I subscribe to a number of email lists whose content challenge my mind and set me thinking in directions I might never have traveled without their stimulation. For instance, I enjoy receiving twice weekly emails of Maria Popova’s The Marginalian (formerly called BrainPickings) essays for their poetic and insightful curation of the writings of great thinkers, writers and artists.
I initially subscribed to MyJewishLearning‘s daily Talmudic interpretations as part of my research for a current work-in-progress, a new novel (Women of a New Moon). As a secular Jew, I’ve never really studied Torah or Talmud or any of the sacred texts beyond the cursory attention I gave to lessons at Sunday school. (Nor do I remember much Hebrew from then.) But I find myself intrigued by these emails, not necessarily for the Talmudic interpretations (which I often find irrelevant and boring). but more for the thought processes behind them. Those processes — the instinct to question and probe rather than just accept whatever is stated — is key to what I cherish about my Jewish heritage, and what has defined my life of intellectual and creative restlessness.Read More
All my life, the turning of the year has seemed to be something that would sneak up on me. Existing outside of everyday, it was beyond the reality that shaped my life, a pause imposed on the “real” world. One day I’d be playing with other kids on the jungle gym, or studying for an exam, or working on a story deadline. Then suddenly, the new year would appear on the calendar, and the clock reset to the beginning. Incrementally, life changed over time, almost unnoticed, unmarked except by momentous highlights: weddings and births, bar/bat mitzvahs and anniversaries, deadlines and book launches, and deaths.
This year is different.
As we approach Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days, time seems to be slowing down, giving me the luxury to wonder and wander, touching places in my mind and heart that I haven’t visited before.
That isn’t to say that deadlines aren’t looming, laying on the pressure professionally. Nor is the world any less hectic or demanding. But something in me was broken this past year of isolation and fear. Broken then healed, broken and healed… over and over again. In some ways, I feel like a piece of Kintsugi, a Japanese work of art created by using gold dust to rejoin the pieces of something that’s been damaged, creating beauty out of pain. But instead of gold, it’s light and lightness that is shining through the cracks in my universe. Shining on the stories within me, because stories are the gold, the light that keeps me together, and creates a new me with each character born and plot woven.Read More
When I was growing up, the colors of the Passover seder plate were primarily dull and dark. A shank bone, a roasted egg, horseradish, salt, and the delicious but yucky looking charoises (minced apples, nuts and dried fruit soaked in red wine). The one relieving color (and the dullest flavor) was that of the fresh parsley.
Then one year, a big, bright orange appeared on the seder plate. The story I was told back then was that it was in response to some rabbi who once said, “There will be a female rabbi when there’s an orange on the Pesach seder plate.” In other words, he considered both to be not only unlikely but impossible. Naturally, as the story goes, feminists started to put an orange on their seder plates, and the practice spread like wildfire.
Beyond any metaphorical meaning, I was delighted to see that orange on the seder plate. It felt like a fresh bit of life among the dull, dark artifacts of our history. As such it helped to make the history feel more modern and relevant. At the same time, it was a recognition of the long line of women who came before me, stretching back through my mother and grandmothers through the generations to the matriarchs of ancient times.
Besides, oranges have been one of my favorite treats for as long as I can remember. What fun it is to use my nails and fingertips to pierce and peel away the tough, pebbly skin, to get to the crisp sweet-tart pulpy juices that play on my tongue. And as a writer, I get a kick out of the fact that even the sound of the word is unique; no word in the English language rhymes holistically with orange. (Botanists will point to “sporange” which is a part of ferns, fungi, algae, or mosses. But really, how many of us will ever use sporange in a poem?)
All these years, I have identified with that orange on the seder plate. Read More
If you could be magically transported into Eve’s body before she reached for the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, would you pick and eat it, knowing what you know of life?
As I research the stories of Eve and Lilith for my novel Women of a New Moon, I return often to the original Garden of Eden stories in Genesis. The story of humanity’s exile from paradise has a bittersweet allure. Who doesn’t dream of being welcomed back to the original utopia where illness and hunger didn’t exist, where death was unknown, and life was gentle.
All of Creation was the embodiment of goodness, as God proclaimed. But did Adam and Eve experience Good? Could they understand what goodness was when they had known nothing else?
However if you were in Eve’s body in the Garden of Eden, with all that you know, you would have a soul-deep understanding of the tradeoffs inherent in the decision to eat the apple from that one forbidden tree. To not eat would mean to be immortal, protected, and forever innocent. To eat would mean Read More
During this past November’s virtual Philcon, I went back and forth what piece of fiction I should read. For much of the past year, I’ve been pouring all my passion into a new mainstream novel Women of a New Moon, and that’s what I really wanted to share with my friends and fans. However, Philcon is a science fiction conference, and I worried that my audience would expect me to read one of my recently published science fiction short stories or a new not-yet-published speculative novel. Uncertain what to do, I asked a number of people who had mentioned they’d be logging into my online reading, and they all wanted to hear Women of a New Moon, even though it is still in its first draft. Decision made.
Women of a New Moon centers on a woman’s Torah study group. We learn about the six modern women of the group – their personalities, histories, crises and story arcs – through the filter of their monthly discussions of women of the Bible (such as Eve & Lilith, Sarah & Hagar, Miriam, and so forth). At the beginning of the book, they are what I call “intimate strangers,” because they know each other only through frequent but superficial schmoozing at synagogue events. They meet once a month, taking turns hosting in their homes, and each chapter is from the host’s point of view as she leads the group for that month. I read portions of Chapter 2 in which Jen (a retired war correspondent and secular humanist) is leading a discussion of Sarah and Hagar.
Unfortunately, the recording of my reading failed. Again, I listened to my friends and fans, and a number who hadn’t been able to join me for my Philcon reading asked me to do another recording of it, and to let them know when it was posted. Of course — how could I resist? So, here it is.
For years now, whenever I’ve spoken at book clubs, I’ve told my audiences, “The book you read is not the book I wrote.” That’s because reading is a participatory experience. We bring our personal histories, prejudices, expectations, hopes and concerns to our interpretations of what we see on the page. That, in turn, can color the narrative and dialog, often making our reading of a book uniquely our own.
I’ve understood that concept for so long that I shouldn’t have been surprised when I was blindsided by a friend’s adverse reaction to a word I had written. I consider the word in and of itself a neutral description. But as far as she was concerned, it was a highly charged, derogatory expression.
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.
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
When I was a young photographer, I enjoyed experimenting with reciprocity failure.
While it may sound like a philosophical or psychological concept, reciprocity failure relates to the chemical limitations of film. Back in the 20th century, photographers quickly learned that each type of color film (known as its emulsion) was rated for certain light parameters. Push an emulsion beyond its rating by using a longer than acceptable shutter speed (to capture a picture in low light situations), and you’d end up with false colors. Those were the barriers inherent in the technology that pro photographers just didn’t overstep.
But… well… I never did color within the lines.
When I toyed with reciprocity failure, I purposely pushed beyond what was “correct” to seek new creative visions. I remember one moonless night Read More