Monday, December 11, 2017

Women's Writing Circle: Our Year In Review

Women's Writing Circle is a place to share our stories. I can't remember a year, a time, an era, where it was more important for women to find a safe and supportive place to write and share their stories.

Women are under attack in almost every arena ... from the workplace, to politics, to domestic life ... to the literary world where equal acceptance and recognition with men's writing remains an ongoing struggle.

It is exhausting, wearying. It is the journey of the feminine.

We share the experience, interpret an intricate world. How?
We find a place to share our stories ... our voices.

"Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind, is written large in his works." ~ Virginia Woolf

In read around we heard the honest, the unconventional, the comic, the ironic, the creative spirit and mind at work.

Witness the women in these photos who made 2017 a special year, together in community. We spent two and a half hours a month to rejuvenate in read around and critique. We took part in a flash fiction workshop, a memoir workshop, a personal essay workshop .... (Here's more information on Women's Writing Circle workshops.) We read in public our work as published authors ... a collaborative anthology of fiction, memoir and poetry aptly titled The Life Unexpected.

Because in many ways, writing opens doors to the life unexpected. Writing fiction, creative nonfiction ... these are merely genre classifications. We write what we have lived, imagine what we might live.

I relish how it feels to wake up in the morning and write. I write about my mother, my husband, my father, the friends I have loved. I write about a woman named Ava, an alter ego, who edited Jay's memoir in A Portrait of Love and Honor and who appeared again as Lydia, a woman alone, in The Life Unexpected.

I look forward to reading my work in the Circle. We know writing can't be in isolation. We seek an audience. Feedback in a supportive writing group helps move us forward and affirms the strength it takes to write and devote ourselves to practicing our craft. Whether we stay or move on, our work together for that time is important.

Writing is therapeuticwe always wanted to write, knew at heart I am a writer. How lucky we are!

Special thanks also goes to the Hilton Garden Inn, Exton, West Chester, PA for its hospitality, its beautiful space for us to meet this year and next!

Brava and job well done!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Sharing Story and Bearing Witness: A Writer's Moment

Newspapers and television networks, corporations and small businesses frown on bringing anything into the conversation that “smacks of religion.” We live in a secular world. We’re so religion-phobic, people are numbed.

Take the woman who shared with me this week that her company asked its employees to donate holiday gifts to an organization which made clear “no gifts wrapped in paper with any religious connotation.” So much for the Three Wise Men. My friend felt insulted, but hardly surprised. 

As a Christian, I sometimes feel the need to defend myself and my faith. Allegations from women, some as young as fourteen at the time, against powerful men who deny the allegations as lies pervade the news. As these stories gain more national attention, controversy often centers on the role Christianity plays in society. What do flamboyant radicals professing to be Christians yet defending alleged abusers say about our faith? What does Scripture teach about love and grace, humility and truth?

Are we called to bear witness to evil? Yes. Which brings me to the writer’s life.

Last week on this blog I wrote my own experience with sexual harassment, bullying and assault. I felt support and validation after I wrote that from women who messaged me in private, shared their own stories of wanting to write about abuse, and author Madeline Sharples blogging her story of sexual misconduct at the hands of a former president of the United States!

I also brought up the topic of sexual harassment with my pastor. She quickly agreed this was a topic for women in our parish to discuss. Her concerns, she said, particularly rest with the children who are victimized … much as I was at the age of thirteen and fourteen. The question: How do we bear witness women to women in the church, in the workplace, within our families?
There is so much evil in the world, it's hard to grasp. During this dark period of Advent … “the in-between period”… we wait for "the promise and hope in the midst of suffering."

This reminds me of memoir writing … there is an eager longing, an expectancy … it’s not just words on a page, but an event in a life that resonates with others who may have gone through similar events. The hope that we will eventually be brought out of bondage, which is an Advent theme, is also the writer’s hope. This is not a product to sell, but a moment of grace and humility. “Love moves the universe.”

Whether you practice religion or a religious philosophy or not, our task as writers―writing about war, murder, the parent whose child died at Sandy Hook but who can’t get anyone to listen about gun control―is to “combat evil.” To bring the darkness into the light.

This summer I taught a workshop, Voice Lessons about the personal essay and the idea that writing can change the world. It was based on the wonderful book by Mary Pipher Writing to Change the World.

As I wrote then: The alchemy of creativity hums in a collaborative community of writers. It fosters confidence and clarity that voice is unique to the writer. In a rapidly changing world of turmoil, a writer’s authentic voice becomes ever more invaluable.

We can share our voices through op-ed pieces sent to news outlets; by writing memoirs; organizing forums and other events where we openly discuss evils plaguing our society and the world. That’s my hope this Advent season …. We share our stories and bear witness.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Sexual Harassment and Bullying: A Woman Remembers

It’s been over five decades since a boy named Ed sexually harassed and bullied me on the school bus and in the hallways of our junior high.

Girls of my generation remained silent and it wasn’t until I got to college that I started standing up for myself. Still, it was a long road to believing in Susan and liking who she was. Truth be told, self-esteem is the elixir. Even then, after the 'Eds' and the bullies and the sexual predators of the world, it takes hard work. I know. I experienced this, as have most women. It took yearsnothing short of a lifetimeto become the confident woman I am in this photograph.

Dear Ed, I haven’t forgotten your name or your face; a beaklike nose, black eyebrows in a single straight line. You chose me, the girl you would bully and sexually harass for months on end; the unwanted comments and attention meant to intimidate. You enjoyed having power over me. I didn’t understand. No one talked about this stuff. I was ashamed, embarrassed and scared.

You weren’t the first who thought he could do whatever he wanted just because I was female.

In seventh grade, walking home from school along the leafy sidewalks of sedate Wayne, Pennsylvania on a warm fall day, I saw your car slow down. You rolled down your window: “Hey, little girl. I need directions. Come closer.”  I imagine I wore saddle shoes, a brown and green plaid jumper, my pale blond hair pulled back in a barrette. I still slept with a teddy bear. “Go up this street and make a right ….” I looked at you … a movement caught my eye …your hand moving in your lap. You had unzipped your pants and were playing with yourself. A strange smile came over your face as our eyes met. I said I had to go. Your car slowly moved away, into the recesses of a vivid lifetime memory.

When I got home, I told my mother and she told my father. My father called the police. That night a kindly-looking detective wearing a white shirt and tie, (his badge was tucked in his suit coat pocket) came to our house. He asked if I would go to the police station after school the next day and look at mug shots. You were there, of course; I wasn’t the first girl. You were married with two young children; my positive identification sentenced you to parole after psychiatric counseling.

Back to Ed. I was taller than you, or you sensed how shy I was, inciting, “There she is” with a sneering leer …. Or “god, you’re ugly” ….

Sometimes you got your kicks muttering mean comments under your breath as we passed in the hallways between classes … snickering, pointing me out. You were in my Algebra I class and sat in the row next to mine. Once I took a tissue out of my purse to dab my face … I had oily skin. Apparently, you were watching. This started a whole new round of torture, you making fun of me, dabbing your face with a tissue whenever you saw me.

I told my father. Dad began driving me to school in the morning. I’m grateful to my parents for many things, not the least that they always listened and advocated for their daughter.

When I was in my twenties, I experienced a hostile workplace.
It was another form of bullying, of sexual harassment. A man determined your career. If you didn’t “fit” his idea of a compliant woman, forget it. I challenged the notion of passing students just to “get them through the system” which threatened you, the vice principal. You literally went ballistic. I had attended an Ivy League college and you hadn’t. “You probably think you’re better than me,” you shouted as the two of us sat in your private office and you leaned forward, glaring. My contract wasn't renewed. You saw to that. After you, I never felt the same about teaching in public schools.

Now as I read about all the women identifying their abusers, I understand the power of voice, of energy in numbers. It also takes the support of family and friends, of a loving husband who championed me. I was one of the lucky ones although the damage had been done and the effects continued for years ... the lack of trust in men, the feelings of objectification, the anger and shame. 

I had very few female role models in those early days. Women stayed silent or sided with men when we did speak out. So, I hope this is the powerful “sea change”, as the media likes to call it, that we’re seeing now. I know where the women are coming from and I feel your outrage, the sense of violation. I'm with you. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Writing During the Holidays and Tale of a Narcissistic Lover

At our November meeting of the Women’s Writing Circle, I passed out copies of a blog post listing reasons Christmas and Hanukkah offer opportunities to write. We are around a lot of people, including those we haven’t seen in quite a while. They tend to share heartfelt stories brought on by the time of year, infused as it is with longing, sentimentality and grief.

We might be on vacation from work and time for long walks and reflection also provide grist for the writer’s mill.

What are you saying? the woman wailed. The post was written by a man. Where do women find the time to write? What do men know about baking cookies, decorating the house for Christmas, shopping and wrapping gifts? Still, I suggested, consider getting up early when the house is quiet and devoting half an hour to yourself and your writing. 


On Friday I met a woman I hadn't seen in years for lunch. She despaired of spending her first Christmas in as long as she could remember without a husband or boyfriend. A widow, she related a story. I doubt if she would have told me this if Thanksgiving hadn’t been less than a week away. After her husband’s terrible illness and death, she got involved with a narcissist. Emotionally and physically abusive to her, he consumed her thoughts. That’s how toxic he is, she said.

What is it about narcissists she asked, quickly answering her own question. “They are predators” and hook you early on pretending to adore and admire you only to exert an extreme form of control over your life. They isolate you from friends and family. Your sole purpose is to reflect back to them their own "glory."

As the sun shone through the restaurant windows and we sipped our tea, I shared that the same unfortunate scenario unfolded after John’s death. I wrote about it in Again in a Heartbeat. He preyed on me at my most vulnerable time. His narcissism, coupled with my own sexual infatuation, resulted in a painful and traumatic experience. Yes, my friend nodded. 

She continued to share her story, as if she couldn't stop thinking of him, couldn't stop trying to make sense of why she still missed him. One night after she had challenged him on some minor point, he pushed her down the stairs. This still didn’t bring closure. She knew the relationship would never work, but he was the one who ended up breaking it off. Her confession resonated with me. For years, I continued to think about my abuser, wonder what he was doing, who he was dating. And this is why I wrote about it. Writing helps make sense of things.

Perhaps this is serendipity, my friend suggested, although she admitted the thought of writing scared her. She was afraid what she might discover. I told her I might write about this, about her story. "I'm fine with that," she said. Us meeting for lunch and talking about relationships had uncanny similarities, she mused. Or perhaps the holidays open us to reflecting where we have been and where we are going, sorting through concerns that have plagued us and offering valuable insights.

On Saturday I taught a memoir workshop at the local library. Several of the participants wrote about Christmases past; traumatic events or loved ones no longer with them. Their memories vivid, the writing popped.

If you write during the holidays and as the
year draws to a close, consider lessons learned: “I fell in love with a narcissist” because he honed in on my loneliness after the death of my husband. What does this say about me? Am I co-dependent? Did it feel familiar because my mother or father was a narcissist? Was this a way to avoid confronting my grief?

Exploring and reflecting is healthy and cathartic. Instead of baking too many cookies or going overboard buying gifts, why not take this time to do something for yourself …write. Better yet … write every day.

How about you? Do holidays jumpstart new writing? What strategies do you use to set aside time for writing during this hectic time of the year?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Mother-Daughter Memoir―Review of "Blue Nights"

What makes a memorable memoir? Plot, inner monologue, crazy mothers and drunken fathers? Perhaps, memoirs that most linger in a reader's memory are unflinchingly honest stories of relationships and regrets. 

Blue Nights by Joan Didion is a meditation on grief and regret, illness and aging as told by a woman who cares little if this is a difficult read. Didion sugarcoats nothing and sentimentality has no place in her story.

As she enters the twilight of her life, (Didion is eighty-two) her mastery of the genre―for which she received literary acclaim with The Year of Magical Thinking about the death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne―is evident. Didion early on in her career honed the art of the personal essay. The journalistic attention to detail coupled with literary flair provide a compelling narrative.

Blue Nights is dedicated to and about Quintana Roo, the daughter Didion and Dunne adopt. She died in 2005 at the age of thirty-nine. The cause of her death is never clear.

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children,” Didion repeats throughout the  memoir.

The little girl whose fear of abandonment goes undetected by Didion is the author's confession that she had scant idea what being a mother entailed, especially mother of an adopted child. This strange girl, this “beautiful baby girl” who Didion muses has bipolar disorder and drinks too much, is an enigma … do we ever really know our children, Didion wonders? So much of their life is spent separating from us, their parents. Or maybe it is just Quintana distancing herself from her mother, an acclaimed writer whose work consumes her.

Vivid memories of a mother-daughter relationship: Quintana on her wedding day: “She wove white stephanotis into the thick braid that hung down her back; the plumeria tattoo showing through the tulle” … Didion finds herself staring at the unexpectedher daughter kneeling at the altar wearing bright red-soled high heels. This is juxtaposed with her daughter dying in the ICU. "This was never supposed to happen to her ... as if she and I had been promised a special exemption ..."

There is self-flagellation and regret. “She had no idea how much we needed her. How could we have so misunderstood one another.” Adopting a child also poses unanticipated challenges and unintended consequences. Quintana’s sister, birth mother and father seek her out when she is a grown woman, throwing Quintana into confusion and Didion into a vague terrain of surprise and acceptance, although much of this has to be inferred by the reader. 

If there is a failing to this memoir, we never feel the intimacy between mother and daughter … no doubt Didion loved her daughter, but moments of tenderness seem to be missing in the narrative, along with conversations of any depth between Quintana and Didion. Why?

In the telling of this tragedy of her daughter's untimely death, Didion discusses her own impeding mortality … the sudden realization at the age of seventy-five that being old has descended with no warning.

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.”

There is the terrible fear of losing one’s balance, the inability to gain weight when she has dropped to a precarious seventy-five pounds, the shingles brought on by too much stress as The Year of Magical Thinking is made into a Broadway production starring Vanessa Redgrave, her friend and a woman who lost her daughter―Natasha Richardson―to a tragic death.  

Blue nights herald the approach of summer, but also the beginning of the days becoming shorter, a gloaming into blackness, an ending. This is the life of a woman who has lost those closest to her―husband, daughter, her own mother, numerous friends―and finds herself wondering whose name to list on the emergency contact page at the hospital.

I recommend this memoir to anyone who wants to read a master wordsmith in the genre … a woman whose honesty about herself is surely the essence of her strength and survival and who allows a personal story to become a universal journey of regret and untimely death.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Travel Writing―Memoir Moments in Morocco

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” ~ Saint Augustine

As a writer I work with this―this material of traveling to Morocco and trying to make sense out of a world striking in its privilege for some and not others. Why me and not them?

The average person in Morocco makes 36,000 dirhams a year, which is the equivalent of $3,600. Medical insurance is nonexistent, no potable water, a hole in the ground to squat.

I see a man seated at an outdoor cafĂ© outside the medina in Fez. He is probably in his early 50s, gaunt, a black mustache, sallow skin, his head shakes slightly this way and that as he tries to sip his coffee or tea. He reminds me of John at the end of his life. I mention him to my son as we wait on the street corner for our guide. “He looks like he has cancer,” I say. “Or maybe a stroke,” Alex says. Our burka-clothed guide explains health insurance is nonexistent, hospitals are overwhelmed, doctors scarce and available only to those with money.

“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.” ~ John Hope Franklin

Our camels plod along the blue gray shore of Essaouira. A path of silver light leads us on toward the horizon as the late afternoon sunshine sparkles off the ocean. Entering heaven must be like this; the light, the shadowy silhouette of my son who I love like no other astride his camel … our guide leading us forward, his dog Mamouche, a copper-colored imp, scampering at our side.

I’m proud of myself, risking a camel ride, overcoming my fear. I know this is the high point of my trip and a moment forever seared in memory. When I first got on and the animal fell to his knees, I shrieked, I’m scared! I slid forward … and then―UP, UP ten feet off the ground! This fear reminds me what it means to be me … a cautious older woman who must keep her wits and not injure herself. I view the camel’s cap of nubby gray and brown curls. It reminds me of the fake fur lapel on a coat I wore in high school.

"Naturally my stories are about women — I'm a woman." ~ Alice Munro 

Traveling to Essaouira, a bohemian Moroccan beach resort provided a desperately needed change from the previous day spent in the high Atlas Mountains. I had begun to doubt the promise of this trip. The place was cold with tiers of brown rock, snow-capped at its highest point. Still I remind myself, I am in Africa. Africa!

The High Atlas is the second highest peak in Africa after Kilimanjaro and if I hadn’t been sick, I might have taken in the purity of black sky, pinpricks of stars, hikers carrying lanterns as they descended rocky trails. Instead, a head cold and altitude sickness kept me in bed under wool blankets fighting off the chills. I hadn’t been well enough to hike the steep trail to the guest house where a Moroccan family, a young wife who spent most of her time in the kitchen and her tall good-looking husband greeted us and said how lucky I was to have a son as they had three daughters. Instead, I rode a mule up to the house built out of rock, along with my fellow traveler, a woman nearing eighty with a terminal lung disorder. It made me feel old and being sick didn’t help. This illness depleted my energy, left me listless. It will take days alone when I return to Pennsylvania to feel well enough to resume my life and begin writing this.

“Of all possible subjects, travel is the most difficult for an artist, as it is the easiest for a journalist.” ~ W. H. Auden

That’s why Essaouira reinvigorated. Alex and I walked a mile along the sandy stretch of beach to the camels; the warm Atlantic waters swirling around my feet and ankles offering a baptism of renewal.

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” ~ Maya Angelou

The day before High Atlas had been spent in Fez, an ancient city, everything white and cream, no contrast, like a sandy slightly lopsided wedding cake baking on the hillside. Touring winding alleyways in the medina, the old city, left me unprepared for a marketplace teeming with feral cats and flies clinging to bricks of green and pink nougat. This, I thought, is where it all began, here in Africa, a place that to this day is another world; mules and donkeys carry their burdens to marketplace; a decapitated head of a camel, a kufi on its head, advertises a camel burger shop. I have this realization … people need to survive, to make a living. Who am I to judge?

“The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” ~ Rudyard Kipling

Our guide―a woman wearing a sea green head scarf and a white modified burka revealing her face―leads our little group of travelers to a truly horrifying place in the medina known as the tannery.

The stench is overwhelming from the carcasses of animals being turned into an array of handbags, jackets and shoes, belts and wallets and we had been handed a sprig of spearmint to hold to our noses so overwhelming the smell which is hard to describe although one word comes to mind―death―death of the innocent; sheep, goats, cows and camels whose sole purpose in life resides in being turned into a $100 handbag for a woman to sling across her shoulder as she returns to Fifth Avenue in New York, another planet from this place.

I quickly avert my eyes from the chalky gray pools in vats below the viewing balcony where the hides are dried and colored. I stumble into a small room filled with tourists. Thousands of handbags and leather goods hang from the ceiling and line the walls, pink and turquoise, bright reds and blues, bags studded and burnished brown … pointy-toed slippers, wallets. If the beach at Essaouira is heaven, then this, I think, must be hell. I console myself with the thought that I haven’t bought anything made out of real leather for years and know I never will again.

I have many other impressions of this trip ... the cooking school which trains destitute young women to make a living ... the eerie chants emanating from the loudspeakers in the mosques ... the call to prayer that awoke me at 5 a.m. every day ... the hospitality of the Moroccan people ... more for another day .... 

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Writer Takes a Blogging Break To Travel and Explore

Ever since I turned twenty and boarded that PanAm flight to London by myself to explore England for three weeks, I've always wanted to travel. After my husband died, I took the boys on a sixteen-day tour of Italy and fell in love all over again with Europe.

Life requires energy and in the end is too big to miss. Writers have always come this way ... the romantic streets of Paris ... expatriates who craved something else―at least for a time―to get as far away from where they grew up as possible.

I've blogged about a writer needing a break and heard others say the same in the Women's Writing Circle. In that spirit, I am devoting the next three weeks to travel and decompressing so I will not be blogging after today until Nov. 13.

To the many who read my blog (over 6,000 views a month from all around the world), and who take the time to comment and tell me how much they enjoy this "place to share our stories," I promise that after I return from Morocco, located on the northern tip of Africa, I will blog again.
I travel internationally because the world waits .... And if I don't do it now, I never will.

Traveling to Nepal, Russia, China, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, England, the Czech Republic, and Brazil as I've done in recent years means seeing what's on the other side. It's a matter of curiosity. As Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones:
“This is your life. You are responsible for it. You will not live forever. Don't wait.”
And this:
“I write because I am alone and move through the world alone. No one will know what has passed through me ... I write because there are stories that people have forgotten to tell, because I am a woman trying to stand up in my life ... I write out of hurt and how to make hurt okay; how to make myself strong and come home, and it may be the only real home I'll ever have.”
Travel affords opportunities to write stories, to explore the inner life, to gain perspective .... It offers a valuable lesson. I've learned no matter where you go, we're all alike, we all want the same things: family, enough money to afford a decent place to live, community and relationships. The world in all its brilliant diversity is―not surprisingly―one of similarities, commonalities, of oneness.

I think of the little Nepalese boy with a kite cobbled together out of trash (candy wrappers and tissue paper); the young woman in Hong Kong fluently speaking Mandarin and English as she took us to Lantau Island to climb the steps to the Great Buddha; the Russian teacher who graciously offered us a tour of St. Petersburg and reminisced how much she had loved her visit to Philadelphia ...

It takes effort to pack, to plan the right itinerary, make arrangements for the dog and a pet sitter who will be staying at my house, get to the airport, sleep in another bed, sometimes without the "comforts" of home ― such is the adventure of travel ... moving out of the comfort zone, as anyone who travels the world knows.

I look forward to bringing back memories of medinas with tiny alleyways and historic mosques ... maybe, if I'm lucky, an Egyptian cobra dancing in a basket ... learning to make couscous (this trip features cooking  ... just call me Anthony Bourdain) ... the Atlas Mountains, the Sahara spread out below, riding a camel ... touching the spiritual within, away from the Episcopal chapel tucked behind cornfields where I attend church regularly.

So, see you in mid-November unless you follow me on Facebook or Instagram. I have my passport, my camera, my lightweight summer clothes ready to pack as I leave at the end of this week ... most of all, an eagerness to see a new part of the world, and then come back here to write all about it.

How about you? Do you have a travel experience to share that helped shape your work or your perspective?