Onward in a Flash!

Well, well, well. Fancy seeing you here. Where the heck have you been? What am I? Chopped liver?

This is my blog talking to me, and I can’t say I blame it. Although my knee-jerk reaction is to shoot back a sharp “So what??” I won’t go there. It could get ugly and the holidays are just around the corner, so I’ll take the high road.

And rather than offering up a long list of reasons why I’ve been absent for so long (ok, excuses, excuses!) I am offering a truce: the flash blog post. Moving forward, I commit to only publishing posts made of max 500 words, but aiming for even less. That’s about half of my typical blog post length, and will feel less imposing for both you, the reader, and me.

Those of you familiar with my curiosity blog know that I have a propensity toward wordiness, but fear no more! While absent, I’v been exploring the most unlikely thing for a person of my disposition, namely to express myself more briefly. One such attempt was recently awarded by being published on the Brevity Blog – the blog of the journal by the same name publishing concise literary nonfiction. Another micro-memoir-essay of mine made it to the final round (but no cigar!) of a competition last month.

I have to tell you it is pretty exhilarating or at least rewarding to see how an essay about anything can go from a longer form of its original self, filled with what in hindsight (but only in hindsight) looks like unnecessary rambling, to a chiseled and defined version, and this new specimen feeling truer, clearer and packing more punch. I wrote about this kind of epiphany a while back in a publication called Literary Mama.

Now there’s a word to behold: concise. I now carry this little secret nudge in my pocket and fondle it daily to remind me of its value.

I think my offer of a flash blog post might be a great compromise serving both me (who wants to keep writing), the (bitchy) blog (who doesn’t want to just whither away, alone and ignored after such a robust and colorful early life), and you, the reader (who is the real hero in all of this, and whose time and attention I never take for granted).

So, from now on, I commit to a shorter more concise form or blog post, think in the tradition of flash non-fiction or flash fiction stories, or even what is called micro-essays (look it up; I had to once).

Oh, and FYI: I’m clocking off at 436 words.

See ya!

Flash

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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. Ubuntu.

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 grandma’s house 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.

A Prologue to Memoir

Working title: Tribal Matters: Diaries of The Viking Jewess

“So, are you going to stay Jewish?” the woman asks me as she had learned of my recent divorce. We stand in line at the local Starbucks and she says it just loudly enough for the man in front of us to hear. Holy crap, is it possible she thinks I divorced my identity? Holding a stainless steel coffee mug, with a Bluetooth blinking from his left ear as if he heard what I was thinking, the man turns and glances at me in a way that probably feels discreet to him, but the added attention makes me just feel more flustered. A wave of indignation mixed with frustration flush through me. I am in my late forties, and I have been Jewish since, at the age of twenty-three, I immersed in a mikvah[1] just a few weeks before I married my Jewish boyfriend in an Orthodox ceremony. Somehow, the timing and formulation of this woman’s question made a seemingly mundane instance in the Sunday morning line at the coffee shop feel like I was hurled into the epicenter of the sudden impact of all the moments –the good, the bad and the beautiful – of my Jewish life thus far, and that it was up to me to justify it all. And she wasn’t even my own conscience. Or God. She was an acquaintance whom I knew from various synagogue events and run-ins at the kosher market. Before I respond, with as much patience and compassion as I can muster, I take a deep breath. I swallow. Be kind. Don’t cry. “Sure,” I begin, “it’s not like that’s a switch you can just turn off.” I think I even manage an optimistic smile, but it was probably a smile that I couldn’t help lace with a slight air of surprise, hoping maybe my interlocutor would notice; my eyebrows raised just so. She smiled back at me the way you might see a person labor to beam sympathetically at a handicapped participant at the Special Olympics who bravely battles through an event only to win the consolation prize. As if she were thinking, “Poor soul, after everything she’s been through.”

But the truth is, the journey had been extraordinary so far, and was only just beginning.

Journey

[1] A mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath or pool consisting of part rainwater and part tap water, used for immersion in conversions, for monthly use by women after menstruation, before the Sabbath and holidays by some orthodox men, and by some to immerse new household kitchen utensils, in order to render them “kosher” and fit for use in a Jewish home. The main idea is ritual and spiritual purification.