collections , musings-on , poetry
Posted on July 28, 2023
I promise I’ll do it tomorrow, I will.
I’ll visit my mother.
I’ll clean out the closet.
I’ll sort the photos, finish the album and start the novel.
I promise I’ll do it tomorrow, I will.
It’s here today and gone tomorrow.
My hair is thinning;
My waistline isn’t.
My knees on steps, my eyes at night, my joints bear witness
It’s here today and gone tomorrow.
I know tomorrow’s another day.
A new beginning;
A glimpse of the future;
A day of promise, of plans and dreams to be fulfilled
Ah, yes, tomorrow’s another day.
Thank heaven tomorrow will never come.
How could I manage
To handle the pressure?
To finish it all, to figure it out, to reach my potential?
Thank heaven tomorrow will never come.
collections , memoir , musings-on
Memoir Glimpses: Bringing Characters to Life
Posted on July 17, 2023
The road climbs upward toward the mountains, cuts through the tunnel, and carries me past the cozy hillside communities that remind me of the tiny Christmas Villages we used to build around our miniature train set. Each passing hillside, valley, river, brings me closer to her, Siena, my father’s sister, my favorite relative. I’m her favorite too, or at least she makes me feel that way.
Her beauty is ageless and natural, like the mountains that surround her. When I was young, she wore a habit, long and black, that camouflaged her tiny frame. A complicated, starched white wimple surrounded her uncomplicated, soft Irish face. When she sat close to me, I’d finger the strand of rosary beads hanging from her waist. When she walked, they clacked a holy sound.
Siena’s beauty, so much more than her mirror reflection, is deeply embedded in the purpose of her life. “We weren’t created to judge,” she often says, “that’s God’s job; we were created to love.” Her immense capacity for compassion embraces the most needy, least likely and is always free of judgement—of me, of others or most remarkably, of herself. I long to possess such self-acceptance. I remember the day I came out to her. I remember because she was my first leap of faith.
I asked her once if she had any regrets about becoming a nun. She answered quickly “Not regrets really, but I do miss having children.” She fixed her gentle blue eyes on me, smiled, and lightly touched my hand. “That’s why you’re so important to me, Eileen.”
I wrote this descriptive passage as an assignment in my first memoir class in 2019. The prompt read: describe a person I know well in 250-300 words (I don’t remember the exact number but something micro) and include as many as possible of the following details (I don’t remember all of them): facial and physical features; e.g., skin tone, eye color/shape, hair color/length, height/build, age; relationship to author, physical surroundings, character traits, style of dress, personality quirks, typical sayings or quotes. The sample should read like a passage from a memoir or essay.
“How many words did you say,” I asked?
Challenges like this are invaluable for a fledgling writer. I’m not sure which was more difficult for me—staying within the word limit or crafting those words to sound like prose rather than a laundry list.
I, like many memoirists, struggle with character descriptions because, in non-fiction, the characters are real people, and in memoir those characters are part of the writer’s life. Memoirists worry about the repercussions of offending. This writing exercise was helpful because the glossary of elements provided by the instructor helped me focus on concrete traits and details in a more clinical, less personal way. A writer-mentor of mine suggested I sit in a cafe or train station and create a list of physical traits of the strangers passing by. The anonymity would free me to focus on what I see, devoid of personal connection or judgement. Later I could refer to that bank of descriptive words and phrases when describing friends or relatives.
Character description is an act of creation. Faceless names on the page gradually take shape as if being formed out of clay. They develop bodies, facial features, hair, gestures. The reader steps closer. The character takes on a personality, with opinions and feelings. The reader relates. Together the living character and the connected reader enter the story.
collections , memoir , mem-samples
Memoir Glimpses: A Case for NOT Writing
Posted on March 18, 2021
I met Vivian Fransen at a neighborhood book club meeting. She authored the club’s selection of the month, The Straight Spouse: A Memoir. Her memoir and mine confront the same marital struggle, but from opposite perspectives. My wife left our marriage to explore a heterosexual relationship; her husband left their marriage to explore a homosexual relationship.
I was new to the club—this was only my second meeting. I didn’t know any of the members, but as I glanced around the room, I guessed they were mostly senior and all straight. Even the author was straight. Refreshments were laid out, fruits, salads, sweets. Once the plates were full, the friendly, inconsequential chatter encircling the buffet, morphed seamlessly into a book discussion. The questions the members posed were thoughtful and intelligent, sensitive and respectful, and entirely focused on content. I stayed in the background of the discussion, saying nothing, observing body language, facial expression, attitude.
I was bursting with questions of my own, all about style, writing process, querying agents, publishing and so much more, none of which interested this group. I had dislodged myself from my cozy home this rainy Sunday morning, to attend a meeting with my specific list of wants. I wanted writing advice from a published author. I wanted to use her book as a comp for mine. I wanted useful information, and I could almost taste my impatience. Did I expect this meeting to revolve around me and my personal agenda? Probably. I’ve always been a selfish learner. Put me in a room with an expert, and everyone else disappears.
The rain persisted, pelting the windows of the dark church hall. Outside, the shapes of trees and rooflines blurred as the droplets smeared the dirty glass. Inside, the edges of my impatience softened into resignation. I was drawn back to the discussion by a question. “How could she explain her husband’s infidelity in the light of their marriage vows?” I had just confronted this subject in my own book. I looked at the author. She fumbled. I jumped in.
“My book tells a similar story,” I began, “and I just worked through this very question. Maybe I can shed some light on his dilemma.” All eyes turned toward me. “Throughout her book, Ms. Fransen clearly asserts her love for her husband, and his for her. They both confirm the strength of their marriage and their healthy sexual relationship. This was not a question of infidelity for him. It was, and is, a question of identity.”
A light went on in Vivian’s eyes and the hint of a smile touched her lips. “I’ve been asked that question so many times,” she later confided, “and I never knew how to answer it.”
A man asked, “Didn’t he know before he got married?”
“We all come to terms with our sexual identity at some point in our lives,” I continued, “usually in early adolescence, and the path we follow seems inevitable and natural. But not always. Some people go through life trying to do what they think is expected of them, no matter how hard, always squelching the conflicts within. Maybe if they just try harder. Then one day, completely unbidden, the delayed question prickles, persists and can no longer be ignored. No one can determine when that question will arise, but to live an authentic life, it must be answered.”
When the meeting ended, I approached the author. While she autographed my copy of her book, I congratulated her on her finished project and thanked her for sharing her insights with us.
The meeting had been good but I my agenda remained unaddressed. This was my last chance.
“May I ask you a craft question?” I ventured.
“I can’t figure out how to end my book,” I admitted with no small degree of embarrassment.
“When did the inciting incident occur?” She asked.
“In 2017. Not quite two years ago.”
“That’s why,” she said kindly. “It’s too soon. You haven’t lived the ending yet.”
I rolled her words around in my head as I geared up to confront the weather. You haven’t lived the ending yet. So sometimes NOT writing Is the best thing I can do for my writing? I opened my umbrella and stepped into the deluge still reeling from the revelation. I smiled as I skirted puddles and leapt gutter rivulets. What a relief.
For now, the blank pages of my memoir can wait while I give myself time to live the missing words.
From Dissonance to Consonance:
Posted on March 15, 2021
Together We Sing
It’s a beautiful autumn day, but I’m crying in the car. Not because the song is sad, though it touches me. Dan Forrest’s choral pieces always do. I’m hearing this one for the first time, “Entreat Me Not To Leave You.”
From unison to dissonance, first the women then the men join in a polyphonic repetition of the title text. Percussive “T’s” ricochet through the melodic threads in strident yearning. Never ask me to leave you, they insist.
The singers lean into the dissonance drawing me with them. That’s when the tears come. Not for myself, but for the loss of choral music with its visceral interpretation of life.
When I sing in ensemble, I hold on amidst the dissonance around me, never shying away, never sliding into unison to avoid the conflict. I lean into dissonance with confidence. The vibrations, like a stream of electricity, course through my body giving me a strength I don’t even want.
Now I know why I’m weeping. Choral music is crying out to me through the mist of pandemic. Persisting, swelling with passion, it presses on, climaxing, begging “Entreat me not to leave you.”
A breath of silence. Then gently the voices re-enter. Pianissimo. A new text is presented. As elegantly as the first dissonance arrived, the snarl of melodic threads unwinds and opens to a blissful consonance.
“Wherever you go, I will go and where you live, I will live.”
The lush melody floats on treble then moves to tenor and bass, exploding on a crescendo of emotion. Hope gushes from the score into my soul.
“Your people will be my people and your God, my God.”
I’m blanketed in the comfort of consonance but for some reason my tears increase. The music surges through me, filling me with a conviction like that of the early martyrs.
“Where you die, I will die.”
I'm heroic in its embrace.
I pull into my driveway on the reprise “Entreat me not to leave you.” I weep for all the young would-be singers who will never know how much they need choral music to guide them through life’s dissonance, show them the way to consonance. All those young people who would have discovered the power of ensemble singing in 2020 may not, because choral music isn’t available to them this year. I’m mourning their loss. I’m mourning their broken world.
Now, more than ever, we need the intrinsic wisdom of choral music—a wisdom that flows past our intellects directly into our souls. When we sing with others, we know we’re integral to the whole. We know the dissonance will resolve. In ensemble, we give the words power. We breathe together. We are one.
Someday we’ll sing again and when that time comes, I urge you to add your voice to the celebration. In the meantime, I invite you to hear what I heard, to feel what I felt—(Follow this link) the premiere of Dan Forrest’s “Entreat Me Not To Leave You” presented by the Salt Lake Vocal Artists.
nature , poetry-samples
A Winter Storm
Posted on March 15, 2021
Winter glares at me through frosted glass, Daring me to leave the comfort of my chair. Frigid winds whoosh loudly through the eaves. Branches scrape and creak against the grey slate roof I close my eyes and rest my head, And listen to the winter wail
Flickering flames cast shadows on the hearth. Leaping in the solstice dance to taunt the wind Lacy flakes wing wildly round in squalls. Flirting, urging me to join them in their play I close my eyes and rest my head, And listen to the crackling logs.
On my lap, a favorite fiction waits By my side, an aromatic pot of tea Nothing can seduce me from this place Winter's quiet peace will heal my weary soul I close my eyes and rest my head, And wrapped in wooly warmth, I doze.
We Can Do This
Posted on December 7, 2020
COVID-19 Series #2
During WWII, my father fought in General Patton’s army on the European front. His three brothers also served overseas and all four boys sent their military paychecks home to their widowed mother and three sisters. The war went on for years and it was inconvenient for them. Their education was postponed and their careers delayed. Life in the active forces was uncomfortable. The rainy nights my father spent on the battlefield were dirty, wet and cold, and avoiding death every day was a stressful way to live. Even when the war was over, many soldiers waited in the camps for months, before they were shipped home. They were bored and many, including my dad, gained weight during those stagnant months in limbo.
Americans don’t like being inconvenienced, uncomfortable or bored, but my father and hundreds of thousands of other young men believed that their country needed them to make these sacrifices for the greater good. I’m sure they did their share of grumbling and complaining, but they did what was needed because deep in every American lives a hero.
Three quarters of a century later, in the face of the Covid 19 pandemic, Americans are once again being asked to accept inconvenience, discomfort and boredom for the greater good. We’ve been asked to shelter in place, to maintain a social distance (SD) of at least six feet, and to leave the home only for essential needs. Initially we got into the spirit of things, but it didn’t take long for the novelty of quarantine to wear off.
After only a few weeks of voluntary isolation, things gradually deteriorated. “No one I know is sick” we said naively. “I think it’s all political,” we said ignorantly. “This better not last much longer,” we said defiantly. Social Distancing was going to require more persistence, more discipline, more altruism than we expected. We began slipping out of quarantine to gather in small, then larger social groups or to return to work, risking the progress we had made at “flattening the curve” of infection. We just got tired of the isolation so we quit, because deep in every American lives a spoiled child.
The most recent data from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington has produced an encouraging model. The United States may see a sooner end to the spread of the virus with fewer deaths than originally predicted. However, this model is dependent on the continuation of Social Distancing, the immediate initiation of it in states that don’t yet have SD in place, and the commitment of Americans to stick with it. Furthermore, it assumes SD will continue through the end of May despite the fact that the Federal Government is currently ending it at the end of April. We must strengthen our commitment to SD despite the political and economic pressure we all feel, in order to prevent a deadly rebound and to ensure the IHME Model's positive projections will come to pass.
If my father were here today, he’d say, “Buck up, people. What are you complaining about? You have heat, clean water and electricity for your comfort. You have TV, books and games for your entertainment. You have phones and the internet for information and connection whenever you desire it.”
What we don’t have is the terror of bombs and gunshots exploding all around us day and night, but make no mistake, we are at war with this virus. Sure, we’re stressed by the unbelievably rapid spread of Covid 19 in the US, and we abhor even the slightest attempt at restricting our freedom, but the discomforts and inconveniences we are experiencing are minimal compared to what’s at stake, and as uncomfortable as we are, we know this is true.
Come on, people, we can do this!
Posted on December 7, 2020
The concert hall reverberates with sound, Ragged, tuneless, shapeless sound.
Cacophony and dissonance and noise, Joyful, chatty, happy noise.
Bejeweled and coiffed, the divas all perform,
Flaunting, strutting flocks perform.
On stage the instruments begin to tune, Joining one by one they tune.
A softened light from sconces bathes the hall, Dimming now, it stills the hall.
The soloists and chorus float on stage, Dressed alike, form rows on stage.
Their sounds arise from passion, skill and time, Healing us; erasing time.
Melodic tunes and chords unite and ring,
Order changes everything.
Memoir Glimpses: Why Memoir?
Posted on October 24, 2020
I never meant to write a memoir.
My love affair with words long ago turned me into a raconteur. My friends think I’m a good conversationalist. My sisters think I’m opinionated.
“I kissed the Blarney Stone,” I bragged after my first trip to Ireland.
“No kidding.” They said.
Throughout my career, my colleagues frequently begged me to immortalize my pedagogical wisdom in print. Some wanted a handbook for children’s choir directors. Others wanted a reference book on classroom management, student motivation, curriculum design, or even a “how to” book for organizing a community children’s choir.
In that “first life”, when I was a musician and conductor, I developed the efficient, clear writing style my young performers and their parents needed to ensure they’d arrive on time, at the right venue, in the right uniform. Through the diaries of my adolescence and the journals of my later years I developed an easy comfort with writing truth as I knew it. Describing experience by manipulating words into emotion has always been a release, a satisfying endeavor, but a book—that felt more like a burden than a pleasure.
Besides, I was too busy creating and refining these aspects of my own career to find time to write a manual for someone else.
“Maybe someday,” I’d reply unconvincingly. “Maybe after I retire.”
As retirement loomed, I worried about my artistic self. Where would I find the depth of engagement I had experienced through music, teaching, conducting and performing? The kind of engagement that had ignited my spirit day after day for decades on end.
“How about that book?” They persisted.
I made no promises, but the summer after I retired, I packed a plastic bin full of documents, plan books, curriculum files and organizational materials. I’d begin the book at our summer cottage in North Carolina. Not as an artistic outlet, but as a time filler while I searched for something as creative and meaningful as music. I’d work on the manuscript in the early morning hours, on the screened-in porch that overlooks our garden and the white water river that splashes along the far end of our property. In the afternoons, we’d hike, and swim and celebrate my retirement. Together we’d plan the next phase of our life.
On departure day, I placed the heavy bin into the trunk of my car, then continued prepping the house for a six week absence. The phone rang. A bit of business—only a few minutes, but before I hung up, my wife, my partner for 25 years, moved her suitcases from my car to hers, left a note on the kitchen counter and drove off.
I didn’t make it to the cottage that summer Someone caring for me moved the crate of reference materials from my car to the corner of my TV room where it still sits, staring at me. During the year after she left, I spent all my creative energy finding my way through the mire of shock and trauma that had become my life.
When summer rolled around again, I was ready to return to my cottage in the mountains and I wanted more than anything to write that book—not the music pedagogy book, but the memoir of my personal, creative journey from devastation to recovery to reinvention.
In Prodigal Summer, Barbara Kingsolver wrote about a similar sudden, unexpected loss. The character eventually realizes that maybe her husband wasn’t meant to be with her forever—just long enough to be a “doorway to herself.”
That summer in North Carolina, alone at the cottage, I wrote 30,000 words, discovered a new artistic expression, and entered the doorway to myself.
Inside the Lines
Posted on May 23, 2020
Inside the Lines
Covid Series #1 (March 2020)
When the bell rang to end the kindergarten day, our teacher lined us up in small groups by neighborhood. A tall, grown up 8th grade boy stepped into our classroom from the hallway and stood beside her. He was wearing a strap across his chest with a silver badge on it. The teacher introduced him. He was our safety. “Stay in line behind the safety and follow his directions,” she instructed.
I walked confidently down the hall “head behind head,” proud of my pretty new school dress, my shiny new shoes and the colorful new school bag dangling at my side. At the playground gate our safety abruptly turned to face us, raised his flattened palm toward our faces, and croaked in his squawky boy/man voice, “Stay inside the white lines when we cross the street.”
School was going to be so good for me. I always knew exactly where I stood.
—Raise your hand; don’t call out… Check!
—When I play these notes on the piano, return to your seats… Check!
—Always hold your pencil in your right hand… Check!
Now another helpful rule. “Stay inside the white lines.”
The wide white line stretched across the macadam street pointing clearly to the opposite curb. I could stand inside it with both my tiny five-year-old feet side by side, but I decided to walk tight-rope style, placing one foot in front of the other, just to be sure I’d stay inside the line as directed. I walked carefully, eyes tipped down watching my feet lest I accidentally step outside the line. Suddenly I saw two well-worn sneakers attached to two long legs straddling the line in front of me. I froze, looked up and squinted at the shiny safety badge glinting inches from my face.
“What are you, some kind of smart Alec? Get over there,” he sneered pointing to the crowd of children crossing the street with me. At that moment, I saw the other white line on the other side of the children and instantly realized what he had meant by “Stay inside the white lines.”
The shock of my stupidity blew the air out of me with a powerful, humiliating punch. My lip quivered and I struggled to hold back the tears. My heart pounded. How did I not understand? How did the words turn around and trick me? Would it be like this all the time?
Recalling this significant moment from my childhood, made me wonder about being a child today in the midst of our latest health crisis. With the heightened state of alarm over Covid 19, our children’s worlds are being turned upside down. Their schools are closed but it isn’t snowing. Their parents aren’t going to work but they aren’t sick. They can’t play with their friends but they’re not being punished. Children have no frame of reference for the palpable fear in the air. How are they processing our explanations? How do our words turn around and trick them, as the safety’s words had tricked me all those years ago?
On a beautiful spring day last week, in the height of the Corona Crisis, I went for a walk in a local arboretum. Everything was as it should be, the trees towered, the sun warmed, the sky spread blue and the breeze was laden with the scent of new growth. My whole spirit smiled and my feet moved at an energetic clip. The path was wide enough for two cars to squeeze by each other so when I saw three little blonde boys (brothers, I’m quite sure) jostling toward me, I moved to the edge of the road to allow the requisite six feet between us. As soon as they saw me they froze in their tracks and congealed into a tight triangle. They quickly turned off their path and walked in a different direction.
I’ve spent my life with children. I taught in the public schools for 36 years. I founded and conducted a community children’s choir for 40 years. I relate well to children. Normally, if I were to encounter this group of kids on a walk along a trail, they would react to me in one of two ways. First, they might look at me, return my smile and return my greeting. On the other hand, they might be so engaged in their laughter and play that I’d be virtually invisible. They’d ignore me as we passed each other. These boys clearly saw me and hurried in the opposite direction in a visible state of anxiety. When I was closer to them, I smiled at them and called out “Hi—i!”. Their eyes dropped to the ground. The youngest one looked sideways at me from the corner of his eye and walked a little faster. They didn’t respond.
Despite our carefully thought out explanations about what’s happening around the world, around this country, in our neighborhoods, children comprehend our words through their own filters. Even when their questions are answered sensitively, the complicated issues of this virus and its impact on all of us can not be hidden from them. They witness our anxiety, they hear our frustration, they feel our worry. They see and hear the drama unfold on TV and they create the story they need to explain what they can't understand. What fractured fairy tale do they watch on the screen behind their eyelids when they go to bed at night? Maybe they’ve figured out that there’s a dangerous virus moving around the world; that it’s a killer and it’s invisible. No one can conquer it—not the doctors, not the police, not the president. It can be on your hands and you won’t be able to see it or feel it. You could die if you touch your face. You’re safe in your own home, but people outside your immediate family can be hiding the invisible killer monster in their bodies. No playgrounds, no friends, no visits to grandma’s, no outsiders in the house. Forever?
When this is over, infected people will need to heal and we’ll all mourn the dead. The economy will need to recover and we’ll all pick up the shattered pieces of our lives. Even those of us who are lucky enough to escape the virus will need to heal the damage to our frayed nerves, our bruised psyches. We’ve heard it many times, children are resilient, and fortunately that’s true, but that doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility to them. As the virus rages around us, we must listen closely for misunderstood information in their conversations during play and take the time to clarify their misconceptions. We must listen closely to their questions and take the time to answer them sensitively but accurately. Then we need to pull out an old teacher trick called “test for understanding,” i.e., ask the child to repeat the new information. That will help you determine if what you meant to say, has been understood. And when this is over, we will all gently guide them back into childhood.
Posted on May 23, 2020
A gift emerged
And into passion grew,
In harmony with forces grand
Propelled by rhythm, form and lyric tune,
A life and purpose came to be
When children’s voices rose
And joined as one