My sister and I must have had different parents. I have come to that dubious conclusion not based on genealogy or DNA, but on anecdotal experience. Of course, it isn’t true. Heck, look at our pictures, listen to our identical laughs. Unquestionably, my mother and father were Amy’s parents, too. But when I hear her stories about growing up in the same house as I did, with the same neighbors and the same influences, I often don’t recognize the people, places or events that are so vivid in her memory. And when I tell her my recollections, she helps me out by correcting my errors. After all, she’s the older sister, and knows the truth of our past.
This isn’t a rant on my sister, whom I admire and love. Instead, it’s my acceptance of something I came to realize when I was a young journalist interviewing various subjects. Everybody’s memories are personal mythologies, our creation stories about how we came to be who we are today. So, naturally Amy and I would remember our lives together quite differently. Perhaps if we combined our memories, we would be able to create a mosaic that might come a bit closer to understanding who we are in relationship to each other. And, yes, if we could talk to the dead, to our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and to others who once shared our lives, we could probably paint a more complete picture of our past. But I don’t believe we can ever know with absolute certainty the fine details – the facts – of what happened on a certain day, whether it was 25 years ago or just last month.
That’s why I question shelving memoirs into the non-fiction section of a library or book store. Apparently, David Black, the author of An Impossible Life, agrees with me. Why else would he have given that piece of magical realism the subtitle a bobeh myseh, which is a Yiddish phrase that translates as an old wives’ tale, an untrue story or something of little consequence?
An Impossible Life is a brilliant pastiche of Black’s family history, based on his memories, relatives’ oft repeated tales, Jewish heritage and folklore, a touch of Kabbalah, and references to the Torah, with the holes filled in by his imagination. The most prominent figment is his dead father, with whom Black has an ongoing conversation throughout the book. The novel weaves these various threads into a colorful tapestry that extends from modern times back through the Holocaust, to the shtetl, all the way to the biblical Patriarch and Matriarch, Abraham and Sarah (and Hagar). But it’s Black’s hard-nosed, sometimes angry, other times grudgingly tender perspectives that cut through it all, making his fictional accounts closer to truth – or at least, his personal truth – than most fact-anchored non-fiction could.
I understand that Black is currently developing a theatrical play based on An Impossible Life. Given his track record as an author and scriptwriter, whose career has been peppered with accolades, including Emmy and Pultizer Prize nominations, he certainly has the chops for it. And I look forward to seeing the story made flesh on the stage. However, a part of me would rather this fascinating cast of characters remained sequestered in my mind, where they might gestate and grow, until they and their impossible lives become part of my personal mythology.
[Note: My short story The Broken Bottle explores how personal mythology (especially related to a traumatic experience) can change over time.]
I love understanding the roots of words, it colors them and gives layers of meaning when we use them. So, I’m signed up for the emailed words of the day from Dictionary.com, A.Word.A.Day with Anu Garg, and Visual Thesaurus.
For instance, consider the word iniquity (which was highlighted some time ago in an email from Visual Thesaurus). The root is the same as equity or equal. But with the opposing prefix “in,” the word has come to mean unequal, therefore wrong, therefore evil. At least that’s how the word has evolved and come down to us. So, if I use iniquity in a story, it would color the sense of wrongness with an underlyingRead More
Four years ago today, my Dad passed away in his sleep at the age of 99 1/2; as usual, he had fallen asleep while reading an ebook on his smart phone. I will miss his big smile and loving presence for the rest of my life. Below is an exhibit blurb I wrote about this picture, for him, about him, about us, soon after his death.
To continuity of blood and love and life
I created this photograph on the occasion of my father’s 95th birthday, which was also the day of his first great-grandson’s bris. Of the many photographs I have taken, this one frozen moment has the greatest timeline, pulling at my heart with memories that go so far back and so far forward that they can exist only in my imagination, spanning far more than a single lifetime.
Generations created this moment, as I composed the image and pressed the shutter button. Generations I can know only from stories told by those who came before and are no more. Generations yet to be, whom I will never meet, but whom I hope will remember the stories told by this picture.
I received the email while I was at the International Conference for Fantastic in the Arts this past March.
Thank you for participating in 2100: A Health Odyssey! This has truly been an exciting and fun competition… The quality and diversity of the entries we received were outstanding. We are pleased to announce that your story has been selected as one of our six winners! Congratulations! (And, yes, the bold font was part of the email. I suppose it was just in case I missed the point.)
I had to read the email six or seven times. Was it really saying that my story One Widow’s Healing would be honored on May 7th at a gala celebration of six writers? Even after reading and rereading, I was sure it was a mistake. It wasn’t until I received a follow-up email asking me to fill in a W-9 IRS form so they could arrange for my prize money, that it began to sink in.
I don’t normally enter short story or other fiction contests. But this one was intriguing. The writing prompt was to write a science fiction story that would illustrate the future of health care, specifically in the year 2100. What was most interesting is that the competition was sponsored by Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, one of the highest rated health care facilities in the country. Specifically, they wanted a positive, hopeful story that could potentially influence how health care will actually develop in the future. In the words of Dr. Stephen Klasko, the CEO of Jefferson, “Almost anything you can dream can happen, if you do it in science fiction.”
Here’s Dr. Klasko’s visionary description of what they were seeking:
Watching that video, how could I not want to participate?
To say that I’m thrilled that the judges felt my story gave them hope about a possible health care future is to put it mildly. No, I didn’t win the grand prize of $10,000. But my prize money is enough to pay for several weeks this summer during which I can put aside everything and just write fiction. That’s quite a present to receive. And what an honor!
Many thanks to Dr. Klasko, the impressive panel of judges and Jefferson Hospital.
Click here — One Widow’s Healing — to read my short story. Then, please let me know what you think.
I was searching through my files this morning for a some notes from a trip I once took to Sable Island, a tiny spit of land in the North Atlantic. As I shuffled file folders and piles of papers, I found this poem, which I wrote at a time of personal upheaval.
I remember picking up my pen, to try to understand the difficulties I was encountering; writing is how I deal with crises or confusion. And on that day — February 18, 2014 — I found deep within me the voices (and hopefully the strength) of all the women who came before me. They are still there, in my mind and my spirit, in my words and my art, a gift of love and continuity.
I tell myself a story every morning and every night, and in the in-between hours. It’s the same story, with variations, so that over the years it has changed, altered by life and by the telling, and – always – by my perspective and my angle of entry into the narrative.
It’s the story of me, who I believe myself to be.
Facts underlie the story, of course. I am a woman, though I have been a girl. And sometimes I fall back to that youthful persona, to a time when I was partially unformed and uncertain, with no lines on my face, no scars on my being.
I am what is called “white” or Caucasian – what strange terms to try to describe a certain beige complexion, an unavoidable acknowledgement of social and political advantage.
I am a Jew. But what that means can vary so widely, to myself and to others, that sometimes I think that the only fact of the matter is that flat statement of my heritage. But other times, I know that my constant questioning, overall optimism, and sense of personal responsibility – as well as my storytelling – stem directly from that heritage. (If you’re curious, I go further into this in my essay “I am a Jew“.)
Facts soon become quicksilver as I try to separate out the many confusing tendrils within me. What is the story I tell myself of my relationships to others, to the world, to my work, and all the other elements that make up my life and environment? It depends… on memories and fears, influences and reactions, crises and resolutions … all mixed up with what I’ve done and seen, where I’ve been, the shape of my relationships, the impact of current news, the texture of my dreams, and the weight of my perceived successes and failures.
At one moment, I might see myself as an accomplished professional writer and artist, pleased with what I’ve achieved, excited by what I may yet learn to create. The next, I have no doubt that I’m an imposter, and will never be more than a wannabe.
Other times, I’m a friend, lover, sister, aunt, who is loving and loved. But, in dark hours, I know myself to be ultimately alone, unimportant to anyone but myself.
I may see myself as gentle, ferocious, kind, cruel, generous, selfish, intelligent, ignorant, spirited, ineffective, and all other flavors of adjectives. And so I will spin my story to fit my current perception, and will be channeled by that tale to make the perception real.
The truth is that I am all those things… and more. I’m a jumble of contradictions that build on top of each other, as we all are. Isn’t that what it is to be a human being? And whichever attribute I choose to focus on is what I will be… at least for as long as I continue to tell myself that particular story.
Isn’t it the same with the story of us?
The narrative of us that is currently bandied about – within families, among communities, across the country – is that we are a divided people. Those on the other side of things will never listen, can never understand [fill in the issue of the day]. We tell ourselves that we’ve become too polarized to function, and anyway, our side is the only one that sees things clearly and has a valid case.
As long as we continue to tell and believe that story, can we be anything more than the contentious populace we are now? What if we started to tell the tale of a people who may argue and disagree, but who recognize that the argument is a path, not the purpose? Isn’t that the essential nature of a democracy?
What’s more, what if we flavor our story of us with a belief in humanity, not in the abstract but in our perceptions of individuals? As we build our narrative, let’s take a page from the best novelists and avoid stereotypes. Instead, let’s flesh out each character with all his or her many dimensions, and even try to hear the story each person tells of ‘me’. Perhaps, then we can move forward together, if not hand-in-hand, at least with hope that there may be something more than anger and rigidity defining who we are.
No, I’m not saying that our social and political problems are merely a question of perspective. The roots run deep. But if we can construct a narrative that includes the struggle to understand, to listen and to find some common ground where we can hash out compromises and create new solutions, isn’t that the beginning of a new story of us? And if we believe in it, isn’t it possible that may help us look toward a future where we just might be able to work together to make it real?
A new popular theme is emerging in the arts – one of unabashed, unapologetic hope. While partially a reaction to society’s current divisiveness and anger, it also has a lot to do with faith in humankind and our future – and a very large dose of the courage to speak out, to try to lead the way.
Yes, human beings can be cruel, violent and selfish, but we can also be kind, generous and open to learning to be better. What’s more, I believe that the latter tendencies are the stronger, more prevalent. So it is that my own art has long explored the questions we need to keep asking ourselves if we wish to reach toward a wider, richer future.
As John Lennon sang, “You can say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” A case in point is the launch of a new science fiction and fantasy magazine DreamForge, whose motto is “Connecting Dreamers – Past and Present. Imagine. Engage. Inspire.”
What a leap of faith – to start a new magazine in this era of so many publications failing to survive the digital transition. Yet, it’s fitting that Scot Noel (Editor and Publisher) and his wife Jane Noel (Designer) have jumped in, with all their heart and, I’m sure, a large portion of their savings. How else could they, as Scot wrote, “make a noise in favor of hope”?
I have just read the first issue of DreamForge. It’s a beautiful publication, filled with delightful stories. I was so impressed – particularly by Scot Noel’s personal message – that I immediately emailed Scot, and asked for permission to reprint his editorial as the first guest blog on this my new website.
Here it is, an editorial designed to give all of us hope about publishing and about our future as a species.
Which Shall It Be?
by Scot Noel
The world has been coming to an end for a long time, for centuries if not for millennia. While the doomsayers wring their hands and point to evidence of moral decay and economic collapse, the reality is – cities grow larger, nations grow richer, and the population of humankind is approaching 7.7 billion people. (It was less than 3 billion at the beginning of the space age in 1957.)
Science, technology, and knowledge itself are advancing so quickly, their growth rate is becoming exponential. Only 476 years ago, Nicholas Copernicus published a blasphemous theory that the earth and planets revolved around the sun. Today, we have charted the shape of the universe itself, and in another 500 years we, as a species, are likely to command godlike powers that any human who has ever lived, including those of us around today, would consider the province of the divine.
Why does it all seem so terrible and doomed to destruction? Are we like Icarus, son of Daedalus, daring to fly too close to the sun?
We are indeed like Icarus and the ancient Greeks, and like our Cro-Magnon ancestors of 35,000 years past: we are human. We are built for an enemy and predator-filled world where spreading bad news and taking violent action were essential to survival. Fierce tribal loyalties and a win-at-all-costs attitude have been our go-to kit since before civilization was conceived.
Times are changing. We are a young species with short memories and a dull sense of what the future really means. A thousand years, ten thousand, a hundred thousand and we will not yet be middle-aged, and by then the stars will be ours. Literally. What will we do with them, I wonder? Before that day arrives, we must mature, and the very forces of our increase will pressure us to do so.
We will grow out of our messy teenage years and clean up our act. We may pollute our planet for centuries to come; we may fight horrendous wars a thousand years from now, but we will also be learning, building, and changing all along the way. We will end suffering, poverty, and sickness at a faster rate than the worst among us can create them. We will heal this world and build new ones. Long before the end, the better angels of our nature shall – as they have been for a thousand years – rise up to overwhelm the destructive impulses of our genesis.
Hope, big dreams, and perseverance will get us there. Hope is not an illusion; it’s simply a perspective backed by engagement with the world, whatever the condition of the world may be. And fiction has its part to play. At DreamForge, we believe words are important; that the stories we tell ourselves affect the present and become the future. It’s been said that the arc by which fiction changes the world is long and subtle, but powerful nonetheless.
One day we will meet new civilizations among the stars but, more importantly, we must learn to respect the aliens among us right now. You know who they are; they’re the people who by circumstance, culture, or choice are different from you.
By our human heritage, we are built to see them as threats, competitors for scarce resources, subversive forces ready to challenge our beliefs and tear apart our communities. In the future, there will be too many different peoples, beliefs, political ideologies, and – eventually – species of human to count. We’re going to have to get over our fears and loathing.
When you find yourself thinking the people on the other side of the ideological divide are too stupid to understand your point, that you can’t empathize with them and their values, that their way of looking at the world is ruining your country, your community, and your life – that’s an ancient evolutionary adaptation the purpose of which is as extinct as the trilobite.
Mere tolerance is unacceptable, extreme diversity inevitable. It’s the only way we can ever begin to embrace the vast gulf between ourselves and the creatures we shall meet among the stars, they who know nothing of the doctrines and dogmas over which we are willing to take life and destroy worlds.
Our only true enemy is entropy, the gradual dissolution of complex systems, the force behind suffering, aging, and decay. Fortunately, life by its very nature fights entropy, and our prowess in understanding and then mastering the intricacies of universal forces appears unbounded.
In a screenplay by H.G. Wells for the Science Fiction Film “Things to Come,” the movie ends with a dramatic monologue that goes in part:
“… And when he (man) has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time, still he will be beginning. And if we’re no more than animals we must snatch each little scrap of happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or have done. It is this – or that: all the universe or nothing… Which shall it be?”
My most recent newsletter opens up a discussion about how creativity is contagious. It leaps easily from one person to the next, generating a feedback loop, as well as flows over from one area of our lives to another.
Please read the letter, then respond here on this blog or via email, sharing similar experiences that you’ve had. Once creativity is part of a single aspect of your life does it infect everything else, inspiring you to try novel solutions, or to attempt something that you might not have previously considered possible? What circumstance or person has caused you to catch a particularly fervent case of the creativity bug?
Also in this newsletter are links to an essay about how my photography and writing inform each other, a video and other information about my American Hands portrait project, and an invitation to do guest blogs/essays on this website.