Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Guru of Laughter

In Quaker Meeting for Worship on First Days (Sundays), the elders, or people who carry responsibility for the meeting, sit on the facing benches. (Nowadays that's changed a bit, but anyway.) When I was a child, at our meeting the facing benches were at the front of the room.  On a raised bench in one particular spot, week in and week out, sat Dr. McP.    He was ancient. He never moved.

I thought he was dead.  The reason he was there seemed obvious to me.  Every First Day they'd cart him in and prop him up for all to see to remind us to take Meeting really, really seriously.

In Quaker Schools, regular Meeting for Worship is mandatory.  During one memorable 7th grade meeting, my friend L and I fell into laughing fits.  We were "eldered" out of the room and found to our dismay that life wasn't half so funny on the meetinghouse porch.

I'm not saying that letting 7th graders meeting-bust is a great idea, but what is it about religion that fosters such grave attitudes?  According to the New Yorker, the Buddha essentially disapproved of laughter because "the world is burning."  I've heard one or two church sermons where the minister went to some lengths to assert that "God does have a sense of humor." Which, if this were obvious, wouldn't need to be hammered from the pulpit, right?

Enter Dr. Madan Kataria, founder of a spiritual  movement called Laughter Yoga.  With a thousand-bazillion years of Indian religious tradition behind him, he has founded a new spirituality based entirely on the notion that laughter can heal--physically, emotionally, spiritually.  It's free, it's social, and it's (duh) fun.  No one will boot you out of one of his loose network of laughter clubs for falling-out-hilarity.   Dr. Kataria's goal is modest: To win a Nobel prize for creating a worldwide healing movement.  Being from India, it seems that the "guru" part of his calling is almost a given.

Medical science hasn't exactly jumped on the bandwagon, but medical science isn't exactly known for its sense of humor.  One thing we do know: There's no way science can call this stuff harmful.

It makes me think. No, actually, it makes me want to go find a rubber chicken and do something ridiculous.  I mean, life isn't always easy, is it? We can go on with our lives, which may or may not include: Daily/weekly Mass; church services; "quiet times"; keeping a guardian angel air freshener in the car; Bible study; no study; Freudian analysis; meet-a-friend-for-coffee analysis; meditation; Dharma talks; prayer before meals; prayer after meals; yoga; gym workouts; drum circles.  Etc.

But I for one am going to look for opportunities to laugh. Really laugh. Full-out, embarrassing, nose-snorting, tears-down-the-face laughter.  After all, one reason people make religion such a serious matter is that we take ourselves so darn seriously.

Monday, December 6, 2010


Sometimes, worries pile up.  You find yourself awake (again) an hour before you need to get up. Maybe you had a bad dream.  Maybe the financial-anxiety gears are already engaged, even before your outer mind has a chance to know what's going on.

Yesterday, I sat in Meeting for Worship in a small Quaker meetinghouse.  Someone had lit a fire, and the glass in the old, tall windows around the room rippled when I moved my head, making patterns of the trees outside. I've been seeing that most of my life, and it gives a comforting sense of oldness.

Yesterday, I felt gnarled.  Closed and small inside, distracted.  I was there, but I wasn't there.  Someone stood and spoke the words of Jesus: "Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven."  Christianity has a way of turning assumptions upside down; so does Buddhism.  Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron puts it like this: "...when we are nailed with the truth, we suffer...This is where tenderness comes in.  When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something.  We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way.  We can either shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality...When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story.  It may just be the beginning of a great adventure."

Who is more open to adventure than a child?  The key is embracing what hurts.  Children howl and wail when things go wrong  because they haven't learned to put on the mental armor.  Their joy is also that much greater.

Much as I'd like to fly away from all this, I am nailed to the present moment.  Welcome, life.  Sometimes it hurts.  What I'm learning is that if I flee from the hurt, it only magnifies.  Being with it in tenderness brings in lightness, clarity. The glass may be rippled, but it's more fascinating that way.

Saturday, November 20, 2010


I teach a creative writing class at Cheltenham Adult School near Philadelphia...It's incredibly gratifying, because you couldn't  find a more motivated group of students wedged into the desk chairs of a public highschool classroom.

Recently in class, we discussed the family stories we grew up with.  Did our families tell ancestor stories around the dinner table?  Was the atmosphere fogged by secrecy?  Did the chaos or conflict of the moment dominate conversation? How did the particular voices shape us and our writing?

In the years I've taught the class, our backgrounds and life experience have been about as different as you can imagine: Over-privileged, under-privileged, Black, White, Latino, physically challenged, highly educated, high- school educated. This semester we are joined by a sweet-faced seeing eye dog who rests on the floor, sometimes offering a sigh in response to the conversation.

As we talked about family stories, commonality emerged. The voices we heard as kids shaped us as people, found their way into our writing.  Some families spoke one language at home, but English at school. Within those shifts, sometimes deeper shifts demanded adaptation.  Street lingo shapes a kid's identity, but maybe it's forbidden at home. Someone else might have heard too much of it at home, wishing the grownups would talk more like grownups.  Those voices become part of how you think, how you see the world.  Was correct grammar a moral crusade in your household? Do you rely on the world being a formal, highly ordered place? (Those who know me know what I'm talkin' 'bout!)  If language was ever used against you as a weapon, what do you now believe about the power of words? And what if most of what you heard at home centered around the phrase "don't ask"?

More complicated, what if the message don't ask was never stated outright? Who'd you go to for information?  An aunt?  How does that shape your view of what it means to be close to someone?  Did you ever dig through anyone's desk, looking for the person who wouldn't reveal herself to you?  Were family relationships so chaotic that stories never saw the light of day, except in skirmishes?  Was a potential storyteller silent in your family, closing off part of your history?  Did stories remain at the level of anecdote, safe, avoiding territory potentially threatening to the family's view of itself?

Secrets.  Lies.  Lies disguised as truth.  How do you find the 'real' story about your family?  If that's not important to you, what stories have you created to shape your own identity? What stories are important to tell your spouse, your friends, your kids?  What's your "native" diction? In my case, it was highly formal: Two words I knew at a very young age were vulgar and impertinent (the latter often directed at me).

Our heads are full of running commentary--the interior monologue that dominates so much of our conscious life.  Family and friends reshape the monologue in relation to our history--the story of who we are changes all the time.

In my view, the really lucky ones get to explore these questions through their writing.

Friday, November 12, 2010


[News flash: the Odyssey lives to tote us around for at least another year. We hope. Parts were replaced.   Unless that recent, chugging noise when you turn on the ignition means something dire...]

Here's the real post:

A pastor at the Presbyterian church we attended a few years ago told me that he thought my interest in returning to the Quaker meeting of my youth had to do with authority: Quakers are anti-authority, he said. Since I had been abused by authority figures in my life, I was attracted to a place that didn't have leaders who, though perfectly fine men, made me feel threatened.

It's plausible, but I don't think it's accurate.  I find it interesting that the pastor assumed that some pathology or trauma lay at the root of my interest in Quakerism.  And did he think I found him threatening?  I didn't.

Actually, it's quite simple. I needed silence. Church was full of talk and restlessness. Stand up. Sing a hymn.  Sit down. Recite something. Listen to more talk. Go home, cogitate, and then tell someone what you got out of it.  Oh, and keep talking to your kids to make sure they 'get it.'

In actual fact, there was nothing wrong with that church. It's a perfectly fine way to conduct worship.  Cogito ergo sum.  Which looks weirdly (to one who failed Latin) like "cogito is the sum."  

For me, in that particular church, the talk was of an exhaustingly rational bent.  My verbal and reasoning capacity is already on "hyperactive hyperdrive," to quote Buzz Lightyear.   I get tired of walking around under my own head.

And as a fiction writer, it was beginning to dawn on me that words emerge from a well of silence.  That deeper part of my mind needed nurturing.  So I returned to Quakerism, which I had left behind in evangelical Christian zeal at age 19.

It's really that simple.  But I was afraid to talk about it on the blog because of how I would have responded years ago, with all good motives, to anyone who appeared to be rejecting my version of Christianity.

Monday, November 1, 2010

RIP Odyssey?

When I was little, cars smiled.  This made me happy.  I had no notion of what a "Ford" or a "Chevy" was.  I only cared about anthropomorphizing them.  The world was a picture book, and we drove from page to page. In our Ford. Or was it a Chevy?

No, this is not a picture of the family car.  Just a happy one, smiling at all the cute kids.  Being the Quakers they were, my parents had no interest in 'status' cars.  I think our then-car was a smiler, but I never looked at it, head-on, driving toward me.

Somewhere about 1962? cars started looking angry.

GRRRR!  Wipe that smile off your face!

As a kid I was convinced that manufacturers had done this deliberately...indeed, it's hard to find a straight-on view of an early 60's car.  Hmmm.  Maybe manufacturers decided that since they weren't marketing to kids, their product had better look like it knew how to mix martinis.

Fast forward through adolescence to the Ford Pinto, aka Doc.  It was my first car and as such was memorable.  To the right is the dinner theater version of Doc. The picture makes me think of someone acting the role of Robert De Niro, who's playing a loser who's pretending to be some cool mobster.

The real Doc wasn't shiny, and this pea soup color didn't age well.  Doc had an interesting problem, which will be the subject of the next QUIDDITY QUIZ!

Now to today.

Now THAT'S a car.  We've had our Odyssey since 2000, and for a while, it turned heads because these  were hard to obtain.  (It helps if you say you don't care what color you get.  We got white, the ugliest car color, except for that pea green.)  We've put almost 200k miles on the Odyssey.  It's well-designed, even down to a cool sunglass holder.  It's been barfed in, cried in, prayed in, driven by children (only on private property, you understand).  It's carried bicycles, Christmas trees, and a rescue dog (hence the barf) as well as a Tibetan monk in full regalia.

Two days ago I was on my way to a doctor's appointment.  Once the engine warmed up, the car started making that anxious noise that cars make when you try to drive in neutral.  I considered pulling in for an investigatory latte at a Starbucks, but decided not to. This was a mistake.  The van died five minutes later in traffic, at a red light. "Sounds like the transmission," my husband said when I called him.  "Sounds like the transmission," I told the tow truck guy.  "Transmission," I told our mechanic.  He looked impressed.

We're still waiting to hear the prognosis.  The thing is, I'm not ready to say goodbye.  I know it's a machine. It doesn't have feelings. But...not once in almost 11 years has this car complained.  It's carried us through hail and across national borders. In the same auspicious September a few years ago, it took my son to college and my daughter to her new school for 6th grade.

When I look at the Odyssey head-on, I can't say that it's smiling, but inside, tears and laughter are embedded in the upholstery.  Come on, baby. Get well.

Thursday, October 28, 2010


Which was my favorite birthday gift of all time?

A. Those who guessed the Irish fisherman's sweater were on to something.  Fablique1 remembers me in such a garment--it didn't hang to my knees (that was poetic license), but I wore it all the time.  The sweater was a nice addition, but it didn't change me.

C. I had to include Doc, the Ford Pinto, ugly faithful old pea-green clunker, which was of the kind known for exploding gas tanks, but mine never did.   I bought it myself from a roommate of my boyfriend's for one buck.  I sold it for $80.   Doc had a subtle, insidious problem which will be the subject of the next QUIDDITY QUIZ!

D.  The album was to throw everyone off the scent. I was surprised that more people didn't go for it, although some instinct may have told them that a Quaker kid might not value an autograph, symbol of vanity, but this was Bob Dylan, after all.  Yes, we had Highway 61, but it was my brother's and it bore no autograph.  

B.  Which leaves the correct answer, the miraculous red jumping shoes, and TWO WINNERS! Laura and Gina.  I was just at the right age--7 or 8, when I still enjoyed frequent dreams of flying around the house.  The fire engine red metal plates strapped to my feet, when I bounded around the neighborhood, I felt as though I leapt as high as the trees, transformed.  I was a different me.  That's what made this the  best gift of all.

If the two winners would send either their mailing addresses to hmallon@navpoint.com, they will receive a special gift of no monetary value!  If you're not comfortable sending your mailing address, shoot me an email, and I'll do virtual honors. Thanks for playing!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What's In a Name: Or, What's Up With These Quaker Schools?

At my daughter's Quaker school, the kids call their teachers by their first names.  It wasn't the case when I was at Quaker school back in the Neolithic era.  It was Mrs., Miss, Mr.  "Ms." was still a news item at the time, not yet filtered into the culture.

Some people are convinced that this breeds disrespect in the students.  I'll concede that names are powerful. As a kid, I had trouble saying my own name when I met people.  For me, anyone labeled Mr. or Mrs., was, by definition, someone I couldn't open up to.  My job was to be polite to the "Mrs." I encountered, and the relationship ended there.  I probably I lost out on some potential relationships--"Of course I can't risk opening up to adults"--which the adults I encountered would, in fact, have encouraged.  Of course, the problem was bigger than how I addressed anyone. When my kids were little, I had a lot of ambivalence about how they should address adults, and the result was a piebald mix of Mr., Mrs., Ms., first names, and the occasional 'Aunt.'

 What about respect for authority?  What I've noticed at C's school is that the kids who are disrespectful to teachers are the same kids who would, in another, more traditional school, be just as disrespectful--if more outwardly conforming than at a Quaker school.

I'm very grateful that C. is in a place where teachers are approachable.  The first-name-basis thing is symbolic of that.  The authority/respect issue is mediated by the mutual respect that this community works very hard to maintain across the board.  It's not static, and I'm sure it's more time-consuming than the traditional approach.  Teachers are accountable for how they interact with students, and students mature in respect as they get older.  It can be a messy process, and this is the heart of the matter.  Openness is hard to maintain skillfully, but it's necessarily not the doorway to laxity and disrespect.


Saturday, October 23, 2010


Quiddity is the essence or whatness of something.  Periodically, I will be offering a small prize (virtual or physical) to however many people correctly guess which is true, or on other occasions, which is the whoppingest lie, of several options.

With appreciation to everyone who sent me good wishes, a little party game.

Which of the following was my favorite birthday gift of all time?

A.  An Irish fisherman's knit sweater that hung to my knees
B. A pair of bright red jumping shoes (like the old strap on roller skates, but with BIG springs instead of wheels)
C. A 1976 Ford Pinto named "Doc" (more about him later)
D.  An autographed copy of Dylan's album Highway 61 Revisited

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A Novel About Religious Extremism of the Jewish Variety

 Wherever You Go, the just-published novel by my fellow Vermont College alumna, Joan Leegant, explores radical faith in both its benign and terrifying forms.  

Yona Stern, a secular Jew, travels to Israel to restore her relationship with her hardened sister, Dena, who is now part of a radical, right-wing illegal settlement group.  Mark Greenglass, an Orthodox Talmud scholar based in Israel, has lost the oceanic, reassuring faith that once rescued him from drug addition, but he's nevertheless been asked to teach at a Yeshiva in New York.  Aaron Blinder, a college dropout who's a product of parental indifference and too many hours of Hebrew School, finds meaning and a container for his rage as part of a fringe group in Israel bent on reclaiming all of the land "covenanted to them by God."  Leegant deftly braids these three lives together culminating in a conflagration that's much bigger than any of them.  Just as the small parcel of land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan has seen outsize conflict, those who walk on its soil risk tripping the wires of religious ideology that are wound tightly around the core of its civil life.    

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Recommended Reading

Adrienne Redd is a political theorist who poses the question "What now?" in the light of shifting boundaries and globalization.  The nation-state is no longer the stable entity we believed it to be.  But was it ever stable?   What will the nation become in a world of intense political and social change?  And what does it mean to be a citizen of a nation?

Fallen Walls, Fallen Towers: The Fate of the Nation in a Global World is available on Amazon in hardback and Kindle.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


This brief excerpt is from my novel in progress titled "Quaker Playboy Leaves Legacy of Confusion."

"When she was a child, Quaker meeting had taught her that silence is not empty.  It can be rich as plum cake, and sometimes, sitting between her parents on the plain bench, the silence had warmed her. Uh, huh, her mother had said, distracted, when Perry told her and asked her Is that the Inner Light? but it hadn’t really been light; it was more of a color, as if God had smiled and left something behind." 

Take a moment to feel the quality of the silence around you.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


When I was writing a personal essay about my first marriage at eighteen to a man I affectionately call PsychoTeacher, I sent a draft to my friend, Cynthia, in Texas. My family life as a child and teenager was fairly pickled in black humor (somehow it went with the martinis--my brother and I fought over the olives--and with the boiled tongue that lolled on a platter at the dinner table while my father stood, sharpening the carving knife).  This kind of humor being (IMO) one way families have of dealing with stuff that everyone feel-knows is there but no one dares to risk mentioning.  Because then it might all come crashing down.  Witty put-downs of other family members were quickly atoned for by even wittier (so it seemed) jibes at oneself.

I thought I'd nailed that essay. I'd finessed just the right droll irony to keep it humorous, yet painful. True to life! It was even fun to write!  But Cynthia in Texas didn't see it that way.  "The sarcastic humor is off-putting," she wrote.  "I think you need to go back and feel the pain."

The next two drafts were hell. I didn't sleep, remembered stuff I didn't want to remember, felt feelings I thought I'd left behind in that crappy little apartment with my flute that PsychoTeacher hid when I left.  "If I ever, ever, say I want to write a memoir," I told my husband, (my real, first husband, as I think of him) "Shoot me."

"Um," he said.

But I Went There.  That's the thing. In order to write stuff that's worth something, you have to go to the places you really don't want to go into.   And I found that with the fourth and fifth revision, it became just another piece of writing. "You're rockin' it," Cynthia in Texas wrote to me.  

So yes, sarcasm has its place. But as the poet George Herbert said, "Wit's an unruly engine/striking sometimes a friend/sometimes the engineer."  I'd say I came out of that writing cauldron somewhat the better. After all, the essay, My Charlie Manson, won a prize.  Now you can read it.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Quaker Child Can't Escape the Silence

Silence was what drew me back to Quakerism after a long time away from meeting.

Quakerism as I've experienced it is about as no-frills as it gets.  "Friends" as they call themselves (as in Religious Society of...) sit in silence and wait.  When the Spirit moves someone to speak, she or he stands and talks. That's it. Occasionally a whole Meeting for Worship will pass in which no one is prompted to speak.  At the end, a key person shakes hands with the person next to him, and the handshake spreads around the room.  Now let's go get some coffee.

The process is hard to write about, because waiting in active silence involves no stuff-- no liturgy, music, ceremony, ritual--though the format being the same, week after week, is a kind of ritual--instead it involves a deep, corporate listening.  When I started writing fiction, I realized that my words and stories came from the same inner silence that, despite the tedium, must have impressed something on me in those First Day (Sunday) meetings as a child, and in mid-week meetings at school.

Though meeting at school tended to be more lively.  In high school, for weeks my friends and I discussed the possibility of one of us sitting next to the Head of School, and at the handshake, offering him a rubber severed hand complete with bloody stump.  Then there was the laughing fit that seized my friend L. and me in 7th grade. We were ushered out of meeting and made to hang out on the porch, which turned out to be boringer than the meeting.

Apparently, the word mystic derives from a Greek word that carries a meaning of silence.  If nothing else, mystics hunger for God, and they tend to do it in quiet.  As for me, the more words I accumulated in writing, the more I began to hunger for silence.  George Fox, the original Quaker, is reported to have held a silence  at a meeting where he was presumably the main event, "for some hours...to famish them from words."

To some people it may seem pointless.  That's fine.  But the mind is deeper than the rational part that chooses words and arguments. That's my experience, anyway.

Here's a book about it., by Brent Bill. Which I admit I haven't read. But the cover is nice.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Quakers and modesty: Hustle, hustle? Horrors!

For years, I had trouble saying my own name.  If anyone asked me, I hid behind my untrimmed teenage  hair as if I'd forgotten it.  They had to tease "Helen" out of me, or, sometimes, new acquaintances just gave up.

I'm not saying that being raised Quaker caused me to stumble over what felt like announcing myself in flashing neon lights.  But the Quaker emphasis on modesty, while praiseworthy in itself--who likes arrogantly religious people?--bears looking into.

Having lived in Philadelphia all my life, I'm no longer surprised by how little even Philadelphia natives know about Quakerism.  "Do the women wear those little net caps?" No.  "Aren't they terribly conservative?" Well, yes and no.  Not politically, anyway. Not in Philadelphia.

Why is it that in the American Vatican City of Quakerism, so few people know about us?  My subjective feeling is that it's due to Quaker modesty: Quakers are very uncomfortable with anything that smacks of 'self-promotion,' and they keep an incredibly low profile.  They founded the first humane mental hospitals and prisons, they pioneered progressive education.  But beware advertising that fact.

--No wonder there are so few Quakers, my cynical side carps.

Or maybe my snarky attitude is merely a reflection of my Quaker family of origin.  We were so proud of our modesty: I remember a close family member huffing about the "hubris" that my father-in-law exhibited by putting a so-called 'vanity' plate on his car that showed the name of the company where he happened to be president.  Who was more prideful, really?

The truth is, you can't escape hubris.  At least one well-regarded Quaker school refuses to put 'honorifics' in its family address book: No "Dr." or "Rev.", etc. Just first and last names of the parents. But--in the faculty section, you can read where everyone went to college and where who got their PhD. In the very competitive realm of college-prep-school-admissions, prospective parents who get hold of the address book will surely check out which teachers went to Harvard.

Eileen Flanagan is the Quaker author of a wonderful book about the Serenity Prayer called The Wisdom to Know the Difference.  I have read the book twice.  I don't generally like self-help books, but this one has sparked some significant and wonderful changes in my life. I highly recommend it.

In her blog, Eileen talks about the tension between the need to promote the book and the Quaker value of modesty: I've been giving many talks lately, and I can't help but notice that most Quaker meetings haven't bothered to post my coming event on their websites. I haven't complained about this because I don't want to seem overly interested in self-promotion, though I see promoting my talk as an opportunity to tell people in the community that there is a Quaker meeting doing something that at least some people will find interesting. Almost every community has at least one website or Twitter group that announces local events, but Quakers rarely seem to make use of these, let alone submit information about themselves to the newspaper, which is usually quite easy.

In my view, this is a little sad.  People could be helped by this book. Potentially, lives could change.  And we're hiding the information?

Saturday, September 18, 2010


Here's a poem from Bone China, my poetry chapbook:


Where a thousand shadows fell
on a great scourged stone
forgotten, tongues whisper
oh, all the sorrow--
spent cartridges, rain, bruises
a hand in a ditch, silence,
the year after, feathers,
thoughts of sinking, the hard
decisions of small children--
from shadow mouths
grow flowers
white roots in rock

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Race: Not a Level Playing Field

Recently I was talking with another white person about race. I mentioned the study discussed in my last post, which demonstrates that white prejudice against black males is a factor in job hiring in New York City.  That part of the conversation went fine.  But we went on to discuss prejudice in our own neighborhood. In us.

Immediately, my friend got defensive.  "People of color do that, too," she insisted.  "They can be just as racist as anyone."  That argument is called "Parallelism".   Parallelism suggests that the playing field is level. The blue team can commit a foul, so can the red team.  I think it's erroneous.  Here's how the blog Resist Racism puts it: "An experience you have as a white person that you think is similar to an experience related by a person of color is not a valid proof that racism doesn't exist."

Here's an extreme example of parallelism:  In Germany in the late 1930s and early 40's, Jews didn't trust Germans.  Germans didn't trust the Jews, either.  But in those days, Europe was hardly a level playing field.

No, I am not saying that for people of color, America today might as well be Nazi Germany. And I'm not saying that people of color can't be prejudiced against white people.

But if we're willing to admit that "racism against people of color still exists out there in our society"--and most white people are--we also must take an additional step. Where is it in my life? In my neighborhood? In my heart?  My white friend's defensive attitude posed the question:  Are you accusing ME of being racist?  No. But we need to talk about race.  We need to examine our attitudes, because to avoid the race issue proves my point.  Who can afford to ignore racism against people of color?  Who can pretend it doesn't exist?  Only those who aren't affected by it.  It's called white privilege.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why Talking About Race is Good for White People

Maybe I'm just given to subversive thinking, but I believe that if a lot of people tend to avoid talking about something, there might be a wound at the heart of the subject.

In this case, the 'wound' is the size of the Grand Canyon: the mutual history of race relations in this country.  And history doesn't end.  It's not as though racial problems became untwisted, all fixed, with the passage of the civil rights act or the election of Barak Obama.  Whether we want to admit it or not, we whites are actually IN the Grand Canyon.  We can pretend that race is a non-issue, but only at a cost to ourselves.

If we were to speak of how we've experienced issues of race, we might reveal pain and confusion.  Beverly Tatum, in her excellent book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? says that for people of all races, recalling their earliest childhood memories of racial awareness conjures the emotions of "confusion, sadness...embarrassment." And, she adds, the majority of these, however young they were, never discussed these formative experiences with anyone. Say a young white child  is unused to seeing anyone but white people.  According to Tatum, it's developmentally appropriate for a small child to ask why the darker skin looks "dirty".  Many parents would shush the question, sending a tacit message: talking about skin color is shameful.  But what if they gently explain that skin naturally comes in different colors?

By not wanting to make a big deal about race, we make a big deal about race.  This makes us mistrustful, and  it fosters stereotypes.  A study done by Princeton University  reveals that in New York City, when young men of equal skills and similar background apply for entry level jobs, white men with criminal records are more likely to be hired than black men with impeccable histories.  Chances are that most of the white people involved in the hiring would not consider themselves racist.

I think of it as "atmospheric racism".  It's everywhere, and it's subtle. I've seen it in my own family, in my neighborhood. And in myself.

Is it possible that white people aren't affected by racism against people of color? Think again. The US economy is directly impacted by incidents that happen even in a racially diverse city like New York.  Extrapolate the findings of the study across the economy, in the areas of housing, law enforcement, education, political life.  I am not saying that people in these professions are more likely to be racist than anyone else.  What I am saying is that each small action motivated by prejudice digs the hole a little deeper.  We have a choice.

Next Post: Aren't Black People Prejudiced, too?

Monday, August 16, 2010

"The Prep School Negro": More On Race at Germantown Friends School

Andre Lee, a graduate of Germantown Friends School, has made a film about his teenage years, which he spent in two very different worlds.  Give him your support and check out the trailer! His title is provocative: The Prep School Negro

Monday, August 9, 2010

The White Fool: Dealing with Race in America

Not talking about it...A pretty wide-spread approach I see among white people is to treat the question of race as a no man's land, a territory of such prickly feelings that we're better off not going there. I've seen white kids go to great lengths to describe the lone black person in a group by everything but skin color, which can turn the process of relating routine events of a school day into a Byzantine exercise.--"The one in the red shirt--the tall one, the short one..."  Red shirt? Tall? Who?

The impulse is good--we don't want to offend.  We breathe the same air that our grandparents exhaled at the height of Jim Crow, that our great-great grandparents breathed during slave times.  Those molecules affect our awareness.  We don't want to come across as "racist", which is laudable, but what we are is confused.  We don't know what to do with our common and agonized racial history, and this being America, where knowledge of our own history is less emphasized than what's over the next rise on Route 95, we can get away with pretending that racial differences don't exist.  Most of the time.  The other times, we're not prepared for.

The result is a passive segregation...because, of course, we know the differences are as real as the facts of our history.  We tend to avoid more than workplace acquaintance with people of color, sensing that more involvement would make us uncomfortable...and we might inadvertently say the wrong thing.  We may avoid offending, but we also fail to challenge our own stereotypes, because avoidance doesn't humanize the person we view as "other."

When I felt the pull to deal with the question of race in my own life, I made a fool of myself a few times. I got over it.  Certainly the people of color I was worried about "offending" didn't need me to stand up for them.  Next post, I'll talk about some of the benefits of looking at race and asking oneself some hard questions.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Privilege: Clueless in Philadelphia

In my last post, I mentioned feeling envious of the black scholarship kids at Germantown Friends School because of their tight, warm, easy bond with one another.

Obviously, that was an outsider's view of their experience--not because what I observed wasn't true, but because it was virtually all I knew about them.

We were, all of us, part of a great racial experiment.  I sort of knew about it.  They lived it.  The Community Scholars Program at GFS in Philadelphia was formed in response to the bombing of black churches in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1963.  I knew about the bombings, about the Civil Rights Movement, but being in the camp of the "good guys" was actually an opportunity not to think about race.  The Quakers were helping to solve the problem, right?  Now I wonder what life at Germantown Friends was like from the point of view of the black kids.

To get there, I have to peel back the layers of what prevented me from really seeing them:

  • I wasn't really sure who the Community Scholars were. (In some ways, this was a good thing.) They just started showing up, but I figured that there were suddenly a lot more black/brown faces around simply because it was the 1970's.  We had the Beatles, we had hashish, we had black kids. At least one girl in my class had a doctor father, so I figured that at least some kids had the means to pay full tuition.
  • I rarely, if ever, asked myself how their home lives were different from mine.  So my grandparents had a black chauffeur.  Big deal.
  • When I almost got thrown out of school after 9th grade (not attending class or doing homework tends to draw that kind of reaction) I felt fortunate not to be a scholarship student:  think of the pressure!  
  • I had no clue how much my parents paid each year for the privilege of having a daughter who cut class. 
  • I enjoyed friendships with mostly male CS students.  They met me on my ground, which meant that they didn't act 'different' or talk 'different', so I assumed they didn't think differently than I did about their school experience...nor did it occur to me that they might talk differently among their families.
  • I never entered the house of any of the black or otherwise CS kids;  We kept our friendships within the (white) vocabulary of the school community.  
  • GFS didn't prepare us for an influx of kids whose grandparents had worked at menial jobs for our grandparents.  Our understanding of their lives was a vacuum, which we filled with data from our known world.  
  • I believed that to talk about race, even to other white people, was bad manners.  Much better to pretend we were all the same.  
  • I had no idea how competitive the scholarships were.  Didn't the parents just walk up to Dee Bristol at the switchboard in the front hall and ask when the next opening was?
Maybe it's human nature to assume that someone who shows up on your turf and acts like you also thinks like you.  Maybe that's part of what creates the illusion that race is no longer a major issue in post-Obama America...Does participation in the culture of a dominant community (in this case, a prep school) require suppression of the less-dominant culture?  Why is that?  At least GFS made the attempt to bring together two very different American worlds.  

Saturday, July 24, 2010


When I was a teenager at Germantown Friends School, I envied the black kids. After graduating its first black student in 1958, the school had made a concerted effort to integrate in the 60's.  From my point of view, what was notable about these mostly scholarship kids was the fact that they belonged to a definite culture.  They seemed so easy about it, hanging out in relaxed groups, sometimes calling each other brother and sister. They shared something warm, and I wished I could be included. It was the era of 'Black is Beautiful', and yes, it was.

If I'd been able to put words to it, I might have said that I lacked ethnicity.  White kids often feel that, as if they their racial identity is so 'normal' (are people of color 'abnormal'?) that it's not anything to take note of, like a shade of paint you see everywhere in institutional buildings.  But for me, it was more than that--the culture I came from, Philadelphia Quakerism, felt...wispy and insubstantial.  There seemed to be so little to it. My parents didn't speak with pride of my father's conversion to Quakerism from Midwestern Presbyterianism, of my grandparents' relief work during World War I with the British and American Friends.  (That was how my grandparents met--my existence is due to Quaker action in the world.)  On First Days (Sundays) we went to a plain meetinghouse where we sat in a quiet group until someone was moved to stand up and speak, but we didn't talk at home about why we worshiped that way, what it meant, or how other religions managed the God thing.  Other Quaker families talked about their faith, but we didn't.

In fact, I was like a fish so wedded to the placid water of a lake that it has no idea it's wet.  Quakerism subtly affected everything in our household.  For one thing, we valued silence.  The implication was that silence isn't empty, but full, a place in which God can speak. Hanging out together didn't have to be full of chatter. I was part of a self-effacing but prideful  culture. Decor was ever tasteful, never glittery. Fabrics were natural, not synthetic...and for me as a young kid, flowered underwear was out of the question. White ruled! White sheets, white walls, white underpants.  Humility and modesty were "better" than ambition, money seeking, any kind of hard pursuit.  Never mind that the same Grandfather who did relief work in France had left my mother a nice inheritance. "Doing" was never a priority for either of my parents.  It took me a long time to adjust to the fact that I'm an ambitious person, and that it's okay to put my name out there.

For a long time, if I went to an author's reading, it felt 'wrong' to me to ask the writer to autograph a book. Book signings! What hubris, my father might say, criticizing the author's 'need' for recognition.  Ah, but he also brought me to the rich well of silence from which words and stories emerge, like lovely creatures, blinking in the light of day.  Writing itself was all there, in the silence. It was waiting for me to discover it.

(Thanks to Beverly Tatum and her thoughtful book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? for insights about white racial identity. If I ever hear her read, I'll be sure to have her sign my copy of the book.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Here's a Summery, Sexy Poem from Bone China, My Poetry Chapbook

Link to Bone China on Amazon


My body is a bowl
of water, and you are tipped
into me, a newt
from a jar, lip
to nipple, fingertips--
you swim
you are the vortex
around my warm rock
where you will bask
in the sun, after.

Monday, July 12, 2010

How Do Artists Keep Going?

Writers' Retreat: After a glorious week of immersion in our fiction projects (and, in one case, an illustrated book for children)...plunging into laughter, fellowship, and the grace of wind, ocean, woods and sky with several fellow writers on Cape Cod, I'm in awe of our staying power.

We, the tribe of artists.  How do we keep going? Some of us have chronic illnesses.  Threats of severe illness.  Financial pressure...Kids with issues.  The need to generate income. When important decisions need to be made about creative work, family needs tempt us to all but forget we're writers. We have trouble getting published.  We are remaindered, rejected, on the wrong side of whatever genre wave is cresting at  the moment we seek recognition.  Other people get recognized ahead of us.  Yeah, we're jealous.

Joan Acocella, dance critic for theThe New Yorker, celebrates the courage of artists in her wonderful book, Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints.  I return to these essays again and again while I clank away at my anvil, nine years now and counting since I began writing my first novel.  It's encouraging that she rejects the notion that art is born out of "neurosis", that artwork is a rare metal wrested by the refined few out of their childhood traumas.  No, it's all about work ethic, she insists.  The survivors are those who rolls up their sleeves, every day, and get the work done.

This is the best news we could receive. The creative process doesn't always feel good, but you get down and do it.  Despite everything. Whatever the work needs; you find it and follow the heat.  Somehow.

I wrote her once to tell her so, and her response to me is burned into my heart: Corragio, wrote.  Be of good cheer.  Keep the faith.  In the book's introduction she relates that during three years of corrosive criticism after his company was invited to perform in Belgium, the choreographer Mark Morris was questioned by a reviewer hungry for his "reaction" to the booing and hissing audiences, the terrible reviews. The interviewer wanted bitterness--serrated, quotable words.

Instead, he made a statement that every artist should spray paint onto the nearest wall:  "It's just a review--it's not a gun."

It's a rejection slip, not a comment on your work or on you as a human being.
It's an opinion; opinions vary.  Why give a negative opinion more credence than a positive one?

Readers, what keeps you going?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Get Rich Writing for the Internet!

Trying to make money as a freelance writer is no joke.   For about 15 minutes, I was a "member" of a "community" of writers who, if their articles are accepted, get paid (generally less than 20 bucks) to write content for the Internet.  Since the Internet is about Everything in the Universe, you'd think I'd find a topic to fit my interests.  I'm a mom, I edit PhD dissertations.  I know some things, I didn't grow up in a closet.  I've been around, right?

Well, not around enough.  Here are some sample article titles.  It's odd that the site, while it is scrupulous about format, wording, etc., gives no context for topics...at least in the initial stages. Are you writing for kids?  Employed Ninja fighters?    And for that money, who's willing to submit several drafts until they tell you who your audience is?

Anyone care to get rich answering the following?




HOW TO MAKE A SEAWEED VEIL (for your sister who's about to marry the god of the sea)

HOW TO BUILD A GREENHOUSE OF TEXAS NATIVE PLANTS makes me wonder how good their editors are.  Cactus walls?  Or do they mean FOR Texas native plants?


YOGA AFTER A TUMMY TUCK (freelance writers can afford tummy tucks?)

THE IMPORTANCE OF HUNTING VESTS  (there has to be a catch. that one is too easy.)  Ditto WHAT IS EMERGENCY HOUSING?




And why are WOVEN ROVEN AND FIBERGLASS CLOTH USED TOGETHER?  Funny, I woke up thinking about that.

It's making me feel stupid.  I mean, I don't even know WHY IRISH DANCERS WEAR WIGS.

This one has real creative potential: HOW TO MAKE PORTALS (As in Being John Malkovich?)

Here's an intriguing listing. The only information given is PUNITIVE DUTIES.  Do I write for prison guards or my friendly neighborhood dominatrix?

G2G, everyone.  I need to see if I remember how to use a toilet.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

My All-Time Favorite Rejection Letter

Once upon a time, rejection letters from literary magazines came on slips of paper of different sizes and colors.  I have a sheaf of the 'best' ones--where the editor scrawled either his initials, or something like sorry on the standard 'thanks but no thanks' slip--which I took to mean that someone thought enough of my work to encourage me.

I mean, they see a lot of crap, right? I've read for magazines. It's enough to turn you into Simon Cowell.

My best rejection letter is on pretty, parchment-goldy paper.  This was for a set of poems, back when I was writing poetry regularly.  I won't name the magazine.  The editor hand-wrote me a letter for each set of rejected poems, the fourth one saying, "these came pretty close." Be still my heart!  The fifth one, I decided, would be it. If I didn't get in, it wasn't meant to be.

Helen W. Mallon (he wrote),
The problem here lies not in the technique but in the tenor...As an editor I have made it my position to publish only work that indicates in some way that life is worth living, that existence is a positive process.  Those writings of yours I that I have seen do not fulfill--to my sensibilities--those requirements.  Thank you for your continued interest.

I've been called a lot of things, but depressing isn't one of them.  Well, that was the first time.  I love the fussy tone of this letter. Oddly, my "continued interest" in the magazine didn't continue.  The note made me laugh so much it's probably the one rejection I least minded getting.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


(Vacation Delay: I meant to post this over a week ago...)

Some standup comedian really should do a routine about writers.  The problem is, unless the audience consists of writers, people might not understand it.  

Take rejection letters.  Would a normal person get all excited and happy about receiving a "positive rejection letter" for which she has already, personally, provided the addressed envelope AND paid the postage?  The whole point of an oxymoron like  "positive rejection" is that it doesn't mean anything.  Yet this dry bone, tossed into the mailbox courtesy of a magazine or book editor, is enough to send a writer into canine paroxysms of hope.  Why?  There may yet come a time when someone--anyone--will actually read some damn story that's already been through 1,756 revisions and rejected by 37 magazines. 

In the days before email, most rejection letters from literary magazines were photocopied slips of paper with Readers-Digest-bland messages:  "While we receive many fine submissions, we can only accept a very few..."  DING! DING! DING! The You-Suck-O-Meter sounds its bell, and the Published Writers Club slams another door in the writer’s face.  I suspect that I'm not alone in trying to divine messages from these uninspired missives.  Did an editor scrawl his initials at the bottom?  Delete half a DING from the You-Suck-O-Meter. Did someone take the time to write "thanks"?  A whole DING gone, just like that! Did someone write on the back? (they never do)  If I stick the note back in the envelope and pull it out real fast, will the juicy words appear in some barely legible hand?: 

"Nice work. Send more."

And the filet mignon of rejections?  A personal letter, on letterhead, from the magazine's managing editor, saying that the story almost, just quite nearly, squeaked very close to actual acceptance.  SCO-ORE!!  Well, not exactly. These paper (okay, sometimes electronic) fans of the hope flame have a way of setting a person up for quite a sucko-punch.  Oh, boy! I've got an in! I'll send another story, this time personally addressed to my new BFF, the Managing Editor of Refinement Review (--what was her name?)!!!! 

So you prepare the submission, scan the story for typos, change the gender of your protagonist because you’re seized with the conviction that the magazine might "find it a better fit" (who knows), check story again for typos, re-print it, re-word your cover letter (a fine opportunity for creative writing since you have no new acceptances to add to your bio)…and you wait. And wait. And wait.  And six or ten months later, the hopeful selfaddressedstampedenvelope that you enclosed with story number two (without the SASE they won't get back to you at all) appears in the mailbox.

Don't think don't think don't think, you tell yourself as you enjoy a paper cut in the process of opening it- (maybe email is safer)-because from the skimpy feel of the envelope, your fingers already know that what you're holding ain't a full-sized letter.  DING! DING! DING! DING!  DING! The full Monty from the YSOM...Refinement Review has sent you a form rejection.  But there, on the desk in front of you, is the previous letter from their Managing Editor, whom you have recently added to the guest list to your wedding: "We strongly encourage you to send more work."

This M.E., you conclude, never saw the piece. Or maybe she did. Who knows?  Literary mag editors are, by definition, overworked and understaffed.

The really crazy thing? 

You’re going to keep doing it.  You’ll keep writing and sending out work, probably to that same magazine.  At least that's the kind of crazy I am.  

All of this does, actually, have to do with the promised blog post about how my novel got its name.  Not its title, but a name.  Like Fred.  The point is, writers are sanity-challenged.  After all, when I remembered I’d left my novel manuscript in a hot car in July, I panicked, fearing that it would suffocate.

Fortunately for us writers, most of us have friends who are also crazy.  I mean, friends who are also writers.  When I told my friend Andrew about the hot car incident, he patted the manuscript’s pink binder lovingly.  “Aww,” he said.  “You left Novelly in the car?  Oh, but he looks okay. He’s starting kindergarten this year, right?”

I’m happy to report that Andrew did not call DHS on me, and that a year after the Incident, Novelly is developing…slowly.   He’s going on ten soon.  By the time he’s fourteen, I might even have him in shape for his high school applications.   I mean, ready to send around to literary agents.  He’s leaner than he was, more focused.  Knows what he's about.  

If I keep my wits about me, he’ll grow up just fine.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


When I spent all those nights reading in my closet with a flashlight as a kid, I had no idea a seduction was taking place, that some day I'd be married to writing.

At least women giving birth in the natural way don't have to push out fully-grown adults, but most characters in fiction don't start out as babies.

Last summer, I went through one of my novel-writing meltdowns--I'd just read through the latest draft, 8 years and counting, and wished I'd gone for genetic testing before I started it--and I took to carrying the manuscript around with me in my daughter's old French binder.  It was a pink plastic binder with cheerful doodles markered all over it.  I toted it everywhere in hope of sudden clarity regarding revision, like those sacks of flour high school girls lug around to simulate the omnipresent needs of an infant.

It was July, it was hot, and I drove to meet a friend for coffee.  I decided not to bring the manuscript with me since I was already running late, so I left it on the back seat.

I think J. was talking about Virginia Woolf.  I was seeing her eyes, her pretty face, sipping my whatever, but all I thought about was the novel.  It wasn't thinking so much as experiencing something like a tidal pull in the mind.  The tide hit a rock; I panicked.  "I left the manuscript in the car," I realized, "and I forgot to crack the windows.  There's no air in there. It's ninety thousand degrees.  It's going to die."

I looked at my friend with sagacity.  "Yes, Bloomsbury certainly was one crazy assemblage of post-Victorians," I said.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"Um. Well."

Fortunately, J. is also in the family of writers, so she didn't question my sanity.    Or maybe she was just showing the kind of tact that normal families, non-writing families, reserve for their crazy cat lady aunt.

NEXT POST: How my novel got a name.  No, not a title. A name, like George.

Sunday, May 30, 2010


Yeah, I have dreams of a different life. Once in a while.  I'd live in a place where I don't have to hop in the car to buy a coffee or go to the gym.  I'd live in a city...There'd be trees nearby and great views from the bedroom.  I'd be responsible for...me.  I'd  only cook when I felt like it.  I'd write till my eyeballs fell out.

Whether I'd be happy without husband and children to fuss over, is another question.

This weekend, I got my wish.  I'm dog sitting for my old friend M.. in a really cool apartment with huge windows in Center City Philadelphia.  The building was built by the Board of Public Education, and the pup and I can play ball in the august granite hall outside the apartment.  This morning I spent tourist dollars at Whole Foods--candles, CDs.  I go there all the time, but never with such abandon.

I think it was M. who first put the notion in my head that running away from home might be a cool thing to do.  We were in third grade, and naughty was the way to go.  Not that there was much to run away FROM.  Rather,  the notion of escape whispered an exotic, no-holds-barred siren call.

Did she ever take off? I'm not sure.  We'd made a plan, but it was never carried out. There was no available stick in my house to carry my hobo bundle; I worried over this, but I gathered the essentials anyway.  A hairbrush.  Socks.  A very old, very fragile porcelain doll.  Dried apricots and slices of lebanon bologna., all wrapped in a bandanna and stowed in my bottom bureau drawer. 

There they sat.  I forgot about my plan to escape.  There were spelling tests to take, there was TV to watch. A month or so later, caught by my mother in either A) belligerance B) impertinence (these words entered my vocabulary at a very young age) I was sent to my room without any dinner.  The lebanon bologna--no.  Quite smelly. I'm surprised my mother hadn't found it herself.  I peeled an apricot off the face of the porcelain doll and enjoyed my light dinner; enjoying even more the victory of undoing my punishment. 

I did run away, much later. Twice, actually. 

I've got it out of my system.  The thing is, running away doesn't mean the same if you don't have a home to return to.  I'm one of the lucky ones, it turns out. 

(Thanks to Ryoma Collia-Suzuki for inspiring this post!)

Saturday, May 22, 2010


It’s a simple gesture. In the newspaper photo, an Iraqi man squats between two rough wooden coffins, his arms spread wide.  In each box a small body is loosely wrapped in a coarse blanket. A shiny knob, perhaps a charred anklebone, protrudes from one. Each of the man’s palms bears a planet of grief. I do not need the caption to tell me these are the bodies of his children.
Why does his posture disturb me?  In the past weeks, there have been so many available images of war on TV, on the Internet: artillery shells streaking like apocalyptic UFO’s into the burning desert. Images of survivors; a four-year-old shot in the head clings to her father’s hand, her sweet face crumpled like a piece of cast-off fruit. Americans weep in Wyoming, in Kansas, New Jersey.  In a close-up photo, a young woman in Kirkuk washes her husband’s marble-colored face with small hard tears. 
The Iraqi father extends his arms as if to opposing points of the globe.  His grief invokes my private tears.  Before the US declared war on Iraq, my own father lived in a nursing home in Germantown.  He received first-rate care, but no one could do his job for him. He was engaged in the hard work of dying.
He was also a man whom words had failed.  They said it was caused by the Parkinson’s; they said it was the Alzheimer’s, but a few months before his death he spoke no more than whispered, unfinished phrases. No more conversation with this voracious reader, a man who had studied journalism in college and later crafted words for advertising.

From my father I tried to learn the eloquence of gesture and mute blue eyes.  I’d stand by his hospital bed.  While I untangled his sand-colored blanket, the machine for his 24-hour tube feeding clicked, clicked, fell silent, clicked. His palms up, his arms extended, he tried to revive his familiar and decorous greeting.  Or perhaps he was trying to tell me what it was like: How it is for a man to regress into infancy.  Maybe a boyhood memory of cabin-building in Colorado had popped open in his head.  Or maybe he was just thirsty.  I looked for the pink swabs. 
“It’s okay, Dad,” I’d say.  “I understand.” But how could I?  We no longer spoke the same language.  A television flickered in his room, which was warm as a desert.  I was glad for the distraction of TV, for it’s hard to rivet attention on someone who does not speak.  I kept the set tuned to the forced happiness of game shows, avoiding the buildup to war.  His hands were full enough already.
He became agitated.  He plucked doggedly at the blanket. I felt helpless, as if he wanted me to change its color.  He liked to be read to; I pawed through my handbag. Wanting to offer him control over something, I asked him if the Bible would be okay.  Yes, He growled. 
Psalm 102 was a random choice.  Hear my prayer, O Lord¼Incline thine ear to me¼for my days have been consumed in smoke, and my bones are scorched like a hearth.  My heart has been smitten like grass and withered away, I forget to eat my bread¼

I stopped reading. “Do you ever feel that way, Dad?” Suddenly I saw a blue flare of understanding, even relief, in his eyes.   He spread his arms again. His hands indicated the railing of his bed, his roommate dozing in his wheelchair with his back to us, the thin sunlight that hesitated through slanted blinds. 
I took his bony hand.  I wanted my touch to say that someone was in it with him.  He pulled away; he’d been sensitive about touch recently.  Again, he showed me how his life had collapsed around him like a tent, his palms indicating the points of his remembered world.  The Iraqi man in the photograph had tilted his hands in just that way.              “I understand,” I said, and this time I meant it. 
Now, with so many images of war spreading open in our minds, there are more of us who understand.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


When I was five, I asked my mother if I could call her 'Mommy.'  That was the name my friends all had for their mothers.  "No," she told me. "If you call me that, I won't answer you."

She's 86, and she's still Mummy.  You could say that certain aspects of my childhood were bracing: like giving the kiddos a shot of black coffee before they tumble out the door on a frigid schoolday morning with their itchy woolen scarves and oversize coats.  The parameters were nothing if not clear; affection-wise, you knew where you stood. 

Sometimes I think that early training served me well.  I can be tough.  But then, sometimes, I worry.  Am I Helen the Lizard Hearted?  When my father died several years ago, I thought there was something wrong with me.  I wasn't broken up.  I wasn't even very sad.  Insensitive types might comfort someone in the claws of grief with:  Death isn't a big deal. It's in the order of things. The problem is, to me my father’s death wasn’t a big deal. 

Was I that callous?

Several months after he died, I was alone at night in my dorm room at my 10-day graduate school residency, and I couldn't stop worrying about my daughter, who was pretty young then and several states away. Lying awake, my mind ranged into conversations my father and I could never have, conversations I'd probably never have had the courage to initiate with him, even if he were still around.  I cried as much for the father I never had as the one I’d lost.  

There had been other tears.  My father had always had a talent for contentment—complacence, even—and he'd been reasonably content in the 'memory unit' of an assisted living place.  Then he landed in the hospital, and we knew he wasn’t going to get better. One Sunday, my mother and I were visiting him. When it was time to leave, I embraced him, sobbing so quickly I took myself by surprise. 

"Helen, really," Mummy scolded. "Don't you think that's a little premature?"

I didn’t say it, but grief could only come in increments.  In our family, affection had been meted out in small gestures: When we were little, every morning when he left for work, my dad would 'bonk' my brother and me on the head with his rolled-up New Yorker.  I have no memory of bear hugs; his quick embraces involved a nervous pat on the back. 

I did have a moment of farewell.  The last time I saw him, he kissed me goodbye, which he hadn't done in weeks. In a family that never discussed potentially risky topics, this is a significant intimacy, and I think about it often. 

After his death, when my lack of grief worried me, someone whose family had been similarly frosty told me that her reaction to her own father's death had been like mine: We were trained, above all, to be polite. 

In truth, both my parents looked the other way, twice, when I was a child and in serious trouble.  I learned to armor myself in more ways than one.

But the small tears I shed were, if nothing else, genuine. I loved my father, and I felt no bitterness toward him when he died.   That’s enough.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Generally, when my mother calls me up these days it's to ask something like: "Do you have my college yearbook?"  or "Were my grandfather's diaries not included in the move to my new apartment?"

Once we settle on the whereabouts of the book or object, or even if we don't, it's goodbye until next time.

I guess it's normal when you come from a family of reliquists.  (You're right--that wasn't a word until I invented it just now.) She really means, "I've always wanted to tell you how much I respect your intelligence and perspective, but never got around to it."  Or maybe she means, "I'd invite you for a tete a tete in the shade of memory lane, but I've got something that needs dusting."

Objects, by which I mean THINGS, aren't very reliable. (My great-grandfather's diaries were smiling in a box in my mother's basement, the whole several months we thought they'd been lost)--but people are even less reliable.  Years ago, when my parents' home insurance company insisted that they install a burglar alarm, she was convinced that an alarm made them LESS safe: Now the burglars would know they'd got stuff worth stealing.  It makes sense. If you're my mother.

In a way, her choice of objects of affection make sense, too. Why invest emotion in high-risk assets, such as your own children? Of course, one must do right by one's offspring: duty above all !  As kids, we were made to sit under sun lamps in the winter to assure against Vitamin D deficiency, and we wore orthopedic shoes until fifth grade for reasons I've never understood.

Hey, the British built an empire on such wisdom.  And when I broke my parents's hearts at 18 by marrying a psycho, they did not disown me as I'd expected.  Was it duty or love that moved them to pay for my college education though I hardly ever saw them?  In my mother's world, love and duty are inseparable.  Perhaps even indistinguishable.

I can be thankful for that.

--Helen W. Mallon

Thursday, April 22, 2010

RELIQUARY I: I'm in a museum?

My mother saved a lot of toys from her childhood.  They were tenderly kept in boxes, sometimes in boxes within boxes.   As kids, we played with many of the old things: I remember a Shirley Temple doll with real, flossy hair and pearl teeth.

I loved the school set.  It was an old-fashioned one-room-schoolroom-in-a-box. There were slates, slate pencils, doll-size lined notebooks, a brass bell, the teacher's spectacles.  A small blackboard, handwriting exercises.  

The last time I played with this set, I was thirteen.  Breaking out all over, asking big questions, slightly mad at the toys because they didn't satisfy me as they once had.  They reminded me that I was being pushed out of childhood.  I abandoned the set for my mother to put away, which was not part of the deal, and probably she scolded me for this.

A few years ago now, my mother donated some old toys to the Germantown Historical Society.  She grew up there, so it made sense.  I went with her to see an exhibit: Toys of Old Germantown, in a historic house at the center of what in Colonial times had been the town square, now absorbed and diminished into Philadelphia.  It was strange to see some things that had belonged to me and my brother out for public view--a bubble-blowing monkey, for one, battery operated, which had ceased to work when I was about ten.  

On the other side of a barrier was the school set. I stared at it. There was writing on the blackboard.  The handwriting looked familiar.  It took a moment, until I turned to look at something else. I had left that writing when I abandoned the school set at thirteen, never to touch it again.  There they were, my four questions; which meant that my mother chose not to erase them when she wrapped the whole set up to give to the museum.  

Who is God?
Is he good or bad?
Does he hear us when we pray?
Does he answer us if he hears? 

I remembered.  Raised in a devout Quaker home where questions were not encouraged, I had felt subversive, slightly law-breaking, when I wrote them down.   My mother, with her eye for the quirky detail, must have felt pleased by them in some way.  She not only left them years ago when she cleaned up after me, she brought them to the museum. I said how strange it was to see these casual chalk marks on display, public and arranged.

The museum curator, who had casually shown us around, commented: "What you wrote is part of our collection.  No one's allowed to erase it now." 

Later, in the car, I asked my mother why she didn’t erase what I’d written. I knew how she’d respond. “Oh, I don’t know. I suppose they were interesting.” I didn’t pursue it. Never ask my mother to reveal her feelings. For a sense of those, you have to look at her carefully preserved things.