More Light. Less Speed.

I am in the final month of the final section of the final chapter of the first full draft of a memoir. By August, I will have been working on the book for a year, longer really, as I’ve been writing pieces and parts and thinking about it since the late 1990s.

The process has felt at times like floodgate-opening relief and, at others, like trying to turn on a faucet hose that has been rusted solid. There have been glorious days where I could have been outside on a walk or at the garden or out with friends but instead I was inside on my behind on my office couch with my MacBook Pro in my lap wondering, especially on less productive days, why I was devoting myself to a project with no definitive paycheck or deadline that frequently brings pain, tears and the conjuring of difficult memories.

Yet, what finally got me to write, and keeps me writing, were the many more good reasons to do it, the ones outweighing the equally strong desire not to bother.

Among these were:

To make the story stop stalking me. To address it head on, to understand what happened. To listen to myself, in my own words. To heal.

To hone my craft. To capture a story, as beautifully and truthfully as I could, creating a long-form work that grabs and holds a reader’s attention, and hopefully, heart.

To witness myself writing it. To connect more deeply with my students and writer-colleagues who are writing memoir. So that I understand the process and can teach it better.

But as I am nearing the end of this first draft, facing a second and possibly third, I have been surprised to recognize more overarching reasons beyond little-old me.

I knew it was there, but now I have felt it and am certain of the energy-moving potency in identifying pieces of a life. Especially the broken ones. What it feels like to put them back together to reconfigure, shape them into art and make meaning from it. How it reveals new things about one’s life and one’s self.

Perhaps even more importantly, by addressing this personal business through art by reframing, understanding or making peace with it, we get the feeling of having turned something good from something not-so-good. Maybe it’s just that we made something out of what feels like nothing (but we all know it’s not nothing). We get to feel good, even just briefly, for having picked up our broken pieces and rearranged them. Like clearing out and organizing a drawer or closet so that it can be used more artfully, we can move a little more to the right or the left because there’s more room. Room and space to fill, repair, create or contribute something else. Which can bring us a sense of renewed or confirmed purpose and maybe even the chance to do some healing in the world.

The writing has, until recently, been going well. But lately I’ve had more not-so-good writing days, made all of the more poignant because I can see the end. It’s so close! Just a few days ago, for example, I realized that part of my ending would do a better job of inviting a reader into my story as the Prologue which then sent me into a long, arduous spell of rewriting. I really understand why some of my writing students stop, or take yearlong breaks, so far in. I see the temptation. The work can be hard and unrelenting.

But just as married people renew their vows, and businesses revisit their mission statement, I think we need to reaffirm our whys. To remember what we are doing it for. Maybe even to say it differently to match where we are now or possibly discover something new about why we are doing – or should continue to do – what we do.

In June, I gave myself a birthday present. A photography class. It’s so joyful to learn something new and so restorative for me to be away from words! I’ve learned that to highlight the subject you want and blur out the background – like the photograph above – you need to let in more light by way of a bigger aperture (the F stops), but the speed of the shutter needs to slow down (1/60 is the magic setting for no hand shaking). A good shot comes from a combination of how wide our eyes are open and the pace of a blink.

More light. And slowing down.

Reminders of what we need to focus on the things we want and let the rest fade away.

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.

 

 

 

That Which We Call a Rose

 

Perhaps the image at the top of this page struck you as it did me when I first saw it by the cash register at my favorite café.

A one-dollar bill (maybe two) shaped into a rose?

Not only is it nicely crafted — see those delicate silken leaves and realistic stem? — it transforms a mundane object into something worth lingering on.

Now that’s what I call art.

About a year after my second child was born, I jumped at the chance for some creative stimulation and a break from mothering by registering for an evening writing class with a well-regarded instructor. Born in India, Molly Daniels, was a small woman with a big personality who wore flowy, multi-colored skirts and headscarves.

One night, she asked us to profile a parent. At the time, I was having difficulty with my father, so my subject sort of self-selected.

I began with, “My father is the tallest of two sons born to a short, stocky German-Jewish father and his four-foot-ten wife who was born and raised in Philadelphia. In college, he majored in philosophy and pursued a life in business and politics.”

As we scribbled in notebooks from desks configured in traditional lines, middle-school classroom style, Molly strolled the aisles, skimming our opening paragraphs, nodding and hhmmming.

When she arrived at my desk, she peered over my sentences and said, “Tell me about your mother.”

“But I wanted to write about my father,” I said. “There’s more drama there.”

“That may be true, but just tell me one thing – one unusual detail – about your mother.”

I struggled to think of something – I was low on sleep from being up at night with my infant daughter – but then, something came.

“My mother grew up in a hotel.”

“Ah!” she said excitedly. “That’s it! You must write about your mother.” And before I could argue, off she strolled to the next desk, her colored scarf billowing wildly behind her.

It was Molly Daniels who taught me about the potency of the well-selected detail and its window into storyline. The ones that come to mind when we first think of a person, the ones we recall long after reading a short passage or an entire book.

The tilt of a character’s eyeglasses. Dandruff on a coat. An arthritic finger.

Between the ages of 9 and 14, my mother would take the elevator down to the hotel dining room, order a bowl of cereal and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to take to school for lunch and eat. By herself. She was like the children’s storybook character Eloise, the only difference was that she was not at The Plaza in New York City but at a hotel in Pittsburgh. Growing up in a hotel not only impacted her (lack of) kitchen skills – no stove or oven translated into zero chances to watch her mother cook or have recipes handed down – but were likely to have influenced her decorative leanings to something I lovingly call institutionally immaculate – shiny glass-topped furniture on cream-colored carpeting and beds made with hospital corners in a spare and pristine space.

Details that pull us into her storyline.

In my writing workshops, I talk about eight elements of essay, alliteratively referring them as “Ellen’s Eight.”

Detail. Scene. Language. Pacing. Structure. Theme. Voice. Storyline.

Each of these elements work hard either by their presence or absence to make a piece sing.

But if I had to choose the two elements that matter most to an initial reading, the two that I look for in essays by my students or submissions for Thread and Stitch, I’d have to say detail and storyline.

That one-dollar bill makes a fine detail in the right context. But sculpted into a rose opens the book cover and yanks me in. I begin to wonder about its story. Who made it? And how? Was it the café’s first earned dollar? Why was it placed by the cash register?

I am reminded of Molly’s lesson in part because I’m teaching a summer writing workshop and I want to elucidate this point for my students. But also because I’m finishing a memoir in which both of my parents make appearances. I am on the hunt for just the right illustrative details that express who they are, in part of course, to invite the reader in and help tell the story.

I’m searching for roses made from dollar bills. Word version.

Thank you, Molly Daniels.

(Molly died in 2015. May she rest in peace.)

 

Photograph of rose by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017. Taken at the Euro Echo Cafe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time It Was, and What a Time It Was

My body is occupying space in 2017, but my mind is deeply entrenched in the 1970s right now.

I’ve just returned from a weekend of events commemorating forty years since graduating high school. I’ve been to a few reunions over the years, but this was the first time I did it all: The picnic lunch in the gym. The campus tour. Dinner with my two best friends from high school. Another with a classmate I haven’t seen in twenty years. Two house parties; one that included classmates bursting into four-part harmonic choral music from their days in the choir, and the other that got everyone dancing to 70s song hits.

For the first time, I bought a t-shirt with my school’s name on the front.

I was really feeling it.

Ours was a small Quaker school, just 70 in my graduating class, which allowed each of us to have our own page in the yearbook for photos and a quote. The British sketch comedians of Monty Python’s Flying Circus were big in 1977 – the year we graduated – and we borrowed their catchphrase “And now for something completely different” for our yearbook theme. What amazing time capsules can be found in the combination of our clothes and hairstyles, along with quotes from the lyrics of Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott Heron, Earth Wind and Fire, Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix and Moody Blues tunes.

My quote was from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bookends.” At just over one minute, it’s still one of my favorite songs, ever. I didn’t see it then, but the words of the song are a really interesting portent of my lifelong interest in writing, memory and photography.

Bookends
Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you.
Simon & Garfunkel

Five years after we graduated, there was a reunion, but the only thing I remember thinking is that not enough time had passed; the event still felt like high school.

I didn’t make to the tenth, but I managed the twentieth. I recall it vividly for a conversation that reconnected me with a classmate and stirred a distressing childhood memory which overpowered the reuniting.

At the 30th, the focus was bittersweet when we gathered in the Meetinghouse to remember a classmate who died.

The 40th was the first of our reunions which, for me, was all about the pure joy of reconnecting. To see how we have grown beyond our yearbook photo and that angsted-over quote to become multi-dimensional people with interesting jobs and professions, husbands, wives, partners, children, as well as express the strength and character carved into us from divorce, loss and health issues.

How often are you with people who remember when sticky cake mix flew everywhere in the kitchen that day when you decided to clean the mixing beaters by turning them on high? Or who remember where you were when you first heard Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water”? Or who can recall that party that got out of hand when one of our classmates walked, drunk, into the sliding glass door and, thankfully, lived to tell about it? Or who not only remember your parents, but also your grandparents and great-grandmother?

Only people you knew then could know the you who was forming before our resumes and jobs and life shape-shifted us. It’s easy to forget – and dismiss – how imprinted we are by these experiences and these people.

Beyond the glee in seeing so many classmates, revisiting the place where I spent so much formative time – walking down that front hall again, into the classrooms and the library and the auditorium and the gym where so many character-making, micro-events occurred – was its own reward.

We are all part of a circle of people, whether it’s from a neighborhood, camp, religious group or workplace or school. A friend of mine regularly goes to a reunion of people with whom she went to kindergarten!

And there’s a gift waiting for us, there.

If we go.

   

Top photo courtesy from our yearbook, 1977.
Front hall photograph taken from our yearbook (1977), photographer unknown.
Photo from 2017 reunion taken on my iphone, photographer unknown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Two-City Girl

We know the places we know sensorially. We know what they feel-like, smell-like, sound-like, look-like and taste-like, as if they weren’t separate from our own body. We have a rich and raw relationship with these places. They have imprinted on us; perhaps we have imprinted on them as well. But either way, these places have been a part of making us, us.

I am Chicago born, but spent the bulk of my childhood in Philadelphia. I returned to this city of my birth for college where I have lived for the past four decades. I’ve spent a lifetime back and forthing between the east coast and the Midwest.

Last month I was in Philadelphia for the first time in years. Somehow five years had flown by – the longest time I’ve ever been between soft pretzels and a Philly cheese steak.

 

As I drove around the city and then into the suburbs visiting family and friends, the skin of my hometown city reached out and touched me again: the narrow wind of the roads, the extreme tilt of the terrain, the density of the tree line.

It felt sweet to be back on Philly’s twisty streets, rolling hills and dells, especially in early spring. There was such beauty in the variance of its landscape. But a thought crossed my mind: You can only see what’s right in front of you at the time.

Compared to the long view in Chicago, where from the window of an airplane you see an actual grid of the city just like a paper map. Where you can stand by a window in any skyscraper and see for miles to Indiana, even Wisconsin. Where you can bike for miles on long stretches of smooth level planes without breaking a sweat with uninterrupted thoughts.

I took note of this because I am writing a memoir in which the central action takes place in these two very different cities. It’s got me thinking about how place stimulates us. How place is a character in our lives, pushing us in one direction or another.

And I began to wonder about place’s impact on me as a writer.

According to the oldest record I have – a coverless, ringed notebook with wide lined pages scribbled with misspelled words in pen and pencil – I began my writing career on March 24, 1967 at the age of 8 with a poem titled “Happieness.”

 

Happieness makes the whole world gleem,

It makes the moom happy

Yes I have seen

Happieness is good and nice

It’s better than falling on the ice!

 

 

 

I was clearly a deep devotee of Dr. Seuss.

The ditties that followed, each signed “By Miss Ellen Blum,” featured imaginary kittens, birds and bunnies, friends who look like hens, toys, a car, my school, a pencil, an unidentified pet, my bed, a bay, a clock, the month of March, and then, my mother, my father, my grandparents, the sky and the outside world.

Most of these were written at my grandparent’s house in Oak Lane, just north of Philadelphia, where I spent so many sleepovers. I remember because I recall how it felt to finish one and immediately show it to my grandmother who would encourage me to write another. (I think she was trying keep me occupied so she could get on with her game of Solitaire.)

Writing wise, I didn’t get much farther than that ringed notebook. There were school assignments of course, and a handful of songs written on piano and guitar.

But writing didn’t take hold of me until I moved away.

So Philadelphia was the place where I started to write. About the things that were right in front of me.

But Chicago is the place where I became a writer. The kind of writer who dives into things that are hidden below the surface.

Could the wide-open spaces of the Midwest have beckoned, urging me to expose hidden ones I grew up around? Was there more room to think in Chicago? Was the beautiful rolling landscape of the east coast more like a writing obstruction rather than a writing prompt? Were there too many hidden spaces in Philadelphia? Did it not feel safe? If I hadn’t spent so many years in the City of Brotherly Love before returning to the Windy City, would I have been inclined to write at all? Was there something about the tension between these two places that set something in motion?

I just know that there’s a connection between place and who we are.

I just wonder how deep it goes, the impact of place to make us, us.

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.

Never on Tuesday

“You cannot go Tuesday, but you can go Monday, Wednesday and Thursday to Friday Saturday Sunday. We chose Thursday, and dined at this charming little spot located at 261 S. 21st Street.”

So opens my first published article in the spring of my senior year of high school.

It was a restaurant review in my high school newspaper, The Earthquake, that I co-wrote with my friend Marianne, with whom I am still close. She became a painter and I, a writer but I remember that lead insisting itself on both of us.

It’s hilarious to read, now, forty years later.

For our hubris:

 “We were warmly welcomed by a young hostess and promptly seated at a table adorned with fresh flowers.”

A young hostess? Really? We were 17 or 18 at the time.

For our earnestness:

“We immediately noticed that the walls and ceiling were draped with billowing Indian fabrics. The menu was cleverly situated up high on a blackboard which was nestled among plants. Dim lighting and soft jazz music added to the cozy ambience of the restaurant.”

And our innocence:

After splitting a mocha walnut torte – dubbing it a “sublime delicacy” – we concluded:

“Our dinner was topped off with an uncommonly good cup of coffee and left us content and satisfied having enjoyed our dinner thoroughly!”

Coming across these six-paragraphs delights me for three reasons.

First, it’s a reminder of how long I have been honing my craft.

Second, what a lovely souvenir from my senior year.

Finally, though I never wrote another restaurant review in my life, discovering and critiquing new eateries is something that I still love to do with Marianne. We like what we like from an early age.

And it appears that we know how to pick ‘em, too. I just Googled the restaurant to see what might be in its place and would you believe, it’s is still there.

Just like we are, now.

But without this yellowed newsprint, there wouldn’t be proof that I was there, then.

I guess what I’m saying is, keep what you can, so you can take note of the miles you travel.

Marianne and I, many miles ago.

Cover image is page 5 of The Earthquake, March 11, 1977.