Rest in Peace

On September 11, 2001, I lived not far from the World Trade Towers and heard the first plane fly overhead and hit the first tower. I ran downstairs and onto the street and watched along with many of my neighbors as the tower ignited. In fact, though, I could not watch it at all.

I ran upstairs to call my mother in Evanston, who I knew watched morning tv every day. I rang her up and told her I was okay. She had not yet turned on the tv and did as we spoke but could not really believe that this had happened, that a plane had flown into the tower and as we spoke, the other tower was hit.

As the day progressed, I lost phone contact and yet, surprisingly, two other important people in my life were able to get through to me–my loving uncle, Jerry Greenberg, and my long-time therapist, Betty W. Sih.

With the death of my mother this morning, the three of them are all now gone.

My uncle died first, on January 27, 2014. Betty died this past Mother’s Day. My mother died early this morning.

All of them were of the same generation, born to a struggle that none of us has ever experienced. Each of them tried to find meaning in life in ways that helped them deal with all the uncertainty and despair they faced. For me, they represented three different ways of viewing life, some of which made sense and some of which were discarded.

During the many days and weeks that followed the fall of the towers, I kept wondering about the causes of evil in the world. Like a question that would find no answer, it haunted me. The only one I asked who did try to help me with that question, was my uncle. Though at the end of a few calls, he threw up his hands in despair and asked me not to worry about it.

Yet, this nagging question led me to thinking about religion again in ways I had not considered for years. Having been raised a Jew, I tried to return to a synagogue for help. This proved fruitless as the talk of Israel and her needs was unsettling to me. I knew then what I know now–Israel is a racist society that allows for no opposition to its belief in its own mission to exist.

Looking back, it comes as no surprise to me now that I met and married Suzanne Pyrch. Suzanne led me to St. Luke in the Fields and there I learned that one can pray about love and guidance and not focus on the hate and anger all around us. This was a necessary lesson and it has been a difficult one to learn. Yet, with Suzanne’s love and guidance, I found my spiritual path and a person to be married to who has made a home with me in this world.

Today, I mourn the loss of my mother, my uncle and my therapist. They have died in quick succession. All three of them suffered a loss of cognitive functioning toward the end of their lives. But I do believe that where they are now, they are at peace and aware of things far more important than the day of the week or who is currently president.

I am grateful for this path I am on and honor their memories now by staying true to it with prayers and love. May the three rest in peace.

2015 Summer Road Trip–Back on the Road

Resuming our trip, our first stop has been Washington, DC. All our trips become organized around Suzanne’s annual Flute Convention, which is in, yep, DC this year. Our car is filled with our camping gear and sits in an underground garage near DuPont Circle. The National Flute Convention has begun. We’ll be listening to lots of flute music and then head to West Virginia to camp along the Mountain Music Trail for a couple of weeks.

Every morning now in DC, I take a walk uphill to the National Cathedral. Discovering the wooded pathways on the grounds has been helpful because the purpose of these walks is twofold: One, to care for my back which needs daily exercise as pain relief; and two,to find a place to pray. No matter where I travel, I’m carrying my physical/spiritual worlds with me.

As we packed our bags into the car in Queens, I turned to Suzanne to tell her how anxious I was to leave home. She understood completely. The uncertainty about my mother, how much longer she has to live and how uncertainty can disrupt the need to follow the real rules of travel.

Those rules, because they are key to a successful trip, keep me focused and thus far able to enjoy a trip that could become undermined by sadness and anxiety. on the simplest level, travel for long periods of time demands paying attention to each single detail and then making room for the unexpected.

Suzanne gets annoyed with me as I nag her to put everything back where it was, to close lids and covers tightly, etc. If we don’t put things back in the car in the same place every time, we could lose a vital piece of equipment that we rely on for these camping trips. Having assigned places for everything means we don’t lose things, and we live in synch with the things we carry with us as if our lives depended on it–and they do.

That is what travel is about: Taking ourselves with us; taking care of everything we bring with us; allowing all uncertainty to come along for the ride; and to have fun (more fun than anyone can imagine).

This attention to detail changes us. Ironically, being extremely aware of each thing as it passes through our sensory system allows all those new sights, sounds, tastes, smells and feels to alter what we know and as we synthesize these sensations, we build new aspects of ourselves.

Travel changes us. Leaving home with an anxious heart is acknowledging that so much changes, not just for me but for lots of people connected through me to my mother lying in hospice in a state far away and not on our itinerary.

While we are traveling, we still need to keep funding our projects. Please make a donation here (and thanks): http://www.gofundme.com/yw769w

Writing Habits–Research

I obviously like to tell stories. It would be pretty sad if I didn’t like to tell stories being that I am a novelist. I also like to listen to people tell the stories about their own lives.

When I realized I needed to talk to a nun about her life in order to flesh in my character, Margaret, in my new novel, Scags at 30, I asked friends for recommendations. I wanted to fill in what I could about a real nun’s life rather than try and make it up from the books, movies and essays I had read.

As a writer, I knew what I needed to do was listen to a nun talk about her life. It would be comparable to preparing for a role. There were missing pieces to the character, Margaret, that I needed to understand. I figured even nuns like to talk about themselves. So, I found a way to meet with Sr. Marion Defeis and it led to some incredible insights about Margaret as well as to meeting a truly remarkable person.

I had two opportunities to observe Sr. Marion. The first was at a panel discussion on solitary confinement at The Oratory of Saint Boniface in Brooklyn. She led an evening’s discussion that featured three other women involved in the ongoing work to end solitary confinement in New York State. Watching her was my job that night; yet my attention was often diverted by the emotional talks each of these other women gave.

I approached Sr. Marion at the end of the evening to make an appointment to talk to her privately. I thus got on the subway to meet Sr. Marion where she lived– at Providence House in Coney Island. The subway ride from Queens to Coney Island is one of the longest in the system. It was long enough for me to use to prepare for my talk with Sr. Marion. Fortunately, I found in me what I needed to be able to listen closely to Sr. Marion in order to find out who Margaret is.

Sr. Marion and I sat on the porch of Providence House for over an hour. It was an overcast and chilly day but it was comfortably quiet. This is what I heard as we talked that afternoon. She began by telling me of her life before Rikers. Her sentences were short, crisp but as she approached her tenure as a chaplain at Rikers, they filled out, grew long and more involved and required me to ask more questions because there was so much more  of that life for me to understand.

Before Sr. Marion could work at Rikers, nuns were more confined to one profession–teaching. When she was able to work at Rikers, she worked part-time. She therefore had time to do other work related to her chaplaincy, like going to Albany to lobby the legislature to end the punitive Rockefeller Drug Laws and to meet with the Archbishop of New York to get his support. She gleefully told me he wrote a very good op-ed in support of it too. She also went into great detail about the work she did with the Queens DA’s office to help drug mules get better treatment in the courts and so forth.

As she spoke, I  realized I had never expected to hear a nun speak about “drug mules.”  At first, I wanted to laugh but then came a different response.

Margaret became a real person to me. By listening to Sr. Marion, Margaret grew out of an idea and into actuality. I could now have conversations with Margaret I knew her so well.

I wasn’t fully aware of that in the moment but I was so thrilled to have found Margaret that I asked Sr. Marion what I could do to repay her for her time. From that question, another part of this adventure with Sr. Marion began. Stay tuned for that report next.

(More to come on Sr. Marion in my next blog. In the meantime, please help Sullivan St Press pay its bills by donating here: GoFundMe.com/yw769w)

Writing Habits

Working on Scags at 30 has been an exciting albeit troubling experience. Too many interruptions of the deepest kind–too many deaths and too many illnesses have caused me to constantly lose focus. That shattering of my concentration is something other writers have discussed with me as well.

What to do?

I am not the sort of person who can just dive into work no matter where I am. I have to make the space my own in some way–putting my books on the table; pacing the space and exercising in it; sitting for long periods of time staring into space. Something is needed to help me get to work that resembles the things I do at home.

While writing in a laundry room in the Cooperstown KOA recently, I remembered one of the habits I had while working on Scags at 7. I used to write copiously in the margins. What I wrote became like a personal diary of my thoughts as they helped or hindered my work.

That practice became such a useful tool that when I started teaching writing, because it doesn’t matter what genre you write, I encouraged my students to use that practice as well. Soon, I discovered that John Steinbeck had also used a journal to help him write East of Eden. On the recto page he wrote his draft and on the verso page he wrote to his editor every morning before he started writing the draft. It is fascinating reading for any writer. (Here’s a good review of it http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/book-of-a-lifetime-journal-of-a-novel-by-john-steinbeck-1819459.html)

Many writers do this without knowing they do it. At one time, Yahoo had a very good journal keeping tool that allowed me to write to myself every day so that I could get the wheels moving. I gave myself 15 minutes and then I had to turn to the novel (Scags at 18) and move it along.

The earlier technique of mine was to write in the margins themselves. This was when my own writing was clearer and I could read what I had written, even the tiny notes about what it was at that moment that was keeping me from saying what I knew or thought I knew needed to be said.

Writing early drafts is the hardest work as all writers know. Revising is a joy and I always look forward to that work. But the really difficult choices are made early on and with great fear and caution because the choices we make are the ones that will determine whether we are risking enough and saying it well enough to help a reader understand what is at stake in the story they are reading.

(We are now home due to my wife being sick and my mother in hospice. This raises another level of fear when it comes to writing Scags at 30 but I am doing it and with some pleasure. If you can help us to cover some of the costs of what Sullivan Street Press is doing, please use this website to donate whatever you can. Thanks in advance.) http://www.gofundme.com/yw769w