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Finally, A Woman

Picture it: America, 2016. At home, in her jammies and snuggled into her bed, is a 43-year-old woman who is absolutely worn out by this election cycle. But I believe that being an informed voter is a civic responsibility, and so I turn on the third presidential debate.

A woman in a cream-colored pantsuit, surely an homage to suffragette white, is one of the two people standing behind the lecterns. The other is a man in his trademark dark suit, red tie. It’s what Fidel Castro would have chosen to wear everyday, if only Cuba had a Men’s Wearhouse. I snicker at my own quip. But debate moderator Chris Wallace is taking this seriously, and so I realize I should too. The question is about abortion. And the woman, Hillary Clinton, says this:

The government has no business in the decisions that women make with their families in accordance with their faith, with medical advice. And I will stand up for that right.

Suddenly, I was engaged. Why, I wondered, does this moment feel so powerful? Of course abortion would be a debate topic. Abortion is a major wedge issue in this country. For huge swaths of the electorate, this is the issue that determines who they will vote for, regardless of what else the candidate stands for. Presidential candidates have debated abortion ever since I started watching presidential debates, back when I was in high school.

Remember when Senator John McCain said this in 2008, in response to then-Senator Barack Obama?

He’s for health for the mother. You know, that’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That’s the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, ‘health.’

And when then-Vice President George Bush said this, during the 1988 debate with Governor Michael Dukakis?

I’ve seen abortions sometimes used as a birth control device, for heaven’s sakes. See the millions of these killings accumulate… I’m for the sanctity of life, and once that illegality is established, then we can come to grips with the penalty side, and of course there’s got to be some penalties to enforce the law, whatever they may be.

One man debating with another man about a medical procedure that only women experience. But now here we are in 2016. There’s a woman at the podium. And this happens:

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee:

If you go with what Hillary is saying, in the ninth month you can take baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby. Now, you can say that that is okay and Hillary can say that that is okay, but it’s not okay with me.

I could feel my uterus contract. Are babies who have reached full term being ripped from wombs on a regular basis? What a hyperbolic and extreme visual, obviously meant to fire up the pro-life base and make pro-choice advocates seem barbaric. I am no expert but I highly, highly doubt this happens. Secretary Clinton backs me up:

That is not what happens in these cases. And using that kind of scare rhetoric is just terribly unfortunate. You should meet with some of the women I’ve met with. Women I’ve known over the course of my life. This is one of the worst possible choices that any woman and her family has to make. And I do not believe the government should be making it.

Secretary Clinton has a slight edge in her voice, that gruffness that comes out when she is passionate about something. I like it. It’s the tone that people say makes her sound “harsh” or “angry.” (Ladies, as I understand it, should never be either of those things.) I am sitting in my bed, watching TV, and applauding. I’m feeling proud. And emboldened. And strengthened.

I’ve watched nearly all the presidential debates that have occurred during my adult life and never, never have I responded like this. In the past, I have nodded in satisfied agreement at a solid answer I agreed with. I’ve growled in anger at responses that I did not. But I have never felt empowered.

Why this? Why now?

Because, a woman. Finally, it’s a woman who is standing up for women, who is speaking on behalf of women, who understands what it is like to be a woman, and is using that context to inform her decisions.

I’ll be honest – I was not always pro-choice. Before I had kids, I was a closet pro-lifer. I never would have admitted this to anyone, because I had friends who were strongly pro-choice, and had friends who did make the choice to terminate a pregnancy. I didn’t want them to feel judged by my belief that life begins at conception. Plus, it felt at odds with the feminist I believed myself to be.

Then, I got pregnant. I was not one of those glowing, happy pregnant women. I had horrible morning sickness. I couldn’t eat solid foods for the first three months (thank you, Wendy’s Frostees, for seeing me through). I was exhausted. Everything ached. I was unhappy. I cried, a lot. Pregnancy affected every aspect of my life – my physical health as well as my mental state, my energy level, my work performance. I had a solid support system – family, a wonderful husband, financial stability, and still I was scared to death. It was all unexpectedly hard.

It was then that I realized – no outsider, no government, should force a woman to go through this if she knows she cannot endure it. And, every woman should be trusted to make that choice for herself. To say that any woman does not understand the gravity of the decision, and pregnancy’s impact on her own health and well-being, is the ultimate sexual degradation.

I now strongly support a woman’s right to choose. I gag whenever I hear men talking about what they think women should be doing with their bodies. Or, talking about what they can do to women’s bodies.

So I can’t help but be inspired by a woman who has become a voice for women, who can speak to the issues that affect half of the electorate. When Secretary Clinton says she will fight for equal pay, for parental leave, I believe her because I know she understands not just the how, but the why. She gets that these issues are imperative to create a more fair and balanced society. 

In just a couple of weeks, there’s a good chance that a highly capable and qualified woman will be bringing her expertise and life experience into the Oval Office. I strongly believe that women, and our country, will be the better for it.

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Learning to Let Go

 

baby-mira-a

There was a time when I was her world, and she was mine.

There is that day, that momentous day, when they put the baby on your belly, the warm, wriggly, screaming baby, and the unspoken assignment is given: She’s yours. Take care of her. Good luck.

She cries for hours, and you wonder what went wrong, because it was supposed to be easier than this. It’s just a baby, after all, and you once were the office hotshot, the one expected to handle the big, impossible tasks. But now here you are, sure that your baby’s cries, translated, would result in your worst job performance review ever.

Then the cries cease, her body softens, and she falls asleep in your arms. You notice that she has her father’s eyebrows and the curve of his upper lip, and that she is a miracle, a gift, a one-of-a-kind wonder. Her tiny clenched fist rests against your chest. Hope enters your heart: Maybe I can do this.

For weeks she sleeps beside you. Then the time comes to move her into the next room, the one you spent months painting and decorating and stocking with perfectly folded onesies and still uncracked books. A wall separating the two of you feels unnatural, but you reassure yourself that space will be better for both of you. She will become more independent, and you will get more sleep.

And yet, in the middle of the night you find yourself checking on her, placing your hand on her chest to make sure she’s still breathing, scared she’ll awaken but knowing you won’t be able to sleep unless you know—she is okay.

You bring her to day care. The first day is fine, because there are new toys and kids to play with. You slip away unnoticed. It’s the second day, when awareness strikes her, that she clings to your arms. A fist is filled with your hair. Fat tears roll down her red cheeks. Is that panic in her eyes? But you free your hair, and this woman that you met last week, the one who you are now entrusting with your child’s care, takes her away. You sit in your car and wonder how you can drive when you’re blinded by tears.

There’s the first day of kindergarten. She waves goodbye to you, slightly hesitant, but excited for what is to come. At pick-up, she runs to you. Her arms wrap around your neck, and she’s still small enough for you to lift into your arms, her legs swinging like a metronome as you breathe her in.

She starts doing many things without you, many things that you did not teach her. She is center stage at the annual dance recital. She wins a school poster contest, the design and execution fully her own. Teachers gush about how smart she is, how kind, and you’re humbled. They are sure she will achieve whatever she sets out to do, and you agree. Because those are wonderful words. Achieving is a dream-filled concept. It’s the “doing” that, you will learn, is jagged in its execution.

Then comes middle school. For the first time, you put her on a school bus. Your suburban friends chide you – You’re worried about an 11-year-old on the bus alone? My child has been doing that since kindergarten. But this is New York City, where anxiety holds court, and you’re unaccustomed to other people transporting her, to her being outside the carefully constructed cocoon of the school you know well and the car you drive yourself. You buy her a cell phone just so you can have some connection with her, and insist that she calls you every day when she gets on the bus. A week goes by, and the calls stop, and you realize they were ridiculous anyway. She will be fine.

Then she’s 12 years old, a seventh grader, and she is given the opportunity to do more, see more, achieve more than you ever had. The new school means a long commute on city subways and buses; academic challenges; less sleep for her, because of the homework, and less for you, because of the worry. Those suburban friends have nothing to say now—they’re still coming to terms with letting their children walk alone to the bus stop. You’re about to set your child free in a city of 8 million. You are sure you’re insane. But you are raising your child to face challenges, to accept them. And so you say yes to the new opportunities, even though they petrify you.

One day you find yourself standing on a subway platform, the doors closing between your child and you. Doubt consumes you. She holds onto a subway pole; you hold onto hope that she will be okay. You anxiously await her text confirming she arrived at school safely. You pray there were no train delays, no perverts, no unattended bags that could herald the next New York City tragedy.

Your heart races and you feel out of balance. You are not ready for any of this. She was supposed to stay with you longer, need you longer, be yours longer. Wasn’t she? From your womb to rocking arms; from small hand in yours to a wave goodbye through a grimy subway window. You watch her go, watch her mouth the words, I’ll be fine, mom, as she squeezes onto a packed subway car. And it hurts. It hurts so so much. There was a time when your hand instinctively saved her head from knocking into table edges, when the pain and fear of the slightest injury could be eased by a hug and a kiss. You were supermom. And now you are the mom on the sidelines, hoping the cheering and the coaching are enough. There is so much for her to learn, yet so much of it she must experience on her own.

Time is not consistent. It bends and warps. You can still so clearly remember the feel of her baby hair, the way you could hold her whole body in your two hands. How can it be so far in the past, when it feels like merely a moment ago? How can you endure this strange tortured feeling of watching your child grow up, and away?

Then the day comes when you no longer feel the need to watch the train pull out of the station. You let go. You trust. And at the end of the day, you welcome her back home again.

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An adult-in-training, and a New Yorker too.

 

 

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On Election Day, I’ll be Sporting a Pantsuit

That's me on the right, circa 1997, age 24. My friend and I recently had a good laugh at those young who were trying to look so grown up. Only recently did I grasp what we were really aiming for: We wanted to be taken seriously as women in the workforce.

That’s me on the right, circa 1997, age 24. My friend and I recently had a good laugh at those young women who were trying to look so grown up. Only recently did I grasp what we were really aiming for: We wanted to be taken seriously as women in the workforce.

This summer, a young woman was brutally raped and killed in a neighborhood very close to mine. The tragedy was covered by all the local news stations, and a reward totaling in the hundreds of thousands was eventually raised in hopes of finding her attacker. White ribbons hung around trees, and signs seeking information could be found in the window of every business.

One day, while driving through this neighborhood, my 12-year-old daughter launched into a feminist tirade that both caught me off guard and bowled me over with pride.

“A woman should be able to go out for a run in her neighborhood without being afraid that someone is going to attack her,” she said. “Women should be able to wear what they want, do what they want, and men should respect that.”

I told her that she was right – But. Often in order for women to gain respect, they have to hide their femininity and their sexuality. When I was first starting my career as a newspaper reporter, I explained, I was a young blonde in a world dominated by older, powerful men. I tried my best to downplay my womanliness. I cut my hair short. I never wore skirts. It was the 1990s and if Hillary was queen of the pantsuit, I was her lady in waiting.

I adapted myself to my male surroundings in order to feel I had some scintilla of power. I wanted to be taken seriously, after all. I wanted to be seen as smart and decisive, not cute and meek.

So every time I left a meeting with a table full of men, and heard a loud laugh as soon as they thought I could no longer hear – I brushed it off. Whenever a handshake went too long, a hello came with a very unnecessary cheek kiss, I ignored it. When, after I got married,  men I worked with made jokes about how long I would last before I got pregnant and started baking cookies, I let it go.

“You shouldn’t have had to do that,” my daughter told me. “You should have been respected for the work you did, not the way you looked while doing it.”

How is it, at age 43, this came to me as a revelation?

As I watched Hillary Clinton debate Donald Trump, I felt my defenses sharpen. The news of the previous 24 hours – pussygate, if you will – were more revelatory than surprising. As he spoke, I recognized that belittling tone of the voice. I understood how bullying is meant to silence women. I saw how body language can be used to intimidate. My spine stiffened and my skin crawled.

“No,” is all I could think. “Do not let him get to you.”

And every time Hillary Clinton smiled through her opponent’s trumped up accusations, shook her head at his hyperbole, took on a cold death stare instead of letting her tongue lash, I understood it. I’ve felt it and I’ve lived it.

I’ve worn the pantsuits. I’ve butched up my appearance. I’ve made dumb jokes in order to not intimidate men with the fact I was smarter than they were.

No more. It’s about time we stood up to bullies, to sexual lowlifes, to men who think title and money gives them carte blanche access to a woman’s body and spirit.

I’ve spent most of my adult life as a working journalist, and so never before have I voiced an opinion in a presidential race. I’m doing it now. It’s that important. And my daughter would tell me – You have a voice. Use it.

Hillary 2016

 

 

 

 

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I Thought I’d Lost it. Then Others Found it.

My old newspaper clippings.

My old newspaper clippings.

When Hurricane Sandy sent floodwaters pouring through the first floor of my home, the depth of devastation only became apparent in the effort to clean up, move on, start over.

As I dug through the closet, I opened the large plastic bin I had used to store the mementoes of the baby years – a journal I kept while pregnant with Mira, the pages all stuck together; Christening outfits that were soaked and yellow. In the garage, my husband Sid found a box full of newspaper clippings – all my first bylines and later, my favorite bylines, cemented together like a paper brick. To mourn over each drowned item was to threaten losing strength for the work ahead. So eventually boxes were thrown to the pile heap on the curb. Eventually they were hauled away, and eventually I chose to forget what was lost and what had been spared.

My daughter, Mira's, birth announcement and first Christmas photo.

My daughter, Mira’s, birth announcement and first Christmas photo.

Last week, my friend Tracy gave me a large manila envelope. “You have to know this about me,” she said. “I keep everything.” She had been cleaning out her mother’s basement, and came across some things she thought I might like to have. Mira’s birth announcement. The photo from Mira’s first Christmas card.

Sandy was more than three years ago, and like many who endured her wrath we tell ourselves we’ve moved on, that life is back to normal, that in the end we endured and are stronger for it. Blah, blah, cliché, blah.

But then a friend hands you a picture of your newborn that you thought you would never see again, and you realize that the defining moments in your life never leave you. They lurk, waiting for the right moment to remind you of all you’ve been through, learned, and survived.

Today I received another large manila envelope in the mail. A former editor, the one who was brave enough to give a young reporter the freedom to figure out who she was as a writer, sent me a pile of newspaper clippings. They were of stories that I’d written that she enjoyed enough to hold onto, and oddly enough many of them are ones I still think of to this day.

A byline is quite a thrill. When you haven’t seen yours in a while you realize how much you miss those letters in bold and the power it asserts. Those were my words. I knitted the narrative. And I owned the reader’s attention, and hopefully heart, for just a brief while. I have to be honest — it was a power I reveled in. Still do.

Holding those clipping in my hand was like stumbling upon lost treasure. I really thought all those old bylines were gone. I tell my kids that before they were born, I was a newspaper reporter, but I had no proof. Or so I thought. For the second time in a week I found myself weeping over finding what was once thought to be lost.

I’m starting to think that life is not a line that brings us from one point to another. Rather, life is a spiral, an ever-enlarging circle that brings you back, but then moves you forward. You don’t always know why you had a certain experience, good or bad, or made a connection with a person, brief or long. But there’s a good chance that while journeying on the circle, you’ll get a reminder.

A storm that rocked your life but strengthened your soul.

A friend whose hoarding results in the gift of a lost memory.

A mentor whose faith in your talents propelled you once, and likely will again.

Maybe memories haunt us for a reason – because they still contain lessons we need to learn.

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Big, Scary Things

The request was the type I would instantly say yes to: I’d like you to write for us. Steady gig, decent money, but most important of all, an editor I really enjoyed working with. And yet, my gut screamed: NO!!!

I thought about it for a day — the gut sometimes needs to be checked — and then replied: There is a good chance I’ll regret this, but I’m going to say no. I explained why — that I am starting the new memoir-writing business we’d talked about, that I’m nervous but I have to just go for it. I hit “send” and instantly, I regretted it. Until I received her response. The first line read:

“This is the time for big, scary things!”

The good editors have this knack for cutting through to the heart of a story.

Big and Scary. I thought about this a lot. Big and scary sounds so BIG and SCARY! But then I realized — I’m no stranger to these things. Charging toward those challenges, instead of shrinking from them, is likely why I’m not sitting in some suburban Detroit high-rise writing instruction manuals. (I’ll explain that later.) In fact, if I think about it, and I have, big and scary is a recurring theme in my life.

At age 13, my guidance counselor suggested I take the entrance exam for New York City’s specialized high schools. When I was accepted into one of them, my parents shared their opinion but told me the decision was mine — the better school, which required taking the subway, alone, to a place where I knew no one, or my zone school with my friends, which had a bad reputation but was closer to home.

I remember the decision wearing on me physically — the first time I had felt real stress. My mind obsessed; my stomach was in knots. The zone school was the easy choice. Brooklyn Technical High School was the reach. Fear of regret overpowered fear of the unknown, and I opted for the harder choice. A school with 4,000 students, 45 minutes away by subway, full of the smart kids, defined big and scary for a 13-year-old kid.

When the time came to apply for college, I zeroed in on schools with journalism programs. When I arrived at Boston University, I brought with me the bravado developed over years of  being the English teacher’s favorite student. So when my Journalism 101 professor brought me to tears, I was left reeling and questioning. I was 17 years old, in a new city, alone, and my days of being the best writer in the room were over. Finding my place was hard. I had asked for big and scary, and it delivered.

At the wide-eyed age of 23, when I was fired from my first reporting job at a Brooklyn weekly newspaper, big and scary was not a choice. It was thrust upon me, and I realized I had two options — fight to stay in journalism, the degree I was still financially indebted to and emotionally linked with, or branch out into — gasp — public relations or, worse, writing for trades. When I interviewed for a big publishing company that wrote books about OEM certification (what the hell??)  and came close to being hired, I realized that the survival of my soul required my figuring out how to use this pathetic, loser resume to get back into the newsroom.

I bought a pack of index cards, went to the library (this was 1996, folks — the Internet was barely a thing) and researched the names and phone numbers of every editor within a 25-mile radius of Dearborn, Michigan, where I had fled to after the firing. My then-boyfriend was living there and working for Ford Motor Co. While Sid was at work, I sat on the floor in his completely unfurnished apartment (seriously, we didn’t even have a chair) and went through those index cards, calling editors one by one. Hi, my name is Cynthia, and I’m calling to find out if you have any openings for a reporter. Most of them were not hiring. By 11 am, I was emotionally exhausted, beaten down by the no, no, no. I committed myself to making three calls a day. One morning, I gave a call to this small daily newspaper south of Detroit. I asked for the editor by name. When she picked up the phone, she didn’t so much answer as bark. “I’m on deadline. I can’t talk now. Call me later.” Click.

Having enough experience in newsrooms to know that editors can morph into creatures of darkness while on deadline, and being incredibly desperate, I psyched myself into calling her back. The phone call led to an interview. The interview led to an offer. The offer led to the eight proudest years of my reporting life.

There were other big, scary moments in my life — Traveling around the world by myself at age 21. Choosing to leave the hospital while in labor with my first child because I was sure I could endure the pain better at home. (I wanted, and got, a natural birth.) Opting to leave the easy suburban life of a Ford wife and return to New York City, where nothing is easy and everything costs too much. Choosing to start my own freelance writing business instead of looking for a real job with a regular paycheck and benefits.

Recently, with freelance writing becoming a dying profession (my opinion), I found myself faced again with the choice: easy — find a 9-to-5 job, or big and scary — start the memoir publishing business I’ve been fantasizing about for years.

This is the time for big and scary things!

To be honest, I started writing this blog post two days ago and fear had me delay posting it. It was very personal. I wasn’t entirely sure why I was writing on this topic, only that I felt compelled to do so. I realize now that I needed a reminder of who I am and what I’m made from. In my 20 years of writing other people’s stories, I’ve witnessed how empowering reflection can be. We live through experiences but don’t always process what they have meant in the narrative arc of our lives. I find that older people tend to do this naturally. Possibly because they have the time to do so, but also it’s because I think they have so much material to work from. When you can look back and connect the dots, you realize — life has been extraordinary!

By taking the opportunity to reflect, I realize that the remembering, the processing, has emboldened me. I have done all of these hard things. Now, it’s time to keep building upon those experiences. Everyone has their big, scary moments. Some you don’t want to relive, but others became the building blocks of who you are . Think about those experiences. Write them down. Read it back to yourself. And then, be empowered by your own story.

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Me, By Me

Allow me to tell you two stories of failure — my failure.

Walter and Mom Irene

My grandfather, Walter, and his mother, Irene.

Nine years ago, after my grandfather had the fall, that led to the hospital stay that led to the bed in the nursing home, my family and I sat around the dinner table and planned. It was my parents, my sister and I and both our husbands. All the signs were pointing to this being a journey towards the end, rather than a pit stop on his way back home. The wine was flowing, eyes were filling, and my father said:

We have to get a video camera. We have to go to the home and sit him down and get him to talk. Talk about the war. About his childhood, about that one big mistake that would change all of our lives. We need to get him to talk about all the things he never wanted to talk about. I need to hear those stories.

 

Yes! we all said emphatically. That is a great idea! It’s perfect. Who has a video camera? (This was 2006 — a camera in every pocket wasn’t quite the thing yet). How do we get him to do this anyway? He was the man who, in my recollection, spent most family gatherings sitting in his armchair staring at the TV while the family lived around him.

I’m a reporter, I said. I can do it. You get the camera, and I’ll do it.

There was more wine, and a bit of hope. This exercise would erase some of the pain of knowing that my grandfather, the quintessential introvert and loner, was living in one room, with a roommate, zero privacy and no power over how he lived his days. He complained of being cold, and the blankets I bought him were “lost” when he was moved to a different room. He craved salt for his meals, but his medical team forebade it. If you want to get out of here, I told him, no salt. No sugar! He hung his head, muttered one of his trademark “ahhhhs” or “hmmphs.” He defined “man of few words.”

Each visit to his bedside became harder and harder. Words unsaid filled the room, suffocating the space. You probably won’t get out of here. You’re not getting any better. You can’t walk more than a few feet. The pain of knowledge made asking those questions, “So tell me about the war, Pa,” impossible to move from brain to lips. To ask would be to admit that the end was near. To ask, somehow, now felt hopeless.

Then came the morning, February 2. My father’s voice was unnaturally high-pitched and broken. “Pa is gone,” he said.

So, too, was my chance. Me, the reporter — I’d failed to get the story.

Five years later, in 2011, my uncle was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. One day my phone rings, and for the first time in my 38 years, Uncle Richie called me. Another loner, he too treated words as currency to be spent sparingly. So his reason for calling blew my mind.

I have a lot of stories to tell and you’re a writer, so I was hoping you could write them down for me. 

He was in a hospital in Manhattan. I had a 3- and 6-year-old to care for at home. I told myself that on the weekend, I would go visit him. The weekend came and went. Then he was discharged to the nursing home for rehab. When my mother saw him, she told me not to come. Whoever that person was who called me surely was not in the mood for talking now. He was angry about his situation, in pain and defiant. Within a few days he had defied doctor’s orders and left the nursing home. He flew home to Florida. He chose to spend his final days the way he wanted to spend them. Within weeks, he was gone.

And so was my other opportunity. There was a call, and I did not respond.

Both of these experiences weighed heavily on my mind then and now. But as I explored them, I realized something. As a journalist for 20 years, I know how to write down other people’s stories. I have walked into stranger’s lives and gotten them to relive their most harrowing experiences, to explore their own emotions and answer questions most people would think rude or intrusive to ask. So often I’ve had people tell me, “I read that piece about my mother and you got stories out of her that I’d never heard.” Or, “I feel better having spoken to you — you ask the questions that no one else does.”

This made me realize that, while I am the writer in the family, that did not mean I was the right person to write my own relative’s stories. In the reporting world we know that the worst person to report a story is one who is connected to it. This is because there are inherent conflicts of interest — you are going to be hesitant to ask someone you know well the tough questions. You come in with your own experience, which clouds your objectivity. You hold back because you know your source and subject too well.

I believe that’s exactly what happened with my grandfather and uncle — I was too close to the story.

But I am not the type of person who believes failures make you a failure. In fact, I believe strongly that it’s our mistakes that teach us the greatest lessons and show us where we need to go. The experience with my uncle gave birth to an idea — what if I could be the conduit for other people who have stories they want to tell? And what if I could do that outside of my current paradigm, which was to sell them to a magazine as a profile article? What if I could create a direct-to-consumer publishing model that allowed me to write people’s stories, solely for the people who want them written?

Whenever I thought about this idea, my heart raced. I spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter, then 10 years as a freelance writer, and I really missed those newspaper days. I missed connecting with people on a personal level, telling their stories for exactly what they were — the good and the bad, the uplifting and the devastating. I missed all that I learned from being the catalyst that brought people’s stories from minds to lips to paper.

I started talking with my great uncle John, the last living connection to my ancestors, to get his stories. I compiled photos. I did geneology charts. I was figuring out how to become a memoirist. Then, on Oct, 29, 2012, the time for dreaming and planning came to an abrupt halt. My house was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy. It was not unlike a car wreck where the vehicle is totaled but you and your family and unhurt. You are incredibly grateful that everyone is fine, but damn, now there is so much clean-up to do and hassle to deal with, and you have to put the car back together all by yourself, piece by piece, and you have no idea how to build a car. It took us nine months to get our house back into a livable state, but I feel it took us three years to fully heal the scars: emotional, logistical and financial.

And now here I am. The Sandy bills are mostly paid off. I’ve secured steady freelance writing work. My kids, now 8 and 11, are at a wonderfully self-sustainable point in their childhoods — old enough to not need me every second, but young enough to not be scaring me with their independence. My husband is my rock, as always. And now, I’m ready to turn those failures into the future that they were meant to be.

I am launching a memoir-writing business called: Memoiria: The World of Story. Your Story. I have two clients whose books are in process. In early 2016, I’ll be looking for my next projects. The process scares the hell out of me and thrills me to the core, simultaneously — which says to me that I am on the right track. I’m planning to blog about this journey of business building and memoir crafting — a memoir about writing memoirs, per se.

I’m hoping that in the writing, I’ll discover my path. Feel free to join me for the journey.

 

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I Was Nervous Because I Was Ready

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Pink-faced and pretty damn proud of myself.

 

I dreamed that I had overslept, missed the race, and was so mad about it. When I awoke that morning, I knew I was ready.

The temperature was in the low 30s, which worried me but I chose not to think about it. I dressed in layers. Smoothed Vaseline on my face and hands. I stayed true to what works during my daily runs: I ate a banana, drank a cup of coffee and sipped water, but not too much. I made sure my playlist was downloaded to my phone.

I was a lot more worried than I thought I would be, or probably should have been. I told this to a friend the night before. “You’re worried because you’re ready, and you know you’re ready, and you’ve challenged yourself and want to succeed.” Her words solved my quandary. My goal was to finish in under 40 minutes, which is a slow pace for a skilled runner but a healthy pace for me. And I knew I could do it.

The race started at the 69th Street pier in Bay Ridge and wound along Shore Road to the Verrazano Bridge and then back again. As I waited, I ignored the icy winds and focused instead on comparing myself to the competition. This was an all-women’s run and so there were lots of groups of women — women in pink tutus likely running for some admirable cause, girlfriends together running their first race, and packs of young whisp-thin women with all the right running gear. And then there were the solo runners, including me, who I imagined were also competing against no one but themselves. The horn sounded and I was off.

I hung towards the back of the pack but felt myself carried ahead by it anyway. I let the faster runners bolt ahead of me. I steered around people slower than I. The Verrazano Bridge was before me, the Shore Road walkway under my feet, the water of the Narrows splashing against the rocks. As I looked up at the grey sky and took in the vista around me, an unexpected small sob caught in my throat. That was the bridge that was my north star as a child, the constant backdrop whether I was walking along Eighth Avenue to get to junior high school, riding my bike with friends in Sunset Park, or, years later, heading toward home from Newark Airport. The bridge is home and childhood and history and family, the reminder of generations of my people who lived and loved and labored in its shadow.

I pulled my eyes from the bridge to look down at Shore Road’s asphalt path. I remembered all those weekends my family spent riding our bikes, flying kites, having picnics along the small patches of green, my mother packing pillowy soft peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut into fours, a tall thermos filled with sweet iced tea, a picnic blanket, the four of us, living in the city but finding a small pocket where the city was around us but not upon us, where you could close your eyes and the sound of cars along the Belt Parkway almost sounded like the ocean.

My eyes filled again and I shook it off, focusing on the music in my ears, the wind at my back, the runners whom I passed and who passed me.

I reached the halfway point, raised my arms to celebrate being closer to the end than the beginning, and turned around. The wind was strong but its chill did not bother me. I knew it would slow me down, which was the greatest irritation. I looked up and saw the downtown Manhattan skyline, punctuated now by the Freedom Tower. But in my mind’s eye I could see the city as I saw it as a child, and knew exactly where the Twin Towers used to be and should have been. No matter how many years go by, I don’t think I’ll ever become accustomed to our skyline’s new geometry.

I kept moving, fighting against the wind that seemed hellbent on making me work for victory. When I saw the marker indicating the last mile, I tried to be optimistic rather than sluggish. Others had told me that once the first two miles are done, adrenaline will fuel the third. But all I could think was that I was ready for it to be over. I could see the finish line but it was annoyingly far away. And so I started focusing instead on small victories. I’d reach one park bench and then aim to reach the next. And I got closer and closer, and I could see the pier, and see people, and see a small body in an orange coat waving his arms and jumping up and down, and knew that had to be my 7-year-old son. I raised my arms again, this time to wave and accept their excitement. I smiled. I sped up. I saw the race clock at 38 minutes and realized — I am going to do this in under 40! I sprinted to the end. I did it: 38:37.

Motherhood, marriage, career — I think to survive we create routines and schedules that we can rely on to propel us through the day, the week, the month, the school year. And while I find comfort in routines, I realized they are restrictive. My life has come to resemble an assembly line, filled with the same responsibilities and priorities and gauges of success. It’s comfortable. But in that comfort lies an undercurrent of fear. What happens if the routine is rocked? What happens if something throws off my delicate balancing act? I spend a lot of time reassuring myself that as long as we continue calmly along the charted path, everything will be fine. And it will. But nothing will ever change, either. I won’t change.

On Saturday, I changed. I took a challenge, overcame a fear, found a strength deep inside that allowed me to aspire, plan and execute. And it left me thinking — what else in my life have I surrendered to routine? Where else am I not striving toward something better? Where else am I telling myself that the same-old is okay because it’s safe and sure?

The answer? Many, many places.

And so yesterday I started to write a business plan for a new writing endeavor I want to launch. I signed up for another race, the next one a 5-miler. And I’m feeling more alive than I have in a long time.

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5K is Tomorrow and I’m Freaking Out!

On January 1, that universal day of self-reflection and self-flagellation, I decided to focus my crusade toward self-improvement on fitness. I was going to start running again, and I was going to stick with it this time. The best way to assure this was twofold: proclaim it on Facebook, and sign up for a 5K. That was three months ago. The race is tomorrow.

Ahhhhhh!!!!

In my belly is this strange mix of anxiety and confidence. I’m in week 10 of the Zen Labs 10K Trainer program. I am now running 3.5 miles without dying, and a 5K is effectively 3.1 miles. My last 5K was five years ago, and while I hadn’t effectively trained for it, I did finish. Now I am ready. And yet, I’m doubting myself. Why? Because that first 5K didn’t go as great as I’d hoped.

It was hot, for one, and the air was thick. I was used to running along the beach, where the morning air is crisp and clear. The heat and humidity at the race site caught me offguard. For the entire run, I felt as if I couldn’t regulate my breathing. I also made the mistake of starting in the middle of the pack. I am a slow runner, and feeling everyone whoosh past me made me want to run faster than I should have in the beginning, and also was a bit demoralizing. I also hadn’t trained for the few weeks ahead of the race — finding time for long runs while having what were then a 3- and 6-year-old was impossible. And the bagel I thought would give me energy instead sat in my stomach like a boulder. Halfway through the race I felt as if my breakfast was lodged up against my esophagus, and I had to take a break and walk. I was so mad at myself for that.

Could all those things, or something similar, happen again? Tomorrow’s weather forecast is windy and cold — 33 degrees. I can handle the cold but the wind is scaring me. I’ve spent the last few months running on the treadmill, thanks to this too-long winter and the recent dismantling of my favorite outdoor run spot, the Rockaway Beach boardwalk. What if I’m running against the wind? What if I’m not dressed right? My stomach wigs out again? My music won’t play? What if it’s just too damn hard?

Oh boy. I really need to stop this. To do so, I Googled “pre-race anxiety.” The best advice I found came from Dean Karnazes’s Running World blog:

We cannot control the competition. We cannot control the weather. We cannot control the struggles that will undoubtedly arise during the run. All we can control is ourselves. Standing at the starting line, I make the simple commitment to myself that today I will try my hardest. No matter what happens during the race, I will give it everything I’ve got and won’t give up without my strongest fight.

This, I realized, I can do. I can give it my best. I can pledge not to give up. I will aim for the finish line and stay focused on the excited, happy (and hopefully not too cold) faces that will greet me there. I will focus on setting a good example for my children, show them that the mom they’re most used to seeing in front of the stove or staring at a computer screen can actually move, and fast. I’ll give it my all, and prove to myself that if I can accomplish this, maybe I can also realize some other dreams I have.

I’ll let you know what happens.

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The Power of “Yes”

Last spring, I was offered the opportunity to stop hustling for one-off assignments from this website or that magazine and instead take on a long-term copywriting project. The assignment was to write patient-focused content for NYU Langone Medical Center.

I resisted the idea at first. As a journalist, I feared the conflict of interest issues. But after providing full disclosure to all my relevant editors, I went for it. After all, a long-term project meant regular paychecks, and that is the holy grail of the freelance life. Plus, I was in a bit of a writing rut. To get out of it, I decided to adopt a new mantra: Just say yes. Whatever the opportunity, just try it. See where it takes you. And so I did.

For the revamp of the NYU Langone website, I was responsible for writing all of the patient and family support content. Nothing exciting or sexy, but pages such as “what to bring for your hospital stay” will  get lots of traffic. As a writer, I’m not hard to please. If what I write helps anyone in anyway, I consider that a job well done.

The project had its challenges. Being a reporter requires that I sometimes be pushy. But when you’re working corporate, you can only push so much. You can’t insist that anyone talk to you, you can’t threaten them with a potentially embarrassing “no comment,” you can’t shame them with a “so-and-so talked with me already.” You just have to be really, really nice, and hope that your courtesy and professionalism  get you what you need.

As with all new gigs, I had to learn how to adapt my writing style to the client’s voice. That’s a bit more of challenge with corporate writing, where yes, they want copy to be reader-friendly but not “girlfriend friendly,” as so many magazines and websites ask for these days. So I had to find a way to preserve my voice, while also adapting it to a more reserved audience. A challenge, but I enjoy challenges.

I learned quite a bit about the corporate world, and even considered rejoining it. Was it time for me to leave the insecurity of the freelance life for the stability of a steady paycheck? Was I ready to trade a flexible schedule for an employee handbook? I seriously considered it. On the one hand, I realized how much I enjoyed collaborating with a team. That’s not something you get to do very often when your desk is in your bedroom closet. But on the other hand, I need to be able to work my hours on my schedule, be that at 7 am or 10 pm, so the rigidity of 9-5 just isn’t for me. While the lure of a corporate job was strong, for now I’m going to keep working the freelance life, taking what I’ve learned from the corporate experience and using it to grow my business in new ways.

I’m not sure what is coming next for me, but I am glad that I decided to say yes when a new opportunity arose. I think that by continuing to do that, I will find a new path.

 

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Two Years After Sandy, Still Haunted by the Irreplaceable

Two years after Superstorm Sandy slammed into the east coast, destroying the first floor of my home in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., it’s as if she were never here. I can cook dinner again; my husband and two kids can pile onto the couch and fight over the remote again. There are no contractors stomping in and out, bringing in blasts of blustery air as they haul in supplies or calling up to me, “Mrs., we have a problem…”

My house is whole. My family is fine. And yet Sandy’s ghost lingers like a loved one whose death you, for a moment, forgot about. I have to call her! you think. And then you remember, and the pain floods back.

Recently I searched my bookcase for one of my favorite books, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It’s the story of a Midwestern preacher who knows he is dying and so he writes his memoirs for his young son. The beauty of her prose was humbling. I remember circling passages, writing notes in the margins, reading a single sentence and then having to close the book and think, think, think.

Even as I scanned the shelf once, twice I knew – Gilead is gone. Washed away like so many other markers of my past life. I’ll never be able to look back and see what struck me during the time in my life when I read that book, when my firstborn was a baby, when our lives were in a different kind of upheaval, when I was trying to figure so many things out.

In our garage I kept what I called my “Sid box.” (Sid being my husband.) It was a black Bloomingdale’s shirt box, sturdy and elegant. Inside were flower petals from the first rose he ever gave me, a heart-shaped silver chocolate box (contents long-since enjoyed), and the letters – actual handwritten letters – that he and I swapped in between classes senior year and later, during that first year of college when there was no money for phone calls. In my Sid Box was The Letter. In it, he quoted lines from Peter Gabriel’s In Your Eyes. (It was 1989 after all, and we were 16.)

when I want to run away
I drive off in my car (“I wish,” he added)
but whichever way I go
I come back to the place you are

He followed it up with a quote from Always on my Mind (Pet Shop Boys version) and then, in script written with a brown pen, he told me for the first time that he loved me. In my mind’s eye, I can see that letter. His 16-year-old handwriting. The way the paper was folded again and again until it was small enough to fit into the palm of his hand. That letter was my most precious thing for so long.

I do not know if that box survived the storm. I am too afraid to ask Sid, who cleared out the garage while I dealt with the closets and their drowned christening gowns and those baby scrapbooks I always thought I’d finish someday. I’d rather think that it’s still there, that it was on a high shelf, than know that it is gone forever. I console myself with the fact that my memory can fill in the blanks; that it was the experience of those letters rather than their actual existence that made the most impact on my life. But like most consolation, it rings hollow.

There was a time when optimism was my default. No matter what challenge we came up against, I truly believed we would persevere. But loss, change, unsurety has hardened me. Two years later, I’ve regained some of my positive outlook, but now I’m an optimist with an asterisk. I believe less in fairy-tale endings but am confident that hard work will propel you forward. I put greater value on experiences than things, because things lack permanence. But the imprint of a shared moment, a spoken word, a thoughtful touch is eternal.

People still ask about Sandy. “You live in Rockaway?! Were you affected?” Yes, we reply, and we see the way people’s heads cock to the side, their eyes soften, hear them say “I’m sorry” as if they are paying respects. Recently my family and I had one of those particularly great post-Sandy days, the kind of day we wouldn’t have had before we realized that experiences matter more than stuff. Sid and I took the kids, ages 10 and 7, to the Museum of Modern Art. We stopped at the Terrace Café and got an outdoor table overlooking the sculpture garden. Sid and I shared a bottle of wine while the kids drank ice cream sodas.

We got to chatting with our waitress. “You live in Rockaway?!” she began. Then came the softened eyes, the words of condolence. But I wasn’t sad about our Sandy story. What’s gone is gone. I was living in the moment, and that moment was pretty stellar. “Everyone has storms in our lives,” I said. “This was just ours.”

And that’s really it. We all have crises; we all have things we love taken from us. The remnants of our past are gone, replaced by the memory of the moment they represent. And then we move on. We create new memories. We craft a new record of our existence. And that’s how we survive.


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