Friday, November 14, 2014

My Recent Journeys: Making Memories Through Time and Space

In the room the memories come and go 
                                                  Talking of Michelangelo

I was in Rome just a few days ago.   I was standing in the center of the Sistine Chapel facing The Last Judgment by Michelangelo where Jesus wears the face of Apollo and Mary the face of Venus and all of the images conflate time and space.

"The first surrealistic painting,"  our guide says.  "Michelangelo was more Dali than Dali"  and I find myself nodding in agreement as I spot St. Bartholomew holding his own flayed skin.  

And while the distinctions between Heaven, Hell and Purgatory are easy to discern, it is much more difficult to construct anything resembling a linear narrative or chronological time.   Thousands of tourists and pilgrims stand, staring skyward in awe, as if Jesus himself is about to pass judgment on us all as the uniformed security guards march among the crowds barking silenzio and breaking the silence.

On the way into the chapel itself is a long long corridor with a huge doomed ceiling covered with brightly covered panels of images depicting stories from the Bible. The stories are from the New Testament with renderings of scary things like the slaughter of the innocents, the stigmata, the crucifixion – image after image that scare me to death because after all, I am Jewish and my mother taught me I’d be beaten by the goyim if they ever caught me in one of their churches and that God would strike me dead if he heard me saying “Jesus Christ.” 

I shudder and look down, but the colors draw my gaze back and and I find that I am reading the world’s largest comic book with panel after  panel of action and movement and story.

I blink and the text of the Gospel appears in dialogue bubbles.

In room after room in this Vatican Museum, there are Roman columns, marble walls and gold magnificence and it is only then that the ruins scattered around this ancient city make any sense at all – the naked crumbling walls of the Colosseum, the remnants of columns from the government buildings where the famed Roman senate met in the Forum  - all scarred by theft and pillage, their grandeur hauled away to the other side of town to Vatican City.

Will I be struck dead for saying this?

The next day, at the Pantheon,  a guide explains how this majestic temple to all of the Roman gods was erected in such a way as to align with the sun so that on June 21, the summer solstice and the longest day of the year, the light of the sun could pass through the exact center of the dome’s opening.    

Two weeks before I had been on another trip,  in another hemisphere,  standing inside the remains of another temple listening to a different guide speaking a different language explain how the windows of two of the scared buildings at Machu Picchu had been designed to line up with precisely with the sun,  so that on December 21, the summer solstice and the longest day of the year in the souther hemisphere, the sun’s light would pass directly through the windows and light up the center of the Temple of the Sun. 

Machu Picchu in October, the  Pantheon in November.   Amazing.  Me  - someone who hadn’t made her first trip abroad until she was well into her forties,  someone who as a girl could only have dreamed of visiting these places she was reading so much about.

I, Marsha Rosenzweig was standing in  the center of sacred edifices in different parts of the globe able to make connections across continent and culture.

Hurtling our bodies through time zones and hemispheres, stepping onto strange soil, hearing languages we can’t comprehend, traveling pulls us up from the roots and shakes us good.    Time and space conflate as people, events and images shake free from the shackles of their context and fly through our psyches like shooting stars or colliding atoms.

On the same trip to Peru where I leaned against walls of Inca temples made from precision cut interlocking stones,  I visit the village of Patacancha high in the Andes.  I am traveling with a group of American women writers and we are there to spend the day among Quechuan woman who will teach us how to weave.  Outside under thatched awnings, in the rain, with their children close beside them,  our young teachers show us how to spin and dye the yarn of the llama,  make a loom out of sticks planted in the ground, wind the warp around the sticks and to weave the weft into colorful fabrics with intricate patterns.   

As we are leaving, we stop by a clinic where the woman go to have their babies. There is no doctor, only one nurse.  Thought brightly painted and clean, it is a stark place with bare walls and no modern technology.  It does not look like a place anyone would want to deliver a child.    I snap pictures of the women and the clinic on my cell phone before departing.

Later when I return to our hotel in Ollantaytambo where, of course, we have wifi, I see on that very same phone a pictures of the ultrasounds that my expectant daughter and daughter in law have sent me -  my grandchildren to be, growing inside of them.

I text my pregnant daughter and send her pictures of the women I met today -  young women who carry their babies on their backs wrapped snuggly in handmade colorful aguayos.  I also send the picture of the clinic.

If I lived here Tyler would have died, she texts. I might have died too.

I know she's right for in that instant I recall the dozens of people and the multitude of machinery that kept my daughter alive after her water broke at 31 weeks, causing an infection which necessitated an emergency Caesarian section where she delivered a tiny little boy who had to spend over a month in the  neonatal intensive care unit.

On the trip to Peru, I brought a guest.  I hadn’t planned on bringing one and I didn’t even know she had stowed away with me until we arrived. She made her presence known in an unexpected way.  It happened at the lodge in Pisac when I was talking with  Page Lambert, a wonderful teacher and beautiful writer and the woman who'd organized the trip.  Page is pretty with long blond hair and wears a cowgirl hat.

"Hey Page,"  I hear myself say giggling.   "You look just like Sally Starr!"

"Who's Sally Starr?" Page asks a little cautiously, wondering if that is a good or bad thing.

"She's this television personality from my childhood who I idolized.  She used to host a Popeye cartoon show after school.  And she was beautiful, just like you."  

"Damn," I said.  "Can you believe that I'm in Peru with my gal Sal?"  

And that’s how she showed herself – my younger self who almost fifty years ago had run to the library to find books about the Incas after reading about Machu Picchu in the yellow “Understanding Latin America” textbook and who devoured book after book of Greek and Roman myths. 

So here’s the thing.  Travelling doesn’t just make new memories, it can transform old ones.  Now and forever more, that girl in Mr. Rose’s 6th grade class in 1963,  or the one a year later in 7th grade studying Roman mythology…  that girl?  The one who asks so many questions and wants to experience so many things?

Looking back at her childhood or forward to the day when her last judgement comes,  she is not just be somebody who wants to visit Machu Picchu or the Pantheon after knowing them only from books.

She is someone who will have been there.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Cracking My Veneer

Photo of veneers from

     "That's not your teeth!" I said to his picture when I saw it on Facebook after not seeing him for   nearly forty years.

      Forget that his hair was white, his forehead lined, his eyes deepened.   It was his teeth which startled me.  Gone were the delicate incisors and the snarled left canine I had liked so much as a girl,  the one that his lip would curl above when he smiled, and in their place was this set of perfect white Chicklets -  bright white veneers to go with his long white hair and Florida tan.  They scared me to death. 

      We don't talk much about teeth in polite conversation. In assessing each other, we might say,  "Wow your hair looks great! Did you get a haircut? "  But we'd never say,  "Boy your teeth look fantastic! Are they new?"   His picture made me long for the days when teeth along with the other parts of movie stars' faces had character -  not like today where every one has the same frozen foreheads and plump lips limning identical expensive choppers.

a snaggle toothed Sam Shepard, pre-veneers 

    When I was at the dentist last week, he told me that he had recently taken a seminar taught by the dentist who worked on the television show Extreme Makeover.  My dentist told me that he wasn't surprised to learn that the first stop for all potential candidates for a makeover was at the dentist's office and if the dentist determined that there was no way to give the person a perfect smile they were immediately eliminated.  All of the plastic surgery in the world could not make a person beautiful -- even attractive  -  if they couldn't get good teeth. 

    I always hated my teeth.  They were small, dark, even yellowish - this in the Sixties when there was no bleaching available and everyone, including me smoked cigarets. 

    When I was in 12th grade, my dentist told me that I still had a baby eye tooth and without any preparation at all, he extracted it.  It took three full years for the adult tooth to grow in - three years that I spent hardly smiling. 

     I was one of the first people to get veneers - back in the early Eighties and they worked so well and made me feel so good about myself that they emboldened me to get that nose job I'd wanted since I was a girl. 

    I got my second set ten years ago.  They don't last forever.  I'll never forget that moment in the midst of the application of my second set when the dentist asked me, "So do you want them bright bright white or more natural looking?"  He could control the brightness with the tint of the cement.   In that instant, I said,  "Natural" and I have second guessed myself ever since. 


Loretto Chapel staircase, Santa Fe New Mexico
When I first arrived in Santa Fe for my six week self designed writing retreat, I was feeling wonderful and filled with creative energy.  I was smiling all of the time, meeting new people and having magical experiences in the Land of Enchantment. 

 Oh,  I was on a vision quest.

     I hear the crack when the tea cup hits my front tooth.  I was with my writing coach and turned to her and asked,  "Is it still there? My tooth. Is it still there?"  "It is," she replied and I relaxed. 

    Two days later, when I am brushing my teeth a piece of porcelain sticks to my brush.  

    "Cracked my veneer, " I would later say, because when you're on a vision quest, everything is  metaphor. 

 I do not look pretty. There is an untoward chip which made no sense at all on my left front tooth and it takes away any impetus I have to smile.

And I still have five weeks of my dream trip to go.


      I find a local dentist  ( who turns out to have gone to Temple University,  where I'd earned my Masters degree - one of several synchronistic Philadelphia connections on this trip ) who tells me he could do a temporary fix which may or may not work at all and that it would cost $400.00.

     It isn't about the money.  I have it and could put it on my credit card.  But in that instant ( much like the moment years before with my dentist at home ) I make a snap decision.  

     "Will what's left of the veneer hold until I get home?"  

     "Yes," the dentist says. "No doubt about it." 

     "Then don't do it.  I'm going to leave this alone."

Biscochito Casita, Sante Fe New Mexico


       Later, back in my casita, still looking for meaning I google "cracked teeth."  I learn that in energy medicine, teeth, like bones are related to structure and a cracked or broken tooth or bone means that something is changing in the structure of your life.

     I also learn that leaders of certain aboriginal tribes in Australia would take a hammer and break the front tooth of each young man as a rite of passage before he would embark on a vision quest.

     And in parts of Indonesia, some women would have their teeth filed down to fine sharp points - a sign of beauty.

      My landlady in Santa Fe, Victoria Rogers, is an artist with the touch of a healer.  When she sees my tooth and recognizes how bad I ams feeling, she looks at me and says, "You look adorable! Like the little girl you once were."  Then she invites me to her studio for a photo shoot so I can see for myself how "beautiful" I looked.

      The pictures Victoria takes of me that day ARE gorgeous!  There is a light shining from inside of me and my eyes are sparkling and yes, I am smiling widely which I continue to do for the remainder of the my trip.   Victoria thinks that maybe I will decide to keep the chipped tooth when I got back home.

       But of course I don't.   I mean,  let's be real here.  What woman who had a nose job at 35 would NOT fix her teeth as soon as she could??

        As I write this, I am wearing 6 temporary teeth, made from hard plastic.  My third set of veneers are being made in a lab.

       And next week, when my dentist asks me, "Bright white or natural?" Well we'll have to see what comes out of my mouth.

All photographs taken by Victoria Rogers.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

Groundbreaking Sale at the Cemetery

I don't think about the dead very much. They are not a part of my life these days, the way they once were when, as a child, I would climb into the back seat of my father's late model American made sedan, fight with my younger sister and brother about who had to sit in the middle over the hump (never me, I was the oldest and for a while at least, the strongest) and make the long trek from Northeast Philadelphia to the outreaches of Delaware County where generations of Jews on my mother's side were buried.

My father's family was buried in Easton, PA in a small cemetery that in my memory housed only other people with my last name. I visited this mythical graveyard only once, when my grandfather Harry, the patriarch of the Rosenzweig clan, father of ten including my father Bill, his first born, died from the ravages of prostate cancer, an affliction that would one day claim my father as well.

This time the trek was up scenic Route 611, following the Delaware River Canal, right under the bridge where (as the story was always whenever we went to Easton) my father, as a boy, was left to hitchhike to Philadelphia when his family moved because there was no room for him in the car. I never did see my father buried there. His second wife, still nursing some ancient grievance, barred me from his funeral.

When my husband first forwarded me the email about the "ground breaking sale" at West Laurel Hill Cemetery, I thought it was a joke. Later, while we were having lunch, he asked me what I thought about the email he had sent me.

"It was pretty funny," I said.

"But what do you think? Do you want to be buried there?"

He went on to tell me that this historic 175 year old cemetery, just two minutes from our house in Bala Cynwyd, PA, had recently decided to add a Jewish section and that they were running a special on plots.

"Four thousand dollars per grave," he said. "That includes perpetual care. No annual fees. The kids won't have to pay anything."

"I really don't want to think about this right now," I said. "What's the rush anyway?"

"The sale ends tomorrow. After that, the price goes up to forty-five hundred. That's a thousand dollars more if we wait."

I hadn't ever really given this topic much thought and I wasn't particularly interested in starting now. Approaching 59, I still feel vibrant, and I am blessed with good health and robust energy.

"Okay," I said reluctantly, convinced mostly by my husband's argument that it would save the children aggravation.

Mt. Sharon Cemetery  Springfield, PA 

That and the fact that secretly, I had always dreaded the prospect of being laid to rest in Mount Sharon, where I imagined Anti-Semetic teenagers hanging out in the Jewish cemetery getting drunk and high on my grave.

And I must admit, once there, I was impressed by the tour of the grounds, and the beauty of the surroundings and the fact that Laurel Hill was close to home.

We picked our sites, on the aisle, and set far back from the road. As we were getting ready to sign the papers, a signing process identical to the one we went through when we bought a time share in Florida or a condo at the Jersey shore, I had a moment of hesitation.

"I don't know if I can do this," I said. "What if I change my mind?"

"Don't worry," our overly cheerful sales person said, sensing that she could lose this commission. "If that happens, you can always sell it on Craig's List."

And with that, I added my signature, right next to my husband's on the dotted line.

Death may be permanent, but real estate is transferable.

Finding a Writing Practice In 17 Syllables

Soon after I retired from teaching high school for thirty-five years,  after hearing the  voice inside my head say, “If you don’t stop teaching you are going to die,”  I decided to look into MFA programs in Creative Writing.

I had supported others in their writing for over three decades, smiling proudly as my students won accolades, and had the plays they’d written under my tutelage produced on stages in Philadelphia and New York, all the while pushing down further and further my own desires to write. 

Perhaps those desires are what gave voice to the death threat that came to me while I stood poised before a blackboard, chalk in hand and mouth agape as all words stuck in my throat.  And it was definitely those desires that prompted me to call one of the top low residency MFA Creative Writing Programs on the east coast to inquire about application requirements.

On this particular morning,  I had gotten up the nerve to call the admissions office of  said “Top Program” when I found myself speaking to the admissions director.   He spoke in a high Boston Brahmin accent which immediately intimidated this working class Philly girl and I had to brace myself when he said, barely masking his condensation, “Well do tell me about your writing practice.”

“I’m sorry,”  I replied.  “I don’t understand what you mean.”

“You must have a serious writing practice before we can consider you for admission," he replied with more than a touch of disdain. 

I was flummoxed.  I’d never heard of a “writing practice” before.  I’d heard of a teaching practice.   In fact I’d had one for over thirty years.  But a writing practice?”  What was that??  And why did I need one before enrolling?  Wouldn’t the program teach me how to become a writer and to develop a practice?

I hung up quickly then sunk into the inevitable depression which accompanies the sudden dashing of the only plan you’d made for the rest of your life.   Stuck in a Catch-22,  I had wanted to go to school to develop a writing practice, but it seemed that I needed a writing practice to get accepted into school.

It was the structure and discipline of school that I thought I needed.  That and a supportive, nurturing and challenging community.   I had never really been able to learn anything on my own.  And I had no clue how to develop and sustain a practice. 

In the years that followed I tried. I found a writing group in my neighborhood lead by Amherst Writers and Artists alum and poet AlisonHicks.  I went to writers' conferences and retreats around the country. I became connected with A Room of Her Own Foundation, a non profit whose mission it is to support the development of women writers.  And I tried my hand at blogging.  But I couldn’t discipline myself to sustain it. 

Seventeen syllables changed all that.

Photo credit - Nicole Galland - The Haiku Room 

One January 1, 2014, a post from one of the women I’d met at the last AROHO retreat came through my newsfeed on Facebook.  Take the Haiku a Day Challenge, it said.  Join with others to explore the possibilities of this ancient, poetic form.

I’d never written a haiku.  I’d read some Basho in a Japanese Literature course in 1972 as an undergraduate and I’d taught the rigid 5-7-5 syllable structure to resistant adolescents in high school English classes.

“Why do we have to follow that stupid form?”  they’d argue.  “This is repressive!!!” they’d shout.  And “How dare you stifle my creativity with a formula???!!! You’re a poem Nazi!!!!”

But something about this appealed to me.  So I wrote my first haiku:

 as his fist descends
            her mind body splits in two
     one escapes the blows


It’s August 1 and I have written and posted at least one haiku a day since the first of the year.   And three really amazing and unexpected things have happened:

First, I have gotten much better at it – far more precise in my word choice,  daring in my images, confident in my subject matter.

Second, people have shown their appreciation for my work through immediate feedback providing instant gratification which is a great motivator.

And third,  my writing of haiku has inspired others to do the same.   I post the poems both in the closed “Haiku Room” and on my personal page on Facebook.  One of the best things that has happened is that several of my former high school students have subsequently taken the challenge and post their daily original haiku to the page along with the 250 other poets.

I get to start each morning exploring subjects I care about,  tell stories which mean something deep and profound to me and compress complexity into three lines and seventeen syllables.  I get to explore images and stories from my childhood, from fairy tales and mythology.   I get to encounter unexpected insights within the artful juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated things.   All within a supportive and responsvie community of writers.

And for the first time in my life,  I can honestly say that I HAVE a writing practice. 

A sampler of my Haiku from The Haiku Room 

at death our flesh turns
into words those who love us
whisper to themselves

with his hoarder's heart 
and miser's lips he turned her
into a beggar

she is a girl who
dreams of keys in love with a
boy who collects locks

her body becomes
a bridge across his abyss
of silent longings

photographers stalk
their prey with cameras drawn
frame and hang their kill

you will disappear
like words i write with water
on sand in the sun