My Nervous Bakedown

Good morning, World.

Just before starting the baking race to the last farmers market for me this year, I admit I’ve been asking myself for months why I have neglected my writing. I’ve given myself a splendid excuse: must concentrate on making nourishing goodies for everyone else.

Oh, but wait. Isn’t that what so many of us have done in crafting our lives? Myself…for everyone else. Offer comfort, care, love, appropriate expressions of love. There it is: having given myself permission (I know now I’d never needed to ask) to lead my life boldly the way I want, I realize I’m still making excuses for not tending to my most fundamental joy.

I notice a conflict here. The baking and the community I’ve found at the farmers market both give me joy, but agreeing to let myself feel there isn’t time for anything else is still an excuse. I’ve been hiding inside a small, but satisfying, world. Yet I know there is a larger space I can enter. I’ve been there.

Who am I, then? If I were a baker, I’d have a bakery downtown, and become famous for my incredible scones, and actually make a living at it. Well, that’s not going to happen. I love baking, but it’s an interesting hobby I shall not leave behind.

Two weeks ago, I had what I cleverly called a “nervous bake-down.” Suddenly, for a day, I was forgetting ingredients, dropping little blueberry handpies on the floor, scattering flour much further than I ever had, and running to the store because I had run out of SUGAR! In my mind, the one that stands aside and watches me, I got a quick and vivid picture of the Muppet Swedish Chef, tossing a salad everywhere, and woke up.

I am most fundamentally, a writer. The simple truth is: writers write! I have not been writing, but the gears have been running constantly, impatiently, waiting only for me to engage. So, today while I bake, I will be paying attention to what is happening “upstairs,” where far too much dust has gathered.

Warning: I may suddenly disappear into the universe where my imagination magically flows onto the page. I’m packed and ready to go. I promise to send postcards from whatever brink I am teetering upon.

Why I Bake

There’s a spirit in my kitchen. She sends sparks through my doughy fingers kneading life into an ancient bread. I feel her swirling around in clouds of flour making scones light enough to float.

She is at once my mother and my two grandmothers. I am inspired to form breads from times when recipes came from tradition, not written, but carried across worlds to keep family threads unsevered.

“Bread is life,” my spirit tells me.

Indeed, bread is a gift beyond history, from the weathered hands of the poorest peasants fleeing oppression. Travelling as a living family member on pioneer wagons, gathering sustenance from the air as it goes, it was both the travellor and the welcoming host upon finding home.

When someone keeps coming back for more, I know I have offered more than food. I’ve had people tell me of things that happen when they eat what I bake.

This the scone I’ve had dreams of.”

“I closed my eyes and was sitting at my grandmother’s Passover Seder.”

“This brings me home.”

A cousin, after making a corned beef and swiss sandwich from my sourdough rye bread said she “was transported to Sardi’s in Times Square.”

Bread is so much more than ingredients; it is a loaf of time travel, connection, family, love, and comfort.

And that’s why I bake.

 

I’m not here because of you.

“I’m not here because of you,” I answered to yet another demand in my head. “No. I really don’t want to do that today.”

Look, I’m 70 years old, healthy, smart, and still looking out at life. During my life, I’ve lived through the Cold War, fights for civil rights and women’s rights, environmental concerns and fears, and wars in places I had never thought about, to name just a few upheavals.

What all that means is that I’ve spent a great deal of time preparing for or fighting for or just waiting for something to happen. I ducked and covered, fought the fights, eschewed phosphates in my soaps and dyes in my toilet paper, and protested against useless wars. And what did I get?

Well, I wasn’t dissolved by atom bombs (Whew!). I was proud that we had won greater civil and women’s rights. No phosphates gave me grimy clothes proudly worn. I lived in a country with a government that was strong enough to weather the protests and come out stronger. I felt good about raising children who saw me as a fighter for righteous causes and who joined me in some. I spun around once, clicked my heals, and…

Here we are, almost three generations later.

• We are still worrying about atomic and hydrogen (and worse) bombs and the lunatics who have them. It may well be that the unjust wars we fought to bring “democracy” to peoples whose lives are steeped in ancient beliefs, have spawned the international terrorism we cannot stop. The genie is out of the bottle!

• Civil and women’s rights are being eroded by men and women and religions, claiming they know better.

• The environmental concerns are turning out to be much worse than we imagined. It seems that the more we learn, the less we know, as science and superstition battle for our understanding.

• The current political scene is one I don’t recognize as anything remotely good for America.

Having dedicated myself to causes, fears, outrages, and children; and being proud that I did; I stand today wondering where and who I am. In the past 20+ years, I have found that I can survive well. I’ve moved from New Jersey to Georgia to Iowa to Oregon; I’ve had four executive jobs, run a bed and breakfast, dabbled in antiques, written a novel, and now am starting a small baking business. I’ve had friends say I’m amazing, one who says I’m his role-model; and a sister who thinks I don’t know what I’m doing just bouncing around aimlessly.

What this is, I’ve concluded, is the result of longer looking out. Without really knowing it, I’ve been looking inside myself to find the strength and will to move along with confidence to do what makes me whole and happy.

I return to my early morning thought: “I’m not here because of you.” I don’t depend upon anyone to live, nor do I exist at the will of anyone else. Let me explain.

All my life, I thought that aging meant increasing dependence…on children and other relatives, on spouses and friends. To some extent that’s true. I don’t like to think of it as “dependence” because that has a cost. Now, this will sound selfish, but the cost is being available to everyone else. The cost is me, and how I am defined. I’ve always been a giver and helper, so that’s not going to change.

But it’s going to diminish. In the time I have left here, I intend to stay healthy and independent, to keep creating things that satisfy and excite me, to be a person others want to be near and to enjoy.

I don’t want to be the mother whose son sighs about before answering his phone. I don’t want to talk to friends and relatives by appointment or obligation but because we genuinely care about each other. I don’t want to be that person whose conversations are mostly rants. I don’t want to be someone whom people cross the street to avoid.

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A week in Maine studying birds and nature helped me find myself.

I want to embrace the me I’ve spent 70 years nurturing, a whole person with more stories to tell. And, with a grateful nod to Robert Frost, “miles to go before I sleep.”

 

 

Simple wisdom; mighty voice

“But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.”

With these carefully crafted words in an address to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis identified the central flaw in our political climate: the need to be right which demonizes all dissident opinions as wrong, evil, hateful.

Today’s politics deny compromise, creativity, civility, freedom of thought, and even friendship. Once a mind clamps down on one side of an argument, all intelligent conversation stops. “I’m right, therefore you are wrong” is not the beginning of a dialogue.

I have lost one long-time friend and mentor who has gone this way. His whole world is now painted black and white. There are no greys in his life. His feet are firmly planted in cement to the extent that he now uses his wit and withered wisdom to flay those who disagree with him. So surprised was I to find this man, whom I credit with teaching me how to reason, now a strident champion for faulty cause and effect. Over the course of the past year, this nearly broke my heart, and then I just stopped talking to him.

He is a Catholic, so I can only hope he listened to his Pope, and saw himself as he was when I treasured his teaching. I wept for this loss in my life.

I am not a Catholic, and I wept as the Pope, in describing how the world should be cared for and used, vividly illustrated the destructive thinking we see all around us by contrast.

Pope Francis issued a humble call to action with such simple truths, I found it hard to think about some of today’s political aspirants in the same room with him. I hope they too heard him…and listened.

 

Avoidance behavior

How many excuses can you find to:

• go off a diet;
• not go to the gym;
• spend time with someone;
• wash the windows;
• heck, wash the damn dishes?

If I have mastered anything, it is the ability to, first, develop a good habit I feel I can continue forever; and then just drop it for almost any stupid reason. I have found that I’m not alone in this, and may be actually quite a normal human. We are all, it seems, able to start things with a great head of steam, only to fizzle to a cold mist of ennui.

It’s almost as though there is some evil outside force acting against self-improvement or accomplishment. I used to think that our dreams came from some place we can’t control. And then I realized they come from our own brain, addled, rattled, scattered, but ours.

There are no excuses except those we make up; there is no one to blame (or forgive) but ourselves.

I am publically berating myself today because, after writing what seems to be a fairly good novel, I have let it sit all summer. The key word here is “I.” I could offer a list of excuses, and talk about not being too hard on myself, but the fact remains if I want to get published only I can do something about it.

OK, enough of that!

I’m going to get on my own band wagon and get the word out that I have words of my own worth reading. While I begin the arduous process of seeking commercial “approval,” I will offer excerpts here from my book. I would really, really appreciate feedback of all kinds. Today, I get a thicker skin. So, here is the introduction to “Bread for my Father.”


Bread for my Father

Introduction 

Life was not as much full of promise as it was absent of denial. A generation of children of mostly poor and bewildered immigrants was growing up in New York City’s outer edges with no clear understanding of their limits. Some of these children would soon confront their inevitable barriers and sink under the weight. Others would use having little as an indication that everything could be theirs. One such child saw life as his adventure, the Bronx as a series of gateways to a mysterious and endlessly exciting world.

And yet, his limitations would prove crushing to many kids he grew up around. He was Jewish, the middle child of a Russian immigrant whose husband walked out one day to take up with a dance hall girl. It was 1926 and he was 11. Soon, even the richest inhabitants of the “big city” across the bridges would realize ruin.

Curiosity and an unwillingness to tell himself “no” when facing a challenge marked his progress through childhood. He learned early how to “grow” money, how to navigate the hostile world around him. He learned survival from his mother, who went to work to support her three children.

As he grew he found many ways to escape the Bronx. Insatiable for learning, his imagination carried him away. Once on a path to something he wanted, it never occurred to him that success might not be possible. Unable to believe in or depend upon his father, he had a stunning quantity of faith in himself. He gorged himself on knowledge. Always questioning, he soon discovered how to find the answers.

His prescription for life was exquisitely simple: play it straight; save always for the future; anything is possible; don’t quit; have fun; put all you have into any venture; be happy. Of course, this amount of confidence and optimism needed to be shored up. This child learned to be stubborn, circumspect and creative in ways he used to his benefit. This will all develop as you follow young Ben Peretz through an exciting, and sometimes perilous, life.

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Raptor study in Maine

Hog Island, Maine: Raptor Rapture

Humans come to learn,
While birds puzzle at our presense.
Are we or they the specimens?

We use scopes, bins, and lenses,
They peer from sky or secret perches.
What do they think of us?

We observe, aided by science and art,
They pose, elude, and chatter.
Are they laughing at us?

One osprey is patient at banding
By the careful hands of the biologists.
We feel the rapture we came to experience.

Enclosed on an island, we learn from tide,
From eye and ear, from others’ knowledge,
And from a sense of reverence.

We are not masters of this place,
But visitors entrusted to be here carefully.
They watch, hoping for understanding.

                            …by Cheryl Gaston

Is writing fiction a state of mind?

I keep being amazed at how lost in my story I get while I’m writing. … And then at how confused I am about time and space when I stop for the day.

I am trying not to overthink this, fearful it might go poof! Last week at the gym, my trainer was putting me through a new workout. One of the moves was so strange, I found myself paralyzed, until he said “don’t overthink it.” And just like that, I got it.

A day or so later, I heard part of an interview with Dustin Hoffman on NPR. He was trying to explain how he gets into a role. Essentially, he does whatever research he needs, thinks about the character, then shows up. I can’t do this justice, but what he got around to was that, after some amount of thinking and overthinking, he just falls into it. He knows, and the director knows, when it’s real.

That got me thinking, not overthinking, but just musing about it. Is this what I’m experiencing when I’m with my character? I do extensive research, and I scribble a few key words in my notebook about where I want the story to go, and then I just write. I give myself over to my character; he takes me where he wants to go. He shows me things and makes things come together. I’m just typing.

I know this is not it exactly. It’s depends upon what happens unconsciously. It’s more than a dream, because I have invited the experience.

When Hoffman was having trouble getting his autistic character in “Rainman,” he found himself using “yeah” as a filler. He recalled that suddenly it felt right. It became a defining part of his portrayal of Raymond.

I also know that having this happen requires a great deal of work beforehand. I always wrote major term papers the night before they were due. But I had started the research, reading, and note-taking as soon as the assignment was given. Once I sat at the typewriter and got the first sentence down, the paper almost wrote itself.

This edge-of-the-precipice behavior continued through all my work as a teacher, writer, and editor. I had always felt as though I had gotten away with something, until I realized I could trust this process.

That’s why I feel that becoming a fiction writer is not about the actual writing. You are either good at using the language, or you’re not. If you can’t get in touch with your imagination — that part of your mind that willingly suspends disbelief — and then let it have its way, you may sit paralyzed at the keyboard.

Curiosity annoys others, and I don’t care!

Does anyone but me remember how report cards looked in the 1950s? They were fairly simple: to the left of the fold were the grades, those things you worked so hard for and, you thought, the reason you were in school. But lurking over there, to the right of the fold, was a page of judgments, about good things and bad things you did when you thought the teacher was paying attention to how much knowledge you could soak up.

I would come home so anxious to show my mother and father all my “As.” I was a good student, I thought. Didn’t that prove it?

And then the other side of the card loomed large with its judgments. “Whispers too much.” “Annoys others.” “Fidgets.”

Imagine, a judgment of “fidgets.” I wonder if my mother tried to figure out how to make me stop fidgeting, as I did almost everywhere we went. My mother worried about these marks under the ominous label “Deportment.” Mothers in the 1950s did that.

Thinking back now, I believe my behavior was pure curiosity. I would whisper about things or annoy others asking questions, or fidget when the teacher wagged her finger menacingly at me.

I was, and still am, curious. I constantly ask questions. I want to know why, how, when, what, and what then, and why not about so many things. As I’m getting older, I am getting curiouser. I always want to take Frost’s road not taken.

“They” say that rewarded behaviors are the ones that persist.

The rewards have been many and satisfying. Sometimes I am embarrassed, because I never learned that curiosity should be tempered by thinking first. So, when we learned about space flight as the first astronaut was about to be launched, I raised my hand and asked: “How do they go to the bathroom?” Now, the advantage of thinking first would have held me back long enough to let others ask it. But no, I wanted to know then. I was really, really curious!

I’m thinking about this now because I know that it was curiosity that led me to write a book. Knowing my father and all his good and bad traits, I realized I am very much like him. I set out to find that little boy who became the man. I imagined the events and people that might have created his fears, his beliefs, his determination, his impatience, and his curiosity. Although he was annoyed at his little girl’s poor marks in deportment, I know now he was also proud of me because I did not take anything at face value. “Because I said so,” never worked on me.

If the man behind the curtain isn’t all-powerful, I don’t care! I just want to know, and then I want to know how all those wonderful things happened without him. If birds have many different calls for just as many reasons, I want to know what they are saying. (OK, if that is a bad person making noises in my basement late at night and I’m home alone, I will NOT go down there to check.) I will never turn down an invitation to visit a factory or to see how things work behind the scenes.

Curiosity brings discoveries; it advances science; it creates great art; it makes a recipe better; it gets cats killed. But most importantly, curiosity is fun. I just hope that all the initials children are being labeled with aren’t masking curiosity just because it’s annoying and fidgety. This would make me very sad.

Creating Time and Place

Telling a story from another time requires diligent attention to historical details. What was happening in the world? I was driven to get the facts right and to avoid mentioning something that was out of time. While I love to find anachronisms in movies, I was determined there would be none in my book.

What I found much more important was the need to get into the hearts and minds of the people living in it. And that was truly an enjoyable quest. If I wanted authenticity, then I had to be there with my characters.

My journey into my young boy’s life growing up in the Bronx of New York City in the 1920s required so many different sources. I now have a small library of pictorial histories about the Bronx, interspersed with memories of those who lived there. I would stare into some of the photos, willing myself to imagine feelings. I have a laminated map from 1930 NYC on my wall, covered in colored marker notes and stickies. (Woe to the unsuspecting visitor who asks about it! I’m only too happy to tell all.)

I have collected newspaper articles from the days on which big things happened. The front page of the New York Daily News from April 19, 1923, gave me a chapter on the first day the Yankees played in the brand new Yankee Stadium the day before. I had a play-by-play of the game, a who’s who of the dignitaries, a feeling of the weather from photos showing how people were dressed, and a sense of the excitement from the journalist’s account in the language of the day.

My most important source was my father. His stories and answers to my endless questions were the impetus for me to write a story that let me imagine how he might have grown into the man he was. He and I sat with that map for hours. He showed me where things were — homes, schools, parks, the library — and gave his streets life for me.

As a child, I was glued to the TV, watching Walter Chronkite create an audience of historical peeping toms with “You Are There.” I was also fortunate to have a history teacher who made us look at what was happening in art, music, and literature around major events. Two of my English teachers also brought history into the classroom. I learned about context early.

I must give credit to one book that I think does this better than any other: Time and Again by Jack Finney. Finney made me believe I could travel in time.

My hope is that I am creating a story that gives readers a Walter Chronkite/Jack Finney moment or two.

Baby steps to being published

Today, I took a first, bold step; I sent a query to a publisher on the recommendation of a published friend.

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But first, I’d like to offer a recommendation to read her book, which is out this week, in both Kindle and printed form on Amazon.

Passage of the Stork, Delivering the Soul: One Woman’s Journey to Self-Realization and Acceptance 

Madeleine Lenagh

This is an amazing book that reads like mythology and magic, while portraying the author’s journey through life. She bares her soul without a hint of sentimentality. It’s authentic and I could not stop reading it!
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OK, back to me. I believe that this first step will be the hardest because I just put something out into the world that feels a bit like walking naked down a crowded street. For some reason, maybe because a friend had such a good experience with this publisher, I at least feel like I’m presenting something worth publishing, albeit with hours and weeks and maybe a year of revising.
To begin to get some feedback, here’s a very brief synopsis of the book. Please feel free to give me your opinions. That’s what this blog is about. And please take me up on my invitation to offer you my expertise (blog post from April 6, “An invitation…”.
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 “Bread for My Father” is about a Jewish boy (from age 11-15), growing up in the Bronx in the 1920s-1930s. His mother came to America from Russia in 1906, her parents having sent her and her sister to flee the pogroms. While she is not the main character, her strength and adaptabilty inform her life in America and that of her three children. 

Issues arise for our young boy/man about being Jewish as he becomes aware of Hitler and new persecutions around the world, and as he sees obstacles for his brother and others in America. He becomes involved tangentially with the Mafia as it is revealed that his father is rising in the garment industry in Manhattan due to an association with one of the mob bosses. Ben learns about how Jewish enforcers are used by the mob to break unions. 

All these forces converge on Ben, who must navigate a minefield of dangers, entanglements, and the demands of his stern father. He finds joy and escape in exploring… ideas, the relationship of people and nature, the New York Public Library, and his own fertile imagination. The Bronx at this time is populated by expatriates from many places and cultures and makes a rich setting for this book.