Saturday, December 31, 2011

Surviving New Year's -- and the Hood of a Car

By Dilson Hernandez

New Year’s is supposed to be a time when family and close friends get together and drink way more alcohol than their bodies can withstand and end up with a crazy story to tell in the morning.

Without one trace of alcohol in our bodies, my maniacal cousins and I still managed to find a way to make an interesting story. It was New Year's 2007 and my family was gathered in my grandmother’s apartment on 139th street in Manhattan.

The apartment was small. Every time another person walked in the door I could have sworn the white walls were caving in on me like some kind of Indiana Jones movie.

The garbage was piled up on the floor like a dumpster. The kids were running around like a bunch of little crazies and the adults were drinking beer in the living room like a bunch of alcoholics. The little hand on the clock had just hit 12:00 am on the dot and the whole family did the usual and unnecessary hugs and handshakes. I remember telling my cousins “this is gonna to be a good year! I feel it!”

I was really excited about it. My nerves were jumping and I wanted to do something memorable. Do you know the feeling when you are overly excited and feel like doing something memorable but it turns out not to be memorable but really really stupid?

Well if you don’t then hearing this next part might come off as a surprise and a “What the f-- was he thinking?” moment.

I was so excited that, like a dumbass, I decided to run out into the street while lifting my shirt up yelling out “2007!!!” like some kind of a psychopath. I remember running down the steps in excitement. The whole world moved in slow motion as I was about to run across the street. As I lifted my shirt I felt the cold breeze pass over my stomach. I felt untouchable, like nothing in this world could stop me…unless it was an eager person driving behind the wheel of a car.

And that’s exactly what stopped me, like an angry wife catching her husband cheating or like a robber being tripped up during his escape. That’s what stopped me. A car!

As I approached the middle of the street a car came crashing into me and lifted me off the ground. As the grill of the car struck the left side of my thigh, my whole body was lifted up by the spirit of God and I was dropped like a sack of potatoes on top of the car.

All I heard was my cousins saying “OH SHIT!” as they stared at me in astonishment.

Miraculously I didn’t get hurt. I When I got up from the car I tried apologizing to the driver, who was now cursing at me like a madman. He drove away, rushing maybe because he was late to his New Year’s party or something. I don’t know and I don’t really care. This was the same guy who had just run me over with his car!

After this catastrophic event, I just dusted myself off and walked normally back to the other side of the block to my cousins, who were now laughing at me. I know…what assholes.

I think that they were just scared shitless and now all they could do was laugh at my stupidity.

I'm sure if the car had hit me and my body had done like 50 flips in the air they wouldn’t have been laughing.

Writer Dilson Hernandez, who grew up in Manhattan, has just completed his first semester in college at the University at Albany, State University of New York.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sundays With Charlie, Part Three

By Dr. Mel Waldman

This is part three in a series called "Sundays With Charlie, the Funniest Man on the Planet." Part one in the series ran on December 7, 2011 and Part two ran on December 15th. The photos that accompany this piece are by MARKKU VERKASALO, a photographer in Helsinki, Finland. More of Verkasalo's marvelous photography can be viewed at and on MyStoryLives.

During my visit, Charlie often cried out: “Help me! Help me! Don’t leave! Don’t leave!” Charlie fears abandonment.

He also shouted: “Helen! Helen! Helen!” Charlie is extremely dependent on Helen.

When I left late at night, I reassured Charlie I would be back. “Charlie, as long as I’m alive, you’re stuck with me!”

In my opinion, Charlie is neither in Hell or Heaven. He’s in Purgatory, trying to find the exit to Heaven. I think he used to be in

Hell, when he was on a respirator and almost totally immobilized. I imagine his sudden regression and loss of functioning shocked his sense of well being and his sacred identity. He probably experienced overwhelming pain. But now, he’s struggling.

I sense his will to live. He’s alive only because of the immense sacrifices of Helen and Gladys.

Had Helen and Gladys sent him into a nursing home, he would have died. I used to be a consulting therapist for various nursing homes. Even the best nursing homes are hellholes. Patients are often abandoned and neglected by staff. And those who act out may be punished and abused. Although I’ve worked with devoted nurses and social workers, they often worked alongside frustrated and angry workers. Charlie would not have survived in a nursing home. And who knows what happens on the night shifts?

My reunion with Charlie was a play in three acts, The Light, The Darkness, and The Light.

In the beginning, I experienced a cornucopia of joy. During the interludes, when I spoke with Helen and Gladys privately, I felt enormous sadness and loss. The final hours I spent with Charlie, especially in his bedroom, were filled with joy and uproarious laughter.

Charlie’s long-term memory seems intact. We watched the end of "The Maltese Falcon." I asked him if the actress speaking to Humphrey Bogart was Myrna Loy.

“No, that’s Mary Astor.”

And he was absolutely correct.

Charlie’s short-term memory seemed impaired. I pray his dementia will progress slowly.

The funniest moment of my visit occurred in Charlie’s bedroom. We weren’t reminiscing about the old days and Charlie wasn’t joking around. I sat in a chair next to him near the window. He lay in his hospital-bed. I happened to look up at the wall near the door and the ceiling. Adjacent to the ceiling loomed a mammoth picture of Charlie. A young and smiling Charlie looked down at the bedridden Charlie.

“Charlie, who gave you that huge picture?”

“When Merrill Lynch moved to New Jersey, I got that picture as a gift.”

“You look terrific.”


I guffawed. And then I laughed uncontrollably, endlessly.

“Charlie, you still have a big ego, don’t you?”

He cackled. Then he joined me in a long, boisterous laugh.

Helen drove me home. She told me the best days for her to facilitate my visits with Charlie were on the weekends. Right now, it looks like I’ll be seeing Charlie on Sundays. It’s a bittersweet journey for all of us. But as I told Charlie, he’s stuck with me to the very end. You see, Charles Freundlich is my best friend, my brother, and the funniest man on the planet.

Writer Mel Waldman is a psychologist, poet, writer, and artist. His stories have appeared in dozens of magazines including HARDBOILED DETECTIVE, ESPIONAGE, THE SAINT, and AUDIENCE. He is a past winner of the literary GRADIVA AWARD in Psychoanalysis and was nominated for a PUSHCART PRIZE in literature. He is the author of 11 books. His most recent book, I AM A JEW, is a collection of essays, memoir, short stories, poems, and plays about his exploration of his Jewish identity. He has sold a series of short stories to the British publisher of POSTSCRIPTS, including literary mysteries, stories of suspense, and horror. These stories will tentatively be published in 2012 and 2013. He is currently working on a novel inspired by Freud’s case studies. His email address is

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Two Grandmothers and Two Different Stories

By Judith England

I was one of those lucky children who had two grandmothers around through my growing up and many years beyond.

They both loved my brothers and me – no doubt of that. But they were about as different from one another as two people could be, especially in the way that they told the stories about their lives.

One reminded us many times how she had been sent to live with an aunt when she was a young girl. Although I was never quite clear why this was so, it wasn’t a hardship for her. On the contrary, her Aunt Sara was a wealthy, generous woman who doted on her. Circumstances changed, Grandma’s mother passed away, and she was needed at home to care for her younger brothers. Reluctant to leave the comforts of her adopted home, Grandma’s Dad dangled an incentive for her to return. “Come home,” he said, “and I’ll buy you a pair of diamond earrings.” She did, taking her place as surrogate Mom, with all the work that entailed. But the earrings never came.

In telling the story, even into her 80s, it was clear that Grandma felt that she had been duped; trading luxury for labor, and a promise never kept.

Then there was my other grandmother.

She had become family caretaker as a young woman also. Her beloved father died young, and her mother would hide herself away for weeks at a time wrapped up in troubles with “the drink” and perhaps a broken heart. Her brothers needed her.

She buried two husbands. One died in an accident two short weeks after my father was born, the second succumbed to complications of a ruptured appendix. She raised two sons alone, working as a switchboard operator.

You would never know from her actions how hard her life had been. Nor did she share these stories often.

For her, that was “then,” and life was definitely “now.”

Every year when the holidays come around thoughts center on family – those that are here, and those that are gone. We learn to negotiate the ups and down of life in large measure from the examples that set.

Sometimes that insidious feeling we call “regret” also rears its head. There’s the temptation to think about the could have, would have, should have, if only we might rewrite the story of our lives.

Maybe it’s something big like the job opportunity we didn’t take, the trip postponed, the child we didn’t have. Often it’s less earth-shattering like a word not spoke, or spoken in haste, or even leaving the turkey in the oven too long.

With another Christmas behind us, and a New Year about to begin, I have a few thoughts about regrets that have kept me moving in a direction that works for me:

Regret keeps us tied to the past – Unlike it’s second-cousin “learning from experience”, regret offers no room for change, for growth. We are stuck with the half-empty glass. The script is finished with no hope of revision.

Regret is self-perpetuating – Every time we think about a regret our body responds by generating the same misery we felt the first time. The event is long past, but the negativity continues

Regret is self-defeating – By locking in on unhappiness that things “might have been different if only…..” we limit the possibility of more creative solutions for the future.

Regret is other directed – A lot of blaming can go along with regret. Blaming gives the power to others. Taking ownership of our actions and choices places the power back where it belongs.

No one has a crystal ball that allows them to make perfect decisions – only a heart and mind that might reveal the “best possible” decision for them under the circumstances. It’s about playing the cards we’ve been dealt, perhaps taking a few risks from time to time, and accepting that we’ve done the best we could.

And maybe, just maybe, it might be about buying a pair of diamond earrings for yourself.

With wishes for peace in the New Year!

Writer Judith England is a yoga instructor and massage therapist practicing in Albany, New York. This piece appeared first on her Albany Times Union Holistic Health blog. She can be reached by email at

Friday, December 23, 2011

Holiday Season in New York City

Wishing you a happy holiday season, no matter where you are!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The World is Here to Change Us

By Karen Beetle

"We are not here to change the world, the world is here to change us.”

--Shantideva, 8th century Indian Buddhist scholar

I read these words late last week, and they echo in my mind as I walk and work and eat. These words point to a chronic tension between how we want the world to be and what our experience is telling us about the world we live in. In learning meditation, we begin to discover the profound story-telling capacity of the mind. As a meaning maker and interpreter, our brain is constantly presenting reality to us – but that reality is highly conditioned by our previous experience and our habitual mental patterns of thought. Several years ago, I had a client walk into my office and sit down. Before I could say anything, She said. “I had no new thoughts. All week, I had no new thoughts.”

As we turn toward mental chatter in our meditation practice – it is often laughable how routine and unexpansive our everyday thoughts are. We can easily go through a whole week with no new thoughts.

Without awareness, our thought play a huge role in defining our experience. We are caught in the constant chatter and believe or half believe the content of our thinking. Meditation allows us to turn toward the direct experience of our days - our thoughts, feelings and sensations. This allows us to investigate the story line. We see how thoughts and feelings create impressions that can easily be crafted into fiction. The stories we tell about ourselves, other people, and life itself actually spin us further and further away from the world we live in. And this isn’t a neutral or accidental direction for our human mind to go – it is part of a fundamental strategy for self-protection in which we convince ourselves that our view is right. We place ourselves at the center of our own universe – and dig in our heels. Shantideva isn’t asking us not to believe in our capacity to make change in the world. He is saying, if you dig in your heels, you place yourself outside of the influence of life and you actually harden yourself against life. We all have the capacity to let life come closer to us than that.

Rodney Smith writes in Tricycle (Winter 2011), “To abide in awareness without asserting our need to control what is arising suggests a complete restructuring of our view and intention…When we attempt to force or influence reality, we are refusing to be affected by it. We have opted out of changing ourselves, investing our energy in the course of our desire. The sense of self remains fully empowered when it decides how the world must change to meet its needs, and nothing can get through to modify the mind.” When we harden against our experience, instead of softening in the face of it, life retreats from our grasp.

By accepting that the world changes us, we can align ourselves more directly with our true talents and capacities. We see more clearly where opportunities are, and the capacities of those around us come into view. We have more accuracy in our perceptions. The stories we tell are lighter and more spacious. We believe ourselves less and trust our direct perceptions more. We come into relationship with what we can and can’t change in the world and how to walk more effectively toward that which enlivens us.

During this holiday season, we are often alerted to the stories we tell about ourselves and the people in our lives. Pause as you attend family events, stay close to your direct experience. Notice the stories that are forming in your mind. Breathe and return to your direct perceptions. Look for what nourishes you in the environment. Feel your feet on the ground. Look up at the sky. Allow life to soften you and those around you. May you have a happy and peaceful holiday time.

Karen Beetle is a therapist and mindfulness teacher practicing in Albany, New York. Her next mindfulness meditation class begins in January. You can reach her at or 518-424-7516. This post appears today on the Albany Times Union's Holistic Health blog, a blog well worth visiting and bookmarking!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Chapter 52, SISTER MYSTERIES: "Out the Door...I am Free!"

Note: Sister Mysteries is an experimental on-line novel constructed as a blog. The novel takes place in the golden hills of California and tells the story of a nun, Sister Renata, who was falsely convicted of murdering her cousin Antonie in 1883. Renata was scheduled to hang, but in the last chapter she figured out, finally, how to escape. Now she is a fugitive, a nun on the run.

By Claudia Ricci


stopping now out of breath...

I walked out the door.

I walked out that door.

hand...fingers...trembling...hard writing...


left ankle so sore...where the chain cut in before never healed...

sun lowering...a couple of hours to go before it sets...

what happens after dark...

look up, madrone, deep red... trying to take in what happened? What happened?

I will be sleeping under some tree, stars tonight. Air warm sweet, dry grass, golden hillsides. Sky bright bright blue

frightened... thrilled excited. Trembling now, feeling tears...because I am finally finally...


Nothing it was nothing. Escape? All I had to do was lift up off of Kitty's sofa and take the cloth satchel I packed -- canteen journal biscuits cheese apples.

Heart slamming, walked up to the door turned lock and then, opened... the door. Morning air cool misty so fragrant and there I was top of the stairs with the world waiting.

Tears now. Tears...

so careful down stairs one by one see inside Kitty's cafe. Nobody. No sound. Bean a liquored heap at the bottom. Just lying there snoring. Arm with the bottle and then...I saw his jacket thrown to the side. I took it. I stole Bean's jacket. And kept walking. Fast.

With my heart practically dancing in my throat, sweat sprouting, I just kept walking forward. Thinking for sure, someone bound to come running behind me. Someone sure to come running up guns blazing yelling STOP!!!! STOP!!!!

But no.

I was free.

I am free.

Who knows for how long. But for now, I am free.

A nun, running. My face will be plastered on posters everywhere before the day is out. Must disguise. Bean's jacket falls below my knees.

Must keep walking now, heading through golden hills, trees. Redwood and madrone. Oak.

Thinking of Teresa now, I never said a word never spoke once to her of the plan, now she can be honest saying she had no idea what I was thinking. What I am doing.

What I am doing?

No idea. Where I am going?

Beyond here. Beyond the old life.

To whatever awaits me. Must not think now. Must go forward, now. Now.

Move now. Go!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Fantastic Photos From Finland


Every once in a while when I'm perusing Blipfoto, a wonderful day-by-day posting website for photographers, I come across a photographer whose work just takes my breath away.

This happened the other day with these photos by Markku Verkasalo, who makes his home in Finland's capital city, Helsinki, where he works. He spends weekends in the countryside about 75 miles from Helsinki.

I was so taken by the photos that Verkasalo recently posted on Blipfoto -- all of them taken just in the first few days of December -- that I emailed and asked him if I could run a few in the blog.

He kindly agreed, and told me the following information about his life and photography: He is a university lecturer and researcher who rides his bike five miles in each direction to work
every day. He says that he uses photography to keep his life "fresh." "I always carry my camera, ready to shoot, in an army belt on my hips. I try to photograph intuitively. If I see something interesting I stop my bike, shoot, and only afterwards do I look to see if it was interesting. Often, after photographing my interest, I turn 180 degrees and take some more shots."

One day in the countryside he photographed at a lake, turned, and found a field, where he took some more photos. Later, after "post processing, he found that the field was most appealing:

He uses Adobe Bridge, a photoshopping program, to create paintings with his photographs. He works intuitively and lets his mood dictate the way the photos emerge.


Friday, December 16, 2011

Sky High




to explain

why I am in love with the sky.

It's rather clear and blue and at other

times, it is quite beyond my words.

At times the sky

has its own lines

and language I cannot translate except

in my heart.

At times, it changes so fast,

the sky,

I cannot stop snapping photos.

At those moments, I am very grateful for the sky

and also grateful for

digital photography.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sundays With Charlie -- Part Two

By Mel Waldman

Note: This is part two of a three-part series called "Sundays With Charlie, The Funniest Man on the Planet." Read Part One.

On Sunday, November 27, 2011, I visited Charlie at his Crown Heights home, the apartment where Bobby Fischer had lived in his childhood, now the secret hiding place of the funniest man on the planet.

His granddaughter Helen, a highly competent-take-charge-no-nonsense woman of 31, picked me up and drove me to Charlie’s place. She warned me that Charlie looked different and sometimes sputtered foul language. On the other hand, she pointed out that Charlie had made significant progress, coming back from the dead.

“We thought he was going to die,” she said.

“Charlie’s a fighter,” I said. “A survivor.”

“Yes. But in the beginning, when he became violent, we didn’t know what was happening.”

“Charlie’s not a violent man. The violence is a dark byproduct of the illness. My father suffered from Alzheimer’s. The dementia caused him to have violent episodes. But when I took care of him and set strict limits, he calmed down. I strongly believe that Charlie’s dementia is the cause of these episodes.”

“Yes, we know now. I fired the first primary care physician who overmedicated him. He made Charlie into a zombie. My grandfather could have suffocated from the potentially lethal cocktail he took. If he had remained under this doctor’s care, he’d be dead today. And when Charlie gets agitated, I calm him down.”

“You saved his life, Helen.”

“Charlie raised me. I’d do anything for my grandfather.”

With Helen as my guide, I climbed the rickety stairs to the 4th floor. Mythological images of Charon taking me across the River Styx to Hades rushed across my mind, and suddenly, I felt swept away into a surreal universe.

Was I strong enough to enter my dear friend’s dark reality? Of course, I was, for he was Charlie, my lifelong friend, a man I loved like a brother. I knew Charlie had lost over 100 pounds. Did he look like a Holocaust victim? I didn’t know. But it didn’t matter. And certainly, as a therapist, I’ve worked with patients with HIV, AIDS, cancer, and other life threatening diseases. I never walked away from a patient. So why wouldn’t I be there for my buddy?

And so I entered a bittersweet dreamscape, crossing the threshold into Charlie’s world. The first few seconds when I saw Charlie, I was filled with an overwhelming joy, even ecstasy. Charlie seemed joyous too. Indeed, Helen and Gladys told me Charlie had been flooded with tempestuous waves of elation and anticipation. The day before my arrival, Helen and Gladys frequently reassured him that I was coming. Our pending reunion had launched him into a stormy sea of contradictory and conflicting emotions.

I too experienced a gamut of powerful, chaotic emotions before our reunion, during, and after our rendezvous. Yet our new beginning started with joy.
Later, the darker emotions emerged; sadness, loss, many losses, fear, anguish, rage, uncertainty, and bewilderment.
The first few hours seemed dreamlike, mini-episodes of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. But as I adjusted to Charlie’s new world, I rediscovered our strong, fierce, and gentle friendship.

The old Charlie I knew was a super-responsible man who took care of his family. As previously mentioned, Charlie and Gladys have been married for more than fifty years. Charlie’s an antediluvian man, a dinosaur in the most beautiful sense of the word. He worked for the same company for many years. On weekends, he often got gigs as a drummer.

A Renaissance man, he loved knowledge, technology, gadgets, especially computers, cultural activities, including his visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and all subjects strange and bizarre. And of course, he loved comedy.

The new Charlie is home-bound with two aides on 12-hour shifts. Most of his care is divided between Helen and Gladys. My buddy requires help in getting out of and into his hospital bed, as well as getting into and out of his wheelchair. He needs help moving into a more comfortable position on his bed.

He wears a diaper for he has lost control of moving his bowels and urinating. Someone has to clean and wash his body and change his diaper. Often, his devoted granddaughter has this task. His wife is unable to do this.

His hands are constantly clenched. He looks like a boxer posed to fight. But in actuality, his clenched hands cause much pain. Yet when he tries to open them, he also experiences a lot of pain. In general, his body is constricted. I do not know the cause of these constrictions. Possibly, they are related to his diabetes.

Because of Charlie’s physical limitations, he can no longer work on his computer. He used to spend 12 or more hours on the computer, one of his favorite toys.

A tube is attached to a hole in his stomach. He receives his medications and fluids through this tube. He eats baby food.

It hit me then, that suddenly my dear friend Charlie's life circumstances were distinctly not funny, not funny at all.


Writer Mel Waldman is a psychologist, poet, writer, and artist. His stories have appeared in dozens of magazines including HARDBOILED DETECTIVE, ESPIONAGE, THE SAINT, and AUDIENCE. He is a past winner of the literary GRADIVA AWARD in Psychoanalysis and was nominated for a PUSHCART PRIZE in literature. He is the author of 11 books. His most recent book, I AM A JEW, is a collection of essays, memoir, short stories, poems, and plays about his exploration of his Jewish identity. He has sold a series of short stories to the British publisher of POSTSCRIPTS, including literary mysteries, stories of suspense, and horror. These stories will tentatively be published in 2012 and 2013. He is currently working on a novel inspired by Freud’s case studies. His email address is

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Journal Exercises to Boost Your Spirits!!

By Claudia Ricci

This year's Happiness class doesn't start until January 18th, but ideas for the class are starting to roll around in my head like sparkling marbles, in part because students interested in the class keep coming to my office to ask me what it's all about. So here is a preview of some of the journal assignments that I will present to the students. In my mind, doing journal exercises like this is kind of like doing Pilates for the Soul. How often do we specifically attend to the spirit? And yet, our spiritual selves are part and parcel of our physical selves.

I can't decide yet which ones will be mandatory. However, one of them -- the Gratitude List certainly will be.

1) Start a GRATITUDE LIST being very specific about the things in life for which you are grateful: "I am grateful that I have eyes to see the sky. I am grateful that I have teeth to chew my food. I am grateful that I have food." See how long you can make this list. Can you make it a regular practice to write down three or four or five things for which you are grateful?

2) Identity the "small" moments in which you become keenly aware of something that makes you joyful. Be specific: e.g., “I saw a tree this morning covered in ice and the sun hitting it was so pretty, I just stood there in awe.” Turn these into Haiku? Longer poems?

3) Describe specific SENSATIONS associated when you are really paying attention to what you are doing: "I enjoyed the smell of my morning coffee. I enjoyed the way the warm cup felt in my hand. I enjoyed the smell of the night air when I stepped outdoors."

4) The next time you find yourself feeling calm, take a moment and "draw" the feeling associated with it. Find a color for it. A visual. Collect images that make you feel calm.

5) Identify one small thing you can do to help another person.

6) Stop what you are doing and close your eyes. Take one or two cleansing breaths. Then start to breathe naturally and label your breathing in the following way: Take a breath in, then let it go and label it SKY. Take a second breath in, let it go and think WATER. Breathe in a third time, breathe out and label it MOUNTAIN. Label the fourth breath SUN. Then repeat this cycle a few times. Can you work up to ten cycles? Write about what it feels like to label your breathing in this way. Can you find a few minutes to do this every day?

7) Make a list of ways in which you can show others what it means to be happy.

8) Have a conversation about mindfulness with someone, in which you try to explain what it means. Then write about that conversation and what it taught you.

8) Forgive someone for something small. Write about that. Forgive someone for something "bigger." Write about the idea that we should "Forgive everyone, for everything.”

9) The next time you get angry at someone, write about it. Write about why you are angry and how exactly it feels in your body. Be specific. Put the writing away and later come back and write these words at the top of the page: "What will this matter in 100 years?" See if you can “enlighten” yourself as to why that anger is/was there and why being angry doesn't really get you anywhere, except for more angry.

10) Do something nice for yourself and write about how that feels. Then, do something nice for someone else and write about how that feels.

11) Write about whether or not you are impatient. What does it feel like to be impatient? What prompts you to feel impatient?

12) Find a living object (flower? Tree? A baby? ☺) and see if you can stare at it for five whole minutes without stopping. Then write about what that felt like.

13) See if the next time you eat, you can wait one whole minute before you dig in. Later, write about what went on in your head during that minute. What did you notice? Did you feel more gratitude for the food? Did you think about any of the people (farmer, factory worker, trucker, grocery store shelver, grocery store check out person, cook) who had to devote their time to making it possible to have this food?

14) Write a couple of paragraphs about the sky. Then wait a few hours and write about the sky again. Has it changed? How? Write about how you feel about a blue sky. A white sky. Clouds. A sunset. A rainbow. Write about the prettiest sky you've ever seen.

15) TRY LAUGHING. (If you can't find anything to laugh about, watch this video of a baby laughing as his father rips up a rejection letter.) SEE IF YOU CAN LAUGH FOR ONE MINUTE 44 SECONDS, just like this baby did! Then write about laughing and why you think research shows that laughter can help you be physically healthier.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Calling All Writers: A Cozy Berkshire Weekend Retreat to Cure Writer's Block and Inspire Long Writing Projects!!

By Claudia Ricci

Writing is just such a wonderful and amazing and fulfilling thing -- until one morning you wake up and can't find an ounce of motivation. You look at what you've written and suddenly it feels as dead as the heel of your right shoe.

That blank screen stares back at you, sticks out its tongue and makes funny faces. You freeze up and soon find yourself shrinking smaller than your pencil.

Then what do you do? You think about tossing your computer. Or worse, you contemplate the idea of tossing back a six-pack or a few cosmopolitans.

No. This is NOT the time to start drinking. This is not the time to start thinking dark and stormy thoughts!

There is hope. Lots of it. In fact, if you look at it the write, oops, excuse me, the right way, writer's block can be an opportunity to rethink your entire approach to writing. Writer's block can be a kind of door through which you pass through, becoming a kind of writer's revolutionary. Not only can you find new inspiration, but also, you can make some fascinating and exciting discoveries about who you are as a writer and a person and what you want to write.

If you're intrigued by these ideas, and if you want to spend a weekend by a cozy fire in a gorgeous Berkshire County inn, learning about writing from two well-seasoned fiction writers who are also both experienced college-writing teachers, then you're in for a big treat:

Please join me and my long-time writing buddy and college teaching colleague Peg Woods --otherwise known as Dr. P.M. Woods -- to get recharged. We are teaching a fabulous workshop that we're calling Writer's Bloc, a weekend-retreat February 24-26, 2012 at the very quaint Richmond Inn in Richmond, MA.

Peg and I have been college teachers of writing for almost 14 years. We've also taught a community writing workshop called "Write Your Heart Out." In both the university and community settings, we've helped many, many, many students to get started writing fiction. And we've also showed students how to get re-started and recharged, redefining what it means to have a writer's block. Even if you're raring to go with your writing, we'll give you a host of tips on writing, and moving forward, especially with long writing projects, like novels. As we tell our writing students, "when you write a short story, you can wrap your arms around it. When you write a novel, however, it wraps its arms around you, and often it can feel like it's going to swallow you whole." Peg and I will show you simple techniques to keep going with a long writing project when the going starts to feel impossible.

Our philosophy on writing is that it's a way of life. A way of making meaning and engaging the world. And when it comes to "blocks," we see them as a kind of passage. Our attitude toward writer's block is that it's only a "block" if you let it shut you down. We'll show you how to melt that writer's block, transforming it into an opportunity for rediscovering creativity.

As Assistant Director of the Nationally-Recognized Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Peg teaches composition and experimental creative writing classes. She has decades of experience as a fiction writer and is the author of numerous short stories, as well as the extraordinary novel, Spinning Will.

Like Peg, I've published many short stories, as well as two novels -- Dreaming Maples (nominated for a Pushcart Prize) and the new novel, Seeing Red, which was serialized in part in the Huffington Post when it appeared in January, 2011. I have been teaching English, creative writing and journalism at the University at Albany, SUNY, since 1998.

More recently, I've started to paint, and to incorporate painting with words onto big and little canvases (thus all these funny-looking collages.)

Together, Peg and I taught an amazing class at SUNY called "Writing a Woman's Life." And we have taught numerous "Write Your Heart Out" workshops in communities in Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire, where in the community of Hollis, one of the writing groups we launched still meets in the local library.

It turns out that I'm not the only writer who thinks and works visually. In a great piece in The Wall Street Journal a couple of years ago, about writers and their methods of writing, author Edwidege Danticat says that before she writes a novel she puts images up on a kind of "storyboard," just the way a screenwriter might.

The writer's retreat will include exercises that involve "art" -- but no, you do NOT need to be an artist! We will also take you on an outing Saturday afternoon to the wonderful Normal Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA, where we'll discuss the way art and visual images can help spark your imagination and give you more inspiration for writing.

This is going to be a lot of fun! Hey, what could be bad? You get to spend a weekend writing and meeting other writers, at a gorgeous inn in the middle of the amazing Berkshires (where by the way a slew of famous writers have lived and worked -- how about Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton?)

The February "Writer's Bloc" workshop is limited to a small number of writers, so do get in touch soon. To register, contact Retreat Coordinator Jo Ann Losinger at Or phone 413.445.5874. We hope to see you there. It will be a wonderfully energizing and productive retreat, we promise you!

Friday, December 09, 2011

A Young Writer Takes on the "N" Word!!

By Nieema A. Foster

A few months ago, I joined the fascinating and addictive world of Facebook. One of the activities that most interested me while on the site was studying people’s characters and states of mind based on what they write on their status updates. I was not surprised when I saw the “n” word appear, or that explicit rap lyrics were consistently popping up on my live news feed. Completely in touch with the ignorance of the times, I didn’t shake my head in disbelief. I only sighed because by now most individuals are aware of where the “n” word originated.

Being an African American woman with consciousness, I could never accept the “n” word as identification for myself or for any of my close friends. Even when “nigger” was shouted out at me by a car full of white boys while walking home from community college one day, I didn’t allow the word to define or degrade me.

I’ve often heard the argument that variants of the “n” word (nigguhs, niggahs, niccas, and niccer) are all okay to use as long as they are not said or written in the original form “nigger.” Personally, I disagree. I don’t care how you spell it, it’s the SAME word, with the SAME meaning, and it conveys the one and the SAME level of ignorance. The word bothers me to the extent that I will tell young men I speak to that it’s their choice to use the word, but out of respect for me, they are not to use it while conversing with me on the phone, face to face, or otherwise.

About three years ago I went on the Black College Tour where a group of African American students were traveling by bus to different historically Black Colleges. While on the bus, I heard a boy use the “n” word and sought to educate him by stating "Please brother, don’t use this derogatory term because you wouldn’t want to be viewed by society as one, and there are other words you can use.”

So what does he do with the knowledge I am trying to bestow upon him? He decides to be childish and make a song out of the word. Meanwhile, I am sitting in the seat in front of him as he leans his head in closer to me to start repeating it in various tones and accents. The only thing I could think to myself was what a shame that this young man wasn’t even willing to understand the science behind the word or what I was saying to him.

What is even more troubling is my inquiry of black teenage boys and girls as to why the “n” word is acceptable for them to say.

The kids always respond by telling me that “it's a term of endearment” and that since white people used it to degrade black people, we should change the meaning behind it and make it something positive.

Now when I ask them if it is okay for a white person to use the “n” word, they say it is not okay ever.

I don’t hear Italians refer to one another as "wops" or Spanish people calling each other "spiks" or Asians shouting out at each other "chinks." It’s only African Americans who choose to engage in such ignorant behavior.

I’d like to know what would be the harm in calling each other brothers and sisters; maybe that’s too corny for the young and middle-aged generation of African Americans. I’m unsure how there will be hope for black community if we can’t rise out of our chains of slavery. The slave masters were successfully able to create a degrading term that many of us today have come to utter and praise.

My question is why?

Writer Nieema A. Foster is a junior at the University at Albany, SUNY, majoring in journalism, with a minor in Africana Studies. Her "N" word piece was first featured in her community college newspaper, called the "Vignette," published at Nassau Community College. Nieema writes: "Using the power of my pen, I hope one day to travel the world and document the lives and stories of people from different languages and cultures." Stay tuned, as this is a writer who will deliver on her promise!

Thursday, December 08, 2011

"Students Meet Sid -- Siddhartha That Is!"

By Claudia Ricci

NOTE: This post appears today in the Books section of the Huffington Post.

If you're on a spiritual quest to find your SELF, or even if you're not, you might enjoy reading Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. I assigned it to my freshmen this past semester and at the start, many of them grumbled. They were just not impressed. They were bored. They kept complaining and whining and asking me, what happened? You've assigned all these great books, and now you assign us this? WHYYYYYYYY?

I smiled and gave them a short list of reasons. The novel forces them outside of their comfort zone. It raises some profound ideas and questions about how to live our lives. It's a short novel and reads easily. And, it was recommended by a former student who took the same class and later served as my teaching assistant.

And lastly, I told them this:

"I promise you that this book will NOT be the worst book you ever read in college."

A spiritual quest novel and a novel of ideas, the book follows a young Indian man who is on a path to finding peace and enlightenment.

As one might expect, it's not an action book. It doesn't offer fireworks. It's rather quiet and rather contemplative. It demands that you think about what's going on. It asks you to ask yourself questions about what the heck Siddhartha (or Sid, as one student nicknamed him in his journal) is up to.

Much of Siddhartha's quest is very much tied up with a search for the self, or more precisely, for the erasure of self! What a concept! Get rid of our egos? Those egos that we can never really escape? Why ever would we want to do such a thing?

"Siddhartha had one single goal -- to become empty, to become empty of thirst, desire, dreams, pleasure and sorrow -- to let the Self die. No longer to be Self, to experience the peace of an emptied heart, to experience pure thought -- that was his goal. When all the Self was conquered and dead, when all passions and desires were silent, then the last must awaken, the innermost of Being that is no longer Self-- the great secret!"

But it's tricky business trying to do away with the Self. No matter how hard you try to rid yourself of your SELF, it has a way of sneaking up on you, meeting you around every corner. As a Samana, an ascetic, Siddhartha fasted and meditated and prayed and engaged in self-denial and suffered pain -- "He lost his Self a thousand times and for days on end he dwelt in non-being. But although the paths took him away from Self, in the end they always led back to it."

Later, Siddhartha recognizes that perhaps it isn't the self at all that should occupy his attention; rather he realizes that he would be better served to listen for an authentic inner voice:

"He had known for a long time that his Self was Atman [the overriding reality of Oneness] of the same eternal nature as Brahman, but he had never really found his Self, because he had wanted to trap it in a net of thoughts.The body was certainly not the Self, nor the play of senses, nor thought, nor understanding, nor acquired wisdom or art with which to draw conclusions...He would only strive after whatever the inward voice commanded him not tarry anywhere but where the voice advised him. Why did Gotama once sit down beneath the bo tree in his greatest hour when he received enlightenment? He had heard a voice in his own heart which commanded him to seek rest under this tree...he had listened to this voice. To obey no other external command, only the voice, to be prepared -- that was good, that was necessary. Nothing else was necessary."

Later, after Siddhartha immerses himself in the pleasures of the flesh -- women, fine food, good clothing, gambling, money-making -- and then despairs and tires of that lifestyle, he comes to see again that he must listen to an inner voice to lead him out of despair.

"Onwards, onwards, this is your path. He had heard this voice when he had left his home and chosen the life of the Samanas; and again when he had left the Samanas and gone to the Perfect One, and also when he had left him for the unknown. How long was it now that he had heard this voice, since he had soared to any heights?"

Siddhartha's epiphany -- or one of them -- occurs shortly after he abandons the sensual life he's been leading. Disgusted with himself, he approaches the river, where he sits beside a tree and gazes into the water. He spits at his rotting image. Nauseated and repulsed by himself and the way of the flesh he's been living, he wants to die: "Might the fishes and crocodiles devour him, might the demons tear him to little pieces." He is drawn toward death but in that moment he hears a special sound, the one word, the one sound, the "ancient beginning and ending of all Brahmin prayers."

He speaks THE HOLY OM and it is profoundly transformative. "At that moment, when the sound of Om reached Siddhartha's ears, his slumbering soul suddenly awakened and he recognized the folly of his action." He is horrified by the fact that he is so lost he wants to die.

Overwhelmed and inspired by the sound of OM, he falls asleep and when he wakes, he feels revived, refreshed, renewed, reborn. He meets Govinda his friend again, realizes that he is going in circles or spirals, but feels happy and liberated.

Once again, the saving grace for Siddhartha is rooted in voice, which he refers to as a bird..."you have again had a good idea, have accomplished have heard the bird in your breast sing and followed it." Indeed, he realizes that the source of his joy is the bird: "the clear spring and voice within him was still alive -- that was why he rejoiced, that was why he laughed, that was why his face was radiant under his gray hair."

Finally, Siddhartha recognizes that the bird of voice, "singing happily" inside him, has led him toward his long-time goal, that is, to destroy the Self:

"No something else in him had died, something that he had long desired should perish. Was it not what he had once wished to destroy during his ardent years of asceticism? Was it not his Self, his small, fearful and proud Self, with which he had wrestled for so many years, but which had always conquered him again, which appeared each time again and again, which robbed him of happiness and filled him with fear? Was it not this which had finally died today in the wood by this delightful river? Was it not because of its death that he was now like a child, so full of trust and happiness, without fear?"

If you think about it, the "self" is really the source of so much of our pain. Fear of death is rooted in the self's awareness of its own mortality. Pride, greed, jealousy, all of them center on egoical drives set up in the self seeking to materialize its desires.

Siddhartha isn't the first man on a spiritual path, determined to find and lose the self.

In the end, many of my students found themselves liking Siddhartha a lot. I'm reading their final papers, and many chose to write about the many lessons that Sid taught them. Lessons like how to stand up to parents. How it is to follow a journey, and keep changing one's mind about the goals and the direction. How to think about what one wants in life. Where to look for teachers, and how much to rely on one's own experience and inner wisdom.

And how to sit by a river and see all of creation passing by.

I'm not sure how many of the students loved the book. But many of them learned something.

Funny thing about works of literature. The "classics" so often have a way of speaking to us, over and over again, through the years.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Sundays With Charlie, the Funniest Man on the Planet

By Dr. Mel Waldman

Note: This is the first of a three-part series.

I met Charlie, a comic genius, back in the seventies, when I was single again and going to socials and special events of interest to me and the general public. I met him at a jazz event. With understated, low-key humor, he cracked a few jokes and I laughed uproariously. This short, rotund man caught my attention. We talked at length, exchanged numbers, and ultimately, became lifelong buddies.

Of course, when we met, I didn’t realize he was a comic genius, nor did I consider him the funniest man on the planet. Over the next four decades, I discovered his generous humanity and his creative, comic perceptions of reality. His hilarious world view fueled his humor. And consistently, he launched me into hysterical fits of laughter. We shared a cornucopia of joy that, I believe, few friends have experienced.

Charlie and I had a ball, a private party of two men laughing together through at least half a lifetime, transcending the bad days, even the tragedies. More than a good-time Charlie, my dear friend was a good guy for all times.

Yet twice in our friendship, we stopped all contact for a few years. We had a few disagreements about trivial matters we can’t recall. His wife Gladys of more than fifty years facilitated our first reunion. She called me and said Charlie missed me. I confessed to her that I missed him. After her call, I put my ego aside and called Charlie. My old friend welcomed me back into his world, just as I accepted him again, without reservation, into mine. We recreated our shared universe of joy and celebration.

During those years of separation, Charlie suffered from heart failure and had quadruple bypass surgery. I suffered from a potentially fatal disease during this period. I received a treatment that was ineffective for most patients. Miraculously, I was cured.

His devoted granddaughter Helen brought us together for our second reunion. I got her call a few months ago. Charlie was in the hospital on a respirator. He suffered from dementia and aspiration pneumonia. No one knew if he would survive. I prayed for my old buddy.

While Charlie was in the hospital and the first few months after his discharge, I suffered severe asthma attacks, shortness of breath, chest pains, and a flood of agonizing pain throughout my body from head to toe. We didn’t see each other during this period. But I faced my quotidian challenges and functioned optimally at work. I refused to use my medical problems as excuses for not working. Indeed, work was a blessing, for it became a beautiful distraction from my chronic pain and medical conditions.

Furthermore, I spoke with his courageous granddaughter. She kept me abreast of Charlie’s emotional and medical conditions. And I asked Helen to let my friend know that I was back in his life. As the weeks and months passed, we eventually talked on the phone. Hearing Charlie’s voice warmed my heart and touched my wounded soul. And apparently, my presence in his life motivated Charlie to take better care of himself and to work harder at rehabilitation.

But before I describe our reunion, let me digress for a moment. Charlie wrote an encyclopedia of humorous categories, zany lists, perceptions, puzzles, comments and commentaries, and indefinable creations. A prolific writer and creator, he produced thousands and possibly tens-of-thousands of unique comic creations.

We used to wander through the labyrinth of Manhattan, especially Greenwich Village, SOHO, the 14th Street Area, Mid-and-Upper Manhattan and Brooklyn too, particularly Brooklyn Heights. Charlie usually spoke into his tape recorder and recorded his reconstructions of reality, a joyous journey into a vast playground of comedy.

Traveling with Charlie seemed like a romp through an enchanting wormhole, a surreal trip through the dreamscape of Alice in Wonderland. Charlie, disguised as the White Rabbit, disappeared into a rabbit hole. I followed him and fell down the rabbit hole.

What followed was a soulful feast and smorgasbord of humor, with a magical serving of Woody Allen, Seinfeld, and Kurt Vonnegut plus the X Factor in a comic concoction producing the innovative humorist I have the honor of calling my best friend.

Read Part Two in this series!!!!!

Writer Mel Waldman is a psychologist, poet, writer, and artist. His stories have appeared in dozens of magazines including HARDBOILED DETECTIVE, ESPIONAGE, THE SAINT, and AUDIENCE. He is a past winner of the literary GRADIVA AWARD in Psychoanalysis and was nominated for a PUSHCART PRIZE in literature. He is the author of 11 books. His most recent book, I AM A JEW, is a collection of essays, memoir, short stories, poems, and plays about his exploration of his Jewish identity. He has sold a series of short stories to the British publisher of POSTSCRIPTS, including literary mysteries, stories of suspense, and horror. These stories will tentatively be published in 2012 and 2013. He is currently working on a novel inspired by Freud’s case studies. His email address is

Monday, December 05, 2011

Tuscaloosa Bypass, A New Chapbook by Poet Cecele Kraus

Note to readers: Tuscaloosa Bypass, a new chapbook by poet Cecele Kraus, will be published by Finishing Line Press in February, 2012. To order your copy, go to the chapbook's order site.These fabulous poems would make a wonderful holiday gift!!

By Cecele Kraus

"Three Sisters"

Labor was long and hard. The doctors
kindly gave my mother two anesthesias,
bringing a lack of oxygen and a damaged baby.

Anna was born in late June, but my world turned to winter
as my mother drifted, and night fell bleak
on our circumstances.

Four o’clock flowers trumpeted around our porch
in late afternoons. I sang, we are climbing Jacob’s ladder,
played in the yard, watched the red flowers twist

and flutter into night-blooms, then ravel their petals
in the dewy morning hours. I sang, every rung goes higher,
higher, pushed myself up into the air.

Now Anna visits in a dream, giggling, and tells me
of her boyfriend at the sheltered workshop. My sister
Amelia returns too—her eyes pierce as she wards off danger.

Older sister, I dream a sod carpet, pull it back,
and find gorgeous flowers, roots entangled in pachysandra,
closing in light, opening in the turf’s dark.

Oh trinity of sisters. Anna, small bud blooming in
her own light, Amelia, wild orchid in a desert, and me,
stooped gardener, seeking flowers wherever I can find them.

After thirty years in private practice as a psychoanalyst, Cecele Kraus found herself writing poetry. Writing provided perspective and poetry became a way of life. Her work has appeared in Windfall, Naugatuck River Review, Passager, Backstreet, Chronogram, MyStoryLives, and two chapbook anthologies--Java Wednesdays and Zephyrs 2. Peace Corps experiences were the inspiration for a chapbook entitled Dreaming Barranquilla. In 2009, her poem, “Love Blooms,” won first place in the Hudson Valley Writers Guild poetry contest. She lives in Copake, New York. This poem appeared first in the Fall, 2009 issue of "Java Wednesdays, as “Longest Day of the Year."

Friday, December 02, 2011

He'll Be Alone -- Forever! (Part Two, Flip Your Script)

By Valerie K

He wanted so badly to cry, but he couldn’t. The tears wanted his eyes to blink and release themselves down his face, but his pride refused to let it happen.

He walked over to the fireplace and picked up the picture of his three daughters and his wife. They all looked so happy. You could feel their personalities just by looking at the picture. His wife sat in front of the girls; she looked tired, old and weak – but happy nonetheless.

This was the only time he saw the girls this happy. Maybe this picture was taken during the time he had moved out.

Rage filled his body. “Ahhhhh!” He screeched and flung the picture at the kitchen door, shattering the glass picture frame.

He sat alone, in the empty house, wishing so badly that the silence would dissipate. He wanted to hear his youngest daughter, Tina, run down the stairs laughing and singing again. He wanted to hear Valerie, the middle child, yelling “shutup!” This would then be followed by his oldest daughter, Jeanie, telling her sister not to talk to Tina like that -- which then would lead them to another quarrel.

He never felt so alone.

“Daddy, today in school we learned algebra,” he heard his youngest daughter say. He turned toward the sound. There was no one there. Emptiness surrounded him.

He walked back to the mantle and picked up a picture of Valerie. It was her prom picture. She had on a purple dress and five- inch heals, she was getting into the car about to drive off for her prom.

Once more he wanted to cry, but couldn’t. Instead rage filled his heart. He didn't remember her being this old. He had missed all of the moments a father should have cherished.

He stared at Valerie. She was so pretty. Just like her mother.

He smashed the picture frame open and ripped the photo up. But that didn’t matter, no one ever came in the house anymore. No one was there to notice what he had done.

He was completely and utterly alone.

He left the room and walked into the kids’ room. There were more pictures, everywhere. So many moments that he had missed and could never get back.

He stared at his daughter Valerie's graduation picture. She was handing a rose to her mom, and you could see a single tear go down her mom’s face. She was proud of her daughter.

“I didn’t mean to,” he mumbled, staring at the picture. “It wasn’t my fault.”

In the photograph, he thought he saw Valerie move. He was surprised by this but intrigued to see what would happen next. His daughter stared at his face and now he realized she was examining every bit of ugliness on him, including his huge nose in the middle of his face. He realized that she hated that nose, his nose, because she had the very same one on her face.

“I hate you,” was all that she said to him, and the picture went back to normal as if nothing had happened.

“It wasn’t my fault," he mumbled. He went into the kitchen and flung open the refrigerator door looking for something that could calm him down. He grabbed a 40-ounce and immediately opened it and drank half of it.

“It was your fucking mother.” He yelled that. But no one was there to hear him.

“Am I not the man of this house? That bitch…” he brought the bottle back to his face and drank more, drowning his sorrows with the beer.

“…wouldn’t let me do shit. Every fucking time I would be gone for more than one night she would say I was a piece of shit father. Well fuck her! And every time I look at your damn face, all I see is your mother. It wasn’t my fault.”

He took another huge gulp of beer and continued ranting. “At first, I used to like yo ass. I would take you places. I even named you after my only older brother. But then the older you got, the more you acted like her. Your mother. You used to get mad at me, just like she did. You would ignore me and shit. But I’m the fucking man of this mother-fucking house. And sometimes I would have to remind you of that.”

He laughed to himself. “I would do small shit, hoping you get the fucking point. Like make you stand up all night. Discipline yo ass, that’s what you needed – discipline. But you had too much of ya daddy in you…you would cry but I couldn’t break you.” He drank some more. “And you knew that shit pissed me the fuck off. So I would pop you, not hard, just on ya hand. And you wouldn’t cry. Damn, yo ass knows so well how to upset your father. So I would hit you harder. When you fell down I just couldn’t control it, I let all my anger out any way I could … with my hands, my feet, and my teeth.”

He finished the rest of his beer, and grabbed the bottle of vodka, and smoothly he laughed.

“Then you yelled ‘Ma, Mommy help me!’ Why didn’t you just call out for me. I am the man of this fucking house. I protect you all.” He brought the bottle to his mouth and took a sip. “You must have forgot that. See, I told you it wasn’t my fucking fault.”

“But you hated me, and every chance I could, I would beat some fucking respect into you…for your own good. But you never learned. It wasn’t my fault, I just was doin' my duty as a father.” He went back to the graduation picture sitting on the TV. “Did you hear me, it wasn’t my fault?”

There was no answer. The house was silent. A single tear ran down his face.

He was so alone.

And he would be so alone.


This is part two of a "Flip Your Script" set of stories. In Part One, called ********BOOM********, writer Valerie K -- a pseudonym for a writer in upstate New York -- wrote about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father growing up. In this, the second part of the story, Valerie steps into the hands of her abusive father. Valerie says that writing these two stories has given her immense comfort, and she is now determined to keep writing as a way of healing from the abuse.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

***************BOOM***************** (Part One, Flip Your Script)

By Valerie K

“What's wrong, Valerie?” She bent down so we were eye-to-eye. I hate when adults do that.

“Are you afraid to tell me?”


“Where did you get these scars from?”

I wanted to scream:

None of ya' fucking business. I’m tired of people asking me what’s wrong. You can’t do shit to help me. I have too many problems; I don’t even know where to begin. I know the school district’s teacher budget is not paying you enough to deal with what I’m going through.

I got home. More questions.

“How was school today?” he asked me.

“Good.” I whispered.

“Did you behave? I don’t want to hear any fucking complaints on my email today.”

I walked away. I lay in my bed, and stared up at the ceiling. I looked to my left and to my right, walls. I was trapped. I was alone.

I wanted to cry, but no tears came. I knew he was coming; he always came around this time. Sometimes if I was really good, I could count down until that horrifying moment when he got up here.


I tried again.



He burst through my door before I got to two.

“Get the fuck up.”

I complied.

“Take your clothes off.”

I looked at him twice, my eyes begging him not to make me do it. I hoped that he would look at me and see his little girl and realize that this wasn’t right. But he didn’t.

“Take off your clothes!” he yelled again.

I did. I felt like shit. I was humiliated. “Go get your notebook and write this…” he paused for a minute giving me time to get my stuff. “Hurry up, I don’t have all day!

"Now write this…”

I wrote while he talked, “’Humble: feeling or showing respect and deference towards other people. I will not be prideful, I will have humility.’ Write it till your fucking hand bleeds.”

So I wrote. Tears fell on my paper but I kept going. My hand never did bleed but I was waiting until he fell asleep so I could take a break without him knowing.

I looked at the clock. 8:35 pm. 12 more hours till school.

Just then he came upstairs and asked for my paper. I prepared myself because this was usually the time he was drunk. By this time he was so drunk he could care less about punching me as hard as he would have if I didn’t write enough.

An unexpected smack came across my face. I fell to the ground. He hit me. He kicked me; I wanted so bad to cry but I refused to let him know he was getting to me.

I looked at the clock. 8:36.

My side hurt, it was a burning sensation that only grew worse when I moved. But I had to move in order to protect my other side from blows.

I curled into a ball. He kicked me in the thighs over and over and over again.

It was still 8:36. I closed my eyes and talked to God, hoping that would pass the time. I told Him that I forgave my dad, even though he didn’t say he was sorry. I told Him that I promised not to hate my dad. I asked God to change my dad into one that wasn’t so angry.

Still 8:36.

At 9:02 he left my room.

Eleven and one-half more hours until school. I couldn’t wait.

I have never felt so alone.

Valerie K is a pseudonym for a writer in upstate New York who suffered abuse as a child. This piece is the first of a "Flip Your Script" pair of writings; stay tuned for Part Two, when Valerie steps into the role of her abusing father. "Flip Your Script" is a new writing exercise I developed to help individuals use narrative, or story-telling, as a way of finding peace and forgiveness in difficult personal relationships. To read more about Flip Your Script, check out this earlier post.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

How Meditation Can Spark Creativity and Ease Stress in College Students

NOTE: This piece also appeared on the Huffington Post.

By Claudia Ricci

One of the most exciting things about attending a conference is that you often meet the most creative people doing the most amazing and creative things.

Recently, I had the good fortune to attend a conference on "contemplative pedagogy" in higher education at Amherst College. Sponsored by the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, the conference attracted swarms of fascinating educators from across the country, all of whom are committed to using meditation, mindfulness and other "contemplative" practices in their college classrooms.

The faculty using these practices are generally very innovative and incredibly dedicated and dynamic teachers. They are the type who not only think outside the box, they tend to dismiss the box altogether and rethink the whole container problem top to bottom. Teachers who use contemplative practices also tend to place great value on teaching to the "whole" student, not just to a student's disembodied mind or brain.

One such extra-special teacher I met is Molly Beauregard, who teaches at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan. Art schools tend to be extremely competitive; they are pressure cookers for the students who attend them. Routinely students pull all-nighters to get their creative work completed to meet tight deadlines.

To help students deal with the stress, and to get them in touch with their creative powers, Beauregard has developed a fascinating new class in which the college students learn to manage their stress by meditating twice daily.

After the conference, Beauregard emailed me a wonderful short video produced by The David Lynch Foundation. The video will show you exactly how meditation is helping these young college students discover new ways of finding happiness and satisfaction despite very demanding workloads.

Watching the students meditating reminded me, once again, about the enormous power of meditation. Not only does it heal us, emotionally, spiritually and physically, it makes us feel better. As suggested by this video, meditation also opens the doors into our deepest and richest sources of creative power. A few years back, filmmaker Lynch wrote a very popular book, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity, in which he shared his own Transcendental meditation practice (he's been practicing meditation every day for more than three decades and established the foundation to promote meditation.)

Hats off to you Molly Beauregard, for this incredibly exciting work out in Detroit! And thanks to David Lynch and the foundation for making the film.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Tale of Two Cookbooks

By Ellen W

Their pages are yellowed -- no, brown, the paper stiff with age. In handling either cookbook, I have to take care not to let the paper crumble beneath my fingertips. One is a handwritten notebook of recipes collected from friends and relatives in the Mohawk Valley of Upstate New York.

It conjures up images of snow-covered hills, farm country where cows graze in fields where plows may turn up an arrowhead here and there.

The second, written in a foreign language that makes you think of tulips, windmills, and wooden shoes, bears the name of a publishing company in Rotterdam, Holland. The recipes include such food items as aardappelen, wortelen, uien, words which I decipher as meaning "potatoes, carrots, onions."

Both cookbooks are a hundred years old.

The Tale of Two Cookbooks is also the tale of my two grandmothers. The first book -- the handwritten one -- belonged to my Grandma Minnie, who was born on Christmas Eve in 1890. She spent her early childhood along the Erie Canal. Here's a picture of her as a young child on the balcony of the Lock Grocery in Fort Plain:

Minnie couldn't have been more than three years old then. She married my grandfather in 1912. They raised five children: four girls and one boy, who was my father, born at home in Fort Plain in 1920.

The Dutch cookbook belonged to my mother's mother, Grandma Vandenbergh, who was born in the small village of Loosdrecht in North Holland in 1886. As a young adult, Elizabeth worked as a domestic servant for the local pastor, in hopes of saving enough money to pay her passage to America. Here's a photo of Elizabeth and her sister in their maids uniforms, about 1900. Elizabeth is on the right, her sister Hendrina at left. Note the starched caps and neatly pressed aprons:

Elizabeth married my grandfather Barend VandenBergh in 1911, and shortly afterward, they boarded a ship bound for New York, bringing with them a huge and heavy two-volume Dutch Bible -- and of course, Elizabeth's cookbook.


Grandma Minnie's room was at the top of the winding staircase in the front of the house on the hill. The room looked out on the side yard, where a huge magnolia tree with pink marzipan petals bloomed furiously each spring. The front window overlooked the street, giving a view down the hill over the rooftops toward the river.

You could not see the river itself, but in summer you could see the rich green hills on the other side of the river. And you might see tiny black and white dots on the hills, which were cows grazing on the rich green grass. "Side-hill cows," my father called them, with one pair of legs shorter than the other, so they could graze easily and gracefully on the hillside. (At least that's what Dad called them, and I believed that myth well into middle childhood, when I realized it was not genetically feasible.)

The room contained the usual heavy Victorian furniture of the era in which the house was built -- bedstead, dresser, chest of drawers -- and had a built-in closet.

This was also the room in which my father was born, in the summer of 1920. Perhaps downstairs, Great-Grandma Nan was making apple fritters to distract the three sisters who were anxiously awaiting word of the arrival of their latest sibling.

First she brought some apples up from the cellar, where the family stored their fruits and vegetables. She peeled and chopped two apples. Then she sifted together some flour, baking powder, and salt.

She separated two eggs and beat the egg whites until they formed fluffy white peaks like snow. She beat the egg yolks, added some sugar, milk, and the dry ingredients. Then she folded in the puffy egg whites and the chopped apples. She heated a heavy iron frying pan on the wood stove and poured some of the mixture into the pan.

When they were done, she served up the lightly browned fritters.

At some point, Minnie must have added the family recipe to her own notebook. When I tried it myself, I had a bit of trouble with the steps: which to do first, chop the apples or beat the egg whites? Or heat the milk?

Basically, I followed the steps as outlined above. I could have chopped the apples a bit finer than I did, but the fritters turned out pretty well anyway. At least, they disappeared from the serving plate pretty fast. My husband and son enjoyed them with maple syrup; I preferred them sprinkled with brown sugar.

What is a "fritter," anyway, you may ask? According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the word comes from French, by way of Middle English: friture means "fried food" in French. So a fritter is "a small cake made of batter, often containing fruit, vegetables, or fish, sauteed or deep-fried."

Interestingly, Grandma Vandenbergh's Dutch cookbook contains a similar recipe for appelpannekoeken, or apple pancakes. This one calls for whole wheat flour, cold milk, hot water, yeast, vegetable oil, salt, and "four large sour apples." I remember eating such apple pancakes when I visited relatives in the Netherlands many years ago. Perhaps I'll have an opportunity to visit again sometime soon.

Until then, I'll be content with Grandma Minnie's sweet and crunchy apple fritters.

Writer Ellen W, who lives in the Albany area, is writing a family history, based on two cookbooks she inherited from her two grandmothers. As is fitting, the Tale of Two Cookbooks website has a post about Thanksgiving today!