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?
The following is an essay I wrote for my old website a few years ago. In the wake of the horrific shooting at Pittsburgh’s L’Simcha Tree of Life one month ago — and the the current political atmosphere that has given permission for such hate to come out of hiding and act on it — I find this piece a poignant reflection of the innocence I was once privileged to feel. While the essay is about the Jewishness of my writing, it’s also a declaration of who I am, and reinforces my determination to not be cowed by the haters. And, yes, I still believe that most people are good and kind, and that we can find our way out of this current climate of hate and divisiveness — if we work together.
As I wrote that title, I hesitated. While the statement “I am a Jew” has a proud heritage of defiance and strength, I can almost hear my grandmother warning me, “Be careful, sweetheart, what details you ask others to focus on about you.” But then, she came from a time when being Jewish was a double-edged sword that gave us the protection of belonging to a rich tradition and community, while separating us out for ostracization and exclusion from society as a whole. I’m lucky to not be living in the era of her youth.
Or am I being naïve and foolish? Given the ghettoizing of women writers which implies that somehow our work is not as significant as that of our male counterparts, am I taking a chance by saying that not only I am a woman, I am a Jew? Will I now be relegated to second, or even third-class status in the literary hierarchy? Will I now be considered only as a Jewish female writer? Was William Faulkner “merely” a Southern male writer? Or, Thoreau nothing more than a New Englander tree-hugger? Why is it necessary for me to publicly dismiss my roots, out of fear of having my art and writing less respected?
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1970’s classic thriller movie The Stepford Wives. Based on the novel with the same name by Ira Levin, the story is simple and nightmarish, a chilling distortion of the American Dream. The men of Stepford have decided that the only way they can attain an idealized Ozzie-and-Harriet-like suburban life is to replace their wives with “perfect women” in the form of mechanical dolls. These automatons are obedient, non-confrontational, devoid of opinion – and, of course, both great in bed and superb cooks. They’re also svelte, always impeccably groomed and white.
I keep flashing on The Stepford Wives not because I particularly liked the movie, but because it has become a cultural icon of the social pressure to conform. It’s a distorted view of womanhood that feels particularly relevant in light of the groundswell reaction to my recent essays Is Obesity the New Obscenity? and The Monster in the Mirror. With the many hundreds of comments, hits, links and likes those essays have received, I’ve realized that I’m not alone in my discomfort with the way people who don’t fit a distorted physical “ideal” are treated. In fact, “we” far outnumber “them.”
So why do these twisted yardsticks of “acceptability” persist when so many cry out against them? What is it that condemns society Read More
(Essay by Sally Wiener Grotta, republished from Anisfield Wolf website)
In Karen R. Long’s essay What Biases Are You Carrying?, which was posted on the Anisfield Wolf blog, Attorney Louise P. Dempsey was described as having used the following riddle as part of a lunch talk.
A man and his son were in a car accident. The critically injured man had to be helicoptered to the hospital. His son was rushed by ambulance to the same hospital. When the boy was wheeled into emergency surgery, the surgeon looked at him and said, “I can’t operate. This is my son.” The blog then asked the question, “How is this possible?”
If you haven’t heard that anecdotal test before, consider your answer for a few moments before continuing to read.Read More
After all the hoopla over Leonard Nimoy’s stunning photo of nude fat women that I posted on Facebook, and the energized Internet response to my essay Is Obesity the New Obscenity? I’ve been thinking a lot about personal body image and how society feels empowered to comment and judge on a woman’s physical appearance.
Women’s Bodies As Markers of Social Standing
In past ages, a full rounded figure was a sign of wealth, of having enough to eat. Society would point at a man who could afford to keep his wife fleshy and recognize him as a man of substance. He was far above the riff raff who lived hand to mouth with no excess in their homes or on their bodies. Only aristocrats or very successful merchants had what we now call obese wives and children.
Today, as tabloids, TV and the Internet constantly remind us, the truly rich tend to marry the truly thin.
But in all the discussions I’ve seen about the various feminine ideals through the ages, most ignore the central issue. Women’s bodies have long been commodities and status symbols. The “trophy wife” might be a 20th century phrase, but it’s an age-old concept.Read More
Today, while doing my morning exercises, I clicked through Netflix and ended up watching “First Contact: Lost Tribe of the Amazon.” It’s a fascinating documentary about an anthropologist’s first interaction with one of the isolated tribes of the region. But my interest wasn’t only intellectual. I was curious about how the tribe Daniel and I had once met might have fared. (To read a bit about our experience in the Amazon, please go to a lighthearted piece I did for Lawrence Schoen’s Eating Authors.)
According to “First Contact,” an Amazon region of about 30,000 square miles (spread across the border between Brazil and Peru) is home to the majority of “uncontacted” people in the planet. Uncontacted means that we have no records of any interaction between them and the outside modern world. However, many (if not most) have been watching us for a long time. Read More
According to rumor, Mr. Rogers carried this quote from the author Mary Lou Kownacki in his wallet: “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love, once you’ve heard their story.” Whether or not he did, it’s a lovely thought that reflects an important pillar of my life’s work.
We all judge strangers based on our initial impression of them. Their physical appearance. Their smile or frown or vacant stare. What they are wearing. How they carry themselves or the sound of their voice. It’s a natural instinctive reaction to new stimuli that I suppose helped our ancestors when we were hunter/gatherers, when new encounters could lead to life or death decisions.
Though we have evolved since then, modern life is Read More
Okay, I admit it, I’m acrynomically challenged. It seems that new abbreviations appear daily on my twitter feed, in emails, even in articles of magazines that I think of as mainstream (i.e. written in “commonly accepted” English). And I’m sent scurrying to Google to try to find the newest definitions for acronyms that didn’t exist or meant something entirely different the last time I looked.
Language has always been the dividing line between “insiders” and “outsiders.” In one story in the Bible, how a person pronounced the word “shibboleth” determined whether a sentry would kill him or let him pass. So it has been through the centuries. Words and accents have determined what tribe will accept you, whether it’s social class, professional standing or “belonging” to a certain group, gang or tribe. But it seems to me that it’s gotten worse in this digital age.
Of course, language is a living, malleable thing, always changing. The slang of the 1920s is now considered either passé or has been integrated into college curriculum for English Lit 101. As an author, I enjoy Read More
Thank you Sala Wyman for another very nice review of my novel Jo Joe and a fun interview session….
“Set in a fictional village in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, Sally Wiener Grotta takes on the inner shards of racism with her novel Jo Joe, a Black Bear, Pennsylvania Story.
“There are always a couple of ways to deal with the topic of racism and its effects on the victims. One is to just document the facts about oppressors and victims. Another is to take a higher road: the healing of victims, families, and communities. Ms. Grotta beautifully and skillfully takes the high road.Read More