The Stories We Tell

I believe we can’t survive without telling stories. Stories sustain us! Think about it: historically, homo sapiens have defined, known and perpetuated their families, clans, tribes and eventually nations through story telling. Let me repeat: people’s survival has traditionally depended on story telling. Stories not only feed our internal lives, but help give meaning to our external lives. And they connect us.

But no other time in human history have families and friends lived in more physically disconnected ways than we do today. We are scattered, and even when we live in the same town, Sue is over here in her little kitchen and her mom, sister or friend is over there, in her little (or huge) kitchen. We don’t meet over the fire anymore. The men don’t go hunting together anymore. They don’t even go to the market together. We pass each other in parking lots, send a tweet or a chat, Skype if we’re lucky. I’m on WhatsApp with my family and friends trying to tell them my story and the story of my sons’ lives…

The industrial and technological revolutions, prosperity and progress – all things we welcome and enjoy – are among the phenomena that have allowed us to build (sometimes grand but usually smaller) forts for ourselves, inside which we exist, generally, in isolation.

“Technology is the campfire around which we tell our stories,” Laurie Anderson has said. I can’t tell you how much time I spend around my campfire, but it’s cold and grey with only a dim light, and it doesn’t smell smokey and awesome. I do, however, feel connected when I share my stories around that campfire, although it’s a sad replacement for peeling veggies next to my loved ones sharing stories, or learning to pluck chickens or knead dough next to someone who will share insights into lives lived and memorable incidents near and far, while feathers fly or flour rises above our heads in clouds.

We may wonder less why we have what has been called a “memoir craze,” and why we are raising a generation of what Hamilton calls “robotic insta-memoirists”? I for one certainly get it.

I recently overheard a man of a certain age complain about how even in cookbooks today, there are multi-paragraph personal stories attached to or intermingled with the recipe-lists and how-to descriptions. He waxed nostalgic over “the way cookbooks used to be in the old days. Straightforward.” That’s when I had to chime in and add my humble insight as to why I think we – as a culture – are basking in this seemingly self-absorbent genre of telling stories where we desperately seek to implicate ourselves into some meaning that extends beyond the walls of our fort. In isolation our existence looses its meaning.

The Zulu philosophy Ubuntu comes to mind here, and it teaches this concept: I am because of you.

There is a growing market for personal essays, which can be seen, in effect, as attempts at letting the other know about you. We find personal essays in literary magazines, newspapers, popular magazines, trade and professional journals, thematic anthologies with writings by selected authors and book-length collections by individual authors. Often, publishers of fiction will ask their authors to publish a personal story or essay in order to boost the sales of the novel. Imagine that. Because readers care about the story of the real person behind the imagined story. Who is this creator, this imaginative being? Tell me something about you.

“This experience of being constantly exposed to other people’s life stories is matched only by the inexhaustible eagerness of people to tell their life stories—and not just on the phone,” notes Daniel Mendelsohn in “But Enough About Me” (The New Yorker, January 2010). I have a friend who survived Auschwitz and she is now in her 90s. You can’t get through to her on the phone, because she spends much of her day eagerly telling her story to family and friends who live near and far. I am sure she has repeated it many times to the same people, and they ask to hear about it again. She is passing on her family saga, in all its tragedy of destruction and glory of survival.

In his essay “The Problem With the Problem With the Memoir” (The Rumpus 2013), Stephen Elliot notes that critics of memoir and the personal essay claim that most people’s lives are not that interesting: “In other words, your life is not interesting enough for a memoir. I would dispute that,” Elliot says, “Most people’s lives are very interesting but most people don’t look at their lives in an interesting way. The unexamined life is never interesting.”

So the sharing mechanisms of the personal narrative are evolving in all their imaginable – and available to us – permutations. Phone, email, Skype, Snapchat, Instagram, Tweet, and not to mention Facebook. Anything to share our story, even in tiny snippets and fragments.

Does a “status update” really tell a story? What does it mean when Annie is “feeling anxious” or John is “feeling happy.” Do I really care, and does it matter? Well, if it’s about your friend and you have an imagination, it very well might. To you. Since you are because of the other.

Around the dinner table last week, in Maine, I sat across from an Indian woman who told me, “We used to sit around and tell stories. That’s what we did. I’d go to my aunt’s house or my grandma’s and all they did was to tell stories.” I send my aunt links to my writings, and she sends me long-form emails about her going ons. We do our best. And occasionally we get together in Norway at her summer house around lots of candles and the midnight sun, and there, to the glow and warmth of what I like to imagine is our existential campfire, we sustain if only for a night, a deeper sense of what being a family and being alive means to us.

The Fiddler on My Roof, or My Crush on Tevye

This day being Father’s Day and all, it got me thinking about some of the father figures I’ve had in my life aside from the beloved biological one. Aside from him, most of them have been Jewish, and it started with Tevye the Dairyman from the 1971 movie adaptation of Shalom Aleichem’s story, first published in 1894. Not only did I have a crush on Chaim Topol, the Israeli actor who played Tevye in the original movie, but I was deeply, completely and fatefully swept away by the desire to belong to that. I wanted to live under the same roof as his Jewish family, feel the Jewish identity the way he did, and dream the Jewish dreams that he did. I wanted Goldie, Tevye’s spirited wife, to light shabbos candles with me.

Sure, I could do without the bloody Russian pogroms, the poverty, the muddy country roads and lack of sanitation. But how about that strong, unwavering feeling of identity, wrapped up in a warm, passionate fatherly type who despite his simple and often difficult life, stuck to it; that’s what I wanted! That’s what spoke to my guts. Watching the movie again and again from the VHS tape on my second-hand TV-set, oblivious to my neighbors while cranking up the volume as Tevye belted out “Tradition!” I sang, danced and wept in the same rhythms as my crush; Judaism as impersonated by Tevye.

Tevye

To me, it was obvious he wasn’t just addressing the camera in all those close-up scenes where he inquires philosophically about life, purpose, and the various dilemmas the Jews faced in a rapidly changing world. He spoke to me. He was telling me a story that he said could also be mine. Come in, he seemed to say, I can’t promise it will be easy but I can promise there will be love, commitment, continuity and TRADITION!  

And I went in under his roof. In fact, I lept. I can still hear his deep, warm voice and want to bury myself in his arms when the going gets tough. Farm stench and all. Out of curiosity, I googled Topol the other day to see how the man had evolved from the 1970’s, and found that the now 80 year old still made my heart flutter with fond memories.

Topol

When I got married in 1988, as a brand spanking new-Jew, I had chosen, yes chosen, a violinist from the University of Hartford Music School to play “Sunrise, Sunset” as my oddly obliging yarmulke-wearing Norwegian father escorted me down the isle of the synagogue. Probably a bit overwhelmed by all the “ethnic” and religious details surrounding him, this otherwise agnostic and conservative man who had taught me all about relativity, clutched my arm tightly while whispering “you can always convert back if you don’t like it.”

Little did he know, once a Jew, always a Jew.

Of course, despite my early crush on Tevye, when it comes to men, it is my dad who played the greatest role in enabling me to imagine a future and a life as “other,” far away from him and my mom, singing different songs and celebrating different holidays. He is the one who gave me the wings to fly.

Although I have become accustomed to state my Jewish name Naomi bat Avraham ve-Sarah, Naomi, the daughter of Abraham and Sarah, there is no doubt about my parentage; for I’d say once a daughter, always a daughter. The fatherly figure of Tevye exuding commitment, warmth and love was likely just a Jewish representation of what I already knew: that first crush we girls experience with our dads, and which I got to experience again in some way once I embarked on a new journey as a Jewess.

Call me Nina Roarsdóttir, please!

If I assume an Icelandic last name, do you think I might qualify for some social benefits from the Icelandic government, like a substitute for emotionally disturbed folks to stay at a “retreat” for a few days, say a long weekend in early September around my 50th birthday? Specifically, the therapeutic “institution” I have in mind where a stay would be most effective and helpful at this challenging time of half-a-century reckoning is called the ION: a Luxury Adventure Hotel. (You didn’t see the suffix descriptor). If so, call me Nina Roarsdóttir, please!

When my sister and mom back in Norway asked me what I wished for for my upcoming milestone, they likely had in mind a nifty object with which to bestow me, one that might enhance my beauty or my home. I thought about it for a few moments; what could be better for a middle aged writer with few prospects of redundant cash reserves than a gift she would never buy herself? However, I quickly concluded that what I wished for the most, was a few precious days with them in a spot that was realistic distance-wise for all of us. I wished for a long weekend of mother-daughter-sister bonding in Iceland, a sort of midway point between our two continents and the vast, undulating ocean that has separated us for 30 years.

After summer vacation is gone and kids are back in school, tickets aren’t bad at all. A direct flight from Boston late in the evening, and a mere 5 hours later I would wake up in the land of Norse sagas, steaming hot springs and simmering volcanoes. Less jet lag too, since the time difference is “only” 4 hours and not 6 like to Oslo. And there, in our state subsidized institution for the emotionally unstable (yeah, just go with it) would await my loving mother and adorable sister, genetically linked as they are to my folly, holding champagne glasses and clad in white smocks, I mean lovely bathing suits. And there, dancing the night away under the majestic waves of the Aurora Borealis, we’d plan our explorations of the dramatic landscape that would feed our bodies and souls with experiences to last a lifetime, that is, for the next 50 years, we should be so lucky.

Now, about that subsidy. Not going to happen you say? Well then. I am known to be crafty and entrepreneurial, and I have at least three sons that I know of that could be, say, sold for cash? Ok, a bit harsh there, in my enthusiastic fervor, I admit. But there must be a way! A less grotesque way…I think I’ll write the brilliant owner and creator of ION, Sigulaug Sverisdóttir a letter and…beg. Something has to be done. This birthday will be celebrated surrounded by Iceland’s stunning landscape, and it will be glorious.

Other options include, but are not exclusive to: 1. Say screw it and get into serious debt as I listen to the little voice in my head that says, “you only live once, carpe diem, this kind of experience is what makes it all worth it” –  fiscally unsound idea compliments of my late dad (thereby my new Icelandic last name Roarsdóttir). 2. Sell an organ? My body? (yeah, you can laugh now, out loud if you must). My home? (actually, it’s already listed on AirBnB). 3. Buy a lottery ticket. 4. Buy many lottery tickets. 5. Play Bingo.

Having recently taken the lunge to pursue my passion to become a writer, I feel courageous to not give up on chasing dreams. I must find a way to make this come true, or I may erupt like the Icelandic volcano Mt. Hengill. That might get messy, and I’m not half as hot as her. I’m a tireless seeker of emotionally meaningful experiences, and I usually find them in the most mundane places: in passing on a street corner, looking into the eyes of an older person, or a child; by simply being a mother, a friend, a companion. A piece of me is moved, and the daily shifts like the Nam and Eurasian plateaus at Thingvellir in Iceland, reminding me I am alive, and that change is a good thing, a necessary thing and can be most beautiful when shared with those we love.

Mamma and schwester: here’s to Iceland in September, and to daring to dream!

When the Last Survivor Dies

The void feels profound and massive, and the fact is that now it’s on us to continue to tell the story. Samuel Steinmann, the last Jewish Norwegian survivor of Auschwitz, died on Friday, May 1st. He was 91. He was a dedicated witness who spent much of his time sharing the story of his experience with school children and adults, as well as with journalists and historians in Norway. But it wasn’t always that way. For several decades after the war he chose to keep his painful memories private. He was the only survivor in his own immediate family.

Steinmann, or “Sammy,” was 19 years old when he was deported together with 532 other Jews on the ship Donau from the Oslo pier on November 26, 1942. 302 men, 188 women and 42 children were stuffed on board.

Sammy Steinmann ung

Steinmann at 19, just before the deportation

When they arrived Auchwitz-Birkenau on December 1, the elderly, the women and the children were separated out and Steinmann recalls thinking “Well that was humane.” He did not realize they were immediately gassed to death. Steinmann was liberated by American soldiers in April of 1945, after he had survived the death march from Poland.

His number was 79231.

A total of 722 Jews were deported from Norway to the death camps. Only 34 survived. Steinmann has returned to Auschwitz several times, including with a film crew making a documentary about his life.

His granddaughter and comedienne Cecilie Steinmann Neess recalls, “It was he who taught me respect and compassion. He taught me about love and safety. He taught me how to tell time…” To imagine that a person who had been a victim to the basest and most inhumane behaviors known to man is the same person who transmitted these beautiful and life-affirming values gives us reason to have faith in the power of hope and love.

Steinmann has received many honors for his important contributions, including the King’s Service Medal, and will be buried with a State funeral on Tuesday, May 5th.

Baruch dayan ha-emet.
May his memory be for a blessing.

Sammy Steinmann

Foto: Jørn H. Moen / Dagbladet

Learning to be Frugal

I am, in my ripe age, learning to be (deep breath)…frugal. It’s about time, you might think. And I couldn’t agree with you more.

But I never have been too fond of people who rub the dollar bills together between their thumb and index finger to make sure they don’t give one too many in tips, or who don’t give their cleaning help a generous holiday bonus, should they be so lucky to have one.

On the other hand, I have been known to be a little too loose-fingered, and lately, my cash reserves reached an all-time low. Which sort of shocked me into the frugal-mind-mode. Or at least, to begin taking the idea more seriously.

Which also means I have to get rid of this divine magnet on my fridge:

Frugal II

Because if it’s a mind-set thing, then I have to live it up and rid myself of all the negative associations. Frugal CAN BE beautiful (repeat, repeat, repeat).

As an example of my new-found attitude toward spending unnecessary moolah, I’ll have you know how clever I can be: My middle son is about to graduate from high school and the requisite cap and gown (including sash and tassel) order-date was fast approaching. Instead of mindlessly sending him to school with the $50-something check, I dug out his older brother’s cap and gown from two years ago, assessed it, washed it (gotta love polyester) and zap, all he had to order was the cap and tassel for $16. It helps, of course that all three sons are between 6’4″ and 6’5″, the size of said gown.

I have recently listed my condo on AirBnB and happily hosted my first guests last weekend. The extra income will help matters a tad in this financial slump, which is likely to be a deep and wide valley, since starting this fall, two out of three will be in college (ka-ching, ka-ching). But more money will NOT mean more mindless spending: Keeping in mind the matras of a guy I once shared a life with, “To spend one dollar I have to earn two…” or even better, desired object in hand (or flashing before me on Amazon) ask myself “But do you need it?” before hitting the “Buy in One Click” button. It takes practice, but I’m motivated.

It may still be a while before I install the Groupon App, or the SavenowCT App, or, argh, the AARP Savings App (concepts I learned of only yesterday from a beautifully frugal friend).

And just for the record, buying books doesn’t count.

Fatherly Traces Left Behind

My dad’s ashes were scattered a few nautical miles off shore by a lighthouse, with some seals looking on with curious interest from a nearby rock. “Make sure you do it with the wind blowing away from you” he had joked. The idea of not being eternally stuck in one place appealed to him, and so my youngest son held the urn snugly in his lap as the open hulled wooden boat made it’s way out to the spot my dad, my sister and I had agreed on. On a day with blue skies and low winds, my dad’s fisherman friend had offered to be the captain and take us out on his traditional fishing boat with room for ten on benches lining the bulwark. We tried to remember my dad’s advice about the wind, but some of the fine dust still rose toward our nostrils and mouths when we gently shook the content of the urn toward the water’s surface. I didn’t mind the minute remnants of my dad clinging as they must have to my clothes and eye lashes while I helped my son and niece to have their turn scattering their grandfather’s remains in the Norwegian Sea.

He’d been living more or less off the grid after my parents’ divorce some twenty years earlier, and since I had moved to the U.S, I always regretted not having been able to spend more time with him. He was a fine man, and a kind man, although he had, until lung cancer got the best of him, smoked forty a day and could easily polish off a Johnny Walker before noon. Truth be told, he was a bit of a financial fuck-up, and his avid tax protesting and ever mounting tax debts landed him a stint in the mountains of Norway, in jail. The government always seemed to be able to find him for this or for that, despite his earnest attempts to go underground and not own anything they could take away from him. But his time, the government could still take, as they did in the summer of ’98.

When they divorced, my mom kept the apartment and the boat had been sold long time ago. The only reason he could keep his Citroen station wagon was because my mother agreed to have it registered in her name. The day he left his bourgeois life, only his clothes were stuffed into a huge duffle bag from his younger days in the army, and we helped him carry a few extra belongings in a big, black plastic garbage bag. Among them was a framed black and white photo of him as a little boy in the arms of his dad, just before the War. He later lost the content of this bag once he left it in someone’s storage space, when he was in-between having a place to live.

My dad’s story deserves to be told because he was an ordinary man who made some extraordinary choices, although I imagine he didn’t see them as optional. It was when he pulled out a Walther P38 handgun from a small cooler bag he used to carry around and waved it at some unfriendly young ruffians in an Oslo traffic jam that he acquired the nickname of Cowboy Gramps. (I was told the gun had belonged to a German officer during World War II and my dad’s friend’s father was among the Norwegian Army Officers who arrested the German and confiscated the gun when the war and the German occupation of Norway ended in 1945).  My dad was arrested on charges of carrying an unregistered weapon, and my guess is he wasn’t completely sober either.

Otherwise my dad was called Goggen among his friends, short for George, which was his middle name, his first being Roar, a traditional Norwegian name.

A bootlegger, tax-protester and everybody’s token outsider, he was an autodidact and passionate reader who was always interested in the Other’s story and would look you in the eyes and give a great handshake. He taught me how to press a shirt and how to make Béchamel, that creamy white herb infused sauce, and how to tie a scaffold knot and a cow hitch. He was equal parts the worst and the best for a role model, but most of all he was just a man who adored his two daughters and not much else. His uncompromising love for us is about the only trace he left, and some great friendships. That and a few good stories is by far the best anyone could wish for.

Today would have been his 80th birthday.

Happy Fun Season! Surprises on Tax Day

It’s that time of year again, and I just got lucky. Picking up my tax return I learned that contrary to the serious checks I expected to have to have postmarked today, my payment is less. Much less. Well then. How’s that for a belated Hanukkah gift? At least it’s an event shrouded in a cloud akin to a miracle for me. I love miracles. And my tax guy.

I’m a self diagnosed “tax trauma survivor, ” since my dad was a notorious tax evader. Honestly, he was more of a tax protester, and even did some time in the mountains of Norway for “white collar crime” in a place we came to call his summer camp. He took it in stride as the service at the open-door facility was excellent, his laundry was done and folded, they asked he if wanted fish or pasta for dinner and he was sent home on leave every third weekend with spending money in his pocket. Really.

But my mom didn’t take that brief episode of incarceration with the same lightheartedness. Who can blame her? For her it was the end of the rope of a lifelong accumulation of poor financial decisions on my dad’s part. I actually think he had some kind of traumatic childhood experience that translated into his visceral revulsion of all things “authority,” like the heavily taxing socialist state of post WWII Norway or the uniform clad Norwegian parking guards that take their job a wee bit too seriously issuing tickets when you are parked one meter too close to the corner. His sort of “PTSD,” I believe, may have had its roots in his childhood memory of the Nazis who had occupied Norway. For, when he was a little boy his father was imprisoned by the Germans (or the collaborating Norwegian police) for trafficking documents for the resistance in his taxi. When my dad, a mere 7 year old boy, made the trek with his mom to the prison camp to see him, they were denied entry. I imagine the guard wore a uniform. I imagine he was Norwegian, working for the government. You don’t need to be Freud to connect the dots here.

My father’s childhood trauma and adult behavior subsequently morphed into a sever form of numbers dyslexia in his offspring: me. When I look at numbers, budgets, or bills, things get blurry and I hide the piece of paper in a growing pile on my kitchen counter, thinking my need to attend to it will be go away. The only numbers I seem to be able to deal with only go as high as the overdue fines from the library, and even those I count in Norwegian, like a kid in nursery school counting the ducklings on the cardboard book page. They don’t go much higher than 10. Yes, it’s that serious.

I’m guessing my subconscious reason for having fallen for a man with a compulsive tendency of making sure every dollar and cent were accounted for is obvious by now.

My own little family her in the USA dubbed April 15th the beginning of Fun Season, because my ex-husband is an accountant and the arrival of this much anticipated date meant a new kind of life for us. The kids and I would hang a huge home made sign on our fence announcing “Happy Fun Season, Pappa!” as he would roll in at half mast after the post office had closed, the balloons tied to the fence at the beginning of our driveway bouncing, like the children, with anticipation in the promising April air.

Like my dad, when I fall into some extra cash I immediately find fun ways to spend it. Why add them to the retirement fund when life is happening here and now, he would have said. So after I dutifully cut my modest tax payment checks to the IRS and wondered if I should hug my tax guy, but seeing as he was unavailable for tactile customer appreciation, I instead treated myself to some sushi and a cold beer, made a small donation to this creative and brave handicapped kid raising money on GoFundMe, and then treated my middle son to a day in Boston with his buddies.

Happy Fun Season everybody!

It's time to pay tax