A New Wave of Authentic Communication in the Era of Covid-19

A Facebook friend shared a music video with me: “Neil Diamond & Puppies to Put a Smile on your Face.” It’s a charming bit of fluff, photographed outdoors, with Diamond singing and playing an acoustic guitar, and puppies romping in the fields. The pups are a nice touch, though I have the feeling the only reason they’re present is that a producer or someone said, “Hey, if we want a video to go viral, we need kittens or puppies in it.” But what bothered me the most was that Diamond lip-syncs a soundtrack that is obviously studio produced, with particular attention to enhancing his voice. 

Overall, the video is missing authenticity, that special element that says, we’re all human, and we need connections to each other, to nature, and to puppies. Instead, we view Diamond through a technologically managed veil that doesn’t allow us to touch or be touched.

Okay, I’m being very unfair. That video was produced in 2014 – six years and a world away. Back then, life was filled with movement, activities, responsibilities. We were constantly running from here to there and back again. Proud of the long, hard hours we worked, we strove for grueling levels of excellence, holding ourselves and everything around us to a high standard of productivity. Is it any wonder that we expected hard-earned perfection from our entertainment, based on take after take, melded together digitally to create a flawless whole? The Neil Diamond video was appropriate for that time.

But not for today.

Covid-19 has changed so much so quickly. Sheltering in place, hopefully in our own homes or apartments, we’re unable to move about, and for many, unable to work. Some of us are completely alone, though lucky singles like me have a dog or cat or even a bird or snake to keep us company. But for the majority of us who have Internet connections, we’re not truly alone. We are connecting with each other on a deeper, richer level than ever before – and far more frequently. I’m no exception.

I find myself Zooming every day, sometimes more than once, connecting with friends and family, but also with professional peers and business associates. In the mornings, I exercise with my sister-in-law Lee, and we’re often joined by our friend Saroj. It’s an intimate hour that starts our day on a warm positive note. Before, after and even during our aerobics video or yoga or weight training, we share our thoughts and concerns, discuss our plans for the day and support each other. Our friendship has been permanently changed by these exchanges, deepened.

My family Zooms once a week. (And yes, it is now a verb.) In normal times, I’d be lucky to see some of them every couple of months. I haven’t seen the St. Louis contingent in years. Of course, the kids dominate while parents, grandparents and the aunt (me) sit back and smile, and sometimes get a word in edgewise. We take pure pleasure – or for those who know Yiddish, we qvell – just seeing the faces of the people we love,  knowing they’re safe, and being able to share a half hour of unimportant patter while ensconced so many miles away from each other. The time we spend together online is far richer than a phone call or any kind of communication – other than the wished-for, someday-soon in-person gatherings.

Itzak Perlman: a story & some musicEven in my quiet hours, I’m not fully alone. In addition to enjoying videos of plays from Broadway and London, I’m kept company by authors’ readings and musicians performing at home. For instance, Itzhak Perlman epitomizes this new wave of heart-felt communication. He posts periodic short videos on Facebook – just him and his violin. Looking directly into the camera, he shares a short story or personal feelings, then plays a few minutes of music. And we feel uplifted by the very same sense of love that makes Perlman a violin virtuoso.

But it’s not just personal or artistic connections that have become more authentic. Business meetings are often disrupted by a cat jumping on someone’s lap or a child running about in the background. Such personal interruptions would have once been deemed inappropriate but now create a warm moment that we can share with our associates. To use a Yiddish word that says it all, our meetings are becoming menschlichkeit . (Sorry, it isn’t an easy word to translate. It has to do with being a mensch, being a human being, personable, caring, involved, and more than that.)

We’re depending on Zoom and similar videoconferencing services in this time of isolation. As we connect through our screens, we’re allowing not only our friends and family, but business associates, fans and other “strangers” to glimpse who we are behind the public masks we’d carefully crafted. Our pets, our children, our private homes are on display, warts and all. And we’ve become – like the Velveteen Rabbit – real to each other, and to ourselves.

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NOTE: Thank you David Strom and Paul Gillin for mentioning this essay on their FIR B2B podcast.

 

The Sprecher & Rose

Sally Wiener Grotta talking with Erika Funke (WVIA-FM) about storytelling
Click to hear Sally reading this story on ArtScene with Erika Funke (WVIA-FM). The photos are from a previous appearance on the show.

My father often told me a story about his older sister Rose and the neighborhood sprecher

In 1918, my Aunt Rose lay feverish and weak, barely aware of her mother wiping her brow with a cool cloth. Even my Grandma Anna was beginning to lose hope. That’s when they called in the sprecher.

At this point in the story, Dad would explain that sprecher meant “speaker.” I never learned Yiddish, but some of his words stuck; this one particularly. And it has influenced me in more ways than I’d realized.

The sprecher’s role in the Jewish immigrant community was to sit by the bedside of a seriously ill loved one, to hold her spirit within her body with his words, to not let it fly away, to fight death itself with his own spirit.Read More

Thank you Toni Morrison… and Trapeta B. Mayson

Trapeta B. Mayson, Philadelphia's Poet Laureate, speaking about Toni Morrison at The Rosenbach
Trapeta B. Mayson

This past Tuesday, I attended my first Rosenbach lunchtime talk. The Rosenbach museum and library is one of Pennsylvania’s hidden treasures, though it is open to the public and is now affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia. The elegant Delancey Street double townhouse contains a remarkable collection of rare books and documents originally assembled by the Rosenbach brothers, famous dealers in books, manuscripts and art. It’s also the site of frequent public discussions, readings and lectures that fill the intimate rooms with interested and interesting people from near and far – such as the monthly lunchtime talks.

I didn’t know what to expect, except that the topic was one of my favorite authors – Toni Morrison – and the speaker would be Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate Trapeta B. Mayson. I was sure that it would be a hour well spent. Besides, I needed to get away from my writing for a bit. I’d been struggling with the first draft of my new novel’s second chapter, and the more I fought the words – the more I wrote, edited and deleted – the more frustrated (and, yes, self-doubting) I was becoming. Perhaps, I had finally bitten off more than I could chew with this ambitious project.

"I never asked Tolstoy to write for me." Toni Morrison

Throughout the hour, Trapeta interspersed Morrison quotes and her own poems, a weave of words and ideas that illuminated the ideas she shared, until they shimmered with energy and life that could not be denied. She spokeRead More

Our Memories as Personal Mythology

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" by David BlackAn 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.]

The Story of Us

The Many Faces of Me by Sally Wiener Grotta
“The Many Faces of Me” by Sally Wiener Grotta

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?

Calling All Dreamers

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.

The first issue of DreamForge Magazine

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

Scot Noel, Editor & Publisher of DreamForge Magazine

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?”

What Photography Has Taught Me About Writing… and Vice Versa

 

 

Behind the Veil by Sally Wiener Grotta
Behind the Veil by Sally Wiener Grotta

 

 

I am often asked what I mean when I say that my photography and writing inform each other. Photography, storytelling, and, yes, life… it’s all about what we see, how we convey it to others and whether we can make it meaningful.

When I look at the world through the lens of my camera, I see so much more. My field of vision might be more limited, but everything becomes more focused, limned with greater clarity of shadows and light. Life resolves into aesthetic patterns and colors, giving definition and meaning, and making the ordinary everyday more noteworthy and memorable.

It’s as though my lens has the magic ability to see through to the essentials of a moment or of a personality, to tell me story that I might have missed if it weren’t for my camera’s eye view.

I often think about my photography when I’m writing… visualizing what I want my readers to see, focusing my words as I would my camera lens. To go even further,Read More

What Drives You to Write Your Stories?

A few months ago, I wrote an essay for the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) FWAFicWritblog which was inspired by reading Samuel R. Delaney’s The Atheist in the Attic. 

Novelist as Poet or Philosopher?

Meditation Inspired by Samuel R Delany’s The Atheist in the Attic

I am reading Samuel Delany’s book The Atheist in the Attic very slowly, a few pages every morning, so that I can savor individual gems of ideas through the day, usually latching onto a single concept that resonates for me, makes me think, wonder, question. This morning I’ve been fixating on the above quote, and on various paths of thought where it has lead me.

The Atheist in the Attic is a “fictive reconstruction” of a meeting between the philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Baruch de Spinoza, told from Leibniz’s point of view. Clearly, philosophy is the subject. But as I read the section quoted above, I immediately applied it to writing fiction. In particular, what drives me to write stories and novels.

I write to understand. My characters and plots are formed in a subconscious that churns with confusion or concern about how the world functions (or fails to function). As I write the story my characters tell me, I… (To read the rest of this essay, please go to the SFWA blog.)Read More

I Am A Jew

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.


 

Lighting the Menorah by Daniel Grotta

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?

Being Jewish is Read More

Choices

Reprinted from my old blog which is now closed.

A few years ago, I broke both my arms. One moment, I was happily strolling along with our young puppy galumphing at my side. The next, I was sprawled face down in the asphalt of a parking lot.

More shocking than the thwack of pain was the blink-of-an-eye speed with which it all happened. I had tripped over a hidden metal rod in a supposedly landscaped island, and suddenly I had no control over my own body. Gravity took hold and threw me to the ground. Though only a few months old and still untrained, Watson was a good puppy and sat next to me until a stranger came by to help me get up.

Can you imagine what it was like to have both my arms in slings for months, useless, unable to do the most basic things for myself? One of the more memorable moments was after a few weeks of frustrating (and boring) passivity, when I was Read More