarms.

The experience taught me to do my own inner work on a story before sharing it with an audience. People are generally too polite to walk out, and they can’t put down the book and protect themselves in a performance setting. I learned to hold onto my stories until I no longer relived the pain each time I told them.

Going public with pain

With that lesson in mind I was horrified when, years later, one of my storytelling students invited me to a one-woman show. She was inviting everyone she knew to hear the story of the years of her father’s sexual abuse. She had rented a hall and baked cookies.

I was mortified but could think of no gentle way of refusing to come. She wanted me to see what she had done with what she had learned in the workshops. I wondered if she had been absent when I talked about the importance of not using the audience as a crying towel.

The hall was packed. She set the scene and then spun a story of survival and triumph so magical I still get shivers when I think about it. She was not a victim. She carried no guilt. She was a powerful woman who had experienced the horrors of degradation but emerged whole and healthy. When the last words of her performance died away, the audience rose spontaneously in a standing ovation.

We cannot control others’ responses.
                                                                                                        Cathryn sharing stories in Kalispell, Montana
Most of my own challenging storytelling experiences, and those of colleagues, have not had such straightforward causes and effects. One colleague was telling a story to a group of school children when the death of a parent in an old folktale sent a little girl into spasms of grief. The storyteller decided to retire that particular story from her repertoire.   

Some time after the incident, my friend learned the child’s mother had died only months before. The father had never talked with his daughter about their loss. Instead, he had walled off his emotions and tried to give her a normal childhood.                                                   
                                                                           
The child felt she had to protect her father from her own sorrow so never mentioned her mother—until the story ripped off her protective scarring. The girl’s teacher had spoken with the father and learned the story had been a key. Father and daughter used it to unlock and share their grief.

The truth is, beyond setting our own internal house in order and trying to act responsibly, we cannot control the impact our stories have, whether they are written or told. And we must tell hard stories, must allow our readers or listeners the catharsis of hearing how others have survived painful experiences.

When our best efforts are rejected

For the most part, storytellers and writers are not privy to whatever it is that unsettles our listeners or readers. We only occasionally learn we have caused pain, and that shatters us.

When Mary shared one reader’s troubling response to her eloquent book, I wrote back: “The woman may not be able to articulate what scared her so much that she had to run away screaming. Perhaps she’s not yet healed from some relationship or is involved in one that’s on shaky grounds. Maybe she’s held captive by religious teachings she is afraid to question, in case the answers might crumble her world.

“Whatever the case, she’s taken her own anxieties and projected them onto you, in a way that triggers the deepest fear in any writer—that what we have to say is unworthy and that perhaps that means we are unworthy. That you’ve had so much positive response to your splendid book gets placed on one side of the balance. On the other side is the heavy stone of her reaction. No one’s immune from the bashing that does to the spirit, even someone as accomplished, talented, open, and intelligent as you.”

Wisdom from one who came before

In her 1938 book, If You Want to Write, Barbara Ueland wrote, “I think that when people condemn what we do, they are symbolically destroying us. Hence the excruciatingly painful feeling, though to our common sense it seems foolish and self-centered to feel so bad.”

When we release our story-children, the offspring of our creative imaginations, into the world, we become sensitive plants, recoiling from unkind touch. It is then we need the words of Barbara Ueland:
 “What comes truly from me is true, whether anybody believes it or not. It is my truth.”

Read Cathryn’s blogs Catching Courage  (links here to Story Route & Crossroads)
Follow Cathryn on Twitter 
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September 26, 2010

Joe Sample, Elizabeth Spires and autumn’s heaven

Where is the spirit, the sense of being in the presence of the creator, whatever that might mean? I found myself asking while at a jazz concert at Blue’s Alley on Friday, September 24, 2010. Joe Sample, jazz pianist and composer was playing and chatting with the small but packed crowd at this club in Georgetown here in D.C. If you don’t know who Joe Sample is, and I didn’t until that evening, I say, You should. Not only for his music but for what he is doing while on tour at age 71. He played songs that I now know made his fame and that he wrote: “Rainbow Seeker” and “Freedom Sound” along with “The Nearness of You” that old favorite written in 1938 by Hoagy Carmichael with lyrics by Ned Washington and made famous by Glenn Miller and Nat King Cole.

For a review of the performance go here to Marie Gullard in the Washington Examiner. 

My sense of the evening was that I had been in church or synagogue, in the best senses of those words. Sample played possessed by the power of the Yamaha and the artery that flowed from his heart. It is heart that we heard in those fabulous old hands that have not aged on the keyboard. It is spirit that we heard in his words. He chatted between songs and I did not take notes. I was enthralled. My memory of what he said:

That when he looked for money for what he did, it didn’t come. When he did what he needed to do, it did. That he doesn’t know who or how many remember him but that he lives this music: He once beat his piano in anger at age six when his parents made him play it. Little did he know that he was beating up the source of who he is. That he’s on tour at age 71 while he’s taking Coumadin; thus, without knowing it perhaps, he brought the heart into the conversation, as he admitted that some times his memory of what he’ll play next is off. Not true. The ingenuousness of the comment hit the mark the way his hands hit the keys.

And I recalled that John Donne said in one of his sermons, “In heaven it is always autumn.” Here is a bit of that line in context:

God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; in Paradise, the fruits were ripe the first minute, and in heaven it is always autumn, his mercies are ever in their maturity.

Joe Sample lives in that autumn. He plays in that season and the mercies come to those who listen. He led me further than I’d been.

Elizabeth Spires, took Donne’s line for the title of a poem she wrote for her friend and mentor Josephine Jacobsen:

“In Heaven It Is Always Autumn”

—John Donne

In heaven it is always autumn. The leaves are always near
to falling there but never fall, and pairs of souls out walking
heaven's path no longer feel the weight of years upon them.
Safe in heaven's calm, they take each other's arm,
the light shining through them, all joy and terror gone.
But we are far from heaven here, in a garden ragged and unkept
as Eden would be with the walls knocked down, the paths littered
with the unswept leaves of many years, bright keepsakes
for children of the Fall. The light is gold, the sun pulling
the long shadow soul out of each thing, disclosing an outcome.
The last roses of the year nod their frail heads,
like listeners listening to all that's said, to ask,
What brought us here? What seed? What rain? What light?
What forced us upward through dark earth? What made us bloom?
What wind shall take us soon, sweeping the garden bare?
Their voiceless voices hang there, as ours might,
if we were roses, too. Their beds are blanketed with leaves,
tended by an absent gardener whose life is elsewhere.
It is the last of many last days. Is it enough?
To rest in this moment? To turn our faces to the sun?
To watch the lineaments of a world passing?
To feel the metal of a black iron chair, cool and eternal,
press against our skin? To apprehend a chill as clouds
pass overhead, turning us to shivering shade and shadow?
And then to be restored, small miracle, the sun shining brightly
as before? We go on, you leading the way, a figure
leaning on a cane that leaves its mark on the earth.
My friend, you have led me farther than I have ever been.
To a garden in autumn. To a heaven of impermanence
where the final falling off is slow, a slow and radiant happening.
The light is gold. And while we're here, I think it must be heaven.

—Elizabeth Spires from Now the Green Blade Rises 

When I read this poem and all the poems in this beauty of a book, I wrote to Spires, a long letter about the poems. This last poem reaches a climactic height of both beauty, meaning and the wisdom of autumn.

Here is what I told her in the close of that letter:

I shall always know what you have written and shall seek your work forevermore, for in this book, Elizabeth Spires, “… you have led me farther than I have ever been.”

Yesterday, Heather John of The Foodinista, of Bon Appetít and Herman Miller Life Work fame  wrote me a personal note about the recovery from a great illness of someone close to her who knows this autumn and knows it with humor and grace. She wrote me, a stranger, who had commented on her blog when his photo appeared, a simple thought of the beauty of the man, but in my heart I knew might be ill. She wrote me then a personal note to tell me that was so. With her update to me yesterday—we've not been in communication—of her deeply personal journey and his remarkable recovery, she gave the gift of light and led me, with this unearned gesture, farther.

In the autumn of my life, I know that heaven and life are one and that I live that heaven each day. And that, as Martin Buber says, “All real living is meeting.”

September 09, 2010

The grace and beauty that is JAKI SCARCELLO

With great honor, I introduce you today to Jaki Scarcello. This extraordinary and beautiful woman has written the book Fifty & Fabulous! The Best Years of a Woman's Life 

Jaki tells us how to age, how to live deeply and fully, how to find grace with age.

Early in the book Jaki quotes Joan Erickson, the wife of psychologist Eric Erickson. On her 94th birthday Joan said,
Our bodies wear out, our thoughts come more slowly. But our life cycles are our most creative effort. We can’t ever not be in them, right? The struggle is to try and obtain a sense of participation in your life the whole way through.
Jaki is a living, breathing example of this spirit. She embodies these words in the way she interacts with the world, with everyone she meets and with the word, as you will see below in her guest essay. You will be lucky to meet her. And meet her you may:

Here are two opportunities, coming up September 26 in Los Angeles and October 7 in Toronto.

Jaki is present in her life and she has become present in mine. Here is what she has written, a gift to me beyond measure. With my thanks, I offer you Jaki Scarcello:

Ode to Honesty and Friendship


This week I read (Re)Making Love: a sex after sixty story by Mary L Tabor.


I say that as if it were an admission of a great event in my life. Read on and judge for yourself.


I committed myself to devouring (Re)Making Love in one seating, in the middle of the night locked in my home office tower after a particularly horrid fight with my husband. Well, all fights are horrid to me. I am a marital pacifist and that is either a deep psychological dysfunction or a very good reason to want to be married to me.

I had wept upon the floor of that office for hours until I was nauseous and my arms and hips ached with tension and the resistance of the fine bamboo beneath me. Then I thought, Enough, no sleep is coming here. So I turned on the light and opened Mary’s book. Such strange, cosmically directed timing to read about love found, bruised and stretched to its limit and then . . .oops I can’t tell you the ending . . . while I am weeping from the very real possibility that I  have lost again at love. In that dark night of my marital soul I entertained the thought that perhaps I must try to begin again. I prayed for help, preferably in the form of a divine messenger, and guess what? My God sent Mary L Tabor.
Mary is the angel of honesty and I am in awe of her ability to run nude across the pages of her writing. Mary calls on us, her readers, to participate in that honesty. If you don’t want to be part of the play, go read something “safer.” This book is not safe. It is a deeply moving adventure in which you hold Mary’s hand and she holds yours but all the while she is leading you to what I described in an e-mail to her as, “a land that I entered when I read your book because I am quite sure that the honesty and vulnerability which I am displaying in this communication is not the culture of the land that I have inhabited until now.”

I wept with Mary, I laughed with her, and I cooked with her and all of these I will do again and again as her words come back to me over time.

I have never read a book quite like this. I made a friend through those artfully crafted and shaped words. Mary quotes ee cummings, a fitting mentor, as she moves us about the pages of her book in the particular rhythm of her life. I am presumptuous enough to say that I really do feel that this person, Mary L Tabor, is my friend, for I have been privileged enough to see her revealed in her writing, revealed in ways, which quite frankly women I have known for years have never revealed themselves to me.

But there is nothing off-putting about this revelation. I am not shocked or thinking, “Well, Mary dear, that perhaps is something we do not share outside the home.”

I feel privileged, honored and inspired to find a new honesty in my own writing, indeed in my own life.

As the sun came up and I had finished reading (Re)Making Love, I sat at my desk and wrote to Mary. I cannot share all the words of that email here because that would give away the ending of Mary’s book, heaven forbid, but it would not be an exaggeration to say I exposed my broken heart to the screen before me and taking Mary’s lead I held little back in the story I told my new friend.

It seemed the least I could do to thank her for (Re)Making Love.