It was a gift slash burden at my high school for graduating seniors to fill a full page of the yearbook with a photograph and a quote.  Choosing the right shot and the right words that you could live with —  forever — was a big deal. That was pressure, man.

My friend Jeremy, who was handy with a camera, took this picture of me in my parent’s backyard, which turned out well. Nice composition and cool lighting. (Thanks, Jeremy!)  But I remember being less worried about the photo, I was 18, after all, than I was about the words. The words really mattered to me.

Reading them now, these lyrics to the Simon & Garfunkel song, “Bookends,” I see a harbinger of personal mission. I seemed to be aware of how I would feel looking at this page in the future. As though I was leaving myself the message that memory was important. That photographs helped us tap into our memories.  Not surprising that I am, and have always been, the keeper of the family photo albums. The one who, at reunions, will stir the memory pot to see what bubbles up.

I think we leave little crumbs of memory for ourselves over our lifetime, to go back to. If we are curious.Scan 1






Grandma’s Birthday Party

ScanScan 3When she turned 85, my Grandma Jane decided to throw a party.

This would be her first birthday since my grandfather, and her twin sister, died and though hers was the party house and she was the hostess for everyone’s birthdays (including great grandchildren), this was the first where the light would be shining directly on her. It was unlike her to put herself front and center. And yet, she loved parties, so it was, indeed, like her.

In celebration of the woman who was surfacing, I wanted to make her a collage of her life. I gathered all the photographs we had from her young womanhood to the present day. I wanted to see who see was, separate from her role as my grandmother. But of hundreds of pictures, there wasn’t a single one in which she was there, alone. I remember feeling frustrated by that. Where was the graduation photo? A glamour shot? The one of her, alone, in her wedding dress? I had to cut her face from her twin sisters’ and from babies’ cheeks. I had to remove her body from clinging children and cover up the throngs of guests in the background or foreground. She was, in every sense of the word, a people person.

On February 7, Grandma Jane would have turned 100. When I think of her now, I remember those  photographs. I may have extracted her from others with a small scissors, but she is definitely not alone. She will always be attached, to all of us.

Photos by Ellen Blum Barish 





Lesson from the Stairs

IMG_3187I snapped this photograph last December when I was in Southern California. The colors swept me up; such a contrast from the gray Chicago I had left behind.

But when I uploaded it into my photo files, I saw something else in these colored ceramic tile stairs: Vertical/horizontal. Pattern/solid. Movement (the step) and stillness (the landing.) I saw structure; the suggestion of structure for a piece of writing. For an essay that begins on the ground, then  steps up to a bold pop of pattern, then moves into solidity, then into a new and different pattern and repeats.

The stairs made me think of Bernard Cooper’s perfection of a short, structured essay in seven paragraphs, “The Fine Art of Sighing.” You can read it here.  Graf by graf, step by step, it moves us from present (the solid) to memory (pattern) to imagination (new pattern) to history (another pattern) and finally, back again to the present (the landing). At the top landing, we stand differently than we stood on the ground because we’ve been given a richly textured, guided tour of the stairs.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish 







Object Permanence



Every January for 25 years, my friend Mary Ellen hosted a women’s luncheon in which  she served a flavorful winter soup and a few side dishes.

As guests, our task was to bring an appetizer, champagne and an object that represented  the year that has just ended. The afternoon was spent in an adult version of “Show and Tell,” taking turns telling the stories that animated the items.

Over the years, I’ve forgotten many of the women’s stories but I remembered what they brought. I can still see the magnifying mirror from the woman who just turned 50. The basketball, soccer ball and baseball from the mother of three athletic sons. The photographs from the woman just back from Cuba. The Mary Oliver poem from the woman who had lost several friends that year.

Some years into this ritual, I recognized the value of keeping a record of my own luncheon artifacts. The large box pictured above is filled with envelopes, marked by year, with the object or record of it inside.

What’s interesting is how quickly the sight of these items reconjure the year in question.

Objects are concrete. Tangible. Understood.

When we work them into our stories, people can see them. They provide visual heft. They can be a shorthand for larger ideas and feelings. Perhaps a metaphor. An object offers a way to move time without referring to literal time. They age; show wear and tear but can be refurbished.

A well-selected object makes your stories pop. Your message will remain in the screen and hopefully, heart of your listener or readers’ mind.

Photo by Ellen Blum Barish

Scenic Views, Ripe for the Picking

I’ve been sending out print or electronic family new year’s greetings since 1992 when my youngest daughter reached her first birthday. Every year, I struggle with what to say. I have yet to get into the year-in-review highlights letter (but never say never I always say) so I usually stick with one or two lines.

Here are some examples:

2011 family foto

In 2011, under a photo of my husband and two daughters standing in front of a range of Colorado mountains:

May you reach your mountaintop with views that take your breath away in the year to come.


In 2000, under a photo of my husband and two, much younger daughters, bundled up in winter coats in our backyard:

Hoping this season finds you – and keeps you – warm and cozy. ‘Til we see you again…


In 1995, the four of us in an apple orchard:

Wishing you all things colorful, juicy and ripe for the picking this holiday season…

You get the idea.

In each of these, the season, setting and/or  stray details steered the language to link the photograph to the wish.

To help the reader, see.

That’s what we want to do with our writing. Go from the abstract to the concrete and back to the abstract again.

Here’s what I mean by that: Wishing someone a happy new year is in some ways an abstract concept. In what way do you want them  to be happy? What could that look like? There are so many choices!

It’s more concrete to wish them the chance to “reach their mountaintop” or stay “warm and cozy” or the option to pick things “ripe and juicy.” But these are also images that are imbued with multiple meanings. Metaphor.

So think about the abstract-concrete-abstract idea when you are looking to layer your pieces. And let me know how it goes. I’d love to post examples in this space.