Leafy Inspiration

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Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Copyright 2014.


Everywhere you look, we’re being framed in gold, orange and yellow. It’s my favorite quarter of the year where color takes the stage for a continuously changing runway walk and just the right amount of nip in the air keeps me perking along.  Autumn is the time to manifest dreams.

Which is exactly what I’m doing right now. Manifesting a lifelong dream to publish a literary magazine!

The design has been approved. Essays are in final edit. The online publication – featuring essays and photography – is currently under construction.  The launch is scheduled for early December. Watch this space for more on all of this in the weeks to come.

Wishes for leaves of inspiration to blow your way this season.


Suddenly, Last Summer


Oh Sebastian, what a lovely summer it’s been.

from Tennessee William’s play “Suddenly Last Summer”

Until last summer, I’d only known what summer wasn’t, which for me wasn’t the longed-for months of languorous days and lightning-bug catching nights that it seemed to be for everyone else. I had lived more than fifty summers and not one ever felt like the freewheeling, sweet-smelling, dreamy days depicted by the poets and painters.

Growing up on the east coast in a family that didn’t camp, go to ballgames, take road trips or a own a house at the New Jersey shore, left me with only one alternative: overnight camp. I could feel my parents counting the days until my brother and I boarded our respective buses to upstate New York and Maine for ten weeks – so they could have a summer – where I would count the days until the first crisp hint of fall. I wasn’t much of a camper. I remember it as weeks and weeks of mean-girl pranks, late night gabbing keeping me from a good night’s sleep, not enough chances to read and waiting for too-infrequent care packages from home.

Before and after those months, my friends, away with their families or at camp themselves, my tennis-enthused father would drag my younger brother and I to the courts where we would sit and bake, beyond bored, for hours in the hot sun – why are there no shade trees by tennis courts? – waiting for match point. At home, the only air-conditioned room in the house was my parents’ bedroom. My mother insisted that two fans on opposite sides of the house facing outward provided plenty of cool air for my third floor bedroom — her phantom breeze. A sticky hot neck against a warm soaked pillow became my sense memory of summer.

At 15, when my friends were going to ballgames or the beach, my parents insisted that I work, and I have every summer since. Let’s just say that June, July and August weren’t popping off the calendar as a candidate for my favorite season.

Once I became a mother, summer presented the opportunity to provide one, a real one, for my daughters. But I quickly became resentful of work interruptions due to deliveries and pick-ups from theatre practices and soccer leagues, pools and picnics, sleepovers and bonfires.

It wasn’t until last summer, that work and family schedules allowed me the chance to taste the season in my own way. My writing, teaching and coaching load lightened, but my fall was set.  My eldest was living on her own and working in the city. My youngest took an internship out of town.

So I said yes to a friend’s invitation to her New Mexico art retreat where I painted in the desert for a week. I found an affordable hotel room and spent a long weekend in New York with my daughter and traveled to a women’s spiritual retreat weekend in Wisconsin. I dusted off my guitar, got back on my bike and returned in earnest to my own writing.

But it was our backyard hammock that helped me make summer my own. That cradle under the tree – a plaything for the girls – beckoned from my kitchen window one afternoon and I succumbed, climbing into it with a book, pillow and light blanket. As it began to sway, I felt the weight of so many summers’ disappointment dissipate. A new sense of the season was born; a chance for suspended serenity in the shade; the possibility of what summer can be.

My season to savor ever since.


Photographs by Ellen Blum Barish

Love Letter

RDNwatercolor version

The second loss.

That’s how Jennifer Niesslein, editor of Full Grown People, captured it.

In her introduction to my essay, “Strawberries in the Driveway,” released today on her literary magazine site, Full Grown People,  she wrote,

How do you memorialize someone you lost first to depression, then to death?

This is almost literally my worst nightmare, but Ellen Blum Barish writes about her old college friend in such a tender way that I know someone out there reading this is glad to have this balm.

A second loss is exactly how it felt.

First to depression, then to suicide.

It wasn’t a topic I set out to write. How can we ever hope to make sense of either of these life-takers? But I was compelled to try. And it came from a real-life prompt.

Last July, I shared a story on the Story Sessions stage at The Dog’s Bollox on Lincoln Avenue about keeping house. It was a muse on the various influences that dictate our housekeeping skills. I was bit by the storytelling bug. Producer Jill Howe wrote me a letter of introduction to Willy Nast and Karen Shimmin, producers of Essay Fiesta and they scheduled me for January 19, which turned out to be a typo (because that third Monday in January was the 20th) but it jumped out at me all the same.

Douglas’s birthday.

I took it as invitation to grapple with his death and the result was the essay below.

My appreciation to Willy and Karen for the Essay Fiesta spotlight and the prompt and to all my Friends with Words for the support and encouragement as it was under construction.

But my gratitude especially goes to Susan and John (whom you will meet later in the piece) and my dear friends Steve, Myra, Dave, Becky and their amazing children who gathered with my husband, David, daughter and I last Labor Day on the Northwestern University campus to articulate our goodbyes.

“Strawberries in the Driveway.”

Photograph by Ellen Blum Barish. Circa 1978-1979.


Summer Snaps

IMG_2714Stunner of a rainbow on Independence Pass, near Aspen, Colorado

IMG_2536 Turtles doing whatever it is turtles do on a log in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

IMG_2681Wings of the plane that took me to Colorado

IMG_3231View of Garden of the Gods from a deck across the street, Colorado Springs, Colorado

ladybugsLadybugs doing the ladybug dance on a stone sculpture, Boulder, Colorado

IMG_3219View from patio lunch table at Dushanbe Tea House in Boulder, Colorado

IMG_3535Spider hanging from a thread, spinning his or her web overhead. View from hammock.

IMG_2486My favorite place of all. Backyard hammock in Skokie, Illinois. More about this to come….


Summertime … and the Writing’s Not Easy

ITDunya creditSummer, literarily speaking, is the season most likely not to meet expectations.

We think, somewhat logically, that the longer, lighter, lazier days of June-July-August offer us more time to read a book a week or to finish that essay. There’s truth to it. But those same days also tempt us to languish a little, slow down, and turn our wordy-thinky brains down a notch or two. We’re so tired and the lounge chair-hammock-beach towel just calls.

So there it is, summer’s possibility where reading and writing is concerned – versus its probability. I urge you to embrace this tension and let go of expectations. Bringing the words close is a uniquely human act and we humans are easily distracted. We just can’t help it.

That said, I want to leave you with a few thoughts on the subject of writing, specifically, for summer. Or you can think of these as thoughts brought to you in summer to help you make  fall plans.

My schedule loosens up in summer for private coaching sessions for all kinds of writing goals. To give you an idea of what people work on with a writing coach:

I’ve been working with a woman on a memoir of her year in Paris; a young man on personal essays for possible publication; a graduate student on her application essays for a further graduate degree and a college sophomore on improving his writing for his writing assignments.

Feel free to contact me at ellen@ellenblumbarish.com if you’d like to talk about the different ways I work with writers (and how I work with people who might not call themselves writers.)

Take a look at the fall New Trier Extension catalogue for my workshop called “Reading, Writing and Telling the Personal Essay” which begins in October on Wednesday afternoons.

And stay tuned for information about a fall evening workshop that is under construction at the moment.

One of these mornings you’re gonna rise up ready

To spread your wings and take to the sky …

And I’ll be here when the timing is right.

Happy summer!

Photo by ITDunya and Waterlogue