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Miss Portland by David Ebenbach

Posted on by Sandell Morse

     I was in residence at the VCCA, walking to my studio when I       noticed a man, carrying a box from his car and obviously moving into a vacant studio near mine. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Sandell. Are you just arriving.”

     “David,” he said.

     And yes he was just arriving. And no, he’d never been here              before. So I extended my hand, and I said, “Welcome.”

     We didn’t see much of each other after that, an occasional shared dinner in the dining room, a few meetings on the paths, but that welcome cemented, if not a friendship, then a warmth that continued long after each of us had returned to our separate lives. And now, David has published Miss Portland, a wonderful novel that tells the story of Zoe Tussler, a young woman with bipolar disorder who goes off her medication and moves from a stable job in Philadelphia to be with Gordy, her mindfulness teacher in Portland, Maine. Zoe has tried quest after quest, cult after cult, and each has failed her. As she travels to Maine, she understands Gordy cannot provide answers for how she will live her life. Only she can do that. Maine has a special pull for Zoe. She remembers an A frame house and a beach where she vacationed one summer with her family, a place of peace and of calm, an idyllic moment when her life felt whole.

     David Ebenbach has created an intimate portrait of a sensitive young woman who wants to root and find connection. In her vulnerably and with her struggles with bipolar, Zoe is both unique and just like each of us as we search for a path through the tangle of brush and weeds that makes up our lives. Miss Portland is a beautifully wrought story that resonates long after its final words.

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Trusting Me With Her Words

Posted on by Sandell Morse

I’ve been helping my granddaughter with her mini college essays, two hundred words, two hundred and fifty words, honored that she has chosen to trust me with her words. I praise her strong sentences, her interesting approach to the prompt. She’s a good writer—a good student, and she’s easy to teach. All I need to say is, “Look at these two sentences. What repeats? Can you pare them down to one?” Or “This kind of jumbles. Take a piece of scrap paper, and write down your thoughts.”

We get to her final sentence. “Blah Blah College would give me the opportunity to blah, blah.” A repeat of the prompt. Exactly, what she has been taught. Why do schools and teachers make this so hard? Why do they wring the joy out of both writing and the kid?

“So, Nina,” I say. “This is what I used to call a red bow sentence. Nobody wrote red bow sentences for Ms. Morse. They tie up thought. You want to leave your reader feeling satisfied, yes, but also with a sense she is going someplace new. Give her some room to think. Since this essay is about you, why not begin with “I” instead of Blah Blah College?”

Back she goes to her piece of paper. Back to her computer. She comes up with a dynamite sentence. A dynamite ending.

“Fabulous,” I say.

“Grammy, you should teach again,” Nina says.

I am teaching, again. With her. And I could find no greater joy.

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Thinking of Jewish Prague

Posted on by Sandell Morse

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Standing in front of the Old-New Synagogue

In Auvillar, France, I mull Prague, my stop before arriving here, six nights in a city, I’d never seen, a place of myth, mystery and history. I went to Prague because so many threads of the Jewish history I’ve been unearthing in France these last six years led me there. Prague was one of the oldest and most prominent centers of Jewish culture in Central Europe. Prague was home to prominent rabbis, Jewish scholars, historians, mathematicians, philosophers, all long gone. Eighty thousand Czech Jews died at the hands of the Nazis.

After the Nazis, the Soviet Union took over Czechoslovakia, as it was known, then. The Communist regime took over the Jewish synagogues. There were no services. Practicing Judaism was not allowed.

So, what does it mean to have such a rich Jewish history without Jews? And what exactly is the meaning of Prague’s flourishing Jewish tourism? Synagogues are museums, storehouses of ritual objects, Torah crowns from Bohemian and Moravian synagogues, objects surviving, people murdered. And with so many tour guides, mostly, not Jewish, leading tourists through the Jewish Quarter, how does our history get distorted?

I buy a mezuzah in the gift shop of the Old-New Synagogue and the man behind the counter does not understand that I also want to buy the scroll that goes inside, and when my guide explains, he pulls a scroll from inside another mezuzah and carelessly places it in the box. Those scrolls are sacred texts, a reminder of God’s presence and God’s blessings. In the States, they are stored separately and handled with care. They are also expensive. To this man, this miniature scroll means nothing. And my mezuzah does not have a back. No way to keep the prayers safe. Clearly, this mezuzah is seen as a trinket, a gimmick.

In Prague, I feel a gap in Jewish history, a crater created by the Holocaust and the Cold War. A display ritual objects does not translate to an understanding of Judaism or of Jews. Nor does it obliterate prejudice, stereotyping or anti-Semitism. Jews and Jewish culture are a living thing, ever changing, every evolving. When I return home, I will construct a backing for my mezuzah which is a replica of the Old-New Synagogue, and I will fasten it to my doorpost, and this piece of kitsch will mark a Jewish house where my husband, my son, my granddaughter and I live, our roots diving down into history.

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On Kelly Cherry’s Girl In A Library

Posted on by Sandell Morse

          I wrote this piece a few weeks ago, hoping to place it on a blog with a larger audience than my own. That didn’t happen, and in the meantime, Kelly Cherry has won lifetime Achievement award from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I’m not the only one who loves this writer’s work.

One recent morning, I picked up Kelly Cherry’s Girl in a Library, a book of essays that speaks to the intersection of life and literature. I first met Kelly when we were both in residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and we gravitated to one another, two women of a certain age, cloaking rebelliousness under convention, she the genteel southerner, I the outspoken northerner. I can’t remember what I was writing at the time—so many unpublished manuscripts on my shelf—but whatever it was I was near completion and Kelly very generously gave me the names of editors and publishers, and yes, of course, use her name. Over the years, she continues to offer support. She’s that kind of writer.

Girl in a Library is a book of short pieces about Kelly Cherry, about her mother, about women writers, Emily Dickenson, Elizabeth Hardwick, Eudora Welty. The book is neatly framed by bookend essays, “Why I Write” and “Why I Write Now.”

In “Why I Write,” Cherry speaks of her younger self, her diffidence, her reluctance to have opinions. What she is talking about is declaring her authority, something a woman at that time—this time?—was not allowed to do. Writing is a rebellious act, and those of us who choose to write are rebels, although at the time we begin, often, we don’t know that—especially, if we are women of a certain age. Cherry says she “loved the process of creating a problem, of developing a line of thought, whether theoretically or metaphorically.” Yet, she felt as if she was in hiding, unable to declare herself. I understand. This is a woman’s dilemma—even today, we see what happens to women with strong opinions. Not all of us are as strong as Hillary Clinton.

Kelly Cherry has published more than twenty books of fiction, memoir, essay and poetry. Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize. She is one of the most insightful, smart writers I have read. She teases complex questions into clear, precise prose. That, I suppose, is the poet in her. She is the kind of writer, I can read over and over. So why isn’t she a literary celebrity?

In “Why I Write, Now,” Cherry says she made every mistake in the book, leaving New York after her first book came out, choosing the wrong literary agency, following a novel with a book of poetry. “So I missed the brass ring,” she writes. This comes home to her one night at the opera, when a much younger writer tells Cherry that as artists, they must hope for fame in their lifetimes. Cherry is devastated. Then, she ruminates. Her friend has created an equation with two terms: the artist and the audience. For Kelly Cherry there is a third term: the art. Not art for art’s sake, but art that discovers the shape and substance of the soul. That shape, that substance: that is the work of art.

Posted in Artist's life, Uncategorized, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, writer's life, writing life | 2 Comments

Re-reading Kafka

Posted on by Sandell Morse

At dinner, I tell my son I am reading or re-reading Kafka, preparing for an upcoming trip to Prague. We are three at the kitchen table, my husband, my son and I. Downstairs, in the family room, my granddaughter and a friend are watching the premier of Gray’s Anatomy. We are an extended family, and one of the gifts of living this way is sharing the dailyness of our lives, what movies we see, what we read. “Kafka,” my son says. “He’s my favorite.”

Who knew? “You like Kafka?”

“I love him. What’s that one about the country doctor?”

Ah, “The Country Doctor,” a number of linked short stories, but it’s hard to tell what joins them. Mostly, they’re brutal, violent and strange—Kafkaesque. Two horses look in opened windows; a horse and a man gnaw from opposite ends of the same bone, a boy shows his open wound spilling worms. My son and I speak of “The Judgment,” a story in which a father sentences his son to death by drowning which at that moment seems implausible. Then, the son finds himself at a river. He jumps from a bridge.

Kafka is beyond explanation. I can’t exactly put my finger on what he says; yet, I feel a strange kinship with his bizarre entanglements, his obscurity, his missed connections.

“And Gregor,” my son says.

“Metamorphosis.” The nightmare of waking up in the body of a cockroach, hearing and understanding; yet, unable speak. For years, Gregor has cared for his family. Now, they cannot stand the sight of him. He is doomed. “Kafka is so… I don’t know.”

My son lowers his fork to his plate. “He’s life.”

Kafka is life; yet, he’s missing one of life’s great gifts: joy. Not a good thing for either a man or his work. Yet, like my son, I’m drawn to his dark vision. And to his brilliance.

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Serendipity

Posted on by Sandell Morse

Yesterday, my review of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, An American Lyric, was up on the Brevity Blog https://brevity.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/citizen-an-american-lyric/ and then up on the magazine itself http://brevitymag.com/book-reviews/a-review-of-claudia-rankines-citizen-an-american-lyric/.

Later, I realized that the piece coincided with MLK Day. Probably, an example of right place at the right time– stars aligning, luck, fate, faith– whatever you want to call it. Thank you Dinty Moore and Brevity.

http://brevitymag.com/

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A Pink Suitcase

Posted on by Sandell Morse

My suitcase is small enough to fit in an overhead bin, light enough to lug—with difficulty—up and down the steep steps of the Paris Metro, light enough to carry—again with difficulty—up the even steeper steps of a bridge that crosses the tracks at the gare in Valence d’Agen, the station closest to Auvillar, a village I visit in southwest France.

My suitcase is dark blue, not vibrant pink like the one on the cover of A Pink Suitcase, 22 Tales of Women’s Travel, but like the women who wrote these tales—and I am one of them—I am drawn to chance encounters and to the unfamiliar. However, before writer and editor, Janna Graber, accepted “The Memory Palate” for inclusion in her anthology, I hadn’t thought of myself as an adventurer. I’d reserved that title for those who hiked solo from Georgia to Maine along the grueling Appalachian Trail or for those who explored exotic places. Their stories are here, but so, too, are stories of a mother pushing her thirteen year old daughter in a wheel chair, struggling with stairs, struggling with shoes, hers and her daughters. This mother is determined to show her daughter Paris, and she does. In another tale, a woman who has adopted a Chinese baby returns ten years later with her daughter, now ten, both searching for a man they know only in a photograph, the only link to this child’s past.

As I read the stories of these women, my thoughts of travel broadened. Adventurers, it seemed, were those who opened themselves to new experiences. Curiousity keeps the mind nimble. I loved new tastes and new neighborhoods, and late in life, after my husband stopped traveling, I learned to travel alone. I reveled in my new freedom, choosing a restaurant randomly, and then savoring my food at a table for one. In Auvillar, I rode a borrowed bicycle to Valence d’Agen, rented a car and drove solo through the French countryside, reading maps and circling roundabouts two or three times to find an arrow pointing to my destination. Always, after my travels I return home to my husband and my dogs, and when I do, I am changed. I like to think I’m a little wiser, a little more in tune with myself and with others.

I am honored to have my travel tale among those Jenna Graber has chosen for inclusion in A Pink Suitcase. Perhaps, when my blue bag wears out, I will choose pink.

 

 

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Second Place Tiferet 2015 Writing Contest

Posted on by Sandell Morse

 

I’m pleased to announce that “Brown Leather Satchel,” one of the essays I’ve been writing about Jews, War and Vichy France placed Second in the Tiferet 2015 Writing Contest. Tiffert publishes fiction, nonfiction, poetry and art that expresses spiritual experiences and/ or promotes tolerance. Thanks to VCCA-France where this work began. The essays are now morphing into a memoir of the last four years of my life– about me, a woman with a patchy relationship to Judaism who travels to France, discovers a village’s World War Two history and sets out on a journey that leads her back to her own faith.

 

 

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Hominid Up

Posted on by Sandell Morse

 

One of the joys of writing is reading the work or your friends. Today, Hominid Up, by Neil Shephard, his sixth book of poems. Neil is a long time friend, and although I hardly see him, we are compatriots, inhabiting the same metaphorical country, meeting the last time at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Neil writes what must be said, each word precise. He writes of New York City streets, of Vermont’s countryside and of Maine’s coast. I’m drawn to each of his landscapes. People inhabit his landscapes, sometimes the poet, sometimes those he observes, and so Neil’s poems are about each of us.

In “Meadow Cottage, Deer Isle, Maine,” the poet remembers the year before when he came to Deer Isle to finish a book. He remembers being alone and writing and watching, and I can feel time nearly suspended as he writes of “the osprey’s gyroscopic motions” and of an eagle that “seemed tethered to its aerie.” This year, he watches nothing; he composes nothing. He picks blueberries with his daughter, goes clamming with his wife. Yet, it is after this year of family, that he writes this poem, telling us, his readers that sometimes even the eagle forgets its solitary nature “to mate in mid-air,/ copulate as they fall….” And on to a dynamite ending I will not reveal.

Not many people read poetry or buy books of poems. But poets have a way of grinding down what is essential and saying it, some more clearly than others. Neil is a poet of gemstone clarity. I love his work. You will, too. He does not even know I am writing this. This is my way of thanking him for these poems. They illuminate my life. Hominid Up.

 

 

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Summer Water

Posted on by Sandell Morse

Early morning. Moments of rounded pearls. Only, I am awake. My husband, my dog, my son and my granddaughter sleep. Only, my sounds, grinding coffee, boiling water, then carrying my mug into my study. Finally, outside my sliding glass doors, grass is green. The sprinklers spray. Summer water. York, the town where I live, has ten miles of above surface summer lines, and most of those summer lines trail alongside dirt roads. Mine is one of them. When, finally, I see the York Water District truck on our lane, I know that after a long harsh winter, summer will arrive. Usually, summer water lines are opened by mid April. This year, the lines weren’t opened until May.

The Water District website tells me that three quarters of the earth’s surface is water, but ninety-eight percent of it is salt and not fit to drink. The site says that all of the water we will ever have is the water we have right now. And still, I water my lawn and my gardens. However, I no longer let the water run when I brush my teeth. I’m aware of turning off faucets and of how often I run the washing machine. All of our household water comes from a well on our property. Summer water is for the lawn and the gardens, flowers and vegetables. In York, we are fortunate. Our reservoirs are ample and deep.

My garden tells me it is spring, iris coming into bloom, peonies tightly budded. Scapes do not curl from the green shoots of my garlic– not yet. This past week temperatures have dropped to the forties and fifties. Today, it is warmer, but a cool breeze wafts from the ocean. I’m wearing a sweater. But outside, the summer water sprays. Sprays and sprays in anticipation.

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