Friday, December 28, 2012

Dec. 28. 1974 By James Schuyler

The plants against the light
which shines in (it's four o'clock)
right on my chair: I'm in my chair:
are silhouettes, barely green,
growing black as my eyes move right,
right to where the sun is.
I am blinded by a fiery circle:
I can't see what I write. A man
comes down iron stairs (I
don't look up) and picks up brushes
which, against a sonata of Scriabin's,
rattle like wind in a bamboo clump.
A wooden sound, and purposeful footsteps
softened by a drop-cloth-covered floor.
To be encubed in flaming splendor,
one foot on a Chinese rug, while
the mad emotive music
tears at my heart. Rip it open:
I want to cleanse it in an icy wind.
And what kind of tripe is that?
Still, last night I did wish—
no, that's my business and I
don't wish it now. "Your poems,"
a clunkhead said, "have grown
more open." I don't want to be open,
merely to say, to see and say, things
as they are. That at my elbow
there is a wicker table. Hortus
Second says a book. The fields
beyond the feeding sparrows are
brown, palely brown yet with an inward glow
like that of someone of a frank good nature
whom you trust. I want to hear the music
hanging in the air and drink my
Coca-Cola. The sun is off me now,
the sky begins to color up, the air
in here is filled with wildly flying notes.
Yes, the sun moves off to the right
and prepares to sink, setting,
beyond the dunes, an ocean on fire.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Advocate for the Homeless

Please ask James Cappelman, alderman of the 46th ward of Chicago—WHY are you shutting down a program for elderly, disabled homeless men right now, in the middle of winter, at Christmas?

And if his office says they are not shutting it down but that the men can use REST, then ask the alderman WHERE will the elderly, disabled homeless men go during the day when they must leave the building?

And HOW the men with Stage 4 cancer and using walkers and canes will be able to do all this transitioning?

Ask James Cappelman: WHY are you shutting down an existing program that is already funded and in place and working well at CCO?

Tel: 773-878-4646
Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago supports Cornerstone Community Outreach and loves our programs!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Thank You

The more I live, a little over 50 years, the more I am boondoogled, dismayed, broken and built up, discouraged to the point of wishing I’d never been born, left decrying America land of the free, suffused with gratitude, speechless at the kindness of strangers, the common heart that beats within all of us, the evil that resides in all of us, the sense that it is gonna take years for things to change, and wishing that things would stay the same, all the time and forever.

This year I have seen death, not just death but disappointment, people I thought I could trust turn against me, claim they never knew me—and people who never knew me give of themselves in abundance, the least of these, without any means, turn around and love me.

Thank you.
Thank you.
Thank you.

You know who you are, all of the above.

And, especially Aunt Jean, whose benevolence to us all was exhibited in her stories and kind deeds.

Jean Merrill, author of The Pushcart War
 Her books embrace themes she was passionate about: the struggle of little people over larger powers, the need to preserve the world around us, and the virtue of non-conformity. These ideas resonate with children and The Pushcart War is still used in fifth and sixth grade classrooms around the world. It is considered a landmark children’s book of the 20th century.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Let's Talk About It

This is the AR-15 rifle also referred to as the .223 rifle, a civilian version of the U.S. military's standard-issue M-16, as intended "for law enforcement, security and private consumer use."

The Bushmaster .223 comes with a 30-round magazine, enabling the shooter to fire all 30 rounds, one for each pull of the trigger, in a minute or less. John Allen Muhammad, the D.C. sniper, and his youthful accomplice, Lee Boyd Malvo, used a Bushmaster .223 in nine of 10 sniper-style murders that terrorized the Washington area in 2002.

Many AR-15s have ended up in the hands of Mexican drug cartel pistoleros, including the Bushmaster .223 that was later used to kill four police officers and three secretaries in Acapulco.
Since the federal law banning assault weapons expired in 2004, the weapons are sold legally but the purchasers must sign a U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives document saying they are buying the guns for themselves.

The NRA decries the name "assault weapon" and refers to high-powered guns as "modern sporting rifles."

Timeline of Sandy Hook Elementary Shooting:
9:30 A.M. gunman forces himself into building, armed with .223 AR-15 rifle plus handguns
9:36 A.M. 911 call received
9:38 A.M. by all accounts shooting spree ended, gunman plus 25 others dead or dying

So essentially 8 minutes is all it took for the .223 assault rifle to do its job.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

One Year Hence

It was one year ago December 11th that Dad passed away.
Just wanted to re-post my eulogy for him. Still coming to grips (gripes?) with his death and the aftermath. We weren't a tight-knit, cozy family and now there is very little that draws us together.

Dad--you are missed.

More on this Same Subject From a Fellow Blogger

This is from Jeremy Nichols @ Setting Prisoners Free

George: Homeless and Fragile...

My co-worker introduced George to me....

He looked like an fragile old white man; he was scruffy, pale and scrawny, he had a dazed and glazed look in his eyes and when he spoke, we struggled to find any rationality or logic in his words. George seemed to be unsure who he was, where he was and what he was doing.

And then there was something that made this whole situation worse; this fragile old man, who could barely stand up, was homeless! Yes, homeless! Homeless in the dead of winter! Homeless and struggling to survive. Homeless and lacking any sense of direction. Homeless and sick. Homeless and alone. Homeless and fragile!

As with a number of our participants, George carried a paper bag, (protected by a plastic bag), full of his myriad of medications. He had a host of medical issues that were triggered by a failing liver, kidney problems and sarcoidosis, causing this poor fragile man to be rotating in and out of hospitals. The cost of these serious sicknesses caused George to be a very expensive man.

On this particular day, he was scheduled to sleep with all the other men at Epworth Gym. Every morning and evening, these men have to walk a mile to and from their sleeping spot and our daytime drop-in center. As we observed George wandering aimlessly and missing vital check-in times, we knew the Gym wouldn't work for him and he needed to go to a Nursing Home. We honestly thought he had dementia. We knew, there was no way he would last at the Gym, so we made calls and got him accepted into a local Nursing Home...

...but there was one major problem! He didn't want to go, he blatantly refused and we can't force people to do what they don't want to do!

In response to this new dilemma, we had George to live on the 4th floor among our homeless families. For a few years, we'd been housing about 30 older, disabled and sickly men in 5 private rooms. I must admit, I didn't think George would last up there also, I thought he was too sick. Our plan was temporary and my intention was to convince him to go to this Nursing Home.

It took only 3 days for me to realize how very wrong I was. George immediately became my number one example of how important these 5 rooms are for elderly single men; I quickly discovered that he didn't need a Nursing Home; he needed rest, he needed to get off his feet, he needed routine so he could take his gobs of medication correctly, he needed a shower and he needed to regularly eat healthy meals. The beds on 4th floor did all these things and even more; what I witnessed, I'd seen with some other men, but George's transformation was truly miraculous! It took only 3 days and I was looking at a new man. Here he was, surprisingly rational and looking remarkably healthier.

What was also remarkable; during George's stint in our senior program, he hardly ever needed to go the hospital. The harm was being reduced and he was functioning well.

Unless you walk the walk of homelessness, or at the very least, view it first hand like I do every day, it's hard to comprehend the physical toll that never-ending wandering, lines and lack of sleep takes on someone's body. It's also hard to comprehend how devastating a lack of regular food and medicine can be on somebody's health, especially if that somebody anxiously sleeps in the park or on trains, especially if that somebody fears about whether they'll be attacked and not see the morning. The homeless lifestyle is hard enough on a healthy 30 year old, let alone someone older like George, especially someone who also lives with a severely compromised immune system.

read more here, also picture of George:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Screed on Ageism

It’s that time of year—when people decry the war on Christmas. Lately, though, I’ve been noticing another war, a silent war—on the elderly.

This is not exactly a marginal population, but rather a sizeable chunk of America. Actually world-wide demographics are shifting as young people are delaying marriage, children, often times full-time employment. The recession/depression probably has a lot to do with this. But the Baby Boomers were always going to get older, always going to suck the life out of Medicare and Social Security.

Between the shelter (CCO) and a retirement community where I write up resident’s life stories (Friendly Towers), I know quite a few seniors on fixed incomes. There really isn’t a lot of extra. This month both of these programs have been impacted by a war on the elderly.

At CCO the director has been very deliberate about going out to the parks, the loading docks of abandoned warehouses, searching under the city’s viaducts for people sleeping rough, out in the cold and all kinds of weather. She has had to convince many of these homeless individuals to come to the shelter. I really can’t get into all the causes of homelessness. There are many. But suffice it to say that many of these people just want to be left alone. They’ve been alone for years, and now many are aging out in the parks, out in the dark. Quite a few are dying. Cancer, etc.

After some coaxing Sandy Ramsey recruited a few of these individuals and allotted space at the shelter where they could live out their last days. Literally. Between ignoring health danger signs and the years of sleeping rough, many of these men and women are in frail condition. One problem is that quite a few of them have fallen into the cracks—of a government system set up with safety nets. For one reason or another they’ve been unable to collect benefits or have no permanent address in which to receive mail. Or have been cut off.

Now this program at the shelter is being shut down. Neighborhood politics, basically Not In My Backyard, has put external pressure on the shelter to clear out the older men. The alderman put a deadline: by the end of the year. Merry Christmas! and, by the way, good riddance. Sandy and other CCO staff have been working tirelessly to find studios, small subsidized apartments for these guys.

That’s the other squeaky wheel. Many of the units that once were available for those on fixed incomes has been consistently dwindling in Chicago. In the Uptown neighborhood alone there has been a marked decrease. There are senior buildings with long waiting lists and that require supplemental income. Anyone trying to survive on their SS check alone have very little choice. In addition, a real estate company has been buying up SROs (single room occupancy, perfect for individuals on fixed income, much like a hotel room) and converting them to FLATS. Which is what? It’s still just a small studio, literally a 12 x 12 room—for young renters looking for something a step up from a hostel, giving them flexibility without complicated leases and with all the modern amenities—cable and wireless. Some even come furnished. This is a great no-hassle idea—for about $1000 - $1,300 a month. Before the rehab they were maybe $350 – 400 a month—for our clients this was DO-ABLE.

At Friendly Towers many of the residents are seeing cuts in benefits, lose of food stamps. Without getting into particulars, it seems like a shame. Are these really the people to target to reduce government waste?

Now I’m hearing on TV that Congress wants to raise the minimum age for Social Security and Medicare to 67. Why not 70 or 79 or 100? Some of the seniors I know have been waiting years for health care, for dental work, for cost of living increases. They are just getting by. And, of course, I’m not getting any younger either. I’m at the tail-end of the Baby Boomer Boom, and will likely have no place I can afford to live, minimal benefits (if any), and a healthcare system riddled with co-pays and complicated paperwork. Thank God for generics!

So this season say a prayer for older people. The ones whose Christmas is looking a little shaky and the future not so bright.
Successfully housed

Thursday, December 6, 2012

“December” by James Schuyler

Il va neiger dans quelques jours FRANCIS JAMMES
The giant Norway spruce from Podunk, its lower branches bound,
this morning was reared into place at Rockefeller Center.
I thought I saw a cold blue dusty light sough in its boughs
the way other years the wind thrashing at the giant ornaments
recalled other years and Christmas trees more homey.
Each December! I always think I hate “the over-commercialized event”
and then bells ring, or tiny light bulbs wink above the entrance
to Bonwit Teller or Katherine going on five wants to look at all
the empty sample gift-wrapped boxes up Fifth Avenue in swank shops
and how can I help falling in love? A calm secret exultation
of the spirit that tastes like Sealtest eggnog, made from milk solids,
Vanillin, artificial rum flavoring; a milky impulse to kiss and be friends
It’s like what George and I were talking about, the East West
Coast divide: Californians need to do a thing to enjoy it.
A smile in the street may be loads! you don’t have to undress everybody.
                                    “You didn’t visit the Alps?”
                                    “No, but I saw from the train they were black
                                    and streaked with snow.”
Having and giving but also catching glimpses
hints that are revelations: to have been so happy is a promise
and if it isn’t kept that doesn’t matter. It may snow
falling softly on lashes of eyes you love and a cold cheek
grow warm next to your own in hushed dark familial December.
How many  of us have felt this way? A bit jaded about the holiday. Why not? I mean everyone else is so over the top. At least on TV or at the Target down the street. You almost feel like going to sleep and waking up in January--or spring--or in the Bahamas.

You might not start out this way. After a long drought and an even longer Recession, you may be ready for a chance to celebrate. But, soon, all the stress, the time constraints, the never-ending parties, all the eating, and requests for donations, cookies, cupcakes, and loud television ads, and annoying Facebook pop-ups, the incredible traffic at the mall, the broken ornaments,
and prickly pine needles, e-mail newsletters from old friends that always start off with all the fantastic things happening in their life: the trips, the kids, the graduations, the new jobs--and soon you feel like a total mess. And, on top, of that, you may be by yourself. You've lost both parents, your son or daughter isn't on speaking terms anymore, the divorce has separated you from the grandkids, and the few friends you still occasionally see are ill or struggling with health issues. Or voted Republican and can no longer abide the sight of you--after so many years. 

Yet. Even though--the weather is not cooperating and the mail doesn't bring cards and the stupid radio won't stop playing Rock'n Around the Christmas Tree and now it loops inside your head--you hear a faint pealing and look up and the bells at Saint Mary of the Lake are ringing and the pine tar smell of Christmas trees drifts over from the corner lot where old guys are hanging out and warming their fingerless gloved hands over a burning trash barrel, and for a brief moment your heart quickens and the Christmas spirit ever-so faint begins to flicker. 

You might return to disappointment, to kicking the radio down the stairs, to overeating without satisfaction. But, you will remember and know that underneath all the hype and the jingoistic Reason for the Season that hope indeed did come into the world.


Monday, December 3, 2012


Here is a timely word (see my last post) from my office mate Tammy Perlmutter with her poem introducing 
this Advent season--and HOPE
"A Hope That Doesn't Disappoint" By Tammy Perlmutter

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

No News Is . . . despressing

Well folks a few weeks back in an expression of exuberance I wrote that No News is Good News. I wasn’t at liberty to reveal I’d been sent a pub contract.

I heard what every author longs to hear: I love this!

With the state of publishing in flux and the Big 6 dwindling down to the Big 5 and Amazon gobbling up a chunk of the bookselling market and e-books at the point of outselling physical books (waiting for the most recent stats on this), I, the writer, the maker of “content”, am even lower on the literary food chain than ever. The writer above all is analog. Soon to be irrelevant. Akin to an antique.

Then on Thanksgiving weekend I received an e-mail informing me that the publisher was pulling the contract.

I know I’m not the first person this has happened to. I know of many writers who have even gone through revisions with editors only to be told their book project has been decommissioned, dropped from the list. Or, I’ve known writers who have gotten through revisions and their book is slated on the publishing calendar and then they learn through an e-newsletter that their publisher has been sold and the list is being “reconsidered”.

No wonder more and more writers are turning to Create Space or self-publishing through Smashwords, etc. Even when I had a contract (for those 2 ½ weeks) I knew that any and all promotion would be up to me. That’s how it is these days—unless you are the celebrity author with a ready-made platform.

Needless to say I was not thankful.

There are so very few tangibles in a writer’s world. Even words are nothing more than abstract letters on a page. The magic exists in a third dimension, along with the paranormal and miracles. I belong to the dwindling congregation that believes in the power of story. Books saved my life. I read to relax, unwind, and forget. Forget the world of commerce and financial aid and student debt. My contract certainly wasn’t going to release me from indenture hood, but for a few glorious weeks I carried a secret that buoyed my spirit, confirmed my passion, and gave me some inner confidence and credibility.

Okay, back to the grindstone. More than ever I feel like the Little Match Girl, peddling stick matches in a world of Bic lighters.

Monday, November 19, 2012

I Wonder as I Wander

Even though I haven't had a foil-wrapped Ding-Dongs in years , I am still feeling nostalgic.

I remember as a kid taking a slice of Wonder bread, trimming the crust off like a lawn mower with my teeth, rolling the slab of white, crustless bread into a ball and then eating it. One time I ate half a loaf using this method.
We lose another chapter from our life story.

Friday, November 16, 2012

"According to What?"

On vacation (a couple of weeks ago, just now getting my land legs) I probably took in 7 or 8 museums a day. Literally. This is easy to do in New York City and Washington DC. There might be one or two we missed. Maybe.

So in my crazy circuit of museum hopping (it’s all a blur) we were in the Hirshhorn Museum—one of the Smithsonians—and stumbled into an exhibit on famous Chinese artist and activist Weiwei “According to What?”

Exactly—according to what? There was a sandbox of sunflower seeds, or an installation consisting of a conflagration of sand crabs, like scarabs, flamingo pink and shrimp gray, massed up in a small gallery room. It was the kind of art that makes one question: What is art?

 It provokes the response—I could do that or what makes Weiwei so great.

But, as one turns corners in the gallery, you keep running into things that boggle the mind, until even your own perspective is skewed. His box sculptures are out of the box. His world view is outside the box. Everything that defines this artist is out of the box.

Weiwei is most famously known for the landmark Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing where the 2008 Olympics was held. 

He was arrested for his representations of the Sichuan earthquake aftermath—where the government was embarrassed when it was revealed how many schools were shoddily constructed and 5,000 school children were buried alive. He had a sculpture in the exhibit eerily comprised of typical student backpacks. 

A way to remember those needlessly lost. He used rusty ribar to exemplify a geographic faultline.

It’s not the kind of art someone is going to buy or showoff in their highrise apartment. It was meant to get under the skin, irritate the authorities. There were self-portrait photographs Weiwei took of himself as he was being arrested.
 He also included a doctor’s x-ray of his head after he was beaten by police. 

Another Weiwei method is to use traditional Chinese techniques to create art that is both modern and antique. Stuck into the middle of a stack of logs would be some brass fitting off a temple destroyed to make way for development. See—he just can’t leave it alone. Everything is a statement of how he feels living in the “new” China.

Anyway, since this blog is about memory, I copied down a quote from Weiwei about memories. Keep in mind he lives in China, a place that is in a hurry to leave its past behind, to move forward. In fact it is constantly reinventing itself. Chairman Mao was famous for his ever-revolving 5-year plans. At one time the countryside was deemed the backbone of the nation. Now it is the cities. Everyone wants to move to the cities and work in a factory. Here is what Weiwei said:

“The more quickly one is moving, the more frequently one grabs hold of memories.”

Weiwei is helping China and its leaders to remember, to not forget. Its children, the least of these, its elderly, the anonymous factory worker in hazardous conditions, the milk tainted with mercury.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Last Leaf

Last week I was walking through the park; the ground was thick with fallen leaves. Seems the series of recent storms have stripped the trees of all their leaves.

I think that particular day the sky was lead gray and the afternoon had already slipped into twilight. A mist was falling gently around me. Even though I am only 8 miles from the loop the ever-looming skyscrapers were lost in the low clouds. I felt totally alone.

Just me in the park and the soft thump of my feet plowing through piles of soggy leaves.

I remembered a conversation I’d had on the plane coming home from vacation. I sat next to a Chinese gentleman. We had in common daughters in college. He saw I had a book out on my tray-table and our conversation turned to reading. He said this time of year always reminded him of an O’Henry short story: The Last Leaf.

I’m not sure I’ve ever met another human being who has referenced that story besides me.

It is the story of two friends, both artists, trying to get by in NYC. I read the story as an impressionable teenager and I could totally identify with their pursuit and struggle to succeed against all odds. And there were quite a few. They had no health care and very little money for extras. Surprisingly, in recounting this story, it seems contemporary.

The once-popular writer O’Henry has fallen onto hard times, just like many of the characters he wrote about. He isn’t read all that much these days. So I was surprised to hear my seatmate talk about him and this little-known story. To be fair he also said he read a lot of Pearl S. Buck. In China I guess students enjoy reading washed-up American authors, the ones no one cares too much about today. Maybe in 30 or so years they’ll be turning onto Junot Diaz. Maybe just now they are discovering Kurt Vonnegut or Don DeLillo.

I’ve always had a special place in my heart for O’Henry. Call me old fashion, but I still enjoy a story with a twist or a sudden come-uppance (even this word indicates my addiction to archaic aesthetics). When I “grew up” and read more broadly, I was always slightly disappointed at how some stories just simply ended. Okay . . . . . ?

Furthermore (again who uses this word, still?) I’ve always loved the short story The Last Leaf. (Click on link to read) So I was thrilled to discuss it with my new-found literary friend. The ending is—surprise!! —bittersweet, revealing sacrificial love. I revisit that story almost every autumn, just as I re-read The Other Wiseman by Henry Van Dyke every Christmas. I keep it beside my stack of Ideals magazines.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Flash Fiction FREE

Friends, Family, Fellow Bloggers, Reviewers

Flash Fiction (Kentucky Flash) will be available free by download on Amazon this weekend, November 10 and 11. Click here! *FREE download for Kindle users

In addition I have a PDF or epub for you to download if interested in publicizing the release (or my story!!) 

The story is called “The Arrowhead” and is an excerpt from my YA manuscript of a forthcoming book, CLOUD OF WITNESSES—more news on this later. 

Thanks so much—hope to hear from some of you. Always interested in feedback here at Memoirous.


Wednesday, November 7, 2012


Let the party begin.
With all 50 states reporting--I can now confirm it is time for me to celebrate my birthday.* YAY!

*Paid for by people who appreciate kittens playing pianos and muskrats in birthday hats.

ALSO stay tuned for more publishing news SOON.

Friday, November 2, 2012

No news is GOOD News

Yesss!!! Hold on for upcoming announcement.
Until then . . . .
I’m in this
 And a new story appears here

 Now, late at night sometimes, when I’m lonely and afraid to sleep, I find myself thinking of St. Basil, resting there in the dark.

Also last night it was A Gift of the Magi—I decided to surprise my husband and went to the airport to meet his plane. I waited at the wrong arrival gate for 2 hours. I got home to find him waiting for me. Just like a turn of the century couple—the last century, not this one—we both have no cell phones. I flew into his arms.

Monday, October 15, 2012


You have no idea what to do.

He was the only person you could ever talk to.

Your sister plays high school varsity basketball and attends Bible study: two things you know nothing about.

He was the only person who didn’t treat you like a kid.

Your other brother flicks you on top of the head with his hard fingernail and makes jokes about niggers and watermelons—which you don’t get, not because you’re naïve about racism, but because you don’t find his jokes very funny.

He was the only person who ever listened to you.

To get Dad’s attention you’d have to turn off the TV.

He was the only person who ever understood you.

Mom gets a confused look on her face when you mention you’d like to be a writer.

And now he’s leaving.

Remember that time you walked together in the woods and you told him you were thinking about getting an M.I.A. bracelet and he said it was just a ploy to legitimize the Vietnam War. You never sent away for one.

Don’t go, you begged. Who will I talk to?

Remember that time he took you to Denny’s for a Coke and you sat in a booth and he told you all about applying to Indiana University, to their school of journalism. How wonderful, you thought, a place that rewards words.

Don’t go, you begged. To everyone else I’m invisible.

Remember that time you wrote down a story and read it aloud to him. When done, he asked if he could keep it.

Don’t go, you begged, binding the manuscript with ribbons and peppering it with ink hearts. You’re the only one who gets me!

Remember the time you tried to explain to Mom why she shouldn’t clean your room, or if she needed to not to touch stuff on your desk—and you came home to find she’d thrown out what looked to her like a nest of papers but which was actually the start to your latest novel.

Don’t go, you begged, don’t abandon me to an illogical mother.

But by then he was gone, off to college. He came home for holiday breaks and the tension in the house rose until he began to make excuses: work, travel, any reason to stay away.

For thirty years.

With a degree in Revolution and Labor Studies he lived in a commune in West Virginia, before moving to New York to work at a major news journal, after which he moved to San Francisco to advocate for AIDS patients.

When you reunited at the occasion of your father’s death you were afraid: it has been so long, what will we talk about, we’re no longer on the cusp, we are no one’s children. Yet you stayed up until two in the morning talking. You convinced him to take a diary of Dad’s you’d come across while clearing out the garage. In it Dad chronicled his son’s birth, with spare words that sought to belay the significance.

And driving him to the Cleveland Airport, you wondered: Will it be another thirty years? You pulled up and popped the trunk. Who will we be when we meet again? You hugged him and watched him walk away.

Don’t go, you beg, don’t go, you whisper into the negative space.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Open House

This coming weekend in Chicago is an architectural event entitled Open House where the public is invited to travel to view architectural treasures scatter throughout different neighborhoods. The building I live in is part of Uptown and one of the options to visit.
Some background here. We got the former Chelsea Hotel out of receivership with the promise we’d continue to house senior citizens. So we got a ten-story building that needed a lot of help and a new program, Friendly Towers. For the past almost 20 years we have worked endlessly to refurbish and renovate the building. Our latest effort was the lobby/foyer.

When one walks in they are greeted with over thirty panes of original stain glass back lit from above. The ceiling decorations have all been replastered (if needed) and repainted. I can truthfully say lovingly restored. If in the area, please come Oct. 13 & 14th—and, as always, the coffee shop is OPEN.

Last night I walked down the street about 5 blocks north to a synagogue that is also on the Open House list and which had put out a call for volunteers to help spiff it up. I don’t know what I was expecting. Okay, I thought I was being smart. I arrived with my cleaning bucket, lavender-scented Lysol, and 4 cleaning rags. OMG, really, “baruch hashem.”

I should have brought a shovel.

There was an inch of pigeon poop on the middle row of seats stretching all the way up to the bimah where the rabbi leads the congregation in prayer. I worked with 2 energetic and delusional guys who thought we could actually get the place clean. The floor was sticky with pigeon feces and feathers stuck to my tennis shoes as I walked between the pews with a broom “sweeping” off the seats. My first thoughts were: I should have brought gloves. A second thought arose as I continued stirring up guano dust and feathers: I should have brought a mask. The aforementioned bucket and rags seemed provincial in the face of complete decay and neglect.

After a sneezing fit, I ran downstairs to look for tissue. I ran straight for the men’s bathroom. Bad news. Not only was there no tissue in the stalls, but each of the facilities was clogged with either human waste or decades old rusty water. The bathroom made paint chips look appealing. I ran right back out, snot dripping off the end of my nose.

Where I ran into a man seated in a wheelchair. The rabbi. Is there any tissue? I asked and he said, yeah, by the women’s bathroom. Great, I’m thinking, more horror. To the right of my office. An office? Who would have an office in this run-down shambles of a synagogue. But yes, he had an office and I found the women’s restroom to the right—and it had some artificial flowers and toilet paper.

After cleaning up, I emerged to have a chat with the rabbi, who I think liked my moxie. You use your hands, he said, in way of encouragement, not like those people who stand around and chitchat. I looked down at my hands, blackened from the broom handle—I guess—the poop was white with some tar black puddles!!

Thanks! I said.

He gave me a brief overview of the synagogue’s history.

The space above me had such a long way to go before it could be ready for an open house. Yet I lingered with Rabbi Lefkowtiz. Here he was an old man, having to be carried up the steps to the synagogue, to no congregation, to study the Torah in his office with only the pigeons, their incessant cooing and pooping, to keep him company. What makes a person persevere??

I reluctantly ascended the stairs back up to the cathedral-like sanctuary with the bimah at the one end along with the Ark containing the Torah at the front. The Holy Ark was covered with Venetian glass mosaic tiles displaying Jewish motifs such as the symbols of the twelve tribes of Israel, stylized representations of the Ten Commandments, crowns representing the crown of the Torah, biblical passages in Hebrew and more. On a plaque of benefactors were rows of names: Jews from Russia, Hungary, Uptown—all gone. Dead or moved up north to Skokie or Devon Avenue.

It was beautiful. It was all here. The sacred and awful beauty. The work and faith of many hands, of believing people. People who had seen the worst—much worse than pigeon poop. They had tackled adversity and come through. This old building, Agudas Achim, she’ll once again shine.

By the end of the evening—unbelievably and with the help of a few pedestrians passing by who saw the door ajar, who joined in cleaning—the sanctuary no longer smelled like old feathers but Murphy’s oil and the pews were cleared of all offensive debris.

Ready for Open House.
360-view of Agudas Achim, click to enlarge

Monday, October 8, 2012

Memory is a tangled web

I was sharing just this morning with one of our residents at Friendly Towers about memoir. She read my contribution to a themed anthology on memoir ROLL, my essay “Sense of Smell.” This was a flash memoir that arose organically out of lilacs growing at a corner by the hospital on the way to the park—and then spiraled into 2 or 3 other memories. The resident commented that the piece she read seemed to have spiritual implications.

How to respond?

Not to get too abstract, I said that most memories stem perhaps from a physical jog (in the case of my essay I was literally jogging) ie a tangible reminder sparks the memory. But that most memories are seated in the heart. Consider the word “reminisce.” Yes, it means looking back, but it also implies nostalgia or longing. More than simple recall, certain aspects of remembering involve the emotional child, the hurt little girl, the angst-ridden teenager.

I can remember exactly where I was when I was packed and ready to go to camp and my mother told me she’d changed her mind about letting me go. There was so much terror in my life—I never knew what my mother was going to say or do. Many of her actions stemmed from illogic. I still can’t say what motivated her—except perhaps power. In the instance above I immediately freaked out—but then thought—wait! I called a friend and they came and got me and we made it to the bus on time. Mom had already signed the permission slip and I knew she didn’t really want me around for the weekend.

Sometimes when confronted with powerlessness I remember this incident. It visits me randomly, the hot flash that overwhelms me, the sense that there is nothing I can do, in the face of stubborn indifference, I remember: Mom in the laundry room hallway—and realize she was just as afraid of losing what was important to her as I was afraid of being left behind. Perhaps we were both afraid of the same thing.

Memory is a tangled web we weave, full of fire and fury—rarely cathartic, only punching more holes in our psyche. 

Mom holding Steve, early 50s

Friday, September 28, 2012

Featuring New Work

I'm pleased to announce I'll have an essay in Black Mountain Institute's journal ABOUT PLACE--the Peaks and Valley issue. From their website: "Black Earth Institute supports the artist as prophet and visionary who helps create a society attuned to earth’s rhythms and to the rights of all people."

Yup, that's me.

Actually in my piece "Ostrog Monastery" my husband and I take a crazy excursion from our hostel in Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia, formerly the Balkans) up into the mountainous inner spine of that small nation in search of . . .  read the essay. Out soon. I'll post.

Until then Grace Hertenstein has 2 new stories OUT NOW. You can DOWNLOAD IT FOR FREE
Her piece is called Foxcrow Hill and is best described as Americana. In the story a young man goes traveling, train hopping, hoping to forget a childhood friend that he might be a little bit in love with. Here is a description of Wayfarer from their website:
The Wayfarer is released twice a year, on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. We currently publish both poetry and prose. In each issue we feature travel writing, short stories, interviews, original art and photography. We seek to explore the spiritual progression we are currently experiencing as individuals and a global community.A wayfarer is one who chooses to take up a long journey on foot. 

Also check out Inkaputure from the UK where Grace has written a story from the perspective of a cupboard. From the Editor's Forward:
Even though our first two stories this issue could not perhaps be any different in terms of their protagonists, they are connected by a common concern – that of speech versus silence. Thus, To Be a Coatrack uses defamiliarisation to take the reader into the ‘mind’ of a neglected cupboard dreaming of hallway stardom, whilst The Widow of Charroux contrasts the garrulity of its story teller ­– speaking to an invisible audience –
The contrast between concealment and revelation could also be said to inform The Aromatherapist’s Husband by our very special Guest Writer – Leila Aboulela. A brief and lucid study of a failing marriage--

So take some time to read these on-line. Have a great Fall--the weather is perfect.

Monday, September 24, 2012

I and Thou

“Let us remember...that in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.” ― Christian Wiman

I’ve written here at my blog numerous times about funding for the arts. Endowments for the humanities. In other words: a handout.

A piece on NPR this a.m. caught my attention—so many musicians are gaining an audience because of Spotify, YouTube, and other mediums made possible through the Internet. Yet the Internet is killing them. With downloading and digital sharing royalties are siphoned or greatly diminished. It’s the same for publishing. Without the Internet I wouldn’t have had 30 stories published. If I had to rely on print journals alone maybe I’d have 2 stories out there. But with the advent of hand-held digital devices, more and more people are reading from the screen—thus flash is growing in popularity. It is a form perfectly suited for those reading off screens. We used to call short shorts bathroom material now it’s all the rage. 750 words or less is what editors are crying out for. Problem is we’re just not getting paid for it. Not when free content abounds.

So, yeah, I’m a victim. I’m looking for my cut of writer welfare.

Maybe that’s why the whole 47% thing last week hit me in the gut. Some of us are working really really hard, yet not getting ahead, or at least not raking in millions. Also I pay taxes.

Thus I was really excited to discover a new blog started by Dinty Moore (not the stew) a writer, instructor, and publisher of creative non-fiction called We Represent the 47%

So far there are 48 contributors each with their own story of how they built that, and how they also helped others to build. It is mutual. Symbiotic. We’re all helping each other, and that’s something that I’ve always found distinctive of Americans. At one minute we can tear each other apart, but when disaster strikes, towers fall we all manage to come together to help one another. I found myself drawn in by each of the entries, mini-memoirs, realizing that at one point or another we’ve all been there for another person. The stories made me feel grateful and proud to live where I live—even though I think by the end of this election cycle I am going to be SICK AND TIRED of political ads.

So let us go to poetry, slow down and live one moment at a time. It is almost impossible to be open to life and at the same time closed off. A heart full of appreciation cannot be at the same time critical.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


I just had new work published in the latest issue of Ruminate.

Included in this issue is Shann Ray whose new short story collection American Masculine is part Job and part Psalms. He has an incredible way of writing description that marries the reader to the landscape--even an alien one made up of Montana, Spokane, and unnamed tribal lands. I recently read an article about him in Poets & Writers Magazine about his MFA process.
Gregory Spatz, who teaches in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University, makes a case for why creative writing can be taught, holding up Shann Ray as a shining example.   
Apparently Ray was a hard read in draft form. I think I know a little bit about this--aka "I can relate." There are many times when you know where you want to go--it's the getting there that's the actual process of writing. People tell me--that would make a great story--yet they have no idea what makes a great story. An anecdote is not a great story. Two anecdotes does not make a great story. A great story doesn't even know why exactly it's great, but between the idea and the words comes a perfect alignment (Shann knows what I'm talking about) where after the 100th revision you arrive (maybe) at a great story.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Harold & Ann Forever

           Happy Anniversary Mom and Dad!

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Still Hanging in There

“Isn’t that the guy who tried to pee in our closet?”

My husband and I were sitting outside Wrigley Field waiting for Bruce Springsteen to take the stage.

“Who?” I asked. Herbie had been dead for a decade—or at least I thought.

We had been married maybe a month and were living in an old house divided up into six apartments—some with shared bath. It was the early 80s in Chicago in a neighborhood coming back from blight. The remnants were everywhere. In the vacant lots, in the abandoned cars littering the vacant lots, in the boarded-up buildings bordering the vacant lots. It was nothing to see punks walking the sidewalks with tally-rags up to their mouths. At night the gangs came out with baseball bats to beat the tar out of each other, the sky lit up with fires set by landlords burning down those old buildings, the buildings subdivided, with bathrooms down the hall.

Every morning I awoke to some new crisis, the ashes of the night before. And the occasional body left in playlots long forsaken by kids.

We were in Chicago doing the abstract work of community development, which sometimes just came down to shoveling the sidewalks, grilling out with belligerent neighbors, calling the police or firehouse when trouble broke out. We invited kids to play inside our yard because the playlots were scary, filled with teens huffing tally, swinging on swings and then knotting them by wrapping them over the top bar.

After being raised in the suburbs, the inner city of Chicago sometimes felt medieval.

And my husband and I lived outside the castle walls. It was summer and our bedroom window was wide open. We tried to suck as much circulation into the room as possible by creating a wind tunnel: one fan pulling hot air in and another fan pointing out, as if to exhale. If we lay perfectly still we might feel a breeze cooling the damp rags pressed against our forehead. The only hope was in a tomorrow less hot.

While waiting for the heat to break we fell asleep.

I thought he had locked the door and he thought I had locked the door. Apparently neither of us had because sometime in the middle of the night, dense with the sound of whirring fans, Herbie sneaked in. To be fair—he didn’t know where he was.

I awoke to a rustling. As I lay still I figured it was a mouse, then I speculated something bigger, perhaps a cat had gotten in through the open window—about nine feet off the ground. The sound was intermittent. Right when I thought I’d imagined the whole thing, it would come again. I got up to investigate.

As a child watching “The Mummy” or classic “Dracula” or some other Saturday afternoon black- and white-TV movie I’d always chide the naïve woman for opening her bedroom door or descending the castle steps in search of who knew what. NO! I’d scream. Get back inside! Years later as a die-hard feminist, I’d still scream—Go get a guy!

Yet there I was checking the screen in the window, prodding the corners of our studio apartment. There weren’t too many places for the sound to be coming from. So I returned to bed. A half hour later I heard it again: a distinct groan.

This time I woke my husband up. “I’m hearing something.”

“A mouse?”

“No, bigger than that.”

“A rat?”

I pushed him out of the bed. “Go see.”

He did something I’d avoided doing; he turned on a small desk lamp. There was a shuffling from the direction of the closet. I stayed in the middle of the bed as if it were a life raft, in case a flood of Pied Piper rats, cats, or mice tumbled out. My husband pushed the curtain to the closet aside. He looked up. It’s a man, he stated as a matter of fact.

Oh. My. God. We had no cell phone. This was before cell phones. I had no idea of how or where to get help. If I could I would have run out of the room—except I’d have to cross to the other side to the door, past the closet.

The man, who I could first tell had been sprawled on the closet floor, was now standing upright, but leaning. I dove under a pile of pillows. Visions of pillage and rape seized me. What if the man had a gun? A knife! This was no black- and white-movie, but real life. I had no idea how this story would end.

I heard my husband shout No! Don’t! and peeked. It looked as if the intruder, obviously drunk, was trying to relieve himself in our closet! My husband steered him out of the tight space, which in the dark might have appeared to be the bathroom, and guided him to the door of our apartment, and out into the hallway. He pointed the stranger to the bathroom down the hall.

Later we learned his name was Herbie. He’d been visiting one of the other residents and gotten turned around. Much later than that the word on the street was that he’d died in a violent fight—probably one of the nightly scuffles that took place in front of our house. Either way, after that terror-filled night we never saw him again.

Until the night of the Springsteen concert at Wrigley last week, when we thought we saw him stumble drunkenly across the street, going from garbage can to garbage can looking for beer cans to drain.

Not much had seemed to change in his life. For us—we were in fact that evening celebrating 26 years of marriage, and that studio we’d first lived in in the subdivided house had been torn down to make way for a condo development. The whole neighborhood had undergone a make-over. Instead of chain-link fences were landscaped hedges. Gone were the bars on the windows, replaced with flower boxes. Even the playlot kitty-corner from our old house had new play equipment enjoyed by toddlers and their caregivers. The swings now move freely back and forth without the trauma of truant teenagers.

My husband reached for my hand, grasped it while we sat in lawn chairs, waiting for the lights to go out and the band to come on and play for the people inside the stadium, for the sounds of Bruce to float over the walls to us and the other peasants sitting outside. “Happy anniversary,” my husband whispered.