Dancing on the Moon: What music would you take into space?

Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.
                                                   ~Neil Armstrong

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On July 20th, 1969 three Apollo 11 astronauts left the first foot prints on the moon. Fifty years later, we Earthlings remember and celebrate. With so much crumminess happening down on this planet, casting our eyes toward the heavens is a welcome distraction.

July 20th also happens to be my father’s birthday. I wish he were here to witness this historic space anniversary. When I was a little girl, he told me that NASA picked July 20th for the moon landing to honor his birthday. And I believed him. He was, after all, my Olympic Dad.

He bought me my first telescope so I could view the moon from our backyard. 

One of the first songs I learned to play on the piano was a silly tune called, “My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon’.  

Years later, while sitting in a college astronomy class, I studied a detailed photograph of the moon.  Then I noticed a surprising detail: there was a crater named Krieger B. My Dad! 

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I photocopied that moon picture.  Then in July, I sent my father a card. Dear Dad, In honor of your birthday, NASA has named a moon crater after you. Love, Evelyn.

In 1984, I applied to the new Teacher-in-Space program created by Ronald Reagan. My initial application was rejected as I did not meet NASA’s minimum age requirement. With the Challenger Shuttle’s tragic outcome, I guess I was lucky not to have won that long shot ticket.

Only a handful of humans have been lucky enough to view our planet Earth floating in space. This cosmic sight has evoked awe, humbleness, and tears. 

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NASA

“As we got further and further away, it [the Earth] diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful you can imagine.
That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has to change a man.”

~James B. Irwin, Astronaut, Apollo Program

 

As for for the rest of us, we’re left to our imaginations and vicarious experiences like movies, video games, and flight simulators.

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The closest I’ll get…National Air and Space Museum 2012

 

If you were to go for a rocket ride, what special items would you take with you?

I’d take my one of Dad’s fencing medals, a Hebrew prayer book, my ballet slippers, a photo of my kids, and a CD of poems a dear someone made for me. 

Buzz Aldrin took holy communion aboard the Apollo 11.

During the Apollo 14 moon mission in 1971, the astronauts packed tree seeds which the  Forest Service later germinated, reaping ‘Moon Trees’. 

When Garret Reisman flew on board the space shuttle Endeavour in 2008, he brought along a vial of dirt from the pitcher’s mound at Yankee Stadium.

Massachusetts native Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman brought several Jewish heritage items-dreidel, mini Torah scroll, menorah– aboard his space shuttle trips.

Recently I learned that the Apollo astronauts brought a cassette tape of their favorite tunes to listen en route and during their historic moon walk.

Buzz Aldrin played one of my dance favorites as he stepped onto the lunar surface:  Frank Sinatra’s 1964 ‘Fly Me To The Moon’– an obviously perfect choice.

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Buzz Aldrin   NASA

Other songs on Aldrin’s playlist included:

‘Mother Country’ by John Stewart

‘People’ by Barbara Streisand

‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’ by Jonathan King

‘Spinning Wheels’ by Blood, Sweat, & Tears

“Angel of the Morning’ by Betty Swann.

In June, #NASAMoonMusic put out a request for public votes of tunes for the planned 2024 lunar return trip–when the first woman will walk.  Out of the one million suggestions (surely many repeats), 500 songs made the final playlist—enough music for a 3 day journey.

Sinatra’s swinging  hit was no. 2.

Another old favorite of mine, ‘Moon River’,  was 106 on the list, though not the version I like.

I was surprised that no classical pieces made the list. Gee, not even Debussy’s ‘Claire de lune?’

Star Trek composer Michael Giaccino wrote Voyage, a concert piece that aims to recreate the feeling of launch day–from the astronaut’s waking up to buckling in the capsule to blasting off. floating, landing, and returning home.  Giaccino’s inspiring piece would definitely make my space list.

What music would be on your space playlist?

Here’s one I created of moon-inspired songs.  Enjoy!

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My inspiration bulletin board.

              “I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you…”

 

Missing Your Dad on Father’s Day

Father's Day Card

In May 2016 I was shopping in Target when I saw a display of Father’s Day cards. I’d always sent a special card to my Dad and decided I’d pick one out right then. While surveying the multitude of choices, a force of reckoning hit my chest.

I don’t need to buy him a card this year.

My father was dead. For six whole months.

How could I have forgotten? 

I blinked back a surprise of tears. In that small space of forgetting, my father had come alive again.

“Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream.”Euripides

Maybe you’ve had such an experience, too. You pick up the phone thinking you’re going to call your Dad (or your mother, aunt, brother, friend) only to remember…  

Or maybe you’ve had a vivid dream of being with your dad–a dream so real that when you awoke it took a moment to believe it hadn’t actually happened.

A period of disbelief  often follows the loss of a loved one. This feeling can be more more pronounced when the death comes suddenly and inexplicably, as was the case with my dad.  Not seeing him buried, or having stood at his grave site, added to the feeling of unreality. And because we lived in different cities, it was easier to believe he was still in Florida enjoying the sunshine. 

From Homer to Shakespeare, mythology and literature are replete with stories of characters grappling to accept death’s permanence.  Sigmund Freud wrote that an essential component of the complex “grief work” is coming to terms with the fact that our loved one is physically and permanently gone.  “Mourning has a quite precise physchical task to perform: its function is to detach the survivor’s memories and hopes from the dead.”

Sounds like a good plan.

Yet when Freud lost his dear daughter Sophie to influenza, and then later, her beloved only surviving son, Dr. Freud remained inconsolable and unable to follow his own prescription for mourning.

In Joan Didion’s exquisite grief memoir, My Year of Magical Thinking, she potently describes the disbelief that grips us after losing a loved one.  Joan’s husband of 40 years dropped dead of a massive heart attack as the couple sat down to dinner one evening.  

It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it.”

Didion is taken aback by the irrational belief that her husband will return. She can’t bring herself to give away the clothes he may be needing.

“Bringing him back” had been through those months my hidden focus, a magic trick.”

We attempt to keep our loved ones alive by holding onto momentos—a watch, tie, jacket, hairbrush, written letters—as if we are able to contain their physical presence within the object. 

We’re afraid of forgetting them—and of letting go.

He was my North, my South, my East, and my West

my working week and my Sunday rest.

~ W.H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”

On my desk, I keep favorite photos of Dad, a few of his fencing medals, a handwritten letter, and his Olympic baseball cap.

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Me and Dad, July 1990

As Joan writes: “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead. ”

I’m lucky to have had may father for many years and many chances to share my love and appreciation. My heart breaks for those who have lost their father at a young age.  Growing up without a father can have longterm psychological effects. Children are particularly vulnerable to the belief that their father will “return”.   The experience leaves a gaping  hole of missed moments and opportunity.  The surviving adult-child’s life is shadowed with “what might have been” . 

My friend/mentor Nechama Laber lost her father at age ten. She didn’t know he had been ill and never got to said goodbye. It wasn’t until Nechama was a grown woman that she came to realize the full impact of his absence on her emotional well-being. Nechama has since devoted herself to continuing her father Rabbi Azriel Wasserman’s legacy of Jewish learning. This summer she will publish a book celebrating his life and teachings: Finding the Song in Sorrow – My journey from Loss to legacy to Light!

Blogger Leslie Spencer (lifewithoutmydad.com) also lost her father at age ten.  Her 2017 post about being a fatherless daughter on Father’s Day is particularly poignant. She offers her approach to facing this time of year.

By age 25, author Claire Bidwell Smith, had lost both her parents to cancer. For the past 10 plus, Claire has supported others through grief workshops, retreats, podcasts, online programs, and individual counseling. 

If you are missing your Dad this Father’s Day, try to do something that honors his memory: donate to charity, write him a letter, cook his favorite dish, make a photo album, or share a story about him.

And if you never knew your dad, or are estranged, then honor another special dad you care about. 

After getting through the first Father’s Day without my dad, I do not feel anywhere near the pain I feel on his death anniversary.  That day triggers traumatic memories. 

And yet…

My dad died on my son’s birthday—one of the happiest days of my life.

I hope I get to see my son become a dad.

I look forward to sending him a Father’s Day card.

 

 

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Byron Krieger as a collegiate fencer.

 

 

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Grandson Sam as a collegiate fencer

 

The Other Mother’s Day

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Mother’s Day is a feel-good holiday celebrated with Sunday brunch, breakfast-in-bed, greeting cards, gifts, hugs, and visits.

While the media brings us warm stories of maternal love and devotion, we should remember those who face this day with longing, sadness, or ambivalence.

Mothers who have lost a child.

Women who have suffered multiple miscarriages.

Women unable to get pregnant.

Those who gave up a baby for adoption.

Those who never met their mother.

Those who lost their mother too early.

Those whose mother no longer recognizes them.

Those estranged from their mother.

Those with a mother in prison.

If you know someone in the above categories, reach out on Mother’s Day. Show sensitivity.  I think of my nieces and nephew, young adults, who have missed their mom for the past 4 and a half years.

If your mother is alive, count yourself lucky—no matter the state of your relationship.

You still have the chance to make peace, make amends, practice forgiveness, ask questions, or simply say, “I love you.”

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The way we understand and relate to our mothers will be different at twenty-five than at forty-five and at fifty-five. Becoming a mother made me understand my own better and appreciate her sacrifices, which I’d taken for granted in my youth.

As the eldest of six children, I was the designated babysitter during my teen years. I dreaded Saturday nights when I was on call to make dinner, care for a fussy baby or deal with a sibling who refused to go to bed. I thought it was so unfair that my mother left me in charge of my five siblings when I wanted to go out with friends. In my adolescent self-centeredness, I couldn’t fathom why she needed to go out every week.

Where was she going? On a date with my father—her beloved.

Years later, I’d remember this when trying to find a trustworthy babysitter to care for my own kids so I could enjoy a Saturday night date.

Today I’m grateful for the close relationship with my three children and hope it will continue to flourish into their adulthood.  I cherish the Mother’s Day gifts they’ve given over the years, especially the handmade ones with written expressions.

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I think the greatest gift we can give our mothers (and fathers) is gratitude and appreciation.

Sift through any resentment and look for what your mom gave you, no matter how small.

Then let her know.

          *  *  *

Here’s mine.

Mom, thank you for…

Instilling in me a sense of adventure and romance.

Encouraging my talents.

Nourishing my imagination.

Fantastic childhood birthdays parties.

The gift of a musical home.

The gift of words—the family stories, children’s books, and poetry.

You may have tangible wealth untold;

Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.

Richer than I you can never be –

I had a Mother who read to me.

                 ~Strikland Gillilan

What are you grateful for?

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The Geometry of Grief

I turn on the local Saturday evening news after 24 hours of being unplugged. Lead story is: “Cambridge woman killed Friday afternoon while biking in Boston.”  A beloved, longtime Brookline librarian. Her photo flashes across the screen.

That’s my old friend!  That’s Paula. No, it can’t be.

I stand there trying to absorb the story. Police. Accident scene. Hit by a cement truck. Friends giving tribute. Boston cyclists mourning, calling for safer intersections…

Now I’m crying.

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Pubic Library of Brookline

I met Paula Sharaga when my kids were young. She was the new children’s librarian our local library.  I liked her quirkiness and warmth.  Paula and I were both early childhood educators, active in the Jewish community, and, of course, book lovers. We had lots to talk about.  Sharing our family Rosh Hashana dinner with Paula just after the tragedy of September 11 is a special memory.  

Later, Paula moved to Cambridge and took a job at the Brookline Public Library. This meant we didn’t see each other much. Our friendship, like many others, shifted to email and Facebook. And then, gradually, our contact lessened.

Strangely, just a few weeks ago, I thought of Paula for some reason. I realized it had been a long time since we chatted. I made a mental note to reach out.

I never did.

Now Paula’s Facebook page is filled with expressions of sympathy, sadness, and memories. I’m awed by the outpouring of love. 

Scrolling through her page, I’m quickly updated with all she had been involved with the past years.  Environmental activism. Politics, protests. Nature hikes. Cycling. 

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I see that she married her long-time boyfriend.  I read his words of shock and disbelief.  Paula’s husband is now in the After.

I know that place well.

You are thrust into that place with a simple phone call. 

Now I  pray that Paula’s husband is surrounded by love in the After. That the intense grief from losing his wife and her abrupt, tragic ending will not shadow the eventual light. 

I hope no one will say to him: “It was G-d’s will,”  or “She’s in a better place,” or “Let me know if I can do anything.”  (Just do something!)  I hope no one will count the months or years of his grieving and tell him “it’s time to move on”.

No one ever knows the right thing to say to someone in mourning. The Jewish custom provides a simple script: “May you be comforted among the mourners of Zion. May her memory be a blessing.”

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Paul Sharaga Facebook

I leave you, dear readers, with my newest essay published by Women on Writing, which seems fitting at this momentThe Geometry of Grief.

What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

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Thrillspire.com

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

I asked this question to friends and readers ages 20-65.  Here are a few of the replies:

  • Write a memoir and not worry about what my family thinks.
  • Quit my job and find a better one.
  • Start online dating. Again.
  • Become a foster parent.
  • Ask him out on a date.
  • Learn ballroom dancing at age 65. 
  • Travel the world–all 4 corners
  • Overcome fear of water and scuba dive the Barrier Reef.
  • Be more adventurous outside my comfort zone.
  • Dial up my appetite for taking risks to say things that might upset others.

Interestingly, one responder wrote:  “My first thought is that I would make foolhardy mistakes that my justified fears keep me safe from making.” 

Good point. But fear and caution are not the same.  

And here’s a response from a middle-aged man that touched me most.

“If I wasn’t afraid, I would become the Me I was born to be.”

Notice the essential verbs in the above answers?  Start, become, go, ask, learn…

Fear can hold us back from achieving our goals, realizing our potential, and trying new things.  We know this in our hearts but have trouble moving past it.  

Fear of risk. 

Fear of discomfort.

Fear of failure. 

Fear of being judged.

Fear of looking like a fool. 

Fear of getting emotionally hurt. 

Fear of the unfamiliar.

Fear of the unknown. 

Fear of the Blank Page

Writers are no strangers to fear.    

Do I really have any talent? Will anyone care what I have to say? What if my writing is crap? What if I lose my creative spark? What if my book never gets published? 

Name your writing fear. Say hello. Shake hands. Then wrestle it to the ground. 

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You’ll probably have to do this on most days.

Know that wherever you are in your creative journey, you have plenty of company. Face the fear and write anyway.  

“Fear is felt by writers at every level. Anxiety accompanies the first word they put on paper and the last.”
― Ralph Keyes, The Courage to Write: How Writers Transcend Fear

What would you do if you weren’t afraid

Here’s one of my answers.  Ride on a space shuttle.  

Surprised?

Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by people who do bold, physically demanding activities. Motorcycle stunt riders, platform divers, tightrope walkers. My mother tells me that while watching the Ringling Bros. circus I was drawn to the woman being shot out of a giant cannon. Astronauts were my heroes.

Lest you think, I was a kid daredevil—not a chance. The scariest thing I did was ride a bicycle down a hill while sitting backward.  Oh, here’s where I should mention my fear of heights. While I loved amusement park rides that spun me around, fear of heights kept me from the Ferris Wheel and giant roller coaster. 

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Me, age 11, on the high dive in Miami. Never jumped. Just wanted to impress my friends.

Then came claustrophobia. (Perhaps its origins can be traced to my brothers zipping me inside a sleeping bag. Or maybe getting forcibly held underwater in a swimming pool?)

Yet, I still wanted to be that girl who could blast into space.

Along with dreams of becoming a teacher, writer, and dancer, I harbored a secret desire to ride in a rocket ship one day.

Then, in my early twenties, I developed an extreme fear of flying.

So much for going to the moon.

Enter my fearless friend George who thrived on physical risk-taking. George tried to get me to go skydiving with him.

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Jumptown in Massachusetts

He showed me videos of his fantastic jumps. He broke down the mechanics, safety features, let me examine the parachute. He promised to hold on to me. I enjoyed this vicarious adventure but knew I’d never jump out of an airplane.

Performing a grand jete in ballet class would have to remain my “airborne” thrill.

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Learning from the Pros

In June 2017, Alex Hunnold, 31, became the first person to scale El Capitan in Yosemite–a 3,000-ft monstrous granite wall…without using ropes or other safety gear. Only his hands and feet. Alex’s incredible historic event is documented in a new National Geographic Film, Free Solo

Just watching a clip gave me vertigo.

In this crazy sport, there is no room for error. A mistake means death.

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National Geographic, Free Solo.

Most of us will never have what it takes to climb a rocky ledge or become an astronaut. Most of us probably wouldn’t even want to. What draws me to these fantastical feats is the question of how he or she overcame the Fear Factor.

Through years of intense training, Alex developed an astonishingly strong mental ability to control fear. So much so that neuroscientists are studying his brain. In an MRA scan experiment, Dr. Jane Joseph reported zero activation in Alex’s amygdala–the “fear center” of the brain. 

“A lot of people say I don’t feel fear, or that I don’t fear death, but that’s just not true!…I think I just have more of an acceptance that I will die at some point. I understand that, but I don’t want to baby myself along the way. I want to live in a certain way, which requires taking a higher degree of risk, and that’s acceptable to me.”   (National  Geographic)

Facing Your Fears From The Ground Up: For Normal Folks

Challenge your fears.

Set a goal.

Plan and Prepare.

Take baby steps.

Practice

Focus on the rewards

Repeat

This all takes courage.

Courage doesn’t mean fearlessness. Courage is facing your fear and doing it anyway. Courage is a muscle. 

I’m happy to report that I’ve worked through some of my long-time fears. Though I’ll never be a comfortable flyer, I still board the plane, anyway. I practice relaxation techniques.  I focus on where I’m traveling to and who I’ll get to see. The fear is no longer in charge.

I can now drive across major bridges without getting panicky.

But don’t ask me to go caving or enter a submarine!

The kind of risks I’m comfortable taking are mostly in the emotional realm. Relationships. New experiences. Adventures…as long as they take place on the ground.

Writing fiction gives you a chance to live other lives. The main character in my new story is an 11-year-old girl who plans to ride every roller coaster in the world and grow up to be an astronaut.

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CBS News

Sometimes when I feel discouraged by the limitations my fears bring, I remember the prolific writer Ray Bradbury, whose science fiction stories launched his readers into outer space.  

In real life, Mr. Bradbury was terrified to get on a plane. 

What would you do if you weren’t afraid? Have you faced a fear?

 

 

How To Keep Writing When Life Throws You A Punch

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So you’ve been writing your 500 words a day, researching your new novel, making the revisions your editor suggested, starting a new essay, approaching an article deadline… when life throws you a punch. Your boyfriend leaves. Your kid is failing school. Your mom breaks her hip. You have a major fallout with a friend. Your mammogram is suspicious.

You’ve had one of those days. Or weeks. Maybe one of those months. You’re knocked off kilter. And so is your creative output.

Your focused mind becomes a traffic jam of negative thoughts. The words sit lifeless on the page. Whatever you’ve written, now seems crap.

Trying to write a book is challenging on the best of days. Now, the sadness or worry you’re feeling is compounded with each passing unproductive day. The fewer words you write, the more frustrated you become. 

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On days like these, I wish I were the kind of person who can don emotional blinders and keep churning out the pages. 

Writing itself sustains me during ordinary times, which is why it is essential to keep at it during hard times. Yet sometimes I find this extraordinarily difficult, particularly during the past two and a half years since my father was killed. The traumatic experience shed my already thin skin and it hasn’t grown back. Despite my healing, my brain remains sensitive to shock and perceived threats.  It doesn’t take much to knock me over. 

It’s happening right now.

How do you keep writing when life throws you a punch? 

Notice I didn’t say “if” but “when,” because it will happen. Often in waves. Disappointment. Anger. Hurt. Shock. Grief. Worry.  Emotions that can cut through creativity. 

I’d love to hear what’s worked for you. Here are a few things I’ve tried.

1. Take time out—but not too long

You wonder how you can possibly write anything worthwhile when you feel so bad. Your first impulse is probably to cast writing aside and attempt to numb yourself or engage in distracting activities.  Give yourself permission to have a bad week, to take time off—just try to designate a time limit. When a student I advise is crushed about a college rejection, I give him 3 days to mope, rant, or binge watch Netflix. Then it’s time to move on. So go ahead, curl up on the couch…just don’t stay there.

2. Switch writing gears

If you find it impossible to connect with your current project, try starting something new (but not too big).  Revise/edit an older manuscript.  Work on submissions.  Engage in research or brainstorm ideas.  Or write in a different genre. (Like I’m doing now with this blog post.) Read something inspiring. Journal writing can help you grapple with the problem and clear your mind.  Any writing you can do will make you feel better. 

3. Expect something good

There’s a Yiddish saying that originated in Chassidic teaching, “Tracht Gut Vet Zien Gut “—“Think good, and it will be good.”  The idea is that positive thinking will not only help you weather hard times but can actually make positive things happen.  I take this to mean that if you expect good things, you are more likely to attract them. The Universe may surprise you by sending a salve for your wound. Strange as it seems, this has worked for me.  Just this week, when feeling my lowest, I heard from a special person I hadn’t spoken to in years but had been recently thinking about. I also had a story accepted for publication.

Sometimes, though, the punch is more than a bad week or a misunderstanding. It’s a serious illness. The break-up of a marriage. The death of a loved one.  It may take a lot more time to find your words again, to rise out of the darkness. During such trials, I hope you have a special person to lift you up. 

Famed American novelist, Henry James, wrote, in July 1883, a most tender and compassionate letter of advice and comfort to his friend and fellow writer, Grace Norton of Boston.  Grace was despondent after the death of a family member.  Henry encouraged his dear friend not to give up on life.

My dear Grace, you are passing through a darkness in which I myself in my ignorance see nothing but that you have been made wretchedly ill by it; but it is only a darkness, it is not an end, or the end. Don’t think, don’t feel, any more than you can help, don’t conclude or decide—don’t do anything but wait. Everything will pass, and serenity and accepted mysteries and disillusionments, and the tenderness of a few good people, and new opportunities and ever so much of life, in a word, will remain.

James’s concluding words to Grace lift me each time I read them.

Sorrow comes in great waves…but it rolls over us, and though it may almost smother us… we know that if it is strong we are stronger, inasmuch as it passes and we remain. It wears us, uses us, but we wear it and use it in return; and it is blind, whereas we, after a manner, see.

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Paul Christian Gelutu

You can read the letter in its entirety at  Letters of Note–Henry James or hear it on YouTube.

Turning Darkness to Light

 

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“One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life, I think, is to have a happy childhood.”  ~ Agatha Christie

“Childhood is a very, very tricky business of surviving it.”  ~Maurice Sendak

What first comes to mind when you hear the word “childhood”?

I’m guessing you might answer: innocence, joy, play, fun, laughter, silliness, or wonder.

What about the word “depression”?

Childhood depression should be an oxymoron. But it is a reality for too many children and the parents who love them.

One of the special characteristics of children is that, unlike grownups, they don’t stay mad or sad very long. But some children are born with a brain chemistry, genetic makeup, or nature that make it difficult to experience the lightness and joy of childhood, no matter how loving and stable their home.

“We naturally want and expect children to be happy,” my writer friend Irene says, “and when they’re not, we try to do something about it. We buy them a new toy, do a fun activity, talk, give hugs. But sometimes we can’t fix the unhappiness, and this feels awful.”

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Irene knows a lot about childhood depression. Her only son, now a young adult, showed symptoms of rage, frustration, sadness, and suicidal thinking by age eight. 

When other parents complained about their children’s everyday woes— not being picked for the travel team, not getting the lead in a play, having a squabble with a friend, being too shy—Irene was struggling to keep her child from despair. “I couldn’t relate to these parents. I felt alienated,” she said. “My son and I lived in a bubble of silence outside the norm.”  Irene’s parenting world revolved around psychiatrists, therapy appointments, hospitalizations, and various medications. She fought to protect her son in public school where he was often mistreated and misunderstood. “While some teachers were invested in him, others lost patience.”  Irene advocated tirelessly on her son’s behalf to keep him safe. “There were times,” she told me tearfully, “when I honestly didn’t know if I was going to lose him.” 

I met Irene a year and a half ago at a local meet-up of SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrator).  She’s a petite powerhouse who radiates energy and warmth. We immediately connected.  As we got to know one and other, we shared, not only our writing goals but our personal journeys of struggle and growth. Listening to Irene’s story, I marveled at her ability to exude such a love for life.

Irene has turned her painful experience into a passion project to help others. She wants to shed light on childhood depression, to open the uncomfortable discussion, and to let other parents and children know they are not alone. 


She translated this desire into action by writing and illustrating a small book with a big message. Celia and the Little Boy is the story of two children trapped in the darkness, and what it took for them to find their way out.”  Illustrated with child-like pencil drawings, this timeless tale is for readers ages 8 to 98. img_69311.jpg

Last week, I attended Irene’s book launch at the Canton Public Library. Speaking to a room full of supporters, Irene shared the story’s journey from inspiration to draft to published book. Irene’s son, now an adult, fully approved of her sharing his story, which is also his mother’s story.  Irene read the Celia and the Little Boy aloud while the pages were projected on a large screen.  I could just feel the overwhelming emotion of the audience as Irene read the last, hopeful sentence. 

The next step in Irene’s passion project is to connect with parents, teachers, pediatricians, and therapists.  Irene wants to offer, not only hope but information on this devastating illness that impacts families and communities at both the personal and national level.

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We can all learn from people like Irene who, rather than allowing themselves to be pulled under, reach toward the light. They turn pain into healing and meaning. They become activists, mentors, volunteers, writers, and spokespersons driven by a sense of purpose. They use the lessons gleaned from their loss, grief, or struggle to help ease another’s burden.

Now I think I know how Irene maintains her inner joy. Like her book character, Celia, Irene feels the struggle, yet is still able to see the world as a “truly wondrous place”.  As she so eloquently writes in her dedication:  For all the children who dwell alone in the darkness and those who can see them.”

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For more information on Celia and the Little Boy Irenebuchine.com

 

 

Do you regret quitting ______?

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Do you regret quitting music lessons as a child? Do you wish your parents had pushed you to continue studying piano?  Do you regret dropping out of competitive swimming or gymnastics or skating or dance? 

What about your own children? When do you let them quit a sport or artistic pursuit? What if your child is very talented? 

In my unscientific survey, the answers run the gamut from insisting one’s child continue studying to a certain age or level, to leaving the decision completely up to her. Some parents told me they don’t even suggest lessons until their child asks for them. 

For certain activities like singing, acting, and painting, one can much more easily pick it up again an adult.  But for other pursuits, there is a window of possibility both physically and mentally.  The opportunity for training narrows.  At some point, the pre-professional student must decide where he is heading because of the increasing demands of pursuing his art or sport. There is only so much time.

If you have devoted years to supporting your child’s passion or talent and he suddenly decides to quit, your heart may twist in a knot.  Maybe you see yourself in him. Maybe he is (was) living your own unfulfilled dreams.  You might believe that he is foolishly passing up opportunities for accomplishments and accolades. You worry that he will regret his decision.

My son walked at 9 months and was catching a ball by his first birthday. His pediatrician noted “motor skills genius” on Sam’s chart. At age 9, just before he was to earn his first black belt in karate, Sam insisted on quitting. It wasn’t that he didn’t like karate anymore (he practiced at home all the time), he didn’t want to go to the classes. His father and I wondered if the additional requirement for the black belt (writing an essay and leading the class) was the culprit. Or, maybe it was the intimidating and stern sensei. (Heck, this man scared me.)  Sam could not articulate the real reason, if there was one, but he put up quite a big fight and refused to continue training at the dojo.

The sensei told us we were making a terrible mistake. Sam showed exceptional talent.  The rewards for his personal development down the line were too great to pass up. Parents shouldn’t make such an important decision on the whims of a fickle nine-year-old, he said.

We let Sam quit.

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Still, our son never stopped moving. In addition to studying piano and chess, Sam excelled in swimming and tennis. He played varsity basketball and fenced competitively.  Recently, he’s taken up martial arts again.  Sam, now 23, holds no regrets about our/his decision, though admits to wondering if it was the “right” one.

With my youngest daughter, Audrey, the decision to end her pre-professional ballet study at 16 was hard on both of us, but mostly me. Dance was (and still is) my passion.  It meant a lot that my daughter and I shared this.  Despite the sacrifices involved, I committed to supporting her training (which mostly involved driving and waiting.) I loved watching Audrey grow as a dancer. I miss those days.

Recently, I wrote about the experience for Grown and Flown, a wonderful website and blog on parenting young adults. After this publication, I’ve received a lot of comments from others parents in similar situations—soccer, horseback-riding, violin—who related to my angst.

Interestingly, another mom wrote to me describing the opposite situation. She and her husband were never fully on board with their daughter’s desire to pursue dance professionally. After graduating with a BFA in dance, their daughter is now trying to get her big break in NYC. The reader wrote:  “So.. I was never a dance mom. More a mom that allowed my child to steer her ship….hoping that I did the right thing and that her dream becomes a reality.” 

Her honest words put a new spin on this parenting dilemma.   

You can read my essay, The Last Ballet Lesson”, here.   I welcome your thoughts.

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  My ballerina.

Writing Hard Stories

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“All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story…” 

~Isak Dinesen

 

I read a lot of memoirs. I enjoy getting lost in someone else’s emotional journey. A great memoir goes beyond the personal to the universal and offers the reader more than the events themselves but the meaning, as well. Great memoirs enlarge our view of the world and ourselves.

Some stories, though, seem too big to tell, even if they are begging to be told. Life complexities overwhelm.

The desire to translate explosive emotions into words, to order fragmented images, cannot be about making art or perfection or publication, at least in the beginning. First, the goal must be to know what one feels, then to figure out what happened—to claim your story.  As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “All I know is what I have words for.”  Then you tell it again and again in different voices, and then, perhaps, find a way to release it.

So how do we begin to shape an unruly story?  There are so many decisions to make. Where to begin may be the biggest. In her memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos says, “Every story begins with an unraveling.”  I like that idea. 

The act of telling a big story is a process of spinning chaos into order as Dani Shapiro discovers in her new memoir, Hourglass. “The narrative thread doesn’t stretch in a line from end to end, but rather, spools and unspools, loops around and returns again and again to the same spot…”

In trying to weave a big story, the writer must ask: what parts should I hold up for inspection and which ones do I leave out? These white spaces, though, are necessary; choosing them is the hard part.

How deep does one dig among the layers?   

These questions are ones I have grappled with as I tried writing about the tragic accident that took my father’s life. The story is so much more than the facts. And this story is not just my own.  It is my mother’s story of survivor guilt, and my sister’s story of arriving too late, and my brother’s story of choosing to see my father’s burned body, and another brother’s story of deciding to stay home, and another brother’s story of overseeing the far away burial. It is my daughter’s story of watching me answer the phone that fateful evening and then slip away. 

Finding my voice in this sad chorus is messy, uncomfortable work.

* * *

One day, as I was working with a student on her college application essay, I heard myself say, “You’re trying to cram a big, complicated story into one frame. It’s not working. Try zooming in closer. What do you see? What is your story really about?” 

Well.

It wasn’t the first time I’d given this advice, but at that moment, I heard it anew.

What is my story really about? 

The answer was “many things”.  The origin of fear.  The love of a daughter for her father. Family dysfunction. Religion. A freak accident. Grief. How trauma affects the brain. Healing through words. And this overwhelming realization contributed to my writer’s block. 

The breakthrough finally came when I stopped trying to create a unified big picture and took a snapshot instead. 

You don’t have to tell the whole story at once.

The resulting essay took on multiple forms and drafts.  I decided to submit it to The Sunlight Press whose missions seemed fitting: “We want to hear the ways people turn toward light and hope… and also how they respond to the darkness and navigate unknown spaces. Epiphanies are born from the ordinary and the extraordinary…we want to know about these moments.”  

To meet the word requirement of this online journal, I needed to shorten the story, thereby, getting closer to its essence. When the editor asked me to slightly revise its original ending (without saying how), I was, at first, taken aback. Then, the more I read my last lines, the more I realized I’d been too cryptic, perhaps too poetic. So I made it more truthful and simple. A tremendous sense of relief and satisfaction followed. It was published on July 9, 2017.

And that, I think, is the power of writing our stories. Unlike in real life, we can assemble the pieces with our own hands and, sometimes, even make the ending a little brighter.

 

Strangers on a Plane

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I consider myself a friendly person. I enjoy interesting conversation and connecting with people. I don’t care much for small talk, though. I much prefer to gain something from a conversation. At a party, I can easily meet a stranger and know her life story by the end of the evening. I think I’m pretty easy to talk to—except maybe on an airplane.

If you’re looking for conversation 30,000 feet in the air, you probably don’t want to sit next to me.    

My fear of flying developed in my early twenties. I’d get anticipatory anxiety a week before my flight. I often had panic attacks on the airplane. Once, my body jolted during sudden turbulence and I accidentally hit the woman seated next to me.  I could never sit by the emergency exit because I knew I was incapable of assisting my fellow passengers “in the unlikely event of a water landing.”

Fortunately,  over the past several years, my fear of flying has diminished somewhat.  I can even get some work done during a flight.  Can’t say exactly what brought about this change. Maybe I’ve finally become desensitized. Or maybe becoming a parent forced me to put on a brave face for the kiddos. Perhaps the relaxation techniques I learned finally paid off.

Or, maybe it was just those yellow pills. 

Whatever the reason, it’s likely that the unpleasantness of air travel will get to me now more than the idea of donning a life vest. Given the current state of air travel, I bet most of us feel this way.

Still, I can never predict my mental state once on board, so I keep my guard. I have certain rituals I need to do during takeoff and landing.  I’m very picky about my seat choice. And, I don’t want to talk to any strangers. Fortunately, most people are plugged into their devices or watching in-flight “entertainment”. 

So, there I was a few months ago, about to board a 7:00 am flight to Toronto.  (Let me just say, I’m not a morning person. )  A well-dressed, older man smiled at me.  I smiled, faintly, then looked the other way.  He moved closer. “Traveling for business or pleasure?” 

I did an inner eye-roll at that original line. “Pleasure,” I answered, hoping my one-word reply would signal that I did not wish to make small talk.  But he continued in a chipper, wide-awake fashion.  I nodded politely as he gave me the weather report for Toronto.  As we began to board the plane, I felt relieved to escape. “Well, have a good trip,” I said.

What were the odds he’d be seated next to me, anyway?

As I walked down the too-narrow aisle, I got an immediate claustrophobic reaction. The plane was smaller than I expected. And, there were only two seats on each side of the cabin. No sooner had I settled into my window seat than Mr. Friendly appeared.

“Well, look at that,” he said, sitting down in the too-close seat beside me.

I ignored him.

I took out my phone and headphones, then put on sunglasses. (Don’t ask. Just part of the ritual.) I plugged into my favorite tunes. After the safety instructions were given, my seatmate asked me a question. I don’t remember what it was.  Then he made a joke about the TSA.  

I removed my earplugs.  “Sorry, um, just to let you know, I’m not a comfortable flyer,” I said. “Especially during takeoff and landing. So, please excuse me.”

He waved a hand. “Don’t worry about it. Do whatever you need to do.”

I smiled, then put back on my headphones.   

“Everything’s going to be just fine,” he announced over my happy music.

Ten minutes later, after we reached cruising altitude, my body relaxed a bit. Immediately, my friendly seatmate continued to engage me. “Feeling better?”

 Gee, didn’t he have something to read?   

 I  tried summoning my friendly self.  “Yes, I am, thank you.” 

He asked if I was from Boston and what I planned on doing in Toronto.

“I’m on my way to a family wedding,” I offered. 

“That’s wonderful,” he said, then sighed. “Unfortunately, I’m on my way to a family funeral.”

The juxtaposition of our travel purposes touched something within me. I removed my sunglasses. I listened as he described the loss of a dear cousin. 

Before long, I found myself in a thoughtful conversation with this stranger.

He was a hospital physician who loved his work. He and his wife of twenty years had both found each other after leaving long terrible marriages.  (His honesty and happy marital status removed any imagined pretense. ) I asked him what he thought the secret to a happy marriage was and he told me. Then he showed me pictures of his family and grandchildren.  He laughed that I was surprised by his age–73. I told him that people often think I’m much younger, too.

“Happiness is the fountain of youth,” he said. 

Then I heard myself ask:  “So, what’s it like to be seventy-three?” 

And he told me.

So there I was, in one of my least favorite places, talking about love and loss with a stranger. We exchanged stories about our professions. He asked me what I most liked to write about. I asked him what he’d advise a medical student.

We laughed about the White House circus and made predictions of our new president’s future. He made a joke about Trump on an airplane.

The flight passed by quickly—something that never happens to me. I realized that this man’s company distracted me from the usual worrisome engine noises and air bumps. Still, when the flight attendant announced that it was time  “to start our descent” my anxiety crept up.

My new friend sensed this.  “Just take a few deep breaths. Go back to your happy place.” 

And I did.

Once on the ground, the man gave me a few tips for navigating Customs. He needed to rush out to catch a connecting flight.  He wished me well and was on his way. 

At that moment, I was sorry to see him go.

During the past weeks, with all the terrible news stories about air travel, I thought about my random encounter with a friendly stranger in the unfriendly skies. 

Maybe he thought about me, too.