Archive | Memoir

Sailing With Impunity: A great read

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I write mostly about fiction, as my regular readers know, but once in a while I’m attracted to a non-fiction, especially memoir. Though Sailing With Impunity will especially appeal to sailors, and I am very much a  city-bred landlubber for whom sailing the Pacific in anything but a cruise ship would be unthinkable. But I loved Kon Tiki when I was young and adventurous, and this book took me back to those days.

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In this book, as in Tubob, the story of her Peace Corp years, Mary Trimble has the knack of pulling you into her life so totally that you are walking her shoes, burning in the sun, shivering in the wet, clinging to the halyards in the gales. But this is not the story of the young and reckless; I, who have never sailed anything larger than a dinghy, am in awe of the Trimbles’ preparation—from boat to cookware, food to rigging and the knowledge of the sea they display before they set out.

 Since the first stage of the trip is among the roughest, we are immediately caught up in the overwhelming force of the sea, the perseverance required to battle weather (and seasickness) that makes the simplest of tasks, such as going to the bathroom, hazardous. We echo Trimble’s exclamation, “And this was supposed to be fun?” We are as relieved as they to reach Southern waters and the sun, discard our wet gear and reflect on the importance of knowledgeable preparation.

M Escaped MomSP_T2_30-1Sun at last

 When the Trimbles reach Samoa, the story shifts from the sea to the people and cultures of the island and the yachting community anchored there for the winter. As in Tubob again, Mary conveys effectively her own joy in meeting the people and customs of other cultures and engages us as well. Again, the gift of detail brings us in close and personal. Among the “yachties” the Trimbles become the gurus and we encounter the reckless abandon with which some take off across the sea—and the terrifying effects. Over and over we are impressed with the Trimbles’ skill, both technical skill in managing their boat and its contents.

M Picking BananasSP_T2_13 B-2Mary picking bananas

 By the time they head for home, the reader has been taken from utter bliss of the South Pacific islands and warmth of the people, through a harrowing cyclone to solitary enjoyment of uninhabited wilderness. And then to the sea in all of its magnificence and wrath again as they head north for their reunion with family and friends.

 The knowledge of boat and sea, brought home by the detailing, will delight sailors—as well as bringing home the skill and preparation needed before undertaking such a voyage. But the details of equipping and handling the boat never buried the story for non-sailors like me; I was fascinated throughout, and their months with the people of the islands provided contrast—up close and personal. I feel I have shared an adventure.

 

My Mother’s Hands

 

In a previous blog (“About the Inheritors”), I talked about how the themes of my life emerge as I write, and more specifically, in The Inheritors, the very American experience of moving between cultures and classes. As I wrote about Carla, Alicia’s mother, I suddenly had a vision of my own mother standing at the kitchen sink one blistering hot Chicago day, sweat pouring down her face, her hands an angry red as she scrubbed a pot.

My mother hated her hands. Too big, she said. And knobby. To often reddened and nicked. A farmer’s hands that marked Mothers handsher as from another place. All wrong for academic teas and women’s clubs, where she’d look around at those soft white dainty hands that lay quietly in well-clad laps, tasteful rings sparkling.

It wasn’t that she had no friends. The half dozen women who gathered at our house to sew and talk all loved her. Their friendship held steady for years. Each first-born grandchild has a quilt, blocked, embroidered, and initialed by the members. Still, I never remember a time she didn’t look around at the delicate fingers, stitching away as they talked, and speak angrily about her own.

Mind you, she was a fine seamstress. She sewed everything we wore, from pajamas to winter coats to wedding dresses. They handled everything from canvas to silk. Dexterity was not the issue. It was place. She wasn’t one of them, and she was deaf to their admiration. Though she lived more than a half century among them, she remained a South Dakota preacher’s daughter set down among the academic elite. Her hands told the story.

I remember them beating egg-whites or cake batter, helping puppies to be born. I see them growing red and sore as she plucked pinfeathers and cleaned the insides of the Thanksgiving turkey. I see them glowing in the steam at the boiler, bleaching my father’s white shirts, wringing out dishrags and mops, scrubbing Chicago soot from walls and floors and windows. I have no memory of them at rest. And, of course, I remember them at the sewing machine where their size did look awkward as she threaded needles or handled lace.

Over and over, as my sister and I grew, my mother expressed her relief that our hands were not like hers. Our hands, plus our slender ankles, marked us as relieved of a grievous burden. We belonged. That, or course, didn’t save us from scrubbing walls, stitching hems, ironing shirts or beating eggs. Though we were occasionally taken to university events as academic offspring, the gothic towers a block away were, for us, simply a place to skate or ride bikes with no regard (yet) for the expectations they immortalized.

The other day a good friend pointed to my mother’s hands in a family wedding picture. They hung at her sides, fingers slightly curled, as though just finished with some task or uncomfortable with such inactivity. “You hold your hands just like that,” she remarked.

I smiled.

I grew up in another age—of automatic washing machines, dishwashers, and an auto in every drive. Chicago no longer heats the coal that coated every surface. My life has had little of the physical hardship that marked my mother’s. But her struggle to live between conflicting cultures has become a recurring theme in my stories. In The Inheritors, the mixed-race Alicia must fight the Sixties call for cultural solidarity, a call that demands she reject one culture or the other. In Nowhere Else To Go (www.judithkirscht.com/books.html), the neighborhood that has blended cultures is torn apart as the culture wars polarize the town.

Most of all, she gave me a deep sense of the strength, dignity, and integrity that came out of that struggle and out of her determination to preserve the strengths of her own background. She has shaped the heroine of many of my tales.

Mother at lake

Who’re You From?

 

Grandma, Grandpa, me, girls

One of the fascinations of writing fiction is creating characters “out of whole cloth”, then recognizing in them attitudes and dominant traits of myself, the people who shaped me, my children, or others who have left some mark. I remember creating Carla in The Inheritors and puzzling over her familiarity. Then I woke up one morning to the realization that she sprang from my mother. The children of Nowhere Else To Go live unhindered by any conscious ties to my lived experience, but in their voices I hear the attitudes of my children and their friends. Only occasionally have I consciously modeled a character on a person I know, and when I have, it often traps me in reality—as though the worlds of reality and fiction must be separate for the imagination to take flight. But there is no doubt, looking back, that those who shaped my character and attitudes come to life in my work. First and foremost, of course, my parents.

 

PIECES OF TRUTH

For my father, an avid reader and thinker, the greatest evils perpetuated by mankind are committed by mobs believing Fatherthey are empowered by God or The Greater Good. Witch burning, lynching, and the Holocaust are the most famous examples, but there are many less historic examples, such as the burning of abortion clinics or eco-terrorist acts by Greenpeace. Reports of such acts would turn him red. He’d slap his napkin on the table, rise and pace the room, waving his arms in rage. What I carry from those rages is deep aversion to mob-think—whether from the peace marchers of the Sixties to the Tea Party of current times—and to those who claim a superior knowledge of the Truth. The blindness of zealotry in Nowhere Else To Go has its roots here. His maxim: No one has a corner on the truth. Everyone has a piece of it.

Oddly enough, the first thing I did, upon becoming an adult was to defy those maxims and join the Catholic Church. Why? Partly because the man I loved was Catholic, but mostly because I found in its music and liturgy a celebration of soul—a version of truth my father denied. His damning of mobs was a part of his belief in the evil of uncontrolled passion—a very Christian belief—which expanded, for him, to an aversion to all emotion. He was a scientist and a rationalist, which outlawed subjectivity from the search for truth—a version which, in my mind, is the truth but not the whole truth. The conflict between the two versions comes to life in Carla also, making her a blend and another person in her own right. Though my aversion to claims of infallibility won out in the end, I came away from the Catholic experience with a deep sense of the importance of passion in human greatness as well as human folly, and in the beauty of music and ritual in its expression. And so, in the end, I confirmed my father’s maxim: everyone has a piece of the truth; no one has it all.

As I look back, I can see that his hatred of absolutes gave me the habit of searching out differing perspectives—collecting pieces of truth. I think this belief is admirably suited to fiction. I love walking in the characters’ lives, picking up and expressing their version of truth. It is also too easy, in fiction, to create characters in service to your own biases and then bring them down. Straw men in the lingo of the trade. John Gardner, head of the Bread Loaf writing retreat when I attended, caught me at that one. His maxim, in The Art of Fiction, that you must love your characters is now engraved on my soul. It was particularly important in the many voices of Nowhere Else To Go; if I couldn’t “get into” a character, out it went.

Such shape-shifting fires my imagination, which is not at all rational but is critical to becoming a novelist. By both following and defying him, I found my own gifts. Such ironies make writers.

MY MOTHER’S FAITH

For me, place, the subject of another blog, and character fuse in ever new ways both in life and in fiction. I see my grandfather’s church, its white clapboard steeple rising from the hot, dry prairie. Inside, the floor is bare of carpet, the Country churchaltar stripped of gilt, the walls are naked, the wood of the pews, scarred. The prairie sun blasts through the clear glass of the windows. That’s it. Raw heat on bare wood. My mother grew up sitting in that pew, listening to her father preach of man’s sins and the ever present danger of damnation. Her childhood was spent listening to the long list of hazards to the soul and recognizing the devil found lurking in every human passion, every tempting pleasure. This was the faith of her father.

She rebelled against this angry God and escaped, not into marriage but into college. Her father cut off her allowance, and she scrubbed floors in the dormitory to pay her room and board. Then she took off alone to the city—that pit of iniquity her father had warned against. She worked in the stool lab to pay her way to graduate school.

Then she met my father, became a housewife and mother, and the graduate student in biochemistry vanished, not to be heard from until years later. I was very nearly grown before I knew anything of her past, for my mother considered talking about herself self-indulgent and believed both wifehood and motherhood demanded selflessness. She was still a rebel. She dressed us in bright colors, but could not wear them herself. She said wearing red made her feel like a tart. Such is the enduring grip of our parents. She made our clothes by hand, but they were new—a vanity denied the pastor’s children. She rejoiced in our friends, a pleasure her father considered dilatory. She even allowed herself a few of her own, though she would never put work aside or dally over coffee as they did.

There was nothing in her of the punishing God of her childhood. Yet she would find beauty in the picture of the prairie church I painted above. In its simplicity, its unadorned surfaces, reflecting only the light of God. That God emanates from everything she was or did. This is my mother’s church.

Though she was the first to praise my writing, to become a writer would, for her, be an unacceptable act of self-indulgence. From that rigid code of selfless duty, I’ve traveled far. But the first novel I attempted was set in my mother’s prairie faith, known to me only through her, and I think I was searching, as she did, for that clear, uncluttered shaft of light.

Mother at lake

 

Memories of a Chicago Winter

From my damp, but otherwise cozy roost in the Northwest, I listen to the weather report from Chicago, look at the pictures of the icicle-laden remains of a burned-out buildings and remember.  This memory is for you.

A New Year’s Message, Chicago Style

New Years’ Eve, 1945, and I was invited to spend the night with a school friend I didn’t really know. But then I didn’t really know anyone at the private school I’d been sent to a few months earlier. I was twelve and not exactly a social butterfly. Neither was Ellen, which is probably why she picked me for that night no one can spend alone. I was excited all the same, and even more excited because she lived near the top of one of the fancy high-rise apartment buildings on the lake—buildings whose windows glistened in the morning sun. I’d never been inside such a building, though I was born and raised in the neighborhood behind them.

New Year’s Eve dawned bitter, raw, with a sky that barely cleared the towers. The gold handles of the crystal doors were cold and slippery. The gilt and mirrored elevator rose and rose, depositing me at a door carved in oak and cosseted in pillars. Ellen answered the bell, eying me uneasily, as though wondering why I was there. She led me, with only a glimpse of plastic-covered damask loveseats and brocade draperies, down a hall, away from the lake-facing windows, to her room.

There was no one else home. Ellen was an only child. Her parents were out, and the maid had left to spend New Year’s at some lower elevation. We got cokes from the empty white kitchen. There was no food—no popcorn, cake or other New Year’s goodies. She wasn’t allowed food in her room.

When we were back there, Ellen shut the door on the rest of the apartment. We turned on the radio and listened to the local storm warning before turning to the New York station to wait for the dropping of the crystal ball. Guy Lombardo filled the long arc of time, Guy Lombardo and the rising wind. Rain started. It didn’t strike the leeward windows of Ellen’s room, but the howl of wind between the towers drowned Lombardo’s happy chords.

Only when we opened the bedroom door to get more cokes did we hear the hammering of ice against the lakeside windows. Only then did we cross the white carpets, pass the plastic-covered couches to look out across the raging waters of Lake Michigan, blurred already by the coating of ice on the panes. The room was cold, as though the heat from the basement furnaces couldn’t rise so high. A blast of ice struck the panes, driving us back. We retreated to the bedroom.

Finally, the ball fell, and we could go to bed, each in a satin-coated twin on either side of a flounced dressing table with a crystal lamp. I lay sleepless, wondering what had landed me here, alone among absent strangers with a girl lonelier than I had ever been. I listened to the moan of the wind between the towers and the machine-gun static of the ice against the windows beyond the bedroom door.

We woke to the wind and the rattle of ice-crusted branches far below. We were still alone. Ellen’s parents were stuck somewhere by the storm, as was half the population of Chicago. We looked out the ice-glazed windows at the gray expanse of water and then down at the spray of crashing waves forming ever-growing towers of ice on the rocks. Sun flashed on crystal-coated trees that bent in the wind, sending showers of diamonds into the air.

I wanted to go home. I wouldn’t wait for her parents; I would walk home. It was only a couple of miles, and I always walked. My family had no car; few did in those war years. I was going to go, wind or no wind.

The elevator dropped me to the lobby, but the gilt and crystal doors would not open. The wind held them fast. The doorman pushed. I pushed. The icy wind struck back like the voice of God. But saying what?

 

We are with you, all of us who have shared Chicago winters. Those are memories that last a lifetime.

Becoming A Writer by Judith Kirscht, Author of The Inheritors

The Inheritors by Judith KirschtHello, my name is Judith Kirscht (better known as Judy), author of two novels so far:  THE INHERITORS, published in e-book and paper by New Libri Press this year, and  NOWHERE ELSE TO GO  published by Florida Press,  in 2011.  What follows is this writer’s long journey of becoming.

Becoming a Writer

The birth of the writer-me, much less the author, is lost in time. My mother said I wrote beautiful stories as a child, but I remember only snatches—one of an old man who lived at the top of a hill. No more. I have no idea where he came from or what happened to him; there are no hills in Chicago, where I grew up. I wrote a poem for my high school year book. I remember that. About my grandmother and great aunt who never got along. My parents were less than amused when they discovered I’d used their real names. My first lesson in writing.

But the writer was still buried deep under family expectations. Born of a professor father and housewife mother, we were raised and educated in the shadow of the University of Chicago’s Gothic towers, and it shaped our lives. My brothers were expected to aspire to its halls, my sister and I were expected to marry professors and live, as our mother did, in service to their academic careers.

Of the four of us, I was the only one to follow that path. Whether from the weight of those expectations or the heavily philosophical, analytical focus of my university education I don’t know, but it took twenty years of marriage and a therapist’s suggestion for me to ask myself what I wanted to be other than a wife and mother. The answer was waiting for the question. A writer, of course. Where had that person grown enough to demand my attention? My husband told me I’d said I wanted to be a writer years before, but I’d evidently buried that in my subconscious, too.

So I signed myself up to talk to Robert Haugh, creative writing professor at the University of Michigan, where my husband was a professor, then realized he would undoubtedly want to see something I’d written. Duh. So I sat down with a yellow pad and started to write. From my pen emerged the story of my brother and me standing transfixed as a squad of soldiers marched back and forth in front of the old football stadium a block from our apartment house. Though we had no idea what was going on, we were watching the birth of the atomic age. When I reread that story today, I realize it is also the story of my troubled relationship with the halls of academia.

Nowhere Else To Go by Judith Kirscht“You’re a writer,” he said, and so the writer emerged. Professor Haugh took me on as a student, and I began the long process of becoming. My second attempt at a novel won a Hopwood, the university’s creative writing award, and that first yellow-pad essay another, ten years later.

From writer to published author? Another long story, but ironically enough, that Hopwood novel (Nowhere Else To Go) was the first to see the light of day. With a little luck, the four others in the drawer may follow. So if you are an author-to-be, keep writing.

Next week: From Writer to Author

 

Woo Themes, Canvas - Designer, Kate L Williams

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