Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Kol Nidre

Women praying at the Wailing Wall
Jerusalem, August 2015

Yom Kippur begins tonight with the Kol Nidre service. My essay on Kol Nidre was published two years ago, and it still captures, probably always will, my reverance and appreciation for this incantation. By now it is already a tradition for me to share this essay again in tribute to another holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

Wishing all my Jewish family, friends and readers a meaningful Yom Kippur and an easy fast.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Memoir of the Pain of Suicide and the Gift of Siblings

Kelley reading at her book launch
party at the Book Cellar in June
September is Suicide Awareness Month, and on this occasion I want to present you with the beautiful work of one of my students, Kelley Clink, author of A Different Kind of Same. She is the second of my longtime students to have her memoir published. (Gillian Marchenko's Sun Shine Down was the first.) What could be greater for a creative writing teacher than to see what we workshopped in class appear in book format? To witness the work of a student of mine come to fruition after what ended up being almost nine years of effort?

Kelley came to my very first memoir class at StoryStudio Chicago in 2006, reeling from her brother's suicide, the hurt of which was very fresh for her then. On and off, she stuck with the writing, working her way through her grief, trying to make sense of what had happened. Perhaps because it was such a long haul, it is extra special to now see her celebrating and promoting the result, her memoir A Different Kind of Same; it is a sister's searing account of coming to terms with her only brother taking his life.

It was a privilege for me to interview Kelley for the Washington Independent Review of Books (please head on over to read the interview and "meet" Kelley). The book came out in June but we decided to run the interview now in honor of Suicide Awareness Month.

It seems to me that most of us have been affected by suicide in some way but it is not something we carry on our sleeves. It saddles us with guilt, despair and shame and leaves behind a shroud of mystery. Ultimately we cannot understand suicide and yet we have to try. I lost a good friend to suicide, and my questions resulted in the essay "Traces" published in the Bellevue Literary Review a few years ago.

Thanks to Kelley, I've learned a good deal more about suicide. However, while suicide is front and center, for me A Different Kind of Same ended up being more a celebration of siblinghood than anything else. It reminded me that having siblings is a great gift, and having siblings you're close to is an even greater one. It made me miss my brother and sister even more than I already do as they live so far away, and yet it made me even happier than I already am to have them in my life (I was particularly fortunate to have my sister came for a good long visit this summer).

A Different Kind of Same is not only important and stunning content-wise, Kelley's prose is gorgeous to boot. I leave you with some phrases from A Different Kind of Same that I loved and underlined to give you a taste for her beautiful writing and unique way of seeing the world:

Xylophone rib cages. p. 2

how you never know which two seconds will weigh on your heart for a lifetime 6

a stomach rush, fast and cold, like I was trapped on an elevator and the cable had snapped 7

the blood drained from my head in a shower of tiny stars 7

Passed away. {...} as if Matt's soul had eased out of the world on a gentle gust of wind 8

that crooked handwriting that seemed to have arrested in the fourth grade 9

They made life look easy, which might be why Matt and I were so confused when we found out it wasn't 12

We were the only two people in the world made up of those two people, and yet we'd inherited none of their stability. 12

that you could love someone and not want to see her, say, more than once a year 14

the photographer's flash glitters in our eyes 18

flung far by the dervish of myth 19

You can freeze a memory like that forever--but you can't freeze a moment 21

The boundaries of age and gender that divided us during Matt's lifetime disintegrated when he died. He is with me constantly now, the way he was in the woods of our childhood--silent, but near. A presence, a memory. Lounging patiently in my periphery. 22

the space that each of us occupied, the physical fact of our family, was a comfort 32 (road trips)

even when a message is clear, a recipient has to be willing to hear it 39

Depression, this scratchy rodent 60

anything could have happened, but only one thing did 62

in a matter of minutes I was parallel with my past 137

waited for winter to melt into spring 144

Friday, September 11, 2015

Remembering 9/11

Every year, to commemorate 9/11, I take my Portraits 9/11/01 off the shelf and open it at random to read some of the obituaries the New York Times collected so admirably of those who died on 9/11. Monuments are great markers of tragedy, but only obituaries provide a glimpse of the lives that were lost. As always, I am struck by how in the midst of their lives the victims were, and I cherish learning a little about them. Each obituary is only a facet but it makes us aware of all the sparkling worlds that were obliterated.

Here are just a few headlines:

Steven M. Hagis Jr. - Love to Fill a Doorway (31 years old)
Mary Lou Hague - Not Just Any Kind of Love (26)
David Halderman - A Shy Son, a Hero (40)
Maile Rachel Hale - A Renaissance Woman (26)
Richard B. Hall - Nights with Shawn (49)
Vaswald Hall - "Can't You Ever Say No?" (50)
Robert Halligan - Shopping across the Pond (59)
Vincent Halloran - Five Children, No Problem (43)

May their memory be for a blessing.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Postcard Tradition

I haven’t been around because I’ve been chilling, and before I was chilling, I was traveling—days crammed with stuffing suitcases, riding taxes and buses, making it to the airport on time, threading my way through crowded duty free shops, spending hours on four square feet of airplane seat space, gazing out windows of buses, taxis, cafés and marveling at the world outside. First the sandy desert landscape of Israel, burnt and barren in the sun, where you have to look twice to make out a fortification wall that’s been there for a thousand years, or where you have to wander under the tarps of the shuk to find life bustling along, sheltered from the blazing sun.

Days when you haven’t had enough sleep, when you still push yourself along to meet a friend whom you haven’t seen in two years and who you know you won’t see again for probably a long while, when you find yourself between countries, and still having a major moment of human connection in an airport café where service is way too slow for the rushed world it’s supposed to serve.

Days when you gaze out the bus window at the stately tall buildings of Scotland that you know have been there for centuries, 4--, 500 years at least, buildings that have been rained on and rained on and still stand, and could tell stories of Scotland’s bloody history (when is history ever not bloody?) but instead stand silent, eternally erect. Days when it rains softly all day long, the way it never rains at home where the wind blows with a force and the rain comes down in a thunderous pour. Days when by late afternoon you’re completely soaked so that even a sojourn in a smoky stuffy pub won’t dry you up, but at least a tasty pint warms you up and you're glad for the cool wet weather after weeks of 41C in the Judaean Hills.

All this is obviously still swirling in my mind, unsettled, because, once I returned from my travels, my sister and niece arrived for a long visit, a rare treat and also an intense time because we are close and love each other and have so much to tell each other and really have to catch up on many many days of living because we don't see each other that often. 

After ten days of visiting, we have now exhausted ourselves a bit and have settled into quiet companionship—time at my favorite café to write. Postcards in their case, this blog post in my case. For me time to catch up with myself, and for them time to catch up with friends and relatives. And for my sister and me it is a particular delight to witness our tradition of writing postcards, of sitting in a café and picking out what postcard to send to what person, something we did on every trip we’ve taken together and every trip we’ve taken apart when we would send each other postcards, of seeing that tradition passed on to the next generation as my niece revels in her postcard book and writes careful notes to friends and relatives.

Soon we’re off on another day of sightseeing—the Sears Tower Skydeck, architecture tours, the Art Institute, and sandwich shops in between and who knows what else we will discover. It is a special treat for me to have time off and to tour my own city. After weeks of touring other countries and taking in their marvels, it is a welcome counterpoint to delight in my hometown and to experience it freshly through my niece’s eyes, for whom this is the first really big city and her first experience of America.

I shall return to blogging soon, once I’ve truly settled back into my own life, and once I’ve had time to sort through the bounty of my own travels—I took lots of pictures of the breathtaking Scottish countryside, and the ancient sites I visited in Israel; street scenes, bucolic scenes, breath taking landscapes. And of course, during my own travels, I spent a day sitting in a cafe writing postcards. One of them was mailed to my sister and her family, and it arrived just a day before she and her daughter embarked on their big trip to visit me. A circle was closed.