Category Archives: Authors Extras

A Look at “Almost Her”

What’s it like to be the identical twin of a celebrity? Here’s an excerpt from Caroline Paul’s Almost Her. Buy it here.

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January 1966 – first look at their baby brother Jonathan.

Initially, Alexandra and I exhibited all the signs of being identical. We had our own language, arunic babbling that our parents heard from the next room and which stopped when they entered. We called each other by my name, Caroline, supposedly because I could not pronounce Alexandra. We looked very much alike. But we also fought (Alexandra could not be seated behind me in the stroller because she pulled my hair, and in the crib she took to sitting on me when she felt like it.) Early on, Alexandra was the more precocious one, I more shy. Baby photos are easily deciphered because her mouth was always open, mid-babble or laugh, while I stared at her or at the camera like a marmot caught in the beam of a flashlight, baffled and resigned. And so it was pre-ordained: Alexandra had the makings of an actress, and I was already comfortable with the fleeting attention due a fake celebrity.

 

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June 1999- at a gay rights parade.

Here are the questions I am most often asked:
Are you and your twin close? Yes.
Do you look alike? Sort of.
Do you have ESP powers? Not sure.
Are there any strange coincidences? I rescue people in real life while Alexandra rescues people
on television. That’s pretty strange.
Have you ever fallen in love with the same person? I’m gay, she’s straight, so no.

 

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1992- Caroline and Alexandra in their work clothes, LA beach.

But there was always a moment, in the time between the initial recognition and my demurral,
that I felt famous. I heard the wonder in the voice of the person before me, saw the awe in their eyes, was awash with their adulation and hope. Did I like it? Of course! I was living, if only
momentarily, the stuff of the American Dream. I was given free drinks at bars (again, no one inquired), better service at restaurants, solicitous attention in stores. This continued to amaze me – celebrities are the last to need anything extra. And yet I accepted it all. It was so damn fun (meanwhile, I wait for the day when I hear a waiter say to someone at the back table, “You’re a regular joe? A person of no repute? By golly, you deserve a comped lemon meringue pie.”) I was hugged by Dan Akroyd. I was kissed by Ray Liotta (when he realized I was not Alexandra, he stammered, stuttered, apologized, and fled.) After a trip to New York City I returned home to find photos of me posted on a celebrity site. I had had no idea that I was being followed by a paparazzi. There I was reading on a bench. There I was walking along the sidewalk. There I was making a funny face. These mundane movements, suddenly endowed with sparkling import!
It was amusing.
It was creepy.

 

Marion Winik: “I’m bad at resisting temptation of any kind but fortunately I don’t like sweets.” | Q&A

MarionWinik_webCUMeet popular essayist and former NPR commentator Marion Winik, author of the Shebooks August in Paris and Guesswork. In this fun get-to-know-you session Winik shows off her love of language, her quirky sense of humor…and a secret talent, to boot.

Do you currently have a job other than writing? What’s the most interesting day job you’ve had?

I teach at the University of Baltimore in the MFA program; I’ve been teaching writing to undergraduates and graduates for the last 15 years. In the ’80s and ’90s, I wrote technical manuals for a software company, and that job, though it may not sound interesting to everyone, was fun and challenging. I had the chance to work with a great group of people at the beginning of the tech boom—I had the very first Macintosh on my desk the day it came out.

Tech writing taught me the discipline I needed to be a writer. Before that, I really thought the whole career involved scribbling brilliant insights on napkins in bars at 3 a.m. As you can imagine, that only goes so far. To write 400-page manuals, you put your ass in the chair early and keep it there late and you type all day long and you certainly don’t bother waiting for inspiration. I’m not saying my work ethic is anything close to that now, but I definitely learned the basic procedures involved in producing a literary oeuvre comprising more than a few phrases.

I also worked for Stanley Kaplan test prep company for many years—I helped write and teach the SAT and LSAT courses at the New York headquarters and recorded tapes that were used in the centers around the country, and eventually I taught for them in Austin and New Orleans, too. Stanley Kaplan and his wife, Rita, were very much on the scene in those days; he was a character. He reminded me of my father, who was always giving you math problems and brainteasers and teaching you shortcuts for multiplying four-digit numbers and such.

What’s an odd fact about you that not many people know?

I am an extreme Jewish mother, very doting and nurturing, cooking all the time, stuffing everyone’s faces, waiting on people hand and foot. People don’t expect me to be domestic.

Also, I am apparently much shorter than people expect me to be—I’m not sure why this is. I’m five-foot-three or five-three-and-a-half so it’s not like I’m teeny-weeny but I guess I somehow give the impression in my writing of being a towering giant. This is an especially common comment from people who used to listen to me on NPR or have heard on me on the radio now. Must be my big, deep voice.

Another funny thing is that people claim I often look totally different than I looked some other time they saw me and this can cause hilarious situations. The other night I had a guest speaker in my class; I invited her based on a great performance she did at my daughter’s elementary school. She kept asking me about this other storyteller we had seen. I didn’t know what she was talking about; finally she said, you know, the middle-aged white woman who told stories about dating. What? “Hey,” I told her, “that was me.” She was incredulous. “Were you wearing a hat?” No…maybe a little eyeliner. Apparently for me that’s a complete disguise.

What is your favorite word right now?

 This morning I got my A.Word.A.Day email—I love these emails; they come every weekday from Wordsmith.org—and learned that the word spoof comes from a card game invented by a comedian in the 1880s. I love that! I am crazy about words and have many favorites. Once I was quite excited about using prelapsarian in an essay. I love to read lists of patois and slang: Jamaican, Yiddish, the Urban Dictionary, anything.

What or who inspires you most?

My children. Having kids saved my life and keeps me going. I am very close with all of them—Hayes, 26, Vince, 23, and Jane, 13.  Motherhood is a never-ending inspiration for writing, because everything is always changing, not just when your kids are small but at every phase of life.

How do you think your racial/ethnic/religious identity has influenced your writing?

I think there is an American-Jewish voice in writing, a slant on things and a type of humor, that might be the strongest real Jewish influence on me of any kind, since I was raised by agnostics who passed on only the worship of bagels and smoked fish. Discovering the work of Philip Roth and Grace Paley meant a lot to me.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I have a column at the website BaltimoreFishbowl.com that comes out every three weeks and I write book reviews for Newsday and Kirkus Reviews. I don’t have a big book project going or anything but if one comes to me, I’ll be thrilled.

Aside from writing, do you have any other secret talents?

Let me start with some things I am not so good at. I am not good at walking and I fall down a lot, so as you can imagine I also suck at sports. I’m not so great at driving, either. I never remember to moisturize and am not skilled at putting on makeup. I’m bad at resisting temptation of any kind but fortunately I don’t like sweets. I don’t have much patience. I am not much of a gardener.
On the plus side, I can do a nice, long headstand.

Do you have a thought that you’d like to end with?

From William Saroyan: The most solid advice…for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep, really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell, and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.

Want smart and funny? Download Guesswork, Marion Winik’s irresistible collection of essays, only from Shebooks!

Originally published May 2014

Six Things To Know About Travel With Children

AugustinParisAugust in Paris sounds like the title of a delightful, romantic movie, but for Marion Winik, Paris wasn’t delightful or romantic. What it was, was stressful and chaotic because when you’re traveling with your entire family that’s usually the way things go for mom.

Thinking of heading out on your own family adventure? Marion has six things you should know before you go.

  1. The term “family travel” is an oxymoron.

What you see if you visit Chichen Itza with your children in tow is the same thing you see in Ocho Rios or Epcot Center: the exotic crushed relentlessly under the heel of the mundane.

  1. Think carefully before including your mother-in-law.

Though I have neither superpowers nor a signature form-fitting costume, I do have something in common with comic book heroes. I have a historic nemesis. Mine is a seventy-two-year-old Italian lady from Philadelphia.

  1. You need not accompany the children on every slide in the waterpark.

Jane spent the next three days imitating my pitiful scream as I went over the edge — less a woo-hoo! than the sort of plea for mercy once heard at the Spanish Inquisition.

  1. The Mayans cannot help you.

Marion Winik FamilyDay Six found me in a snit. I’d broken a fifty-five year ban on organized travel to travel to Peru with my daughter’s seventh grade class and I’d begun to remember why I might not like such a trip. I also remembered that I was not all that interested in ruins or the brutish ancient civilizations behind them.

  1. As your children will tell you, everything that goes wrong is your fault.

There is a reason these things happen to me and not other people, people who lock their doors and use fanny packs when abroad and don’t take their passports out of the hotel. My son Vince has kindly called it an “aura of vulnerability.”

  1. When you finally get away without them you are at a total loss.

I remember standing in the grocery store in Georgia befuddled. What did I like to eat? I had no idea. I was pretty sure it wasn’t Hot Pockets or sliced orange cheese.

One last thing before you go; add Marion’s collection of family travel essays, ‘August in Paris’ to your phone or tablet. Then, when you’re stuck in a two-hour line for that roller coaster that flips you upside down, you’ll have something to read. Misery does love company after all.

Snapshots from a Tangier Love Story

Images from Author Carol Ardman and excerpts from her book Tangier Love Story.

New York 1972 Carol

Carol in New York, 1972

An unexpected meeting. . .

Sitting across from me, in the quiet shade of a leafy café on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Paul Bowles ordered two mint teas. He asked me how I liked Tangier. Honeybees hummed around the rims of our glasses and I felt shy as I told him how I wandered for hours, enjoyed getting lost, how much I liked the street life here, the architecture, the food and the music. This obviously pleased him. He seemed to want to know all about me, and he was so easy to talk to, so receptive, so casual and sympathetic I found myself telling him. I had been married and divorced, I said, trying not to let on how depressed I still felt, though the relationship had ended the winter before. Incredibly, he had heard of my ex-husband, the composer Steve Reich, though he had only recently become well known. “A CW—composer’s wife; that’s what Janie has always called herself,” Paul said, making the designation sound oppressed, ironic, and comic all at once. Then he explained he wrote music as well as words.

Traveling like a native. . .

Carol on Camel

Carol on a camel holding Jane Bowles’ typewriter

We drove south, staying a couple of days in the intense, medieval city of Fez, on to Rabat, the capital of Morocco, Casablanca with its wide tree-lined boulevards, staying in nice hotels for a song. We drove to Marrakech, where we saw scribes, note-carrying doves, and a cigarette- smoking donkey in the Jemaa el Fnaa, and down, across moon mountains, where for a whole day we saw no animal or human, except for a man on a camel far away on the top of a cliff. When we had a flat tire we knew Abdulouhaid had to fix it quickly, because we had no food or water and could die before help came.

The writer’s muse. . . 

Carol and Paul in Atlanta, 1994

Carol and Paul in Atlanta, 1994

Paul set up his typewriter and wrote in the morning on the patio of a little hotel near the desert village of Taroudant. I remember being elated by the sights of the Sahara and the mere thought of Paul there tapping out words. Feeling I was taking Jane’s spirit with me, I strolled down the hill to the country market, noisy with camels and people selling silver jewelry and cloth. A few days later in an oasis out of the Arabian Nights, white-robed men reputed to be Sharifs—descendants of Mohammed —welcomed us to their village, its green fields bordered by babbling brooks and shaded by date palms.

Paul was changing my life, but I could trust him to carefully see to my well-being. I felt so undeserving of attention and praise, it was a long time before I considered the possibility that I made Paul as happy as he made me.

Tangier Love Story is available for download at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

  Enter to win a collection of Shebooks in our Life, Love and Risotto Giveaway.

 

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Rosemarie Robotham: “The greatest risk every writer takes is to tell the truth”

Rosemarie Robotham, author of the Shebook memoir Jamaica Dreams—a story about first love and a forgotten youth in tumultuous 1970s Jamaica—shares the ups and downs of her writing process.

JamaicaDreamsWhat prompted you to write Jamaica Dreams?

I wrote most of Jamaica Dreams right after I got back from my most recent trip to Jamaica in January. My mother was very frail, my uncle had died, and all the family had gathered for his memorial service. I had lived abroad in New York City for more than 30 years, and there were cousins and old school friends whom I had not seen since leaving home at 18 to attend college. It was an extraordinary gift to discover that the bonds you make in a shared childhood can outlast decades of no contact. I cannot even begin to express how grateful I am for that. But to meet so many people from one’s past after years of absence is very much like confronting your former self. Suddenly, the hidden girl I was before leaving home was once again visible to me. Being in that place, with those particular people, unlocked something in me, a sense of who I used to be. It felt as if a lost piece of me had been rediscovered and could finally be reclaimed.

Are there any themes, characters or imagery that you find recurring in your writing? What are they and what is their origin?

The last house I lived in before leaving Kingston to attend Barnard College in New York City has definitely become a central character in my own personal narrative. That house on Paddington Terrace sheltered everything, the sprawl and tumble of my family, the secret teenage infatuations, the cousins and friends who moved in with us for months at a time (so that the neighbors across the street at first thought we were a boardinghouse), the barefoot walks with teenage friends up and down the baking asphalt, the twilight conversations just outside the front gates, spun out as long as we could before our parents finally called us in; all of it settled in me like so many shimmering fragments that have found, in this story, a permanent home.

When did you first decide you were a writer?

robotham-photo-300x400I didn’t publicly own the title until I got my first book published in the mid-’90s, but I certainly knew from the time I was a little girl hiding in my room writing stories that it was the activity that most excited and filled me. Even so, I actually started out in college as a studio art major. But I was taking writing classes as well, and they were more thrilling than anything else I was doing. So I switched gears and became an English major with a writing concentration. That was when I started secretly to think of myself as a writer.

Do you have an imaginary reader you write for? Who is it?

The quick answer is not really, because I could not begin to write if I let myself think about how a reader might respond to what I am struggling to express. I pretend, while I am writing, that no one will ever read these words; it is the only way I can be completely honest and fearless in the writing. But afterward, when I am done, at some point I will read what I have written trying to imagine my mother’s response to it. In that sense, she is my imaginary reader. I don’t change what I’ve written if I imagine a viscerally negative response from her; I just want to know I have to brace for it. But you know, my mother has turned out to be my most generous reader. She is 92 now, and somehow she has always found a way to expand her understanding of her only daughter to accommodate whatever I might write. And I always felt if my mother could deal with it, then it didn’t matter who could not.

What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?

The greatest risk every writer takes is to tell the truth, especially the deepest, most difficult emotional truths. That’s what makes it all worth it, though. That’s what sets you free.

Have you ever written anything personal that you thought would upset people close to you? Have you ever shied away from writing something because someone you know might read it?

In Jamaica Dreams, I wrote about my father’s drinking, which was not something I thought I would ever put in the public square. My father died 18 years ago. He was my life’s best example of goodness and integrity and an impeccable work ethic. He achieved much in his life, even being knighted by the Queen of England for his work as a jurist. This was the face most people saw, but I knew this private struggle he’d had during my growing-up years. It has always been so compelling to me that my father, this towering figure, had this very human struggle, and don’t we all? I really did think my outing my dad’s battle with alcohol like that would upset my family. But I wrote the story anyway, because the way he waged that war, the example he set for me, would give me the tools to reset my course when my own life threatened to be derailed. He showed me how.

What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?

Keep a journal. Start a blog. Write every day. Write about what terrifies you. Write as if no one is ever going to read your words. Listen to how people talk. Tell your story. Tell other people’s stories. Dare.

Want to be swept away in lush stories about new love, family ties and forgotten youth? Read Rosemarie Robotham’s short memoir Jamaica Dreams, only at Shebooks!

Risotto Tour

Join the Shebooks Life, Love and Risotto Tour and you could win a collection of ebooks and a Try the World gourmet box. Enter here.

Reader Submission: The Thick and The Thin by Christine Benvenuto

Christine Benvenuto’s story is the first in a series of reader stories about friendship breakups we will be sharing on our blog in the coming days.

 

The Thick and The Thin

Christine Benvenuto

Right smack in the middle of one bright winter Saturday afternoon I called my friend’s cellphone. “Hey,” I said when she picked up, my voice friendly, casual. “Where are you? Whatcha doing?”

“You tell me where you want me to be.”

“No, really, I was just wondering – ”

“You tell me where you want me to be and I’m there.”

Despite my certainty that I had conveyed just nothing of the crisis moment I was having, she wasn’t having it. She knew. A few minutes later, true to her word, her car pulled up curbside and I hopped in.

She rescued me – that day and countless others during the tumultuous course of a nasty breakup and divorce. It wasn’t a one-way street. “I have to see you,” she texted the day she suddenly wondered if a harmless office flirtation maybe wasn’t quite so harmless after all. On the road to my home, I veered off to swing onto hers. She told me everything. We told each other.

We weren’t childhood friends, college friends, friends as young singles. We met as mature career women, wives and mothers with virtually nothing in common. Different religions, different cultures, different economic backgrounds. In some respects, different values. We shared a few, though. Like the value we placed on friendship.

If all the ways we weren’t alike didn’t keep us apart, nothing would. During times of man trouble my friend would spin out our shared future: we would buy a house together, or she would just move into mine. We’d be old ladies together, strong women who didn’t require men to keep us from being lonely because we had something better: female friends. Our collective brood of half a dozen children would come and go from our home. Her daughter and one of mine were going to be best friends for life, just like us. Sooner or later, they’d bring our grandchildren along with them.

Oops. This is where we stumbled. Our daughters were friends, good friends if maybe not quite BFFs. Until, one day, they weren’t. My daughter kept making me invite hers. The answer wasn’t no. It was silence. “I’ll ask her and get right back to you,” my friend would say or text. Then: nothing. I got it. It was too hard to keep making excuses. Too painful to keep saying no.

My daughter didn’t know what was wrong and neither did I. tried to ask my friend if anything had happened between the girls. She insisted, convincingly, that there was nothing. “I would make them talk it out if anything had happened!” she told me. And she would. If they’d had a fight, she would have kept them talking until they made it up. But there was no fight. Her daughter had simply stopped being my daughter’s friend and there wasn’t a darn thing either of us could do about it.

My daughter mourned. She suffered. Her heart was broken and I held her while she cried. Then the day came when I dried her tears and told her she had to move on. And, wonder of wonders, she did.

It’s wrenching to see your child through her first rejection, but as mothers we know that’s part of the job we signed on for. What do you do when the cause of that heart break is your friend’s child, the very friend you would have otherwise told all about it?

In the months since our daughters’ friendship ended, we’ve tried to stay in touch. We’ve sent messages. Asked each other to meet. We’ve agreed to meet, only to have one or the other of us cancel at the last minute. It’s awkward. It’s weird. It’s the elephant in the room, or rather it would be if we were ever in a room together.

This story doesn’t have a happy ending. It doesn’t have a sad ending either. It doesn’t end at all. We will find a way back. Sometime. I think so.

In the meanwhile, I have to marvel at our undoing. Who would have guessed that the wedge that would come between us would be one of the very few things we have in common? It’s our wild, passionate, and utterly committed motherhood that has thrown our friendship onto the rocks. The most important trait we share.

Tell us your story about breaking up with your best friend

This week, inspired by Bonnie Friedman’s Shebook Devil Doll about complicated women’s friendships, we’re printing stories about breaking up with women friends on our Facebook page and blog. Please share yours (email us at: write@shebooks.net) –and who knows, maybe we’ll have enough for a new Shebook.
Our editorial director Laura Fraser shares her story about breaking up–and making up–with her best friend:

“The apology” by Laura Fraser

When we were 10, my best friend Kristin Spielman and I wore identical silver rings, thinking we’d be best friends forever. We walked to school together every day, and could hardly wait to see each other again when the last bell rang. We talked endlessly about which boys we liked and which girls were stuck-up, and spent long hours working on craft projects. We were closer to each other than we were to our own sisters.

I trusted Kristin so much that I not only let her cut my hair, I believed her when she told me that extremely short, crooked bangs were the height of fashion. When I was teased at school for being chubby, Kristin reassured me, “Your real friends love you the way you are.”

Then, one afternoon when we were 12, Kristin didn’t walk home with me, and she didn’t call. I suddenly realized, like a punch in the stomach, that she and another girl were off having fun together–without me. With no explanation, Kristin just stopped being my friend. I took off my silver ring and hid it in the back of my jewelry box. I had no idea what I’d done to make Kristin stop liking me, but it made me stop liking myself.

By high school, the sting of losing Kristin as a best friend had faded, and we saw each other sometimes in group gatherings. When I left Colorado for college, I don’t even think I wished her goodbye. We weren’t that close.

And so it was a surprise, five years later, to get an invitation to Kristin’s wedding reception. But I went. Her mother was so delighted to see the two of us together again, now grown up, that she cried.

We immediately warmed up to each other, talking and teasing and full of curiosity about our different lives. She soon had a family and stayed in Colorado. I was single, pursuing a writing career in San Francisco. Whenever I came home, Kristin would pick me up at the airport and our conversation would resume right where it had left off months before. No one makes me laugh as much as she does.

“Breaking up” with Kristin in sixth grade was the only thing in my life that halfway prepared me for the day when, after only a year of marriage, my husband left me. When I could finally muster the strength to call a friend, I called Kristin. She insisted I come home immediately.

It was comforting to be with her, to hear her fierce assurance when she said I didn’t deserve what had happened. At a time when the ground had given way beneath me, her friendship felt solid.

During our visit, we took a hike in the mountains and Kristin started talking about her two girls. Her oldest daughter, Emilee, was already a teenager. “She’s like we were as kids,” Kristin said. “She has one really good friend. Hana has a lot of friends and doesn’t care as much.”

Only recently, Emilee’s best friend had abruptly broken off their relationship. “Kind of like what I did to you,” Kristin said. I looked at her, amazed. I never thought that betrayal had even registered with her.

“I’m seeing what Emilee’s going through, and how awful it is for her,” Kristin went on. “I told her to look at us–that everything turns out OK in the end, that you end up being good friends with the people you deserve.”

I looked down at my hiking boots and we kept on walking.

“Did I ever apologize to you for that?” Kristin asked.

I shook my head, finding it impossible to speak.

“Well, I’m sorry,” she said.

I wiped my eyes and gave her a hug. “You’re forgiven,” I told her. “Complete absolution.”

I knew my ex-husband would never apologize to me for breaking my heart. But it was enough, at that moment, that my best friend had.

Copyright Laura Fraser. Originally published in Women’s Day.

Laura Fraser with her best friend Kristin Rankin: 

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How To Have A WILD New Year

If you loved reading and watching Wild but craved more…
…Don’t miss Micah Perks’ Shebook on wilderness, her roaming daughter, and how Wild sent her on a journey of her own.

Alone in the Woods: Cheryl Strayed, My Daughter, and Me

Micah Perks

What do you do when fate hands you a wild daughter? As Micah recounts her struggles to raise a brave daughter and to keep her safe at the same time, she also tells the story of her own sometimes humorous, sometimes harrowing two week solo adventure in the Adirondack Mountains as a teenager. Micah Perks’ candid short memoir takes an insightful look at women and the wild, the wildness she experienced as a child on a commune in the Adirondack wilderness, the ways women and wildness are depicted in movies and books like Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir Wild, and the wilderness she discovers insider her own daughter.

Click here to purchase on Amazon

On women writing well

Suzanne Paola, writing guru, offers some thoughts on how male vs. female writing, and offers some tips for warming up.

Suzanne Antonetta Paola

I conceived of Stolen Moments after several things happened: one, I read several interviews with V.S. Naipaul, who dismissed all of women’s writing—including Jane Austen’s—as “sentimental” and nowhere equal to his own books, and those of other men. Two, I did in fact buy a pocketbook at a consignment store, as does my character, that still had two lipsticks in a zippered compartment that resembled mine so much that I used them. It was, at first, a challenge to myself: could I create a world out of two accidentally found lipsticks? What if even such a subtle change to one’s outward self could change how we fundamentally think of ourselves and therefore, act?

I just returned home from Hong Kong, where I heard several writers—male—argue that fiction should be political to matter, by which they meant, should include as a major plot point the actions of governments or those who act on behalf of governments. This approach of course can result in terrific fiction. But I think women may be more instinctively aware that life is a series of small moments, every one of which burns outward, into the world: whether I hug my child tonight, and help create a child who is secure, or not; whether I take time to be with a distraught student, or not.  Those who repeat small tasks every day, perhaps, learn to look for the soul in them.

The word sentiment in its Latin root simply means to hold feeling. Human feelings underlie everything in this world, including wars.

One thing I love about the women in my world is that, unlike someone like Naipaul, who dismisses women utterly but pursues numerous and noisy feuds with the occasional male writer as well, the women writers I know are remarkably generous people. This is true of Laura Fraser, editorial director and cofounder of Shebooks.  In the spirit of Shebooks and its generosity, I offer a few writing prompts for you out there. Feel free to contact me at susantonetta@gmail.com to continue the dialogue.

Prompt one: Think about a very small change that made an enormous difference in the way you felt about yourself. Imagine a character who makes a similarly small change, and imagine, in the end, the circumstances of her life change drastically as a result.

Prompt two: Actually make a large change in yourself—clothing, appearance—for one day. Take notes on how you behave differently. Think about how much of self is defined through these sorts of daily decisions on how we present ourselves, and write about it.

 

Marigolds, skulls, and altars to departed dogs

DOD SMiguel 026

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.