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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

***************BOOM***************** (Part One, Flip Your Script)


By Valerie K

“What's wrong, Valerie?” She bent down so we were eye-to-eye. I hate when adults do that.

“Are you afraid to tell me?”

Silence.

“Where did you get these scars from?”

I wanted to scream:

None of ya' fucking business. I’m tired of people asking me what’s wrong. You can’t do shit to help me. I have too many problems; I don’t even know where to begin. I know the school district’s teacher budget is not paying you enough to deal with what I’m going through.

I got home. More questions.

“How was school today?” he asked me.

“Good.” I whispered.

“Did you behave? I don’t want to hear any fucking complaints on my email today.”

I walked away. I lay in my bed, and stared up at the ceiling. I looked to my left and to my right, walls. I was trapped. I was alone.

I wanted to cry, but no tears came. I knew he was coming; he always came around this time. Sometimes if I was really good, I could count down until that horrifying moment when he got up here.

5…4…3…2…Nothing.

I tried again.

5…4…3…

********Boom*******

He burst through my door before I got to two.

“Get the fuck up.”

I complied.

“Take your clothes off.”

I looked at him twice, my eyes begging him not to make me do it. I hoped that he would look at me and see his little girl and realize that this wasn’t right. But he didn’t.

“Take off your clothes!” he yelled again.

I did. I felt like shit. I was humiliated. “Go get your notebook and write this…” he paused for a minute giving me time to get my stuff. “Hurry up, I don’t have all day!

"Now write this…”

I wrote while he talked, “’Humble: feeling or showing respect and deference towards other people. I will not be prideful, I will have humility.’ Write it till your fucking hand bleeds.”

So I wrote. Tears fell on my paper but I kept going. My hand never did bleed but I was waiting until he fell asleep so I could take a break without him knowing.

I looked at the clock. 8:35 pm. 12 more hours till school.

Just then he came upstairs and asked for my paper. I prepared myself because this was usually the time he was drunk. By this time he was so drunk he could care less about punching me as hard as he would have if I didn’t write enough.

An unexpected smack came across my face. I fell to the ground. He hit me. He kicked me; I wanted so bad to cry but I refused to let him know he was getting to me.

I looked at the clock. 8:36.

My side hurt, it was a burning sensation that only grew worse when I moved. But I had to move in order to protect my other side from blows.

I curled into a ball. He kicked me in the thighs over and over and over again.

It was still 8:36. I closed my eyes and talked to God, hoping that would pass the time. I told Him that I forgave my dad, even though he didn’t say he was sorry. I told Him that I promised not to hate my dad. I asked God to change my dad into one that wasn’t so angry.

Still 8:36.

At 9:02 he left my room.

Eleven and one-half more hours until school. I couldn’t wait.

I have never felt so alone.

Valerie K is a pseudonym for a writer in upstate New York who suffered abuse as a child. This piece is the first of a "Flip Your Script" pair of writings; stay tuned for Part Two, when Valerie steps into the role of her abusing father. "Flip Your Script" is a new writing exercise I developed to help individuals use narrative, or story-telling, as a way of finding peace and forgiveness in difficult personal relationships. To read more about Flip Your Script, check out this earlier post.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

How Meditation Can Spark Creativity and Ease Stress in College Students


NOTE: This piece also appeared on the Huffington Post.

By Claudia Ricci

One of the most exciting things about attending a conference is that you often meet the most creative people doing the most amazing and creative things.

Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a conference on "contemplative pedagogy" in higher education at Amherst College. Sponsored by the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, the conference attracted swarms of fascinating educators from across the country, all of whom are committed to using meditation, mindfulness and other "contemplative" practices in their college classrooms.

The faculty using these practices are generally very innovative and incredibly dedicated and dynamic teachers. They are the type who not only think outside the box, they tend to dismiss the box altogether and rethink the whole container problem top to bottom. Teachers who use contemplative practices also tend to place great value on teaching to the "whole" student, not just to a student's disembodied mind or brain.

One such extra-special teacher I met is Molly Beauregard, who teaches at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. Art schools tend to be extremely competitive; they are pressure cookers for the students who attend them. Routinely students pull all-nighters to get their creative work completed to meet tight deadlines.

To help students deal with the stress, and to get them in touch with their creative powers, Beauregard has developed a fascinating new class in which the college students learn to manage their stress by meditating twice daily.

After the conference, Beauregard emailed me a wonderful short video produced by The David Lynch Foundation. The video will show you exactly how meditation is helping these young college students discover new ways of finding happiness and satisfaction despite very demanding workloads.

Watching the students meditating reminded me, once again, about the enormous power of meditation. Not only does it heal us, emotionally, spiritually and physically, it makes us feel better. As suggested by this video, meditation also opens the doors into our deepest and richest sources of creative power. A few years back, filmmaker Lynch wrote a very popular book, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity, in which he shared his own Transcendental meditation practice (he's been practicing meditation every day for more than three decades and established the foundation to promote meditation.)

Hats off to you Molly Beauregard, for this incredibly exciting work out in Detroit! And thanks to David Lynch and the foundation for making the film.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Tale of Two Cookbooks


By Ellen W

Their pages are yellowed -- no, brown, the paper stiff with age. In handling either cookbook, I have to take care not to let the paper crumble beneath my fingertips. One is a handwritten notebook of recipes collected from friends and relatives in the Mohawk Valley of Upstate New York.

It conjures up images of snow-covered hills, farm country where cows graze in fields where plows may turn up an arrowhead here and there.

The second, written in a foreign language that makes you think of tulips, windmills, and wooden shoes, bears the name of a publishing company in Rotterdam, Holland. The recipes include such food items as aardappelen, wortelen, uien, words which I decipher as meaning "potatoes, carrots, onions."

Both cookbooks are a hundred years old.

The Tale of Two Cookbooks is also the tale of my two grandmothers. The first book -- the handwritten one -- belonged to my Grandma Minnie, who was born on Christmas Eve in 1890. She spent her early childhood along the Erie Canal. Here's a picture of her as a young child on the balcony of the Lock Grocery in Fort Plain:

Minnie couldn't have been more than three years old then. She married my grandfather in 1912. They raised five children: four girls and one boy, who was my father, born at home in Fort Plain in 1920.

The Dutch cookbook belonged to my mother's mother, Grandma Vandenbergh, who was born in the small village of Loosdrecht in North Holland in 1886. As a young adult, Elizabeth worked as a domestic servant for the local pastor, in hopes of saving enough money to pay her passage to America. Here's a photo of Elizabeth and her sister in their maids uniforms, about 1900. Elizabeth is on the right, her sister Hendrina at left. Note the starched caps and neatly pressed aprons:

Elizabeth married my grandfather Barend VandenBergh in 1911, and shortly afterward, they boarded a ship bound for New York, bringing with them a huge and heavy two-volume Dutch Bible -- and of course, Elizabeth's cookbook.

******

Grandma Minnie's room was at the top of the winding staircase in the front of the house on the hill. The room looked out on the side yard, where a huge magnolia tree with pink marzipan petals bloomed furiously each spring. The front window overlooked the street, giving a view down the hill over the rooftops toward the river.

You could not see the river itself, but in summer you could see the rich green hills on the other side of the river. And you might see tiny black and white dots on the hills, which were cows grazing on the rich green grass. "Side-hill cows," my father called them, with one pair of legs shorter than the other, so they could graze easily and gracefully on the hillside. (At least that's what Dad called them, and I believed that myth well into middle childhood, when I realized it was not genetically feasible.)

The room contained the usual heavy Victorian furniture of the era in which the house was built -- bedstead, dresser, chest of drawers -- and had a built-in closet.

This was also the room in which my father was born, in the summer of 1920. Perhaps downstairs, Great-Grandma Nan was making apple fritters to distract the three sisters who were anxiously awaiting word of the arrival of their latest sibling.

First she brought some apples up from the cellar, where the family stored their fruits and vegetables. She peeled and chopped two apples. Then she sifted together some flour, baking powder, and salt.

She separated two eggs and beat the egg whites until they formed fluffy white peaks like snow. She beat the egg yolks, added some sugar, milk, and the dry ingredients. Then she folded in the puffy egg whites and the chopped apples. She heated a heavy iron frying pan on the wood stove and poured some of the mixture into the pan.

When they were done, she served up the lightly browned fritters.

At some point, Minnie must have added the family recipe to her own notebook. When I tried it myself, I had a bit of trouble with the steps: which to do first, chop the apples or beat the egg whites? Or heat the milk?

Basically, I followed the steps as outlined above. I could have chopped the apples a bit finer than I did, but the fritters turned out pretty well anyway. At least, they disappeared from the serving plate pretty fast. My husband and son enjoyed them with maple syrup; I preferred them sprinkled with brown sugar.

What is a "fritter," anyway, you may ask? According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the word comes from French, by way of Middle English: friture means "fried food" in French. So a fritter is "a small cake made of batter, often containing fruit, vegetables, or fish, sauteed or deep-fried."

Interestingly, Grandma Vandenbergh's Dutch cookbook contains a similar recipe for appelpannekoeken, or apple pancakes. This one calls for whole wheat flour, cold milk, hot water, yeast, vegetable oil, salt, and "four large sour apples." I remember eating such apple pancakes when I visited relatives in the Netherlands many years ago. Perhaps I'll have an opportunity to visit again sometime soon.

Until then, I'll be content with Grandma Minnie's sweet and crunchy apple fritters.

Writer Ellen W, who lives in the Albany area, is writing a family history, based on two cookbooks she inherited from her two grandmothers. As is fitting, the Tale of Two Cookbooks website has a post about Thanksgiving today!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Journey We Take Alone, Part Sixteen


By Alexander "Sandy" Prisant

I’m living with no kidney. Let me tell you what that actually means.

Getting through each day is a tedious, grinding struggle. There are too many little things that make you feel like you’re slogging through life in very heavy galoshes. From the 26 pills a day to the reduced immune system to a dialysis machine. For about 15 hours, night and day, I am imprisoned at home on a machine which keeps me alive.

Then there’s the anemia that often comes with kidney failure, because I don't produce enough red blood cells. When you’re anemic it just pulls you down. You can’t do anything; it just pulls you down all the time.

Anemia is one of those really shitty effects of kidney failure that often kicks in years before you actually lose your kidney. For over a decade now, I’ve been fortunate to receive a drug that counters the anemia. This is no small thing. It’s the difference between a working, functioning life and loss of interest. In everything.

In October of last year, I was invited by the National Kidney Foundation and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to discuss the first national study on this drug; the study questioned the drug's efficacy -- flying directly in the face of my own experience with it over the years.

I participated in meetings at the center of power with doctors, administrators and very few laymen like myself. The hearings were the next harrowing step in a subjective decision process on whether to keep reimbursing Medicare patients for this vital drug—the only way they could afford it.

We live in an age when people are denied life-giving drugs for cancer and other serious diseases because the cost of treatment runs into the thousands of dollars per month. Unfortunately for me, this kidney drug—Aranesp—falls in this doomsday category.

Having for several years been one of the few patients on this drug created by Amgen, I was privileged to write a detailed rebuttal of the national Aranesp study in a major kidney journal. It led to my testimony before the powers of Washington.

I testified to the fact that Aranesp had bought me years of productive, fulfilling life. I fought for this drug that had kept me working full time and living normally---almost to the day of my final kidney failure.

But after the study came out, we faced the possibility that patients would be denied this drug purely because of cost. So it made me feel grateful on behalf of others like me to explain to the experts that you can’t gauge the effects of anemia on a graph. It’s not the numbers on a blood test. You can’t see anemia. It’s an all-encompassing fatigue that’s debilitating. “It’s a fatigue,” another patient said, “that is indescribable.”

Apparently this testimony had some effect. The FDA did not stop reimbursement for Aranesp. I felt good about that.

Until a few months ago I continued on Aranesp; despite all the difficult effects of finally losing my kidney function earlier this year, I still had that most important asset—the energy to live, write and overcome it all.

Surely if any patient was fully benefitting from Aranesp, it was me. I was a productive human being, not a drag on society.

Then it came time for a new approval from my insurer, UnitedHealthcare. This special drug requires an individual presentation from your doctor. In my case, three highly respected specialists—two department heads and the ex-President of the Medical Society -- made appeals to United on my behalf. They were flatly turned down.

Sadly, the patient, me, who had made the system seemingly respond was now being denied the drug. How ironic. I had fleetingly touched Washington’s wheels of power to help other patients. And a year later

Aranesp remains available for others.

But there is no more of this wonder drug for me.

And I feel it already.

Writer Sandy Prisant, who lives in Florida with his wife Susan, is awaiting a kidney and heart transplant. He has been writing his series, "The Journey We Take Alone," since March. Susan is writing her own series, "The Journey We Take Together," about their long marriage and many adventures living and working around the world. To read earlier posts, go to the Search function on MyStoryLives and type in their names.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"We Listened to Poetry"

By Camincha

HOW IT USED TO BE THEN,
when we listened to poetry

She's been told it’s a bar and
“every one smokes” It’s OK
She said Smoking don't bother me
Actually she likes smokers Finds them
friendly They offer her their
table to sit at Treat her like
a long lost friend while they
suck the nicotine while they watch
the smoke rise to the ceiling while
We listened to poetry

Across from her perched on a bar stool
along with the tired skeptical
regulars an unkempt old man his clothes
matching the bar walls ceiling floor
in dust and aroma digs in his nose
with right hand index finger while
wrinkling his forehead trying to
concentrate The regular from the now
defunct The Owl and the Monkey Cafe
friendly readings warmly squeezes her
hand tight We listened to poetry

Sitting to her right the poetess who
just read with a most sensuous voice sips
her Heineken as she folds fliers that
announce a Dancing Poetry Festival
We listened to poetry

The poet from the currently in vogue
Yakety Yak Cafe promises to publish her
She enjoys the thought appreciates the
warmth the connecting the continuity
Each time they turn a city corner
walk into a restaurant library bookstore
café bar We listened to poetry.

Camincha is a pen name for a California-based writer. The San Francisco Bay Guardian praises her work saying: “Camincha frames the ordinary in a way that makes it extraordinary, and that is real talent.” Visit Camincha's website to read more of her writing!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why I Don't Want to Work


By Kellie Meisl

Yesterday over coffee, a dear friend, a writer with a passionate soul, listened to my weary uttering about having the ambition to "do nothing." She smiled and told me that I needed to write a story about it.

Her advice prompted my other dear friend to laugh at the thought of writing about nothing, which then got me chuckling, which came as a relief, because my state, overall, was somber.

I should clarify that my ambition to do nothing really boils down to one category, albeit a whopper-sized one: a job. There is no workplace where I can envision myself, no one I can imagine reporting to. Not wanting to work, or report to anyone at a workplace, is something I may need to rectify at some point soon.

Meanwhile, though, iIt has been a great privilege to be able to parent full-time and still get the bills paid. Life as a mom has been rich with time spent developing a strong relationship with my son. I have participated in a plethora of activities with him and I might not have been able to if I had reported to work by day and picked him up afterward. There is less money as a result, of course, but I think this time spent raising my child has been priceless.

In a way, I gave my son the childhood that I wish I had. My mom worked many long hours as a nurse and supervisor in a hospital operating room; she was usually on call even for holidays. She had to support our family. Looking back, she is not happy with the toll her job took on her mental and physical health. She has regrets. I never wanted to have any of those.

What also does not help me want to go back to work are the "war stories," pardon the expression, that I hear from my spouse, my friends, family members, strangers even, about workplaces. The thought of plunking my body down into one of them again gives me pause.

Just to give you an idea of what I am talking about, here are some of the stories:

One friend has a colleague who for some reason has come at her out of the blue, and with a vengeance, declaring her work unfit; though he is of equal ranking to her, and does not work directly with her, he has decided to make it his mission to stay on top of her business even though their supervisor has made it clear that he should apologize and stop. Did I mention she has her Ph.D.?

Another friend has had all creativity and decision making autonomy taken from her. She is a teacher of young children and has been handed a literal script, which she is required to read from while being carefully monitored, and offered firm admonishments any time she deviates from it, though she is a master teacher.

Still another friend whose job is literally to fix everyone else’s problems while juggling his own workload as well, (for a huge corporation that is cutting his benefits as I write), must hide with his laptop to get even a spare half hour of a day to get his work done. He eats lunch while working; people hunt him down and find him behind the see-through glass brick office walls. He's always on call to answer questions.

I have another close friend who is quite successful and has her masters in a health related field. But she tells me all the time, “Kellie, unless to HAVE to, don’t get a job.” She is emphatic that the life I lead is the one we all strive for. She warns me not to get sucked into the cultural norms that tell us the only valuable work is outside the home in some soulless workplace. She reminds that I have a range of jobs already, even though I don't get paid for any of them.

Some of my jobs while being "at home" (art teacher, artist, book keeper), have earned me a little money, while some have saved money (sub at my son’s private preschool). All provide my family with a certain convenience. (Chances are if you want to wear that favorite shirt it’s clean, the front door always reflects the season, transportation is never a question, a friend can always come here and will be supervised and fed, the school project will have the right materials, there will always be a clean hand towel.)

So for now I'm not in any hurry to find an out-of-the-house workplace. I know there are many people who like their work and that not all workplaces feel assaultive. I secretly pray I will find one, but I cannot see this place yet. Maybe writing this story will help me locate it.

Meanwhile, I am off to paint, a portrait of a Great Blue Heron, a Christmas gift for my husband.

Kellie Meisl is a visual artist living in Pittsfield, MA. Her work has appeared frequently on MyStoryLives. This post appeared in a longer form on her blog, called Walk. Her remarkable artwork -- inspired by both waking and night dreams -- can be viewed on her website, DreamArt.



Monday, November 14, 2011

FLIP YOUR SCRIPT, Part Two: "My Little Girl"


By Francheska Roque

NOTE TO READERS: This piece is part two in a series. In Part One, Francheska Roque, who is now 18 years old, told the story of her first day of kindergarten -- that was the last day she ever saw her father. "Flip Your Script" is a new writing exercise designed to promote empathy, compassion and forgiveness. The exercise, which I developed last year for my class, "Reading and Writing the Happier Self," at the University at Albany, asks the writer to tell a story about a difficult personal relationship. The writer is then asked to consider telling the story from the point of view of the other person in the narrative. To read more about the exercise, visit the Happiness class blog.

Every man makes mistakes, but the one that I made cannot be fixed. How do I explain to my five-year-old daughter that I have another family? That I have a wife who is not her mother, that I have five other children that are her big brothers and sisters.

How do I face her knowing that all those nights that she’s stayed up late waiting for me I was with another woman? Everything has been a lie. My entire life for the past six years has been a lie. I don’t think I can live with the guilt. I love my daughter, she’s my precious little one, I love her with all my heart but I can’t continue doing this to her.

I don’t want to smother her innocence with my sins. This was all that I could think of that evening after receiving a phone call that changed everything.

The day started like any other. I woke up earlier than everyone and got dressed, so I could to get a couple hours in at work. I am taxi driver so I can make a day’s work in a couple of hours and then just do whatever I want till it is time to turn in the car. I took about ten passengers, and then I got a phone call from home. I automatically knew something was off because around that time my daughter’s mother would be working and my daughter, Francheska, would be with her babysitter. So why was I getting this call in the middle of the day? From that point on I knew things were not going to be good.

I hesitated to pick up the phone and let it go straight to voicemail and exactly a minute later, I received a notification that I had one new voicemail. I was taking a passenger to their destination and decided to wait till I went on a food break to check it. The entire ride I was thinking, what could possibly be going on? Had Francheska been hurt? Did someone die? But never did I assume that my life of lies had been discovered.

Finally I listened to the voicemail and found out what was going on. “You fucking asshole, I know everything! All your lies are out in the open. You’re a pig. How dare you show up in this house like everything is fine? By tonight all your stuff better be out of this house, I don’t even want you to try and explain yourself. I know everything, everything about the other wife and children, I know it all Francisco!”

My daughter's mother’s screams were so loud that even when I held the phone away from my ear I could still clearly hear what she was saying. How did this happen? How did she find out? Had my wife called her?

I was scared; I didn’t know what to do. I felt as though I was doomed.

The rest of the day I drove around in a blur. All I could think of were more questions. For six years I had been living a double life and now it was finally catching up to me. I had no choice but to go and pick up my stuff. There was no reason to even try to prove a point now.

No one was going to forgive me for what I had done. The best thing I could do was just disappear. Stop the lies and the pain and simply go away. This seemed like the best solution, it seemed like the only solution.

Hours went by and before I knew it, the day had turned into night. It was time to go to the place that was no longer my home. It was time to face my problem. But even more importantly it was time to face my daughter. I didn’t even care about my stuff, I just wanted to say good bye to my little girl.

As I put the key into the door, I thought to myself that this was probably going to be the last time I ever saw her. My guilt was just not going to let me see her again.

I walked into the house and up the stairs and as soon as I reached the top stair, I was getting things thrown at me. Remotes, shoes, even bottles, anything that my daughter’s mother could find to hit me. I felt as if I was in the matrix, dodging everything that came my way.

I didn’t even bother arguing. What was the point? She wasn’t going to listen to me anyway. In the midst of it all, this beautiful five-year-old girl ran to me. Her short black hair danced in the air with every step she took and her smile was so bright it could light up the entire house. For a second as she ran to me, everything froze. It was as if her innocence filled the house with bliss.

It’s amazing how your love for a child can work such magic. As she reached up to me, she gave me a huge hug.

“Daddy, where are you going?” She just stared up at me.

I didn’t know what to say, how could I answer? How could I tell her that I had betrayed her? That I wasn’t a good father? That I was leaving but not coming back? I couldn’t, so I simply lied: “I’ll be back soon.”

Her smile quickly turned into a frown that broke my heart. It was a as if she sensed that something was wrong. Once again I grew in confusion, and hesitated about what to do next. For an instant I even thought of taking her with me, but of course her mother would never let that happen.

I just wanted to end it all as soon as possible. I wanted to walk away and never turn back, just stop causing pain that’s all I wanted. In a rush to leave I told her to give me her blessing and she did. I gave her a kiss on her forehead and walked out the door.

Since then I’ve never been man enough to go back. It’s been thirteen years and I still remember that kiss. I have yet to see my little girl, my little girl who is now probably a young woman. At this point she probably hates me; I mean I would probably hate me too.

Wherever she is though I just want her to know that there’s still a place for her in my heart and she was never and will never be forgotten.

Francheska Roque is a freshman at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She intends to major in business.

Friday, November 11, 2011

FLIP YOUR SCRIPT: "The Night Before My First Day of School"


NOTE TO READERS: Last spring, I began experimenting with a writing exercise called "FLIP YOUR SCRIPT," designed to promote empathy and forgiveness. This weekend I will be presenting the exercise at a conference at Amherst College sponsored by the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education. You can read more about the exercise at the Happiness class blog. In this post, Francheska Roque presents part one of her script. Be sure to read the way Roque "flips" her script in a heart-wrenching Part Two!!

By Francheska Roque

I was only five years old and I was just about to start kindergarten. My mom used a blow dryer on my short black hair, wanting her daughter to look beautiful on her first day.

I wore a white-collared shirt with a plaid skirt as long as my legs. My uniform was perfectly laid out on the bed ready to be ironed and cleared of wrinkles. My first day of school was going to be perfect, or so I thought. Now, let me just say that I loved my father with all my heart and I’m sure he loved me too. For those first five years of my life it was as if he dedicated his whole life to me.

To be honest, I think I preferred him over my mother. He would give me everything I wanted and did everything to favor me. He would come home every night looking exhausted from work, or at least that’s what I thought he was doing. And every night he would bring home something for me. Whether it was a candy, a toy or even a dollar, he had something for me. When he didn’t come, he would make up for it on the weekend with something even better.

That particular night though everything was different.

My house was huge: two bathrooms, four rooms, a two-sided living room and a kitchen. To a young girl like me, my house seemed like a mansion. I thought nobody had a house as big as mine. Well, except for those people on TV. Out of all the rooms in the house though, my parent’s room was my favorite.

I had my own room but I felt more comfortable in theirs. They had a huge bed that I could roll across ten times and still not fall off. Their heater seemed to always be on but they kept the window open which sort of made the room just the right temperature. Not to mention the TV in their room was bigger than any other TV in the entire house. Their room was just right.

That night, I laid in their bed watching TV waiting for “Papi” to get home, to see what he had gotten for that day. It was taking him longer than usual, however. My mom was in the kitchen and wouldn’t get off the phone. I think she spent her entire night on the phone. From the tone of her voice I could tell things weren’t good.

After a couple minutes I heard the door; the person had keys and opened the door so I automatically knew it was my dad. I was just about to jump off the bed and run to him but before I even got the chance all I heard was screaming and things slamming all over the place. “Lárgate de aquí! No te quiero ver en mi casa mas nunca!” which translate into “Get out of my house, I never want to see you here again!” That was all I heard coming from my mother.

It went on for almost an hour. I was afraid and couldn’t help the tears running from my eyes, a stream from my nose and past my lips. All I wanted to do was to run to my dad and hug him. My mom kept telling me not to come out of the room though. I waited and waited till waiting felt like years and I couldn’t wait any more. I ran out of the room as quickly as possible to my father who was about to go down the stairs to leave the house.

I gave him the biggest hug that a daughter could give a father and asked him where he was going. He didn’t give me a direct answer though, he simply said “I’ll be back soon.” But something just didn’t feel right. He followed by asking me to “Besarle la mano,” and I responded “Bendición papi.” (In my culture this is the way that you pay respect to the elders in your family by blessing them).

Now, I am an eighteen year old, a freshman in college. That night before I started my first day of kindergarten was the last time I ever saw my dad. I have not spoken to him nor have I heard a single word about my “father” since that night.

Francheska Roque is a freshman at the University at Albany, SUNY. She intends to be a business major.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The Journey We Take Together -- Part Ten


By Susan and Sandy Prisant

The phone rang. “Hi, Dad. What’s up?”

“I want you and Sandy to fly home tomorrow.” No other words passed between us.

I thought it strange that at first Sandy seemed unfazed. For me, alarms were ringing non-stop. As directed, we flew home the very next day, keeping our personal feelings to ourselves.

Joe had called all four boys. When we had all arrived at the family home on Long Island, Joe sat us down and explained:

“Tomorrow morning, I’ll be having an exploratory procedure at the hospital.” Coming from the man we’d all believed was invincible, there was little to say. That evening we sat down for a very normal dinner. As always, everyone was talking, or almost screaming to be heard over the others. This was just the way dinners had been going on at that home for years.

We left the table to come together in the den, as one by one we ran back and forth to the fridge for ice cream, fruit or cake. My mother-in-law would go berserk as the kitchen had been cleaned and closed for the evening by Adriana, the housekeeper the boys thought of as their second mother.

(Funny, things never change. Decades later, Sandy continues this ritual in our own home today.)

The next morning, Sandy, his mother and I took his father to the North Shore Hospital, part of Cornell Medical Center, where Joe was on the Board. We all went to a surreal quiet waiting area with more upholstery than most parts of any hospital. We waited nervously, silently with other families.

Finally our father’s surgeon, still fully gowned and in mid-procedure, came out. He had been Joe’s friend for 20 years. With tears in his eyes, he was barely able to tell us the bad news: there was nothing he could do. A cancer had invaded too much of Joe's pancreas to save it or the patient.

Instantly, we felt that feeling -- the one where your world just drops off the end of the earth. The thought of losing someone you love so much is impossible to take in.

Joe lived the kind of life that was not uncommon in his generation, but unheard of in our more sedate times. He escaped Russia during the revolution; he escaped Nazi sympathizers in an attack on the University of Warsaw Medical School in 1937; he was smuggled out of Europe as a stowaway on a ship to Palestine. He became a part of the Haganah, the Jewish terrorist organization that helped to end the British mandate of the Jewish homeland.

Urged on by a developing state that needed homes and infrastructure, not doctors, he become an architect and created the winning design for the Palestine exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair. His prize was supervising the construction of the exhibit in New York. Joe never went back to Palestine. He got his next break when he won a huge Chicago Tribune competition in the mid 1940s for building the world’s first split-level home—a template for many new developments as the troops came home and brought young families to America’s first true suburbs.

In the end, he created 10 construction companies, built large Federal housing projects and held his own against the New York Construction Trades Council’s Mafia influence.

Athletically, he was a top 10 finalist in the New York State Water Skiing Championships in his forties and was still skiing with us in Utah’s mountains three months AFTER his terminal diagnosis.

He had settled in Great Neck, Long Island -- F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “East Egg”— and built many of the homes and offices there.

Ever the showman, he would invite friends to court to watch him perform and win with complicated charts and theories over minor traffic violations that would not be worth most people’s time. Joe made it an evening out.

But that day at the hospital there was no show. The surgeon said we could see Joe in the morning. Very little else was said. We went back to the house. We told Sandy’s brothers. In this warm and comforting family refuge, the day passed more coldly, more silently.

The man in the silk pajamas, fox fur coat and lots of cashmere was not invincible. Joe had known the diagnosis even before the "exploratory." As always, he was a step ahead of us. He had been all his life.

The following morning, we all dressed up as nicely as we could for a man who always appreciated a good-looking woman. We arrived at the hospital fearful, wondering what we could possibly say. I remember getting into the hospital bed with Joe, as I have done with Sandy at so many hospitals.

Joe spoke quietly and explained that he would die. The doctors had given him six months to live. We listened to his words and understood this was the beginning to the end of our lives with him.

A day later, Joe had arranged to have a conference room at the hospital—unheard of at the time-- with his lawyer and accountant, Sandy and me and Mom, to begin organizing his finances and how he wanted to take care of all of his children—his biggest concern.

Some of the brothers returned to their homes. Back at Sandy’s job -- he was working at the time for the Gallo brothers in California -- Ernest, never known for outward signs of emotion, offered to pay all of Joe’s medical expenses if we moved him out to Stanford Medical Center.

We respectfully declined, but Sandy was given the first sabbatical that Ernest had ever given an employee, so he could be with his family.

During this time, we were in contact with an old friend from London, who invited us to come if we felt comfortable. Close family relationships took twists and turns during these difficult final months. At last it became clear that Sandy’s parents wanted their final weeks together alone.

On Christmas Eve 1977, we took up our friend’s offer and boarded a Pan Am flight for London. It was to be the beginning of a 20-year odyssey for us living and working on the other side of the world.

Weeks after arriving in London’s West End, the phone rang at 7:30 in the morning. Joe, whose strength had cruelly kept him alive for a full year rather than six months, had died at 2:30 New York time that morning.

His importance to Great Neck, Long Island was made clear when the large synagogue he had helped to build made a rare exception and directed that his funeral be held in the main sanctuary. There were so many hundreds of weeping mourners that the Rabbi’s eulogy was at times difficult to hear.

It was the same sanctuary my mother had opposed -- she'd helped lead opposition to building it -- arguing that it was too expensive for the congregation.

Writers Susan and Sandy Prisant, a couple living in Florida, are both engaged in lengthy writing projects: Susan is telling the story of their adventures as a married couple, and Sandy, who awaits a heart and a kidney transplant, is writing about his lifelong struggle with a congenital kidney disease. In some cases, they are writing together. To see earlier installments in each of their books, go to the Search function on MyStoryLives and type in their names.

Monday, November 07, 2011

CHAPTER 51: And Now, Finally, for My Escape!!

By Claudia Ricci

Note to readers: The on-line novel, Sister Mysteries, may need no introduction, as I have been writing it -- or at least the most recent version of it -- since last November. For those readers following the harrowing tale of Sister Renata, the nun falsely convicted of killing her cousin, Antonie, she is scheduled to die by hanging, as her plea to the Governor of California, George Stoneman, was turned down. But Renata isn't giving up without a fight. You might be very surprised at this new turn of events, and the nun's stubborn determination to go free.


Now the sun comes to the lip of the window. Now I see a straight way out. An hour ago I kneeled down in prayer, in total darkness. I asked Mary for a miracle -- a way out. I said the rosary with my eyes closed. I felt those smooth beads between my fingertips, and whispered to Her, PLEASE PLEASE HELP ME!!

Some time passed -- who knows how long. I'm not altogether sure that I didn't fall asleep. The next thing I knew I was rocking there on my knees. I was saying PLEASE PLEASE. I felt a slight puff of air, as if someone was there, right next to me, breathing against my face. I felt a wind -- ever so slight -- brushing right past my cheek like a feather.

I opened my eyes, clutching the rosary. At first I wasn't sure whether I was awake. To my wonder and surprise there She was, beside me in her powder blue veil! Her face was porcelain and her cheeks, blushed pink. She glowed with a kind of light I've never seen. The light was alive. It vibrated and made me tremble.

She smiled and nodded and pointed out the window.

"Go my child. While there is still time, go."

My eyes widened. Her voice was so very kind and so deep and intimate. It was as if she was speaking right inside my head.

And her smile. It filled me, and now the window, with that bright, bright light. A light splashing every which way. A light alive. I've got to find more words for how light can be so full of energy that it feels alive.

She was pointing still, gesturing to the sky gathering the same powder blue color as her veil. My eyes sailed into the distance, toward the navy blue rim of the low Santa Cruz mountains.

I blinked. For a moment it occurred to me, I must be losing my mind.

But no. No. Mary herself was there, I swear it. Glowing, nodding, pointing, offering me my freedom -- it was that clear and simple.

The road -- dusted pink in salmon light -- calls now. No one need know. No one at all is awake. The jailer, old Bean, drank a small tub of tequila at dinner. He's slumped under the staircase there in front of Kitty's cafe. The others -- Kitty, Teresa, Señora -- I hear one of them snoring.

I turn to the door. Do I dare? There is the way out. There now is a way to spare my neck from the loop of rope swinging at the gallows in the town square. If I don't go now, I will be heading tomorrow for the gallow stairs.

Do I go? My heart is slamming but I am moving -- quietly, silently -- toward the door.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Discovering Love


By Kiana Nguyen

He gave me a yoyo, my absentee father. The cheap toy was broken and tangled after a few hours of play. Yet I love it, the memory I have of it, of my father who broke me, who taught me how love is fickle, empty, and shaped of knives. He made me what I am: from a child of folly, to a young girl scared of feeling anything for anyone.

He was a giant, tall and thin. He loomed over everything. And I, so small, so young, saw him through stars. He could do no wrong and I relished what little time I had with him during his scattered visits. Scattered is too full of a word.

His shadow directed the course of my life. I had friends, many, but none too close, none who knew me as I knew me. Which wasn’t much, I never looked too closely at my feelings, ignored all sudden floods of emotions. I was self-destructing, but I didn’t know why. Didn’t realize how much hurt was locked inside, hidden from even myself.

In middle school I met a boy. He was the leather your parents forbid you to wear, the oil that stained and never cleared; everyone liked him, and I felt full and warm when he paid me any attention. He was cruel, but I was crueler. I neither cared for his feelings, or how I could hurt him, I just wanted the rush of being held, of being wanted for something. I desperately wanted to be needed, even if only as a doormat. I took from him whatever semblance of emotion he could muster, took from his hands and his mouth as if I could siphon his very soul and complete mine. His sloppy kisses and warm body couldn’t make me feel as real as his insults, his mean hands. It was pain that kept me alive. Through the ups and downs of that toxic infatuation, pain was my constant companion – whether from his words, his silence, or my blade. The blood ran warm, and I kept my smile.

But self medication wasn’t enough. He didn’t love me, I couldn’t muster a response. My blood was cold, my skin tired, and I was done with highs and lows. Love wasn’t for me; there was no one to love and no one to ever love me. That was the hole I fell into, one of despair so deep it clawed at my ribs with fingers poisonous, relentless. I felt nothing in those last days, but the ache that filled me to numbing. It was blistering, chilling, hungry and pitted deep within my chest. Where lay my soul, my heart - all the things I had scarred, all the things he had thrown away as if it were a wrapper to discard.

They were heavy knots sliding down my throat, the chalky taste washed out with the overbearing tang of orange juice. Nausea rose in my belly, a sea that reached the back of my mouth, and I swallowed that down too. I felt numb, the cacophony of screams I had held down released with every sound of the plastic hitting the counter, and the gulp of my esophagus as it squeezed down all it could at once. I consumed golf balls, and acid – a combination I gave my hopes to, but settled nothing. Finally, the bottle came down upon the Formica with a dull clang, the jiggle of its contents nonexistent. I smiled then, cracking and bitter.

I had done it. The rush had kept me going as, handful by handful; I chose the path I wanted. I remember walking up the stairs with sleepy steps, climbing into bed with wriggling toes and lax hands. Laying on my stomach, and hearing the whispers of his rejection. My belly felt light, my head pounded a drumming beat.

The world was fuzzy the next time I woke, like a dream. I had to pee. I was laughing, knocking on the bathroom door and hearing my brother laugh along. Going dark, then seeing the ceiling. My stepdad shaking me, asking me what I had taken, my mother’s frantic cries. The tile was hard and icy against my back. I could see, but I wasn’t focused, I could hear, but as if I was submerged under water. Underneath it all I was terrified, but I could only speak with blown eyes and a slack jaw.

My stepdad later told me that I was talking. Repeating, “Why doesn’t he love me?” as if it would somehow save me. I admitted in my drugged haze to the pain I had pushed deep down – I was worthless, and unworthy of anyone’s love. I was thirteen.

I am ashamed. And looking at them then, I felt a tiny glimmer of desire, to love like they did.

That thought was on my mind on a crisp October morning some years later. I was finally in my last year of high school, the relief bone deep. After that, I couldn’t lie to myself. Even if I had to lie to others, I refused to trouble the waters of my sanity just to get through each day.

My life finally felt right, the satisfaction of it brought a kind of happiness I had never known before. I have to thank my friend Lyanne for that: I met her as a junior and have so much to thank her for. She unconsciously helped me ‘come out of the closet’ by introducing me to the music of, however cliché it may sound, Tegan and Sara. Through our mutual obsession with their songs we became best friends. Those two women gave me the confidence to say to the world, “I love women, and intensely so.”

But it was Sara Quin’s prose that filled my lungs to bursting with the passion of loving and losing another woman’s touch. Her words lit the flame of wonder and rightness within me. I had to tell them. My family.

It was a Saturday, and I still had yet to do any school shopping. I went with my mother, my father, baby sister, and Lyanne to Woodbury Commons. I had to tell my parents first, that’s the kind of town I’m from. I hadn’t consciously decided to come out to them in a public arena of stubborn shoppers who strode with deals on the brain. But it seemed right. I told my mother while we stood outside of a store waiting for my father to leave. I looked at Lyanne, looked at my mother, and blurted it out.

The surprise and liberation that shot through to my feet at my mother’s “Is Lyanne your girlfriend?” was dumbfounding. I stared at my mother, this smiling woman with cocked eyebrows - and I laughed. Of course my mother would worry about the who, rather than the why that plagued the minds of everyone who couldn’t understand that the heart and body knew what it wanted even if the mind did not.

And of course Lyanne wasn’t my girlfriend, but that question would often emerge from my mother’s glossed lips whenever I introduced her to, or mentioned, a female friend. She was obsessed with the concept, as if every time I answered “no,” her hope of a boyfriend for me became real. I didn’t care for that, ignored it rather, because I had been true to myself.

I was free. I was proud. I was ready to face life with courage and an open heart. I had a purpose, and that was to be the best person I could be, to love and care and create without restrictions.

Then Amanda came into my life, this girl with warm brown eyes, a witty tongue, and fingers clever enough to illustrate beauty with a guitar. She taught me the wonder of emotion, of expression, with only the fire of her eyes to guide me, the curve of her lips. Without fear I gave her what I had always wanted to give without regret – my heart.

A writer since childhood, Kiana Nguyen studies Anthropology and History as a freshman at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She writes "to make sense of the thoughts in her head and to express her experiences in the only way that feels right."

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Governor Refuses My Pardon, Now I'm going to Hang for a Murder I Didn't Commit!!


By Claudia Ricci

The dark sky is navy blue, and split by the thin golden crescent that is the moon. I stare at the crisp curve, shining eye to eye with me.

Soon it will be sunrise, and I will have been sitting here, awake, staring out the window, all night. I am dressed head to toe in white, as Sister Teresa brought me a brand new habit, pristine.

It occurred to me that maybe she was thinking, I need to be clean when I go to my death next week.

There is no more hope now. The reply from Stoneman has come. In one sentence, the Governor of the State of California dropped me, sent me tumbling into oblivion. This man, known to have pardoned so many, gave not a word of explanation in rejecting my plea. In just one stiff and official sentence, he has done me in, turned me into Stonewoman and sent me rolling. I have no possible escape from the gallows now.

If I were in a normal state, I suppose I would have cried yesterday when Kitty carried the thin white envelope into the house. It was shortly after noon. The mail always arrives by stage by 1 p.m.

As soon as I laid eyes on Kitty, I knew instantly that the news contained inside the envelope she held was not good. Her pasty white face. Her wide eyes, locked onto my own.

She blinked, and without untying her black bonnet, or taking off her cotton gloves, she dropped onto the straight back chair. She sat there, all in black, holding the envelope, and the letter. She kept blinking, and I was thinking the worst. After all, she looked as though she might just dissolve in tears. Finally she got one short breathless sentence out.

"My dear Renata," she said in a hush, "Governor's decision has come and I..."

She stopped again. I was sitting there on the sofa, the guitar in my lap. I had been, oddly enough, strumming an alegría, a happy melody to which Señora had once sung some wonderfully silly lyrics about a goat who kept appearing, day after day, in a young woman's garden. The goat turned out to be a suitor.

But watching Kitty's face, it was impossible to continue strumming.

She raised one gloved hand to her face. "I have some very bad news," she whispered.

I felt a kind of numb veil descend over me. I could say that I wasn't surprised, but I wasn't. But I also couldn't quite believe that what was happening was real. Everyone else -- or should I say Kitty and Teresa -- were feeling so hopeful when they sent the petition, and the supporting letters to Stoneman's office last week.

I had, in spite of myself, allowed my hopes to rest in the arms and faith of my two friends.

Now, that hope was gone. My life was as much as ended.

"Read it to me Kitty," I said. My voice was steady and strong, but it had a shredded quality, as if it had been scraped with a knife.

She sat there, staring.

"Please," I said. "You must read it to me."

She read: "The petition for clemency in the sentence against Sister Maria Rosa Renata, convicted for the murder of Señor Quiero de Lopez, has hereby been..."

Her voice trembled. It took a full minute before she finally spoke the word. "... denied." Her chin dropped to her jacket, and I could see the tears falling.

I turned away. I saw a large yellow cloud passing by the window. I allowed my mind to be carried up there, to rest in the cloud.

I had not been allowed outdoors for weeks. I thought to myself, at least, I will be hanged in the sun. At least when I take my last breaths, I will be inhaling fresh air. There is, at least, that. I tried to think something beyond that thought.

Kitty was crying and trying to take a seat next to me on the sofa. She was trying to take me into her arms. I ought to have let her, but I wanted my space. I pushed her away.

"Please, leave me be," I whispered. "I wish to be alone, so that I might pray."

Finally, she rose. Sniffling, wiping her nose with her hanky, she asked me if I wanted tea. I shook my head slowly. "No. I only ask that you to leave me in peace. Please. You owe me that."

And so she did.

After when she was gone, I didn't pray. I just lay on the sofa and stared at the clouds passing by the window. I could have done that all day.

This post, Chapter 50 in the experimental on-line murder mystery "Sister Mysteries," appeared first on that blog. The novel follows a nun, Sister Renata, who in 1883 was falsely accused of killing her cousin Antonie. The Governor of California, George Stoneman, is a real historical figure, who earned a reputation for pardoning death-row prisoners during his term in office in the late 1880s. Somehow his decision fell the wrong way for the poor nun.