Tuesday, September 30, 2014

We’ll Never Have Unanimity-

And that is Why We Keep Writing

One of my least favorite speech clichés is, “When all is said and done.”
When, perchance, is that?
Busy folks know all is never done, even after it’s done. Writers know all is never said.

Biologist can’t agree on definitions for the word LIFE.
Psychologists can’t agree on what the word PERSONALITY means.
Anthropologists can’t agree on the meaning of the word CULTURE.
*Or the meaning of the word MEANING.*
And so we keep on talking, and telling, and writing. No matter what you think of Darwin’s theory, evolution of understanding is a never ending journey.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

In with the New

---But Not Out with the Old

Yesterday was the official first day of fall, and the Jewish New Year begins at sundown tomorrow.

I’m in the midst of the first draft of a new novel for pre-teens, (a.k.a. MG) and the writing is taking all the pontification out of me. That is to say, I’m in a non-pontifical mode. Readers don’t want to get hit on the head with what they should or shouldn't.

This has spilled over to thinking about Rosh Hashanah, (literally, “Head of the Year”) and the many sermons that accompany it. You’re not going to get one here. Instead, a memory of the Jewish New Year meal from thirteen years ago will have to serve in its stead.

My mother was a permanent guest at our home every Friday and holiday. That year, 2001, the holiday fell on a Monday, less than a week after September 11th. Friends of my father and stepmother were visiting the bay area from Israel, having just managed to leave New York City after flights had resumed. I didn’t know them well, and when they called, I asked them to come for Rosh Hashanah dinner. I figured that, like all of us, they were traumatized and could use some taste of home.

My mother was a Kugel fan. If you haven’t heard of kugel, let’s just say that it is a casserole of cooked-anything-at-all mixed with beaten eggs and seasonings. I had promised her a round kugel for Rosh Hashanah. Round, like all New Year dishes that symbolize the closing of circles.

didn't make kugel often, so I set out to make the best. I had a mother to honor, Israeli guests to comfort, and an urgent need to respond to the disaster that had struck our nation with the perennial Jewish celebration motto: They tried to kill us, we survived, LET’S EAT!
My mother dreamed of potato-kugel. So I grated and seasoned and mixed and mashed, pouring the mixture into a greased round dish and into a 375 degree oven. 
Then it occurred to me- the last time I made carrot-kugel, DH mentioned not once, but twice, how much he liked it. So I grated and mixed and added the cinnamon and brown sugar and to another round dish it went, also into the same oven.

DD came in and asked what I was making.
 “Kugel, for the New Year,” I said.
“Yum. I love noodle-kugel,” she said. Oops. I wasn’t thinking of her favorite. So I boiled egg noodles and mixed in the eggs, apple sauce and the raisins, and into the oven in yet another round baking dish went kugel number three.

It crossed my mind that having something green for the New Year was sort of mandatory. Think harvest, re-growth, life. Zucchini-kugel would have to serve that role. More grating, beating, mixing, pouring. The oven was almost at full capacity.

DS came in. With the resolute expression six-year-olds are so good at, he informed me that he doesn’t eat any of these kugels. In desperation I made the only kind I knew he would: chocolate-kugel. Not very traditional, but it was round and it was going to be irresistible. Think dark-chocolate not too sweet soufflé, only this one stabilized with matzo meal so it doesn’t collapse.

 By then I was ready to collapse. 

Our guests arrived right after my mother. Introductions were made, and they complimented our table. I lit the holiday candles, and DD blessed the round challah. DS said the blessing over the fruit of the vine, (ours-wine, his and DD’s grape juice) and we said SHE-HEH-CHEH-YANU, the prayer of gratefulness for having arrived to this day. It had never meant more.
I opened the oven door and brought out the first. 
“Wow, kugel!” our guests exclaimed.
I went back and brought the second. 
“How nice, a kugel!” the wife said.
I was feeling positively giddy when I brought the third. 
“Ah, kugel,” I heard. It sounded a bit like a sigh.
Not done, I came in with the fourth. 
Another kugel?” said the husband.
I felt positively sheepish bringing in kugel number five. But it was chocolate; the only one DS would eat.
I suspect our guests from Israel thought they really had landed in Oz.

That Rosh Hashanah is now a memory, part of family lore. My mother passed away, and our guests are long gone. My kids have left the nest. It will be one kugel this year, and I will choose. One kugel will have to stand for all the others.

Let’s eat.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

No Nonsense Sagacity

Breathe in,
Breathe out.
Breathe in,
Breathe out.
Forget to do this
And attaining Enlightenment
Will be the least of your problems.

At DD’s orientation last month, the Dean of Juilliard told the incoming freshmen: “Don’t forget to breathe.” In that context he meant they should get out of their practice rooms, experience the great city, go for walks in Central Park, and remember to draw essential nourishment when the vessel runs dry.

Deep in first draft to a new MG, I must do the same.

For me this means taking the weekends off. Yup, just like a regular job. It also means that I don’t allow myself to write for more than a certain number of hours on writing-days. This is not a sprint, but a long distance journey to the finish. Strategic pacing is paramount.

 And of course, there’s the breathing thing. That, and a good cup of coffee.

© All above cat-art^ by Shelagh Duffett

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

From The Mouth of Babes…

…And Everyone else's

In one of those moods today, thinking about unexpected insights I've gotten over the years from just about everyone I've known, when I realized there’s a theme, and it’s called missing DD.
I also woke up in a generous mood, or, as it is often referred to- a mood to share. I’d bet you have plenty such insights gleaned not from the famous wise-folks, but from your family, friends, neighbors, and a passer-by.

A woman is like a teabag. You never know her strength until she’s in hot water.

A neighbor, after hearing about my experience giving birth to the above DD

Luck comes when you are prepared to receive it.
DD’s music teacher

And finally-
The saddest thing about a person dying in the middle of talking is that you never hear what they were going to say.
DD, in one of her out-of-the blue utterings, when she was three years old

Can you tell I miss her? DD who's now all of seventeen, and probably having the time of her life at Juilliard, is never far from my heart. I was blessed to have DS before her, and fortunate to have him go to school not too far away. But the wise folks know that each of those we love is unique and irreplaceable.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Be Happy

Years ago, at a particularly difficult moment in her life, my wise stepmother told me she chose not to fall into depression, and chose to be happy. “It is a choice,” she repeated. It took me years and some hard choices of my own to understand what she meant. Did I mention already she was wise?

I think about the happiness I know, and have come to realize that it has to do with being at the moment and counting one’s blessings. Cliché? Well, maybe it is, and for a reason.

An empty-nester has a lot of time to think about things. Time occupied by meeting the needs of others is suddenly vacated, leaving patches of spaces that, before they’ll be filled by new demands, just hover there.

I choose to think about happiness as moments of grace. Not the big ones, the expected joyous milestones, but little gifts that remind us we love and are loved in return.

Meeting a friend I have only known virtually, who took the trouble to drive many hours just so we can spend an afternoon-

Having a relative offer to drive down to help DD’s transition to college. Every bit helps-

And this, right now, this very moment-