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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Growing Up at the Actor's Orphanage: Chapter Three of "Silverlands"


By Judy Staber

"When We Were Young"

When Germany invaded Poland on September 1 1939, Father and Mother were living at 5 Raphael Street in Knightsbridge with Susannah not quite two months old. Until her pregnancy was no longer possible to disguise, Mother had been playing yet another schoolgirl, Judy Bingley, in Little Ladyship with Lilli Palmer.


As soon as war was declared, able-bodied men rushed to enlist in the armed services to fight for King and Country. Father, who turned thirty-two that October, signed up and on November 4, 1939, unfit to fight because of poor eyesight, was appointed by the War Office as Public Relations Officer for the Western Command. By June of 1940, with the Germans targeting England, Father was given the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Gloucester Regiment and immediately promoted to the rank of Acting Captain. His job was to meet with, and release information to, members of the press corps; information fed to him by his commanding officers. For this purpose he was allowed an imprest account and he was allowed to spend seven shillings and sixpence per head per meal.

By the autumn of 1940 the Blitz had begun and London and the Home Counties were taking a beating from the German bombers. The stage-house of Father’s theatre, The Duke of York’s, was hit, as were several other London theatres. With the war begun in earnest, Mother and Father gave up their tiny Raphael Street flat and moved with Susannah to the relative safety of South Moreton in Berkshire where Mother’s parents, recently retired from the Eastern Telegraph Company, were living. Father was posted to Chester in the north of England. Mother and Sue stayed on with her parents and Mother helped with War Canteen work, putting on plays with village children and the evacuees from London. She wrote,

The village children were no trouble at all but lacking in talent. Whereas, the Londoners were like belligerent sparrows, sharp and talented.

With the bombs falling closer and closer, Mother and Sue moved further north to Snitterfield, a little village just above Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire. There they spent six months lodging with a Farmer Cox, growing vegetables in a victory garden and collecting eggs from the chickens, all given names by Sue, now a toddler. On the moonlit night of November 14, 1940, having put Sue to bed, Mother was sitting and chatting with Farmer Cox on the porch. Looking to the northeast, they saw a tremendous fire on the horizon. She wrote later,

In spite of the distance we clearly saw the flames and smoke rising. We learned later that it was the city of Coventry: over 500 German bombers had massed for the biggest raid of the war to date - their target Coventry - a city at the industrial heart of Britain's war production engine.

Hundreds of people were killed and almost the whole city was decimated including its magnificent Gothic cathedral.

As the weather turned colder up north, Mother and Sue moved down to Maidenhead and by mid-1941 were back in London now that the Blitz was over. Father’s war work kept him out of town, but he was often able to be in London. In 1941, together they found and purchased the lease on 36 Paultons Square in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

Paultons Square had, and still has, one of London’s charming little private gardens. Just off the King’s Road, the garden had flowering trees and shrubs, beds of seasonal flowers and shaded benches by small lawns; everything lovingly tended by some of the residents. Each house on the square owned a key to this gated garden, keeping out undesirables. Every day, starched nannies with their high, shiny, black perambulators, their toddler charges firmly in hand or harness, would enter the leafy green enclosure, sit on the benches and gossip while the children played — nicely.

By September 1941 Mr. and Mrs. A. P. Moore had moved in. Number 36 was a charming Regency row house near the southeast corner of the square. Guests entering from the street went up three scrubbed-till-they-shone steps to the front door with its shiny brass lion’s-head knocker, passed through the front hall and into the dining room, the front parlor or the cozy rear sitting room. The main bedrooms were one flight up and on the very top floor were Susannah’s nursery and a room for Nanny.

Delivery boys and dustmen reached the kitchen by going down the stone steps behind the black wrought-iron railing. From the kitchen with its big wood-fired stove and dominant solid kitchen table, a door led onto a rear, rectangular, walled garden. In the middle stood a large laburnum tree under which Father and Sue one day solemnly buried Sue’s goldfish. Purple wisteria and ivy climbed the walls. A large tabby cat adopted the new family. Susannah named him Tiger. Much to Nanny Ball’s disapproval, Tiger would sit on my pram and watch over me as I slept in that walled garden under the laburnum tree.

They had hired Nanny Ball before I was born. I am sure that living at such a posh address, with daily help in the kitchen, having a Nanny was a MUST. Sue wrote to me,

I think she (Nanny Ball) came to Paultons Square along with the house and the up-style living. I can remember Father having a chauffeur driven car and also being exceedingly handsome in his uniform. Peaked Captain’s flat hat no less!

She continued,

I remember you sliding down the stairs on your belly and consequently getting Impetigo, a nasty scabby rash and Father painting pictures of battleships on your belly with Gentian Violet. I remember Nanny taking us to the Paultons Square garden, or along the Kings Road, in that huge Silver Cross pram, with you at one end and me at t’other, and her saying that you had got Impetigo from gutter-snipes who leaned into the pram to see you. But I only got to ride when my little legs were too tired to walk.

What Sue remembers most about Nanny is how strict she was. We were both rigorously potty-trained. Being a sturdy infant, as soon as I could sit up I was made to sit on my potty immediately after breakfast and I was not allowed to get off it until I had ‘done something.’ It is sixty-some years later and my insides are still bound up by that infant regimentation of Nanny Ball.

Nanny Ball lived with us only until the War was over and the house was put on the market; yet she left her mark on our little minds. Sue still remembers going one day to visit Nanny Ball’s home. Her father kept greyhounds locked in a big wire cage in the garden, but where it was and exactly when, she couldn’t recall,

‘Fragmented memory, sorry! she said.

Memories of early childhood do come in fragments: a smell, a sound or a particular kind of day can kindle a memory, but pure memory becomes muddied with the introduction of old photographs or other people's reminiscences and suggestions. My life from birth to four is shrouded in mist, but certain things ring out clear and true when triggered.

My parents befriended Rudy, an American soldier, when we lived in Chelsea.

I remember his rough army uniform and him bringing Wrigley’s chewing gum and Hershey chocolate bars for Sue and I as we sat in our safe house under the kitchen table. We were probably in the kitchen because of the nightly blackouts. I still remember the whine of the buzz bombs: in early 1945, one destroyed a row of houses behind Old Church Street, close to our house.

I have very few real memories of family life: my sister Susannah screaming after being burned by Nanny with an iron to teach her that irons were hot; the smell of my mother’s perfume and the softness of her fur coat as she brushed my cheek in a good night kiss on her way to the theatre; my father, in a dark blue apron with white stripes, cutting up something in the kitchen — but perhaps that was just a fantasy, for I have been told by Sue that he liked to cook. When you have no idea what kind of man your father was, your imagination takes over. Not ever knowing a parent leaves a rather large gap in one’s make up.

All that I have are two small black and white photographs of him. One is of an idyllic family scene in the English countryside: my sister, Father and I are in a grassy meadow, Susannah, aged about four, holds a bunch of wild flowers in her fist, Father, crouched beside her, has me, a most substantial baby on his knee. It must have been taken in the summer of 1943 for I was born that January. The other photo shows him at his desk in 1960, just two years before he was to die at fifty-five. Wearing dark-framed glasses, his hair dark and wavy, he sits behind piles of papers looking off to his right, a smile on his face, as if welcoming a visitor.

He left our family when I was two and a half. The war in Europe was finally over. No one knew, or at least ever said to us, where or why he had gone. One story, we heard later, was he had embezzled £9 to buy Sue a teddy bear; but that wasn’t true. In 1960, he sent Susannah in Canada a telegram on her twenty-first birthday. She was about to give birth to her first son, Jamie. Father telegraphed that now she was twenty-one he could legally see her.

We were to learn much later, after Mother died, that she had had a restraining order put on him when he left the family. He had kept up with news of us through his brother Arthur. We never knew why Mother did this, and she would never talk about it. In our ignorance, while we were growing up, we assumed all kinds of terrible things about him. We were wrong. None of them were true.

I was to learn, much later on, these truths about my father: that he had been a successful theatre publicist and manager; that he had produced avant-garde plays and introduced many innovative works to London audiences. Under his aegis, in addition to Susannah and the Elders which starred my mother, the London International Theatre Club introduced the French playwright Jean Anouilh to England with his play Le Voyageur sans Baggage and, later, Gentleman’s Agreement, an English adaptation of a Hungarian play about anti-Semitism — given what was happening in Germany, a production both controversial and timely.

I don’t know if it is in my genes, for I never knew him, but I too had a career in arts management and public relations and have helped to introduce new theatre works to audiences here in America. How I wish I could have talked to him about it all!

TO CONTINUE READING "When We Were Young," GO TO JUDY STABER'S WEBSITE, http://www.jstaber.com. "Silverlands," which is available for purchase at the website, tells the story of how Staber grew up in the Actor's Orphanage in Surrey, England, while her mother pursued an acting career. Staber, herself an actress, was also, before she retired, an arts manager. Staber's memoir is also available through the Troy Bookmakers, and through The Chatham Book Store, in Chatham, New York; Blackwood & Brower in Kinderhook, New York; The Book House, in Stuyvesant Plaza, and in bookstores in Great Barrington and Lenox, Massachusetts. The PROLOGUE to Silverlands ran in MyStoryLives in December, 2010.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Dangers of Pedestrian Travel


By Megan Kirsch

In addition to the unbearable life-threatening cold out here on the University of Wisconsin campus, a reason I do my best to avoid traveling on foot in the winter months is the thick sheet of ice that covers all streets and sidewalks on campus.

The Ugg is standing strong as the most popular winter footwear because of its unmatchable warmth, but what it lacks is traction. Despite this drawback, girls all over campus (myself included) continue to traipse about the streets without a care. Also, the state of Wisconsin refuses to use salt on the roads because of the environment, and sand is by no means an adequate substitute. I have had a few near-death experiences due to this choice, and am considering personally salting the paths that I use most often, Hansel-and-Gretel style. This will also prove useful for anyone who is trying to track me down (crazed blog fans.)

The one positive to the treacherous paths we must travel each day is that spectating the slippers in question is highly entertaining. The moment of panic that strikes when you’re about to have a potential ice incident is a feeling unlike any other. There are a few classifications of slips and falls, as evident through this video and an abundance of real-life experiences.

“Gentle Glide”

This classification of slip occurs when you unexpectedly hit a patch of ice disguised under snow. Sometimes you can anticipate and subsequently side-step a GG by watching someone walk in front of you slide, startled. This isn’t too embarrassing because it’s the most common. It also is beneficial in that it will speed up your travel time by replacing some steps.

“Speed Skater”

Sometimes, when encountering a larger patch of ice in shoes without adequate traction, you might have to do a cross-country-skiier-esque shuffle in order get back on track. This is more embarrassing than the GG, but still something you can recover from. There is little chance that you’ll hit the ground. These are more common on a downhill slope, for example between Statesider and Towers (watch out! happened to me today.)

“Close Call”

The “close call” is pretty humiliating. Qualifications for a level CC slip include flailing arms, legs running in place, facial expression of shock, and perhaps a yelp or scream. To follow-up, a survivor of a CC usually looks around in hopes of seeing someone they know, usually unsuccessfully. If you catch the eye of a stranger, hopefully you two can share a laugh. A personal anecdote: I had a terrible CC last year outside of Social Science during prime time. Luckily, my nug-master Reagaroo was in her car right behind me and was able to share it with me.

“Full Wipeout”

This is the worst kind of fall. It is usually preceded by a CC, which is the onset of the humiliation. The difference here is that there’s no recovery. A FW can end in a backwards fall or a face-plant. Either option is incredibly embarrassing, and is followed up by pain. Another terrible side effect is that some of your belongings probably went flying, or in the case of a backwards fall, your computer might be at risk. Once you’ve gathered yourself (and probably told 5 to 10 strangers that you’re “fine”), you set off on your journey again. Thankfully it’s probably 5° or less, so your face was beet red prior to CC.

SHOUT OUT TO PEOPLE WHO STILL BIKE IN THIS WEATHER - YOU ARE THE FUNNIEST OF ALL! But if you wouldn’t mind, please stop biking right in front of me while I’m driving a car, because it makes me very nervous that you’re going to topple over and I will flatten you.

Megan Kirsch is a student at the University of Wisconsin. She keeps a wonderful blog called "Living Outside the Lyre." Check it out and get an inside look at campus life at U of Wisconsin!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chapter 32: FINALLLLLY PEG I have figured out WHY I'm Writing Sister Mysteries!!

Peg I'm glad you don't think I've totally lost my mind. And I can't tell you how much I appreciate your calling me the other day. I know the semester is just starting and you are incredibly busy running the Writing Program. It was so kind, and I am so grateful, that you took time out of your day last Friday to talk books with me and to try to help me decide which novel I should serialize on The Huffington Post.

As you said, it's an incredible opportunity and it's the very first time that the Huff Po has EVER done anything like this, so I want to be sure I approach it the right way, with the right book.

Peg, I am so blessed to have you as a friend. Do you remember the last lines of Charlotte's Web? I just pulled Jocelyn's yellowed copy off her shelf: "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."

Well, Peg, YOU are both. You are an amazing writer, and an amazing friend and support. You were there for me all through this long and grueling project.

Today is an anniversary. It was SIXTEEN YEARS AGO this week that I started writing the nun story, Castenata. It poured out of me. AND NOW, finally, I see what drove me. I will explain.

Meanwhile, though, thank you PEG. THANK YOU! Thank you for all those years you stuck by me as I tried desperately to package the nun story within silly outer frame stories that flopped miserably.

You humored me through all those long years of writing. All those failed attempts to write Sister Mysteries, or as you lovingly renamed it, Sister Miseries. Ah, yes, what a misery it was!

And then when I was diagnosed with the cancer in 2002 -- and now we're talking real misery!! -- I told you that I thought it was the book that had made me sick (because I had started writing it as a gift to another friend who was sick with cancer.) But you kept insisting that I was all wrong: it wasn't the book that had made me sick. You kept saying that the book was a healing thing; that the book was going to make me better.

Well, so, you were right. But wow. I don't want to think about how long it took, or what it took to stick with this project. All the different versions of the story that I asked you to read! Ayayayayayay.

Not once did you refuse, or even complain. You would say that you just loved the nun story -- and didn't want to see a word of it changed -- but then you'd very gently and very carefully say to me that you weren't sure why I was framing it with the outer story.

My God, Peg, you lived through Malvina and Heather, and Lucy and Chris -- those ridiculous characters that I hung onto for way too long. Over and over again, you kept saying:

"Hey, Claud, maybe you should just write the TRUE story. YOUR story. Just tell the story of how you came to write Castenata, the nun's tale."

Well, so, it only took me a decade and a half to finally heed your advice, Peg. (I can hear you laughing even harder.)

OK, so now. I have a chance to take Sister Renata "national" on The Huffington Post. (I can see you LOL even harder.) While it's tempting, I think I might be making a mistake serializing the nun story. Even though, as you point out, it's a mystery. And even though, it is for all intents and purposes "finished."

I'm beginning to think that my husband and Lori are right. The world isn't ready. The nun story, and this Sister Mysteries, thing -- I suppose that you and I would call it metafiction, writing about the fiction -- are rather non-traditional narratives. All that you were saying the other day about traditional stories, and non-traditional or experimental stories, all that makes sense to me. We grow up reading a certain kind of stories and we don't even realize that we've been conditioned to read that traditional sort of "once upon a time" tale.

But this is the thing: readers of The Huffington Post are not likely to be readers who want an experimental or "disrupted" narrative.

Peg, I hope you won't be disappointed, but I think I am going to save Castenata and Sister Mysteries for the blogs, at least for the time being. I think instead that I'm going to serialize Seeing Red on The Huffington Post.

Seeing Red is a kind of an old-fashioned love story, and it takes the reader on a lovely journey across the warm and sunny and very romantic region of southern Spain known as Andalucía (wonderful time of year to go to Spain :) It is a story of discovery. It's a woman's journey to find herself as an artist, and a woman's slow and often painful realization that even though she adores her guitarist lover Jesús, and even though she has chased him half-way across the globe (ah but he has those eyes liked melted chocolate!) in the end, she doesn't need him to be happy.

As I say in the promo for the book on the Seeing Red website, Ronda Cari spends half a lifetime searching for true love, and then she discovers it, in the magic of her own (flamenco) dancing!

It's an easy read. And the point with serialization is, you need a good read to keep your readers reading. You want to deliver up a powerful story that grabs their attention and holds on to them until the end.

As you yourself pointed out the other day, maybe the readers aren't quite ready for what I'm doing with the nun story, Castenata, and this sister "thing" I am writing, this companion tale that winds here and there and everywhere, this metafiction that I am calling Sister Mysteries.
I am not going to give up writing this book up, I will continue on the Sister Mysteries blog, which is interconnected with Castenata, the nun's story. As I go forward, I will be making more transparent the writing process, that is, I will share with readers insights about writing, and what's involved in writing a book!

What you said the other day has really stuck with me. I think it's really true that, as you said, "sometimes we have to teach our readers how to read our work!"

Maybe in the end, that's my task here, to teach readers that writing is an incredibly fluid process, and that it is difficult to identify what it means to "finish" a piece of writing.

You know exactly what I mean.

Being that you are Assistant Director of the Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts, where that very famous writing teacher Peter Elbow used to dwell, you certainly know what I mean. You certainly know what you are talking about when you talk about writing! (And I invite your comments, as always!)

Getting back to The Huffington Post, though, I am going to have to decide very shortly which book to serialize. I have to let that book editor know my decision soon. (As in, tomorrow! :)

Whatever I decide, I don't want to put aside the many interesting issues that you and I discussed on Friday, including the many questions that are raised by the ideas of serializing a novel on-line. Because this I truly believe is the future of writing and publishing Peg!

I think it makes sense, if you are willing, to continue talking about these writing -- and reading -- issues, right here, write on Sister Mysteries. All that you said the other day about traditional narratives, and "disrupted" or what you and I consider "feminist" narratives, there is so much to talk about there, especially because Castenata -- for all its being an antiquated murder mystery, a 19th century whodunnit asking over and over again, "is Sister Renata guilty? did the nun kill her cousin?" -- it is a feminist narrative!

It works against traditional PATRIARCHAL stories!

And so, now I finally see Peg. I finally know why I am writing this book.

For years you have been asking me, "Claud what is the point? Why are you writing this Sister Mysteries thing?" And now, 16 long years later, on the anniversary of starting the tome, I FINALLY HAVE THE ANSWER PEG (hey some questions take longer to answer than others! :)

I finally understand what I am doing writing Castenata/Sister Mysteries, or what I have otherwise begun to call my "Blogga Saga" --

I am trying to re-invent storytelling Peg. (HA! no small task there!) I'm trying in these books Peg to DISRUPT what you and I would call traditional or PATRIARCHAL NARRATIVES!

I'm also trying to break down the "binary" nature of stories: in journalism we call it the traditional "he said/she said" nature of story-telling. In Castenata we've got the "he said," by a man, Antonie, writing stories, his version of events, and we've got the "she said," in Sister Renata's diaries. Antonie's clever stories "frame" Renata, very literally -- she ends up in prison, accused of his murder. But of course the feminist notion that men "frame" women all the time, and objectify them in all kinds of ways, as "virgins" and "whores," that is playing here too. Renata is desperate to get free, to free herself from Antonie's "stories," and the accusation that lands her in jail.

And as I've said so many times, it's up to me to tell Renata's true story, one that frees her -- and me too!

Anyway, as I've said to you over and over again lately, it wasn't until blogs emerged a few years ago that I could write a story like this, one that bounced back and forth in time, and between links, the way Castenata and Sister Mysteries do. Until this new technology emerged, I could not possibly write like this, saying, for example, "hey Peg, remember what I wrote the other day about serializing a novel on-line," and voila, have you be linked right there!

Peg it is getting ever more clear to me as I write in this "new" way that writing on blogs is truly a revolutionary thing! It is so incredibly freeing. I just love it. I discover so much about writing as I do these posts. And as you so often have said in the past, the writer MUST be engaged in discovery as she writes, at the same time that the reader is discovering as she reads. In your words, "No discovery for the writer, no discovery for the reader."

The writer needs to be excited about what she is writing because otherwise the narrative feels dead! That's true no matter whether the writer is writing fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose!

Hey, so no wonder then so many people are blogging. They are discovering their voices. They are finding out what they feel and think! They are finding out that they love to write!

It's really incredibly exciting when you think what the internet and blogs have done: a ton of people are now writing, every single day, all day long. You'll love this: my niece, Megan Kirsch, is a student at Wisconsin. She started a blog for her sorority, Alpha Chi Omega. She called it "Living Outside the Lyre." She told me in an email the other day that she started it "as a joke" for the sorority.

But then, all of a sudden, her sorority friends all started reading it because it turns out SHE IS AN AMAZING WRITER PEG! Isn't that cool? I got a link to it and now I am going to repost one of her pieces very soon in MyStoryLives. Peg, she has that natural gift -- she has a great voice, a sense for telling detail. And a terrific sense of humor.

So who knows, Peg. My niece Megan, like so many many young (and older!) people, may just keep writing. Because of a blog that she started "as a joke," she just may turn out to be a writer!

How incredible is that? I am thrilled by this. I am delighted to think that people, via blogs, keep discovering that they love to write, that they CAN write.

I think this is the future Peg. And yes, I think it would be incredibly fun and wonderful for you and I to put together a textbook to use with students like Megan, students who are the "next" generation (or THIS generation) of student writers, students who grew up with the internet.

Let's talk about it right away, or as soon as you have time!

"Peg" is otherwise known as P.M. Woods, Ph.D., Assistant Director of the Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is the author of a fabulous novel, "Spinning Will."

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Dangers of Pedestrian Travel


By Megan Kirsch

In addition to the unbearable life-threatening cold out here on the University of Wisconsin campus, a reason I do my best to avoid traveling on foot in the winter months is the thick sheet of ice that covers all streets and sidewalks on campus.

The Ugg is standing strong as the most popular winter footwear because of its unmatchable warmth, but what it lacks is traction. Despite this drawback, girls all over campus (myself included) continue to traipse about the streets without a care. Also, the state of Wisconsin refuses to use salt on the roads because of the environment, and sand is by no means an adequate substitute. I have had a few near-death experiences due to this choice, and am considering personally salting the paths that I use most often, Hansel-and-Gretel style. This will also prove useful for anyone who is trying to track me down (crazed blog fans.)

The one positive to the treacherous paths we must travel each day is that spectating the slippers in question is highly entertaining. The moment of panic that strikes when you’re about to have a potential ice incident is a feeling unlike any other. There are a few classifications of slips and falls, as evident through this video and an abundance of real-life experiences.

“Gentle Glide”

This classification of slip occurs when you unexpectedly hit a patch of ice disguised under snow. Sometimes you can anticipate and subsequently side-step a GG by watching someone walk in front of you slide, startled. This isn’t too embarrassing because it’s the most common. It also is beneficial in that it will speed up your travel time by replacing some steps.

“Speed Skater”

Sometimes, when encountering a larger patch of ice in shoes without adequate traction, you might have to do a cross-country-skiier-esque shuffle in order get back on track. This is more embarrassing than the GG, but still something you can recover from. There is little chance that you’ll hit the ground. These are more common on a downhill slope, for example between Statesider and Towers (watch out! happened to me today.)

“Close Call”

The “close call” is pretty humiliating. Qualifications for a level CC slip include flailing arms, legs running in place, facial expression of shock, and perhaps a yelp or scream. To follow-up, a survivor of a CC usually looks around in hopes of seeing someone they know, usually unsuccessfully. If you catch the eye of a stranger, hopefully you two can share a laugh. A personal anecdote: I had a terrible CC last year outside of Social Science during prime time. Luckily, my nug-master Reagaroo was in her car right behind me and was able to share it with me.

“Full Wipeout”

This is the worst kind of fall. It is usually preceded by a CC, which is the onset of the humiliation. The difference here is that there’s no recovery. A FW can end in a backwards fall or a face-plant. Either option is incredibly embarrassing, and is followed up by pain. Another terrible side effect is that some of your belongings probably went flying, or in the case of a backwards fall, your computer might be at risk. Once you’ve gathered yourself (and probably told 5 to 10 strangers that you’re “fine”), you set off on your journey again. Thankfully it’s probably 5° or less, so your face was beet red prior to CC.

SHOUT OUT TO PEOPLE WHO STILL BIKE IN THIS WEATHER - YOU ARE THE FUNNIEST OF ALL! But if you wouldn’t mind, please stop biking right in front of me while I’m driving a car, because it makes me very nervous that you’re going to topple over and I will flatten you.

Megan Kirsch is a student at the University of Wisconsin. She keeps a wonderful blog called "Living Outside the Lyre." Check it out and get an inside look at campus life at U of Wisconsin!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

"Winter Whether" -- REVISED with Torah added


By Claudia Ricci

I carry my cup of tea into the living room and stand at the door. I stare out at the pine trees, their boughs laden in snow. I open the door. I inhale. The air is a painful blast.

Sometimes it seems like winter will last forever. Sometimes, in weather this fierce and cold, I hate winter.

There are 8-foot piles (I had written 15, yes, but now I've really seen them) on either side of the garage. I sink to my knees (not hips) going the long distance to the compost pile.

I turn from the door and walk to my study and it is then that I swear I hear someone talking. Yelling. No one is home with me, so I don’t know what to think.

I blink. Suddenly there is a lining behind my eyes and it is silver and slick as a mirror. I blink again and the lining tears and a woman appears behind the mirror.

She is naked and her flesh is doughy. She has the kind of body that was cherished during the Renaissance. But her complexion is dark and there are salmon highlights on her cheeks, as if the sun is trying to sneak through her skin. She is breathing quick and hard. She is holding scissors to the sky. And wearing a shield of thin bright gold. She keeps screaming, “HELP ME HELP ME HELP ME THERE IS SOMEONE TRYING TO ERASE ME!!!”

I think about yelling back. I think, oh, I should try to help her. But then I think, how? What would I do?

I sit down and try to write a story:

Today I am going to airlift a mythological figure to safety. She is a goddess with blankets of wavy black hair. She carries a two-pronged sceptor, sharp at the tips, and she wears a gold shield over powder blue robes that are transparent, like the sky. I am going to rescue this goddess with music and song. Tambourines and lutes. I am going to airlift her to a place by an emerald sea. There she will be carried by a boat back to her home, wherever that may be.

I print out the paragraph and stare at it. I crumple it up. I go to the kitchen with the intent of making another cup of tea, but then I decide to make coffee. I go back to my study and sit down again. I start typing something new.

I am sitting in the Café Lorca in Jerez, under a scorching blue sky, and I am drinking strong coffee and listening to the flare of fingernails on strings. A rasqueado. God knows how I love the flamenco.

I stop. I won’t even print this one out. It would be a waste of paper. I erase the line. I erase the goddess paragraph, too. Yes, after all that, I erased the naked woman without a second thought.

I stare at the cup of coffee. I get up and go to the kitchen. I pour the coffee down the drain. I take three oranges and squeeze a glass of fresh juice, the liquid thick with pulp. I stare at the glass. I used to pop Vitamin C pills like they were candy. But now, it seems a rather dangerous prospect to take Vitamin C. Or even to drink a glass of juice. That nurse at Sloan told me very clearly years back: “Vitamin C feeds lymphoma.”

I take a sip of the juice and then I pour the rest of it down the sink. I think of myself as healed and cured. But there are mornings when, out of nowhere, I just...wonder. Whether.

I go back to my study empty-handed. I need to write something, but I can’t think of a thing. I start typing away.

I wish to be freed of every last drop of fear about the lymphoma, and every last filament of the memory of it. I wish never to have one single thought of those deathly chemicals.

And yet, now I realize. I cannot ever stop remembering. Not completely. I wish I didn't but I've got the memory embedded in my tissues. So. I now declare myself fully and finally healed. I now pronounce myself completely in remission.

I stop. I pick up my dictionary and look up the word ‘remission.’ “Forgiveness or pardon of a sin or other offence; deliverance from guilt or punishment.”

I start typing again:

Sometimes I think it is useless trying to write anything at all after you have survived cancer. No matter how many years go by, no matter how long it's been since the lymphoma -- eight eight almost nine nine -- once you have had it, you can never not have had it. You can never quite live the way you used to. Even when you are cured, you can never quite be forgiven. You can never quite be delivered completely of fear. You can never quite be sure the floor will hold you up forever and forever and will not fall through again. You can never rest assured. Period.

I stop. Go to the kitchen and make some more tea. Red clover, because it keeps the blood clean. When I leave the kitchen though, I am distracted by the thoughts that I am about to type, and so I leave the cup on the counter.

If a person is punished then they must have done something to deserve it. The punishment I mean. And I certainly was punished. Week after week, they pumped me with chemicals so poisonous that they dared not let them touch my skin. The nurse explained to me one week: ‘these chemicals are as toxic as Drano, and so, they go right into your veins. We wouldn't want them to touch your skin.’

Somehow the logic of that statement never made sense to me but I never asked any questions. I didn't want to know too much.

And then, when the poisons were done, I weathered day after day, week after week, of radiation beaming through my chest. Radiation that burned the flesh of my esophagus and the back of my throat and the front of my chest.

I would lie there trying to salivate, because I hated the taste that the radiation left. I hated that taste so much that I didn’t want the back of my tongue to touch the roof of my mouth.

I am typing faster and faster.

So yes, I was punished, yes. But what was I punished for? I must have done something awful. I must have abused someone. Someone. You see my logic. I was punished so I must have committed some crime. I must have done something. Thought something. Written something.

Wrong.

I stop typing immediately. I erase everything I have just written.

I realize what happened: yesterday I had lunch with a friend I hadn't seen in years. My friend Karen K. We started chatting and then she stopped and said, "Hey, first thing, how is your health?"

I told her that I am great. "I don't even think about being sick anymore." The conversation proceeded.

And then this morning, when I woke up, it was there. That old nagging fear. That "you can never be sure" feeling. That winter whether.

I start typing faster: I did nothing wrong. I got sick. Period. I am well now and I have been for years. I am going to stay well.

Well. And then I just keep typing that word, over and over and over again:

Well.Well.Well.Well. Well.Well.Well.Well. Well.Well.Well.Well. Well.Well.Well.Well. Well.Well.Well.Well.

Soon there are waves of WELLs on the page. They kind of look like waves. They kind of remind me of that favorite Torah passage, the one called "The Song of the Sea," the one where Moses leads the Israelites through the parted waves of the Red Sea. It's an unusual passage in the Bible, set up like a poem.I sit there. I need something to drink but I can’t get up from my chair. I sit there some more and then I think about that night, that awful awful night, and I type some more:

I remember the night I was diagnosed. I was half dressed for my son's Bar Mitzvah. Literally, I had the navy blue skirt with the tiny red roses on, but not the top portion of the dress. I was standing there in my bra when the doctor finally phoned back. It was 5:30 on a Friday night in June and I had been calling her all afternoon to get the results of the CT scan that she had ordered earlier in the day after she had seen that egg-sized lump on my collarbone.

The doctor knew I was about to go to my son's Bar Mitzvah. She said, "Why don't we schedule something for Monday, you and your husband can come in then."

I said no. I said, "Doctor, if you know something then I want to know too."

And so she told me. Cancer. She said the word "cancer." I said the word out loud and my husband heard it, and unbeknownst to me, my two daughters, who were hiding on the staircase to the third floor, they heard the word too.

The doctor said, "You will need chemo and radiation." I had a pen and paper by the bed and I wrote those two words down. Chemo and radiation. I don't remember much after that. I remember that I went to my son's Bar Mitzvah in a complete fog. I couldn't eat a thing at the dinner. At the service afterward, I remember we were singing "Mah Tovu," that beautiful, no hauntingly beautiful, hymn that comes from Numbers, Chapter 24, Verse 5, the one about Jacob's tents in the desert -- "How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel! -- and the music filled the temple and covered me like a warm blanket and I sat there and had an image of all those incredible tents, standing white and gleaming in the desert and me hiding in the white tents.

The next morning, just before the bar mitzvah service, I told Rabbi Klein, the assistant rabbi, what was going on. I said, "Please, Andy, I don't want to cry. No matter what happens to me, I don't want my son to remember me crying at his Bar Mitzvah."

Andy Klein is an incredible guy, and an amazing rabbi, and he looked me straight in the eye and smiled broadly. "You won't cry," he said. "You can trust me, you won't cry." All during the service, as my son chanted from the Torah scroll, I locked eyes with Andy Klein, the incredible rabbi, who was across the room, on the other side of the bima where the Torah scroll sits. And miraculously, I didn't cry.

Now, though, I am crying. I am trying not to but I am crying. Hard. So hard I stop typing and wipe my eyes and then I stop crying and I start humming the song about Jacob's tents. "Mishkenotah Israel..." The song makes me feel better, it fills my chest, and sits there, the song vibrating like a well of healing water. I start typing again:

Sometimes I am frightened that cantaloupe-sized tumor will return to my chest, and then I will need more poisons. If I do, I have decided that I will just drink the chemicals and be done with it. I will end the wondering. You know the wondering I mean. ‘I wonder whether I will…’ and ‘I wonder whether I will not.’ The ‘wondering whether’ will kill you. All that whether is just such a bother. Like snow in winter. Winter, whether or not it will go away. Winter weather

that may never be spring. Ever again.

I sit back and reread what I have written. I wipe my eyes and look out the window at the snow.

I look back at my computer and wonder whether I can retrieve the lost goddess paragraph. But my search for it is fruitless. The goddess is gone for good. I print out what I’ve written and leave the pages there in a neat black and white stack on my desk.

I get up and go to the kitchen. My cup of tea is ice cold. But outside, there is a slice of salmon-colored sky on the horizon. When I return to my study, light is pouring through the window onto the desk. The glass pane is old. Wavy.

My story is sitting in a watery rainbow. I sink into the chair, and set my forehead on the desk, in the rainbow, and leave it there.

The End

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How to Get HAPPy? Adjust to Whatever HAPPens!

So there we were yesterday, ready for our second day of the new Happiness class at SUNY Albany and guess what HAPPENed?

As writer John Lanchester suggests in one of the readings we had for today (from The New Yorker, Feb. 27, 2006):

"...the oldest and most deeply rooted philosophical idea in the world and in our natures is

"SNOW happens."

(Actually Lanchester used the other S word but I am going to stick with snow!)

Lanchester quotes Darrin McMahon, a historian at Florida State University -- where I presume snow DOES NOT HAPPEN :) -- who has written a "heavyweight" study called "Happiness: A History." In that book, McMahon instructs us on the ORIGIN OF THE WORD HAPPINESS, which on this, the second day of class it seems to me to make sense to start.

McMahon: "Happ was the Middle English word for 'chance, fortune, what happens in the world, giving us such words as 'happenstance,' 'haphazard,' 'hapless,' and 'perhaps.'"
Lanchester's article argues that we are hard-wired to be scared and nervous. He presents us with two characters from 100,000 B.C. -- Ig and Og. Ig is the courageous hunter-gatherer who takes all kinds of chances, and Og is the scared one who freezes at the first sign of danger.
Which one, Ig or Og, is likely to survive? Which kind of behavior is likely to be passed on, the courageous free-wheeling IG behavior or the scared, anxious OG behavior?

Well, so back to HAPP and HAPPINESS and what HAPPENS. Happiness comes from accepting whatEVER happens in life and adjusting accordingly. It's a snowy day, the roads are horrific, and so, as much as I don't want to, and didn't anticipate this, I must do what I must do. So I cancel class. And we adjust by doing something right here on-line.

As soon as I started posting on-line, it occurred to me: there are people who keep saying they want to take this Happiness class (and they aren't about to enroll at the University this spring.)

So now I know how they can take the class:

Right here. Right now.

OK, folks the "assignment" for Monday, Jan. 24th which you can now do from the comfort of your couch. :)

1) Please watch this amazing YOU TUBE video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tRdDqXgsJ0 in which University of Wisconsin researcher Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin who works with the Dalai Lama, explores the emerging field of “Contemplative Neuroscience.” Davidson is one of those suggesting that our mental activity, including mindfulness and meditation, can induce physical changes in the brain. This is also the subject of Sharon Begley's book, Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, so if you are inclined, pick up that book and start reading the first two chapters. (We will get to it a bit later in the semester.) Begley is a very gifted science writer for Newsweek and has explained the research with a storyteller's eye!

Davidson’s cutting-edge work, meanwhile, is influenced by the emerging fields of neuroplasticity and epigenetics: the first is that the brain is a flexible organism. The second idea, epigenetics, suggests that genes are regulated by the environment in which they reside; Davidson says the notion that our genetic structures are inalterable blueprints is “antiquated and Newtonian.”

2) Take a look at this article from The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It's particularly appropriate to read this on a snowy day, as it discusses research that shows the "positive emotions" that emerge from meditation "compound over time" (i.e. they create a SNOWBALL EFFECT!)

3) Go out and play in the snow, or at least experience the snow in some direct HAPPY way :) I will leave the details of that up to your individual imaginations.

4) Write a snow poem, specifically, a SNOW HAIKU, (here is a link to the haiku form, the Japanese form of poetry very short but very powerful!) and I will publish them here!

So, in the spirit of WRITING THE HAPPIER SELF I offer you my own SNOW HAIKU:

All white all soft all
mounded and smooth, white and white
the nothing of quiet.

HAVE FUN with this Haiku, HAVE A GREAT WEEKEND and see you on Monday!

Other readings that we read for today (and will discuss Monday, Jan. 24th):

1) The short story, "Getting Closer," by Steven Millhauser, from The New Yorker, Jan. 3, 2011
http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2011/01/03/110103fi_fiction_millhauser
2) Chapter One of Tal Ben-Shahar's book, Happier (buy yourself a copy!)
3) "Everybody Have Fun," by Elizabeth Kolbert, from The New Yorker, March 22, 2010
http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2010/03/22/100322crbo_books_kolbert

First writing assignment, due Monday, Jan. 24th: write a one-page typed letter to Jimmy, the boy in the story, "Getting Closer," giving him advice from the other three readings! Draw on your own experience trying to find happiness too!
Professor Ricci