Category Archives: community

Two Years

Image by Ray_from_LA

You are a young woman. You are a middle-aged man. You are childless. You are a mother of five. You live in Cambodia. You live in Chicago. You are a marketing professional. You stay at home with your kids. You want to be a writer when you grow up.

I met one of you in person at a suburban Starbucks near where I grew up.  I shared iced coffee and dreams with another of you on the Upper West Side. I talked peanut butter cups and writing with one of you over lunch this summer.  I enjoyed my first weekend away from my three children with two of you earlier this fall. Some of you sent me handmade gifts when my daughter was born this winter. Some of you I only know by a mysterious moniker or a coy avatar.

But all of you – all of my blogging buddies – are my friends.

Little did I know when I wrote a hasty but heartfelt comment on one of your blog posts two years ago that I would be typing my way into a digital community – one that has supported and challenged me with each letter I write and each word I read. When I found myself living in a new town trying to navigate a new identity as a mom, I reached out to you and you welcomed me. You laughed with me. You let me laugh at you. You asked the right questions. You gave me the right answers.

They say it takes a village to raise a child. I don’t know if that’s true. What I do know is that it takes a village to raise a mother. And you – you virtual and very real friends of mine – have helped raise me.

On this, the two year anniversary of Motherese, I thank you for your friendship.

A Song of Myself

Image by andyarthur

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

I spent this past weekend at a remarkable place, studying with a remarkable teacher, with two remarkable women by my side.  I learned so much about myself, about writing, about the ways my body (or maybe my brain) craves Diet Coke and chocolate after a few meals of tempeh loaf and steamed kale.

As I reintegrate into the rest of my life – coming home, as I did, to find a wonky Internet connection and sick kids – I feel like I’m just beginning to process the lessons of the weekend.  Dani shared so many delicious morsels about memoir and emotion and writing from “the memory of feeling,” but one question in particular is buzzing around at the front of my mind today:

As writers, what do we do with the contradictions in a life, especially when that life is our own?

Dani led us this weekend in an exercise called “I Remember…” based on Joe Brainard’s book of the same name, a collection of his one or two sentence reminiscences of his childhood and coming of age.  As I recorded my own stream of consciousness reflections, I couldn’t help but think about the ways in which that kind of off-the-cuff writing flows without input from the inner critic.  My ideas moved from brain to pen without judgment or analysis.  What I was left with was a collection of moments which, almost accidentally, started to tell a story about my past.  And the story was full of me and full of my many contradictions.

I decided last night to play with the exercise, to change the prompt from “I Remember…” to simply “I…” and to write uncensored for five minutes.  Here’s what I came up with:

I am a mother.  I am a wife.  I am a daughter, a sister, a friend.  I used to be a teacher.

I am a writer.

I am a vegetarian.  I run sometimes.  I do yoga sometimes.  Sometimes I make a bag of microwave popcorn, dump chocolate chips on top, and eat the whole thing.

I subscribe to The New Yorker, but, a lot of the time, I prefer to read People.  After I read People instead of The New Yorker, I sometimes feel guilty about it.  I talk more about reading The New Yorker than I do about reading People.

I love to read.

I love to talk to my husband about where we might be in five years, in ten, in 25.  I love to dream together.

I feel calmest in a tidy house, in a quiet place, in a room alone.  I rarely feel calm these days.

I like to be by myself.  And then I like to come home again.

I understand that there are things that are good for me.  That make me feel good.  That keep me connected to the people I love.  I’m not usually good at making those things a priority over, say, folding laundry or playing “Angry Birds.”

I get grumpy when I’m hungry.

I love my kids, but I’m never as happy to see them as I am the moment I return after being away from them.

Contradictions again.  And all of them equally me.  I took so much away from my weekend of writing, but my first priority is to think more about what the story of my contradictions tells me about myself, to keep writing my way into understanding.

Who are you today?

The Correctionistz

This week’s Correctionists post features a pet peeve rather than an actual error:

I’m not sure if the creator of this sign knows the actual spelling of the word “cruise.”  I suspect he does.  But it almost irks me more if he willingly chose to spell it incorrectly.

Why spell something wrong on purpose?  Is Z that much cooler than S?

The Correctionists.  Keeping the blogosphere safe from grammatical and spelling errors, one post at a time.  For more from the Correctionists, please visit Amy, Jana, and Kelly.

Looking At Looking Up with Linda Pressman

I’m honored today to feature an interview with Linda Pressman, author of the newly released Looking Up: A Memoir of Sisters, Survivors, and Skokie.  Thank you, Linda, for taking the time to offer such thoughtful insights into your book and the process of writing it.

When did you decide to tell this story?  How long did it take to go from idea to publication?

I feel like this book was inside me my whole life, that the need to write this book was in me my whole life. Everyone who’s ever known me knew that I was going to write a book about Skokie. The only surprise really ended up being that I put my parents’ stories in there too. I don’t remember ever not having the idea to write this book. I even started it several times when I was younger but needed writing instruction, which I finally got starting in 2001 with my first Creative Writing class. By 2005 I had earned a Master’s in English and had heeded my professor’s advice to always have a writer’s journal. As of today, I’m on my 38th one, with each one containing 100 to 200 pages.

Since I tend to be somewhat prolific, it turned out right away that with this amount of material I needed to have a cut off point and I had to figure out what could be in the book and what couldn’t. I probably have enough perfectly good cut material from Looking Up to write two more versions of it!

It was extremely hard to get the structure of the book right, to be sure that the humor properly balanced the tragedy. At different times I wrote out all my chapters on note cards and changed the order repeatedly; another time I printed the entire book and then cut it up with scissors until it was in the order I wanted.

As far as the time period in which I finally had all my material together, to the date of publication, I would say it was 3 ½ to 4 years.

Can you talk a little bit about how you carve out time to write in your day?

I haven’t made standard New Year’s Resolutions in many years, but starting in 2007 I have made “Writer’s Resolutions” for myself. One of them is to write every day no matter what. I had a writing teacher who told me once that the more you write, the more you remember and the better you write. It’s like a muscle you exercise – it just works better, and that happened. By midway through 2007 I had so much material I had to change my definitions of what “writing” meant each day, including book organizing, chapter organization, etc.

There have been times that my daily writing has been a haiku or a list of what I plan to write, but all I know is that I try to keep moving in the right direction. Right now my definition of writing has expanded to include promoting. I think of it as “work in service of the book,” and if it satisfies that requirement it counts as writing.

Humor is a key element throughout Looking Up.  To whom or what do you credit your great sense of humor?  Did you see humor in situations as a kid or did the humor only come in looking back on them?

I do consider that our family, in between battling for each apple and the best chair in the family room, had a great sense of humor. Even the grown ups, despite their various tragedies, would sit around their poker table and hoot and holler for hours, crying with laughter, telling jokes in Yiddish. I’d say each one of us has a certain sense of humor based somewhat on the juxtaposition of what life was like compared with what we expected it to be, which also has its roots in the fatalistic Yiddish humor we heard around us.

I think part of being a writer is that part of you is absorbing a lot of details, almost distracted by details that others might not even notice. As a kid I was very observant and later developed a sense of the ridiculous, especially once I was in school and realized my family was so different from the others around me.

What does your mother think of your book?  How about your sisters?

The day I handed my mother a copy of Looking Up was really one of the best days of my life, and hers too I think. All seven of us had spent our lives hearing our mother ask us to “write her story,” and, truthfully, it was something we brushed off along with running from the Holocaust. When I came to the painful realization that my childhood book of growing up with seven sisters and Holocaust Survivor parents needed to have her story in it, it was an awful moment for me. I put the book away for about six months and worked on other things trying to get over my aversion to facing this history head on. Then, when I was ready, I sat down and interviewed her. She has complimented me on the handling of her story and expressed satisfaction that it’s in print, that she doesn’t have to worry any longer about “someone writing her story.”

The names of the majority of the people in the book were changed and this was difficult for my mother – the connecting of people with names, especially since she’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. But the portion of the book that is her story was very special to her.

The majority of my sisters have been wonderful about the book. This didn’t happen overnight. When I first began writing, I think it was somewhat disconcerting for them. Over time I had to get over a lot of my fears of writing and what this person or that person would think of it. I just tried to keep a few rules front and center: tell the truth and be kind. Hopefully I did that. One sister was one of my early proofreaders. Others have sent me lovely notes about how much they enjoyed the book. For the most part, my fears were unfounded and I feel the reception in my family was better than I could have hoped for.

Being Holocaust Survivors clearly influenced the way your mother and father parented you.  How do you think being the daughter of Survivors affects the way you are raising your son and daughter?

I’ve been very careful about my children’s exposure to the Holocaust because of growing up with Survivor parents. Most of this is related to my concern that, in a way, my mother was passing her atheism/agnosticism down to us with all of her stories. I wanted my children to believe in Judaism and not to have the Holocaust get in the way of that. I’ve been the transmitter of Holocaust stories to my children; a one-generation filter between my mother and them, telling them her stories but making sure that, somehow, there’s not just despair at the end of each one.

Looking Up ends when your family moves to Arizona when you’re 13.  Do you have any plans to write a sequel?  (I hope so!)

I am planning a sequel, which starts upon our arrival in Arizona. I haven’t worked out the story arc yet, so I’m not sure if it will go through only high school or get through a portion of college. Our lives changed a lot with the move and there’s a lot of story there, like Looking Up, a combination of tragedy and comedy that I hope will appeal to readers.

I enjoyed Linda’s book so much that I want to share a copy with one of my readers.  I will draw a name from the comments sections of both this post and my post reviewing the book (using the tool at www.random.org) to receive a copy of Looking Up.  Deadline to enter: midnight EDT, Monday, August 22, 2011.  (You may comment on each post to double your chance of winning!)

And the winner is…Justine!  (Giveaway is now closed.)

Please also click here for my review of Linda’s book, and be sure to check out the favorable review of Looking Up from Kirkus.

Looking at Looking Up

With tremendous humor and heart, Linda Pressman tells the story of growing up as the sixth of seven daughters of two Holocaust survivors in Looking Up: A Memoir of Sisters, Survivors, and Skokie, her recently released debut.

Linda, of the funny and heartwarming blog, Barmitzvahzilla, was my first blogging friend.  She and I met through a writing class at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and have been navigating the blogosphere together ever since, so I went into the experience of reading her memoir expecting to like what I found.  But I was quite honestly blown away by the skilled manner in which Linda balances the sometimes horrifying details of her parents’ lives with the humorous accounts of her prosaic American girlhood.

This tension between the legacy of her parents’ Eastern European pasts – her mother’s war years spent running from the Nazis and hiding out in makeshift zimlankas in the Polish woods and her father’s laboring in Siberia – and the realities of her Chicago suburban present is a central theme of Linda’s memoir.  Despite her parents’ backgrounds and the fact that she is one of seven (!) daughters, Linda is as normal a kid as there is.  She worries about things like wet-look boots and kissing boys and avoiding getting stuck talking to a droning older relative at a family party.  She’s also “normal” in the way she wants to fit in, wants to make the “abnormal” parts of her life fit a mold:

It’s important to me that there be a happy ending to the stories Mom tells me.  I’ve been programmed for happy endings and fairy tales by school, by my teachers and by living in the United States, which I’ve always been told is the greatest country in the world and which has won every war it’s fought.  When my Mother’s story doesn’t mesh with my happy ending template, the story must change, not the template.  The story must be mashed and smashed and shortened and broadened and flattened to fit in there; and when it does just for a second – before it springs out again – that’s when I stop listening to what happened.  Our Holocaust past is unlistenable.

Linda has a remarkable grasp of the details of her childhood and she peppers them cleverly and creatively throughout her memoir in order to enrich her story.  Her greatest gift as a writer, though, may be her skill in writing comedy.  Linda has a way of elucidating the humor inherent in everyday interactions between siblings, between parents and kids, and among friends.  Indeed, Husband gave me a few suspicious looks when he found me laughing to the point of tears while reading a memoir by the daughter of Holocaust survivors.  (No, I’m not heartless; Linda’s just that funny.)

Her account is also – perhaps inadvertently – full of lessons for parents. My favorite piece of advice was one her mother apparently derived from her time on the run from the Nazis: “Keep the children alive.”  (A pretty good reminder to me, I think, as I worry about which food to feed Baby Sister next – apples or prunes?)  And, although her parents’ circumstances were extreme, Linda’s story is ultimately a universal one, about the ebb and flow of the parent-child dynamic – shaped through the revealing of tragic details of the past, embarrassing the kids in front of their friends, and the crucible of the cross country drive.

I highly recommend Linda’s memoir, Looking Up.  In it, Linda has told a remarkable story remarkably well.

Please check back on Thursday for an interview with Linda about the process of writing her memoir, its reception, and her path to publication.

I enjoyed Linda’s book so much that I want to share a copy with one of my readers.  I will draw a name from the comments sections of both this post and my upcoming Q&A with Linda (using the tool at www.random.org) to receive a copy of Looking Up.  Deadline to enter: midnight EDT, Monday, August 22, 2011.  (You may comment on each post to double your chance of winning!)

And the winner is…Justine!  (Giveaway is now closed.)

What is it, Exactly, About the F Word?

It is my pleasure today to offer you a guest post by Wolf Pascoe of Just Add Father.

I’ve only known Wolf, a father, physician, and writer, for a few months, but he swiftly earned himself a spot in my Google Reader with his insightful, beautifully written posts on the problems and prospects of parenting.  While Wolf first drew me in with his exquisite essays about raising his son, Nick, I was delighted to find that he and I also share a fondness for Cormac McCarthy, Yeats, and meaningful stories, all of which he writes about with resonant wisdom and wit.

I am very grateful to Wolf for sharing one of his pieces with us today.

What is it, exactly, about the F word?

by Wolf Pascoe

Courtesy of Warner Home Video

Who wants to hear about the lucky, or the rich?
The rest must step up. They have to say
I’m going blind, or
I’m about to go blind, or
nothing’s working right, or
the child is sick, or
here and there I’m patched together,
more or less.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, from “The Voices”

Lately, a lot lately, I’ve been feeling like that voice in the Rilke poem. God bless Rilke. Have you read the “Archaic Torso of Apollo?” You should. It’s an upwardly mobile poem, and right for a land of upwardly mobile metaphor. But thank God Rilke gets down, too.

My son Nick got down the other day and dropped the F bomb. As in, “F— you, dada.”

I left the room. “I’m sorry, Nick, I can’t do business with you now,” I said.

Because what I really wanted to do was punch a hole in that fat mouth of his.

What is it about the F word?

Nick led a sheltered life until he hit the primary yard at his school, where the first through sixth grades all mix. You can’t last long there without learning a new language. Language is power. Who wouldn’t want to bring it home and test it out?

It isn’t great what he’s doing with it now. He’s sensitive and gets overwhelmed and has nowhere to go with it, nowhere to go with the big feelings. And the F bomb is a release from that, it’s become a drug, a defense from feelings.

If you can’t get sad, get angry.

Maybe this isn’t true for your kid, but it’s true for Nick. And I’m glad, actually, that he’s doing this at age nine, when there’s still time to work with it, the overwhelm. Whereas when he’s fifteen and gets overwhelmed maybe he learns to smoke a joint to chill, and who listens to dad and mom at that point anyway?

So I set limits. I tell him my feelings are hurt and I need to take care of myself now and I can’t be around him, but maybe I can get back to doing whatever we were doing later.

And I wonder, how do you teach a nine-year-old to reduce stress?

YOURSELF, AS YOU ARE

“What’s your side of it?” a friend said, when I told her the story.

“My side?”

“It sounds like you lose your sense of self when Nick swears at you.”

I sit with this. I roll the phrase lose your sense of self around with my tongue. It tastes pretty good, like moldy cheese. I swallow it. Down it goes, hollowing out a core as thick as a tennis ball. The hollow gives me the same feeling as the first, awful drop of a roller coaster. It burns a hole in my stomach.

I decide my friend is right. I’m full of holes. This is where Rilke comes in: I’m sort of patched together. Them holes. All them holes.

The thing is, it never goes away completely, this feeling low, this feeling there’s nobody in your corner. Because there are built-in holes in the structure of personality. Because nobody got enough valuing. Nobody got enough blessing. That’s what we’re talking–blessing. Blessing yourself as you are.

God, I wish it didn’t sound like I had something to sell.

And here comes Nick, my son, my flesh, not my actual flesh, but as close to actual as I’m going to get. Nick, whom I watch sleeping, his heart and breath, up rising and down falling, the systole and diastole of the universe. That Nick. Fires off a round and tears me a new hole. Rends the garment where it’s patched together.

And instead of getting sad, I get angry.

I make a list of things to do. Things underneath anger and that have nothing to do with Nick. Things like meditate and breathe and be in nature and sit in solitude and feel the sadness and cry and talk it over with someone and write it all down.

And pray. I always forget that.

Because God should really be interested in people being who they are.

Please feel free to leave a comment for Wolf here.  Tell us about how your kids tear holes in your fabric and how you put yourself back together again.

And please – please! You won’t be sorry – head over to Just Add Father to be treated to more of his writing.

“…here as on a darkling plain”

Today is Memorial Day in the United States, a holiday when we honor our war dead and, more generally, our deceased loved ones.  (And when, less poignantly, we kick off the summer travel season with barbecues and beer.)

I’m spending today with Husband and the kids.  We’ll probably take in our town’s parade with its odd mixture of sequin-clad dancers, 4H kids throwing candy, and a float carrying local war widows.

An incongruous tableau.

And then we’ll eat and nap and hope for sunshine.

And today the poem “Dover Beach” is in my head.  It’s not a war poem, per se, or even a poem explicitly about memory.  It is, I think, a lament for the uncertainties of the modern world.

It’s also a poem that is sacred to me; Husband chose it as one of the readings at our wedding.  And it’s on my mind today as I think about the power of love in the face of uncertainty and remember those fallen in war, those suffering from illness, and the people of Joplin, Missouri and the citizens of the tornado ravaged communities of the central U.S.

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;–on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

“Dover Beach,” by Matthew Arnold, 1851 (?)

What, or whom, are you remembering today?

Image: Graves at Arlington on Memorial Day by Remember via Wikimedia Commons.  Image is in the public domain.