A Grandmother’s Memory of 9/11

Most of us associate the month of September with the tragedy that occurred on 9/11/01. We don’t think of Grandparent’s day which traditionally arrives on the first Sunday after Labor Day.  Seldom do we consider these two events side-by-side in relationship with each other. For my friend Paula Clifford Scott, September 11, 2011, was especially cruel and poignant because, not only was it Grandparent’s Day, by chance, but it marked the 10th anniversary of the death of her only daughter and granddaughter. On 9/11/01, Juliana Valentine McCourt, age four, and her mother, Ruth Clifford McCourt, departed from Boston on American Airlines flight 11 headed for a vacation in California. Ruth’s best friend, Paige Farrelly Hackel (Godmother to Juliana) was on the second plane, United flight 175. The dream trip for mother, daughter and Godmother included the Deepak Chopra Center for Well-being and Disneyland.  Before departing for the airport, Juliana explained to Grandma Paula how she had decided which of her favorite stuffed animals would accompany her on the plane. “Bunny Rabbit can stay with you, Gramma,” she said, “he’ll take care of you while I’m gone.” Eight children between the ages of two and eleven died in the three planes lost on 9/11.  How do grandparents survive with just the memory of the tiny hands and fresh faces of their grandchildren and the knowledge that they themselves are still here, alive?  Knowing that the unspoken order of life and death – who should depart this earth before the other – has been so tragically turned upside down. […]

Lost for Words: Can Writing be Healing?

How many times have you heard people say in the aftermath of a traumatic event: “I just can’t talk about it right now.”  They describe themselves as being “lost for words,” as if the right words have not yet been invented to pinpoint feelings with precision. Some people eventually find their voice by writing poems, essays and memoirs, or keeping a journal.  For those who are visually oriented, the voice may speak through a painting or a photograph. The body tells us when we’re ready to unpack and codify feelings, to put words or other artistic expression around experiences for others to hear and see. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal is a continuous, or discontinuous, process. For others even the mental recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge long after, perhaps during another life-changing event that dredges up old memories. A Vietnam War veteran once shared that he didn’t speak about the war he experienced until years later when his son was about to be deployed to the Desert Storm conflict in the early 1990s. “It hit me like a ton of bricks – my son might be about to experience the same horrors that I had witnessed. I had to start talking, sharing my own experience, after twenty years of silence.” Sometimes the burden of owning the story is so great that there is a need to fictionalize and tell it as if it happened to someone else. It can take months or years to become comfortable with the telling.  Whatever the starting point, be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time, reflection and […]

A Tribute to Nurses in War and Peace

    As we recognize the anniversaries of the beginning of World War I and the end of World War II, it is chilling to realize that nurses were also at the battlefront, but barely noticed. I grew up surrounded by nurses in a nursing home that my family owned and operated. The patients were mostly elderly people who had the usual physical and mental problems related to aging, but we lived in a rural area and my mother’s skills as a Registered Nurse also made her the go-to person for situations that were considered minor emergencies around the village – cuts, burns and even broken bones and head injuries. I can see my mother calmly cleaning and dressing a bloody wound caused by broken glass and, on another occasion, carefully positioning a child’s possibly broken leg after a fall from a tree. Eventually a doctor would become involved, but watching my mother and her colleagues in action day after day offered me firsthand knowledge that nurses, even in civilian life, were unsung heroines. There is no comparison of what civilian nurses did to the horrors and chaos of serving as a nurse in a war zone, but nurses in military settings have done their job quietly and largely unnoticed, as well. Thousands of women serving as nurses put their lives in peril on the battlefield over centuries and yet little is known about their experiences in war or exactly how many participated. Even appropriate financial remuneration has been meager and long in coming. Only at the end of the twentieth century did nurses’ […]

Critic or Critique: Giving a Writer Useful Feedback

  Most writers need feedback about their work – some more than others. Ray Bradbury, for example, was not only a highly motivated and prolific writer, but also a ferocious reviser without need for advance readers. He was disciplined in his writing process and daring. He said, “When you write – explode – fly apart – disintegrate! Then give yourself enough time to think, cut, rework, and rewrite.” If and when he did show his work to others before publication, he had already logged double-digit revisions. But, most of the rest of us earthling writers need support and encouragement along the road to the finished product. There are those writers who show their manuscript to no one until they think it’s ready for publication, but often, when I’m still revising, I like a nudge now and then from a carefully chosen reader who will be honest enough to say that they have no sense of what I’m trying to say, or they lost interest after the first paragraph, or they just couldn’t figure out what my characters were trying to do. This usually happens when I don’t know what I’m trying to say and I’ve wandered off into a thicket of ideas. My reader is not going to tell me what to do or how to find my way, however they might offer a clue or notice that there is too much of something and not enough of something else. Perhaps I won’t agree with my helpful reader – but I was the one who asked! […]

Grieving the Death of a Child

            When Tom L. lost his son, Mike, age twenty, in a fiery motorcycle accident, he never dreamed he would write a book about it. In fact, Tom described himself as a poor student and felt fortunate to finish high school. But, ten years after his son’s death, he still carried a profound sense of sadness at losing his only child. “Some friends thought I should be feeling better by that point,” recalled Tom. “But you just can’t push a button and make the pain go away.” He visited a counselor who told him that what he was feeling, besides normal grief after devastating loss, might be unattended sorrow. “Perhaps there is something else that you need to do, something that really allows you to express your feelings. Grief is like a garden in a heart washed out by a storm. You’ve got to tend the soil and grow new flowers. You seem to have a circle of supportive friends, but are there any details about your son and your relationship with him that you’d like others to know?  Why don’t you write me a list of those things, those thoughts that you want to nurture and grow.” Tom started writing and couldn’t stop. “I wrote my heart out,” he said. Two weeks later he had two hundred pages describing his son and what it was like to be Mike’s father – and eventually his friend as Mike grew into a young adult. Not everyone will attempt to work through grief by writing a book, but anyone who has experienced the death of a child of any age understands how profoundly difficult it is to ease the ache in the heart. What writing seems […]

A Time to Cry and LAUGH: Writing with a sense of humor

Not long ago in a writing workshop, a colleague offered to read a personal essay I had written about a difficult life experience. My kind friend reported back that he felt as if I was dragging him, sad and depressed, to the abysmal end of the story. “I don’t want to feel as if I’m being forced to feel bad,” he said. “Where’s your sense of humor? And you’re not having any fun, either.”   Humor? I didn’t see anything funny about the story of my trip to Washington, DC, to see my husband’s name on the Vietnam Memorial for the first time – but – maybe I was taking myself a little too seriously. Perhaps Colette, the French writer whose husband locked her in a room to keep her writing, was right when she said that total absence of humor renders life impossible. Humor in nonfiction writing demands taking a firm, self-confident position about our “self” and then flipping the situation upside down. Writer Leigh Anne Jasheway calls this creative misdirection; engaging readers by taking them someplace they don’t expect to go, choosing words and metaphors that make readers giggle without knowing why. She says a smiling reader wants to read on even if the topic is inherently sad.   Where was my sense of comic relief? Obviously, I had forgotten that humor creates a bond with readers and cuts down on tension and anxiety. People need to cry and laugh. Humor fosters a sense of immediacy, a close personal connection. There was little to joke about in my essay, but there were some curious ironies that I hadn’t yet dug deeply enough to discover. As Dorothy Parker said in Writers at Work, “There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. […]

The Benefits of Mindfulness

If you find yourself listening to co-workers complain at work, you’re not alone. Jane S., RN, often eats her lunch sitting on a curb in the parking lot next to the clinic where she works as a nurse. It isn’t sunshine she’s after. In fact, rain is a frequent occurrence in the area of the country where she lives. She’s looking for just a few minutes of peace and quiet from the chaos and complaints that echo off the walls in the employee break room where people wolf down their meal amid a chorus of gripes about work and working conditions. A recent Harris poll found that 80 percent of workers feel stressed about one or more things in the workplace. Long commutes and low pay were at the top of the list, followed by high workloads and difficult work relationships on the job. Feelings of persistent high stress among workers have been shown to be related to negative outcomes including personal and professional burnout, absenteeism, lower productivity and lower job satisfaction. Besides the “normal” sources of stress like employment uncertainty due to globalization and increased job flux, nurses like Jane must deal with meeting the needs of sick and dying patients and coordinating and documenting care across different health care systems. The sources of stress for workers at all levels and in all settings seems to be growing, Is there a panacea or secret potion that can be applied in a variety of work situations? Employers can help by offering wellness programs aimed at boosting mental and physical health. One highly recommended approach is the use […]

Approaching an Understanding of the Vietnam War Era

For those who grew up during the Cold War, the Vietnam War was an unexpected tragedy creating unimaginable losses. This memoir follows the  experience of losing a beloved young West Point officer  at the height of the war and the healing that came many years later at reunions of those who had served with him during the war. Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War.  

Write, Eat, Walk, Write: Food for Thought

    One of my challenges in the writing process is how to stay connected to whatever I’m working on and enough distance, at the same time, to have a perspective on what I’m trying to say. Sometimes writing can feel like I’m looking through the wrong end of a telescope. I can work for hours laying down sentences and still feel I am not quite “there” on the page. My usual impulse is to get up and go to the refrigerator, just to check and see if something delicious has magically appeared. Even though I’m the one who stocks the frig, something new and different might have arrived mysteriously between paragraphs.   Amazingly, this little trip away from the desk helps the writing process almost instantly. As soon as I stand up from my desk, a sentence will reorganize itself in my head. Jonah Lehrer says in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works that this is the “outsider” problem. A writer reads her sentences again and again and very soon begins to lose the ability to see her prose as a reader. (In other words, I think I know exactly what I’m trying to say. I think I’m being clear, but that’s because I’m the one saying it.) A writer must reread and edit as if she knows nothing and doesn’t know what these words mean. She must somehow become an outsider to her own work.  But how can we achieve this?   Novelist Zadie Smith suggests putting a finished manuscript in a drawer – a year is ideal, she says, or as long as you can manage – so that you can become more of a stranger to your book and eventually read it in a new […]

Balancing Act: Understanding the balance between work and play

I grew up before the idea of balanced living was invented, at least in our family. I don’t remember my parents speaking about needing more balance in their lives. It probably seemed an impossible goal. Their days were packed with endless child raising, working and caring for extended family members. My mother, a nurse, sometimes came home after an eight-hour shift at a nursing home only to sleep on the couch in her white uniform and then go back on duty for another shift. She might make something in a free moment. Perhaps she’d model a small replica of a desert island with plaster of Paris, or cut out a dress pattern on the dining room table. Meals were composed of the New England trinity: meat or fish, potato and vegetable; mashed potato, codfish and cauliflower. The need to balance the composition with green beans or red beets was irrelevant. I might have tried, after worshipping at the altar of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, but it’s a faint memory except for the pages of bright, colorful meals. My father, a builder and a fixer of all things, could be called out at midnight to unthaw a frozen water pipe in winter in the mobile home park he managed, or spend days rebuilding the engine of a car or a lawn mower. On a quiet evening, he sat in a rocking chair by the bookcase reading the Encyclopedia Britannica. Once he built a grandfather clock in the middle of the living room on a long table. Sawdust lingered for months on every cobweb. Life was a circle of work, preparing bland meals, raising children, and the occasional craft project. If balance is related to the relationship between work and […]