Brick by Brick

Excuse me: What!!!? Now, really, I didn't plan this juxtaposition of events in the news and at a less public forum I attended, but I sure do intend to expand on it.

We are, by now, all familiar with the Akin comment and ‘legitimate rape’.  Infuriating that people are still that stupid, but there it is.

Last week I attended a speaker’s forum, looking to get my toe in the water of professional speaking, something I have done quite a bit in the past, but have neglected lately.

As a general rule, I would like to think, I don’t keep my mouth shut when I hear something offensive or questionable. But there are exceptions.I have been trying to figure out why I didn't object when I first heard the comment or even afterwards at the Q and A. Here’s what I've come up with: it was my first time with this particular group, the atmosphere was all supportive and positive and a bit ‘rah-rah’ lets listen to the experts who’ve made a ton of money speaking, therefore they know what they’re talking about, and the atmosphere of pleasantries and success. That, and I had to be somewhere else.

The keynote was a charismatic fellow, a former Olympian, smooth, commanding, all the qualities one would want to cultivate in the speaker biz.But, but, there was one comment, almost a throw away line, that in order to be successful as a speaker one must be vulnerable, let the audience know you are one of them, invite them in. And, surprise, those who are better at being vulnerable at the podium are men. Why? Because they are not pre-occupied with whether their shoes and purse match.

I know I furrowed my brow and the side of my mouth pulled up at this, wondering if there would be some brilliant insight to follow. Alas, there was not. There was only some supportive laughter.

Vulnerable? Men are ‘better’ at being vulnerable? Excuse me, what!!!? 

What a crock of shit!! Now, I don’t curse. I am, on principle, against vulgar language. Not only because it is ‘unladylike’ but, because it is, generally, ignorant and brutish and overused.

But, once in a while, it’s the only fit.

I have a daughter, a daughter-in-law and a granddaughter. All girls, all women, must learn, at a very young age, how to protect themselves.We learn how to build walls, and we better learn early.We learn how to read a room, learn how to pick up on facial and body language. You remain innocent of these lessons at your own peril.

This is not optional. It is mandatory. We must develop this sense, this intuition, if you will, of how to read people, how to sense threat, how to step away from danger. But often, too often, that is not enough.

Why? Because we are vulnerable.

It has nothing to do with matching shoes and purses. It’s a fact of life.

Women are vulnerable all over the place: in dark parking lots, in pregnancy, in size and strength (generally), in our willingness to take the little ones of the world into our hearts and bodies. And, listen carefully, we are vulnerable because we so often want to assume the best in people, we want to trust and be empathetic and let people in.

Women have cornered the market on vulnerability, fellas. If that is the key to success in the speaking business, then sign me up.  If I trust you, I’ll let the shields down. If I don’t, then watch out for flying bricks.

PS:  I am available for speaking and readings to your groups on a range of topics.

Women and Conscience

I’ve been trying to write something else. Something to play around with to start my next book. Something different than this. But.

I’ve spent years involved, one way and another, with the pro-life movement. I was a freshman in high school when the cases were coming to the courts, the court my father was involved with, the New York State Supreme Court. I had not heard of abortion before my freshman year in high school. I was horrified when I learned that some women, some mothers, would choose to end the life of the child growing in their bodies.

I am the fourth of six children. The image of the Madonna and Child was a family portrait. The holiness of life, the holiness of each individual life, and soul, underlined and contained the essence of the gospel reinforced by the images of saints and the stained glass windows that were an essential part of my living space. The consecration of the Eucharist and the culture of sacrifice that before I was born, for generations beyond counting before I was born, was imbedded in my DNA.

From the moment I heard that word abortion, I identified with the child. Not the mother. Not the father. The child. An Innocent. Each child breathed into being by the whisper of God. It wasn’t biology, it was divinity. It was elegant. Romantic. Simple.

At that young age I knew the mechanics of conception. Man and woman; egg and sperm. And I knew that it was wrong to engage in activity that might lead to a child if you weren’t married. That had certainly been scared into me in my Irish Catholic home and community.

I also breathed in the lessons that if anything ‘happened’ to a girl, it was her fault. Her fault for being attractive, for leading boys and men on by being herself.  I learned that women were ‘the occasion of sin’ just for being female. I heard my mother say that a woman should not accuse a man of rape because it would ruin the man’s life. The man’s life. I heard my father comment on girls ‘walking by in their summer clothes’ as Mick Jagger sang, who knew what they were doing by dressing in shorts and sleeveless blouses. They knew they were driving the boys crazy and they enjoyed doing it. And the boys couldn’t help themselves for the thoughts and feelings, and thus, actions, which such vixens would inspire.

Years ago I was asked to ghost write a newspaper article for a dear friend of mine who had an abortion when she was nineteen. By then she had four children and I was pregnant with my fourth child.

I struggled, gut wrenchingly struggled, with this task. How was I to write from the perspective of someone who got up on a table in a clinic, opened her body to a stranger for the purpose of removing this ‘product of conception’?

Then, slowly, painfully, I realized just how scared she was. She was engaged but not married. Her parents would turn on her, turn away from her. She broke the rules. She disgraced the family. At the moment she got on the table fear of her parent’s disgrace and anger was bigger than any bunch of cells threatening to turn into a baby. And years later, she mourned for that child. Mourned for that child and for herself for being shamed into doing something that betrayed who she was.

And now. With men in black suits and vestments, men who will never become pregnant, or in the case of Catholic priests, never become fathers, speaking out on Capitol Hill and in state senates and radio broadcasts, speaking of ‘conscience’ when it comes to contraceptives and their availability to women. Men who have no understanding, no empathy, no compassion, for women and all the responsibilities and burdens and depths of understanding of life and its mysteries, yes, mysteries, where women dwell, still, they are making policy and belittling women, echoing, if not quoting the old teaching that women are 'the occasion of sin' and they have asked for whatever happens to them.

I’m looking for an ending phrase, sentence, or paragraph to tie this post up, but I don't have one. There is nothing neat and simple about this.  So I will have to continue next time.













Last week I did something I hadn’t done before. I removed a blog post. Why? Because it was ill conceived and poorly constructed. And, I have come the point in life, or the age, in which I think it is not only a good idea to admit my mistakes, but it is necessary. Necessary? Yes. Because if we stick to our mistakes and if our egos are too fragile to take correction, then we have just added a traffic jam to any meaningful conversation. Meaningful conversation is one of the treasures of life. I enjoy a good conversation about as much as I enjoy reading. And I enjoy reading quite a bit.

As Craig Ferguson (comic and naturalized American citizen) likes to say, in America you get a second chance. And a third chance. And if you are tenacious, as many chances as you want.

I should be more cautious, I suppose. Boy, that’s difficult when words just want to burst and spill all over the page. My oldest son Michael, who takes after his mother in this, had a comeback line that has become part of the idiom in our family: “I’m just saying, is all”. This became a regular defense when he said things that irritated his brother into a brawl. “Just saying” has started many a war, many a romance, many a confession.

And many a needed conversation.

In this age of political correctness, where great swaths of topics are off limits lest you be considered unenlightened, we need to keep the conversation going. We need to think things through and articulate what we think. If we do not, we will be silenced by those who grab the microphones and talk their way into power. Then I’d really be in trouble. The gatekeeper of my words is usually off duty or taking a nap. Words slip out. Whole heated monologues and arguments break loose from my unrestrained tongue and untethered fingers.

There are still places in this world where that quality would land me in jail or in front of a firing squad. So before our freedom of speech slips away because we stop exercising it, let’s keep the conversation going.


Memoir, continued

An archeologist recently found a shoe that dates back to 5500 B.C.  Reading about it in the NYTimes, I couldn’t help but smile at the journalist who had to wonder who wore this shoe, what kind of life did he or she lead, what was their culture like, why was this item carefully filled with grass and set within a burial cave?  All these questions from a leather shoe with broken and repaired laces. Archeological references are apt when speaking of memoir.  A flash of memory, an old photo, a conversation around the dinner table, or a Thanksgiving family gathering, and voila! memoir is being articulated.

Some of us, though,  whose natural position is either pen in hand or fingers bent over a keyboard, take those nuggets, those snapshots of memory and imagination, and need to turn them into story.  We need to take the anecdotes, the characters, the situations, the culture and the specifics of history and find a thread of meaning, a connection, an overriding narrative to weave through our lives so we can perceive more of the whole, so we can argue against theories of randomness and anarchy in our own history.

It all ties together.  Processed through our filters, our language, our various talents, we create something new with memoir.  Not quite a transcript of history, but an interpretation of history, an annotated version, if you will, of a life.

But, it comes at a price.

A friend of mine, a writer who has produced some beautiful pieces of her life in a West Virginia coal mining community, wrote in answer to my question on the price of memoir: The short answer is that writing memoir was harder than anything I've ever done as well as more fulfilling. I was totally unprepared for the emotional toll it exacted because, after all, I wrote mostly happy memories. Didn't matter. It like to have killed me - and I'm not over-dramatizing this. Well, maybe a little..

After a few essays of the memoir variety of mine were published something happened to me.  I was nearly mute in writing.  I struggled for words.  I’d sit and try to write and so little would come, just notes and thoughts and threads that I couldn’t follow.  I thought I’d try my hand at fiction, so I would have a different kind of freedom, a different set of rules of structure and form and creativity.  Again, I stalled.

I think some part of me was shutting down, telling me that I had said too much, that I need to pull back, retreat.  I became rather reclusive.

I closed down much of my life, my contacts with people.  I pulled away, pulled in. Only recently, after three years, I am emerging from this retreat and stepping back into the world, finding my voice again.

When all is said and done, hopefully, memoir can be an exercise in forgiveness, in understanding, and in love.

What is the Price of Memoir?

I have a bookshelf full of how-to-write books:  Strunk & White, Natalie Goldberg, Julia Cameron, Dorothea Brande, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera to quote Yul Brenner. Perhaps I missed it, but I don’t remember reading an important caveat:  if you write a personal essay, a memoir, and it gets published and you win a plaque and get a lovely check, there is a price to pay.

Memoirs of a life lived in Happyville don’t often get published.  There needs to be conflict, confusion, battles, secrets, overcoming obstacles that still pop up every once in a while and punch you in the proverbial nose. And of course, there needs to be characters, otherwise known as real people, otherwise known as your parents, your brothers and sisters, your friends.  That is, the first people you loved and were loved by.  Family.

It would be the unusual family who cheers you on while you expose their faults.  Most families don’t like that so much.

We are in the tell-all, dashboard confessional, tabloid era of opening our lives for strangers to read.  Some argue that writing memoir is healing, liberating, or standing up for yourself against forces that oppressed or damaged you.  Some argue that in writing about the pain of your past you will find strength in claiming your story.  You will reveal yourself as a person of depth because of your suffering and survival. Your soul has heft, and therefore, you are wise.

Or maybe you just have hubris.

I have two published pieces out in the world that are memoir.  I felt I needed to write them, I felt that the depth of feeling I had sharpened my writing, I felt I had processed enough of the past to bring a mature perspective on things.  I gambled that I might feel further exiled from my family because of my decision to write these pieces, but some other need, some other ambition, was stronger than my hesitation.

Here I would like to open this blog up to a discussion:  What is the price a writer pays for memoir?

As a for instance, to get the discussion started, I became a mute writer, stuck in a limbo of stories going nowhere.  My success in getting those pieces published should have goaded me on to write more, but, adversely, I have written less.  I feel exposed and vulnerable and more keenly aware of pain I may have caused.  I suppose you call that regret.

There are out there, not quite written on stone, but I cannot take back words once uttered.

To end with another movie quote:

So shall it be written, so shall it be done--- Yul Brenner, the imperious.