Thursday, July 29, 2010

When Meaning Eludes Us

Once, when I was teaching college,I had a student from Wyoming in one of my classes.
When I asked him how he liked it here on the East Coast, he said, “I like it well enough, but I get homesick for the sky.” I had no idea what he meant, of course, until I went out West and saw for myself.

Back home, I sit on my porch right after twilight and look up at the sky, but I see only a canopy of trees with leaves pressed against the moonlight, looking like cut out paper dolls, their branches holding hands.

I close my eyes and let the sounds of the crickets fill me with a rising crescendo that falls into silence. Call and response, a great chorus of crickets echo each other in a secret code that I cannot penetrate in a language I almost understand. Dots and dashes of sound break off or fade before a phrase is through, a theme or idea finished.

When I was in graduate school, I heard an apocryphal story. It was about a very special font you could download from the Internet that would make your writing look special. Each letter was perfectly formed with flowing flourishes and each word would look like a work of art.

This woman, always attracted to lovely things, fell in love with this font and wrote her entire dissertation in it, savoring its beauty on the page, believing it enhanced the meaning of her words.

Then, one day, as she was nearing completion, the words on the screen began to shake. Soon the letters separated from the words. With no center of gravity to hold them together, the letters broke free from each other and floated on the screen in every different direction.

It was mesmerizing.

And then, right before her disbelieving eyes,each letter burst open and sent tiny little dots of black dust falling slowly to the bottom of the screen like the burning ash cascading from fireworks in a summer sky.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Mad Men and the Carousel of Memory

We're captive on the carousel of time.... Joni Mitchell

On the Season One finale of Mad Men, Don Draper is seen making a pitch to executives of Eastman Kodak, who are looking for an advertising agency to market their new product - a slide projector which uses a circular tray to advance the pictures. They have tentatively called this device "The Wheel."

In a tour de force presentation, Don renames the project, "The Carousel" and launches into a brilliant discourse about memory, time and childhood. Don knows that it’s the language that matters. The associations we make with the product are what will sell it to us far more than the usefulness of the product itself. Nostalgia, he tells us conjures the pain from an old wound. It is tinged with longing and far more powerful than the memory itself. A projector called a carousel, will sell us the memories of our own childhoods or our idealizations of home.

Memories of childhood. Captured on the carousel of time.

For me, watching Mad Men is like taking a journey in a very personal time machine. And it’s nostalgic in exactly the way Don describes it. Each episode transports me back to a very poignant and painful time in my life.

Anyone who knows me knows that I had a pretty miserable childhood. And if they don’t know it yet, they soon will because it always comes up when I meet someone new. It's the place I always return home to – the default position when the back button of my memory is pressed.

Early November 1963, eleven years old, waking up on a cold Sunday morning, to the sounds of my mother’s weeping in her bed. I carefully make my way down the hallway and crack her door open only a quarter of an inch or so. It’s all I need to see it – her tiny figure looking armless, shaking uncontrollably as she sobs in the bed she’s shared with my father for fourteen years, under the mocking smiles of the bride and groom in their wedding picture, suspended on the wall above her head.

When I ask her if Daddy’s gone to get lox and bagels, (knowing full well he hasn’t) I think I am trying to make her say it. Maybe I want to hurt her as much as she's hurt me by failing to make this marriage work, failing to keep him from cheating on her.

The next two weeks do not exist in my memory, because right next to that Sunday in November when my personal world falls to pieces, comes the other day in November when the rest of the world collapses – Friday, November 22, 1963. And this time, what’s left of any hope or faith I might have had about adults is shattered by the announcement over the P.A. system in my elementary school that President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas.  We children, being grimly shuttled home that afternoon,  learn from the bus driver, who was listening to his transistor radio that the president had died.  He was crying when he told us. The first of many adults we will see cry in the confusion and grief of the ensuing days.

Somehow I have always known that in my life, there was some crazy confluence of time and energy, happening during that November, when my personal tragedy intersected with the tragedy of our nation. This convergence would continue throughout the rest of the Sixties and Seventies, as my mother would become addicted to the valium her doctor prescribed for her nervous breakdown, as she recovers and becomes a single mom, goes back to college, becomes a second wave feminist and reshapes her life as the rest of the country is changing around us.

For years, I was ashamed of my own story. We do not have many pictures from this time, either – few were taken. From that fateful November onward, my family’s life became so different from the lives of the Donna Reeds and Ozzie and Harriets surrounding us that I came to view our story as small, shameful, and not worth telling.

But then, last week, while watching Mad Men, this show that has captured the current attention of so many of us in some part because it so readily speaks to the vacuity of the American Dream in this time of economic uncertainty – there on that show – I saw the images of my own life relived on the screen. As Betty and Don Draper’s marriage disintegrates, their children lie on the floor and watch the news unfold on television of Kennedy’s death, Oswald’s murder, and the nation's mourning. Just as my siblings and I did nearly fifty years ago.

Watching Mad Men in 2010, I can see my own life, replay before my eyes; I'm still captive on the carousel of time. But this time, seeing it refracted on the television screen, enacted by these beautiful actors, written by these talented writers for a show that's somehow managed to capture the zeitgeist of a time gone by and the present, I am no longer ashamed of my story.

My friend Barry Dansky ( who was the one who encouraged me to watch this series) said it best when he wrote, "Who can watch this [scene]without mentally putting your own slides in that carousel and feeling that terrible ache for a time long gone?" He and millions of others answer this question with two simple words: "Not me."

My mother and father, together in happier times...

Separate- My father and me at my 6th grade graduation...

Separate - My mother and me at my Bat Mitzvah....

Friday, July 23, 2010

To Muse or Not To Muse - A Woman's Quest(ion)

I wrote this piece several months ago and chose at that time not to publish it to my blog. When I shared it with a few women friends and colleagues, they said that they connected with it, some of them deeply; however, when I gave it to a few of the men in my life, they didn't particularly like the piece. One even called it a "whiney." After that comment, I put it away for a while. But lately, as I think about this new blog and what risks a woman must take to speak to the world "on her own terms" it feels right to revisit it, publish it here and see what others might have to say.

I’ve spent most of my adult life helping other people express – no -- transform themselves through writing. As a high school English teacher for thirty-four years, I put my own dreams of becoming a writer on hold and taught thousands of young people, many who received a great deal of affirmation and public acclaim for their writing, winning local and national playwriting competitions and having their work produced in Philadelphia and New York.

I too received recognition as their teacher. And while that was very satisfying to me, I would sometimes feel a twinge of discomfort and even a bit of jealousy that my students were the ones who were being encouraged and supported in their writing, while I remained silent.

Once when I was given an award for excellence in arts education, a news story, written by Dale Mezzacappa appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the impact my teaching had had on my former students. A picture was taken with me and a young man whose play had won the National Young Playwrights contest and been produced off-Broadway.

I still get weak in the knees remembering the moment that I first saw that picture on all of those newspapers in my local Seven-Eleven. There on the front page of the Metropolitan section was a very handsome African American young man, eyes lit up, mouth open, hands gesturing, punctuating his words. Alive, present, he was speaking, gazing out at a rapt audience. And there in the background, silent, looking gently and lovingly at him, with a closed mouth smile like the Mona Lisa was I.

The woman behind the man. The woman I had promised myself over thirty years before that I wouldn’t become when I stopped dating writers in college -when I gave up that ridiculous dream of being Hadley to some guy’s Ernest, or Zelda to some other guy’s Scott. We all know what happened to Zelda, driven insane by the stifling of her own voice. And what might Hadley have written if she hadn’t been typing her husband’s manuscripts?

Somehow in the intervening decades between my decision as a young woman to NOT be silent nor to sublimate my voice to any man’s, I had, as a grown woman and a teacher, done that very thing.

I still have that picture. My husband had it blown up with several others and hung on the wall at my retirement party. I had never shared with him what that photograph really meant to me. He only saw it as one of the triumphant moments of my career.

And it was. It still is.

Only, there was something so primal, almost mythic about that image that went far beyond this student and me and the relationship we forged while he was writing his play.

For weeks after the story appeared in the Inquirer, I would receive letters and phone calls. All from men. Men I didn’t know, who had read the article and seen the picture. Men, who each in their own way, would ask me to help them with their writing – encourage them to finish their novel, revise their poetry, write their play. I would hear the raw emotion in their voices when they told me their stories and the disappointment when I would gently say no to them all, explaining that I had so many students who needed me. That I just didn’t have the time.

What a powerful image that must have been for them too. The silent enigmatic woman smiling with love and grace upon an animated man. When I wasn’t laughing in amusement at these intimate requests from strange men, I seethed.

We are made into muses by men. We carry their work in our wombs. We midwife their stories.

Once, in a playwriting workshop, we were asked to draw a picture of ourselves with our eyes closed. I must have lost my place and started over, because when I opened my eyes and looked on my paper, I saw a woman with another identical woman inside of her womb.

Past mid life.
Time to give birth to myself.
Time for my mouth to open and my voice to be heard.

While researching images to go with this post, I found this book: The Lives of Muses: Nine Women and the Artists They Inspired by Francine Prose. Not surprisingly, all of the artists are men. I’ve ordered this book and plan to read it. I am sure it will help me understand the ways in which women have served as muses for male artists for centuries. But I also will continue to look for other stories, counter narratives – ones where men become the muses for women artists, where women inspire each other, where a woman inspires herself.

used with permission from the artist.
Visit Maureen O'Neill's website

Thursday, July 22, 2010


*1. Voice practice where the syllables of notes are sung, silently in your own mind..
2. Healing sounds

She lives in the in-between
The hollow that divides dreams from reality
The space between the notes on the page
And the sounds of the music they represent.

She lives somewhere between past and future
But nowhere near the present, because
To live in the moment means she must have feeling
In her body and she is numb.

She lives on the hyphen between her two names
And with each passing day, the space constricts until
She’s pressed flat like a leaf
Ironed between two sheets of waxed paper.

She lives in the ether, her molecules turn to mist
Evaporating in a hiss on the red hot screen
As her words break open and crumble
And fall like shooting stars through the pitch dark sky.

She lives on the wire strung between then and now
Never glancing down as she juggles her selves
Like china plates on wooden rods
Waiting for one, or all to fall.

She lives trapped between who she was
And who she will become
A crack in the calcified fetus,
Growing inside a dying woman

We’re all dying, you know,
She thinks she hears someone say.
But she isn’t certain.
This place where she lives can carry no sound
Other than the voice inside her head.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Starting Anew and Living on the Hyphen.

When I first began this blog in September of 2008, I had recently retired from a 34 year career as a public school teacher in the School District of Philadelphia. For those 34 years, my classroom along with my family were at the center of my life. I left the classroom at the same time that my children were graduating from college, moving to other cities and starting adult lives with their own careers and loving partners. The challenges I faced redefining myself in my retirement were intensified by my changing role with my adult children.

My former blog, "Beyond the Classroom" became a place where I could look back over my life and my career and explore my past experiences I had had as a teacher and use that knowledge to build a bridge to the next phase of my life.

It also provided the space for me to reflect on issues still important to me in education as I found myself working with new teachers, particularly those wonderful and dedicated young people I met who were doing Teach for America in Philadelphia.

As time went on, and my teaching years moved further behind me, I found myself growing restless and my interests veered away from education. I began taking writing classes, studying new subjects, such as Jungian psychology and alternative health care, becoming passionate about film and gardening, meeting new people, traveling to other countries and just generally, expanding my horizons.

For years, whenever I was asked to define myself I would answer with the following: "wife-mother-teacher. " These words were always hyphenated to express the ways in which those roles were inextricably linked. Now, looking at this description. I realize that what these words have in common is that they all define me in relationship to caring for others - my husband, my children and my students. My own identity was lost, hidden somewhere along the hyphen.

It is time to forground those spaces on the hypen and move them to the center of my life. It's scary, for sure, but I am learning that this liminality can be a very exciting place if one is not afraid to claim it as home. Being in transition, can be frightening, but if embraced, very vital and exciting. Much has been written about different passages that women go through in our lives. This particular phase that I find myself in can be very generative, as I no longer have the needs of others providing the framework for so many of my interactions with the world.

The new blog is my attempt to reclaim my own interests and passions, re-establish my own identity through writing and re-enter the world beyond the classroom on my own terms. It begins with a question -- What happens when a post mid-life woman seeks to re-write her life on her own terms? I hope to explore new ideas, develop new passions and share my questions and challenges with others who like me are trying to continue to grow throughout their lives.

I hope that Her Own Terms will find readers -- other co-wonderers and co-travellers who will share questions, stories and passions.

Stay tuned!!!