Wordsanctuary Revisited

Musings of a writer-teacher-counselor.

My Photo
Location: Cleveland, Ohio, United States

I am inquisitive and have worked in writing, editing, and teaching. I am a citizen of the USA and also concerned about the world. This is an addendum to my original blog, Wordsanctuary. That's at www.wordsanctuary.blogspot.com Please check out my column at www.insidehighered.com, "A Kinder Campus." Click on Career Advice to find it. Thanks for stopping by.

Friday, January 11, 2008

My Writing History (Excerpt)

How many people would be willing to step up and look into the kaleidoscope of my life as a writer and reader? Few. But if they would, they might see indigo seeping from my fountain pen in junior high; red, undulating teachers’ comments; orange and yellow circus spirals made with my thick crayons on our dining room wall; green felt-tip comments I made in margins as an editor; pink and white chalk like icing squiggled on the sidewalk, graphite storms on tear-drenched paper in second grade ...
I teach writing; I have written for a living. This is not because the process has always been easy for me. I was the little girl in second grade who couldn’t write fast enough for her stern teacher, Mrs. Higley. She would pull the paper out of my hand when I was the last to finish – actually, not quite finished– and I would cry. Mrs. Higley was unemotional, with cold blue eyes. Wouldn’t you cry? Sweat from my fist blurred faint blue lines on my paper as I agonized to be perfect. That was part of the problem: I knew that handwriting was important. I was a tug of war between the ideas tumbling forth…and the too-slow penmanship. For years I associated writing and crying.
However, I had also been the four-year-old who regularly “wrote” on our dining room wall. With crayons. Our walls were celery-green. I was small--but here was a vehicle that gave me power and might. Some muse (or demon) within compelled me. Orange, yellow, red, blue, green…I didn’t have the fanciest crayon set, but I made the most of it. My mother would take out cleanser and sponge and try to scrub off the marks. Shadows of crayon remained, interspersed with streaks of—bleach? One day, exasperated, she asked the woman who lived above us in the duplex what she should do. Should she punish me for my exploits?
Get her a blackboard,” was our tenant’s wise response.
First it was a small rectangular blackboard, not much larger than a notebook, with a yellow duck sponge. I can still feel the dryness of the sponge and how quickly it absorbed water…flooding words and pictures on the board into grey oblivion. Not long after, I got a real blackboard on an easel-type stand. Thus, a teacher was born. I held school in the basement, and the neighborhood kids showed up—even Gregory, who tortured ants and teased me on the street. In my school, he was a model student.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

What to Eat on the Campaign Trail

1. Be prepared to swallow your own words. If you are unwilling to do so, you will look arrogant and few will relate to you.
2. It’s not only what you eat, it’s what’s eating you. It will show, especially if your face is broadcast on TV.
3. Anything that makes you look younger, older, thinner, fatter, warmer, colder, or whatever your most trusted advisor says the public wants.
4. Lots and lots of those chalky, round antacid products that contain calcium. I won’t give their name. Rhymes with mums. I think if there are people like me listening, you should keep your strength up, and calcium soothes the nerves.
5. Cliches. If you can come up with a fresh expression, you’re more likely to be elected. In a flash. Like lightning. Quicker than quick. In the blink of an eye.
6. Secrecy. Are you applying for this job? What will you do, if elected? Don’t hold back, ok? I can’t vote for a maybe this, maybe that. On the other hand, if you don’t quite know what you’ll be able to implement, please say so.
7. Anything that smacks of “poor, misunderstood me.” Would that fly in a job interview? No.
8. Sharp criticisms and/or mindless praises of your predecessor(s). We’ve heard both; we know both; we are lucky to be able to make up our own minds. Get elected on your own strengths and promise.

A Non-Political Blog

When I explain to the rare person who is interested that I have a blog, I am quick to point out that it is not political. That limitation, of course, is part of what leads to the "O" comments for most of my entries.

Well, I just finished watching a large chunk of the New England primary Democratic debates. I could make observations on styles of rhetoric...as I'm a word watcher....but I won't...

I will offer only one remark that I felt was important for my 15-year-old to hear: It began with the dangerous: "When I was your age..."

"When I was your age, I could only dream that among the candidates would be such diversity."

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Self-Help from the Afflicted

The lessons we learn in childhood are among the most enduring. Here are some of mine:


1. If you don't know where you come from, don't brag about it.

2. If you can't say something nice about yourself, don't say anything nice about anyone else either.

3. Go ahead. Risk the impossible. Put an apron on your dog and make her walk across the kitchen on her back legs for a dog biscuit. Then, give her chunky peanut butter. She will love you anyway.


4. The cookies in the jar are finite. Your appetite is infinite. By eating as many as you can in record time, you may enter: The Glucose Zone.

5. Given the choice between a storebought Halloween princess costume with sequins and a homemade one made with love, pay the 79 cents. You may get an itchy rash but you will fit in with everyone else.

6. The following foods are essential to your healthy development:


7. Stop hating yourself. There are plenty of people in this world who are happy to do so for no reason whatsover.

8. Keep your demons in the attic. That way, you'll know where they are. But lock the door, and don't misplace the key.

9. Keep your dreams in the basement. Play house, play school, make friends with spiders. Some day, if you're lucky, you may get to play upstairs.


10. Don't drink purple water from that little cup when everyone else is painting unless you are absolutely, positively sure that it is Kool-Aid.

11. Valentine's day is the best day of all. The whole class smells like chocolate, and you will see how much better your printing is than everyone else's.

12. Dance like everyone is watching. Put a stop to this nonsense once and for all.


12. If you love something, set it free. If you love something a whole lot, put it in your mother's purse. You will someday recover from finding twenty fireflies on their backs in the morning.

13. Always do the right thing. Drinking milk straight from the bottle was not the right thing. You have the chipped tooth to prove it.


14. Cultivate your inner child. You had measles in fourth grade, mumps in fifth grade, and chicken pox at age 42. It's never too late to feel utterly miserable.

15. Innovate. Pink and purple do make a good color combination, and never let anyone tell you otherwise.

16. You will win the spelling bee even if you ate three brownies instead of lunch.

17. The child you thought was a bully, is. Don't believe the rumor about his plan to become a priest. You saw what he did to those ants when it rained. He drowned them and gave them the last rites.

18. Do not forget that if you run fast enough, you will indeed fly. Do not believe the naysayers, even the family members who had to run down the street after you.


19. Wake up and smell the coffee, the herring, the Limburger cheese...and all the other disgusting things that grown-ups eat.

20. Accept reality. Although you would have preferred to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the role of the cowardly lion was better than no role at all. It was the one day of your life when your thick hair was an asset and you were allowed to wear a tail made of brown yarn and old nylons to school.


21. E = mc 2
Energy equals the speed with which you eat the cookies times the total mass of the cookies, squared.

22. If a tall, blonde first grader wants to walk you home and carry your report card, let him. This is as close to greatness as he will ever get.

23. If your neighbor wants to teach you to draw, let him. Twenty years from now he will change his major from engineering to education.

24. Forgive. Happy (your dog) ate your four favorite crayons. You were the one who left them out.

25. Be amazed at color TV. Butterflies. Your mother's fox fur. But don't try to put them in your mouth.

26. A blank wall cries out: "Write on me!" just as the sidewalk begs for chalk. Do not let your inability to write keep you from leaving your mark. Your mother just may buy you a blackboard.

Why Having a Refrigerator Break Down on New Year’s Eve Is like Writing

1. Because you have to quickly salvage what’s good and pitch the rest.

2. Because it forces you to consider how you will preserve what is good.

3. Because the silence will give you a bit more space in which to hear the chatter in your head. That can be good--or scary.

4. Because you have to take a cooling off period from the idea of having a refrigerator. You must be willing to tolerate emptiness. Stores are closed.

5. Because once you finally get to the store, guess what? The model you want has to be shipped from Columbus. That means: More time to incubate ideas and keep them fresh (somehow)…That means: more waiting.

6. Because you will risk damage to your hands if you spend too much time handling ice, grasping your pen, or typing in awkward positions.

7. Because you can move from frenzied food storage (accumulating words) to giving food away for free (blogging), even if others don’t need more words. And you will wonder if the gifts of food or words are really appreciated--or people are just humoring you.

8. Because the man selling refrigerators will be as disinterested in your former refrigerator as most people are in your writing.

9. Because there is no discount. You will always put more into it than you will get out.

10. Because it will force you to do research, as in: How cold is a refrigerator, anyway? And: how hot are my ideas?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Reflecting on Family History

This year: Consider people who are important in your life. Elicit the stories they know about who has been important to them. Write the memories down, even imperfectly. (I wish I had started much sooner.) Listen with your heart. Each story and each human is utterly unique. But the cosmic heart that connects us beats in unison.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Happy New Year 2008

January 1, 2008, marks the 130th birthday of my maternal grandfather, Georg Viernekas. He was the oldest of nine born on a farm in the German countryside, sent early to the city of Karlsruhe to earn his keep and help support his family. Catholic and eventually marrying a Lutheran woman thirteen years his junior, Hedwig Giess, Georg worked for years as a porter at Hotel Germania.

The bridge separating the two faiths was not a small one to span at the time.

Hedwig was a maid and helper at a neighboring hotel. She caught his eye; in order to take an uninterrupted walk with him, she gave a bribe of chocolate to children she needed to watch at the same time. The children later revealed to their parents that they had been given some chocolate to eat--"and it's a secret!"

These are the types of family stories that kids half-listen to, a little bored. They are the same stories that--as we grow older--we wish we had taken time to absorb more carefully.

My grandfather served in the Bavarian regiment before World War I, gaining officer status. He voluntarily gave this up to be a cook in the German army when he was called again to serve in World War I. Hedwig found in Georg maturity, a strong work ethic, and gentleness.

By the time World War I demanded his service, Georg and Hedwig were married, my aunt (also named Hedwig) had been born, and my mom was on the way. My father felt that working as a cook might allow him to occasionally send a little food back home, helping the family survive. My grandmother had rejoined her mother in the countryside where "at least we'll have potatoes to eat" was (and still is) the family mantra. Georg also knew that surrendering his officer status meant he would not have to shoot.

I have my grandfather's pewter ration box and cup, and I share the green of his eyes though with a touch of hazel at the center ...

My mother tells me that whereas Georg was quiet and reflective with a dry sense of humor, her mother was livelier and more expressive. But the worries of living in a land at war twice in her lifetime would eventually etch worry lines into her beautiful face.

When Georg was called to serve in the Army, a relative of my grandmother’s (her godmother, in fact) was distressed that she had married a Catholic. She asked her: “What will you do with those Catholic children if he does not return?" My grandmother had promised to raise the children Catholic--though she maintained her Lutheran faith. My grandmother’s mother (my maternal great-grandmother), Katharina Henriette Giess--Lutheran herself and deeply spiritual--put a stop to such talk.

She said: "A promise to G-d on the altar is not to be broken.” I have seen a letter that Katharina wrote on the occasion of my mother's birth, full of joy and spirit. Her graceful handwriting reveals another era, when each word, each thought, was expressed on paper with a measured grace. Could she have imagined that her great-great-grandchildren--my son, my niece, my nephew--would live in a time when words flash across the world in an instant? Would she have changed her view that cars are "Teufelsmaschinen" (Devil's machines)? When I was hurt in an auto accident, I thought of that phrase often. And when she looked into the eyes of my mother, who born after a ten-month gestation, she said definitively: "Zu gut fur diese Welt" (Too good for this world.)

My grandfather enjoyed feeding birds; when he drove the luggage cart for the hotel back and forth to the train station, birds would descend upon it to retrieve crumbs he left on top. Even from a distance, when the birds saw the cart coming, they would flock toward it. My mom recalls that they always had a canary, "Hansel." (The name was passed on to several canaries.) Upon hearing my grandfather's key in the door, Hansie would go straight to his feeding dish. Imagining Georg as a boy raised on a farm--conscripted by circumstance and necessity for service to hotel and army--I feel that his taking precious minutes to tend a small creature is deeply revealing of his character.

And Georg loved music. The waltzes on TV this time of year transport my mom into the world of memory, and I used to not "get it." I do now. She could play the piano energetically in her youth, and still plays favorite tunes by ear though her eyesight has dimmed. In my mother's piano bench is music her father purchased for her to play at family gatherings; it's yellowing, taped together to ensure its survival by my late father, but still legible. A violin that Georg bought for his youngest daughter (my late Aunt Hannelore) made its way to the U.S.A. in 2002, nearly one hundred years after it was crafted. When Hannelore was dying, she worried where the violin would go. (She had no children.) A first cousin (now deceased) insisted that my oldest sister and my mother--who flew to Germany to attend Hannelore's final hours--would take it back home.

A neglected violin in a dusty case? As it turns out, it has joined a quartet of instruments (piano, guitar, accordion) and the affinity for nature (flowers, birds) that carries the spirit of hope in our family. As fate would have it, my son began to play violin. Through music, I sense: Universal love. Sacred memory. Enduring joy. And pain.

Circa 1879 or 1880, just a year or two after my grandfather Georg was born, my father’s mother—Sura Rojsa (surname: Koppel, Kopel, Kopla) was born in Kalisz Gubernia, Posnan Province and entered a world of European Jewry that was to be decimated during World War II. She had long, wavy, dark hair and dark eyes; one strand of her family’s path goes back to Spain and the Inquisition. They were either expelled or chose to leave; I don't know. There were roots and branches of her family in lands including Poland and France. They journeyed in search of work, acceptance, survival.

Sura had a lively intellectual life, even reading philosophy--especially Spinoza. Though as the mother of a large brood (and bearing her first child perhaps as early as age sixteen), she carried many daily responsibilities: she made time to read. As my father entered dating years, I’m told that she’d stay up to hear "how it went"... and then he would ask her what she had been reading. This was before the horrors of the Third Reich--

I know little of my beloved grandmother Sura Rojsa, who died at Stutthof concentration camp in December 1944 after being interred in Lodz ghetto with other family members and "shipped" through Auschwitz. She knew my father's first wife, Silvia, and helped care for Eugenia, his daughter (my half-sister) born in 1935. I am still seeking verification of where and how Silvia and Eugenia died. Was it Stutthof? Was it Auschwitz? Their fate haunted my father his entire life.

Sura's three sons--including my father--and one of her daughters were sent for slave labor in Dresden in the final months of the war. One of the three sons, my uncle Leo, later disappeared.

Sura survived probably longer than the odds for a woman over 60. But by that point, her youngest grandchildren had been killed; wives of two of her sons had been killed; one of her daughters was killed; her husband had died in Warsaw; another daughter (Regina) was in hiding, we suspect.

What happens to a grandmother when she sees her kin disappear one by one? A family story tells of the time she protested and was beaten up in Stutthof, a hellish labor camp that also was used for annihilation. This story paradoxically gives me strength because, though defeated, her words ring through history. When asked "why didn't more Jews resist?" I can know in my heart that my grandmother, widowed, over 60 years old, tried. Perhaps the anguish and outrage of her shouts pierced the soul of the person(s) taking the children and/or grandchildren away. I know this story from a first cousin, a survivor, and the rare testimony of my father.

In recent years I have learned through web resources, the names of first cousins who perished: Mayer, Isak, Abram Josef, Maxy, Bella, Gitla, and a little older: Moritz, Milli, Benjamin...there are others, all of whom I hope to someday commemorate.
If a world leader--supported by willing believers of a rabid ideology--asserts that a group is subhuman, such a belief can destroy three generations of the same family. That is genocide. Hate paired with a technology of annihilation devours young, old, strong, weak, pious, secular: anyone deemed unsuitable. I cannot even imagine the size of my family had these cherished young ones survived.

I have not recovered from this terrible knowledge of human possibility, and I never will. It cannot be expressed in words--though I occasionally try. I sense positive potential for humans, of course--or I could not go on. Regrettably, the world has not abandoned hate.

As this new year opens, hushed by a blanket of snow here in Cleveland, I wonder: What would Georg and Sura say to each other if they could meet? Could they even speak? Would they, in the reverberations of that epidemic of horror known as the Third Reich, maintain mutual, conditioned suspicion? Or would their loves of music, nature, cooking, and reading spawn curiosity and rapport? Would they be surprised at the twists and turns that brought my father and mother together, in post-war Europe.

In another dimension, can my paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather see their unlikely grandchildren--my two sisters and me...? In such a place, can family trees truncated by war and tragedy grow again, sheltering ancestors like mine who emerged from disparate worlds? Are the souls whose lives were cut short still grieving? Can they--or the world that failed them--heal?

In the sole picture I have of Sura Rojsa (taken at my Tante [Aunt] Regina’s wedding...her oldest child who was on the run during the Third Reich...there is sadness in her dark eyes. How this picture was preserved, I don't know.

In pictures of my grandfather Georg with his wife Hedwig and three beautiful daughters, I see a tender smile despite harsh realities that became even harsher as the Third Reich raged. In Hedwig's eyes, the sadness grows deeper with each picture. Let no one underestimate the power of political extremism and economic adversity to shatter lives. Georg had saved enough money to open his own hotel; with the depression that hit Germany, the money lost its value entirely. But there were other challenges. Georg's eldest daughter had a chronic illness; the family was strongly Catholic. Two black marks…or, in someone else's mind...two distinguishing factors that would guarantee that our family would be different, outsiders whose home was not entirely safe from Nazi poison. Work was thus not easy for Georg to get once the Nazis were in power. There were struggles for many years.

My grandfather accepted my father, without question or hesitation, when he fell in love with my mother.

As Georg aged, his final joy was to tend a small garden despite serious back problems incurred in a bombing of a hotel near the end of the war.

The woman that my mother became--a woman brave enough to marry a Holocaust survivor who had lost his wife, his daughter, and others ... a woman daring enough to accept differences of faith, age, and personality ... a woman bold enough to cross the ocean with my father and my cherished sisters (age 3-1/2 and 2 years old) to embrace a new land, a new language....a woman gentle enough to just keep loving us all through many family struggles... carried the legacy of her own courageous ancestors within.
These loving hearts included: a bright, sensitive Lutheran grandmother who said we don't revoke promises to G-d and tutored kids discreetly so that their teachers didn't know they were getting help; her Catholic father who chose to cook rather than shoot, and who loved birds and boxing, and who founded a community soccer team that (I'm told) still exists in Germany. And other relatives of both faiths who lived on farms, close to the earth, and maintained rugged independence of thought despite an evil ideology ravaging Europe.
My mother embraced Judaism.

If families can blossom with members of different faiths, why can’t nations? Will there be a day when most can accept religious differences as naturally as varieties of plants, languages, colors in the rainbow? Not a patronizing or suspicious acceptance, nor one with an ulterior motive (as in: "Let me get your trust, and then I'll convert you"). Rather, a genuine affirmation: "Yes, there is room for both you and for me on this planet."

Forcing religion into narrower and narrower chutes may seem on the surface to perpetuate traditions and create close-knit communities, but it leads to most of the world being labeled “outsider.” I do not believe that the world can afford that anymore, if it ever could. Either we are all kin, or none of is connected. Either we acknowledge our interdependence, or we each must ultimately go it alone.

With love and appreciation to (Oma) Grandma Sura and (Opa) Grandpa Georg for the gift of life. May your memories be preserved. May your scattered descendents serve truth and promote healing of this troubled world.

Photo Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service