The Value of Layers

We have to be layered for the hike up the mountain in winter: the clinging undershirt, the tee-shirt, the long-sleeved shirt, the sweater, the fleece, the jacket, the gloves, the hat, the scarf, the sunglasses, sunscreen, and a bell. Only with each part of the upper body protected from sun, wind, rain, sleet, snow, and ice can we be ready for all winter weather conditions, and the sweat and cool-downs of our own body heat. The bell is to sound the alarm for encroaching animals, such as a moose.

The undershirt is old-fashioned, but our grandfathers always wore them, so probably we should. The tee shirt is a more modern day affair, but it protects the shoulders a bit better. If we have biceps, it covers them. Long-sleeved shirts make me feel covered all over, like when everyone else is freezing, I’ve been smart enough to wear one. Now sweaters. Cashmere is the warmest, and does well when wet–thought it’s not good for the sweater. The fleece, soft and fluffy breathes, handling well the heat up and cool down of the body. The jacket zipped up, or removed and wrapped around the waist, is the most essential portable skin. Without it, the wind can eat your bones, the rain can drench you, the sleet and ice can ping and stab you, and the snow can freeze you.

Gloves mean I can still have hands to use after the hike; hat means I still have ears; scarf means I still have a neck; sunglasses keep my eyes; sunscreen my face– especially my nose; and the bell. Ah, the bell. Have you ever hiked and come suddenly upon a moose’s butt way higher than your own head, and wished you hadn’t been so stealthy, but had been swinging your warning bell?

What’s in a Tidbit?

Invited to a neighborhood gathering over coffee and dessert for a couple who, the wife says, “are simply withering away” and thereby leaving their house to downsize to apartment living, I load up my little plate with tidbits.

Who is the young attractive woman with the cute little girl in pigtails and a baby boy on her hip? Which house do they live in? Oh, that one. And she and her husband own the new natural food restaurant in town? I’ve never eaten there, but it looks good from peering in the window.

The middle-aged woman, who lives alone across the way, fairly glows at the party. Usually I see her coming back and forth from work in professor clothes, mowing her lawn in jeans, and talking over a fence to another neighbor. Today the professor is showing a side I have never seen before, and I am fascinated. Why do we glow some days, but not others?

What about the couple hosting the party? From their walls, I learn that they like architecture because their own photographs of famous structures like Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamps in France, and Frank Ghery’s Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain, tastefully line their walls.

Knock, knock. The hosting couple–camera in hand–stood at my door a week before the farewell party. “We know you’re coming,” they said. “But, we are making up a special album of pictures of all the neighbors in front of their doors as a gift for our departing friends. Can we take yours?”

So, after the edible and verbal tidbits were digested at the party, our departing friends were given their neighborhood photograph book. Tears sprung to the eyes of the wife. She and her husband have lived in their house for thirty-seven years. The one-and-only owners. I can’t imagine that leaving it is easy. Their memories will just have to go with them in little bundles, like in a vase, or a violin case, or a photograph of their grown children on a wall.

Revision X6 of My Memoir, Jewels That Speak

I revealed in my first blog article–The beginning of my writing life–that it was editor Margaret Gable in her course at The New School in New York City who trained me to sit down and revise.

Long before I retired from teaching, I knew I wanted to tell my story in a memoir. Not everyone grows up in two different countries and has to quickly make up new character traits in order to fit into different cultures. Such jarring experiences occasionally produce the themes of great artists, like one of my favorites–Henry James. Not every bored ten-year-old goes up to the attic to rummage through suitcases and musty old boxes only to find pieces of the most beautiful colored shimmering glass the eye can behold.

Later I learned the pieces were remnants of the opalescent stained glass, Favrile glass, named and patented and used in his designs by Louis Comfort Tiffany. And who was he? No less than my father’s grandfather–my very own Great-Grandfather. Not every child has to take an ocean voyage on the Queen Mary during the 1957 boat strike to rejoin a father in London who had essentially left us–my mother and us five kids–in order to be closer to his mother, Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham, and her famous colleague and companion, Anna Freud. How did Grandmother and Anna Freud wield so much power? Not everyone is the daughter of a strong, handsome Norwegian mother who devised a plan to take us five kids to ski in the mountains of Norway and on arrival handed out backpacks bulging with all our food and other supplies to strap on our backs to cross-country to a remote hytte (cabin) with no running water, electricity, or toilet when not one of us had ever skied before. Not every girl learns how to attract men like flies to defer the pain of the loss of her father’s love. But everyone suffers losses, and has to be ingenious in learning how to combat them. We just all do it differently.

My Memoir–Jewels that Speak–began with the title scribbled on a page of a plan book in March 2007, when I was in the Ozarks with my husband Paul for my birthday weekend. Within six months, I produced a first draft. Editorial help from Laurie Wagner Buyer prompted me to write a second draft. Then, a third draft. Since then, the book has been in the hands of a New York editor, producing additional critiques, and inspiring additional revisions.

After a fifth round of critique from the Writers Group I blogged about last week–Feast for Seven Women–I have started another draft. Who said, “in revision the scissors are even more necessary than the pencil,” or some such thing? Sounds about right.

In another blog, I will talk about what the jewels mean in my memoir.

Talks with My Cousin Dorothy

I have a very bright cousin who graduated from Bryn Mawr–a school founded in 1885 to give women access to educational opportunities and now one of the “seven sisters” to the Ivy Leagues. My Norwegian mother, mentioned in my last article, Revision X 6?, always revered Dorothy for many reasons, but one of them was that she graduated from Bryn Mawr. Throughout her life, Dorothy has been a reader of fiction and non-fiction.

She tracks what’s happening in the world. If she reads something she thinks pertains to my interests, she xeroxes it and sends it via snail mail with a little note in her loopy, fluid, distinct handwriting. Through e-mail, I find out about books she’s read or is reading. But most important to me, we talk.

Dorothy knows and loves all members of my family. Since I am working on revision 6 of my memoir, Jewels that Speak, I can run things by her. She understands the peoples, places, and stories I am trying to convey. We often discuss my Norwegian mother. She tells me stories I did not know, that my mother had told her but never shared with me. And Dorothy adored my father for his magnetic charms, quiet human understanding, abundant artistic gifts, and–quite frankly–boyish immature ways.

“Do you remember the time,” Dorothy said, “when I was over for dinner, and Bob (my father) had just carved the roast and asked if anyone wanted a slice, and when we all piped up, ‘I do,’ he began–with his hands–to throw slices across the table onto our plates?”

“No!” I said. “He did that?”

“Yes, and your mother looked none too pleased.”

For some reason such talk is very satisfying. Though my mother and father are gone, these conversations bring them back to life.

Thank you, dear world, for my cousin, Dorothy.

Feast for Seven Women

Who would have thought that six weeks ago, seven women writers would bare their writing souls so willingly using the Amherst Writers & Artists method, developed in Amherst, Massachusetts, by Pat Schneider and described in her book, Writing Alone and With Others (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003) and have it work? From young, to, ahem, not so young, the group gathered to write, listen and offer critique.

It started with a friend passing the word along that there was a sign up in our little local bookshop, The Raven, a six week Women’s Creative Writing Workshop, run by two Kansas University MFA’s.

Why not try some fresh faces, new ways of approaching writing?

I liked that the leaders insisted on meeting each member first over coffee. I liked that the flyer stated, “Writing can be easier, more satisfying, and more fun than we often make it, but it is always an act that makes one vulnerable.” That one sentence gave me hope.

The leader, who understood the importance of vulnerability, was also organized–“We’ll move onto this writing exercise now. We’ll break for a little refreshment.”

The other leader is doing her own work in non-fiction and immediately exhibited her insight, humor, and vulnerability in writing anecdotes about her family, which set the tone for doing it ourselves.

During a session on conveying the complexity in family gatherings, one woman wrote about her relationship with her sister using the metaphor of a ripe peach; fresh and juicy, but always with a hard pit at the core that she had to spit out in order keep her own identity. Another writer wrote of meeting her notoriously violent brothers–in-law for the first time on a family rafting trip when–wouldn’t you know–the violence erupted.

Over the course of the first week, parts of manuscripts were submitted to the group so that the next week’s session would include a formal critique. By the second week, we girls knew the drill. Respect of people and procedure brought security so that jokes salt and peppered the meal and made it very tasty.

Fresh eyes on the page, and new ears on the spoken words stimulated our writing appetites, so that we wrote more easily and with a sense of fun. After all, to a writer, there’s nothing more satisfying than a writers’ feast.

Sex, Horses, and Breathing

I don’t know if it’s normal to discuss sex, horses, and breathing at your annual with your internist, but that’s what I did yesterday. It started with sex.

I said, “Well, if I have sleep apnea, I’ll have to wear one of those elephant trunk-like things. That’s not very sexy.”

The doctor–an attractive woman in her late forties, early fifties with lively eyes, and shiny, long brown hair–smiled indulgently.

“It doesn’t keep my husband away from me,” she said. Neither does my flannel nightgown, nor my big floppy slippers.”

I giggled with this picture of my internist splashed across my mind.

Not so much later, we got around to horses. Here’s how it went.

I said, “I hope you’re not going to retire any time soon.”

“Oh, no. I can’t do that,” she said. “I have to pay for my barn.”

“Barn?” I questioned. “Do you have horses?”


“Do you ride?”

“Yes.” Her eyes were gleaming now. “But, actually the truth is, I prefer cows.”

“Cows? Did you grow up on a farm?”

“Yes. I like cows best because they’re such peaceful animals.”

“Oh. Have you read Jeannette Walls’ Half Broke Horses?”

“No. Who’s she?”

“She wrote The Glass Castle.”

“Oh, yes, I remember. What a life!”

“This one’s about Jeannette’s grandmother. And she was a character. Anyway, you might enjoy it. There’s quite a bit about horses in the book, though not always literal in meaning.”

“Okay, I’ll look that one up.”

Onto breathing.

“Now,” said the nurse technician handing me a hose attached to a small computer, “hyperventilate into the machine.”

The nurse watched me suck it in, then blow it out. “That a girl. But, this time I want you to do it even faster.” I turn my neck, stare at her quizzically.

“Now more, more, more!” She’s slashed me with her whip.

I gallop forward hoping for open prairie.

I guess I’m more horse, than cow.

After a Virus Has Passed

After a virus has passed, and, daylight savings has begun, at least there is well being to accept it.

After an achy-empty-sneezy prone existence for days, to be able to dress up and go out to eat Italian food with new friends on Halloween and not wish you were lying down on the floor with your table napkin over your face, but instead enjoying talk about mutual experiences in the Ukraine, is life, life, life once again.

Across the table I notice the young, soft apricot skin of the woman’s face, her warm eyes, her vulnerable throat, which pulses as she talks of a gluten allergy she has had since birth, and how she has had to adapt her life around it. Looking down at her plate, she winces. Immediately, her husband reaches over and switches her food for his. They don’t seem terribly unhappy eating each others meal. So, I think, they’ve been married a while.

Back at their loft apartment, we are given a tour. A cultured environment–modern décor, cherry wood kitchen cabinets, a contemporary armoire, which opens up into two little studies, an eclectic collection of art, including a rug from Romania, etchings from the Ukraine. As their black cat sips water from a martini glass, I think about the lesson from Aesops’ fable, The Crow and the Pitcher: necessity is the mother of invention. We sit around a gas fire and talk about the meaning of social history and how we met our husbands.

Driving home, my husband laments the fact that we didn’t tell our story with enough verve. But, I am so happy to be out with him meeting new people, sipping, eating, chatting just as daylight comes down on Halloween.