The Clock is Ticking…

H  ow did the holidays get here so fast?

A  few weeks ago we were eating turkey

P  retty soon the stores were filled with Christmas

P  iles of gift catalogs throughout the house

Y  esterday we hung the lights outside

 

H  ow will we ever be ready in time for Christmas?

O  n December 17th we are leaving for Germany

L  ots of things to prepare for our trip

I   f only the next few days would slow down

D  estinations: Berlin, Dresden, Weimar

A  lot of miles to travel to see people we love

Y  es, it’s the trip of a lifetime

S  ee you in 2016!

Teaching and Terrorism

Emotions and thoughts have been swirling through my mind since I heard about the acts of terrorism in Paris this past weekend. Paris is a city I love dearly, having lived there for over a year in the 70’s in my mid-twenties and returning many times to visit.

I first began reading about the banlieues (outskirts or suburbs) of Paris about a decade ago. This was not the Paris I first experienced. It had become a city of haves and have nots, with the native insiders living within the city and the outsiders/immigrants relegated to substandard lives on the outskirts of the city. These outsiders burned cars and trashed their neighborhoods as a way of expressing their frustration and anger.  Eventually things returned to the status quo and their frustration was forgotten.

This past year the news of the violence that took place at Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper whose cartoons mocked the Muslim extremists, reminded us of that anger. The lives of several French cartoonists and journalists were taken in another outburst of hatred toward French culture. The world responded with sympathy (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) and a renewed vow to celebrate “free speech.”

But this past weekend’s events, in which local terrorists took the lives of over 100 Parisians, remind us again that this hatred is not dead. More extreme and widespread violence has just begun, and we are now wondering what to do next to contain or combat extremists throughout the world.

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This is where teaching comes into the discussion. I am so proud of my profession; moreso than ever. In the United States teachers are the ambassadors of plurality, seeking to find ways to assimilate and educate our newcomers as they arrive at our borders and in our airports.

This is not to say that all teachers welcome undocumented immigrants and their families; prejudice and scorn often rear their heads in faculty lunchrooms. But even those who do not appreciate our tolerance for immigrants understand that our nation was built on their efforts and continues to flourish in many ways because of them. They also understand that building a wall is not the best way to solve the immigrant dilemma.  Supporting the assimilation of immigrant children and their families into our culture is how our nation will continue to sustain its principles of freedom and equality.

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I have often questioned my own beliefs as a teacher of English to immigrant students over the past several decades. But I have always come to the conclusion that becoming more understanding of people from other cultures, while helping their children to become better educated and assimilated, is the only way to continue to build a foundation of trust and strength.

I am particularly proud of my fellow English as a Second Language teachers.  We are often not held in high regard in our own schools or communities because of the controversial work we do, but we are the best advocates in our educational system for making sure that all children have equal access to a good education. Education is terrorism’s worst enemy and the best weapon we have for preserving our values.

Hope Springs Eternal…for a Young Syrian in a Greek Refugee Camp

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man


Today many Christians are celebrating Easter, a holiday that honors the rebirth of Jesus Christ who was crucified on the cross two days earlier on Good Friday. Many other religions are also celebrating their annual Spring rites. Although I no longer espouse a particular religion (I was raised as a Lutheran), I did take a few moments this morning after brunch to reflect on the meaning of this holiday. To me, Spring rituals are all about hope.

The essay about the Refugee King of Greece in the New York Times Sunday Review section on April 16, 2017, reinforced for me how important it is to have hope, even when there doesn’t seem to be any. It is the story of a young Syrian refugee, Bassem Omar, who introduces himself to the Times reporter (Ashley Gilbertson) as the King of Ritsona. She goes on to say, “His Majesty, a 20-year-old refugee from Qamishli, Syria, offers a tour of his realm, and as we walk he’s greeted by friends of all ages.” As he moves amongst his “subjects” he reminds them that “I want to make Ritsona great again, and the people agreed.”

I am immediately struck by the ironic title he has given himself, and especially by his personal version of the now-famous Trump slogan, Make America Great Again, which Omar has now adapted to his own crusade to improve life for himself and his fellow refugees in the small village of Ritsona, 50 miles north of Athens. This is a young man who is well informed about global politics, and who has been able to give an ironic twist to his own circumstances using the words of the Leader of the Free World, Donald Trump. He is clearly a rebel with a cause and that is why I am so drawn to him.

After 13 attempts at escaping by using fake IDs and passports, only to be turned back by police at the airport and sent back to Ritsona, he has decided he can no longer make an effort to escape because if “I fail at this again, I will kill myself. I have to stop trying. So now I await the decision of relocation.” I read his words as meaning he no longer has hope he can escape, so he is readjusting his circumstances in order to continue to hold hope in his heart.

His story leads me to reflect on my own two grown children, now 33 and 35, for whom hope is also an essential part of their lives. My 35-year-old son was able to go to a wonderful college, travel abroad to Germany, and fashion himself a career in filmmaking over the past decade. He is filled with hope for his future endeavors; in the “indie” film business, hope is the staff of his life.

My daughter, about to turn 34, has had many setbacks in her life due to a series of five open-heart surgeries, but she remains hopeful that with a good deal of patience and perseverance, she, too, can have a fulfilling life. She is working hard toward that goal. Without hope, she would find it hard to go on. Even though their circumstances are challenging in different ways, both have had our support, financially, emotionally and intellectually, and the freedom to pursue their dreams. But what about those who don’t have any support?

As I turn my thoughts back to Bassem Oman, I am deeply touched by the poignancy of his young life and his ambitions.

As he surveys his kingdom of 700 refugees living within a barbed wire refugee camp, he remains satirically confident. He tells the reporter that in two days he will be celebrating his one-year anniversary in this camp. “‘We will host a royal party at Cafe Ritz to celebrate,” he says, referring to the distribution center. ‘You are welcome to come.'” These words represent the bravado of a young man who refuses to give up hope in the face of all odds.

I would like to put my arm around Bessem Omar’s shoulders, as I do with my own grown children, and tell him that I believe in him and his hope more than anything else I can think of. I will try to send a message of hope to him through the New York Times. If he cannot fulfill his dreams, what hope is there for humanity?

 

A Gathering of the Poets Laureate of Long Island

It’s April…poetry month. This is one of the few times I actually miss my former teaching job as an English teacher of young immigrant students. I loved teaching them to read and write poetry. They gravitated to the genre like bees to honey.

I was delighted to learn that my local poetry venue, the Walt Whitman Birthplace Site (shown above), was offering a special event this month: a gathering of the Poets Laureate of Nassau and Suffolk counties to celebrate and launch a collection of their poetry entitled Laurels: Poems by Long Island’s Poets Laureate (ed. James P. Wagner-@localgemspoetrypress.com).

I always feel as though I am on hallowed ground when I visit this site, as I have more recently since I retired two years ago. Apart from being lovingly restored in beautiful surroundings, the site has welcomed many famous and not-as-famous poets over the decades and continues to be a source of inspiration for students, writers, poets-in-residence, visiting poets, and all those who love poetry. I know I’ll be in good company whenever I visit this venerable place.

This event was no exception. The group of participants included the poets themselves and the usual assortment of Long Island poetry fans. This is not a place that goes in for a lot of fanfare, so it was at first impossible to distinguish the poets from the audience members amongst whom they mingled and sat. I especially enjoyed meeting each of the poets as I asked each of them to sign my copy of their book.

The event was introduced by the first designated LI Poet Laureate, George Wallace, who spoke about the history of the position which was approved by the Suffolk County Legislature in 2003. The position of Poet Laureate is held by the chosen poet for a two-year period. Mr. Wallace emphasized how supportive the Suffolk County Legislature has been and continues to be, particularly Vivian Viloria Fisher who was Suffolk County Legislator from 1999-2011 and who was present at this event.

James P. Wagner, who published Laurels spoke next about the creation of the book. He heads a small local publishing house, Local Gems Poetry Press, “dedicated to spreading poetry through performance and the written word. Local Gems believes that poetry is the voice of the people….” He gave a special nod to poet George Wallace for serving as editorial advisor on the anthology.

Then the real magic of the evening began. Most of the poets included in the collection were present and each read three or four poems from the collection. They refer to themselves as a “tribe” of poets on Long Island, a place richly endowed with poets and their works. As could be expected, their poetry covered a range of topics and styles; each poet spoke in his/her unique voice and each poem read reflected the author’s authentic experience and emotions.

Apart from the power of their individual voices, what impressed me was how most of the poets came from ordinary backgrounds. Thus, much of their poetry spoke to everyday lives, ordinary events, and universally shared emotions. When introduced, each poet spoke of how he/she felt honored to have been a Poet Laureate and to be celebrated in the anthology.

When the readings ended, I felt suffused with the imagery and emotions of their poems. I was reminded, once again, how important it is to make time for poetry in my life…in all our lives. And sadly, I was reminded of how much we could lose if funding for the arts in America is rescinded by the current Republican administration. This cannot be allowed to happen, and I’m sure the poets at this event and others throughout the nation will make sure their voices are heard in protest. The least we can do to support them is to join our own voices with theirs.

Viva la poesia!

A Matter of Life and Death

I am a two-year cancer survivor. I am grateful every day for the second chance at life I’ve been given. I’ve been too close to the alternative not to be grateful.

I have a friend who might not be so lucky. He is a family friend of several decades. Our sons were in the same class in school. His daughter is a good friend of my daughter. Our families have been very close at times.

But he is now in big trouble. Diagnosed more than a year ago with a rare form of advanced lung cancer, Sloan Kettering doctors put him in a clinical trial. My husband, who ran into him every week at the grocery store said he was doing well.

Then suddenly that changed. The doctors thought the reason for his blurry vision was cataracts. They were removed but his vision became more blurry. Then he stopped being able to chew his food and began to need a liquid diet to sustain him. A spinal tap was done and cancer was found in his spinal fluid. A course of radiation was prescribed next. Nothing changed.

Now he is barely able to speak comprehensibly. Upset by this twist of fate, my family and I visited his family yesterday. His wife told me he hasn’t wanted any visitors because he feels so embarrassed about his condition. But he agreed to see us.

We spent a low key, pleasant two hours with him and his family. He began to perk up as the time passed, and spoke quite a bit more than I had expected him to. He clearly enjoyed being part of the conversation which was mostly about funny shared memories of events that transpired when our kids were younger.

Toward the end of the visit he brought up the subject of his illness and told us what events were in store for him this coming week: an MRI of his brain, a visit with the oncologist to discuss the chemo he will soon be undergoing and a couple of other doctor visits. He will start chemo on Thursday. He has not given up hope and is anxious to start the course of chemo therapy.

It was a difficult thing to do: to face someone you care about deeply, who you suspect might not live much longer. I think our visit meant a lot to him; he thanked my son for coming out from Brooklyn to see him. We told him we would be rooting for him every day; he said he would let us know how things progress.

Going to visit him to cheer him up and cheer him on was not easy but it was the right thing to do. He is in a fight for his life and he needs all the love and support he can get.

Great Job Fellow Slicers! A Celebration Acrostic Poem

Here I sit on the night before the end of the March Challenge and I don’t know what to say. My daughter and I took a beautiful bird walk today, but I’ve already written about those walks. I’m not into writing about politics tonight…just not in the mood. And I’m no longer actively teaching, so no ideas about that.

So I’m resorting to a device that’s worked for me in the past…an acrostic poem.

G  ee, can it really be March 31st?
 emember how long ago March 1st was?
E  very day in March was a challenge
A  ll month I have wondered what to write next
T  hen an idea suddenly popped into my head

J    oin me in celebrating the friendships we’ve made
O  nline communities like this one are unique
 efore we part, I wanted to say best wishes to all

 ome of us have learned some valuable things
L  ess is more when you’re writing a slice
I  have never learned that lesson!
C  an you tell us what you’ve learned this March?
E  very post is a message from a Slicer’s heart
R  eflecting on this past month all I can say is…
 o many writers, so little time!

Great Job Fellow Slicers!

My Son, Matt, Is a Filmmaker: Watch ‘No Monsters in Berlin’ Online

About 17 years ago, the summer before he was about to start his freshman year at the School of Foreign Service in Georgetown, my son confided in me that he thought he wanted to go to film school instead. He is not an impulsive person so I knew he had given serious thought to what he said. I was sympathetic but I explained to him that it was too late to apply for film school for the fall semester. I advised him to go to the SFS and see how he felt during the year. If he still felt strongly about film school by midyear, he could then apply to film school.

As it turned out, one or two of his professors at the SFS discussed the issue with him and advised him not to leave Georgetown. One professor said that he would be getting a world class education at the SFS, and that graduates of film school were a “dime a dozen.” What you’ll gain by staying here, he told my son, is that you’ll have really good ideas for films you’ll want to make. Gradually he did become more invested in his studies at Georgetown and decided he would stay. He spent one summer during his college years at NYU film school, where he took his first official class in filmmaking since there weren’t any filmmaking classes at Georgetown.

Fast forward…during his senior year at Georgetown, he made a short film instead of writing a senior thesis.


His film, which he wrote, directed and filmed himself, won second place in the Georgetown Film Festival that year. It was his way of saying he still desired a career in filmmaking.

For the next decade he went from one job to another, developing skills that he felt would put him in a position to work on a film one day. First he did some freelance house painting. Then became an assistant to a carpenter. Next he spent a summer learning fine woodworking from a master of the craft. He eventually got a job with a NYC artist/entrepreneur who got him hired to help install some major art projects throughout NYC sponsored by a group called Creative Time. The venues included Governor’s Island, and the site of the soon-to-be High Line where he helped gut and prepare a former meat-packing plant, destined for demolition, for an art exhibition inside the plant.

He then moved from working on events, to installing equipment for a company that provides audio and visual programming for large-scale events in NYC such as the Museum of Natural History, and the Javits Center. During that time, he was continually developing his skills toward his goal of working on a film set.

He began to create his own short films, learning camera operator techniques on the job. A pivotal point in his development happened when he took a camera-operating class with a renowned Director of Photography.

There he began making contacts with people in the film business who gave him opportunities to work on films. Throughout this decade to support himself he was working all hours of the day and/or night, at venues throughout the five boroughs of NYC. He often had just a few hours notice to appear on a film set or a freelance job somewhere in NYC.

About a year and a half ago we took a family trip to Berlin. During that trip, he and his girlfriend cooked up a plan to make a short film about Syrian refugees who were seeking asylum in Berlin. They returned to Berlin six months later, and shot the film in a week! This short film, No Monsters in Berlin, was completed about six months ago and ever since then they have been working hard to get it accepted at various film festivals in the U.S. and Europe.

They succeeded in being accepted by the prestigious Newport Beach Film Festival in California, and the Manchester (England) Online Film Festival. He just emailed me to say that if enough people view his film online and vote for it, they have a chance of having the film shown live in NYC or Tokyo.

If you think you might be interested in supporting my son’s creative efforts in partnership with his girlfriend, who wrote the screenplay for the film, I urge you to visit the website below for the Manchester Online Festival, watch their 15-minute film and cast your vote. It will cost you $10 (sorry!), but obviously I think it’s worth it! And you will have done a very good deed since the film is about Syrian refugees finding their way in their new home, Berlin. Several of the actors and film crew are actual refugees.

The Manchester Festival URL is:

The website for the film itself is worth visiting:

http://www.nomonstersinberlin.com/

As you can tell, I’m a proud Mom, and of course I’d like to see his decade of hard work and discipline be affirmed by his peers, the community of filmmakers and critics. Thank you, Slicers, for your support!

(A photo of me with my son and daughter in our backyard.)

Today I Visited An Old Favorite Haunt In Its New Home

About ten years ago, as I was doing an errand in a small nearby village, I discovered a small art gallery named RIPE. The moment I entered I knew I was someplace special. The art on the walls was quirky, affordable and broke the boundaries of what you would usually find in an art gallery on Long Island (seagulls, sand dunes, etc.).

The owner, Cherie Via (her name at the time) was attractive, quirky, fashionable, edgy and fun to talk to.

I think the first real show I saw there was the Valentine’s Day show which was a gallery tradition. Individual local artists submitted work on the theme of “love” from which she would make selections for the show. The place was packed; the art on the walls displayed an incredibly imaginative spectrum of variations on the theme of love.

Then suddenly, the gallery was gone. A while later, I found it again while driving to another locale nearby. There it was: the sign said RIPE, the name of her former gallery. It had to be her place…who else could it belong to?

Then I got cancer and didn’t get to visit the new version of RIPE though I continued to pass it for the past two years on my way to and from my occasional visits to the dentist; each time I either had to rush to an appointment or it was closed. But today on my way home from the same dentist I decided to treat myself to an “artist’s date.” (Thank you, Julia Cameron for the idea of an artist’s date, which means taking yourself somewhere to replenish your creative soul.)

As I walked through the door of the turquoise cottage I was thrilled to see that there was still a shop showcasing handcrafted jewelry, paintings, clothing accessories, handbags and lots and lots of remarkable doo-dads. I breathed a sigh of relief to see that although the location was different the essence of the place was unchanged.

And there was Cherie, herself, in a room behind the shop, her new framing workshop. We caught up on the past four years of her life, including her marriage to the man who made the move possible. She looked radiant and has clearly benefitted from the move in many, many ways. Business is better, lots of ideas are in the works including an organic produce farm during the cultivating months. And above all, she seems happily married.

I was given a quick tour of the actual gallery which is now housed in what had been a severely broken down barn. Her new hubbie completely refurbished the barn so that it is now a sizeable welcoming space for art to be shown.


The art on the walls was a women artists exhibition from artists around the country. Amazing art surrounded us on all four walls.

I bought a lovely silver heart for my daughter with a chime inside it, and left feeling like I couldn’t wait to bring my daughter to see it so I’d have an excuse to get back there soon.

A little Slice of Paradise…Ripe Gallery is at 1028A, Park Ave., Huntington, NY. Come see it for yourself!

My Daughter Talks With Me About Bones and Funerary Practices

This display case of animal bones was identified, sorted and created by my daughter for the Theodore Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary in Oyster Bay, NY, when she was a volunteer there about a year ago.

“I can’t wait for my favorite mortician’s second book to come out.” This is what my daughter said after I showed her an article in today’s NY Times about an Iceman, whose cause of death has been a mystery until now. In about 3300 B.C this person’s remains were found near the crest of the Otztal Alps in northern Italy. I thought I’d found a new mummy for her to be excited about, but she cast a glance at the photo and said, “Oh, that’s Otzi!”

I was amazed, but I shouldn’t have been because my daughter has been fascinated with death, burial rituals, morticians’ practices, mummies, bog people and all things morbid for as long as I can remember. Today I decided to briefly interview her for my Slice.

Me: When would you say your fascination with all the above began?

Her response: I guess I always had a fascination with animal skeletons. I think it all started in college when I was studying physical anthropology and the osteoarchaeology of humans and animals.

Me: How did that lead to your fascination with human burial rituals?

Her response: I went to Menorca, Spain in 2011 where I was involved in exhuming the skeletons of Roman soldiers in a Roman necropolis.

I loved sitting in the lab after the dig and sorting through the bones.

My fascination with bones then led to reading about funerary rituals: the weirder, the better. When I visited the West Coast of Ireland last fall, I was excited about visiting the Museum of Natural History in Dublin and getting to see the “bog people” who were so well preserved in the peat bogs.

Me: I remember how excited you were when you first learned about Caitlin Doughty, a new-age mortician at the forefront of the death-positive movement. You read her first book: Smoke Gets in Your Eyes/And Other Lessons from the Crematory and haven’t stopped talking about it since. What was it about her that fascinated you?

Her response: I was fascinated by her interest in green burials which I’d heard about but hadn’t explored on my own. I began reading about green burials, and that somehow led to my interest in unique funerary rituals. And then I started my quest to find the weirdest and wildest burial rituals throughout the world.

Me: Was that when you told me about the people in Indonesia who dig up their ancestors?

Her response: Yes, they dig them up every three years and dress them in new clothing and parade them around the village. The whole study of the bones and taxidermy then led to my fascination with corporeal preservations.

Me: Can you explain what that means?

Her response: Throughout the world different cultures have some pretty extreme ways of preserving bodies. For example, Sokushinbutsu is the ancient art of self-mummification practiced by a very specific sect of Japanese monks between the 11th and 19th centuries. It’s a process that takes 3000 days, or ten years. The person must eat a very specific diet to begin the process of shedding all body weight and dehydration. While doing this they drink a special tea made from the bark of the Urushi tree, also known as the Japanese varnish tree. At the end of the 3000 days they crawl into a tomb which is sealed except for a breathing tube which allows them to breathe and they are given a bell which they ring every day until they die. When the bell stops ringing, the tomb is then completely sealed.

My favorite part of the whole process is that if it fails and your body is not mummified, you are not considered a holy Buddha.

For the sake of brevity, that ends our conversation for today. But you can see that I’ve raised a rather unusual daughter. And just for the record, she is one of the most life-loving, funny, warm-hearted people I have ever known. And she hardly ever wears black!