We’re Better than This -II


I watch the hatred and small mindedness of the Republican nominee in disbelief. Blocking all Muslims?  Really? This candidate is the best the Republican party can come up with? And our legislators cannot pass much-needed gun controls, out of fear of losing funding for their next election?

I am suddenly drawn back to the time when we baby boomers were protesting the treatment of Negroes (positive word used at the time) in the South, or the Vietnamese War, or Dow chemicals and the use of Nepalm in that war, or even the military-industrial complex in general – it seemed to rule everything.  Back when we opted out of business schools and studied art. Back when we said there’s a better way to live.  No more war.  Make love not war.  The orange haired freak who I will not name is heir to these same possibilities. But he and his followers seem not to have listened. What happened?

In the eyes of many of us growing up in the fifties and sixties, our parents were not the greatest generation – Tom Brokaw hadn’t written his book yet.  They had fought or sacrificed to save all for the boys at the front, true. And Hitler was a monster. Also true.  I’m glad he was finally stopped.  But why did no one stop him much earlier?

My parents believed in the just war.  My generation believed no war was justified.

After WWII the men came home, tossed the women out of their jobs and took the jobs for themselves, and proceeded to turn into Mad Men.  My generation looked at what we had inherited and said NO.  No to war.  And we didn’t want gender specific rules for how to behave or how to earn a living, or telling us who to love. With the pill, we women were free to experiment, just like the guys.  And we all wanted to do something meaningful, something to make the world a better place.  But then we got married and everyone fell into traditional roles like taking their assigned seats in a classroom.  Men called watching their own children “babysitting.”  Men our fathers’ ages did their best to impose the old rules, and largely succeeded.

But women fought back. Helped by new legislation, many women like me managed achievements undreamed of in the nineteen fifties.  Some of us clung to our 60’s ideal notions longer than others. Gays stood up for their rights, and the LGBT rainbow flag became part of our consciousness.

Gradually, though, these efforts toward equal treatment got taken for granted. And now we have throw-back macho-loving wildcatters blaming anyone except the country’s incredible proliferation of guns for our endless mass shootings.  And we have really scary fundamentalists dreaming up rules to limit women’s reproductive freedom and intimating that the gay people in that nightclub deserved what they got.  At least 35 U.S. cities are reporting a startling rise in murders or other violent crimes this year, ending decades of declines in most cases, but the orange-haired candidate is either silent on it or blame it on immigrants. And he is supported by many.

When will people learn? They attack women’s rights.  They say we can’t afford to help our teens get a better education or help poor children have better health, or do something meaningful about the plight of people with serious mental illness. They have proposed no way to get at the root causes of our young men’s fascination with violence. But there’s always enough money for another war. They allow billionaires to run roughshod over us all.

There is nothing wrong with earning a living, but there is something wrong when the short-term profit motive drives everything we do, when we lose charity and caring, when pursuit of the almighty buck gives a person license to try to wipe out the civil rights legislation and progress of the past fifty years, when desire for power and self-aggrandizement trumps humanity.

We’re better than this.

We can be so much better than this.

Mankind v. womankind v. humankind


Have you ever noticed (of course you have!) that when there is a news item about violence somewhere, whether Jihadist fighters doing what they do, rapists in Darfur or Chechnia brutalizing innocent women and children, or some weirdo keeping three women locked in his basement in Cleveland – doesn’t matter – it’s men doing the violence? Usually against women. Why don’t we say that out loud? If it’s whites violating blacks, we say that. I’m tired of hearing that “whites” did some horrible thing. It is white men. I’m tired of hearing that Muslim Extremists, or Chechnian Terrorists did some horrible thing. It is Muslim men, and Chechnian men. And they wreak their violence on both men and women, but it is women who are especially on the losing end. You never hear of a group of young women beating and gang raping some guy walking by. Half of the population of the world has been brutalizing the other half for centuries. Let’s say so out loud.

It’s just something to remember to say – like saying humankind instead of mankind, or saying people instead of men, if you want to include man and woman in your statement.  But if a gang of men did it, say that, not a gang of people, or a group of terrorists.  Say a group of men did the horrible whatever. Just be clear.  Let’s get people used to thinking about who is doing what out there.

There is a reason for speaking this way.  It is important to counter the claim of many men that men have a right to be in power because they are the ones who fought for our freedom and created our civilization, while “all” women did was take care of the kids. First of all, civilization is what happens between the wars, when there is peace and security to do research and attempt new inventions.  And secondly, many women are behind many of the big discoveries and inventions in the world, but men got credit for their work.  And anyway, “all?”  What is more important than raising the children?  And women have demonstrated many times over that they can run our cities and states and businesses as well as or better than any man.  But men can’t claim the reverse, that women are behind as many horrible expressions of violence as men.  We women don’t rape and pillage and brutalize.  We just don’t.  And our societies can benefit from our attitudes and sensibilities.

Former President Jimmy Carter, in his 2014 book, his 28th, titled A Call To Action: Women, Religion, Violence, and Power, has said that he has never previously written on a topic so important. He described women’s rights as an issue that’s been “unaddressed” globally.  “I don’t think there’s any doubt that when women seek public office, and gain it, they transform their governments because they have an overwhelmingly greater commitment to peace, and to justice and understanding.”

In April, according to Yahoo News, Carter declared, “I consider myself a feminist.” And in an interview with CNN in January of this year, the former president said, “This is going to be the highest priority for the rest of my life.”

I hope he continues to live long and prosper, as Spock used to say.

And I hope womenkind can help save humankind.

Can Girl Power Stop the Lord of the Flies?


What happens when a society rejects the rule of law?  Does it have to devolve into tormenting women?
In the Middle East, during decades fighting off the oppression of colonial rule, regional chieftains rewarded rebellion against the colonial powers and praised violence and lawlessness. They rejected the kind of secular laws that have guided the civilizations of Europe and North America. Gradually their society devolved until there was really no law at all.  But when people are left with no law, they eventually create something to organize the chaos. And that something will emerge from a jumble of things they have learned in the past.

When the U. S. took out Saddam Hussein’s government, the region met with a power vacuum. Into that vacuum have come new attempts at organization which, formed by young rebellious men, consist of the rule of strength and power and which rewards its fighters by giving them access to young women. And this is ISIS.

“The systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority has become deeply enmeshed in the organization and the radical theology of the Islamic State in the year since the group announced it was reviving slavery as an institution. The practice has been enshrined in the group’s core tenets,” reports the New York Times on August 13, 2015. The Times goes on, “Repeatedly, the ISIS leadership has emphasized a narrow and selective reading of the Quran and other religious rulings to not only justify violence, but also to elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous.”

It is Lord of the Flies come to life. The boys on author William Golding’s 1954 fictional island found bizarre and brutal ways to recreate some sort of ritual and order; the young men of ISIS are doing the same thing. They reached back into bits they could remember from school and home life and mixed them with a brutal urge to not only survive, but survive with a system of rules of their own creation.

The Abrahamic religions, especially Islam, denigrate women and off-load most sexual self control to women. If men misbehave, it is woman’s fault.  Like the boys on Golding’s island, these horny young men when creating their new society use selected passages from their holy books to justify satisfying their sexual urges. And they have established a bizarre set of rules that satisfy both their urge for sex and power and their urge for order and ritual.

Our worst fears come to life.  This sort of thing is happening in South and Central America, as well, where the rule of law has been destroyed by decades of support for rebellion. There, drug warlords have assumed power.  And women have been virtually enslaved there, as well.  Unless we want more Lord of the Flies, we need to do something to stop it.

Religious leaders could help prevent this sort of horror by speaking out against gender bias and by excising misogynist passages from their holy books.  Women around the world, let us challenge our religious leaders to do this. Girl Power!  Loud and clear.  By Mother’s Day, 2016, let us see all leaders of all faiths speak with one voice against the subjugation of women. Let them reject the assignment of blame to women, and accept that men and women are one species with equal responsibility for maintaining a just and orderly world.

Let us stop the Lord of the Flies.

Why I am a Feminist

first-amendmentI was in my bedroom, getting ready to walk to a girlfriend’s house one Saturday morning, when I heard my grandmother and mother talking in the hallway.  It was almost ten o’clock, my agreed-upon meeting time with my friend Annie.  I had already done my Saturday chores – cleaned my room, changed the sheets on my bed, and vacuumed and dusted the living room – and so expected to have some free time for a few hours.

“What do you mean she’s going downtown with a friend?” I heard Grandma say.  “You spoil that girl.  She should be doing up her brothers’ room and helping you with the laundry.”

I looked at the clock and held my breath.

“She’s finished her chores,” Mother said.  “The boys can clean their own room.  She’s not their maid.”

Grandma made a harumphing noise, I let my breath escape with relief, and then I rushed off before anyone could change their mind.

I heard Mother defend me a few weeks later, also, when my other grandmother tried to talk her into keeping my older sister and me from attending college.  “Those girls should get a job and give you the money to pay the boys’ college,” I heard her say.  Mother, who had gone to college herself, said something about how important education was, and I never heard anything more about it.  I had to pay my own way, but that was because there were ten of us kids, and there was no way my parents could have paid for us to go to college.  My father wouldn’t let me major in business – “no place for a lady.” he insisted – but at least I didn’t have to also pay for my brothers. (And I majored in Spanish – an acceptable thing for a woman to study in the late 60’s.  I went back for the MBA years later.)


The discussions between my mother and grandmothers took place in 1964, a lifetime ago.  When I tell friends this story, they say thank goodness things have changed and wasn’t I lucky to have a mother who supported gender equality.

A friend in my MBA program wasn’t so lucky.  Her parents were good, hard working people, and they paid for her brother to go to college, but told her high school was enough for her, despite her good grades. Girls had no need of a college education, her father said.  “It just puts ideas in their heads.” So Chris got a job at a local bank and after eight years had worked her way up to an assistant vice president, had a college degree from a nearby state school (paid for by her employer), and was working on an MBA.  Another girlfriend, a licensed pharmacist, was denied a mortgage on the little two bedroom house she wanted to buy unless her father or brother would cosign the note. Her brother, a cash-strapped young man with a growing family, cosigned, and Jan got her two bedroom bungalow.

This is why we are feminists

Women of my generation are carrying these stories around with us.  We are different from the men our age because our participation in higher education and the workplace was often at risk for us.  Though I didn’t have to make up my brothers’ beds or give them my paycheck to pay their way through school, I was aware that I had come very close.  My friend Jan, though not financially dependent on her brother, knew that without him she could not have bought that house.  So women my age are sensitive to how recently our advances were made and fear how easily they could be lost. I try to imagine my brothers being threatened with cleaning my bedroom for me or getting jobs to pay my way through college, or needing me to cosign a note so they could buy a house or a car. It is inconceivable. And I am wary.

So yes, I had good luck in mothers. And Chris was lucky that her bank paid most of her college tuition. And Jan was lucky to have a nice brother. Similarly I hear people say, when a woman faces some trying bit of discrimination, “Well, you are lucky that you live in the USA.  Think of the poor women in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia.  They can’t even leave the house without a male family member to look after them.  Women in this country are very lucky.”

I have a problem with this logic, however.

I am certainly thankful I am not one of the downtrodden wretches in a third world theocracy where the local imam can dictate life or death.  But why compare myself to them?  I have compassion for them, certainly, and I’d like to think the collective “we” will help improve their lives.  But if I were a woman there I truly WOULD depend on luck.  Luck if my father or brother will let me learn how to read, luck if he doesn’t beat me, luck if my family will find a nice man to marry me off to at a reasonable age, not some brute when I am only thirteen. I would have no laws to protect me except sharia law, which does not protect a woman at all. But here in the U.S.A. we DO have civil laws that are supposed to protect our rights. So I see no reason to compare myself to them.

Instead, I compare myself to my brothers and their friends.  Why do our brothers still have it so much easier than we do?  And I put that in the present tense. Title IX got women into professional schools and EEOC gets us into the entry level interview. And no one can deny someone a mortgage based on someone’s gender anymore. But many families still raise their chidden differently, according to gender; they encourage their sons to go to college and their daughters to find a man.  In the workplace, men still have it easier getting considered for the next promotion, and women still make up a pitiful percentage of CEOs.  And unlike men, women are virtual prisoners at night, fearful of being raped if they go anywhere after dark without a man to protect her.

Laws, not luck

Women need laws so we don’t have to depend on luck.  We have those laws in the U.S. today, thanks especially to the work and sacrifice of feminist pioneers of the past fifty years, but there are men trying to do an end run around those laws.  And like the men leading the Iranian revolution back in 1980, they don’t appear at first glance to be planning to send women back to the kitchen.  But that is exactly what the men of Iran did after the revolution. Abandoning Western-inspired laws, they instituted Sharia law and women lost all their rights.

I look at what is happening today with women’s reproductive rights and I shudder.  Margaret Sanger must be turning in her grave. The people behind Holly Lobby and the myriad other efforts to deny insurance coverage for contraception are identical twins to the men of the FLDS who have held women captive in the Southwest for decades. The Pew Trust reports that “in the weeks since new regulations were published explaining the contraception mandate in the ACA , one religious charity (Little Sisters of the Poor) has asked the Supreme Court to overturn a decision upholding the regulations, and a Christian school (Wheaton College in Illinois) has announced that it will stop offering its students health insurance due to the mandate.”  Also among protestors are egotistical television evangelists who make millions of dollars from gullible followers who are looking for answers. And we can’t forget the all male secret society known as the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which has subjugated women for centuries. All of these groups are believers in religions of the Abrahamic tradition who insist that a male god created man and then created woman to serve him, and who blame the problems of the world on one woman’s curiosity, instead of the man’s concupiscence.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

If these reactionary men want to selectively pick out verses from their holy books written by a few misogynist middle eastern men two thousand years ago and believe in them, I can do nothing to stop them. But where our country’s rule of law and their beliefs disagree, the law supersedes the old holy book.  Their fixation on not wasting man’s seed – a phrase written at a time when our planet had very few human inhabitants – makes no sense to me.  My personal religion calls for me to celebrate my sexuality in a way that does not harm my environment, so I have practiced birth control.  And my religion calls for me to be a good citizen, behaving in an ethical and honest way and helping those less fortunate than me, (not so lucky), so I contribute to charities.  And my religion calls for me to speak out to protect those less fortunate.  So  if I see anyone using his religious beliefs as an excuse to restrict the lives of others, I will speak out.

But I do not impose my beliefs on you.  And you may not impose your misguided beliefs on me. It’s not luck. It’s the law. And so I am a feminist, and I will fight to preserve and improve women’s rights at home and abroad.

Wishing Stones and Tea Leaves, part II

ruins of old Crom castle
ruins of old Crom Castle

Our group of nine women had been led by our cheerful cook and counselor, Violet, to a wishing stone on the grounds of Crom Castle, in Northern Ireland. Now, wishes wished and the sun setting, we followed Violet again along the shore of the lough and through the lengthening shadows, past the castle and boathouse, and into the darkening woods.

“Come along,” Violet said, urging us to keep up.  Well into her seventies, Violet walked faster than most of us, despite being more than 20 years younger.

“Do you think we’ll see the pine marten?” someone asked.

“Maybe so,” Violet said. “We’ll see.” The brown, endangered, weasel-like animal is a rare nocturnal creature that in Ireland lives mostly in trees. One had taken to visiting Violet from time to time.

“She has a way with the creatures,” our guide, Brenda confided to us.

Our pathway curved on through fields and woods, a ten-minute walk to her home, a small house we had seen from our boat ride with the Earl a few days before. It looked like a story book cottage, with a low roof, little dormers, and a patch of pink and white annual flowers planted near the front door. I felt like Gretel or Red Riding Hood, but hoped for a more pleasant cottage visit.

Inside, the faded, floral-papered rooms were stuffed with doileyed furniture and shelves of china bric-a-brac. Small hooked rugs in a floral pattern lay before the two petite armchairs. We found Cynthia, our evening cook and Violet’s daughter, in the yellow kitchen. True to her word, she had brought along the rhubarb crumble, and while we had been at the wishing stone she’d started water for tea, as well.

The first order of business was to see if we could catch sight of the pine marten. Perched on wooden stools or leaning against the 1950’s era red and white enameled table, we watched quietly for about ten minutes in the darkening kitchen, whispering and giggling, until a rattling of the garbage cans outside gave away the animal’s arrival.  Violet’s little friend soon nosed up to her window for the ginger snap cookies she usually spread over the sill. Our hostess went out to greet it, speaking to it in a sort of whimper and chatter, and it came to her hand, ate the snack, posed for a few pictures, and then disappeared into the woods.

Once we’d assembled in the kitchen, Cynthia poured our tea. It was made with loose leaves, and as we drank, their wet remains lay in the bottom of our china cups, ready for Violet to work her skills as a seer. It would surely be a cozy, friendly fortune telling, I thought, filled with lots of healthy guesses after five days of overhearing our conversations at breakfast. Happy, successful children, glorious careers and men of mystery… We each took a turn in the living room on a footstool at Violet’s knees while the others gabbed and ate crumble in the kitchen. The rhubarb was tart and sweet at the same time.

On my turn with the fortune-teller, she looked for a long time into the tea leaves on the bottom of my cup and asked me if there was anything I was upset about. I told her I had left my job, but kept starting books and not finishing them and so had gone back to work. I had started three books so far, a business advice book for women, an autobiography, and a long essay about women and religion.

“Well, perhaps they’re the same book,” she said, pausing to think that over. I made a face. “Well, at any rate, that procrastinating is all done for. You’ll start back as soon as you get home. Start the first one, and finish it. Then the next, and so on. You’ll have at least one of them finished in three years.”

“Is there anything else you’re wondering about?” she prodded, patting my hand as she alternated looking into the cup and back at my face. “I feel there’s something.”

Our eyes locked gaze.

I thought of how little I saw my daughters anymore and wondered if there was any way for us to become closer now that they had already left home. I wondered if I had made the right choice to leave my job at the bank and take this philosophical journey. I wondered how much longer I would live, and if I would use the time well. All my good intentions back in high school and business school about making the world a better place, but what had I done?

My friends were chattering in the kitchen. I looked up at the old woman and said, “No, nothing else.”

Violet paused, then tilted the tea cup for another look. Perhaps knowing I had two unmarried adult daughters, she added that there was an engagement and a new baby in the near future, and patted my hand.

“I hope they come in that order,” I laughed.

I did finish one book after I came back home, though it took five years, not three. And I am now nearing completion of my next, with two more sketched out and waiting their turn.  And though I was a bit skeptical about the fortune telling that evening–let’s face it, this was mostly a harmless evenings pastime–in the years since I have come to appreciate the role women like Violet have played in men’s and women’s lives over the centuries. The tradition of the wise forest woman who speaks to the animals is part of the Irish and British heritage. Celtic traditions contained many myths about a divine Old Woman. Part Leprechaun, part seer, our Violet enjoyed multiple connections to the spirit world.

In Joseph Campbell’ s classic work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the first encounter of the hero on his journey is with a protective figure who provides him with amulets or magic devices against the dangers he will face. The crone is one of the most common of these protective figures, from the fairy godmother in fairy tales to the Oracle at Delphi.

I find it ironic that we all accept the wisdom of these women in magical old stories, while in real life, older women often become invisible. I’ve come to believe this marginalization is due to our Judeo Christian heritage, which places the woman in a subordinate and undesirable position, starting with Eve being blamed for the Fall. She is assumed to have no knowledge beyond childrearing. (Even a woman’s knowledge of herbal remedies may be turned against her and earn her condemnation as a witch.) The real story is always some battle men are waging with each other.  Woman’s role is reduced to that of temptress or baby incubator. Once past reproduction, we are unnecessary.  And the lessons of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Timothy give men – both the young and mature – license to ignore the Violets of the world.

But the old fairy tales and myths that are the foundation for the Wise Forest Woman are the stories handed down from our pre-Christian heritage. They speak the truths that come from our human collective unconscious. We know in our hearts that old women have seen much and can teach us much.

On this visit to Crom, I found myself traveling with women who were attuned to their inner spirituality.  Our companionship helped give mutual validity to our yearning for a continued place in this world. And I have found that when we throw off the insulting and demoralizing messages of the Abrahamic religions, we become open to the affirmation that there are wise women with wisdom to share.  I find comfort in their company.


The above is an excerpt from my book in progress.

See also http://www.shotintheheadbook.com

On Contraception and Churches

In the recent uproar about health care and insurance coverage and religion, people seem to have forgotten: One- Birth control is legal in this country.  Two- We are not a theocracy.  And three- The ACA makes coverage of contraception by insurance companies mandatory.  Allowing religious organizations and companies owned by people who practice fundamentalist religions to shamelessly opt out of coverage for their employees is unconstitutional, contrary to laws on the separation of church and state.  It is also a civil rights violation against women.  So how can we possibly be talking about whether insurance companies should cover contraception?

People who don’t believe in contraception are certainly free to have unprotected sex.  Or they may choose to abstain from intercourse.  At the same time, it is a right in this country for people to follow their own conscience and to follow a lawful practice of using certain medications or physical impediments to prevent pregnancy.

The problem is that our churches are controlled by men–many of them, fundamentalists, still lost in the morass of misogynist “holy books.” Picking and choosing which bible verses to follow, they choose the ones which give men power over women.  There is little downside risk to men, except for sexually transmitted diseases, to having sex.  It is women who face the difficult consequences of unprotected sex, facing possible medical complications and social censure with an unwanted pregnancy.  Men can — and do — just walk away if they want to.

Women know they need birth control. They don’t want to refuse their man if he wants intercourse. Besides, women have a biological urge to have sex the same as men do. But she may not want a baby right now.  If married, her husband may be out of work and the family may depend on the woman’s income.  And it is an uncomfortable fact that employers often find reasons to fire pregnant employees.  So if a woman gets pregnant, it might jeopardize not only her own, but the whole family’s financial security.  The children she already has may face deprivation and perhaps homelessness.  Using birth control makes sense.

But for those in the lower economic demographics, the cost of birth control may be prohibitive. They are vulnerable financially at all times, one paycheck away from catastrophe. If it’s a choice between buying birth control or buying groceries, groceries win. So what is a woman to do?

Many, many Catholics practice birth control.  Recklessly defiant to the proscriptions of their celibate hierarchy, witness the smaller family size of church-going Catholics compared to the 8, 9 and 10 children in Catholic families in the  50’s and 60’s.

The Catholic Church is a gargantuan employer. Holly Hobby is a big company.  They employ many people who want to plan their family size.  These companies should have to comply with the laws that exist already in most states.  Health insurance policies that cover birth control and tubal ligations are, in the long run, cost effective ways to manage the healthcare costs of the female population of this country.

I’ll bet those health insurance plans in question cover Viagra.  But when the newly horny men approach their mate, will she be interested if she’s afraid of pregnancy?  All this current practice does is make birth control expensive.  Because women WILL use birth control if it fits their circumstances and they can afford it.  The Church just doesn’t want to have to pay for it. And maybe these men kind of like the idea of women being pregnant and dependent on them.

With their tired, smug judgements and blatant gender bias, our churches have been at war with women – a war of domination and subjugation – for centuries.  It’s time for it to stop.


On Writing a Memoir


“I should really write a memoir some day.”  Have you ever said that?  Many people tell me this when they read my memoir.  Most of us seldom write anything longer than a five sentence email or a ten word comment on someone’s Facebook page, and then suddenly we’re thinking about writing our life story.  Other people have played with the idea of writing for a long time.  Whether we are still in our thirties or into our sixties and retired, the idea calls to us.

We humans are story tellers, going back to the days of the hunting scenes painted on cave walls, and continuing through to our Facebook posts about the baby’s first birthday party.  The memoir is heir to that tradition.  “I need to tell somebody about this.”

Maybe, like me, you’ve just been through nursing someone through their final illness, and you feel like you are going to burst with all you’ve been through. How that last afternoon you spent with your brother, eating ice-cream and listening to Stevie Wonder stretched, out like a glorious bouquet.  Or the rainy October afternoon when your mother lay back on her pillow and told you about the pony she had when she was a girl in Slovakia, before she came to the United States.  “I had a pony once,” she says. “I never told you about my pony.” She slips into Slovak and doesn’t know it. Her wan face lights up with that last day with the pony and her hand moves faintly, brushing it and feeding it an apple. “So sweet,” she murmurs over and over, her eyes closed, a smile on her lips.

Or you want to tell everyone about the day back in 1973 when your newborn baby wouldn’t stop crying. Your husband has gone back to work and you and the baby are alone for the first time. You pick the baby up and walk from the nursery into the living area, do a loop around the kitchen table, bathrobe sash dragging through the crumb-littered floor, and you look down and see her little face finally relaxing into sleep. Little half sobs, then quiet, slow breaths. You keep pacing slowly around the apartment, afraid to stop, almost asleep on your feet, until you are crying softly with a mixture of love and exhaustion.  A neighbor women you don’t know very well knocks on the door and insists on holding the baby while you take your first hot shower in two or three days.  When you emerge from the steamy bathroom, the baby is asleep in the bassinet, and your new friend has swept the kitchen and made a pot of coffee. That story needs to be told, you have said many times.  I love that woman.

The time your purse was stolen while you were asleep on a train in Germany and the old couple in the American Express office insisted on loaning you some money.  The summer you were a camp counselor and that tall, dark-eyed older boy tried to force you and you almost agreed. That horrible, sexist boss you had.

The stories are good.  Now to transform them into a good memoir.

For this we need to merge them with another tradition, that of the diary or personal journal.  Like Anne Frank, we sometimes feel the urge to pour out our souls on paper, thrashing through the disappointments and confusions of daily life with a twist–not just reciting the facts, but considering how it makes us feel.  We wonder, pen in hand, how to make sense of the non-sensical.  We relive the unfulfilled longing, the fear of death, the anguish of loss. Special moments call to us, and we return to them in our heads, finding solace, anger or melancholy in our repeated visits.

And this is what makes a memoir worth the incredible hours and hours of work to write and rewrite: finding that special story arc that zings, that blend of incident and truth-telling, humanity and spirituality.  A group of anecdotes may just sit there.  But when they distill a story of growth and change, when your heart and soul bleed onto the page along with a compelling narrative, that’s a story worth telling.

That’s what happened to me when I found myself caring for my mentally ill brother after my parents died.  And I couldn’t stop writing.  “I was shot in the head,” my brother Paul said to the daughter of his elderly roommate at the nursing home. “How awful,” she said to me when I arrived later that day.  I shook my head.  “Well, not really,” I began.…

When you find this story, keep writing.


Katherine Flannery Dering earned an MFA from Manhattanville College in 2012 and also holds an MA in Spanish Literature from SUNY at Buffalo and a BA from Le Moyne College, in Syracuse, New York, as well as an MBA from the U of Minnesota at Duluth.  Her memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle,” was published in 2014, and is available on Amazon ( http://tinyurl.com/pakb5ga ) and at Barnes & Noble ( http://tinyurl.com/mkdnh5o ).  She is working on some new stories in her book currently in progress.