The best book I never wrote

Christ's home office

My friend Jackie spent 10 years in a convent, exiting about 20 years before we met. Raised Jewish, I had never before known a nun. Now I do. Though we have identical views on almost everything, we never discuss abortion, and we have the rest of the universe to share.

Jackie hosts 3-day reunions of 7 women who were “in” with her, and I concocted an idea to write about their experiences. The ex-nuns, as they call themselves, agreed to invite me to one such gathering. They instantly became wonderful, open, welcoming friends.

Only one, he who had undergone sex-change surgery and played basketball while the others washed the dishes, did not want to participate in my book. I see the others often, but never again the one they call Ned the Nun.

Jackie, an elementary-school teacher in the convent, continued teaching. She met and dated several Catholic men, who, she reports, talked so much about memories of knuckle-rapping that they couldn’t visualize her romantically. She married a lapsed Presbyterian man who knew and cared nothing about nuns. They still live happily ever after.

Among the others, Margie is the most amusing, unconventional, mouthy woman – the most, in fact, like me. After the convent, Margie realized she was a lesbian. Since we met, Margie applied for and became headmistress of a proper, private school for girls. During the interviews, she came out as a woman who loves women but not as an ex-nun. That, she believed, would stigmatize her.

Jackie, Margie and the others entered the convent because of deeply held beliefs. They felt called to do God’s work in that particular way. They grew disillusioned as they slowly realized that, while they signed up to serve God, they mostly served men: men of the cloth with power and freedom far beyond their own.

For each woman, the decision to leave was far more agonizing and painful than the decision to enter. And they left in relative silence, not able to confide in each other. Their annual get-togethers, the parts I am not privy to, help them deal with that lingering, if dissipating pain.

These women’s commitment to doing the right thing mirrors my own values, so we always have lots in common. Their religious passion and personal bravery are alien to me, so I wanted to learn how they gained such strength.

I wanted to write about the women’s lives after the convent. About Barbara, with her native-Irish brogue, who spent most of her career, during and after the cloister, in South America. And about Bridget, who, in her late 60s, reconnected with a priest she had faithfully served. They have become lovers, since he cannot afford to leave the economic safety of a priestly retirement home, and she cannot join him there.

I was curious about the sister I never met, the one afraid to attend reunions. She married and had 2 daughters, whom she never told she was once a nun. I shiver to imagine how angry they will be when – if – they learn the truth. 

I mentioned my book idea to a successful writer/friend. She asked how I was planning to organize the material, and I said to write one woman’s tale after another. “You can’t do that,” Arlene cautioned. “Editors don’t want that. That’s what they call ‘a string of pearls.’” I figured she knew. Crushed, I abandoned the project.

I have never forgiven myself. “Breaking the Habit” is the book I was born to write. A heartfelt inquiry into passion, humanity, women’s innermost thoughts. I blew my best chance. By the time I realized my error and tried to start again, the women had no time to get involved.

If there’s a lesson to learn, it is this: Never let someone deflect you from what you want to do. Never walk away from a dream you know is right. Believe in yourself.

If you have a book in you, write it.

Art therapy for body + mind at tattoo convention

This piece ran Tuesday, February 4, 2014, on newsworks.org, my favorite site for news and information. Covering this convention — and not covering myself in lilies — was one of the funnest things I have ever done for work. (It’s long. I’m sorry.)

“I was always an artist, a free spirit, the black sheep in a family of born-again Christians,” says Stephanie, whose limited clothing reveals many tattoos. “It’s a generation thing. When women of my parents’ age ask how I could do this to my body, I say that what’s important is inside. My Mother says, ‘God made your body a temple.’ I say, ‘I’m decorating it.'”

Stephanie, from Old City, is hanging out near the booth of Art Machine Productions at the Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention at the Pennsylvania Convention Center last weekend. So am I.

“Kids love my tattoos,” says crimson-haired Stephanie. “My sister teaches autistic kids in Camden. When I go in and read Dr. Seuss to them, they really wake up and pay attention. I am a character in my own life.”

Her first graphic, at age 18, was the Japanese symbol for “live for today” — on her tummy. “Now I hate it,” she says.

Every image a story

People say that they tell their stories through the medium of their bodies. The pictures represent the psychological pain and challenges they have lived through. With the exception of one man, biting and squeezing a gray t-shirt to counteract the pain, few people here grimace during the procedure. They need tattoos, and the short-term discomfort is part of the price.

Dave Cheplivouza creates tattoos for a living. Licensed by the Philadelphia Health Department, he speaks freely about blood-borne pathogens and cross-contamination. He displays germicidal wipes and the paper-lined-with-plastic covering his table. He cleans subjects with anti-bacterial soap and uses disposable needles and “a lot of hospital-type safety.” After attending college to study art, he has specialized in tats for 14 years.

The first tattoo Dave installed was a small kanji, an ancient Chinese character. “I was apprenticed under an expert,” he says, “and a kanji is easy for a beginner.”

Now he is needling Sylvie, who is lying on her right side, wearing gray t-shirt, purple sports bra, shoulder tattoo and black lace bikini panties. Dave adds details to the “full-leg sleeve” on her left buttock, which already includes a phoenix and a Ganesha, the elephant-god popular in Indian art since the sixth century.

“It’s a process,” says Sylvie. She and Dave have been collaborating on this project for a year, more than 40 hours so far. “You need to be in a special mind-frame,” she says. “My tattoos represent my life. The meaning behind every item is my character or a stage that I went through. If I’m having a bad day, we might have to cut a session short. When you’re emotionally drained, getting tattooed takes a toll.

“Dave has seen my highs and lows. I’m so thankful that I found someone I can go back to. He wants the best for me. Tattoo artists become almost like your therapist.”

Sounds like an ordinary relationship with a hairdresser.

Holding Sylvie’s arm, stroking her face, is Brian, her “soon-to-be-husband,” who wears “only 4 or 5” tattoos. Brian, from Monroeville, N.J., says, “A lot of people regret getting a tattoo on the spur of the moment. My father was covered in tattoos, and he told me not to get them. So I thought about it for a year. My first tattoo was Chester Cheetah from Cheetos. I always liked his commercials, and I had a stuffed animal of him.”

Dave wraps Sylvie’s leg in Saran. “That’s about three hours,” he says. “400?” She nods and pulls out a roll of twenties.

Real people

These folks are not the freaks I expected to meet. We’re all wearing all black, theirs with slits and lace, mine of whole cloth. They treat me like an interesting person, not the freak they assume I am.

I stroll among 850 tattoo artists in the pandemonium of loud rock music and hundreds of buzzing drills.

Villain Arts, of Philadelphia, runs tattoo conclaves around the world. This particular weekend brought in more than 20,000 people. Here you can buy books of tattoo ideas for $60 and up. You can find shirts reading “We will never regret our tattoos.” “Tattooed and employed.” “Kiss me, I’m Irish tattooed.”

You can choose inks from a vendor with five oranges, six reds and “15 skin tones, if you want a portrait on your arm.” After-care lotion, paraben free, dermatologist tested and gluten free (You were going to taste it?). Perfume for sexy women.

On the stage, where the show has just ended, stands a bizarre blue man, who makes “fringe” seem bland. On every scintilla of skin, except a narrow margin around the eyes, he is the color of denim. Jigsaw pieces outline the cobalt. His name, he says, is The Riddle. Foolishly I ask if that’s his real name.

“Is anything real?” he replies.

I move on.

No regrets

A woman in a bikini, the word “devil” embroidered on her tush, wears blond dreadlocks and red high-heeled boots. A wrap-around floral bouquet decorates her long neck, centering on an embedded diamond or diamond-lookalike. “It was awful when they put it in,” she allows, “but now I love it.” Her back displays the curves of the f holes on an upright bass.

A booth of sexy-glamorous skirts and dresses. Two women vending jewelry, bones (yes, bones) and the skeletons and bodies of dead bats, embalmed in formaldehyde in their native Indonesia, beginning at $250 a pop. Who knew bats went with tattoos? Several booths promote tattoo removal, a more expensive and more painful process.

Finally there’s Kathy, from the Greater Northeast, who works in housekeeping at Jefferson Hospital. It’s her 30th birthday, and she wants a tattoo. Flowers? A parrot? Butterflies? “Look at this hummingbird, Hon,” says her husband. They disappear in the crowd.

I wrote this the day Kennedy died.

poppy

President Kennedy was assassinated today.

The world has all but stopped in its tracks. People are speechless. People are crying. People are angry. People are personally hurt. People do not know what to say or do or think.

This is not a public mourning. It is a private mourning, private and deeply personal to every individual in the nation and to most people in the free world. No one can comfort anyone else, because each person’s grief manifests itself in a different way.

History has been made. President Kennedy, riding in an open car in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, was assassinated Friday, November 22, 1963. The suspected assassin, 24-year-old Harvey Oswald, defected from the United States to Russia several years ago. He returned to the States but was arrested in 1962 for participating in pro-Castro demonstrations.

History has been recorded, but not all the personal reactions. We have heard statements of leaders of nearly every foreign country. Senators, congressmen, governors – all American leaders have expressed their sympathy for the nation and for Jacqueline Kennedy and her two young children.

Radio and television networks are putting on marathon broadcasts, going over in minute detail every facet of the situation: world reactions, local reactions, Kennedy’s background, President Johnson’s background and future, on and on for hours. Stations have announced that they will show no commercial broadcasts until after Kennedy’s burial on Tuesday [November 26].

This afternoon millions of Americans watched television as Kennedy read his inaugural address in blinding sunlight, January 1961, as Kennedy spoke about the Bay of Pigs, as Kennedy spoke to and smiled at many people in many places, including Berlin, where he famously claimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” But Kennedy will never speak again.

Weekend activities across the country have been canceled. No news other than the news is being carried by radio and television stations. Newspapers bearing startling headlines appear on the streets, selling out moments later. People are torn between wanting to know every detail and not wanting to know exactly what color the casket is or how Jacqueline reacted to the blood on her stockings. People want to read and listen, yet they also want to sleep or stay off somewhere very much alone. People don’t know what they want.

Right now, finding no comfort of any kind, we must satisfy ourselves by carrying on as Jack would have liked us to. He was a citizen of the world, and he said something that we can all remember and try to follow: Ask not what our country can do for us. Ask what we can do for our country.

Long live the Washington Post

comeing soon

The recent sale of the Washington Post feels like a death.

It’s only a death knell, really, to be followed by the demise of print journalism within 20 years. I will mourn when that happens.

I have nothing against the buyer, Jeff Bezos, from whom I have bought books and Bluetooth headsets. But he is an investor, not a traditional publisher with ink flowing through his veins and smearing his white shirt cuffs. He knows how to turn a profit, but does he have a nose for news?

The best sketch of the value of print journalism comes from the pen of Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law, former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. His essay appeared on Bloomberg News, a website.

“Newspapers create what we might call an architecture of serendipity, in which readers encounter all sorts of stories, facts, ideas and opinions that they didn’t select. Much of what they encounter seems boring, irritating, wrong or offensive, but on occasion it turns out to be surprising, delightful, alarming, important and even life-changing.

“A lot can be said on behalf of serendipity. In your daily newspaper, you might learn about a new book – on neuroscience, say, or folk music – and, to your great surprise, it might pique your interest and broaden your horizons. You might run into a story on how to improve your health or save for retirement, and it might lead you to alter your habits, even if you don’t much like thinking about your health or your retirement.”

You don’t encounter chance stories when you are homing in on the sports scores or sale prices you seek. In the end, sans newspapers, you learn less. We all learn less.

I wish Mr. Bezos well with his purchase. Newspapers are a terrible thing to lose.

30th anniversary blog

 

LOVE is blue

30 years ago, when I left the world of paychecks and water coolers to open my own business, Ronald Reagan was president.

Michael Jackson’s moonwalk existed. The internet did not.

Building an office in a spare bedroom, I was a rare commodity. The term home-based business hadn’t appeared, and people termed me a housewife, to my instant insanity.

Looking back even as I look forward, the first 30 years of self-employment have been good ones. I have written websites, e-newsletters, annual reports, training manuals, corporate histories and more.

The majority of my writing has been for people (and their employers) who can’t easily write what they think, or are in too big a hurry to write it right, or who have created state-of-the art technological or medical material that non-techies need to understand.

My byline has appeared 150 times in the Philadelphia Inquirer and in more than 100 other periodicals. I have won 4 national writing awards. From my current home office, with corner windows and an up-close view of City Hall and 2 Philadelphia murals, I write.

But writing is lonely. I am an extrovert in an introvert’s profession. So I teach writing. I love to teach writing. Have been teaching adults to write since 1988. No, not penmanship. Writing. Putting good words after other good words, stringing them into sentences and paragraphs. Like that. As a friend says, wrestling words to the ground.

Since you cannot teach what you do not practice. I am forever practicing writing.

I love to write. I live to write. I am your friend who WRITES and teaches writing in Pennsylvania.

What have you been up to for the last 30 years?