Brothers and Sisters

My brother Sam would be 67 today, November 21, 2016. He died from AIDS while still young and handsome at the age of thirty-nine in 1989.  We were very close, in spite of a sibling scrimmage now and then. When we were growing up, I seemed to be the person he preferred to fight with, but also the person he came to whenever he got into difficulty. He was fiercely competitive with me throughout our lives, about everything from my doll collection to Christmas tree decorating to who had the better education.  My first memory from childhood was about Sam, a scowling baby sitting in our red flyer wagon. I remember his dying words, too. He said, “I’m trying to dial 1954, but I can’t get through.” Eventually, I had to write my memory of his life in order to approach understanding what he was trying to say. I was honored to have my essay about our life as brother and sister, Sam’s Way,  published in The Gettysburg Review (Spring, 2012), and doubly honored when it was listed as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2013. Writing our story was a way to bring him back into the world – and it worked. Many people who had known him contacted me and I had lots of great conversations about what a funny, courageous, difficult and generous person he was. In honor of Sam, I’ll be making his favorite yellow cake with chocolate icing today and thinking about all the beautiful and talented people who were lost to a horrendous disease. Happy birthday, Sammy. Wish you were here. [caption id=”attachment_1061″ align=”alignright” […]

People of Yellowstone

A group of amazing people work behind the scenes and in front of the camera at Yellowstone National Park. In fact, the park would not continue to exist and remain wild and wonderful if not for the People of Yellowstone who work as rangers, wranglers, rescuers, artists, hotel employees, scientists, animal trackers, and much more. We hope you will jump on the campaign to bring their story to the world.

Blue Holidays: A Season for Emotion

The holidays are coming. Supermarkets are stocking up on turkeys and hams. Towers of candy wrapped in silver and gold are springing up in stores. Evergreens will soon scent the air with pine, and bell-ringing Salvation Army Santa Clauses will pierce our ears with reminders to be generous and give to the poor. Sights, sounds and smells can trigger happy memories – along with sadness and anxiety. I asked friends if they could describe some of these emotions. A sense of loss was number one – loss of family members, good friends, traditions, and “place” for those who live far from home. Some described certain people who were beacons for celebrating and enjoying a holiday; people who were the life of the party. (I remember my younger brother’s enthusiasm for decorating the house and the Christmas tree – even though we used to argue about it!) One friend described her husband (now deceased) as loving Christmas so much that the tree kept getting bigger every year and they finally had to buy a bigger house. Since he died, it’s been difficult for her to get into the Christmas spirit. A young mother said that, since her husband’s death in the Iraq war, her sadness intensifies at Christmas because it reminds her that her children were too young when he died to remember him during his favorite holiday. Some people expressed an overwhelming feeling of expectation, that holidays require being social and happy, buying the right gifts, accepting invitations, being as good as the media tells us we have to be, and accomplishing all of this in a short period of […]

Father’s Day, 2016

Approaching Father’s Day, I scan the years that I shared with my father, remembering the handkerchiefs, the ties, the cuff links, the homemade cards, the terrible black walnut cake I proudly presented him with when I was ten,  but the same unanswered questions bubble up when I think about my dad. I have no doubt of his goodness, however I still wonder about the inner life of this person I knew for the first thirty-five years of my life. He died young by today’s standards, only sixty-one, as a result of falling from a roof he was shingling. He took risks, one of them being his intolerance for safety harnesses when working on the top of a three-story building. He often commented about the birds he had seen and heard while working high above the ground: sea gulls, mourning doves, mocking birds – even an owl at dusk. Perhaps he began to identify with creatures who could fly and that reduced his need to be safe with a tether. My appreciation for mountain tops may have come from my father’s unabashed fearlessness of high places, but I never went to a mountain with him during his life. I remember only watching him from the ground as he strolled across a building truss, using his arms for balance, looking like a visitor from Ringling Brothers circus rather than the father of four children. Jess Maghan, in his book Forty Sons and Daughters: Finding Father Within, eloquently expresses through vignettes of forty sons and daughters describing their fathers, the contemplations we can have about […]

Gold Star Wives of America: Resilient Survivors

(This article originally appeared here in April, 2015, commemorating Gold Star Wives Day and the 70th anniversary of the founding of Gold Star Wives of America, an organization devoted to educating and protecting those whose spouse died in combat or from combat-related causes.) It was a muggy July evening in 1946 when five women, whose husbands had died in World War II, traveled to Hyde Park, New York, to meet with a soon to be war widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt later wrote in her news column, My Day, “…they came for supper, and then went to Poughkeepsie the Lafayette Post of the American Legion had given them permission to use a room… It was a small meeting, though the casualties among servicemen from Dutchess County were pretty high.” In fact, more than 175 men from Dutchess County alone were killed or MIA by 1945. These five young widows had first met together in Marie Jordan’s apartment in New York City in 1945 to talk about how they might band together to support the needs of all war widows and their children. Losing a spouse in combat meant also losing medical care, commissary privileges and even their home if they lived in military housing. Most had married young and had no job training. They had little or no resources from the U.S. government and often relied on the charity of family and friends. Out of desperation they formed a support group called the American Widows of WWII. Their appeal to Mrs. Roosevelt was auspicious. When FDR died in 1946, she counted herself among them […]

The Noah Bean to David Bowie Transformation

  In the world of show business, there are many fables about how actors and musicians succeed. My son, Noah Bean, who has been a professional actor for almost twenty years, says that it takes at least ten years to become an overnight success – and even then you may have to start over the morning after. Noah graduated from Boston University with a BFA in Acting and attended the Royal Shakespeare Academy along the way, as well as the London Academy of Music and Drama. In other words, he was prepared, but his continued success – while sometimes resembling a roller-coaster ride – has been the result of staying in the ring in spite of long layoffs and tough choices. His recent portrayal of David Bowie is a tribute to Noah’s grace and humanity, and his desire to be generous towards others in a world that is highly competitive and ruthless. His generosity towards me is huge. Without his help I would never have achieved the writing of my memoir about my first husband who was killed in Vietnam. He encouraged me, read draft after draft, and created and narrated the book trailer. There are great humans in this world, and I’m proud that my son is one of them. I look forward to watching his career unfold, over and over, with more and more overnight success stories.

Truth Be Told

“Do you swear to tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” We’ve heard this intimidating oath on every television show with a courtroom scene. Fortunately, writers of memoir and personal essay don’t have to make this declaration – at least under oath. Or, if they did, it would be with the caveat that, “This is my truth. This is the way it was for me, so help me Goddess of Imagination.” It turns out that “truth” has many levels of being, depending on what one is writing about. For most of us, our truth is what we think we remember. Other people might recall the same event differently, but if what you are writing is a memoir about your life, then even other witnesses, like your brother or sister, might  remember details differently than your recollection. This is an important concept to keep in mind when writing your story because, if you are swayed to consider some other rendition, based on what someone else claims is the almighty truth, you may not get to the essence of what you are after. Intention matters. As Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz describe in Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, “If our intent is to capture the messy, real world we live in, we fulfill the first obligation of creative nonfiction. Intent helps us resist the urge to change facts, just to make a better story. It stops us from telling deliberate lies, even as we let our imagination fill in details we only vaguely remember.” In my memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, describing my experience of […]

Veteran’s Day 1968

Veteran’s Day, 1968. An excerpt from Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion after War. He spoke of his time in Vietnam as unavoidable, a river to cross, an obstacle to remove. Once the orders are issued, he said he would face court martial if he didn’t go. “There’s no other choice,” he said. “I have to go even if Dad says the war is a mess right now.” What his father had said was that there was a disconnect between what was happening on the ground, in the jungles, and what politicians and the Pentagon perceived the war to be and expected it to be, a reality which would not be unraveled from the fundamental untruths and hyperbole of the war until years later. But, I understood nothing about what he was about to step into. “We’ll survive – I’ll be home by Christmas next year,” he said. “Then I have only one year before I can get out of the army completely.” I promised to write every day and prayed for the rash to go away. “Letters – that’s all we’ll have over there,” he said. “Where I’ll be, there won’t be any other communication except mail.” The anticipation of verbal silence, physical distance, had its own power. It began slowly with long silences and idle activities, constant unspoken preparation. We could drive for an hour together without a word between us. We unpacked and repacked, organized cleaned, straightened, made lists. On our last night together on November 10, 1968 we barely spoke. We expressed our love for each other only with our bodies. The poison ivy scourge had […]

What is Your Writing Practice?

            Writing takes time and courage. But, is there a sure-fire approach that will maximize productivity? I’m not sure.  Unfortunately, I don’t have an organized practice – or even a routine that I can easily describe. Deadlines are always a great inspiration and get me to the desk more frequently than anything else. I know I’m not a morning writer. That’s when I prefer to read. I build up to writing during the day and hopefully start in the afternoon. It’s easier for me to see what distracts me from writing. Today, I’m feeling dispossessed, as if I can’t settle down and feel at home in the world. I’ve spent most of the day roaming around my house, picking up random books, wondering if I should give some of them to the library book sale. If I can sit down and start typing, I know that I might get through this odd feeling of having elusive, abstract, uncomfortable ideas. I might begin to understand and tease apart my sense of absence and become present. As David Whyte says in Consolations, “we become visible and real when we give our gift and stop waiting for the gift to be given to us. We wake into our lives again…” Whyte also says that most of us feel besieged: by events, by people, and even by our own imagined creative possibilities. He suggests starting the day with a “don’t do” list rather than a “to do” list so that you have the highest likelihood of getting to your writing. Life happens – birth, death, an accident, a financial setback – and may take you far away from […]
By |September 6th, 2015|writing|0 Comments

The Emotional Tentacles of Suicide

My mind needs spring-cleaning right now, just like the rest of my house. The ideas are piled up like laundry ready to be sorted and folded and put somewhere. They are mental meteors ready to land and make a big splash, promising to be the beginning of an adventure on the page, but the lights on the landing field are obscured. My brilliant gems zoom off un-tethered into the stratosphere. I excuse this by reminding myself that I am besieged because a member of my family recently committed suicide. I’m choosing my words carefully. David Whyte says that most people feel besieged most of the time by events, by people – even by the creative possibilities they have set in motion themselves. A traumatic event, a suicide, throws the mind into disarray by demanding a place within every thought, every activity. It’s difficult to remember our vision of what we were doing and what we wanted to do with our lives before the event. Someone has chosen to stop in the midst of life and we question how to regroup and reorganize our life without them. The people who are still in the world are waiting for us to come back from the disorganization and brittleness of grief and we’re not sure how to cross the river of broken dreams and rejoin the world. Peter Walsh, believes that organization begins in the mind rather than our basements. Walsh became famous as an organizer of clutter on the TV series, “Clean Sweep.” He doesn’t focus on objects, he goes right to the heart of the matter. He asks his clients: “What’s your vision for the life you want?” He starts with the purported “purpose,” picking up an object […]