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