A Beautiful Suffering

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A few years ago, I was sitting in the parking lot of my children’s school, waiting for them to emerge from a long day of classroom work.  I was listening to the radio and Terri Gross was interviewing a former evangelical who had become an atheist,  because – after years of searching – he could not find a reason for suffering. I remember audibly laughing. “Okay,” I said. “That’s cliché. ” I have a great disdain for the cliché.

Since that time, my family has gone through some difficult situations;  the kind of situations to which people say,”That will never happen to me.” But they did and we endured. God granted us beautiful religious and non – religious friends to see us through and a wonderful parish to help draw us out of the darkness. But even my children,  who took the brunt of the suffering – and that is what makes it so sharply painful in my motherly heart – have noted the many moments of new life and irreversible joy that have come from the depth of darker things. From death, comes life. From dying, a new leaf, a fresh root, a seedling that will one day become an ancient oak.

This sunny Ash Wednesday morning,  on the way to school,  my son said, “Mommy, I used to be afraid of losing  a tooth, because it’s kind of scary. There’s blood and even sometimes pain, but now I get excited when a tooth is loose, because when the old one falls a new one shows up. And these teeth are the ones I will have when I am an old man and I have experienced a whole lifetime.”

Because he has known pain, he more acutely recognizes a blessing, he more easily welcomes joy. That has felt unfair to me in the past. It feels unfair to me now, and it probably is, but it is the nature of life – that darkness comes before dawn,  that loss makes room for abundance.

Tonight, my family will go to mass and receive our ashes. Our priest will smear the smokey smudge across our foreheads with the mantra, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return.”

It is a fact that human DNA and what is found in the particles that make up the stars is the same. Genesis tells us that Adam, the first man came from dirt. However he died, we know his flesh wilted and blew away with the chaff. We are made up of what is found in death. Earthly life is final, and our own bodies remind us of that; our universe echoes it. But to have life, we must die.

To rise again on Easter Sunday, we must have Ash Wednesday. We must be reminded that there is purpose in suffering,  a purpose that brings us back to ourselves.

My neighbor is attending her father’s funeral today. In less than a month her daughter will give birth to her first grandchild. Death and life. My dogwood tree is bare, and for many weeks was hanging low under the weight of the winter snow. This morning,  I saw the tiniest of buds emerging from its spindly branches. I will go to bed with ashes marking my forehead with a cross. I will awaken with them erased, without a trace of burned palm dust on me.

Sometimes the only purpose to suffering is that it helps us to understand and recognize all that is good in life, and there, we suddenly see the God of who’s presence we have sometimes been so unsure.

Making Space

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This morning my house is chaos.

The cats are chasing the big Labradors through the living room.

The children are chasing the cats.

There is barking and screaming and general sounds and acts of glee.

The eldest teenager snores softly in his room.

The Hot Latin Husband settles “an emergency from Mexico” at his bedroom office upstairs.

The quiet Asperger son watches a silent documentary about Origami in his tightly closed bedroom.

And me? I tap away at my computer, I flip through Poets & Writers, making a repetitive mental list of all my “to-do” and “have not yet completed” lists. They spin on an invisible guilt-fueled merry-go-round inside my head. Outside my window, ice pelts the roof of my old Pennsylvania Dutch Farmhouse and the dogwood tree shakes its bare scraggy, ice-weathered arms like an old man in the snow. It distracts me. I see a story in it, but the sound of a crash upstairs and the smell of burning rubber from the vacuum cleaner downstairs, distracts me.

I am a writer. Who cares, right?

This means that I write while others demand from me. I write while dinner burns. I write while the car is parked and waiting for children to come racing from their school doors at the end of the day. I write in berween teaching other people to write. I write while the I wait in line at the post office. I write to pay the bills that ever end. I write to explain a political position. I write to work out the mysteries of faith. I write because it is who I am as much as what I do.

But the world does not stop knocking, unless it’s holding one of my published articles, stories or essays in its hands. And even then, it holds its fist for only a moment before the pounding begins again.

The students continue to call, “Can you make me a better writer?”, “Can you teach me English?”, “Can you help little Johnny learn to read?”, “Can you teach in my preschool?”

Can you just let me write?

But no. I must push away and clear the space myself.

There are pockets of publishing in the world, even for me. I am being published in two literary magazines this year. I have an editor at a major publisher who is interested in one of my four completed manuscripts. I have been accepted to three prestigious MFA programs, but chose an MA instead and it’s like a literary flogging, with Chaucer and mid-16th century vowel shifts at the helm. My cradle Catholic soul thrives.

But the world that wants my work will also take it away if I do not, sometimes, shut the door.

Writers write, or they aren’t writers.

While I nodded, nearly napping,
Suddenly, there came a tapping
As of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door -
‘Only this, and nothing more.’

The Raven – Edgar Allen Poe

Fighters (a study guide and profile)

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Healthy people, this post might offend you. Just a warning, and if you’re offended, it’s because you are “one of those people” of which this post is about to speak, or you just have no clue what I am talking about. This post is for the suddenly ill, the chronically ill, and their actual caregivers – the people who are tangibly there. It does not pertain to the well-wishers who want to be acknowledged for more than they are. Well-wishers are needed and have an important place in the life of the sufferer, but they are not caregivers and the sufferers don’t see them this way. Again, just a warning.

I have had a serious autoimmune disease since 1996. I have been through many medications, several major surgeries, lots and lots of infusions, chemotherapy drugs, much more radiation than I believe I need, etc…And this is not unusual for someone who fights chronic disease every day of their lives. I tend to feel a certain sort of resentment when I am recovering from some sort of disease-related treatment.

At first, way back in 1996, this feeling would rise up in me like an acid and eat me, literally, from the inside out. I would be unable to eat food or absorb nutrients, It stunted the healing process and did nothing for me. Over the years, the feeling has diminished a bit. With time, anything dulls a bit, even the kind of resentment about which I speak and with which I have actively struggled during my entire adult life, for brief or lengthy, seasons. I write about it differently today, and somewhat reluctantly, because I think it is important for sufferers, or Fighters as I’d rather call us, to wrestle fully with this beast, like Jacob with his angel.

It often visits at night when you are puking your brains out, over disease or medication, when you are crying out in pain from disease or medication, when you can’t feed yourself, bathe yourself, walk alone, or retain a simple thought for more than a few moments. It comes when it takes you hours, literally, to tie your own shoe laces, and you just have to do it alone, because there is no one else, except, you. You’re alone, but your Well-Wishers believe themselves present. This is when Resentment swoops in and settles inside the wide open spaces of your broken heart. I do not feel Resentment deeply today. He started in last night. Last night, when I received a long email from a friend, who has almost never been present during any of my trials, with the words, “As always, I will be there.” And to clarify, I have received a few of these messages over the past few days since I returned from the hospital after my thymectomy – a serious, major, thoracic surgery for Myasthenia Gravis – the disease that has nearly killed me – twice – and tries to do it every day. It won’t win. I am living proof.

This email was too much for me, because Resentment started leaning heavier on my shoulders, pressing on my incisions and all the tender spots that pain medicine can’t reach. He said, “She’s never been there. She just thinks she has. You should tell her off in that sharp, long-lasting writer voice you own so powerfully. She’ll never forget your anger.” I listened. It made sense. It was all true. I should tell her to shut up and stop patting herself on the back, while mine hurts so much. Resentment smiled. I felt good for thinking it. But my Christianity is stronger, I hope, than my old sparring buddy, Resentment, and I fought pain and nausea instead of my friend. The truth is, I have a collection of dear friends who are Well-Wishers, and like I said, they have their place and they are needed probably even more than the hands-on caregivers. They send words of love and encouragement and hope and prayers and light. Some of my greatest and most helpful Well-Wishers are Pagan and atheist. They tend to be fairly honest and they tend not to offer physical things they can’t deliver. They don’t usually claim to be my best nurses either. They simply say, “Geeze, that sucks. You have my love. Get better, pal.”

Those words are true and they heal better than a good antibiotic. My religious – Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim pals (I have them all) – who do the same (offer only what they truly can, even if it is just kind words and the genuine warming light of their prayers) – offer me the same kind of balm. I treasure these gifts during times of illness and/or recovery.

Not every friend needs to be a caregiver to the Fighter. The screaming, cheering crowd, the quiet affirmative nod, is more important than the doctor with all the answers. True story. Well-wishers who have still stuck around to read the rest of this, never feel that you are not doing enough if your words and prayers are all you have. That is everything. These are your two mites. They are like so many continuously unwrapping miracles. Keep it up. You are just fine as you are.

Well-Wishers who claim to be anything more, are the conception of Resentment . They are the ones who make the Fighter want to punch all the wrong people and tear at their own recovery. They are the ones who say things like… “I will come visit when you’re all better, because I can’t handle watching you suffer.” “What can I do?” and then they follow this up with, “As long as whatever you need does not conflict with x,y,z.” or “I don’t do ‘sick’. Feel better.”

I have had a friend for years who has done this from the beginning of my disease. When I was first paralyzed with a weird Guillain-Barré’/Myasthenia Gravis Combo Crisis, she visited me and then told me that she could not handle illness and I did not see her until I was all sparkly and recovered and walking around in fast, long-legged strides around my block several months later. When I started to weaken again, she said, “I can’t handle anything more. Don’t even tell me about it. I have too much to worry about right now. I am sorry, I know that’s mean, but I just don’t have anything for you.”

Okay. Fair enough.

I suffered completely without her friendship during the rough times. She was never there when I couldn’t feed myself or when I slept in my own vomit for three days. She was never there when I had to have a chest tube inserted without pain meds. She was never there when I learned that my baby was stillborn. She was never there when I lived three months out of a wheelchair and could only eat soy shakes, because swallowing made me choke. She was never there for any more of the many hospitalizations or surgeries. She knew about most of them. A few of them, I just never bothered to tell her about. She didn’t want to know. Said she couldn’t handle it. Always had a reason.

But she cared for other friends, who lived further away and whom she hadn’t seen in years. She told many others the same thing, but she actually helped them.

Why do people do this? Resentment makes me ask myself this question. He whispers it into my dreams at night. I have an incredibly supportive husband, and over the years, we have achieved much greater faith, trust, and spiritual growth. We two, have healed together and even though this is the most serious surgery to date, I have learned the ropes and Resentment is only a whisper now and not a roaring train, derailing my every waking moment.

This particular Well-Wisher could have several different names, because she is like so many others who have done similar things. She has promised so much and offered only words, but she does not stop there. She does not want just to be noted for her words. She wants to be noted for the care she has only ever given, really, ONCE. Once, she supported me physically, and I will forever love her for it. In fact, I loved her before the support and I would have loved her just as much without it, as I did not expect anything from her. I never do. When she has needed support, I have been there…sometimes.

Most of the times, when she needs more than a sincere Well-Wish (remember, these are great things), I am ill or recovering and I cannot offer her anymore, but I try. I tell her than if I can do something, I will, and I mean it, but then I usually have to tell her that I can’t help, because I am physically impeded. I do not help any other friends more than I help her.

I have another friend, who is a Fighter of debilitating Major Depressive Disorder, and she is ALWAYS here. Not there. She is here. She drives me around, she helps me tie my shoes, she makes my family dinner, she takes care of my children, she laughs, complains, and cries with me.  I do the same for her. We irritate each other. We encourage one another. We lift one another up and sometimes tear each other down. But, mostly, we spend the good and bad times together, A lot. When I am ill or recovering, I know I can call her, and that is not because she is single or childless. It is because she is a Fighter too. We understand each other in a way that our other friends do not understand us. She is truly family. We’ll be at each other’s bedsides when we’re dying old ladies. My husband will be present as well. She is like his sister. We’re family.

Resentment cannot grow around her. She smashes him the minute she walks in the door and my stinky, scrubby Labradoodle tries to knock her down in love. It disappears, I hope, when her godson (my youngest) comes running into her apartment door and completely disturbs whatever peace her neurotic birds have finally found. Fighters, if you have a friend like this – keep him or her close. Make them chocolate cake every Friday.

This is what my pal and I have done for each other for years and while it has only made us fatter and less healthy (on the outside), it strengthens our hope and resolve on the inside, and the inside is really all you have, My Dear Readers. If you ever have to have a grumpy nursing assistant shove a bed pan under you or a sloppy spoonful of sugar free orange jello into your mouth, trust me – the inside is all you can lean on in that moment. Best protect it.

So, during this season of recovery, and it’s a pretty good one, I can still feel Resentment pressing against my skull in the late of night, and at the edge of sleep, but I can press him back, because I have been able to build up good things on the inside. I have been blessed with a brain and I have realized how to safely categorize the Well-Wishers. Well-Wisher A – is defined as a person who offers the Fighter all the kindness within their abilities, using words, expressions, Facebook thumbs ups, cards, or the encouraging handshake. This is everything. This is authentic. This will do just fine.

Well-Wisher B – is defined as a person who offers the Fighter all the above, but claims to have offered physical help as well. They may even mistakenly believe that “being there for you” means just saying “I am there for you”. They will want recognition for what they haven’t given and they will create incredible drama for another friend who is suffering, even while you suffer, and he or she will not see how this public open affection for them and the public and open ignoring of you is so painful. He or she just simply won’t understand this dichotomy. Resentment is the child of B. Fighter, you must shut Well-Wisher B out of your mind while you heal and take all their offerings with a huge grain of salt. They are not your Chocolate Cake Friday pal. They are your Fair Weather Friend. Beware. WWB will tear you down and if you’re living on tapioca, that’s demoralizing.

Love WWB. He or she needs your love probably even more than WWA does. WWA is solid and probably emotionally healthy. Take their words and affections and apply it to your wounds. WWB is a rope connected to nothing and if you grab onto it, you will fall alone on the hard ground and they will not respond well to your screams. “I offered you a hand! Stop being so selfish!” they’ll say.

Well-Wisher B’s just don’t know what they are talking about most of the time. They have other gifts and they are probably someone else’s Chocolate Cake Friday Pal even, just not yours, and Resentment gains in stature and vision when you try to change one of your WWB’s into a WWA. It’s a square peg/round hole thing. King Solomon said there is a season for everything. I believe, as a Fighter, that this applies to Well-Wishers as well, One cannot have 20 Chocolate Cake Friday Pals. That would have a horrible, opposite effect. One cannot be completely surrounded by only Well-Wishers either. One needs, at least, one CCFP (I have several – Lenya Papciakova, The Hot Latin Husband, our Hot Latin Children, and my parents).

One will have a few WWB’s in their lives. They are not for times of illness, usually. Sometimes, they surprise. Take those surprises as they come, but don’t bank on them. They are mostly a mirage that will leave you thirsty. I believe WWB’s are God’s way of showing you who needs your prayers as much as you need a good friend. The revelation of their shallowness towards you might be His revelation of their great need, and it could be bigger than yours. Again, true story.

Attack Resentment with prayer and thankfulness for what you have – even if it feels like only a speck. My blessings are huge, but Resentment would have me to believe that my Well-Wisher B’s are the only remedy I will ever have and that I must spend my days and terrible nights chasing them. That’s a lie.

The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.  - Ernest Hemingway

Others become the unhelpful kind of Well-Wisher during a natural disaster. They continue to break, and, Fighters, they stab and grab at you because you have something they don’t have: Grit and Faith. WWB’s are like spiritual zombies. They hurt you with falsities, because they are starving for even a fraction of the reality you have faced and survived. Your strength and pragmatism frightens them. They may even address it in a veiled sort of way – “You’re strong. You’ll get through this,” they say, knowing it makes you want to rip their heads off and….(well, I won’t finish that, because my mother might just read this). Don’t give them a moment of your healing time. But send them prayers and light when you get better. They may, or may not, ever improve. But you will.

If you are reading this, and you’re a Fighter, and you completely understand what I am saying, you’ve already come a million miles. You have the antidote. You have drawn a crowd and drawn the greatest of medical minds to your bedside and you have confounded and astounded them. There is something special about you, and you’ve been places others will not tread until the very tip of Old Age Mountain. You climbed it when you were 16 or 21 and again on your 40th birthday. And your caregivers and your Chocolate Cake Friday Friends are your sidekicks. They are your Robins, Batman, or they are your grouchy, but inspiring trainers, Rocky.

You’re a superhero and all superheroes have a nemesis, and most of them (if not all) are Well-Wisher B’s. Would you stop to help a zombie during the flight from a poisoned civilization, Fighter? Would Superman stop to campaign for a weakening cryptonite industry?

Then don’t stop to entertain the notions of Well-Wisher B. Leave the rope dangling and get better. There are others like you, and we are stronger than most anything even when we’re living on pudding and and walking with canes.

Always Present

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Recently, I was asked by one of my clients to review a series of articles on “The Law of Attraction.” While I believe, quite strongly, in the power of positive thinking and living, I am not sure that I embrace this concept of just throwing out positive vibes and watching them grow into everything you ever wanted. What I do believe in though, is God. Specifically, I believe in an Abrahamic God and a Judeo-Christian saving grace.

The past few weeks have been extremely difficult for me. I am facing a very serious surgery, and it scares me. Most things just don’t. I have probably not admitted this too much out loud, but it would not be an understatement for me to say that I am “as tough as nails,” because it’s true. I am. I can be bold and unabashed in a polite and helpful way. I enjoy taking on risks and challenges, and I don’t have a problem defending the downtrodden or speaking up to a bully when he or she has threatened a person, a crowd, or an entire people group. My mother was tough as nails, my grandmother was a Marine drill sergeant during WWII. She was a tiny little half-Jewish woman from Brooklyn, and when Hitler threatened, she fought with the boys and won. That’s my example. I am generally unafraid.

But I have been a wimp lately, and it has robbed me of my sleep and some mental concentration on the “bigger picture.” I have focused on the, basically, inconsequential things, and I have cried at traffic lights and screamed at boring lunches. Yeah. Real important issues like that. And I did it, because I have been completely overwhelmed at the thought of having to slow down my life, one more stinking time, for a surgery or an illness. I just did not expect this at all.

I wrote a wonderful novel over the summer about a woman who is reeling from the loss of her fiance’ and about how a war-weary veteran helps pull her from her own loss. It’s just a great piece, and I am very proud of it. The characters make me smile. I created my goal and I completely saw it through to the end. I finally finished my degree in June, and it was not an easy one. I hold a BA in Cognitive Studies (which is a dual degree in Educational Pyschology and Neuroscience). I now have enough education credits to teach (which I do, for an online tutoring company) and to work as a special needs counselor (under certain circumstances). My minor was in Sociology, and I have enough credits in that area to work as a social worker, if I wanted to. I, also, studied English Literature at both Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania while I was completing my degree. I did not want my creative writing, or literary analysis skills, to lose their sharpness while I consumed all that APA style data. And they didn’t. I learned so much from the two years at both institutions. I would be obtaining my MLA in English at Harvard right now, but I would be required to attend at least three classes on campus, and Boston is about four hours away. That’s just a little too far, even for tough-as-nails me. At least for now it is. You never know what nutty nerdy thing my big Burnett head will come up with in the future.

All that work has made me tired, I think, and facing surgery halts everything. I completed Autumn Promises. It has been shopped and it is receiving some very (cross your fingers) great feedback from the right people. A Berlin Story is finally completed, and that was a difficult story line to conquer, but I did it, and, it too, has received a tremendous amount of exciting responses from small presses and such. I have three ESL students who I am working with to reach their English language goals, I successfully walked three school age children past their learning disabilities to develop academic strategies that would work for them, and I am working with two grad students with their dissertations – even if it is mostly just to encourage them to stay focused on that mountain of a task called the doctoral degree. My own children are learning and growing, despite the complexities of middle school and high school and elementary school. Even my son with Autism has made friends and is writing whole page reports BY HAND (due to preference!) this school year. So, surgery? That really sucks.

So, I am thinking about all of this when I am preparing for graduate school in the winter, and I become nervous. Suddenly, I am worried about money and student loans and actually moving from “This is great work!” to “You’re published!” and the mom brain just starts to spiral. Are my children depressed and hiding it? Is the creepy farmer next door a child molester? Will I die in a car crash this morning and never get to say goodbye to my family? Will there be another Hurricane Sandy while my lung has a tube stuck in it and trying to re-inflate itself? What if I forget to take my pets to the vaccination clinic and they get rabies? Is MRSA really a strong threat? Should I start bathing in antibacterial soap three times a day?

Yes, writers are crazy. It’s all true what you hear about us. Except  that I am not addicted to anything. I am far too distracted for anything consistent like that. I am just overwhelmed, and while I was whining inwardly about all of this nonsense, I get the information that a dear, dear friend of mine has recently experienced an absolutely terrible loss and, suddenly, I am stopped. In between worrying about whether or not the Klan will make a comeback in my creepy little PA Dutch town and whether or not non-organic peanut butter really contains toxic mouse turds (as my Nine Year Old insists it does), I can’t stop thinking about my friend, because she has lost her child. I can’t stop thinking about her, because I know exactly how she feels, how it feels to experience a truly shocking event and not just a big pile of worrisome nonsense. I experienced a stillbirth 10 years ago and God has carried me so far away from the initial crushing pain of it all, that I forgot how all-encompassing God’s grace truly is.

In talking with my dear friend, I was reminded that it is not the Law of Attraction that heals all wounds and all trauma. In talking to her, my brain went through an involuntary review of all that my family has endured in the last decade (and some of it has been truly horrible – there is nothing as terrible as watching your children suffer) and was reminded that even when I feel that I cannot endure – I have. I am as tough-as-nails, because trials have come and Providence has provided peace and a solution. Without my faith, I would be an even crazier writer, with even weirder thoughts about car crashes and widespread rabid MRSA outbreaks.

Yes, I am afraid of this surgery, but not because it is especially difficult or anything. Just because I am me and I was not expecting this. Yes, I am worried about the ridiculous cost of higher education, but I feel that an MA in English is the right thing to do. I want to teach other people to become a crazy writer like myself. And, yes, I worry that one day, I will feel sadness again, but like I told my dear friend: Distance does soften the blow. With time, we all move on to other griefs and other blessings and many more moments of sheer, unadulterated joy, and through it all, God is present. Always present.

 Man is fond of counting his troubles, but he does not count his joys. If he counted them up as he ought to, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it. – Fyodor Dostoevsky

 

 

That Beautiful Manic Phase When Art Becomes Life

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one of the proposed first covers

one of the proposed first covers

There is that phase that hits a writer, that moment when all the work and trial of forming and creating a work moves into the moment when the work becomes its own entity. A Berlin Story has finally reached that stage, and now I won’t be able to sleep for weeks.

I have been writing and re-writing this story for years. It came from a horrible dream. All I can remember is waking up, sweaty and terrified, with one strange woman’s tale on the tip of my tongue and forefront of my mind. I knew that she was young and that she was German and that she had survived the Fall of Berlin, 1945.

I had never before considered the German plight during the war. My father is Jewish. It had just never entered my thought process to consider what it must have been like for a young woman to be left alone in a city that was dead center on the world’s hit list. What would have happened to her when the Soviets came raging toward her? Would she even live much beyond that time period? If so, how? I knew a few things about her: She was neither evil, nor a saint.

When I first began to write A Berlin Story, I envisioned a crazy long epic that only spanned a period of a few hours. But that would just be a nauseatingly long short story, and most normal people hate those. If it takes months of reading to move an hour, it’s probably not worth reading (with only a few brilliant literary exceptions). So, I planned out Annalise Bergen’s (my protagonist’s) life. And then I realized that I did not need to tell the world her whole life story. I only needed to tell the world what she had endured.

I wrote the whole thing down and rewrote it down and talked it out and bought Dragon Software to hear myself talk it out. I checked out every WWII book ever written, specifically, about the German female plight at the end of the war, and then I read two very lengthy historical firsthand accounts of life in the Red Army, as well. (Now THAT was tragic) I am a nerd, so I was in my element, but it was occasionally too dark and heavy, and I had to put the whole work down, every now and then, for weeks at a time.

And then, one day (I think during NaNoWriMo even) I realized that this was a novella. It was not a huge thick book. It was a explosive, momentary, tragic event that would draw the reader immediately into the dark experience and back out again – just like a terrifying cold dream that warms with the rising sun. There are good and satisfying parts to this story, and it does offer hope, because, even on the losing end of the Third Reich, hope can be found, and I only discovered this through research and through following my character to her surprising end, which spans one more novella.

Annalise suffered and survived, mostly because of her own ingenuity and profound personal strength, but also, because of the rare kindness of others during war, even through the kindness of her enemies. Eventually, she found that faith was not complete folly. But there is no great conversion story here, and this is not a spoiler. She’s German and it was the end of World War II. There were no great leaps of joy for the losers, because the losses were all huge – starting with the Holocaust and ending with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Terrible losses were had by all in that war, though not all losses were equal. But still, there is goodness to be found, even among the remnants of a smoldering Nazi Berlin.

This is a visual tale. You’ll see it as much as you’ll read it. In flashes and in violent bursts, characters enter and exit the scene, but Annalise is strong and present in each one. I love her to death. Can you tell?

From this difficult-to-dream-about-story, but pure-pleasure-to-write-and-plot-novella, came the stories of, not only a teenage German girl, but of an American GI, a Red Army Lieutenant, and a Shoah survivor. They will each have their own place in this line of stories, their own novellas. But for now, I peddle Annalise Bergen to a motley collection of quirky small and independent presses (because the book is not genre fiction) and I have already gotten some exciting praise and even a couple cover suggestions. Well, Annalise has found this praise. Funny story about that…I met Annalise through her daughter after I had written her fictional tale. True story.

I wrote the book and a good friend of mine told me that her dear friend’s mother had lived this very event and much of what I had already written had happened to this woman’s mother. I was blessed to meet my friend’s friend (and she has now become mine, too, and she is lovely and so I can picture the loveliness of her mother when I speak with her) and I learned that it is true, that my guesses were good and sad at the same time. My friend’s friend, who is also now my friend, is to remain nameless, because her mother wanted her story told, for the sake of all the women of Berlin who survived the horrible events of 1945, but not until after she had died. My friend is called M and her mother is called N. I met N’s husband, too, and he was a brave and sweet elderly man, and his kind words and tragic retelling of life growing up under the boot of the Third Reich, opened my heart to the Good Germans in a way that I had not known before. There were Good Germans. F was living proof, for me and for the world, of that. Where I had once had only indifference, at best, for those Germans who lived during those years, through F, I acquired compassion for their plight as fellow human beings and I was able, I hope, to shed some light on their story. Everyone has one, after all.

Today, an excerpt from A Berlin Story is available for review and reading and Long Tale Press. I would be very appreciative if you might meander on over there and read it and leave your thoughts, whatever they may be. Annalise’s story begins here: http://www.longtalepress.com/submissions/excerpts/225/read

another proposed first cover

another proposed first cover

Where Mexican Independence and Oklahoma Fried Chicken Meet

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Pitter-Patter

Pitter-Patter

My grandmother is a small woman with big yellow hair and fast legs. When I was a teenager, and she lived with my family in southern California, I would hear the frantic pitter-patter of her feet as she walked up the sidewalk past my bedroom window, and towards our front door, and I always knew it was her by the way she tap-tapped the pavement alongside my mother’s long careful strides. My mother is almost 5 feet and 9 inches. She looks like her father, an Irish-Choctaw. True story. But my grandmother, Virginia-Lee, is a pretty, pale-skinned/pale-haired Scotch-Irish woman who constantly speaks in tongues under her breath and eyes the whole world through two, severely suspicious, vivid blue eyes.

I love my grandmother. She makes me proud in her Big Hair Oklahoma Charistmatic way. Her accent is thicker than an Alabama cotton field (because this is where her people mostly came from – Alabama and

Tennessee), and I love, LOVE, watching the fear rise up in Yankee eyes when she opens her mouth and declares something. Anything. The heat on a summer day. The price of potatoes. The voice of God. Anything. Firstly, they can’t understand her. Secondly, once they figure out what she is saying, they feel, at least, vaguely guilty of some sort of horrible sin. And they walk away confused.

“Your grandma makes me feel like I need to go to church,” one friend told the first time she met my grandmother.

“You probably do,” I said. “That’s why God introduced you to Grandma.”

And she believed it and is still scared of her. That’s what I love.

When we were teenagers, my brother and I used to call Virginia-Lee “the soothsayer,” because she would predict these crazy happenings that would strike the fear of an angry God straight into your soul, piercing all memory, desires, and hopes for the future. She wrote us all letters, at one point or another, telling us how she just knew we had become Satanists or that she saw in her mind’s eyes our rebellious little hearts taking us deep into some drunkard’s drinking establishment or she saw us praying to Buddha.

None of that ever happened, and Grandma’s New Year’s predictions are only 50% accurate, just like a psychic’s, but she is still wise, wiser, I believe, than any of your grandmas, My Dear Readers.

The other day, she and I had a nice long chat about what life was like for her now in the North. She lives with my parents in the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains and she’s had some difficulties in adjusting. I asked her if she had found a church yet that she “took to.”

“Well, it’s been five years, and the truth is, no. Sometimes, I just get to missin’ Oklahoma City somethin’ fierce and it makes me want fried chicken and good prayer meeting. People here are alright. Some are real nice, but they aren’t my kinda nice. Oklahoma nice.” And then she smiled, showing those pretty blue eyes that are ten times bluer than anyone else’s I have ever seen in my life.

I could see that my eldest son’s birthday party was boring her, so I jumped right into her heavenly language day dream and told her a humorous story about one of my Pennsylvania friends who had recently been to the South and how she didn’t really like it. I thought Grandma would be appalled. She just shrugged and poured herself another cup of straight-up black coffee. “Not everyone likes the Deep South. They’ve got different problems than the rest of the South does.”

“For one,” I said, “They think they’re the only ones who are actually Southern.”

Grandma completely ignored my remark, but started another very interesting line of Southern cultural observations. “You know,” she said, “All my life, whenever I have left Oklahoma, people have said to me, ‘Lady, you got a terrible Southern accent. I caint even understand you.’ No matter where I’ve gone, they say this. I didn’t even know I had a Southern accent. I’m an Okie. We got our own accent.”

I nodded my head. “Do you get ticked when people think you’re not Southern because you’re not from Georgia or Alabama, like your grandparents were?”

She shrugged again. “Why should I care what other people think? If they’re so worried about where I come from, they’ve sure got boring lives. I’ve lived everywhere, and I know what I am.” Then she leaned in really close and began boring my brain with those sharp discerning eyes of hers. “I asked the Lord what I was the other day. You know what He said?” I shook my head no. “He said, ‘Virginia-Lee, why you know who you are. You are a Bible believing Charismatic Christian. That’s what you are. So now, when I am in the WalMart or out eatin’ somewhere and someone says somethin’ about my ‘Southern accent’ and wants to know where I got it and what I really am, I say, ‘I’m from Oklahoma City and I am a Bible-believin’ Charismatic Christian. That’s it. Period. And then I stick out my hand and ask them who they are and what they’re doin’.”

She laughed hysterically at that, until tears started to spill down her cheeks. This is the only way my grandmother laughs. I hugged her. “I love you, Grandma. Aint none uh my friends got a grandma like you.”

She didn’t even notice that I was speaking in the Oklahoma/Southern accent I lost in 1976.

A couple months ago, when I was visiting my parents, my grandmother came running down the stairs from her bedroom at the very top of her house. She still makes those frantic pitter-patters with her feet that she used to make coming up the walkway all those 20-plus years ago when I was a teenager. She thrust a ripping plastic grocery bag in my arms. It was tearing at the seems with ispirational romance novels.

“Tiffney-Leeun (translation: Tiffani-Lynne), y’all might could read these formulas and really make somethin’ of your writin’ career.” She fluffled her big white hair with the tips of her red shiny fingernails. “I do believe the Lord wants you to write some of these yourself.” She squinted sharply at me and put her hands on her hips. “Ya understand? Ya know what I mean?”

I looked at my beautiful tall Irish-Choctaw mother and shrugged. She smiled and crossed her arms over her chest, allowing me to swim through this situation all on my own. “Not really, Grandma. What do you mean?” I asked.

Grandma cocked her head. “You know what I mean. You could really make somethin’ of yourself if you’d write a few of these. They’re not bad novels. I read three or four of them a week. They’re all exactly the same. Some simple formula, but you can do it. You’re a smart girl,” she said, hugging my shoulder, which was a weird moment of spontaneous affection from Grandma. She doesn’t usually do that. “Did I ever tell you that I’m proud of you?”

“Um…” I looked up at the sky. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Oh, really?” she said, laughing hysterically in that way she does, with the tears and the exaggerated loudness of it. “Well,” she tapped me on the shoulder when she finally caught her breath, “You read those. They’re real simple. You’ll get the hang of it.”

“I bet I will,” I said.

“Did you tell her you studied English at Harvard?” my stepfather asked, sidling over between my mother and I. He is a medium sized angry Italian Catholic from Pittsburgh, but it is a contented sort of happy anger. I think it is my interpretation of American-Italian culture.

“I don’t know,” I said, watching Grandma walk back into the house, her tiny little pointy feet pitter-pattering all the way across the driveway from the tips of her high-heeled sandals. “Didn’t seem important.”

“It wasn’t,” my mother said. “It won’t mean anything to her. My mother is a debutante,” my mother said, smiling after her mother. “She was made to sit on a couch and eat chocolate and read romance novels.”

“I’m going to write one of those things just for her,” I said.

My stepdad shrugged. “Call the main character Virginia-Lee.”

“No, I’ll just dedicate it to her.”

“No sex though,” he said. “And no swearing. And no Catholics! Not in an inspirational romance novel.”

I made the Sign of the Cross. “Of course not.”

Last night, I had a dream about my grandmother. She was paddling furiously up a flooded street toward an ice cream parlor. “Grandma! What are you doing!” I demanded of her in the dream. She didn’t even look back at me, sweat dripping down her brow. “Gettin’ the ice cream! What does it look like I’m doin’, silly girl!”

I believe that dream came from a subconscious memory I have of the day my grandmother came home from work calling my mother and declaring to all of us that the Lord had worked a miracle in her life that day. “Listen up!” she said over the speaker phone. “Now this is the truth of God, proof that He works in all kind a ways. I was parked behind this ice cream truck this afternoon and it overturned. The driver was fine, but his ice cream was meltin’. I looked up at the sky and the Lord told me, ‘Now go on and get some of that, Virginia-Lee. Haven’t  I made a way for you?’ And I grabbed me a few quarts.”

I have no idea if the driver minded. By Grandma was so grateful. Her birthday is Mexican Independence Day (that’s today) and I know, that I know, she is eating ice cream and thinking of that day when God gave her several free quarts of the stuff. I am going to call her and see what news she has for me. Whatever it is, it will be grand. Virginia-Lee is only grand. She’s a small woman with big yellow hair and fast little legs and God speaks to her about ice cream, her wayward grandchildren, and romance novels. And she is mine, and so I love her.

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drking

Today was the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech. I watch it every year. I have listened to, at least portions of, it annually since I was a small child. And every year, Facebook is lit up with anti-Dr. King people who dislike the man based on his “progressive politics”. They completely dismiss the message, the point, the divine purpose in his cause. Their ignorance runs ahead of them when they open their mouths to dismiss him quickly because he worked at Civil Rights rather than “letting Jim Crow just fall out of fashion”. I once heard a woman say, “The Constitution does not promise equality to an entire people group. King was a communist and not a real Christian.” This is the big John Birch argument against Dr. King. I guess such thinkers can’t divide or subtract. Groups are made of individuals, and individuals are protected by the Constitution and we’re all made in the image and likeness of our Creator. I often wonder if arguing with said morons makes me a moron? I believe these people are a product of their own small minds and experiences. They refuse to accept a larger picture, a bigger dream than just their desire to live law-free, government-free, and tax-free. Not everything is about money, I want to remind them. Sometimes, it’s about doing what is right and thinking outside your own tiny frame of reference.

“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Col. 3:28

The woman who claimed to know more about Christ than Dr. King had, obviously missed the above New Testament passage.

My mother did her share of Civil Rights work while she was growing up in her small corner of the segregated extended South. One did not have to live in Alabama or Georgia to experience Jim Crow laws. My parents lived in Oklahoma and had separate theaters, separate public bathrooms, even separate graveyards from their Black neighbors. Lynchings were common in the 1920′s and 30′s in my parents’ home state, and in my parents’ teenage years – the 1960′s – segregation was the same there as it was in the Deep South. My mother suffered greatly for her public defense of Black friends during that time. She never talks about it anymore. I think she’d like to forget the whole thing.

Sign in Upstate New York Circa 1940

Sign in Upstate New York
Circa 1940

My Jewish grandfather was forced to sleep in the backseat of his car when he arrived at certain hotels in (in certain whole regions really) of upstate New York for years. “No Jewish Patronage!” and “NO JEWS ALLOWED!” were signs he saw frequently north of the Mason-Dixon well into the 1960′s. It’s the whole reason the “Borsht Belt” even came to be. Some of my family members had crosses burned on their yards. Had jobs stolen from them. Were not allowed to eat at the lunch counter of the local deli, because they were Jewish, and I come from a long line of  New York Jewish deli owners. It was a time of madness, if you ask me, and it didn’t just happen in the South.

Protest in NYC, 1964

Protest in NYC, 1964

The Pennsylvania town in which my husband was born and raised (West Chester, PA) was illegally, but proudly, segregated well into the late 1970′s, and he experienced this segregation as a Latino boy who went to an all Latino and Black public school in kindergarten. When he finally made it to middle school, in the 1980′s, he and his Puerto Rican peers, were taken out of their classrooms and separated from the White children during the day, because their school district believed it was perfectly acceptable to treat them as though they had less capacity to learn and be educated. The school district hired a specially trained teacher who had visited Puerto Rico and who was familiar with Spanish, even though all of them had been born in the continental US and were native English speakers. He would not allow the students to do their own work. He did it for them. My husband hated his class, and so, ignored most of what he said. My husband went on to graduate from one of the most prestigious schools of music in the United States, and he was one of his only cousins to get a college education. The students who listened during “Puerto Rican class”, mostly dropped out of high school.

When my husband and I first moved to the Lehigh Valley, in 1998, we rented a beautiful little townhouse in an upscale neighborhood in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. We had two young boys at the time, and only one car. This left me with the option of staying indoors all day or taking a lot of walks. Those were the days before I needed a cane for long distances, so I chose to walk a lot and I enjoyed it. I made friends with an Indian woman who had children of about the same age. I did not speak Hindi and she barely spoke English, but this did not keep us from becoming fast friends. She taught me to make curry chicken and spicy Indian chai and I taught her how to make a chocolate cake and wear blue jeans. Her name was Roja and I loved her. One day, while walking to her townhouse to meet up for a walk to the park, she informed me that her husband would not allow her to leave anymore. “Angry men are watching us,” she said, and I left a bit bewildered.

Two weeks later, my father came to visit. While with us, we visited a synagogue. He is of Jewish descent. I had a lot of good Jewish friends then and we spent a few days getting together with them, having them over for dinner, etc…The morning after my father left for his return trip to Oregon, I saw this rolled up piece of paper on my porch. It was a picture of a pile of emaciated, dead Jewish bodies lying near a Nazi crematorium. It read, “You (expletive for Jewish person) all lie. It’s your nature. The Holocaust was a lie!” I called the rental office and was furious with complaint. They didn’t care. Said it wasn’t their problem. Didn’t know where it had come from. The next morning, there was a piece of paper taped to my door. It had a picture of a Mexican migrant worker and a Black man. They were attacking a White woman. This time it read, “Their kind don’t belong with our kind. Get out of our neighborhood now, (expletive) lover!” Obviously, the note was meant to frighten me, the White woman, into taking my Hispanic husband and getting out of their mostly White town.

I called the police this time. A Black Pennsylvania State Trooper took my report, and he was visibly upset by the papers he read. I was so angry I couldn’t stop shaking. He told me that being angry was healthy. “This is a righteous kind of anger. This sh*t isn’t supposed to happen anymore, but it does.”

I had a children’s book about Dr. King. I went against my very solid rule of never tampering with a good book, and I ripped out his picture and taped it to my front door. Nothing happened to it, thankfully, but neighbors knocked on the door periodically throughout the week, while I had it up, to let me know that they had nothing to do with the letters being being passed around the complex. I think the Trooper had something to with their need to clear themselves, but most of our neighbors were as horrified as we were.

Later, it was discovered that the American Nazi Party (which was headquartered in Berks Co, PA at the time) and the local KKK who had left flyers around the complex. They admitted it to someone at the rental office (not sure how they all knew each other), and all residents received a notice of the incident and its “resolution”, which was that nothing was going to happen, because “no one was harmed during the incidents”.

My maternal grandfather was almost half Choctaw. I don’t even feel that I need to explain the list of abuses his people endured at the hands of racists and at the foot of racism. Most of the time, Native Americans don’t even get included in the list of “who’s been more beat up by racial policies in America,” and they’ve endured just about the worst. They’ve experienced genocide, along with slavery, and they too, were subjected to the Jim Crow laws and the unspoken laws that kept Blacks and Jews out of establishments and in the back of the bus. And they still suffer to this day. They suffer so much, that greater America tends to forget that they even exist.

When I hear the anti-Dr. King rants on Facebook, or in person, or in the grocery store line, I am reminded of why he gathered all those thousands to march on Washington 50 years ago. We’ve made great strides, but there is so much more to be done in America. The ignorant still demand a platform, too. They believe that people are poor because they want to be, homeless because they choose it, uneducated because they like it that way…They can’t conceive of being mistreated by their government, or society, because of their race or culture or disability or immigrant status. It’s not in their realm of experience to understand others, or the human plight for respect, because, I guess, they still have not learned their own value and worth. And they’re not willing to look beyond themselves, where their pain at feeling less must be very heavy. For that reason, we can’t pretend that the Dr. King’s dream has been completely realized. It’s our job to teach our neighbors that they are our neighbors, and that we are all equal and deserve an equal chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

“We may have arrived here in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.