Tag Archives: family

Post Sandy: A Home Under Ashes

I should be posting something about the election, putting together my concluding Race 2012 blog post.  I should be reading other people’s posts on the election, clicking on some of those tantalizing titles.  I’m not though.  I can’t write about the election—delighted as I am with the outcome—or about race or body image or identity.   Instead, I’m trying to wrap my mind around this one central fact that’s changed my life, my husband’s and my children’s irrevocably.

A fire destroyed our house.

While we were staying upstate with friends last week, seeking refuge from New Jersey’s widespread Post-Sandy power outage, while we were enjoying the heat, electricity and laundry of our friend’s country home, our own was quietly being consumed by flames.

Our house as it was, photo taken in the Spring of ’06

We’d joked the night before about how lucky we were to be have lost power, forcing us into a splendid weekend getaway at a house in the country by a babbling brook, on acres of gleaming fall foliage.  We’d brunched on French toast, omelets, and espresso, then embarked on an exploration of the town proper, with all its quaint little shops.  I ventured into a consignment store, ogling a pair of wine-colored alligator pumps while my husband took the kids to the book store.  The shoes turned out to be size six—way too small—so I went to rejoin my family.

The kids were reading.  Jon pulled me aside:

“I have to talk to you.”  He’d just gotten off the phone with one of our neighbors who had called about our house.  By this time, it was eleven a.m. Saturday, November 3, 2012.  Smoke was billowing from every orifice of my beloved, raised split-level house, four fire trucks out front.  Our cul de sac, which normally rings with children’s shouts and laughter, was packed with onlookers from the block, all of whom had been ordered to vacate their houses—just in case there was an underground cause that might put the neighboring homes at risk.

Still in our friend’s rural outpost, Jon and I told the children—we had to.  Zoe reacted with loud cries of why?  and no!  and copious tears.  Theo asked a few pointed questions and then asked to use the Kindle for a game.   He had what he liked best, he later explained: his dad, his mom, his sister and best buddies, his favorite stuffed cat, his tennis racket.

Jon drove home to investigate, leaving me and the kids in the country where we’d be safe and warm, where we’d be free to hold onto our images of the house as it once was: whole, comfortable, and well-inhabited by us.  Full—too full—of our stuff.   The unknown: how bad was it?  What—if anything?—was left?—was better certainly than what Jon would face when he arrived.

Back in Montclair, Jon spoke to the fire inspector, who called the cause of the blaze undetermined.  Before we left, we’d blown out all the candles, checked the house twice for stray ones.  We’d had nothing in the fire place for several days.   Besides, it appeared that the blaze had begun in the basement, where nothing had been lit at all.   Then Jon stood with the neighbors and friends and family who had come to meet him, all watching the smoke, still settling, the glass falling all around.

By the time Jon got back upstate, the kids were asleep.  We sat at the table and Jon described what he’d seen: a surreal image of our life.  While the outside of the house looked the same (except for the broken windows), the inside was scorched black throughout.  The dining room had collapsed into the basement.  The kitchen—whose cabinets had been adorned with my children’s artwork—was a charcoal sculpture garden; the living room, much the same.  He could only guess at which belongings might be salvageable.

Questions cropped up as Jon and I talked: where would we stay when we went back?  (We had to go back; I was determined that the kids should start school as soon as it reopened to maintain some form of normalcy.) Where would we live while our house was being repaired?  How long did we think that would take?  The answers to these questions would come in time, as would a quiet resolve on both of our parts to get through this together and keep our kids from feeling the disruption too harshly.

It’s a full week later—that’s how long it’s taken me to post about this.   (Also how long I’ve been totally absent from the blogosphere.)

Here’s our status:  Coping well under the circumstances.  Our house may take over a year to be rebuilt.   Thanks to some good advice, our contractor is an expert in fire damage.  That is of utmost importance, we learned.  If our house were simply repaired and rebuilt, it would forever smell of smoke and mildew from the water that put out the blaze.

Friends are contacting everyone they know to help us find a home to lease in the area while renovations are underway.   In the mean time, we are staying in the home of wonderful, loving friends in our town, who have generously converted the third floor of their house into a suite for our family.  To give you an idea of how this family feels about guests, when we arrived here there were already four other families—whose homes had no heat or electricity—staying with them.  The three year old of the house inaugurates newcomers by having each guest read him a bedtime book.  His favorite is my daughter.  The other children in the home, a boy near my daughter’s age and a girl near my son’s age, are so eager to share their space and things, it is beyond heartwarming to hear the four of them chatting, playing and laughing together.  As for their parents, their mother especially, words cannot describe how much they’ve done for us.    While we’re working out details with the insurance company and contractors, while we’re also looking for a rental house, we have a base where we feel very much at home and are beginning to find a routine.  We are so grateful.

On Wednesday, my kids went off to school carrying new backpacks, filled with school supplies gathered by the school principal and PTA .  Everyone in the town is reaching out, asking how they can help, gathering clothes and shoes for my family.  And I know, many of them are still without heat or power in their homes!  All their kindness has cushioned the blow of this loss.   It’s as if the whole town of Montclair has us enveloped in a big, warm hug.   (THANK YOU ALL!) We are so fortunate to live in this amazing community.

Granted, my heart breaks a little each time I allow myself to imagine the fire itself, especially our three sweet gerbils, Koko, Remy and funny Gemini, the mad sleeve-climber,  who died peacefully in their sleep from carbon monoxide inhalation.  We will remember those rascals fondly.  But our things were just things and not what makes a home a home.   The best news is that Jon and the kids and I are all fine, safe and together.   We are very fortunate.

There are many harder hit than my family—so many homes, property, lives lost in the aftermath of this terrible storm.  Some people have lost their whole communities, living in shelters, no idea of where or when it will end.   The damage, as well the need for aid, is extensive not only in the American Northeast but also in Haiti and other Caribbean countries, where Sandy hit earlier.  Here is a list of organizations offering aid to victims of this disaster.

http://www.pih.org/

http://www.robinhood.org/news/robin-hood-hurricane-sandy-relief-fund-passes-11-million-contributions

http://www1.networkforgood.org/hurricanesandy

http://www.redcross.org/

http://www.directrelief.org/emergency/hurricane-sandy-relief-and-recovery/

For all who are suffering, I wish the kind of support we have.

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Hermes on the Path

As noted in an earlier post, I have given myself a June 15th deadline for completing a draft of my young adult novel-in-progress (which I call the “WIP” because it has no working title).  Until that time, themes relevant to the WIP–body image, eating disorders, ethnic identity, sexual orientation, rejecting parents, and unrequited love, among others–will figure pretty heavily in this blog.   My two protagonists are seventeen-year-old, ballet-dancing twins, Oliver and Olivia, each facing great hurdles along the road to fulfilling their dreams. 

Hermes on the Path

I happen to be the sort of writer who loves the onslaught of ideas that hits me daily, who feels trapped by outlines.   Yet that very onslaught makes me the sort of writer who MUST have an outline.  I know this because the first draft of my completed adult novel weighed in at 711 pages.  It took me five years and sixteen revisions to get it down to 300 pages.  I just don’t have that kind of time any more (not that I did then either).

This time, I started by envisioning a query letter, went ahead and wrote the “plot summary paragraph,” and used that as inspiration.  I allowed myself to write fifty pages, just enough to get a sense of my twins, their family and relationships, then forced myself to write an outline.  As you’d expect, this was when the process really started to take off.

I’m following my outline in the same way you follow the path on a hike through the woods.  Sometimes the path is clear; sometimes there’s a fallen tree across it.  When you go around the tree, you discover another path, partly covered by moss and vines, but leading somewhere nevertheless.  You check it out, because you’ve got a feeling it might be something worth exploring.  Five times out of ten, you’re glad you did.

There’s a big difference between planning and doing. Who hasn’t traveled somewhere new and arrived to discover that the weather is warmer, colder, or wetter than they expected?  Who hasn’t had to buy an emergency raincoat or Infant Tylenol?  Who hasn’t arrived home and unpacked a heavy sweater or swimsuit that never got worn?  Packing for the journey, you take informed leaps of faith, but only when you get there do you see what’s practical, plausible.

It’s the same way with plot points in an unfinished novel.  My outline keeps me grounded in my knowledge of how the book ends as well as some Big Deal Events that will transpire along the way.  For example, Dad and Oliver have a huge row–over his dancing and orientation–which leads Oliver to leave home (Big Deal Event).  Later Oliver is taken in by a Brooklyn couple in exchange for cleaning their home–which he considers eons beneath him, but does because he has no where else to go (also a Big Deal Event).   But why–in a city full of friends and family–does he have no where else to go?  How is it that there’s no alternative for a budding ballet star but becoming a houseboy?

To answer that, I had to look for off-path tools.  One example is a beautiful Persian cat named Hermes–the pet of a friend Oliver stays with–who triggers an unforseen but severe allergic reaction.  Hermes is not in my outline, but Oliver’s handling of the situation is essential to the plot.

As Oliver’s image grows sharper, so do my instincts as to how he should grapple with the specific obstacles in his path.   Regarding Hermes (pronounced like the designer, not the Greek god), Oliver toughs it out for as long as he can, consuming large quantities of antihistimines, refusing to admit how much he’s suffering.

‘After three days, I’ve found some solace in the right dose of Benadryl and Advil Cold and Sinus.  The sneezing subsides, though I’m wired now, twenty-four hours a day.  The mania helps my dancing.  I’m back on top in terms of jumps and turns and attention too, though my heart is usually racing to beat the band.  When I do sleep, I awaken with my eyes glued shut, the cat’s tail languishing against my neck like the scarves that bear his name …

‘Hermes the Cat becomes a metaphor.  If I admit how he affects me, if I admit I’m allergic, then I’ve admitted defeat.  My father wins …’

Oliver is starting to flow for me, more quickly than Olivia, partly because he is less like me than she is.  I’ve spent so much time writing as him, trying to learn him (speaking to and remembering those who have inspired me to create him).   It’s Olivia I’m working on now.  Today’s task will be to flesh out the story of the twins’ mother, who is very ill.  I have yet to determine her ailment, only that she is largely incapacitated as a parent.  I’ll use Olivia’s narration for this, which should help me refine her voice and character.

In any event, as long as I know I can revise my outline as needed, sticking in devices like Hermes along the way, I’ll never feel constrained by it.

Homecoming! Didn’t Quite Make It But …

They’re ba-ack!  Jon and the kids got home at seven o’clock last night, bringing down the curtain on what were, for me, an amazingly productive three days.  That said, I will certainly not make my finish-the-draft-by-midnight on 12/3/2011 goal, though having my eyes on that prize kept me much more focused than I would have been otherwise.

What I did accomplish was:

  • Writing over forty pages—some of which I believe is imminently usable.
  • Restructuring my outline.  The original one had grown a little stale and outdated now that I was actually realizing the characters.  The new one is pretty clear-cut and, I believe, doable.
  • Giving voice to a character who was previously mute and therefore carried around a blackberry so he could communicate by texting people around him.  Boy that wasn’t working, though I hadn’t had time to figure it out.  Little details like that can really clog up the works.  (Why was he mute in the first place?  Because of a trauma I’d eliminated from the story a few months back!)  So, nixed the mutism, nixed the Blackberry.
  • Pared down the number of alter-egos the protagonist had.  Dissociative Identity Disorder is complicated; people can have more than thirty alters.  But asking fiction readers to keep track of more than three is pushing it.
  •  Identified the need for a true psychiatric consultant who specializes in DID.  Not just schmoozing with my psychiatrist friends over coffee here and there.
  • Also, though this was not on my agenda, changed the theme of this blog, since for some reason “PILCROW” had stopped showing my tagline: Writings on Body Image and Identity.   This new theme is “CORALINE.”  The header photo, by the way, is from my daughter’s dance class when she was about five. (2006ish.)

So, all in all, a hugely productive few days.  And the best part of all was seeing my family again and realizing how much I’d missed them.  Those hugs when they came through the door, my daughter’s whispered, “I really missed you … like a lot,” were worth more than ten finished drafts!

A One-Woman Write-a-Thon

Writers' fuel ...This is it.  I’ve just packed up everyone’s toothbrushes, snow gear, Harry Potter and Redwall books, kissed my husband and children goodbye and watched our old, green Pathfinder chug down our hill, around the corner and out of sight.  Goodbye to the three people I love most in the world, hello computer.

It’s my big Chris-Hanukah gift: Jon’s taking the kids away to his dad’s in the Berkshires, leaving me two and a half totally kid-and-him free days (and two nights) to hammer away at my second novel.  My goal is to finish a really, really rough draft of this book by midnight on 12/31/11.  (Actually before, because I think we may have plans that night.)  Right now, Unnatural (working title)—the story of a guy with dissociative identity disorder who believes one of his alter-egos killed his lover—is actually miles from done.  I’ve got an outline and about two hundred fifty pages that aren’t necessarily in any kind of order (it’s told from three perspectives: the guy, one of his alters, and his shrink).  But I’ve got hope, determination and a full sack of my new favorite coffee blend.

Is this doable?  I don’t know.  I have no frame of reference for what it’s like to try and accomplish something when school pickup isn’t looming, when you don’t have to drive people to tennis, tap-dancing and piano, when your working sessions aren’t accompanied by the drone of your own inner-mom voice whispering: you’re ignoring your family; they need you; they’ve been on the Wii for three hours!  Though my belief that people without kids write whole novels in a single weekend is probably misguided, I am letting that notion fuel me.  I’m at the starting point: full of hope and enthusiasm, but realistically viewing this whole thing as an experiment.  I promised my husband that I won’t beat myself up if I don’t make the goal.  (But I’m sure gonna try!)

So … I’ve answered all emergency emails, made a last phone call to my mom to explain why I can’t talk on the phone for a few days (except to say goodnight to the kids).  As soon as I finish this post, I’ll start.  Wish me luck and inspiration.  I’ll let you know how it goes.

Thoughts for the 5th Hanukah Candle and Christmas Eve

Happy Hanukah and Merry Christmas Eve for all those in multi-culti families and marriages, to all those who grew up in families with a mish-mash of holidays and to all those who are just interested in what other people in other cultures do.    (I’ll get to Kwanzaa on Monday, don’t worry.)

In my family of origin, we lit the menorah for Hanukah, ate latkes, sang dreidel, but didn’t exchange gifts.  Instead we—or I should say I, because I was and am an only child—got those little envelopes with pockets for coins, actual gelt.  My mother (my Jewish parent) was always critical of what people now refer to as the Christmasization of Hanukah.  To her and to me Hanukah is more about the celebration of miracles and survival, freedom and, yes, pluralism.  Also, we celebrated Christmas, not as a religious tradition, but as a celebration of family and togetherness and okay, presents.  There was a tree, a real one with needles and a good pine-y smell; there were three boxes of lights that got so badly tangled in their storage box it took my dad three hours, a stiff drink, a cigarette and a whole lot of unholy language to straighten them out.  There were special decorations that reappeared each year, greeting me from their tissue paper wrappings like old friends.  And there were presents.  Oy, were there presents.  (I said I was an only child.)

There was also a huge dinner and company.  Mostly Jewish company, because that’s what the oldest dearest friends who lived in New York happened to be.  (The same people who showed up for our latke parties often made a second appearance on December 25th.)  The center piece of the evening was the wonderfully diverse music my father played on the phonograph.  Everything from Bach and Handel to Klezmer, to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.  Even the scores from Jesus Christ Superstar and Fiddler on the Roof.   Really.  And for me, all of it went together because that was just our home and family.

The year my father died, the eighth candle fell on Christmas Day.    He had died in February at the age of seventy one and we were still too raw to imagine a Christmas without him.   My mother and I decided there would be no tree that year; what we’d do instead was have a big, lavish Latke party and invite everyone we could, light the candles, make lots of food, play all Dad’s music, but not call it Christmas.  It was the best possible way to spend the day.

In my current family—meaning my husband (who is also Jewish, though secular) my two children and myself—we did not celebrate Christmas until my daughter was three and a half and my son was just walking. I thought I’d put Christmas to rest with my father and for my husband—frankly not celebrating Christmas was a big part of his Jewish identity.

It was the children—and memories of sharing Christmas with my father that changed my mind.  Yes, Christmas is everywhere this time of year.  For all my friends raising Jewish children, it can be hard explaining why their families abstain from this huge part of American Culture.  (I don’t say Christian culture; it is Christian, it is all Christian, but that’s not what our commercial society leads with.  Whose image is more pervasive this time of year: Jesus or Santa?)  But I didn’t succumb to pressure from my kids or anyone else.  I chose to bring Christmas back into my life because I missed it; I missed my old family traditions.  And because I was ready.   My husband wasn’t hard to persuade, though he did resist at first.  There’s nothing Christian about our Christmas, as there wasn’t when I was growing up.  We have an artificial tree from Home Depot (with built in lights!) and we make Hanukah as important and special.  Their Jewish identity is intact; when it’s time to make family holiday cards at school, they each come home with Hanukah cards—their own decisions.  We give book gifts for each candle of Hanukah and exchange “stuff” gifts Christmas morning.  And it works for us.

Have a happy and a merry.