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.

Petals and Vine

As I strolled through the botanic garden’s annual orchid exhibit last week –  giddy over my first day off in weeks,  the unusually warm temperatures and a break from working with words – I was hoping to capture the explosion of color, texture and shape with a few camera clicks.

What I didn’t plan on was the pattern that emerged as I looked through the final shots. For almost every floral subject, there were at least two versions: one zoomed in and one pulled far back.

The photograph above is the close up version of the image below.

In the first picture, you can see the petals and vines that constitute the color, texture and shape I was going for. In the second, you can see these, but there’s far more than the parts. It had become an entirely new whole.

I thought to myself, this is what it feels like to see creative work developing. 

It all begins with a few petals and some vine. But then the artist turns it into a gown. Being a witness to it is a lot like watching magic happen.

A very viney example from one writer’s effort in a workshop I facilitated last year:

Roberta was in the midst of her morning routine, mulling over what to write about for the weekly prompt assignment, when her hunt for her hairbrush took her to a closet which led her to a red box that she had forgotten about. Opening the box rerouted her but gifted her with the subject for her prompt. This is the moment in our story where it is important to know that in addition to writing, Roberta is artistically ambidextrous: she makes fabric, quilts, books and paper. After bringing in the results for a few in-class sessions of feedback, (“You’ve got to let go of the hairbrush and let us see that box, Roberta!”) she was moved to cross-pollinate her love of words, thread, paper and binding and make this beautiful handmade book that illustrates the story I’ve just summarized, but far more poetically and optically.

Here is the result, at medium range:

Here is a page, close up:

And then far back again:

A circuitous journey, like this blog post, which just took you from orchids to photographs to floral gowns to a writer’s workshop to a hairbrush to the accidental finding of a red box that turned into an actual book about finding a red box and then back to photographs again.

The creative path is a mysterious one. But as a frequent spectator I can tell you that one of its most potent qualities is contagion.

Photographs by Ellen Blum Barish. “The Red Box” written and crafted by Roberta Levin. Copyright 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

A Writer’s Work

The morning after the election, dazed and confused along with so many others, I found myself searching quotation databases for words of wisdom to soothe my soul.

Using key phrases like “moving through shock” and “coming back from defeat” and “when bad things happen,” I found encouraging words from Martin Luther King, Rabbi Harold Kushner and former President Bill Clinton (see below.)

Those post-election days are a blur to me now, but I’ll never forget how comforting it felt to find the right words.

I have been thinking about that moment as I watch my family and friends respond to and recover from the election of the man who turned the world upside down.

Some ranted, went mute, fishing, or to bed.

Some cried, cooked, collapsed.

But as bearings returned, so did action.

My rabbi invited local legislators and the community for a town hall-style meeting at our synagogue.

The Christian-Muslim-Jewish women’s interfaith group in which I have been a longtime member met for a heartfelt dinner and discussion at a local Turkish restaurant.

My daughter organized a fundraiser with other millennials for a women’s homeless shelter.

Journalists and news organizations debated the principles of real news.

Businesspeople innovated.

Women marched.

And it was good. This was action. We were facing this.

More accurately, people I knew were finding their place. I just hadn’t found mine yet. I couldn’t figure out how to plug in. What could I do to make an actual, concrete contribution?

I considered what had given me solace in the days and weeks post-election.

Laughter from Alec Baldwin’s Trump and Kate McKinnon’s Kellyanne Conway on Saturday Night Live.

Empathy from Sara Bareilles and Leslie Odom, Jr’s song, “Seriously.”

Community from Chicago storytellers expressing how they were feeling at live lit events.

Beauty through my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter feeds in words, photographs, poster slogans, political cartoons, films, paintings and sculpture.

 It’s ridiculous that it took me so long to see it. But I finally got it.

Comedy. Music. Storytelling. Words. Photographs. Film. Painting. Clay.

 All artistic expressions.

Art moves me to feel. Sometimes better, sometimes worse. But feeling strongly moves me to get up and do something. Maybe that something is making art. But it can also be about inspiring others.

And this is where I can be helpful.

I’ve seen what can happen when people write stories from their lives. They lighten. They rise up a little.

But being inspired could also stir someone to change a vote, run for office, or create a ruckus.

I’m not the person who will turn a vote around or set up a foundation.

I will, however, show up. Offer my signature. Write a small check.

But I hope that I can generate a bigger impact – a larger noise – through making, and inspiring others to make, art or express themselves.

One piece of this is my commitment to infusing this blog space with inspiration on writing, creativity and craft. If you aren’t already a subscriber, I hope you’ll be one. It’s easy. And free. Subscribe here.

But I have another idea that is still marinating:

To curate a live lit storytelling event featuring personal narratives about the givens in our life – the color of our skin, the place we grew up and/or live and the religion in which we were raised (or not). I’m thinking of calling it “Race, Place and Divine Grace.” Stories about the parts of our lives that we can’t change in an effort to look at how we might, in fact, change. To hear one another – the full range of perspectives – a little better.

If you live near Chicago and have any thoughts about how we might co-mingle, let’s talk.

So this year, I’ve decided to go for more feeling, less reeling.

Will you join me?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

“Is there an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people?…The response would be…to forgive the world for not being perfect, to forgive God for not making a better world, to reach out to the people around us, and to go on living despite it all…no longer asking why something happened, but asking how we will respond, what we intend to do now that it has happened.”
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner

 

“There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right in America.”
Former President William J. Clinton

 

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2017.

Leaving Your Mark

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Getting naked is the last thing we want to think about in winter. Especially those of us who live where snow falls.

But I think the more we mirror nature rather than draw the curtains on it, the closer we get to feeling balanced. Steady. A reasonable goal during these very unsteady times.

That’s my plan for this upcoming winter and early spring. To get a little bit naked. Bare a little more of my soul. Leave my mark in the world. In words.

Like the tree that falls in the woods when no one is around, your mark won’t reverberate unless you share it with others.

So let’s get naked together this winter and spring. I’m starting the year off with a one-day writing workshop in the woods (January 14th at Little House of Glencoe) and following it up with half-day, four-five-and-six-week workshops, as well as private coaching options.

Go to the Workshop page of my website for more details or email me with questions.

Let’s strip down to the bare essentials. We’ll leave quite an impression.

 

WRITING WORKSHOPS with ELLEN BLUM BARISH

WINTER/SPRING 2017

Half-Day & One-Day Workshops

Friday, December 16; 10:45 – 12:15 pm (Beth Emet The Free Synagogue)

Saturday, January 14; 10 – 4 pm (Little House of Glencoe)

Friday, February 3; 1-2:30 pm (Women’s Exchange)

Thursday, April 13; 9:30 – 11:30 am (Off Campus Writers Workshop)

Four, Five & Six-Week Workshops

Thursdays, March 2 – 23; 10:30 – noon (Women’s Exchange)

Tuesdays, February 7 – March 14; 1-3:30 pm (Skokie)

Wednesdays, May 3 – 31; 1-3 pm (New Trier Extension)