Category Archives: Writing Life

Searching for the right agent, the right word, the right phrase and frame of mind.

Pregnancy in Reverse — short-short fiction

I am cleaning my office, going thru old files and found this piece of writing.  It isn’t dated but I figure it’s from at least a decade ago if not more.  So here goes, a piece of fiction from the past.

caramel-applePregnancy in Reverse

I always thought that there was no greater grief than to watch a child die. I still do. But let’s face it.  Who better to be at the child’s deathbed? To hold the hand, sponge the brow. Who better to answer the groans of pain with shushes of comfort?  Seems like yesterday I was steadying Madeleine’s head over the toilet as she retched up four blocks’ worth of Halloween loot.  Triangles of candy corn. Pyramids of Hershey’s kisses. An entire rainbow of Now or Laters. Now it’s later. Three decades later. It’s chemo now, not caramel apples. But still, who better than a mother?

Watching my child die is more painful than a thousand births. Ten thousand births. There’s no episiotomy in the world that’ll close this tear in my flesh. But this is how the dice were thrown. I’m glad I was at the table.

Having kids is a gamble anyway. Biggest gamble there is. You never know the hand you’re going to be dealt. But you have to play it and play it round after round even if you keep drawing black queens and suicide jacks.

Madeleine was a nipple biter from the minute she grew teeth and she’s stayed that way her whole life. Being mean just because she could. Vindictive for the sport of it. Seeing injury where none was intended. Going for the jugular when all someone lobbed her way was a cat scratch.

Maybe cancer’s her payback for living like she owed nothing to no one. I gotta tell you, the day she called and told me, I couldn’t help it. First thought that came to me was small enough to drown in a teaspoon, but it was there just the same: serves you right for causing so much spite to so many. Not very loving of me but there you go.

You learn fast how to deal with a nipple biter. You remove the breast. You give her room. You get outta the way. I had one moment thinking Madeleine was getting her comeuppance. But it was only a moment. God forgive me it was only a moment, a wretched thought plastered over by everything that should have come first: shock, grief, desperation. And anger. Anger that this has befallen my beautiful spiteful daughter. Anger at Maddy for refusing to go for mammograms. “What do I need with those? I’m not mashing my boobs in some vise just so some doctor can tell me, “All’s well; come back next year.” So now she won’t be coming back next year.

Ironical, no? The one thing I took from her at her life’s beginning is now the source of its ending. She can’t remember me slapping her face that morning she bit me. Damn girl drew blood. The signal shorted out my brain and went from my breast to the flat of my palm. She was just such a little thing. I cried for days over what I’d done. I iced her cheek good to be sure nothing showed before Ramie got home. As soon as the imprint of my fingers left her cheek, I packed her up in the stroller and set out for Walgreen’s to fetch more bottles and formula.

“Jessamyn, what a sweet little doll,” April Lanier said when she saw us. Hollywood hadn’t yet dreamed up Chuckie. If they had, I might have said something about Maddy that I would have regretted. April’s eyes flickered over the elastic waistband of my slacks. Her right hand brushed against her flat stomach and she volleyed a small smile in my direction.

“Yes, she is,” I agreed. “Maddy’s a true joy.  Off to get diapers and some formula. You know, the drudgery of motherhood.” I tried to sound aggrieved. Which wasn’t too hard considering my left tit was still smarting to bead the band. But not smarting so much that I didn’t volley April a farewell of my own.

“I swan, April, that waist of yours is so slender. I bet my wedding ring would go ’round it with room to spare.”  I made sure she saw my eyes skimming her naked left hand. Who knows. Maybe by the time Madeleine bit me she’d also drunk in my tendency to spite as well. Maybe she’d had her fill and just couldn’t take any more.

I don’t know how much more I’m going to be able to take. Watching her slip away. It’s like being pregnant in reverse. My belly growing month by month big as the moon. Her slipping away to a skinny crescent. Feeling her poke my insides, all elbows and knees and now seeing her spindly limbs push at the sheets in jerks and fits. Me vomiting every morning; and now it’s her turn. Soon, the only place she’ll be is in my mind and my heart; same as she was before the apple left my eye for my womb.

I’m glad Ramie isn’t here to see this. He loved her so much. Blind to her spite. But then, she never showed him any. No, spite was our special sauce. What I wouldn’t give for one last caramel apple.   Just one     more     bite.                                                                                                                                                      .

Speaking at the Catholic Information Center

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking at the Catholic Information Center in Grand Rapids. Nu? What’s a girl like me doing speaking at the CIC?

A lovely man by the name of Dan Pierson found me through the wonders of the internet. We got to talking. I visited his website ecatechist.com and learned some things I never knew and should have.

He read and reviewed my book This Jewish Life, Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy on ecatechist. We kicked around ideas for a presentation and decided that my talk Eight Teachings for Pursuing Your Dream, in which I share the lessons I learned when publishing my first book, would be a good topic for a program he knew of at the Catholic Information Center.

Dan calls himself a catalyst. As he told me in Grand Rapids when we met last month, “I get great ideas for programs, put the right people together and find the finance folks who make it happen.”

Dan catalysted (totally made up word) with Irene Strom, the CIC’s Director of Programming. Irene invited me to speak at the Center’s Great Women, Great Wisdom program.

It was a great night. Irene had arranged for there to be sweets and treats before my talk. The room where we gathered was lovely: blooming pots of pale blue forget-me-nots were set off by pretty tableware in similar shades of blues and greens. Right before I went up to speak, Dan whispered with a smile, “You better make me look good, girl, OK?”

“I’ll make us both look good,” I replied.

The audience at the CIC was a great mix of men and women, some young folks and some older ones. There was a sister—Sr. Sue Tracy—who, every time I looked her way was nodding and smiling. The audience was utterly rapt. They got my humor, and commiserated with me over the trials and tribulations of getting my book to print. Their questions were wonderful.

“Where did you find your interviewees?” someone asked.  I explained that I began with friends. I also sought out interesting stories in the Jewish periodicals I subscribe to often cold-calling those I read about to see if they would be interested in sharing their story.

Another person in the audience asked why I used the Hebrew word “Shoah” when referring to the Holocaust.  I explained that the latter word was drawn from the Greek meaning to offer a burnt sacrifice. Shoah means great calamity or catastrophe. Six million Jews and four million others — disabled, homosexual, others deemed undesirable — were murdered, not sacrificed in any sense of the word. Thus, my use of the word Shoah.

Irene had asked me to share an activity, and so we created little booklets that participants could keep on hand to write down their own dreams and thoughts. I brought decorative papers for the booklet covers; Irene had the instructions and supplies all ready.

I make it a point to read a story from the book before questions. This time, Irene asked if I would read an extra story as folks were finishing up their booklets. She wanted me to read the last story in the book which is titled “She is Pure.” This story recounts the Jewish ritual of tahara, the process of washing and preparing the deceased for burial.

I’m always happy to share the stories in This Jewish Life; each is like an old friend with whom I enjoy visiting. As I began reading the story this time, however, I did so having just lost my mother in March.

Each sentence I read about how the deceased’s body was treated lovingly, softly, how it was washed and wrapped in pure white linen, brought home that this ritual had been done for my mother as well, and so recently. There was a moment during my reading when my voice broke and I had regroup. I didn’t mind; all in the room had welcomed me so warmly.

Tahara is a beautiful and meaningful ritual. I was happy to share this story. Had Irene not asked me to read She is Pure  that night, I might never have considered, in just this way, my mother’s last moments as a Jewish woman here on earth.

I’m grateful to Irene and her staff and to catalyst extraordinaire Dan Pierson for making the evening possible. May you pursue your dreams and may they all come to be.

The best words: ‘I had a mother who read to me …’

SCAN0161I was shopping for baby gifts at Barnes & Noble last week—and headed straight to the children’s section to revel in picture books. Always my favorite part of the book store; always brings out my inner child.

I walked down memory lane, reacquainting myself with the The Grouchy Ladybug, rhyming once again with Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, commiserating with Alexander about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. One glance at their covers and I slipped down the rabbit hole, back to the days when my children still fit on my lap and I could envelop them not only with my arms but with words, beautiful words.

The lucky among us as the centennial of Mother’s Day approaches this year can echo the lines of Strickland Gillilan’s poem: I had a mother who read to me …

For us, the love of reading is forever entwined with a mother’s love, with the sensation of her voice, her breath in our ear as she read, taking us to wonderful places: sailing across Paris holding tight to a bouquet of balloons, dropped into flour-dusted night kitchens, journeying to the moon and back again. For as long as I can remember my mother surrounded me with words, English and French. Some Yiddish now and then.

My mother was forever reading and I have deep, long memories of library visits. Those visits are as much a part of my childhood as grocery shopping. Both fed us.

Yousuf Karsh self portrait

Yousuf Karsh self portrait courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

As a child I loved paging through Yousuf Karsh’s Portfolio, reading his recollections of photographing Hemingway, Picasso, Churchill. I can still summon his portrait of Pablo Casals caught at just the perfect moment, Karsh wrote, when the sun filled the space where Casals was playing his cello.

Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning was on her nightstand just beneath Colette’s My Mother’s House.

It fell to my husband and me to clean out my mother’s apartment after she died. Going through her books was to follow the map of her interests. They spanned continents—history, philosophy, biography, art, religion. Martin and I paged through as many as we could. There were hundreds. She had scrawled questions in the margins, making notations as if she was talking to the author as she read—conversing with Albert Camus and Andrei Codrescu. We found New York Times articles slipped between the pages of many. Barbara Tuchman’s obituary inhabited a chapter of A Distant Mirror. I had given her that book when I worked at Knopf, Tuchman’s publisher, in the late ’70s. Mom was thrilled beyond belief when I told her I had met the eminent historian. I know I became a writer, in part, because to be her daughter was to be bathed in language, in its cadences, in the richness and fun that wordplay could bring.

One book was pristine—no notations, no articles about its author, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. From the inscription, I gathered this unread, possibly even unopened copy of Words that Hurt, Words That Heal, had been given to her, perhaps by someone whom she had verbally eviscerated. My mother could use words as weapons—a devastating characteristic. Still, I had to chuckle; how telling that she left that one on the shelf.

Martin and I took a few books to remember, sent a few on to one of my sisters and donated the rest to the library nearby. We left the clipped articles intact, enjoying the idea of readers stumbling upon her unique filing system.

Ours was a stormy relationship, my mother’s and mine, pockmarked with estrangements, studded with loving exchanges. She refused to speak to me for nearly three of the last four years of her life — know that we reconciled before the end. During those months of silence, those years of no words, I dearly missed learning what she was reading, and thinking; I missed talking shop. Books had always been our lifeline to one another.

As I left the children’s section, Robert Munsch’s Love You Forever caught my eye. How may mothers have been sucker punched by that book like I was? The book ends with the grown up son gathering his now elderly mother into his arms. He sings to her his version of the quatrain that has bound them together since his infancy: “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living, my Mommy you’ll be.” This year, I read those lines with different eyes, with a different heart. Not only because I can no longer gather mother up in my arms, but because I never could.

Yet all I have to do is open a book, or read Edgar Allen Poe’s eponymous poem, to hear my mother’s voice.

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

This is the power of books and mothers. I am grateful, so grateful, to have had a mother who read to me.

The balloons weren't red but I've never stopped wanting to be Pascal.

The balloons weren’t red but I’ve never stopped wanting to be Pascal.

My dream comes true: Following in Dear Abby’s footsteps

This letter from Ann Landers was one of the greatest thrills of my young life!

Ann Landers letter to Debra Darvicks grandmother in 1973I‘ve had a lifelong passion for advice columnists, starting with Dear Abby when I was about nine or ten. This was my after-school routine: get home at three-thirty; grab the pertinent section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; head for my room where I’d sprawl on my floor and pore over the day’s crop of troubles. Unruly children, family spats, unrequited love. Dear Abby always had an answer, soothing words of good sense that tied up each day’s angst with a bow.

Advice Columnists, from left: Dear Abby, Ann Landers and Debra Darvick.

Advice Columnists, from left: Dear Abby, Ann Landers and Debra Darvick.

HOW TWIN SISTERS CONQUERED AMERICAN JOURNALISM

The rise of American advice columns really rests on the shoulders of twin sisters: Dear Abby was born on the Fourth of July 1918 as Pauline “Popo” Esther Friedman in Sioux City, Iowa, to Russian Jewish immigrants. Her twin sister was Esther “Eppie” Pauline Friedman, better known to the world years later as Ann Landers. Both studied journalism and psychology in college.

For a while, the sisters even managed their love lives in tandem. They were married in a joint ceremony in 1939: Popo to Morton Philips, which made her real name Pauline Phillips, and Eppie to Julius Lederer, after which she signed her real name Eppie Lederer.

Popo took over an ongoing Chicago Sun Times byline, Ann Landers, in 1955—although not even trivia champs will recall the journalist who created the column (a Chicago nurse named Ruth Crowley, who wrote from 1943 until her death in 1955).

Eppie started a year later at the San Francisco Chronicle and got to choose her own pen name. She turned to the Bible, to Samuel, where it said in her English translation of scripture: “Then David said to Abigail … ‘Blessed is your advice and blessed are you.” In their prime, the Friedman sisters each had an audience of about 100 million readers, although Abby always claimed slightly more.

As they rose in fame, newspapers, magazines and even standard reference books began to list the Friedman sisters among the world’s most influential women. They also became infamously estranged from each other.

HOW MY GRANDMOTHER MET ANN LANDERS
… AND I JOINED ANN’S RANKS

One of the greatest thrills of my young life was hearing my grandmother tell the story of meeting Ann Landers! They had met at a benefit event in Birmingham, Alabama. Sometime during the evening, Eppie had a run in her hose or a tear in her skirt. Whatever the wardrobe malfunction, my grandmother had supplied the necessary fixes. Above, today, you’ve seen the letter of thanks Eppie wrote to my grandmother, whose mother’s maiden name was Lederer.

Flash forward forty-something years to this past February when the Detroit Jewish News put out a call for an advice columnist for their monthly edition of the Red Thread.  I leapt at the chance, wanting it in the worst way. I was determined to snare the gig if at all possible and honed and shaped my responses to the three test questions.

Come March I learned that I had been chosen. A childhood dream had come true—the advice column was mine.

Huzzah!!

ABBY, ANN … AND THE MAYTAG REPAIRMAN

But these days I’m feeling less like Dear Abby and more like the Maytag repairman, who famously moans: “No one calls!” Or, in my case: No one writes! Well, almost no one.

Wit, wisdom, and well-prepped advice languish in the ether, in that space where my sechel* meets my fingertips and my fingertips meet my keyboard. You can’t tell me that in a Jewish community of tens of thousands there’s no heartache? No dilemmas crying out for solutions? No tussles over who eats where and with whom for the Holidays? No eccentric relatives who spill the beans at inopportune moments? No twenty-somethings stymied over how to get the ‘rents to lighten up and stop interfering? And what’s more, heartache knows no denomination. You don’t have to be Jewish to write to Dear Debra. Troubles are universal.

So nu? What are you waiting for? Dig Dear Debra out of her doldrums. If you’re aiming at my southeast Michigan Red Thread advice column, connected with the Jewish News, then direct your dilemmas to me at DearDebra@renmedia.us. Read more of those Dear Debra columns here.

And what if you’re not Jewish? Well, my motto is: Heartache knows no denomination. So, if you want to reach me as Debra Darvick—the Read The Spirit author, columnist and roving public speaker—email me via ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com.

red thread

* common sense; reason; street smarts

Breaking through Writer’s Block: Crayola or the Loo?

Reading in the New York Times Magazine how Burt Bacharach breaks through his writer’s block got me thinking about how I dealt with this affliction some years ago. I was working on a novel at a three-week residency at the Ragdale Foundation and was positively stuck, paralyzed, idea-less. In a word, blocked. Fellow writers, I am sure you know the feeling. Blank page, paralyzed mind, inert fingers loathe to reach for pen or the keyboard. There I was gifted with a glorious block of time and nothing was flowing. Except anxiety.

Every morning I would awaken and it seemed so simple: lift my hands from my lap; move them a measly inch from the desk to my keyboard. But that one-inch distance felt like leaping across mile-high chasm. What was I going to do? Returning home with the same number of pages I arrived with was out of the question. How could I break through the paralysis?

Then I thought of what the yoga teachers always reminded us in class—yoga really begins when you take it off the mat. The postures we practice on the mat are just that—practice for the real world. So I thought, what if I drew a picture of myself leaping across that mile high one inch gap? Would drawing myself in action, conquering that impossible-to-traverse space with paper and colored pencils help me pattern it for the real world? Worth a try.

SONY DSCThe next morning before I got out of bed, brushed my teeth or performed any other morning ablutions, I grabbed my colored pencils and drawing pad and set to work. I drew the mile-high cliffs. I divided them by a one-inch gap and placed the to-be-written novel on one side of the cliff. Then I set to work sketching myself leaping across the divide. Michelangelo I wasn’t. It didn’t matter. Somehow, drawing myself achieving on paper what I hadn’t been able to manage in my waking life, worked. Drawing on the non-linear, wordless part of my brain patterned for me what I dearly wanted and needed to do. Bingo! When I was done, I got out of bed, brushed my teeth etc, had breakfast and set to work. The words began to flow like water.

That first drawing, which I ended up titling 1″ Abyss, set the pattern for the rest of my stay. I began each morning still hazy with sleep, not totally conscious, yet drawing whatever part of the novel I wanted to accomplish that day. And although the (completed) novel never made it past a few agents’ initial request for review, I learned a lot in the process: I’d rather write non-fiction than fiction; I wasn’t really interested in doing the work that it would have taken to perfect the novel; it’s OK to let go of a project, even one 400+ pages and two life-years long. But the most important thing I learned was how to trick that old writer’s block into submission. I prefer my way to Burt’s. To each his own. But maybe I should send him a set of colored pencils?

And … the Loo?

From the NY Times Magazine section on How to Break Through a Creative Block by Burt Bachrach: When I’m stuck with musicians in the studio and don’t know what’s wrong, I will break and go into a stall in the men’s room. I will sit on the toilet seat. Nobody talks to me there and I get no advice from any musician. I work it through in my head and four out of four times, I come out a winner. (As told to Spencer Bailey.)

1" Abyss

1″ Abyss

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A Second Life for My First Book

TJL fan 
I
am thrilled to share with you that my first book, This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy, has just been rereleased by a new house — Read the Spirit Books, the publishing arm of ReadtheSpirit.com. As with weddings, there is something old (original favorites), something new (wonderful additions), something borrowed (joyful images dancing across a cover beautifully designed by illustrator Rick Nease) and something blue (my name at the bottom, although that leans a bit toward teal.)

David Crumm, former Religion Editor of the Detroit Free Press and the brainchild behind ReadtheSpirit.com, has been a devoted friend and supporter of the book since he reviewed the first edition.  I am grateful that his long-intentioned goal to breathe new life into This Jewish Life, sharing it with non-Jewish readers nationwide, has now come to fruition.

For those of you unfamiliar with the book, I  interviewed Jews from across the country about their most transforming Jewish experiences, casting wide the net to include stories from all ages, both sexes, as well as a broad range of Jewish practice and non-practice. At the time the book-fairy tapped me on the shoulder and planted the idea in my head, I was raising my kids, creating a Jewish home into which I was constantly bring new traditions, customs and experiences. I thought it would be cool to read about other Jews’ positive Jewish encounters and found there was no such book around. Enter that book fairy mentioned above. At the time I had never written anything more than a 1700-word article, and quaked at the thought of what could be involved.  Book fairies, I learned, are an insistent bunch, for which I am ultimately grateful. The writing of This Jewish Life, and now its republication, continues to bring wonderful people my way, Jews and non-Jews alike eager to learn about Jewish life and customs.

This Jewish Life now contains fifty-four stories organized around what I call the twin timelines of the Jewish calendar — life cycle events and holidays. Each section begins with an explanation of the holiday or life cycle event so that readers have some context for the stories that follow. You can read excerpts on my author’s page at ReadtheSpirit.com as well as learn more about many aspects of Jewish life and culture.  The book is available in e-versions on Amazon; paperback available any day now. Send me a message via my FB Reading Room if you’d like to have, or give, an autographed copy.

Many thanks to Joe Lewis for reviewing the book so swiftly, candidly and praisefully.

Sealed Again

Between the Jewish holidays and an enormous amount of travel, time’s been scarce to non-existent to blog. A blogiday for us both?

And while I have a myriad of idea threads I am itching to weave into posts — why we cannot laminate life, the wonders of Sedona, experiencing a blast of wind whose source is somewhere in the earth’s core –what I want to note for now is my latest essay in Good Housekeeping magazine.

Just published in the November issue (page 117) and available on newsstands now, I wrote about my neighbor Shelby and what it means to have such a “first-responder” friend a mere 150 feet up the sidewalk. At a time when our relationships are more virtual than flesh, it’s a blessing to have a neighbor with whom I can share the good days and bad, borrow eggs, and return the favor with onions and a cup of tea.

So check it out. Tell the good folks at GH that you love their choice in contributors. And if you don’t yet have a “first-responder” relationship with someone on your block, or in your apartment building, maybe now’s the time to make one.