Monday, December 24, 2012

What Is An Ethical Will?

Lev, my teacher, my guide to my Bat Mitzvah, is big on ethical wills. We talked about them years ago on Thursdays when a group of us met to study Torah, Torah in the broadest sense of Jewish learning. We were supposed to write one. We never did. Teaching a class at the University of New Hampshire, Lev asked his students to write ethical wills. A friend who teaches at the University told me, Lev’s students weren’t thrilled. The assignment seemed odd. Who would ask an eighteen year old to write an ethical will?
So just what is an ethical will? It’s not a living will, a document in which you communicate your wishes to medical personal and to your family when you are alive, but unable to express those wishes yourself. It is not a legal will, the document that distributes your material possessions and is read after your death.
In Jewish culture, ethical wills date back to the Hebrew bible, Jacob gathering his twelve sons (Where was Dina?) around his death bed, so that he can bless each, Moses blessing each of those twelve tribes after God tells him he will not enter the promised land. So ethical wills are blessings and moral pronouncements that began in our oral tradition. Overtime time a written tradition evolved, and ethical wills became known as Teachings of the Fathers. I will call them Teachings of the Mothers and the Fathers.
            In his book, Ethical Wills, K. Baines, lists transitions that might inspire one to write an ethical will: a single woman or man not planning to have children, but wanting to bequeath values to nieces or nephews, an engaged couple articulating values they want to share, parents reflecting after the birth of a child, parents reflecting as they raise children, divorced parents, reaffirming values for themselves and their children, men and women of middle age and beyond, capturing and harvesting values. Ethical wills are about reflection. So when Lev asked his students to write ethical wills, he was teaching them to look at themselves, to consider, to be aware, to go deeper. How cool was that?
            So as part of my journey to a Bat Mitzvah, I will write an ethical will, harvesting my values and gathering family stories. I will write and reflect, hoping that what I pass on will spark my children and my grandchildren to dive down into their own memories, their own reflections, and in this way we will link generations. For me an ethical will is about that linking. A way—not the only way—but a way to give meaning to our lives. 

Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Awareness. Is awareness one of the ten values I will name preparing for my Bat Mitzvah? The word feels strange on my tongue. Aware meaning cognizant, conscious, alert. Ness, a suffix attached to an adjective or a participle to form an abstract noun that denotes a quality or a state. Such as: goodness, kindness, darkness. A synonym of awareness is mindful; an antonym, oblivious.
Last Friday, before the snow that fell over the weekend, I drove home, pulled into the garage, and as I stepped into the kitchen, Dick said, “How do you like your fields?”
He’s like that. No hello. A quick question. After all these years, I still can’t take a breath. I blurt. “What fields?”
“Out by the driveway. Didn’t you notice them?”
I’d asked to have those fields cut down at the end of summer, but neither Paul nor Matt, the two men who run the lawn crew had managed to get the job done. Then, Matt had a stroke, and the fields became unimportant. I figured someone on the crew would cut them down in the spring. But Paul arrived. Probably, he’d listened to the weather report. I hooked the dogs to their leashes and walked outside. Tall stalks of dried grass lay on the ground like pick up sticks, small birds foraging. 
To be aware. To notice. To take in. That’s my job as a writer. So why, when I’m not in my writing space—space being both a state of mind and a place—do I check out? Because awareness is hard. To be present, cognizant, conscious, alert. That is one edge of the knife blade for a writer. The other is a kind of drifting inside that space, what I call space around the space.
But back to my drive along the driveway. What had I been doing inside my car? Listening to a C D of George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a book I’ve wanted to reread for years, and knew I never would, so I borrowed the tapes from the library. My attention was focused on listening and on watching where I was going. Perhaps, awareness is inward as well as outward, a sifting of stimuli. And what of complete inattention, a moment last summer, sitting on a weathered wooden bench at the edge of the sea, dogs at my feet, the scent of salt, the squawk of gulls, my mind as open as the sky? Perhaps, that, too, is awareness.
Still that word, awareness, chafes. Is sentience my word? An online dictionary defines sentience: feeling or sensation as distinguished from perception or thought. No, that doesn’t work either. Perhaps what I value is sentient awareness, a place where unknowing and knowing intertwine. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

This Season of Giving

Now that I am thinking about values, I cherish and wish to pass on, they spill forth, integrity, honesty, compassion and in this season of giving tzedakah, a Hebrew word we often translate as charity.
            Yesterday at a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Israel in Boston, I listened as Suzie, a young cousin, described her tzedakah project, volunteering for an organization that gives birthday parties to homeless children. The project brought her to a homeless shelter in Roxbury. How lovely and poised she was talking about her experiences. How well versed in Hebrew as she read from the Torah, led us prayer. How articulate as she interpreted her Torah portion. Yesterday, standing on the bima, the altar, her grandparents and her parents passed her the Torah, both literally, and figuratively, handing her the scroll, passing on Jewish tradition. Jewish values.
            I never had a Bat Mitzvah. My sons did not have Bar Mitzvahs. No formal Jewish education for any of us. I came back to Judaism too late for that. Sitting in the sanctuary, yesterday, I realized my own journey toward a Bat Mitzvah would be the opposite of Suzie’s. I would not receive the Torah; I would pass it on to my grandchildren in a more formal way than I’d done for my sons. For Torah is more than the scroll, more than Midrash, those years of interpretation of the texts. Torah is a way of life integrally involving mitzvot or good deeds. And tzedakah.
            Before Suzie’s service, I spent time in a small room off a corridor viewing an exhibit where artists had painted, constructed and built tzedakah boxes. A traditional tzedakah box is just that, a box with a slot where you drop in coins or bills, then choose a charity to which you’ll donate. These tzedakah boxes were works of art. Words accompanied the exhibit, and I learned that tzedakah literally means righteousness or justice. This is the concept of Jewish charity I want to pass on. In Jewish tradition, charity is not a favor we give to the poor, but something the poor have a right to, and we as donors have an obligation to provide. And most important is the spirit with which we give, for the value of our gift increases with human kindness. And the most highly valued gift of all is a gift of the self.
            Happy giving to all. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Let's Talk

What makes a value Jewish? How can Judaism claim what many of us value, Jewish or not? I shift in my chair. Face Lev. This is another moment in that Starbuck’s in Winchester when we met. In front of me, a display of red and white mugs, wrapped with red bows. Outside, the white lights of Christmas. Lev gives me a knowing smile. “So, Judaism gives us this, these values and it (Judaism) includes anybody who has these values.”
So because I am Jewish, exploring values such as my love of learning or my commitment caring for others, those less fortunate or those who are sick, in a Jewish context, those values become Jewish. Is that what Lev is saying?
“Yes,” he says.
And here I am—it seems—exploring a constant theme in my life and my work: Jewish identity. When I began my writing life as a fiction writer, none of my characters was Jewish, and many of my stories lacked an authenticity, something intangible that shone through certain characters. I, the writer, was wishy-washy, refusing to declare an essence. Was that character Jewish? I, the character and the reader needed to know. But in real life, I could pass, and I did, sometimes declaring I was Jewish, sometimes not. I hid behind a wreath on my door, a Christmas tree in my living room. The only Jews in our rural New Hampshire town where I was raising my family, I truly believed I could live inside the landscape of a Currier and Ives print. Walking into woods behind our house with my husband and my sons, we would choose a tree, chop it down, drag it home through snow.
Those romantic images of country life have an underside. When I began teaching language arts to fifth through eighth graders in my town, the two most hurled insults on the playground were the N word and Jew. I denounced both, told my class I was Jewish. A sixth grade boy brought me a book: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Published in 1902, The Protocols is a anti-Semitic rant, purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination. It is a forgery. That same sixth grader asked to see my horns. I’d thought such myths associating Jews with the devil had died out with the middle ages, but he year was 1972. I taught tolerance. At home, I told myself, I could do both, turn on the lights of my Christmas tree and light my Hanukkah menorah. My children were wiser. “Mom, it’s too confusing,” Richard my oldest son said. “Can’t we just celebrate Hanukkah.”
            And we did.
            As the years passed, I became more and more visibly Jewish which meant for me, studying Torah, especially the women of the Hebrew Bible. I read and I read, diving down into the wealth of Jewish learning. I brought what was deep inside of me to the surface, memories of cooking with my grandmother as she prepared shabbos dinner, then circled her thick fingers over the candle flames before blessing the shabbos candles. I learned the prayer, moved my own fingers in a circle, and gathering in goodness and light, I blessed the candles inside my grandmother’s brass candlesticks.
So, is Jewish identity a value I can pass on? Although I’d like to do just that, I can’t. Each of us has our own journey toward that philosophic search for self. What I can pass on is a desire to know and to learn. A wealth of Jewish learning trails behind us. Only by knowing where we came from will we learn who we are. 

Judaism is a religion of dialogue. I invite your comments. Let’s talk. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Grammy's Bat Mitzvah, A Journey

What will a Bat Mitzvah of this soon to be seventy-four year old grandmother look like? I figured I’d have to study Hebrew, learn a few prayers, bless bread and wine, provide a teaching moment, serve lunch, then hugs all around. All in my living room on the coast of Maine where, finally, after all these years, I would become a Bat Mitzvah, a daughter of the commandments.
Lev, my teacher, my rabbi, my friend, my mentor listened. We met at Starbucks in Winchester, Massachusetts, Lev rushing in, hatless, coatless, on this the first day that winter announced itself. Outside, the wind blew strong. Inside, people sat at small tables, some with lap tops, others on cell phones. A group of men talked loudly in a corner. Soon, I would no longer hear their voices. Soon, I would hear only Lev, a man I’ve known for nearly twenty years, ever since he came to New Hampshire, a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Cincinnati. He brought me back to the synagogue. I attended Torah study, began to prepare for a Bat Mitzvah. Then, Lev left. I was bereft. Gone his joy, his spontaneity, his verve, his spirit and his very unconventional approach to Jewish learning. Soon, I left that synagogue, too. But ever since, I've missed a commitment to Judaism.
Now, Lev is studying to become a nurse. Yet, he is still a rabbi and a teacher. In May, he will move to Austin, Texas, and I will no longer be able to meet him at this Starbucks. If I’m going to have a goal, commit to Jewish study, become a Bat Mitzvah, a daughter of the commandments, I must do this now. In my bag, I’ve carried books of beginning Hebrew. That’s where I’ve been for years, beginning Hebrew, over and over. If I study. When I study, I don’t know what the words say. This bothers me. I’m a writer; meaning is my work.
Meaning is Lev’s work. When I talked with him about learning the aliyot, blessings over the Torah, he told me I wouldn’t like the translations when I knew them. I understood, all of those masculine references to God as Lord, King, Ruler. All of that top down stuff. Hierarchy. The doctrine of the chosen. I don’t believe in a traditional doctrine of the chosen or in a traditional God.  I’m about community. Lev is about community.
These last two years, my work has taken a turn backwards in time. I’ve been writing about France during the years of German occupation. I’ve visited France, interviewed number of people, one a ninety-four year old woman who was girl guide, caretaker, in a secret house that protected Jewish children. I’ve been reading and researching. Inevitably, I have found myself with the Jewish dead. My work is freighted, but what I’m looking for is light and life, a seventeen year old girl with beautiful hair, whose drawings survived in a locked suitcase, a Catholic German theologian and philosopher who brought that story to a small French village. These are the things I want to pass on, a love of life and of learning. Lev, spoke to me of an ethical will.  An ethical will, Zevaoth, in Hebrew is the tradition of writing a long letter to your children in which you express your ethical values. But what are ethical values? Can I name mine? Intrigued, I wrote down the name of book Lev recommended: Ethical Wills
“Before we leave,” Lev said, “we must set a date.”
Oh my God, this is going to happen.
He pulled out his iPhone. He will be East for a wedding in August. “The eighteenth or nineteenth in the morning?”
I draw a breath. “Either one.” 
He types in both, sets his iPhone on table. "We can decide."

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Last Morning in Paris

On this, my last morning in Paris, am up with the pigeons and the street sweepers, men wearing green trousers and green shirts, the green bristles of their brooms matching. I have made a promise to myself, so in spite of the miserable cold rain, I’m walking crossing Seine, walking the narrow streets of the Ile Saint Louis, on my way to Notre Dame. More than fifty years ago, I sat in an art history class, a college sophomore, my professor’s wooden stick, pointing to a large grainy screen, her voice extolling the virtues of a flying buttress, and I wondered: What the hell is a flying buttress. I couldn’t find the thing. Couldn’t imagine the thing. And this morning, I saw not one, but a row of flying buttresses, those amazing, arched structures that allow the massive Cathedral of Notre Dame to stand.
Crossing back over the Seine, the wind blows cold rain into my face. Still, I head for the Marais, the old Jewish neighborhood that I have been exploring and writing about in recent essays. How easily I find my way along these streets, rue de payannes, to rue de franc bourgeois, then looping around to rue de rossiers, the Jewish heart of the Marais. Stores are still closed. A few people walk briskly, a number of them Orthodox Jews wearing black suits with wide flat brimmed black hats or yarmulkes, and I wonder if today is a Jewish holiday? There are many Jewish holidays, I, a Jew, can’t name.
            Now a stroll around the places des voges, always peaceful whether the heavens send rain or sun. My hotel is near here, and I’ve come to love this neighborhood, but I’m not ready to do my last minute packing. Also, nearby is my favorite patisserie and boulangerie, Aux Desirs de Manon on rue St. Antoine. The shop is long and narrow, with a glass pastry case on one side and a long narrow counter on the other. There are no stools. I stand eating my croissant au beurre and sipping my café express. My grand-daughter has asked me to bring her one thing, a croissant from Paris, a real croissant. In a bag on the counter packed for travel, I have four croissants au beurre. How can I not bring one for my husband, my son, and for me, too? A taste of Paris tomorrow morning on the blustery coast of Maine. 

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Sunday At the Market

       It Sunday morning at the Market in Auvillar, France, and I cannot resist buying roasted chestnuts from a vendor who scoops them hot into a cone he fashions from newspaper. There is no price. One drops coins into a jar. The day is sunny but blustery. Behind the chestnut vendor a brazier glows. Men gather warming their hands.  In the air, the smell of more chestnuts roasting, and I am brought back to the chestnut vendors of my childhood standing on street corners in New York City. Perhaps, Mom, Dad and I have driven through the Lincoln Tunnel, come to see the Christmas show at Radio City, when Dad stops to buy a brown paper bag of sweet, warm roasted chestnuts. We peel and eat, as I am eating now, tasting time. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Driving to Beaulieu sur Dordogne

Yesterday, driving my rental car, I traveled back roads from Auvillar, a village in south west France to Beaulieu sur Dordogne, a village north and east. I circled roundabouts, two, sometimes, three times in order to read road signs. I took a sharp left, drove for maybe five miles, feeling as if something was wrong. Pulling over, I read my map, doubled back, found my route. I was ready for a morning coffee, so following my son’s suggestion—Mom, get off the road. Have a coffee in a café. It’s the best—I followed signs into the village of Montoc.
            So there I was happily drinking a terrible espresso—believe me Starbucks is better—because I loved this village, loved this sunny terrace and the sibilant sounds of French surrounding me. I wrote in my journal, I day dreamed, when suddenly, I heard words in English, British English. Two women had settled at a table in front of me. A  third approached on the sidewalk, and all three began a lively discussion about bees and a sting.
I’d started out that morning fog and cold, and now at ten-thirty, the sun was strong, and this terrace was filling with men and women who came, as the French said, “to take a coffee.” A man in his forties with dark hair, a lock curling onto his forehead, sat alone a table reading La Depeche; three older men held court a table near the restaurant’s door greeting everyone who entered or left. “Bonjour.” “Ca va?” Volleys of rapid French and laugher.
 A couple crossed the terrace, found a table, she wearing tight jeans, tight tee shirt, a short jacket, he wearing jeans and a leather jacket. They were of a certain age.
            The conversation about bees continued, and I was struck with a realization—no cell phones, no computers, no one speaking with or texting with someone who was absent.  
A gray-haired man, solid and square with an open pleasant face approached the table of three British women. Directing his attention to one, a woman with curly gray hair, small and pleasing features, he wished her a happy birthday, then said, “Is this a birthday coffee? Are you having cognac in it?”
“No, I’m not,” she said.
“You should be, darling,” the man said, rounding the table to join them.
I didn’t want to leave this place where the music of conversation filled the air, where I was looking out at ancient buildings, where behind those buildings the countryside fell away into fields, where in front of those buildings flowers bloomed in pots, geranium and trailing vinca, where no one was plugged in or distracted by electronics. But I had a meeting in Beaulieu, and I needed to find my way.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

En Ce Moment

Late this afternoon in Paris, I accepted a ride with a stranger. As I crossed a street, guide book in hand, I saw a man, dark hair, sturdy looking, smoking and standing just behind a car parked at a corner. I needed directions, so I approached him. He held up a hand, signaling me to wait, while he knocked on the passenger side window of the black car. The window opened. A woman. She, too, must have been in her thirties, dark hair dark eyes, turned toward me as if to say, Who are you? What do you want? They spoke in French. She opened the door, took out her phone, looked at my guide book now in the man’s hands. She entered the name of the street I’d written, rue du bac. “Ooo la, la,” she said. Standing beside her, I read the time, twenty-five minutes, but to walk or to ride? I asked.
“To walk, yes. You must take the bus,” she said.
            I’m a walker. “That will be fine,” I said.
            The man spoke. She spoke. Both in rapid French I could not follow, but I believe, he was the one who suggested driving me, although she, the English speaker suggested I come with them.
 “Oh, no,” I said. “I can’t do that.”
            “We will take you,” she said.
            I shook my head. Waved my index finger like a metronome.
            “I am…,” she paused. “How shall I say? No problem.”
            “It’s not that,” I said. Although, partly it was that. How could I an older woman schooled against taking rides with strangers get in that car, but that’s exactly what I did, climbing into the back seat as the woman set her phone, now a GPS onto the dash. And we were off, driving through the maze of streets in Saint Germaine des Pres, the woman practicing her English, me practicing my French, both of us thoroughly enjoying each other’s company, the young man at the wheel. He was no longer smoking, and now I wondered was that why he stood outside the car? To smoke? My husband would do that. And thinking of my husband, I imagined his voice asking me about the car. What kind was it? As if make and model mattered. Maybe they did. Then, his second thought: "You did what?”           
 I was, as the French would say, en ce moment, in the moment. Call it luck, karma, serendipity or perhaps one person doing a favor for another, I was driving with strangers. It was the hour when work ends and evening begins. The sidewalk cafes were not full, but people sat outside at tables under awnings, sipping beer, coffee or wine. Inside the car, we exchanged stories, where I lived, if I had children. The man was from Portugal, the woman from Brazil. She has a first cousin in Los Angels. She plans to visit England, but her English is not so good any more. I tell her that in England, her English will return.
We pulled up in front of number 77 rue du bac. I offered a five franc note. Each refused, first the woman then man. I thanked them, then entered Dore Dore, a shop, where when I last visited Paris, I’d bought a pair of tights that became my favorite. This year, I bought three pair, telling the proprietors, a woman and her son, I’d been there before. And so we talked about where I was from and then about Romney and Obama, and we all want Obama to win, the French shopkeepers and I.
            Isn’t this what travel is all about, finding that essential part of yourself that connects you to others? And I understand I took a chance. Something terrible could have happened on that ride. Would I take a ride again? I don’t know. Only the moment will tell me. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Bird in the House

“Grammy, there’s a bird in the house,” my grand-daughter, thirteen, cries, her voice breaking my sleep. “I was letting Trixie out and the bird flew in.”
            I peel back the covers and slowly, I pull myself from my bed. We are alone in the house. It has been a rough summer, her mom leaving, her dad having hip replacement surgery, this child not knowing where she’ll be living, school starting in days, her dog, her beloved Trixie, attacking and tearing another dog’s ear, growling to protect her food bowl, and tonight the dog has diarrhea, losing control inside a cloth travel crate.
            Barefoot, I pad down the stairs. “There it is Grammy,” my grand-daughter says, pointing high to a skylight in the living room.
“Get her,” I say eyeing the dog. The bird flies low, then disappears. 
 “I don’t know how it got in, Grammy.” My grand-daughter’s voice tremors, and I imagine her fear. Will I yell? Punish her? Tell her she’s stupid for leaving the screen door open. That’s what she’s used to at home. But home is gone. Her mom has left without a forwarding address. This child has been with my husband and me all summer. Mostly, her dad, my son has been here, too. Until his surgery.
The ax hangs above Trixie’s head. She needs to stop attacking other dogs. She needs to stop guarding her food bowl. She needs to stop growling when I put her into her crate. Mostly, Trixie is a loveable, friendly, smart appealing dog. A Catahoula leopard dog, rescued dog from a kill shelter in Tennessee, she was taken from her mother too early, spayed to early. Probably mistreated from birth, this dog has issues. My grand-daughter loves this dog. She needs this dog. Tonight, she’s been up every hour letting Trixie out. Not once has she awakened me, until this bird flew into the house. “It was banging into walls, Grammy,” she says. “I didn’t want it to die.”
Worry springs from her skin, an aura of worry surrounding this lovely girl-child. She is so much me when I was young. So much herself, smart, vibrant, inquisitive. Why has life has dealt her a difficult hand?
Yesterday, we shopped for back to school clothes, shopped although none of us knows where she’ll go to school. We pretended all was well, buying a plaid shirt, a loose fitting off the shoulder sweater, a pair of skinny jeans, rejecting a second pair because they were too expensive. A sign in a window had promised forty percent off. No, not these, a salesperson told me. At home, my grand-daughter went on line. “Look, Grammy, they’re forty percent off on line. And I can get a fifteen percent off coupon.”
The bird flies into the dining room. Opening all three sliding screen doors that lead to a deck, I tell my grand-daughter we’ll just let the bird fly out. We stand in the kitchen. Holding Trixie by her collar, my grand-daughter points. “There it is, Grammy.”
Something small and brown on my kitchen floor. The bird. Probably a sparrow. Injured? Afraid? Stooping down, I gently take the sparrow into my palms. I’ve never felt such warmth and fragility. Never felt a heart beating so wildly. Placing the bird onto the deck, I wonder about my scent. What harm have I done? The bird is still. I back away, step inside. Still, holding Trixie, Nina watches. “Grammy, it flew away.”

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Landscape of a Long Marriage

 The sea is the landscape of my marriage. I live at the end of a dirt road on the southern coast of Maine, the horizon my closest eastern neighbor. Storms blow in from every direction. Light is ever changing, dark to light, dull to luminous.  One night in July a double rainbow arched outside my dining room window. I stepped out onto the deck, the scent of rain mingling with the salty scent of the sea. In both directions colors fell into the dark of the ocean. Beyond the deck, the sea stretched, rippling, rolling, breaking white around rocks.
Every day, I watch the incoming tide fill spaces between boulders, leaving tide pools rich with life, snails, crabs, the occasional starfish. This constant push and pull of the moon on the sea carves out caves and thunder holes where the sea rushes in, foaming and spraying. The sea builds bridges that I cross climbing out to a promontory. In a hurricane the promontory disappears.
            I was twenty-one when I met my husband, drawn to his strength and his power. After more than fifty years of marriage, his strength has waned. Mine has waxed. Our differences are more pronounced. He disengages. I engage. What has kept us together is transformation, my fire redirected, his strength and power redefined. We are wiser, committed, now, to the history we have created with each other, with our children and our grandchildren. So many narratives of a long marriage. I have one, Dick another. Each of my three sons will have his own. But there is another narrative, the story the marriage itself whispers in my ear, as mysterious as the white space on a writer’s page—that abstract yet transcendent place where Dick and I come together. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Driving With Sue

Sue pointed to the corner where we used to meet. She wore a pair of navy trousers, a short sleeved, buttoned blouse. I wore my usual cropped trousers with a boxy top, an image of funky irreverence. “The mailbox is gone,” she said. We were cruising in her black Lexus sedan, two women in our early seventies, going back to the New Jersey neighborhood where we’d grown up. I’d known Sue since I was twelve, the new kid in town, taking a seat in Mrs. Murphy’s geography class. Sue collected friends like charms on a bracelet. I was happy she’d scooped me up. We lived in similar houses, small capes with one car garages on postage stamp lots, and on that day in May, the houses looked remarkably the same. No McMansions. Yet, I hardly recognized that corner where we used to meet every morning before walking to junior high school, then to high school. I did recognize town, the corner buildings that housed the drug stores, the banks, now selling clothing or smoothies. Someone had turned my father’s camera store into a boutique wine shop and wine bar. Main Street, USA was long gone.

In many ways, Millburn was an idyllic place to grow up, neighborhood streets I roamed at will, the drug store where after school, Sue and I bought ice cream cones, single or double dip, the record store where Saturday mornings, we listened to 45’s before making our selections. Later, when Sue got her Nash Metropolitan, we cruised the streets we used to walk, looking for friends, then crossed what in that town was a northern Mason-Dixon line, Jews south, WASPS north, looking for my boyfriend’s car. He had friends who lived north. I felt that division, but I didn’t ponder it, not then. I won’t now. What interests me is the way that place held onto my adolescence, giving me back my teenage self, an image of a pony tailed teenager holding her books to her chest, meeting Sue at the mailbox that wasn’t there. This was the place of my deepest yearnings, my unbridled passions. My dreams of escape. After college, I didn’t return, marriage my ticket out.

Sue stayed. I think she knew she would. She married a chemist, a demanding man who died young. But not before Sue nursed him through heart surgery, diabetes, amputation, kidney failure and dialysis. Sue confused love with obedience. I never did.

I may have left New Jersey, but I didn’t leave Sue. That same adolescent connection that brought me back to the old neighborhood tied me to Sue. She was the friend who knew me when I was fifteen, full of myself and bubbling with life. Over the years, Sue has helped me move backwards through my life, unraveling threads and trying to understand how I, a middle class Jewish kid from Millburn, New Jersey, became a writer, a teacher, a mother, a grandmother, a friend and dog lover, living on the rocky coast of Maine instead of on a postage stamp lot in Millburn, New Jersey. Driving with Sue, saw an essence of my younger self, that same essence I see, these days, in my three granddaughters, all visiting and going to summer drama camp, coming home, singing and dancing in my kitchen, in my living room, then later, after dinner, swimming naked in the pool, unencumbered, new, forming and formed. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Cold Mountain

Here in the Blue Ridge, this Monday morning of Memorial Day, where I’m hiking, I am alone. The trail is mostly dirt, gentle up hills, down hills, switch backs, a few steeper climbs. The perfect hike to warm up my hiking legs. The path cuts through a field where tall grasses grow. Wildflowers. Now an opening After hiking through a large field to an open meadow. Leaving the meadow, I sit on moss, pen in hand when I see a hiker approaching. A young man wearing shorts, a white shirt, cap, a small pack on his back, he hums his way along the trail, sees me, or I see him. I say “Hello.”
Hardly pausing he says, in a voice that sings more than it speaks, “Hello, how are you?”
And he’s on his way, humming, again.
A breeze stirs the air. In the pale blue sky, the rumble of an engine. A plane I can’t see. I love these colors, this particular blue of the sky, these leaves on the mountain laurel, on birch and beech. Conifers.
An artist at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts where I’m in residence loves color. Vibrant color that dances and sings. His colors come to him as he paints, and he describes for me a white rabbit, a golden monkey, a dancer spinning inside her red dress. I see only shape and texture. Color, of course.
On the trail again, I pass the hiker who passed me. He’s sitting on a rock beside a stream, lighting a small burner, eating breakfast or lunch at nine forty in the morning. At a trail junction, I notice that my reading glasses are gone. They slipped through space between the waist band of my trousers and the waistband of my pack. Go back? Continue on? I’ll need to come up with a better system for carrying my glasses. This will be the second lost pair of reading glasses in as many hikes.
Now, on the Appalachian Trail, I’m meeting section hikers, a through hiker, a young woman, heading to Maine. I’m thinking about my glasses again, when I hear a voice. “Ma’am, did you drop some glasses.”
The humming hiker. In his hand, my case with the purple swirls.
He goes on. I don’t see him again. 

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Boston, Sunday Morning

Sitting in a Starbucks across from the Parker House, reading a story by Ann Hood, I tried to keep a man’s voice from interrupting fiction’s dream. But his voice was strong. Insistent. I glanced to my right. Two men, street people, poring over a crossword puzzle, the man with the strong voice, leaning into the table, his long stringy unwashed gray hair, streaming. He wore jeans, a thin tee shirt, an undershirt, really. 
“I can’t remember how to spell palest or pale,” the man opposite him says. He’s younger, with reddish hair, glasses, wearing a long sleeved flannel shirt.
            “P-a-l-e-s-t,” the older man says.
            “Palest. Is that what you’re saying?” the younger man says.
             As I listened, I kept my eyes focused on the scene outside the window wall, the garden of the Old City Hall where azalea as white as snow bloomed, profusely. Rising from the garden a statue of one of history’s giants. Later, I learned he was Josiah Quincy who lived from 1772 to 1864, a long life. Josiah Quincy was a member of the Massachusetts Senate, of Congress, a municipal court judge, mayor of Boston, president of Harvard.
            “I can’t continue with the this,” the younger man said. Glancing over, I saw that he had pushed himself back from the table. “Want to take it over to the park?”
            And I wondered on this particular visit to Boson, how many times I'd  walked past these men as I crossed The Common, head high, eyes erasing their humanity? Now, as they walked past my table, the older man, shouldering his dirty back pack, the younger man following, I lowered my gaze, hopefully, a gesture of respect.  

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Papa's Yhartzeit

Looking for oncoming traffic before turning on to York Street on my way to a yoga class, I saw the lead hearse in what turned out to be a very long funeral procession. Tears welled, and I cried. I had no idea who had died, no idea where those tears had come from—until at lunch, I told the story to Dick, my husband. “Is it anybody’s yhartzeit, (anniversary of a death)?” he said. “In April?”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so.” 

Then, memory flooded back. I ran upstairs, opened the drawer of my bedside table, found the small piece of paper where I’d written my grandparents’ birth dates and the dates of their deaths. Abraham Block, April 25, 1958.

I raced downstairs. “Dick, what’s the date?”

 “April 25th.

“You’re sure?"

He gave me one his looks. 

"It’s my grandfather’s yhartzeit. I can’t believe it. How can that be?”

"I guess you remembered."

Taking a yhartzeit candle from a cabinet, I struck a match. No, not I. I didn't remember. Perhaps, my body did. But I wouldn't have known, really known unless I'd told the story. 

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Agent Search

I’m a writer searching for an outlet for my memoir, querying agents, gathering information on independent presses, thinking of going indie—indie, the cool way to say self-publish. I want an audience for my book, and that’s why I’ve driven nearly seventy miles to hear Jason Allen Ashlock’s talk, Agents For Today’s Author, a talk sponsored by Grub Street of Boston.

Jason stands at a podium inside a YMCA on Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It’s a warm March evening. I shed my sweater, pull my blouse from my skin. Jason is young, probably in his early thirties, looking younger, vibrant and energetic. Intelligence and understanding pool in his deep brown eyes. He greets us, warmly, then asks: “Is the traditional literary agent still viable?” A brief pause before he answers. “No. Or not for very long.”

All of us in this audience know publishing is in crisis, smaller catalogues, fewer bookstores, fewer books sold. The industry is top heavy, investing somewhere in the range of $300,000 to bring a book to market. What if the book doesn’t sell? Returns flow back to the warehouse. No wonder agents tell me they’re only selling celebrity memoir or memoir with a strong enough hook which generally translates to drug addiction, alcohol addiction or dead babies. Why? Because they’re pre-sold.

And that’s where the digital revolution comes in. “Digital,” Jason says, “shifts the value chain to a value web.” The agent used to be the way a writer reached her reader. The chain was linear, writer, agent, publisher, distributor, book store, reader. Now, a writer can reach her reader in multiple ways, and because of this, agents are squeezed. Some have left the business. Some are charging fees. Some are serving as their clients agent and publisher. Others, like Jason, are changing the look of the traditional agency, becoming involved with design and marketing, moving from the background into an open explosive force. Jason says, “An agent’s job is to manage the possible in the digital space.”

And in this shifting digital world, Jason tells this audience of writers that we will need to become our own agents for a while. This is a spin on the advice we’ve been give for a while now with a difference. Jason is suggesting that agents get involved in helping writers launch their books in a new way. Is that way really new? Take my memoir. I’ve published excerpts, one winning a prestigious prize, in my quest for audience and a platform. Jason is suggesting that before an agent takes a book to a publisher, that agent might find digital ways to launch a writer’s work, perhaps by asking that writer for an eBook or perhaps an excerpt on various sites to create a buzz. Not so different from my traditional publishing in the literaries. But—in order for Jason to take on a client who writes a literary memoir, such as mine, he said when we spoke briefly after his talk, he needs to believe there’s a large audience out there for that book. The old catch 22? Not quite. I believe there’s more flexibility in this new model. So, Jason, expect my query. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Memoir, Straight Up

Last night after watching the film, “The Artist,” the beautiful many layered story of a silent film star tossed aside when talkies come in, I slept badly, dreaming of closed doors, a filthy outhouse. I awoke disgusted, climbed out of bed, walked downstairs in the dark and made myself a cup of coffee.

I’m a writer of a certain age, trying to bring a literary memoir to publication which in today’s publishing climate seems to have as much relevance as a silent film. Five years ago, my credits in literary magazines, Ploughshares, the New England Review, the fact that chapters from this book have been published, one winning a prestigious award, would have made an agent notice. Now, few agents answer my queries, and those few who do, send a polite, but form rejection.

The culture has gone visual, and ironically as movie and television screens have grown larger, the book has grown smaller becoming an image on a laptop, an iPad, an iPod. Is the book dead? I don’t think so, but I do think traditional publishing is not only in transition, but as Steve Almond said in a recent seminar I attended, “crumbling under the weight of its own inefficiency, and what’s suffering is anything literary.”

In my query letter to agents, here's the way I describe my book: Girl Wrapped In A Curtain is a scene driven 78,387 word literary memoir that explores the complexity of love between a father and daughter. That day, sitting at the table with eleven other writers, all of us trying to figure out how to publish our books, traditional, electronic, small press, do it yourself, I nearly laughed out loud. Literary, once a respected word, was now the kiss of death.

I don’t even want a big New York publishing house. I’d like a small press, but I still need an agent and agents keep their eyes on the big houses, going to smaller presses later. Agents and editors say what’s selling are celebrity memoirs and memoirs with a hook, which means sensational, ie abuse, addiction or mental illness. My book is my story of coming to love my difficult, mean, charming, manipulative, narcissistic father. He is my Rochester; I am his Jane, for Dad is ninety-one, half-paralyzed, bedridden, incontinent and demented with startling moments of clarity and dying when, finally, he lets me into his life. Is he conning me? He’s that kind of guy.

So, who’s my audience? All of us out there who will be, who are, who have cared for aging parents.

Back to “The Artist.” Leaving the movie theater with me, my husband said, incredulously, “That was a silent film.”

Yes, it was. A modern silent with the old embedded in the new. My book is memoir, straight up. I’m not claiming the artistry of “The Artist;” yet, like the silent film star in the movie, who needed to find his way back into film, I need to find my way into publishing my literary memoir. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sun and Sky

Early morning. Green grass. No snow. Outside, the ocean ripples. No white caps. Where I sit on my chaise in the early morning, I cannot see the sun. Yet, I know it is there, just out of view, because the horizon glows. “Too dark,” a friend had said, when I told her I was taking this northeast facing room for my study. I understood. I’m a person who loves light; yet, one of things I love about this room is anticipating the sun’s return as it travels north, its coming and going an essential rhythm of my life.

Now, the sun’s light illuminates a wooden bench I have placed at the edge of the lawn where ragged stone steps lead to a rocky beach, and although none of them is here, I can see each of my grandchildren, the three girls, the boy,hopping rocks, then stooping down to stare silently into a tide pool. 

This is the ebb and flow I need in my life, this silent coming and going of sun and light, cool and warmth. Upstairs, Dick, my husband, and the dogs sleep. What wonderful dogs, what perfect dogs to give me these moments of solitude to watch my invisible sun spread its light from bench to grass and now to the railing beside steps that lead to the deck outside my study. How quickly day asserts itself, blue sky, a swath of high white cloud.

And suddenly, I am remembering Margin Call, the movie Dick and I saw last evening, and I am struck by the lack of sun and sky. Wall Street exists in a world of machines, tall buildings with elevators, large rooms filled with computer screens, their unnatural light, their graphs and numbers, surreal, unreal. No where in that movie does sun light a bench or a railing. Men climb to a roof top where artificial light becomes their beauty, and the flickering lights are beautiful—but they obscure the sky, moon and stars.