Monthly Archives: October 2014

Marigolds, skulls, and altars to departed dogs

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Carol Merchasin, author of How It Goes in Mexico, reflects on how she came to celebrate the Day of the Dead.

I remember when my housekeeper suggested that I might want to create an altar to celebrate death.
“Death?” I thought. “What’s to celebrate?” But since I was living in Mexico where Day of the Dead is a national tradition, I went with the flow. After all, what harm could come from participating in what I saw as a “quaint” ritual of my adopted country?
First I created an altar filled with marigolds. There are so many marigolds used for Day of the Dead that I was convinced there must be a Hallmark-like conspiracy of marigold farmers driving this so-called death celebration.
“Now, you must add alcohol and food and things that the spirits of the dead will be happy to see when they return,” my housekeeper advised. So I added photos, alcohol and candles, worried about the likely danger of an explosion and placed food and objects into the tableau. I prepared an altar for the animals now gone: Chloe and the many cats, Max, the dog.
It was colorful and unique, but I cried every time I passed to see so much death right there in front of me. After a week, I packed the mementos and photos away in a small blue cardboard box and placed it on a high closet shelf in the unlikely event I would want to bring such sadness down on myself again.
The next year, I took down the blue box once more. I noticed that the communal marking of death, so wonderfully Mexican, made me less sad, or maybe sad but also joyful. I went about remembering my absent loved ones, not in the privacy of my own sorrow, but in the company of a whole community, an entire nation. Just the physical ritual of making the altar—choosing the photos, thinking about what mementos to use, going to the market for flowers and tiny sugar animals brought me a flood of unexpected pleasure and solace.
That year the blue box got a label: Celebrating Day of the Dead.
Every year now, it seems we add someone new to our altar, a sharp remembrance of the passage of time and our own mortality. This year, we add Robert’s mother, Dorothy. We welcome her presence there—for at 102 years of age, hers was a death worth celebrating. We add Penny and Big Brown, dogs who have passed into the Heaven where only such loyal friends can go.
I still cry. But the humor of the display takes over as I put out spaghetti and whiskey for my father, catnip for the cats, a book on how to train a dog for dogs who were always so poorly trained and I smile. Es la vida, I say. That is life.
Day of the Dead may be “quaint” to our US eyes, but its sophistication is in putting death into its rightful place as part of la vida. The truth is inescapable. As the years march by, we will surely need yet another blue box to hold our celebration.

Lee Montgomery: New Englanders Don’t Write Blogs (and 20 other things you never knew about the Northeast)

The community manager at Shebooks suggested that I write a blog post to promote my new e-book titled, New Englanders. She recommended, “10 ways to spot a New Englander,” or something in that vein. Being that I am a New Englander I told this woman I could never write a blog about what it was or wasn’t to be a New Englander.

New Englanders don’t write blogs.

Apparently, there are a lot of people out there who feel they can write such baloney: ten things about New England or how to spot a New Englander. All to say there are a lot wannabe New Englanders. Wannabe New Englanders are not True New Englanders. They are the faux New New Englanders. Much has been lost to faux New England. There are many imposters, many interlopers…my mother’s family were such people, from Michigan.

So let me set the record straight:

True New Englanders don’t write blogs.

Computer cat doesn't like blogs

They also don’t write promotional materials of any kind — either to promote themselves, their work, or anything or anyone else. Any New Englander knows promoting anything is nonsense, too high falutin’ tooting one’s horn. If a New Englander wanted to write promotional materials, they wouldn’t write fiction about depressed New Englanders. They would work in PR for a social media company and move to Brooklyn.

A True New Englander needs to have at least one side of the family living in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont, or Maine for the last 400 years. (No Connecticut does not count. Too close to New York ways. They’ve been trying to wiggle their way into New England Club Status for centuries. )

A True New Englander knows everyone secretly wants to be a New Englander. Everyone but a true New Englander, in fact. (The last place a New Englander wants to be is New England.)

New Englanders don’t go to prep schools. New Englanders do not wear those fat rimmed cordoroys, khakis, or Izod shirts. A true New Englander would not caught dead in penny loafers.

Prep schools and preppies have tried time again to steal the mantle of New England chic all to no avail. They may be situated in New England and adorn the trappings of a New Englander but they are not New England.

New Englanders do not worship Dunkin Doughnuts; they have never even seen a Dunkin Doughnuts. (That’s Connecticut again.)

New Englanders do not go on family ski vacations. New Englanders don’t downhill ski; they cross country or in extreme cases snow shoe, and, then, only if they have to e.g., if they are snowed in and out of gin.

New Englanders do not wear topsiders. They wear moccasins or blue boat shoes. New Englanders don’t wear pink and green. They do not wear whale belts or Lily Pulitzers. (That’s Long Island). They do not carry whale bone purses or Nantucket baskets with whale bone clips. New England women either go without (wallet in pocket type of folk), make their own, or carry ugly black or brown leather purses their mothers bought at Jordan Marsh or Filene’s Basement in the forties and handed down.

New Englanders do not drive snowmobiles.

They drive tractors or American cars. They don’t wear bean boots either. They wear rubbers. New Englanders do carry Bean sail bags, though, have for as long as they can remember Bean came to town.

True New Englanders are not impressed by the interlopers at Harvard either. Nor those drab and boring brown-wearing Bostonians. Don’t even get a New Englander started on the Boston Brahmin or those of the Cambridge ilk.

True New Englanders do not grow weary by the streets of Boston and their rotaries laid out by wandering cows. True New Englanders wouldn’t be caught dead in Boston.

Nor in a church.

True New Englanders don’t go to church except occasionally maybe to sing. They may believe in god but they do not worship him. Like the good Transcendalists, they worship the earth.

A New Englander does not run in marathons, saving that for Boston (and Connecticut). They do not run, period. They don’t play tennis, golf or other sports with balls. They do not hunt horses. They drink to excess often, especially on Sunday when the Blue Laws make it illegal. (More fun.)

New Englanders are sailors, when they are not busy building useful things – doohickies for the garden, compost bins, painting boats.

New Englanders don’t like lobster or clam chowder, leave those for the newbie’s, baked bean lovers, and tourists. They eat trout for breakfast and a lot of turnips. They love kohlrabi and rhubarb.

They do not admire the foliage. If it’s foliage time that means it’s time to pick up leaves. And if it is time to pick up leaves, snow is surely to follow.

True Englanders secretly love Northeasters, the bigger the better, but only before and during storm. After storm they want to slit their wrists.

True New Englanders know Indian staircases, and under ground tunnels to run from being attacked by Native Americans e.g., Indians. They know about cotton battens in the crème puffs, plum pudding you slice with a thread. They know how to grow pumpkins, burn leaves without burning down the town.

True New Englanders also know the crap they teach in school about the pilgrims and the American Revolution, including Plymouth Rock, and the whack job Paul Revere, are not the whole story. Some true New Englanders were loyal to the King, and no they were not tarred and feathered because they were safely off in Canada until everyone could settle down.

New Englanders farm, fish, and garden, putter around the old homestead.

Cat screws in a lightbulb

They reshingle barns. They mend fences. Build stone walls. Only a few do manufacturing and high tech on Route 128; something other New Englanders don’t understand.

New Englanders know to make hay when the sun shines, don’t make much ado about anything, can’t get there or anywhere from here.

Truth is, it’s harder and harder to find true New Englanders in New England. After four hundred years of winters, true New Englanders worth their salt have all moved to California.

Sign buried in snow

 

Lee Montgomery is an award-winning writer, read her latest novella, New Englanders, only from Shebooks.

NewEnglanders

Shebooks/Latina essay contest: Gringa No More, by Lourdes Rosario

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In her essay, Lourdes Rosario writes about how discovering Latino literature helped her feel proud of her roots as a Latina.

“I excelled in reading and writing and read many of our great authors, such as Jose Luis Borges and Mario Vargas Llosa, in the original. But I couldn’t roll my “r”s without feeling a little fake. My inability to speak Spanish with what I thought of as a genuine accent often made me feel as if I was in imposter in my own culture.”

Read it in Latina.

Shebooks/Latina essay contest: Yo Soy Latina, by Sonia Lopez

Sonia Lopez, a runner-up in our Shebooks/Latina essay contest, writes about straddling the identities of American Girl and Mexican Daughter

“I began my life barefoot, my body aching the ageless ache of knowing I had a lot against me. Latina women intimately learn the untruths that name and maim them, that judge, categorize, and criticize them into the size of their heads and breasts, that carve out their hips and dig out their depth.”

Read it in Latina.

Shebooks/Latina essay contest: Themselves on the Page, by Jessica Garcia

In this essay by Shebooks/Latina contest runner-up Jessica Garcia, a young woman who never considered herself Latina explores her Mexican roots.

“Spanish changed from ‘foreign language’ to language of my ancestors, one that I sought to learn not only because it sounded nice, but because it was a part of my identity.”

Read more in Latina.

 

Shebooks/Latina essay contest: That Which Is Shared, by Gabriela Yareli

 

In this essay about working with immigrants, Gabriele Yareli, a runner-up in our Latina/Shebooks contest, reflects on the struggles of other Latinas who are new immigrants.

“Though I am Puerto Rican and a U.S. citizen, all of my life, through church and family friends, I was surrounded by Latinos who had gone through a lot to be in this country; some who still lived in fear.”

Read the rest in Latina.

Michele Weldon on privacy, memoir, and finding time to write

 

 

Michele Weldon on privacy, memoir, and finding time to write

Michele Weldon

 

Memoir is such a crowded genre these days. What makes your book stand out?

MW: In order for a solid piece of nonfiction to resonate it has to move far beyond the self-indulgent navel-gazing of some memoirs that capitalize on celebrity or calamity. That is why I am so proud to be included in the stable of great writers I respect at SheBooks. The goal is to have masterful writing that bears broader meaning for the writer as well as for readers—moving beyond a simple regurgitation of events into territory that is universal and compelling.

How do your sons react to you writing about them in such a public way?

The quick answer is they are used to it. I have been a newspaper and magazine columnist since before they were born. So for all of their lives—and they are 25,23 and 20– I have been writing about my life and theirs as well. But I have some deliberate rules and boundaries. I write about my reactions, not theirs and I do not assign them any emotions or feelings. I am not a mind reader. I will ask them what they think about something and write that. I do not write anything that will embarrass or hurt them or that they want to keep private. I do feel that this piece of their lives is a tender minefield—the abandonment of their father. I asked each his permission, and each one of them has read this ebook, as well as the larger work. I write about my family, my emotions and what I know. They each have different reactions to what I write and how transparent I am. Still, there are things I will never write about that are to kept private forever. It is my story, not theirs.

Why is this book relevant to the conversation about parenting today?

I am weary of the narrative of mother as a crazy, harried buffoon. Work-life is presented as this perilous trap where you risk falling off the edge at every moment. Yes, it is hard, but so is putting blacktop on the driveway. I feel that an honest, uplifting approach to the precarious nature of raising good humans is edifying. I also feel that presenting a type of woman who can handle what is thrown in her path with humility and a call for help, is encouraging to those who handle much deeper crises. It is possible to do what you dream and also successfully parent, laughing and crying when the need presents itself.

When do you find the time to write?

I do a lot of different things professionally. I work full time, travel to lead seminars and deliver keynotes, but writing is always at the core. If I don’t write for a day or two—whether that is an essay or for a larger work like a book–I honestly don’t feel well. It feels as if my head is too big for my body, or that I am out of register. Writing is my cure. Because I have so many demands and responsibilities, I block out chunks of time—at least 3-4 hours—to write. It could be early morning, it could be late at night, or even midday. And I look forward to that like a dip in a pool on a hot day or a glass of pinot grigio with ice with a marvelous friend. It is my reward as well as my sustenance and a way to pay the mortgage.

Do you have a community of support for your writing?

I have been in a writing group of amazing authors for 13 years. Last count, between the six of us we had published or written in that time more than 28 books. Never mind that one of my writing group friends herself has published 19. We meet every week, Thursdays, from 6:30-9 at the local library. We each aim to bring 10 pages of double spaced writing with copies for everyone. We draw numbers, then each writer reads her work aloud, then we discuss it, line by line if we need to. We are never mean. We applaud, encourage and suggest. It is many times the absolute best part of my week. I love these women and how talented and creative they are. For about 8 years we met at each other’s houses, but then it got to be about the wine and the food and we would go long into the night, wrapping up after 10 or near 11. We get thrown out of the library at 9, so we have to set a timer for each person. We are starting to meet before group for dinner now. So I guess we are back to our old ways.

If you could make a bumper sticker about this book, what would it say?

Do your best. You will be OK.