Dark Reality and My Writing Journey

The young girl lay in her bed under a dusty rose comforter with delicate white flowers. Stuffed animals graced the sides of her bed, while extra blankets folded over her feet made her feel safe and  secure whenever she fell asleep. The early morning sun began to sneak in through the window over her bed, despite the curtains pulled across to block out the light. 

The girl clutched her covers around her. She had been awake for  a while now, before the golden light seeped into the room. Despite the beauty of the morning, she didn’t want to turn her head toward the empty bed across the room–deserted by her older sister when she left for college a few weeks before. She wasn’t afraid of the empty bed, but of what she had seen on and  around that bed upon waking up. 

I can’t look. What if they’re still there? She knew she had to look. It must have been a dream. I imagined it.

She turned her head.

It wasn’t a dream. She saw the bodies piled on her sister’s bed–emaciated bodies with dark circles underneath dead eyes and bald heads. Next to them was an even bigger pile of skulls and other bones  in a jumble. 

She wanted to scream but couldn’t find the breath.

She stared in shock for several long minutes, rubbing her eyes and blinking in the hopes that the nightmare would end. She couldn’t find her voice to call out for help.  After what felt like a long fifteen minutes the image shifted. The piles turned into the reality of her bedroom. The bodies turned into pillows and clothes she had put on her sister’s bed. The bones turned into knickknacks and collectibles on her sister’s bedside table.

She was back into reality, but she knew it wasn’t a dream.Dusty rose bedspread

***

A few days ago I mentioned how the mini-series The Holocaust helped me recognize the power of words. In a comment on that post the fabulous Kathy mentioned how the Holocaust influenced her desire to become a writer. Kathy’s words and images on Lake Superior Spirit never fail to inspire me and give me moments of peace, so we are all blessed by the fact that she found inspiration in the horror.

As did I, but I’ve also found challenges because of it. For you see, that little girl under the rose-pink bedspread was me. That vision or hallucination or glimpse at memory was mine, and I was wide awake.

The miniseries sparked a sort of fascination within me, where I wanted to learn more and understand more about how such horror could happen, how mankind could be so cruel based on things so invisible and meaningless–differences in culture, in belief, in race. I became a voracious reader of Holocaust literature, starting with The Diary of Anne Frank and moving up to more mature and adult fare. (I was a very advanced reader). I talked with Mrs. Sekler, my Hebrew School teacher and the  only person I knew who had the blue numbers etched into her arm.

Until the day I saw the bodies and the bones.

I told my parents what happened,  and they said I had to stop reading Holocaust literature. They said it was probably a dream, fueled by the books. So I stopped until I was an adult and could handle it again.

What does this have to do with my writing journey?

I know my biggest flaw as a writer, if I want to make it as a successful author of fiction, especially YA/NA, I need to be willing to write darker material. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of eerie or creepy pieces, and my characters often have a dark side. They aren’t always flitting with fairies and riding on rainbows. However, I could never have written The Hunger Games because I can’t get myself to write about young people killing young people. I can’t write the descriptive and violent darkness found  in so many successful books these days.

I’m blocked when it comes to that stuff.

Yet, in a world where this cruelty exists every day, in blatant and subtle forms, I have to confront my own inability. I live in a country where a loud and powerful minority want to maintain their flimsy and mostly imagined supremacy by limiting the rights of others to things like healthcare, marriage, control of their own bodies, and the right to worship as they please. How is that different from the desire  to have a “Master Race”? I live in a world of rape-culture where the victims get blamed and the rapists get glorified. I live in a world where people are murdered by guns, while others cling to their rights to have weapons built only for the purpose of killing lots of people as quickly as possible. I live in a world where women are tortured and brutalized every day for reasons as meaningless as the desire to become educated. I live in a world where people are still judged by the color of their skin, the way they worship, the language they speak, or the way they dress.

I live in a cruel world.

If I want to become  the writer I dream to be, I need learn how to write about that world, in the  voice of that world. I need to embrace the possibility of seeing the darkness, the violence,  the pain with my own waking eyes, and then combating it with the power of my words.

This is my challenge to myself. This is my writing journey.

Celebrating Words

I believe that I am now on #35 of my Celebrating 45 list. Peppered throughout the list you will see my love of reading/writing/and language of all sorts.

Today, I want to celebrate the importance of words in my life. It has taken me a long time to admit this. I still blush or stumble when I try to claim it in person, but here goes . . .

I am a writer!!!

My love of words goes beyond written language. I love hearing and seeing language used with power and flexibility. I am addicted to Podcasts and TED talks, where master’s of the arts of writing and speaking fascinate their audiences with perfect phrasing, eloquent language, and an ability to manipulate language for sound and meaning A memorable phrase that lives beyond the moment of reading or hearing it, gives me chills. I thrill in those rare and wonderful moments when my own words–through some source outside myself–come together to create that indescribable perfection of consonants, vowels, and phrasing.

I just finished reading Don’t Let Me Go  by Catherine Ryan Hyde (excellent book with wonderful characters and plot that makes you want to know more).  Two sentences of hers made me yell (in my mind) “That’s it!!!”:

“Hard work can sometimes substitute for natural ability, but natural ability almost never makes up for not being willing to do the work.” (pg. 149)

“Sorry doesn’t mean shit. Not if you don’t plan to stop doing the thing you’re so sorry about. There has to be more to amends than just a word.” (pg. 406)

However, this post isn’t about celebrating other people’s words, as fabulous as they may be.

This is about celebrating words in my own life.

In 1978, when I was 10 years old,  I sat mesmerized and terrified by the television mini-series The Holocaust. 

This was in the midst of my own Hebrew School years, and the crucial years leading up to my Bat Mitzvah. Although I have since lost some of the religious beliefs, being a Jew was (and to some extent still is) an important aspect of my life at that time.

At a Hebrew School meeting after the series aired, the Rabbi met with all the classes to discuss what we had seen. I raised my hand and said, “It made me scared to be a Jew, but prouder than ever to be a Jew.”

On Saturday morning (I’m told–I would have been at the children’s service if I was there) the Rabbi used my words as part of his reflection during the service. This was the moment that I became aware that the right choice of words–even when you don’t know that they are the right words–can be magical, powerful and reach beyond the pages or the circumstances where they’ve been created.

My journey through writing started in school, with my first poems written in 1st grade along with a puppet play. My first book was a collection of poems and short stories that I hand-lettered and illustrated as a project in sixth grade, for another fabulous teacher who influenced my life named Mrs. Jorgensen. My first published work was a poem written bout a piece of art in a museum, that then got placed into some kind of literary magazine someone put out.

I have numerous starts and starts of stories, novels, poems etc. scattered throughout journals and gathered in three-ring binders. Throughout my life I’ve found solace and friendship in words, probably more than anyone even knew. Because of this it makes sense to me that when life began to fall apart around me (for reasons I won’t go into here) I turned to words–writing my first real book, joining a book club, and creating  a small writing group. The two women from that writing group convinced me to take the step into a then unknown world, the one of blogging. Over 756 posts (spread across several blogs) and thousands if not millions of words later, my life is filled with words. Some of them sing with the beauty I yearn for, but most of them are mundane and some are even cliché. However, words fill my life and sustain me, so a celebration of my life would not be complete without celebrating the words that fill it.

What are some of your favorite words? What quotes live on in your memory?

 

People I Have Met . . .

A fabulous couple! Who count in the list of “Bloggers I Have Met”

I’m thinking about connections, again. I write about this often, about the people we meet along the way. People who touch our lives, if only for a moment. People who affect our choices, encourage our dreams, change our paths–without us even realizing that the person or the moment is significant.

Yesterday, I read a post by Linda Katz called “‘Miss Holocaust Survivor’: Celebrate Beauty!”. Linda officially counts as one of the  “Bloggers who I have met,” a small group of people who add to the fascinating  connections in my world.  I met her before I read her blog, during one of my NYC adventures this past year. I connected with her journey to find the Jews of Europe, to understand why they returned to countries which had basically tried to wipe them off the face of the earth. We talked for a while on the evening we first met, and I have followed her through her blog, because meeting her was one of those moments.

Linda’s post discusses the pros and cons of a beauty contest for Holocaust survivors, a contest which really celebrated the inner beauty of a group of women who survived some of the ugliest mankind has to offer, and moved onto live lives that surpassed the horrors of the Holocaust.

I think their story would make an amazing play.

But this post isn’t about their story. It is about the stories of all the people I have met along the way.

As I read the story, I thought back to my Hebrew School teacher, Mrs. Sekler who pulled me aside one day to show me blue numbers faded into her arm. She told me her story. I don’t recall the details, although I do know she watched her family die. When she shared her story with me, she changed my world because she was a woman who faced evil and still was able to love.

I wish I knew more about her.

There are so many people who touched my life only briefly, but my contact with them has affected me in numerous ways. I am horrible, in that I cannot remember names much of the time, and I only see snippets of faces–an eye here, hair there, perhaps a smile. But, when I look back at all the people I have met, even if only for a moment, I realize how amazing this world really is:

  • my French pen-pal who I met while I was in high school. She showed me parts of France that I was lucky to see.
  • Akemi, one of my good friends from Japan, who broke all the stereotypes and taught me how to reach for dreams.
  • The Russian women who I met in Bali. They packed up and explored the world after the death of their husbands, which made me aspire to a future where I live my life to the fullest.
  • Kenro, another Japanese friend, a teddy bear with muscles and an adorable smile, who made me believe in romance and the possibility of finding Prince Charming (no he wasn’t a romance he just made me believe in romance)/
  • Rita Smith, my amazing Social Studies teacher in high school, who taught me that learning can and should be joyous fun.
  • The woman who took me under her wing during my summer in Myrtle Beach,  South Carolina, taught me to dance The Shag (badly) and showed me that friendship can be formed through difference, even of age, if you are only open to it.
  • Mindy, one of my fellow teachers in Japan, a feisty, tough Australian woman who broke rules and taught me how to live life with gusto.
  • The man on a flight back to Arizona from Vermont, who talked to me the whole way about research, life, dreams and aspirations. I usually don’t talk much when I fly alone, but somehow the conversation with him seemed very important.

My list could go on forever, with the hundreds of There are also, of course, people who meet and affect life in negative ways. They count too, if only for the lessons they teach. In this case, I am not naming names even if I remember them:

  • My professor from grad school who taught be my first real lesson about power, manipulation, and jealousy.
  • The colleague at another college that continued that lesson, while attempting to destroy our lives and careers.
  • The boy at a swim meet who made biased jokes forcing me to stand up for myself and my beliefs.
  • The family who hated my family throughout my childhood, simply because we were Jews. They taught me to fight against bias based off of ignorance.

Fortunately that list isn’t as long, but it too could continue on if I wanted it too. I don’t want to do that.

I feel like I have met so many more people on this blogging journey, even if I have yet to meet most of them in person. I am so honored to have met a few (you know who you are) and hope to meet more in the future (possibly even at the end of the summer, Tori?)

Dory, one of the “Bloggers I have met.” She lives bravely, and I want to learn from her.

Who are the people you have met, even if only for a moment, that have influenced your life in some way?

Why Do We Forget? (100 Word Challenge for Grown Ups)

This weeks 100 Word Challenge for Grown Ups requires that we use the phrase ” . . . lest we forget . . . ” Julia also allowed us  a picture, but I have to cheat a little because I need to use two pictures from the same monument. Sorry Julia, I’m sure you’ll understand.

Numbers carved into glass
Grim but beautiful reminders of a world gone mad
. . . lest we forget.

Words engraved in stone that we should hear, repeat
“And then they came for me”
. . . lest we forget

Yet somehow we forget.
Never learning from past mistakes
despite the monuments to pain and suffering
some still point fingers to create scapegoats of hatred.

They forget.

But even through the horror,
a child reminds us of humanity
her only possession
a single raspberry that she gave to a friend

. . . lest we forget.

"Ilse, a childhood friend of mine once found a raspberry in the camp and carried it in her pocket all day to present to me that night as a treat. Imagine a world in which your entire possession is one raspberry and you give it to your friend."

Don't forget to check out the other participants 100 words.

Do You Believe in Ghosts?

It’s that time of year again, when thoughts turn to jack o’ lanterns and spookiness, ghosts and goblins and all things that go bump in the night.

And, of course, candy. Don’t forget the candy.

For me this time of year is really just an excuse to delve more deeply into something that has always fascinated me . . . questions about ghosts and the paranormal.

Do you believe in ghosts? It’s a complicated question in this somewhat pessimistic era, where people demand proof of everything before they will believe (except, of course, those who are able to devoutly believe in religion without questioning–something I am not really able to do).

In some ways I think it was easier to live in a time when everyone believed in the unexplained, because they had no way of proving anything differently. For example, the roots of Halloween are based on the Celtic belief that

on the night before the new year, [which for them was November 1] the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31 they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.(http://www.history.com/topics/halloween)

Nobody questioned the existence of spirits them, because spirits helped explain away the challenges they faced throughout the year.

Despite the fact that we tend to be more cynical, it seems like questions about the paranormal still haunt many of us, and provide hours of entertainment. Television shows like Ghost Hunters have inspired the creation of numerous ghost hunting adventures, as well as a variety of other paranormal based television shows and movies. If you do a Google search for videos about ghosts or paranormal or anything related, you’ll find hundreds if not thousands of clips, many completely fake but a few that leave you questioning. I admit, I do this often because of my own fascination.

Do I believe in ghosts? I’m not sure I can answer. When I was younger, I could sense shifts in energy that left eerie feelings inside me. I’ve met many people who still seem to have an intense connection with spirit. In some ways, I recognize that believing in ghosts serves a psychological purpose, but I am just as fascinated by that psychology as the question of whether or not ghosts are real. Why do we want them to be so much?

And of course, I have had  several experiences that leave me open to the possibility:

  • One Wednesday evening when we were children, my sister and I (and maybe my brother, I don’t remember) used the Ouija Board (which I will no longer touch because of this incident) and were supposedly talking to the spirit of my grandmother. When we asked where Grandpa was, the response said, “Out dancing.” Further inquiry led to the name of a specific dance, that I cannot recall. Later, in discussion with our mother, we learned that Grandpa used to go out every Wednesday to do that dance. Now, my sister might have been old enough to remember that, but I certainly wasn’t. You decide.
  • Around the time the mini-series The Holocaust (1978) came on, I immersed myself in reading everything I could find about this horrific event in history. I was in Hebrew School and was immersed in my own Judaism at the time, so that isn’t surprising. I read, and read, and read. That is, until one morning when I lay awake in my bedroom and saw  a pile of skulls and dead bodies lying across the room. Yes, I know it was probably just my mind making visual sense of all the words I read, but it was eerily real and scary enough that I did not pick up another book about the Holocaust for years.
  • There was the night in college when several of us decided to sneak into the theatre building and spend the night on the stage. Every theatre has its ghosts, and this one was no exception. Let’s just say I didn’t sleep well that night, and it had nothing to do with the security guard that surprised us at one point (but let us stay because he knew many of us had keys anyway).

Perhaps these aren’t the most convincing ghost experiences, but the feelings I get sometimes in ancient places are enough to make me unsure of what I believe. My fascination carries over into books I choose to read, not horror fiction but non-fiction that explores the topic from believers to skeptics. I just finished reading The Medium Next Door by Maureen Hancock. She shares her experience as a “Real-Life Ghost Whisperer”, but her book does more than that, it helps explore the reasons behind this need to believe in ghost. It offers an explanation of why ghosts exist. She explains that our souls are here for a designated time and then move on, leaving our physical bodies behind like a “used car.” She offers an understanding of death that can provide comfort to the living, and enables them to understand that death is not an end–without delving into any specific religious doctrine.

Because, after all, isn’t the question about ghosts really a hope to understand the meaning of life an death?

I may never truly know whether or not ghosts exist, or at least not until I am looking from the other side. I may never know if there are creatures from other planets, or magic is real. I may never know, but I’m okay with that, because the mystery adds spice to life. After all,

“There are more things in heaven and earth, . . . Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Shakespeare)

What do you think? Do you believe in ghosts?

For a fabulously creepy and wonderfully written  post that got posted as I wrote this, and supports the existence of ghosts read The Footsteps on the Stairs at She’s a Maineiac.

More stories keep cropping up now, so I will continue to add links to fabulous stories as I go.  Here’s one called “Serendipity, Coincidences or Lifes Small Miracles” by Georgette Sullins.

Stories of Laughter and of Tears

On the return drive from taking Nathan to the airport (for a trip related to the mysterious possibilities that I am still not talking about) I listened to NPR shows that he had downloaded for the drive. As usual, I laughed, I got frustrated and I cried.

But this time the tears came from a hurt deep inside.

It all started with This American Life as I tuned into Alison Silverman’s report on the 1950’s television show This Is Your Life.  I know that I watched reruns of that show as a child, or at least saw clips. I vaguely recall creating our own versions of the show when we decided to create our own radio/television shows. Somewhere in the collection of memorabilia at my parents house lies an old orange-labeled cassette tape containing a radio show filled with childish lisps, lame jokes, bad accents, sound effects and giggles. If I had the power, I would share a clip with you here.

But this isn’t about those childhood memories. This is about my focus on sharing stories. Silverman’s report brought to life the dual sided gift of sharing someone’s life story in a public venue. The first story to make me sob was that of a Holocaust survivor, Hanna Bloch Kohner.  Her initial reaction to the words, “This is Your Life Hanna Bloch Kohner!” was a somewhat agonized (or at least it sounded that way to me) “Oh, no.”   During the half hour show, she was reunited with a fellow survivor who moved from camp to camp with her and was reminded of the death of her parents and her husband.  She had to talk about her 7 years of horror, including being handed a bar of soap and not knowing whether the shower she entered would be one of water or of gas.

That story over, I thought my tears would diminish. But no, next Silverman shares another This is Your Life about a Japanese man who survived the bombing of Hiroshima and was travelling around the United States to raise money for reconstructive surgery for some young female survivors. He meets his past in as dramatic a way as possible; they brought the co-pilot of the Enola Gay on to shake his hand.

“How could they be so cruel?” I said out loud through my tears (appreciating the fact that I was alone in the car). I thought it was cruelty to both men; one who had to confront the enemy who destroyed his city with a bomb, and one who had to confront the reality of what that bomb did to human beings.

Why would we find entertainment in reminding people of true evil or about the most horrific times of their lives? I thought to myself. Why are so many people fascinated by “reality” television?

As I worked my way through my tears and the agony of my thoughts, I began to glimpse the answer in Silverman’s words:

Even in its heyday, ThisisYourLife raised hackles. Time magazine called Ralph Edwards a spiritual prosecutor to his guests. And Jack Gould at the New York Timesaccused the show and others like it of exploiting the raw and private emotions of the unfortunate. But the unfortunate, they liked it. ThisisYourLife might have exploited your story, but it also told you your story, gave it to you, and once you had it you could do whatever you wanted with it.

Hanna’s daughter, Julie Kohner, told me that her mother spent the year after the show traveling around the country with a copy of her episode raising money for United Jewish Appeal. On Passover, the Kohner family would play it on the gift projector they got on ThisisYourLife. Years later, Hanna and her husband, Walter, even published a joint autobiography, HannaandWalter:a Love Story.

And as brutal as his episode seems today, Reverend Kiyoshi Tanimoto had fond memories of his appearance. His daughter, Koko Kondo, who was on the telecast as a 10-year-old told me when English speaking guests would visit, Tanimoto would play them the episode on his gift projector. He wasn’t horrified by meeting Captain Lewis, the co-pilot of the Enola Gay. In fact, the two of them started writing each other after the show. And Koko Kondo says Captain Lewis changed her whole attitude about the old enemy. Seeing him tear up on stage at the El Capitan, she stopped hating American soldiers. (Silverman)

You see, it all comes back to the importance of STORY. When we share stories of horror, of sadness, and of pain, it allows us to heal. When we share stories full of laughter and joy, it allows us to celebrate. Through our stories, even through the ridiculousness of reality television, we come one step closer to recognizing the things that bind us together as humans.

For the truth is,  the only thing we have completely in common is that we all have a story.

____________________________________

Today’s Quote: 

There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.
Washington Irving

. . . their cries were heard . . .

For this weeks 100 Word Challenge for Grown Ups, I am putting my poetry skill to the test. Join me in this challenge, it is inspirational and fun, although this weeks challenge is leaning toward the depressing. 😉

Shots rang across the water aimed at children

            . . . their cries were heard . . .

Animals fled the destruction of their home
            . . . their cries were heard . . .

Millions died in the name of purity
            . . . their cries were heard . . .

Thousands harmed as Mother Nature screams
            . . . their cries were heard . . .

Young people dying by their own hands because of their difference

            . . . their cries were heard . . .

There, cries were heard . . . but too often ignored.

Painting by Michael Horsley-Millman http://www.horsley-millman.co.uk/index.html

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