My debut novel, which will be released to the world in July of this year—seven months from now—has a cover. A real one. Which I happen to love and whose image I open onto my computer screen several times a day just to gaze at it. The existence of this picture stirs up so many emotions in me: satisfaction, disbelief, scream-it-from-the-hilltops joy. But also, as with any big life milestone, there’s a sense of wistfulness, a deep longing to share with my beloved parents.
Here is the cover of Embers on the Wind, to be released by Little A Books on July 5, 2022. Artwork by Micaela Alcaino.
My mother, an avid reader and educator, died in 2018. I am fortunate that she was alive for part of the time I was working on the book, and even read an early version of the short story which grew into the finished work.
But Dad died back in 1995, before I even owned anything resembling a laptop. I was writing long hand and then typing things up on his old Corona (prior to the word’s current connotation). He read and critiqued things I wrote, predicting that I would one day “blow the literary world away.” Dad always regarded my endeavors with a blustery confidence he denied his own work.
My father was a brilliant writer and storyteller. An astute interlocutor of history and politics, of ace and culture, art, literature, and music. But luck and time were often against him. A visual artist who was legally blind. A screen writer whose Hollywood contacts lagged behind his skill and ambitions.
But my father’s name, Mel Williamson, lives on in the flaps and copyright pages of countless books, including volumes by Jimmy Breslin, Nadine Gordimer, Saul Bellow, Grace Paley, and other 20th century Giants.
My father was the chief art director at Viking Press, both before and after it was “Viking Penguin,” long before it was an imprint of Penguin Random House.
Dad designed book covers. It was what he did for most of my childhood. And therefore, it is to him that I dedicate this announcement, with his memory that I celebrate this moment.
My father took my aspirations of being a novelist seriously from the start. His advice? “Get your first four chapters in, get your advance, and get to work.” Which was the way of the publishing world when he was chief art director of Viking Press back in the 60’s. I don’t remember Dad ever using terms like “query letter,” “agent,” or “submission.” He certainly never mentioned “Platform.”
Today, you need a completed, polished novel and an agent to sell it in order to get an advance—which may or may not cover expenses so you can focus exclusively on revising your book. And you’re also required to have a platform, to put yourself “out there,” to maximize your social media presence. I cannot imagine what Dad—who died in 1995, before the internet dominated all our lives—would make of that last sentence, or why I need this very site.
And here’s the thing which makes expanding my online footprint daunting. I’m a psychotherapist, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker to be precise. Being discreet—not “out there”—is part of my job description. Not just regarding the lives and identities of my clients, but also my own. Not that anyone expects therapists to be total blank slates anymore. We are no longer silent, bearded men upon whom patients superimpose whatever traits their unconsciouses desire. We’re people. Google-able people. Clients read our bios, view our profiles and photographs, learn about who we are from our practice mission statements, accessing anything about us that feels relevant to their therapeutic experiences.
In the 22 years I have been practicing, I’ve found that clients want you to be real with them, open to sharing bits of your story that may increase the connection between you without making it about you. It’s a tough balance, knowing when and how much to self-disclose. Many of my Black woman clients chose me because they wanted a therapist with first-hand knowledge of racism, particularly the racial trauma that comes from being an American woman of African descent. Again, many of my clients are mothers who appreciate knowing that I’ve raised children of my own. When I self-disclose, it’s usually in the form of a brief illustrative anecdote that relates to the client’s story, though I’m always clear that their experience is unique. It also depends on the situation and the individual. Some clients feel safest when they know something about me, others prefer to know nothing of my existence outside the office.
Another factor is that I live in the town where I practice. Over the years, plenty of clients have seen me out walking my dog or herding my children around a grocery store. The notion of being spotted by clients while I was out living my “real” life used to fill me with anxiety.
My finest moment was when my son, then two, completely lawless in the manner of two-year-olds, barreled into a client of mine at a swimming pool. The client was an older male—hence not a mom—and for what it mattered, I had on a bikini. Awkward enough to run into a client while your child is acting out, dashing the fantasy I believed clients had of therapists having their shit completely together. It was another thing entirely to stand in front of a male client wearing what was essentially underwear. Cringes all around.
My supervisor at the time, a lovely older woman who had raised two children while practicing therapy in the town where she lived, said, “You’re human. They all know you have a life.” She encouraged me to raise the encounter with the client when I saw him next, which I did. We both laughed about it. He asked how old my son was and I told him. No mention was made of the bikini. It would take me years for these encounters to stop rattling me, to stop trying to present a shrink-perfect image at all times.
Being a writer means making a conscious choice to present a public version of my private self. This process actually began with a talk I had been invited to give at a synagogue about the meaning of being a Black Jew, a member of two distinct groups—one ethno-racial, the other ethno-religious. An announcement of the talk caught the attention of author, journalist and now my friend, TaRessa Stovall, who is also Black and Jewish. I credit TaRessa with coining the term “Blewish”—an identity of multitudes, including Daveed Diggs, Rain Pryor, Rebecca Walker, and Tracee Ellis Ross. TaRessa interviewed me before the talk, wrote a piece about it for our local paper. While I ultimately published the talk in Interfaith Families Online, it was TaRessa’s article which gained the most attention. Some people got confused and thought I’d written it; others read it and googled me, turning up little besides a scholarly article—the first thing I ever published—in Social Work and Healthcare, about African American Women and their exclusion from the literature on body image disturbance and eating disorders.
But there was such a difference between a social worker writing about clinical issues and a woman sharing her personal story. The former was about research, interviews and observation; the latter was just about me. My visibility surged in a way I wasn’t sure I wanted it to.
Nevertheless, I started blogging a few years later, which was the biggest breakthrough for me. I wrote about my first career as a ballet dancer, my residual relationship with ballet, my subsequently complicated relationship with my body. I wrote about my eating disorder history, my experience as a Black biracial child growing up under the umbrella of my mother’s white privilege, how it vanished when I was with my Black father. I wrote about my parents’ marriage, my father’s death and, much later, my mother’s. I wrote from my heart, uncensored, sharing my raw, unfettered emotional core. I wrote about my grandmother’s rejection of me, my evolving Black identity, my evolving Jewish identity, motherhood, Obama, dogs, Betty Grable—you name it, I wrote about it. And … it was out there on the internet for anyone to see. Including my clients, most of whom frankly don’t read it. That’s not what they need from me. Either way, it’s okay. As my supervisor said, my clients know I have a life.
Soon online journals were publishing my essays. If you read those, especially the ones in Longreads and The Common, you know exactly who I am. Again, it has to be okay. At one point I considered a pen name to separate the writing me from the therapist me. That didn’t feel right.
By now, I’m experienced enough, confident enough as a therapist to handle the duality. As a writer you don’t want to hold back. You need to be real, not stiff or sanitized. You need to dig deep and notice what you feel. Which is why writing has made me a better therapist and vice versa.
Which brings me to now. I have a novel—a work of fiction—not a work about therapy or my own life—coming out in about a year.
Without using any “material” from clients, Embers on the Wind touches upon subjects I discuss with them daily—motherhood, family, race, gender, and identity. What does it mean to love and loathe a sister at the same time? What does it mean to be underestimated, undervalued, and yet resented for one’s perceived good fortune? What does it mean to struggle when others appear to have everything handed to them? What does it mean to be a modern Black woman living with the weight of the past, of your ancestors’ hopes, fears and dreams?
And suddenly, the overlap of all my work is clear, without need for compartmentalization. I wear multiple hats, but remain the same, integrated self beneath them.
It is in this spirit that my blog is reborn as my Author Website—the tagline of which I’ve changed from “Writings on Body Image and Identity” to “Stories of Motherhood, Identity and Being.”
This is the site where I can record my honest thoughts about life, parenting, race, and politics. It’s also for general therapeutic observations which readers can take as advice or leave. And of course, it’s for my new author life, my book news. It’s all here. It’s all me.
(3 Easy Steps which may or may not work for you) #WritersLife #2022debuts
Recently, I received an editorial letter that was beautiful, complimentary, insightful and inspiring. I couldn’t wait to plunge back into my book, tackling my editor’s suggestions, transforming the story into everything it needs to be. I spent two full weeks furiously rewriting, revising, recreating, even hatching a brand-new romantic subplot between two characters who’d barely met in the last version. While solving some minor plot holes, I discovered that my roster of characters included two Peters, a Westly AND a Wesley. Oh! And a woman who tearfully fled a room in Harlem not two paragraphs after lighting up a cigarette in Quebec. But I fixed it all. Got it in on the due date, awash with relief. But then, once the holy-shit-I-did-it euphoria faded, I was wordless.
You’ve felt this too, right? The crash after flying on literary adrenaline? Whether it was completing your NaNoWriMo draft, a huge revision for your agent or critique group, line edits for your editor, or polishing a masterpiece in time for the last submission day of an essay contest. You hit send. Only to find yourself devoid of language, unable to write another phrase.
What if nothing comes? What if that was it? Everyone experiences wordless days, even weeks. But knowing you’re in good company doesn’t make it any less unnerving.
While I don’t claim to have anything resembling a magic formula to end writers’ block, here’s what has worked for me.
Step 1. Acknowledge the rut and find some other way to feel a sense of purpose. If it’s not your non-writing work, clean out a closet, make banana cake, volunteer to help someone with something—anything.
Purpose is the first thing that shakes me out of my rut. I am fortunate that my day job, my profession as a psychotherapist, is all about other people and what they need. When my writer-brain goes blank, I still have a shrink-brain: wholly absorbed in my clients, their strengths, their struggles, pain, and victories.
(And no—in case anyone is wondering, I have never, will never, use my therapy clients for “material” in my fiction. Those are two separate plots of turf. That is a strict rule which I will never violate. Though I do believe that my ability to think through stories and motivation enhances my work as a therapist and vice versa.
That said, if I am writing non-fiction that involves mental health or my experience as a therapist, I might write about a client—just with permission and a disguised name.)
Having a therapy practice is a gift when I’m struggling to get back into my writing. Partly it’s the sense that there are other ways I can have an impact. Partly it’s a reminder that there is a world out there much bigger than my books, a world of real live people with complicated histories, emotions, and aspirations.
Step 2. Read. Fill up on other people’s words until yours start to flow again. To jumpstart my process, it always helps to read something by someone I respect.
Have you noticed that throughout this post I keep slipping into the 2nd person? Maybe because I just read a raw and powerful essay by Deesha Philyaw about writing about love—which happened to be second person voice. (Also, if you have not yet done so, please pick up a copy of her masterful The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.) Read and keep reading.
Check out my Instagram for recent books I’ve recommended.
Step 3. Look over the last paragraph of the last thing you wrote.
Open up a document with a writing project you’ve got going—full of words you once wrote (that was you, remember?). Read over a paragraph. If it needs some work—fix it up till you like it and take it from there. If it’s good, you’ll feel re-energized, maybe enough to add another sentence. And one more. And before you know it, you’ve got your momentum back.
Full disclosure: just now, between the above sentence and this one, I took a break and read over a chapter in a WIP I’d been working on before I got my editorial letter. I read the last paragraph and was inspired to fix it up a bit, to add a few sentences and then stop in a place where I’ll be excited to pick it up tomorrow.
Alternately, open up a blank document. Stare at the blank screen for a minute and then tell yourself you’re just going to play around with some thoughts, maybe write a quick post—something about how it feels to be wordless. Because even those words count, right? Better than nothing.
And onto the blank screen, force out some of the residual words which did not make it into your revision, or which got extracted from some old version of something you wrote somewhere. Free-floating, aimless words, looking to partner with one another and make a bit of meaning. There might be just a few of them, disconnected, but words nonetheless. And when you look over the no-longer-blank screen, possibly adjust the spacing, it looks like you’ve got the start of something. Maybe.
You know, I think writing this helped. I think I’m back now.
Today Facebook showed me a “memory” which I had completely forgotten. On this day in 2015, I learned that the only flash-fiction piece I’ve ever written, “Orca,” was a semifinalist in the New Millennium Short Fiction Contest. I had written it on a whim, thinking about the story of Tilikum, the famed Orca from SeaWorld who, in 2010, had snapped and killed his trainer, Dawn Brancheau) and the 2013 documentary Blackfish which raised awareness about the abuse of these magnificent creatures. The whales’ plight has clear parallels to human oppression past and present. But I liked the story and wanted to share. I named my f-bomb dropping fictional Orca “Jonah.”
A Story from 2015
I swear I never planned it. I just had this idea that maybe I could make this day less of a suckfest than the ones before.
He’s on the edge of the platform, waving at the masses like they do, one slick, black flipper sticking out just enough. So I go for it. I grab his foot along with the rest of him in my teeth—one smooth pass, a rush of energy and the thrill of giving in to impulse. My heart beats in rhythm to the filtration pump, all twelve thousand pounds of me humming with possibility. And for one moment, this stale, lukewarm tank—chemically treated water, manmade current, synthetic seaweed—is enough. But here’s the wall, too soon like always. I flip and evade just before impact.
I can’t break out of here, but I can give the crowd a taste of my will. Look at me, assholes! High on my own will. It’s what keeps me from going nuts like poor old Thomas, who swims in circles all day, chasing imaginary seals.
Thomas is not his real name. He’s Naylu to the Humans, who like our names tribal-sounding and exotic—Naylu, Le’molo, Wailele. At sea no one needs names. You’ve got instinct to tell you who you are, who you love, who to watch out for. Humans name us so they can tell us apart and more completely own us. We weigh what we weigh; they weigh what they weigh, yet we belong to them. Humans made this tank, brought in our mothers and fathers, forced them to breed amid the dank and scum. And if you think those of us born inside don’t have sea-instinct, that we don’t miss what we’ve never known, you’re wrong.
But names, yeah. I came up with the idea to take our own names—their kind of names, just for the irony. We stole the names of trainers who left and haven’t come back. There’s Thomas, the oldest, the only one born at sea—the psycho on permanent seal patrol. Then there’s Ed, Kathy, Mike, Liz and me, Jonah. Last is Allison, beautiful Allison.
The water caresses my skin as I move, prize on display. I’m calm and happy just this once, like I’ve never been before—not even that time with Allison, because we were forced together in that cramped shithole of a medical pool. Yeah, we both wanted it, but the Humans wanted it too and it was their wanting it—not ours—that made it happen. This moment is mine. As long as I have this guy by the flipper, I’m free.
My tankmates, Ed and Mike, cheer me on, Dude! Go! Wishing they’d thought of it first. Crazy Thomas goes swirling round and round, slapping with his tail, signaling his glee. But Allison trembles from the shadows, guessing how it’s all going to go down. She intuits things. All the cows do, but Allison does it best.
Like what happened to the calf. Allison knew, before she saw the transport ropes, that they were going to take her baby. She went up on the platform, rocking and slamming her tail in protest. I never saw a cow act like that. After the calf was gone, Allison kept on going. She kept swimming, leaping, doing tricks for mackerel just like the rest of us. But her eyes were hollowed out and frightening. They’d lost their light.
Vengeance. Malice. Psychosis. These words will come up one day when the experts and activists try to explain my actions. But I’m not doing this for Allison. I’m not doing it because I’m tired of being penned in, or because of the calf, or the indignity of being named after a fucking seashell. I’m doing this because I can.
Liz signals to me that I should cut the crap and let the guy go, and Kathy sounds, Jonah, you’re going to get busted! Buzz kills. Eat my dorsal fin. Allison stays deep down, watching. I think maybe she’ll join me. I’ll toss him to her, see if I can bring back the shine to her eyes.
But first I take him up to the surface for a spell to show the crowd I don’t mean any harm. I keep his foot in my teeth, but we hang out. I let him breathe. Humans don’t have blowholes like we do; they breathe some other way that takes longer. So I give him time to get plenty of air in him, then take him back under.
The calf was beautiful, I remember. It was the first time I ever watched one come out into the world. Allison was cool with me watching. If it had been Thomas or even Ed, she’d have been scared they’d eat her baby or some wacko shit, but not me. I’m the one she could trust.
I was moved outside the tank as soon as she delivered, but she could hear me signaling that I was there and that everything was okay. The calf was small and perfect, just like Allison, but everyone said her little saddle patches looked like mine. Her eyes were bright and clear and so round. She stayed right up close to Allison, like a tiny shadow. Caught on right away how to swim and make it up to the surface. I just stared, blown away by this miracle that took place right in our own piss pot of a tank, so far from the real sea.
I let the guy up one more time—not for so long, though. I’m getting antsy. I dive back down and find Allison. She’s still in the darkest corner of the main tank. I shake my head back and forth, showing off what I have, but feeling desperate. I need her to play my game. Hey, Allison, take a turn. I let him go for a second, nose him in her direction. Come on, live a little. But she turns away. And now the guy is making for the surface like a bullet. Which pisses me off. This time it’s not so playful when I take him; I’m out of patience. I chomp on his body. Probably with more force than I should, but I’m past giving a shit. I swim with him back to Allison. Her eyes stay vacant. She signals: What can you possibly want from me?
So I leave her alone, the guy’s limp body still in my teeth.
That day, the day Allison’s calf was born, I remember thinking, I’m going to take that little girl out of here. Someday, somehow. Me and her and Allison, we’re getting out. Which I know was a crazy thought, because where the hell is out? Old Thomas says when he was first captured, he lived in a sea-pen. There was the ocean, he says, and right next to it was his pen, just a thin net separating him from the wide open. So the water he lived in was real, one hundred percent, pure, blue seawater. One day some guys in a boat cut the net and a couple of the other whales escaped. Not Thomas; he was nuts even then, had agoraphobia or something. Anyway our tanks aren’t like that; they’re closed-off concrete and thick, high-tech acrylic, miles from the sea. Still, the calf made me want to find it.
When it’s over, it’s over fast. I barely know what’s happened. I’m taken out. Out of the shows, out of the main tank, kept in solitary. Specialists come and test me, over and over again, for months and months, trying to figure out just what went wrong. A couple of times I think I hear whale song. Allison, crying for the calf that got taken away before she was weaned, crying for me. That would be something, right? But I’m wrong. It’s just my own signals, bouncing off the concrete.
Trainers still come by now and then to check on me and say “hey.” So what I do is wait.
This appeared on my blog about 11 years ago, when Mom was still alive. Thinking about them both today and wanted to re-share their story. #LovingDay #lovingday2021
My Parents Sometime in the Mid-sixties
People wonder, and I’ve often asked myself: if my father was so involved with black culture, black politics, the survival and advancement of black people, then why did he marry a white woman? He actually died before he could explain that in his memoir (believe me, I’ve scoured the various revisions) so I’ve had to come up with answers myself. The best I can do is the following. He didn’t marry a white woman; he married my mother. He married someone who would be his student, his supporter and his best audience. Not that she’d never challenge him, but I do believe that at first, and perhaps for many years, she hung on his every word.
Though he stood just five foot eight and always looked much younger than he was, my father carried himself with an air of great importance. His deep voice, eloquence and measured way of speaking demanded respect. When he made an entrance, strangers would rack their brains and snap their fingers, whispering: “Oh, that’s—that’s … who is that guy again?”
Of course he wasn’t famous, but everyone thought he was and he never disabused people of the notion. I believe that my mother was the only woman—black, white or otherwise—who could have put up with all that.
In part, my mother’s tolerance was due to a childhood spent in the shadow of her own mother’s pathological narcissism. My maternal grandmother had been the leading lady of her own world, her daughters, little more than stage-hands. If ever my mother brought home a boy, my grandmother would flirt with him and later ask, Well? What did he say about me? Naturally, before meeting the guy, my grandmother would have asked the compulsory “is he Jewish?” which, prior to my dad, he always was.
My mother had been a very good girl all her life and had gotten no credit for it. I imagine there was no better way to stick it to my grandmother than marrying a black man—completely unheard of for a nice Jewish girl in 1950. She’d married my father for the rebellion of it, but also for the excitement. She knew she was along for the ride of her life and therefore didn’t mind being off to the side while my father took center stage.
Their marriage wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was pretty good—all things considered—and lasted forty-five years, until the end of my dad’s life.
They married at the tender ages of twenty-three and twenty-six, in Chicago: a small wedding held in my paternal grandparents’ house. In attendance were my father’s whole family, the younger members of my mother’s family, and their closest friends. My father’s parents had embraced and accepted my mother from the beginning, though her parents would remain in the dark until the young couple had safely arrived in New York City—where they’d moved for my father’s political work. My mother called her parents from Penn Station to announce her new marital status. (Oh and did I mention: he’s black?) There had been no thought to invite them to the wedding, nor any possibility of bringing my father home in advance to meet his future in-laws.
My mother was thus cut off from her parents, informally disowned. For the act of marrying such a man (a gentile as well as a schvartze), my mother got blamed for every evil that subsequently befell the family, including the death of her beloved Uncle Julius. Somehow no one managed to connect the dots from his daily consumption of creamed soups to the clogging of his arteries and ultimate heart attack. (Nah. Must have been the black guy.)
So there she was, twenty-three years old, alone with her dynamic new husband in New York City—no family, no friends—far from everything familiar to her.
They found an apartment in Brooklyn. My mother was the one who scoped out all their potential homes, for obvious reasons. She’d meet each landlord, say her husband was at work, and get the tour of everything they could afford. The landlord of the place she chose wouldn’t learn my father was black until moving day, and by then it was too late to reject them. In any case, it took only a few weeks to recognize that my parents were a lovely young couple in every sense of the word, regardless of color.
That happened a lot with my father. People who rejected his race flat out—who really believed blacks to be the scourge of this country—had a way of accepting my father as “one of the good ones.” He was familiar with the comment “if all black people were like you …” This never flattered or impressed my father; it just revealed the character of the person making the statement. My father believed a racist was a racist. Still, they needed a place to live.
My mother found a job teaching at the Brooklyn Community School where, gradually, she began to make her own friends. Soon my parents were established in a community of their own. Their friends were young, smart, black, Jewish or both. Many of these friendships would last through the era of my childhood (which wouldn’t begin until the sixties).
So New York became less strange, more like home. In some ways it was more comfortable than the Chicago my mother had known. Being Jewish was safer, for example. My mother was accustomed to being discreet about it, letting people think that Rosen (her maiden name) was German. Growing up, she’d been chased and beaten up, called a “dirty Jew” on numerous occasions. Part of her Jewish identity was—is—forever connected to the fear of being attacked. She’d heaved a sigh of relief, I think, in taking my father’s name and becoming a Williamson. It was less about shame than safety. There was some pride in being Jewish, too. My mother has described the feeling of surprise and delight at finding herself in an environment where you could say “knish” and other people would know what you were talking about.
So another piece of my parents’ bond was the experience of being hated, truly hated. While my mother could hide, to a degree, among gentiles—the way my father could not among whites—they both knew what it was to be far outside the majority. That feeling of paranoia, which isn’t paranoia at all because you’re not imagining it.
And once united, my parents shared the new experience of being an interracial couple—living with all that it meant to people who saw them together. In Chicago, they’d been chased by thugs with baseball bats. In New York, some frowned, some smiled in solidarity, some simply stared, but then went on with their own lives.
It must have been kismet which dictated that my copy of Negative Space, Lilly Dancyger’s spellbinding memoir, would arrive in the mail the day I finished reading Little Gods, the haunting novel by Meng Jin. There is a theme uniting these two powerful works: that of a young woman determined to understand the truth about a parent taken from them as a child.
Little Gods is the story of Su Lan, a brilliant, passionate, and enigmatic physicist whose traumatic past curtails what should be a life of professional success. While Su Lan is the center of the book, she is the only main character who does not get a viewpoint in the narration. Instead, the reader must splice together a portrait of the woman from the impressions of her friend and neighbor, Zhu Wen, and the two men who adore her: Zhang Bo and Liya’s father, Yongzong.
But this is also the story of Liya, born in Beijing in the hospital nearest to Tiananmen Square on the very night of the massacre on June 4, 1989. Her father, Su Lan’s husband, disappears the same night. While Liya is growing up, first in Shanghai and later in the United States, Su Lan, a temperamental, often depressed mother, never speaks of him and Liya knows better than to ask questions.
Only when Liya is eighteen and returns to China with her mother’s ashes, does she attempt to uncover her father’s identity along with other secrets of her mother’s past. The book is beautifully written, tragic, heartbreaking—everything a therapist like myself loves in a novel. Meng expertly weaves in details about politics, history, gender dynamics and the meaning of transcending socioeconomic class.
I found even more to love in Negative Space, in part because I grew up in New York City, spent time in Dancyger’s stomping grounds in the East Village, took ballet at the Joffrey School, and also grew up surrounded by the art of my father and his friends. Like Dancyger, I was not allowed coloring books, because my father, like hers believed in setting the imagination free to create without premanufactured lines.
And Dancyger’s creative spirit shows up on every page. This memoir is so engaging because of the author’s graceful and gripping use of language, her candor about the emotional rollercoaster she rode in the process of manifesting her father’s memory. Dancyger allows us to get so close to her experience, to herself, I could not put it down. I was drawn in by each character—her father, his friends, her mother, Lilly herself at every age and incarnation—as if this were a work of fiction, and I mean that in the best way.
I know from Dancyger’s acknowledgments that there were editors who recommended she leave out the photographs of her father’s sketches and sculptures, but they added so much dimension, immersing me in his character as he crystalized for Dancyger herself.
Dancyger’s father was at once a devoted, loving hero of a dad and a heroin addict. The author never dodges the coexistence of these twin facts. She draws herself, her childhood, her adolescence and overall daughterhood in vivid strokes, weaving in humor and joy along with the trauma.
I highly recommend both books—read as companions in theme, or whenever you get the chance, in any order.
Even before the pandemic, I sometimes went days—weeks—without interacting with another adult who was not my husband or one of my psychotherapy clients. On the coldest winter days, even the neighbors I sometimes chatted with, met to walk dogs with, or invited over for a quick coffee would hole up and disappear. We’d call or text each other: “When it gets warm, let’s walk.” “When this snow melts …” “When our kids’ college visits are over …” But even then, life sometimes got in the way.
I am a therapist and a writer. My work is isolating, solitary, one-sided. Because I see people professionally, most of whom I truly enjoy, because I am fortunate enough to have a husband who is fun as well as kind, I sometimes get to the point of starving for my friends before I even notice I’m hungry.
The thing that sustains me, the thing that I would argue sustains anyone whose life is sparsely populated, are the daily, incidental interactions with strangers or lightly known acquaintances. A conversation at the grocery store with the young mother who’s trying to shop while managing unruly toddlers. I assure her that it gets better, that my kids were the same at that age. A brief lesson on drain-snaking from the friendly guy who runs the hardware store. A shared laugh with another dog parent as our pups become leash-tangled in effort to sniff one another’s rear ends.
As a sometime introvert, an only child who can tolerate solitude better than most, I once found these social exchanges sufficient to get me through a week. Now they fall short for one reason.
The smiles are gone, concealed by masks. With only your eyes showing, the crinkles at the corners are all I have to guess your mood, your level of appreciation for my dog’s silly antics, whether your return of my greeting is forced or genuine.
In Charles Darwin’s 1872 work, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the naturalist describes smiling as something universal to humans across societies, a muscular effort that unites us regardless of creed, class, or culture. Innumerable songs have been written about smiles: whether you’re never fully dressed without one, whether Irish eyes are doing it, or whether the whole world is doing it with you. The first time a baby smiles, it’s nothing short of magic. As much of a puzzle as your newborn’s crying may be—is she gassy? Cold? Wet? Hungry? But an infant’s smile is unequivocal. It says, “I love you.” “I’m happy to be here.” Smiles are versatile little buggers too: We share them, interpret them, grant them to others, and welcome them. Sure, sometimes we fake them, misconstrue them, try to hide them when they emerge at inappropriate moments. But our smiles are always beacons of ourselves. They’re emotional bridges, making us feel seen, acknowledged. When one person returns your smile, it gives you a boost. When another fails to do so, it hurts.
But now when we pass each other on the street, when we come face to face at the grocery store (meaning one of us has neglected to observe the now-fading arrows on the floor), we do so devoid of affect, cut off from one another. We are all masked islands amid the sea of Covid-19. Without in-person smiles, we are starving for one another. I see it in myself, my teenage children, especially in those of my clients who live alone and work from home. We must all toe the line on Zoom-contact, a poor substitute for the three-dimensional expressions we once took for granted.
In my Facebook feed, I recently saw an add selling facemasks with zany smiles painted right on. They were meant to be funny, to compensate for the current lack of in-person grins. But even the reactions these decorative smirks might provoke would be hidden.
People talk about what they miss about their pre-Covid lives: the travel, the visits with loved ones, the hugs, the movie houses. What I miss most of all are the incidental connections with strangers, reminding me that we’re all in this crazy thing called life together.
Maya Angelou once said, “if you only have one smile in you, give it to the people you love.” I would add that a smile from a stranger just might unearth one you didn’t realize you had to share.
I know it’s been ages since I’ve blogged. I’m not even going to look at the date of my last post. In any case, I’ve had a much needed hiatus, during which I’ve been building my private practice, working hard on my other writing, attending to a loved-one’s health crisis—now resolved—and enjoying the ongoing adventures of being a parent.
Which brings me to Mother’s Day—just two days away—on which we’ll honor our mothers , and (if mothers ourselves) be honored in turn. This year, I’m not going to write about my mother, though she deserves it, since this has been an especially wonderful and rich year for our relationship. I think I’ll save that for another post.
Today, I want to honor all the mothers out there who—through no fault of their own—are not doing much mothering of the kind they’d like. I am thinking of all the waiting mothers.
By now, I’ve shared this all over Facebook and Twitter, but I thought I would share it here as well. I have been writing fiction for years, including three (yes, THREE) unpublished novels, one of which landed me a literary agent, thank you!
But, while I’ve published a number of nonfiction essays and one scholarly piece, I’ve never succeeded in having my fiction published until now. At the very last minute, I entered my short story, “The Birthing Room,” into the Fall/Winter Short Fiction contest held by The Piltdown Review and the rest, as they say …
A huge Thank you to Bill Shunn, editor of The Piltdown Review, who was a pleasure to work with.
This story was inspired by my father-in-law’s home in Monterey, Massachusetts, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad. There was a legend that a freedom-seeking African American woman died in the house and that her spirit haunts it still. As the only woman of color who ever visited, possibly the only woman of color who had stayed in the house since the 19th Century, I always wondered about that spirit. Who was she? And what in the world would she make of me?