A Look Back at 2018

This is my 52nd blog post of the year. I took a look back at 2018. It is New Year’s Eve day, a good time to reflect. Since, unlike our president, I want to be accurate, I will be honest and report that among those 52 posts there were 5 ‘placeholder’ entries, where I didn’t write a full piece. There were also 3 guest essays; thank you, Gary and Laura.

Reviewing the blog posts reminded me of the journey of the year. I wrote 13 pieces that traced the story of my in-law’s, Paula and David, survival through the Holocaust. The visits with them, the viewing of their Shoah testimonies the research that informed those pieces were enriching, challenging and, ultimately, life-affirming. There may be more to tell. I continue to research and think about their experiences and what they mean to me and my family. I will continue to share on the blog as it develops.

I shared personal concerns – about mental health, relationships and politics. Hopefully readers were moved or enlightened or entertained – maybe even all three (if that isn’t too ambitious)!

I posted photos of some of my travels. I am so fortunate to have been able to see some magnificent places, whether it was the Amalfi Coast or Central Park or my own backyard. Here are some photos I haven’t previously shared, of Boston, NYC, Central Park, and Five Rivers (an area not far from my house).

In prior years I have written more about growing up in Canarsie, though I did write some essays this year that explored that territory.  In three entries I wrote about the trials and tribulations of navigating friendships while growing up.

I started the journey of this blog in May of 2016. Time flies. It is unbelievable to me that I have been doing this for 2 and 1/2 years! That’s a lot of words! And, I’m still finding my way. I’m still figuring out what I’m doing with this. Maybe 2019 will be the year that I have my ‘aha!’ moment and I will know where I am going with this project. Maybe I will find out that I have known all along – it is what it is. A series of essays:  memoir, family history, exploration of relationships, travelogue, political commentary, observations and, once in a while, a poem. Maybe that will feel like enough, but I’m not there yet. I am still searching. I hope you, my friends, family and all readers are enjoying it so far. And, if you are, please consider sharing it with others you think would be interested. I so appreciate those of you who have done that by sharing links on your social media platforms. I also welcome your comments, they enrich the blog and add to the conversation. Keep them coming!

As we close out 2018, I wish everyone a happy and healthy New Year, filled with meaningful connections, love and laughter with friends and family, learning, and, most of all, peace. Thank you for taking the journey with me.

More to Come

I got derailed this week. Between two work assignments that demanded a great deal of time and the Judiciary Committee hearing this past Thursday, I had no opportunity to write. Well, that isn’t entirely true. Thursday, the day I could have spent writing, was instead spent in a rage. I am fortunate that I have not been the victim of a sexual assault, but listening to the testimony (and I didn’t listen to all of it in an effort to protect my own mental health), I was flooded with profound sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety about our country’s future and loss. I will likely need to spend some time processing and writing about this sad episode in our history.

In the meantime, I do have more to tell about the Bakst story, including a piece written by one of David and Paula’s granddaughters about a journey she took that was spurred by a photograph David shared with her. I  also plan to provide a summing up of what happened to everyone. Finally, I want to explore the threads of their story that reach through time and connect to me, my family and our collective history.

So, please stay tuned. I appreciate that so many have been taking the journey with me.

Monday Morning

I don’t have a blog post ready – again! I need to get back to my writing routines. Lately it has been difficult. We were in Boston, then Florida, I was sick and preoccupied with an event that was coming up. I haven’t written about this on the blog, in part because it wasn’t my news to share, and, in part, because I don’t want to get ahead of myself. But, Gary and I are going to be grandparents! Baby girl Bakst is due at the end of May. Many of you readers already know that, or heard about it through the grapevine, but I haven’t written anything about it.

This past weekend we had a baby shower for Beth (and Dan). Georgie, Beth’s Mom, Abby, Beth’s sister, and I planned it. I have to say that the McGlinchey women are creative and crafty – they know how to make a room festive and fun and pretty, too. Abby came up with “Broadway Baby” as the theme and created some very cute table pieces highlighting different shows. The gathering was this past Saturday afternoon in the city. Close family and a few of Beth’s friends gathered to celebrate this momentous event. We played some games, had a lot of laughs and bestowed needed supplies on the parents-to-be. I believe it was a rousing success.

So that is my excuse for not having a blog post ready. Sometimes you have to live in the moment and not write about it – at least not yet.

 

Forgiveness, Not Revenge

Last Monday I came out of the doctor’s office and checked my cell phone and found that I missed a call from my brother, Mark. I got in my car, made sure the Bluetooth was connected, and called him back.

“Hey, I see I missed a call from you. How are you doing?”

“I’m on the Thruway heading to the city.”

We exchanged some pleasantries, and then I asked,

“So, what’s up? Any reason for the call?”

“Well….has Gary seen your blog?” he asked with trepidation.

I chuckled, “Ahh, yes, he was well aware, you don’t have to worry. I wouldn’t blindside him.”

[For those who haven’t read last week’s blog, it recounted a story from many years ago that didn’t reflect too well on Gary.]

“Okay, I’m glad to hear that. I was wondering if you had lost your mind.”

I told Mark that I well may have (lost my mind), but I posted the story with Gary’s full knowledge and support (I’m sure he didn’t love it, but he had no objection). Mark commented on what a special guy Gary is, I agreed, and we said our good-byes.

Though Mark may have been the only one who directly called me to ask if I forewarned Gary, I know others questioned my judgment. Generally, it is considered bad form to air dirty laundry in public. I usually don’t. First, I have little to complain about and second, I don’t like the idea of criticizing my husband to others.

Before embarking on this blogging journey, Gary and I had a number of conversations about the stories I might share and the implications of revealing experiences that might be painful. I spoke to my children, as well. In preparation, I read memoirs and books on writing memoirs. An unavoidable issue is how to present stories that may reflect poorly on a particular person, especially a living person. There are a number of strategies. Sometimes it may be reasonable to change the name, especially when the person isn’t a major character. I have done that in a few instances. I have also used only the first name and if it was someone from my childhood, that person may recognize themselves (if they happen to read the piece), but most people won’t be able to identify the individual.

Sometimes, though, it can’t be covered up and then there is a choice to be made. There are different opinions about how to handle this. Some authors believe you need to be ruthless in writing your truth. I don’t subscribe to that approach. I try to write my truth, but I liked what another author wrote (and if I had access to my notes, which are home and I am in Boston, I would give credit) which suggested writing toward forgiveness, not revenge.

I am fortunate in that I have no need for revenge, my stories don’t involve me being victimized in some terrible way. I am not bitter about my life. Though I would have characterized my childhood as unhappy (I am reconsidering that characterization as I explore it), I am seeking to understand it, not blame anyone for it. My stories are about ordinary struggles, for belonging, acceptance, identity. My life has not included the great dramas of abuse or addiction, or of overcoming odds to achieve greatness (the usual stuff of memoir). But, I think there is merit to telling ordinary stories. I hope that some of the struggles resonate with people.

As I think of stories I want to share, I think about whether there is something to be gained in the telling – for myself and for readers – is there something to learn? Or is it entertaining enough? At one of the first writing workshops I took the teacher pointed out that just because you remember something doesn’t mean it is worth including. I try to keep that in mind.

Another author, writing about memoir, pointed out that someone will always be unhappy with your story. One person may be disappointed in how they were portrayed. Another may be disappointed that they weren’t included enough or at all. So, I know I can’t write to please any particular person.

The people who are most likely to be cast in an unflattering light are my parents and my husband. They are and/or were the ones with the most power to hurt me. I am lucky that my mother (my Dad passed away in 2005) and Gary are tremendously supportive of these efforts even in the face of criticism. Gary tells me to write what I need to write. Mom mostly wants to apologize for any mistakes she may have made. I believe they both know that I can only write what I do because I love and trust them.

If you read last week’s blog and wondered what I was thinking – now you know. I thought there was a lesson to be learned and I had enough confidence in Gary, and in our relationship that it could withstand the public telling. Gary and I are still speaking – so far, so good. It looks like my confidence was well placed.

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Inanimate Objects

Do inanimate objects speak to you? Some of mine do. My bicycle, which sits dusty, tires flat, leaning against the garage wall, has been known to ask: Why don’t you ride me?  I spent a lot of money on that bicycle. I went through a phase where I rode it almost daily, but that was several years ago. I have every intention of riding it again. Not today when it is below zero and windy, but when the weather permits, I intend to hop on (key word: intend) and enjoy the view. For the time being, it sits silent. But, come Spring, it will start talking to me again. And I will feel guilty.

Then there is the treadmill sitting in the basement. Whenever I pass it, I hear it saying: do SOMETHING with me! The treadmill doesn’t work properly. We bought it years ago and it worked well for a while, but then it would just stop while you were in mid jog – which was less than optimal and maybe even dangerous. I had a service person come three times – replacing various parts –we even had an electrician put it on its own circuit. It still doesn’t work. I started the process of appealing to the manufacturer, but gave up. I didn’t have the wherewithal to force them to replace it. So, there it sits. A reminder of another thing I haven’t taken care of, left unresolved.

You might sense a theme here, but it isn’t just exercise equipment that speaks to me. The loose photos strewn about the study ask to be organized. My refrigerator screams that it needs a thorough cleaning, which reminds me of a story.

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Photo credit: Today’s Little Ditty (blog)

Gary and I were living in Pittsburgh. He had just finished his second year of med school and he finally had a break. I was working full time for the City of Pittsburgh Finance Department. Since he had some time off from school, we had some visitors. First came Gary’s friend, Larry. They hung out for a couple of days, toured the city a bit and I joined them for dinner. Larry left on a Friday morning. Gary’s parents were scheduled to arrive later that same day. I left for work that morning telling Gary, “Please, just make sure you pick up the bedding in the living room before you leave.” Larry had been sleeping on one of our fold out chairs in the living room.

Our apartment was a nice size one bedroom, one bathroom unit, with high ceilings and big windows. It had a large living room that we divided with bookcases to create a spacious dining area. There was a small dining room off the kitchen that we used as a study. When our parents visited, we gave them our bedroom and we slept in the living room on the fold out chairs.

I left for work that morning with Gary asleep in our bed and Larry sleeping in the living room. I hoped Gary would leave enough time to straighten up before going to the airport to meet his parents.

In an unfortunate bit of timing, I came down with a heavy cold later that morning, it came on suddenly.  I was so congested my teeth hurt. I was nervous enough about Gary’s parents visiting, we were married less than a year at this point and they had not been to our apartment yet, without also having to deal with a horrendous cold. I left work early, thinking I could take some decongestant and maybe rest a bit before Paula and David arrived.

I opened the apartment door and took a quick look around. I saw the bedding still on the living room floor and our unmade bed. It looked like a mess.

To say I was in a rage is an understatement. One thing about fury, I forgot about my cold symptoms! I ran around the apartment like a lunatic. I put away the bedding and cleaned up the living room. I changed the linens on our bed and straightened up our room. I did the few dishes in the sink, wondering what the heck had Gary done all morning! It was good that Gary wasn’t home to hear me muttering epithets at him.

I heard the key in the lock and put a smile on my face to greet my in-laws. We gave them the grand tour of the apartment, which didn’t take long. While showing them the kitchen, Gary proudly opened the refrigerator. I have to admit, it was spotless. So that was how he spent his morning! It was true, the refrigerator was cleaner than when we first moved in, but it wasn’t that bad when I left in the morning!  That would not have been my first priority. Later, when I asked him about it, he explained that he spent the entire time cleaning the inside of the refrigerator – it took him hours. He didn’t understand why I was so frustrated with him.

I learned some Important lessons from that experience: Gary is a perfectionist, and his priorities frequently don’t match mine. This continues to happen today, with Gary digging a hole for a new garden when we already have a garden that seems perfectly adequate to me. In addition, if he takes on a project, it will take way longer than one would expect. It will be done very well, I will give him that.

As I was writing this, and given that my refrigerator was calling to be cleaned and I was tired of listening to it, I put down my pen (actually closed my laptop) and did it. I didn’t spend hours and it is not as spotless as if Gary had done it, but it will suffice. And now when I sit at the counter in the kitchen, I only hear the low hum of its motor.

 

 

A Visit to the Fenimore

I went to see an exhibit, Andrew Wyeth at 100: A Family Remembrance, at the Fenimore Museum in Cooperstown earlier this fall. I am a huge fan of Wyeth’s work. I find myself mesmerized by Wyeth’s ability to evoke so much beauty in the most mundane scenes (see below).

I came away from the exhibit with some thoughts about writing. As with many artist exhibitions, studies were included along with the final canvas. There were sketches and paintings that led up to the final work. He also painted the same people and places many times over, capturing small changes in light and shadow. So, I wonder: Can the same apply to writing? Can I write the same experience several times over – picking up different details, emphasizing a different theme? Do we have only one crack at the story? I know there are books and movies where a story is told from different characters’ perspectives, but I am getting at something else. For example, I think I could write my memories of the day of Nana’s death again (maybe more than a few times) and write it differently. But, would it be interesting to readers? Would it just be an exercise for myself?

Obviously, writers return to their muse, or may be inspired to create multiple pieces based on a single experience of heartbreak. But, I’m thinking of trying something different – a more literal translation of what a painter does – what Monet did with his haystacks.

This is a half-baked thought, I will continue to turn it over to see if there is something there for me, to spark some creativity.

There were other exhibits at the Fenimore that I enjoyed. One artist, whose name I did not write down, evoked the interiors of religious shrines by using shards of color that looked like glass. The holy sites became abstractions of color, famous pagodas, mosques and churches were rendered in this way. I wondered if the artist was getting at some essential commonality – at least that it was I took from it.

Another thing I like about going to the Fenimore is that whenever I have visited, there have been different paintings by local artists of local scenery. It is easy to see why folks would be moved to paint the scenery. It is idyllic. Each time I have visited the museum I have walked down the path that leads from the building to Otsego Lake, called ‘glimmerglass’ for a reason. The water reflects the blue sky and lush hills perfectly.  (No, I have not been paid by the museum to write this!).

I left the Fenimore that afternoon struck by how much talent there is in this world – so much creativity – it boggles the mind. It is both intimidating and inspiring.

Another Week Passes in a Flash

Unfortunately I do not have a new blog post ready. It has been a busy week. I took a NYSSBA assignment that brought me to Attica (not the prison), the school district. And, I have two more assignments coming up in short order. I have also been working on a piece to submit to a writing contest that is Brooklyn-themed.

So, it was Monday before I knew it!

If any of you have thoughts about which of my Brooklyn-based blog posts really resonated or you thought was a particularly strong piece, please let me know! I am planning to use some of the prior blog posts as the basis for the piece (which can be 2500 words).

Oh, and one more thing, I did find out that the submission that I wrote about previously was rejected by a literary magazine. I’m oh-for-three. Discouraged, but not defeated.

I’ll be back next week with a new story.