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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.

Memoir Glimpses: Bringing Characters to Life

Memoir Glimpses: Bringing Characters to Life
Siena (1945) and her mother, my grandmother, standing in front of the Administration Bldg. at College Misericordia where she made her final vows and I earned my undergrad degree.

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.”

Siena (1965) with me after the Freshmen Investiture Ceremony at College Misericordia (now Misericordia University)

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.

Siena (1980’s) on vacation in FL with her brother, my father after the Mercy order had relinquished the habit and returned to contemporary dress.

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.

Memoir Glimpses: A Case for NOT Writing

Memoir Glimpses: A Case for NOT Writing

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:

From Dissonance to Consonance:

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

A Winter Storm

A Winter Storm

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

We Can Do This

COVID-19 Series #2

(April 2020)

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!