Identity

By Ruchi Kahan

Ruchi entering the orphanage, and today

In the hardest time of my life, when I almost died, my spirituality saved me.

I lived on the streets of New Delhi, India, trying to survive alone starting when I was only four years old. I remember seeing a lot of other people who were homeless, adults shouting at their kids, and huge stacked-up piles of garbage. The cows were also in the garbage looking for food. I was looking for survival. It was an instinct, the only way I could continue.

I remember that everything tasted rotten. Food lost its deliciousness. It was like after someone ate something delicious, they threw away the corpse of their food to wither away. That’s what I was eating.

A lot of people that I saw worshiped the ground they stood on. They took the sand from their homes when they left and put it on their foreheads. I tried to learn from them. I put the sand I found on the streets on my forehead.

When I was six I got captured by the police and sent to an orphanage, the Welfare Home for Children.

I was first taken to the basement. There was a lady down there who made a report about me. The basement was really dark except for the light of her room, and that was really dim. After that, a woman came to get me, who ended up being always with me. She was part of a group of women who took care of us. We called them our Aunties.

 

During that time I became someone who didn’t see hope or light in my life anymore. My spirit was always strong though, and nothing could extinguish it. I would hear the auntie/caretaker tell tales about gods and goddesses in Hinduism. She regaled us with stories about how God Vishnu, the preserver and protector of the universe, created the other two worlds as represented by Shiva the destroyer, and Brahma the creator of the universe.

Brahma was the god with three heads who sat on a lotus. Shiva had a snake around his neck and would stay on the snowy mountains with his goddess, Parvati, and his son, Ganesha.

The best-known tale the auntie would tell came from the Ramayan, “Vishnu had taken an incarnation as Lord Ram. Laxmi had taken on an incarnation as Sita, Ram’s wife. Lord Ram came to free the Earth from the power of the demons.”

I was so in love with all the tales that were told of Hinduism. We were taught to believe in reincarnation, which means when we die we would be reborn on this earth as someone new, forgetting our old selves. But a glimpse of our old selves will show in our new selves.

When I heard those tales and felt so proud of my culture, my spirit blazed bigger and farther inside me. A glimmer of hope came back.

 

There would be special holidays to worship the gods and goddess such as Holi, the festival of colors, and Diwali, the festival of lights. Diwali is still my favorite holiday because the houses and streets would be would be lit like a Christmas tree. There would also be presents and fireworks!

Even though I lived in an orphanage some of us were chosen to participate in the festivities. They would pick names randomly out of a box. But first, they took out the names of the kids who were doing badly at the orphanage, either doing bad things or not doing well in school. If you did bad, you could not be chosen to leave and celebrate the holiday.

I got chosen once and I loved it. A lot of kids kept telling me the trip was an opportunity to run away and leave the orphanage. But I didn’t try because I had a hard life on the streets and I could have easily gotten an illness on the street. At least here I had a shelter, a place to live for the time being, a place where I was cared for so I could carry on. I was choosing between horrible and the brink of horrible.

 

Time after time I would get recurring visions of gods and goddesses inspiring me to be a good person and put everything into whatever I’ve committed to. God Vishnu also gives me the knowledge to see gods or goddesses in every person. Hinduism has a special greeting called “namaste,” which means “the divine in me bows to the divine in you.” All the holidays for the gods and goddesses make me proud and devoted to my culture and religion.

One lesson I learned from Hinduism is this: When anyone you love dies and you pray to your gods to not let them leave this world, don’t blame them if your loved ones go away. Just remember, even though they left their bodies, their spirits will always be lingering around you. They will watch over you from wherever they are. They will be born again to meet up with you in their next life, for you will never be separated from them.

After two years I was taken from the orphanage to a new home in America. I am now becoming someone who believes in the very essence of life. Because of this experience, I became devoted to my culture and life.

© 2018 Ruchi Kahan

Ruchi is a student in the Washington, DC, area. This essay began as a class assignment on Identity. Ruchi wants to become a veterinarian. She loves all kinds of animals, especially horses, wolves, cats, and dogs. This year she plans to visit India with her American family.

 

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Watching Mildred

By Suzy Beal

“Give it back to me! I won’t burn myself, I know how to do it.”

“Mildred, let me do this for you.

“No, give it to me, NOW”

Her gnarled fingers are gripping the curling iron so tightly I can’t get back control of it, short of prying off her fingers.

“OK, I will give it back to you so you can do the front, but you must let me to the back.” We reach a compromise, but she refuses to give it back to me even though she is finished curling her front bangs and sides. Her jaw is set, her eyes challenging me. I see in them the new bride in 1942 standing on the docks in New York City waving good-bye to her husband as he goes off to war in Europe.

The phone rings and I pick it up. “Mildred, your son is on the phone.” She has to let go of the curling iron if she wants to take the phone. Indecision races across her face – she will lose control of one more thing if she gives up the curling iron, but she wants to hear her son’s voice. Her eyes tighten and she squints at me and I see the young pregnant mother leaving with three small children her family and friends to cross the country by train to join her husband as they begin a new life together on the Oregon coast. She chooses the phone. I unplug the curling iron and put it out of sight. I feel like a traitor.

At seventy-one, am I watching my future unfolding? Mildred is a friend I have been visiting every week for two years at her assisted-care facility.   This past week she was moved from her assisted-living home to a transitional care facility because she appears to have lost the use of her left leg. Since I’m not family, I’ve not been given the details of her diagnosis. However, I can tell she is unhappy to be here and she is taking out her anger on me today. Only two weeks ago we were stringing beads and making necklaces in her “home.” Now she has lost so much, she is struggling.

Our battle is over for now, but I feel as though there is so much more at stake here. I can see her standing on the bluff over- looking the Pacific Ocean for the first time, terrified of it and the sound it makes. At ninety-seven she can curl her own hair, after all she raised five children helping each one reach a successful and meaningful life. Each day she loses something important to her. She has a smile, when she uses it, that melts the heart, but if she feels that she is being crossed or talked down to, the smile disappears and she clinches her teeth tightly together and just like her gnarled fingers holding onto the curling iron, there is no opening her up, unless I hand her a chocolate.

She is so much more than this old lady tied to her wheelchair. She has the right to be angry, unhappy and sad that her current situation prohibits her from any choices. Her choices have been taken away along with her freedom, but most days she has a smile for me when I show up and when she clutches my hand I know that that strength comes from her heart.

© Suzy Beal

Suzy Beal has been writing her life story and personal essays for years, but in 2016 started studying with Sheila Bender at writingitreal.com.  “She has given me the courage to begin to submit pieces for publication,” says Suzy. I’m 72 years old and live in Bend, Oregon.  I was born on the Oregon Coast in Newport.  In 1961 when I was a teenager my parents took all seven of us siblings to live in Spain on the island of Mallorca.  There my dad and brothers built a sailing boat onto which we moved and sailed the Mediterranean.  We later moved to the Caribbean and lived and sailed from St. Croix.”

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Got “snapshot” memories? Try writing Flash Memoir.

Memories are frequently more like snapshots than movies. So why not apply the techniques of flash fiction to our own life stories? “Going small” allows us to focus on the moments in which life is truly lived, absorbing lessons that would be hard to find in a larger narrative sweep. 

In flash memoir–stories under 1000 or even under 500 words–we challenge ourselves to develop a story concisely, concretely, with crisp precision. Accepting the challenge of creative nonfiction, we work within the boundaries of emotional and factual truth. Short, sharp, and true–No other rules apply.

I mention this because I have a “write-in” workshop on Flash Memoir coming up in Madison. In my “write-ins,” unlike my other workshops, we dedicate part of our in-class time to writing, and place fewer expectations on ourselves to write between class sessions. This feels like an ideal approach for working on short “Flash Memoir” pieces. I can’t say for sure–this is the first time I’ve tried it.

Want to be part of the experience? Check it out, if you’re in Madison.

  • When: Thursdays, four sessions, Feb 15 through March 8, 4-5:30 pm
  • Where: Pinney Library, 204 Cottage Grove Rd., Madison
  • Fee: Free.
  • To register: follow this link or call 224-7100.

And if you’re not in Madison? I’ve offered this class online before, and I could again. Let me know if you’d be interested in an online “write-in” experience.

What does this image have to do with “Flash Memoir”? This brevity-focused genre lends itself to object writing–the technique of focusing an essay on a concrete object. (What’s a concrete object? “Something you can drop on your foot,” it was explained to me.) If you want your reader to hold in mind the same image, idea, or emotion that you are having, don’t send abstract words to do the job. Send a specific, memorable, visualize-able object. Then tell a story about it.

The artifacts we gathered through life make great prompts for object writing. This is a box of crayons I have owned since I was 7 years old. I had a dream last night about rediscovering a trove of art supplies and a free day to play with them. This is what I imagine retirement might be like–rediscovering our own treasures and talents from before “the cult of adulthood” intervened, and finally having time to pick up creative ventures again.

When “Flash Memoir” starts at the Pinney Library on February 15, I think I’ll go looking for memories related to these crayons.

As we say goodbye to 2017, I suggest you explore Flash Memoir in 2018! Let’s see your stories here on True Stories Well Told. Submissions welcome–see guidelines here.

  • Sarah White
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My Last Car

Dorothy Ross, whose writing has appeared on True Stories Well Told before, sent me this story to accompany her recent essay, “My First Car.”

In 1987 my husband found a new-used Mercedes diesel station wagon for sale and convinced me that it would be a good car for me to drive on the California freeways—safe and solid. I had buyer’s remorse almost immediately. I didn’t like searching for stations that sold diesel—they were mostly truck stops—and I hated pumping that smelly, oily fuel. And then there was the noisy chug-chug of the diesel engine that made me feel like I was driving a truck.

I just didn’t see myself as a Mercedes type of driver. Too showy and too foreign. In the lace curtain Irish neighborhood in the Bronx where I grew up, folks drove Detroit cars like Ford and Chevy, not high-end German autobahn vehicles. If I showed up behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz, they’d laugh me off the block.

But the wagon was bought and paid for so I drove it—for more than thirty years and over 300,000 miles. Because we’ve lived in the same town all those years, I’ve come to be associated with my car. When my friends see the old burgundy Benz in the parking lot at the library, they know they’ll find me in the stacks.

I can’t say when I learned to love my unique and reliable wagon, but I did. And it turned out Bill was right. When I drove around Northern California in my red wagon, I felt like I was riding in a tank—safe and secure. I drove it up to Seattle to visit a friend, and down to Tucson to see my cousin. Somewhere along the way I started calling my car Betsy. Bill and I often return to the car and find notes on the windshield from people offering to buy the classic wagon.

When our granddaughter turned sixteen, we gave her the Benz because we wanted her to drive an armored car on the highways with the big trucks and SUVs whizzing by. Elly thanked us without any real enthusiasm. She hated the bulbous wagon as much as I had when it was new to me. And I wasn’t too happy with the fancy car we bought to replace it. So her parents let her choose her own car, and I got Betsy back in my garage.

We still own the car, and though I no longer drive due to health concerns, I’ve been having a hard time parting with the old girl. But guess what? Elly has had a change of heart regarding the red wagon. Ten years after turning it down as a teenager, she and her husband would like to have the Mercedes for running around town and taking their dog to the beach. I’m happy to report that we’ll be keeping Betsy in the family.

© 2017 Dorothy Ross

Dorothy is a native New Yorker who worked on Madison Avenue before moving west in 1961. On the Davis campus of the University of California she served as an editor and program director. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007, she often writes about the challenges of living with that condition.

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Ariel Levy: “The Rules Do Not Apply”

Once in a blue moon the stars align to allow me to read a book practically uninterrupted from first page to last. Usually it requires a long airplane flight to grant me that bubble of space/time I can disappear into, like (I Dream of) Jeannie into her bottle, and nestle there with nothing but a book.

For some reason last weekend was a quiet one. I spent it with Ariel Levy, coming along on her quest to “have it all” in her 2017 memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply, starting Saturday evening after picking it up at the library and ending Monday morning over coffee in bed.

Ariel Levy’s memoir centers on the struggle between her career and personal ambitions that culminated in giving premature birth in a Mongolian hotel room at Thanksgiving, 2012. The baby lived only a few hours.  In the aftermath of that tragedy, Ariel saw the rest of her life come apart like fragments of that Jeannie’s bottle, shattered.

One paragraph sums up the clockwork that puts this tragedy in motion:

I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all.

Levy’s memoir of a white, privileged, feminist 30-something woman’s experience follows normal desires through the looking glass into gay and trans relationships where normalcy is, perhaps, even more sweet, and into professional newsrooms where, for an ambitious young woman, recognition and advancement is also addictively sweet.

Levy is a journalist and her writing has both the strengths and weaknesses of that trade-turned-profession. She writes with clarity and confidence, and turns an unsparing eye on herself as well as others. She does what I’ve always hated about journalism since my days in J101 at Indiana University: sticks the microphone in the tragic victim’s face and asks “how does it feel?” Even when that face is hers.

And yet. In spite of herself, Levy comes across as an unreliable narrator, whose life choices made me squirm, even as she castigated herself for those choices. The unsparing eye can distort even as it regards. The last time I felt this combination of “squick” and “must keep reading” was when I read Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia.

Back to Ariel Levy: Two quotes sum up the push and pull of this sad, true, story. She closes her preface with this reflection: “People have been telling me since I was a little girl that I was too fervent, too forceful, too much. I thought I had harnessed the power of my own strength and greed and love in a life that could contain it. But it has exploded.” Much later, she interviews Maureen Dowd, who tells her, “Not everybody gets everything.”

Levy’s use of language is wonderful, as one might expect of a writer for the New Yorker. Better yet, she found a good structure for this book, and a delightful (IMHO, not everyone on GoodReads agrees) way to end it–not easy for a mid-life memoir. When young (ish) people write memoirs, necessarily, the book ends before the life chronicled winds down. She gives her story three endings, in which she fantasizes about what happens next, leaving you to choose and hope too.

I’ll close with this quote from “Esil” on GoodReads: “I’m not sure I would recommend this so much because of the story Levy has to tell, but more because of how she tells her story.”

Have you read The Rules Do Not Apply? What did you think?

  • Sarah White

 

 

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My First Car

Dorothy Ross, whose writing has appeared on True Stories Well Told before, sent me this story after reading about my first car, The Pinto.

By Dorothy Ross

When I was a teenager, I didn’t need a car. I rode buses to school and to my Saturday job at Woolworth’s. I could count on the boys to arrange transportation for dates. I was twenty-two years old when I bought my first car, a used convertible.

My turquoise and vanilla Plymouth stood at the curb for weeks. Before I could use it, I had to get a driver’s license. I signed up for lessons and spent Saturday mornings driving cautiously around Yonkers in the care of an instructor. It was reassuring that he had a second set of controls, so he could stop the car if I goofed. This was in the days of short, tight skirts. The man couldn’t hide his amusement at my tendency to drive with my knees pressed together while tugging my hemline down around my thighs. “Good thing you don’t have to shift gears,” he laughed. “I guess that’s why all you modest girls drive automatics.”

The inspector at the Motor Vehicle office was an older man who never cracked a smile. He made me so nervous during the road test that I made stupid mistakes. He marked me down for relying on my mirrors instead of craning my neck to check my blind spot, and he complained a couple of times that I wasn’t leaving enough space between my car and the vehicle ahead of me. I bumped over the curb when I attempted a three-point turn, and then stopped more than two feet from the sidewalk when he told me to park parallel. I thought I’d failed, but that soft-hearted sourpuss passed me—just barely.

Cruising around the North Bronx and Westchester County on weekends, with the top down and my hair blowing in the wind, I felt like a movie star— a regular Marilyn Monroe. I named my sweet car Daisy, after the girl in The Great Gatsby.

Most of my Daisy days were pure fun, driving out to Jones Beach or exploring shopping malls with my friends. I did have one scary incident, though.

I was invited to a party on Manhattan’s upper East Side on a warm summer evening. Around midnight, before beginning the drive to my parents’ house, I foolishly put the top down. I was enjoying the balmy night until I realized that I wasn’t on the East Side Drive any more. I was lost.

The only people on the city streets at that time of night were small groups of loud and scruffy-looking young men. Having recently seen West Side Story on Broadway, I decided the guys on the street corners were gang members. I didn’t know what to do, which way to turn. I was scared.

Stopped at a red light, I glanced down the cross street and spied the two green lanterns that hung outside of all New York City police stations. Confident that New York’s Finest would help me find my way, I turned left and pulled up in front of the precinct house where several of the “boys in blue” lingered on the front steps smoking cigarettes.

They looked at me—and they all started laughing. I could tell I was the butt of the joke, but I had no idea what was so funny. Then one of them pointed up at a street sign— ONE WAY— it read, with an arrow pointing east. My car was headed west. I had been driving the wrong way on a one-way street. And that’s not all. I was parked in front of a police station—in a NO PARKING zone.

One of the cops sauntered over and leaned on my car door. “Are you lost, little girl?” he asked, like he was talking to a four-year-old. His buddies egged him on with whistles and cat-calls. I had brothers who teased me like that. I knew they were just kidding.

When they stopped chuckling, and convinced themselves I was sober enough to drive, a couple of the young patrolmen secured my car’s rag top and made sure I had plenty of gas. They told me to roll up the windows, lock the doors and follow their squad car. I stayed close behind those flashing lights until we came to an entrance to the East Side Drive. Then the patrol car pulled over and stopped, and the guys waved me by.

* * *

THE GREEN LANTERNS

The watchmen who patrolled New Amsterdam (now New York City) in the 17th century, carried lanterns at night with green glass sides in them as a means of identification. When the men returned to the watch house, they hung the lanterns by the entrances as a symbol that the “watch” was still present and ever vigilant. That tradition continues to this day, mostly on police station houses in the northeastern states.

© 2017 Dorothy Ross

Dorothy is a native New Yorker who worked on Madison Avenue before moving west in 1961. On the Davis campus of the University of California she served as an editor and program director. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2007, she often writes about the challenges of living with that condition.

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Book Review: “Tell Me True: Memoir, History, and Writing a Life”

Tell Me True: Memoir, History, and Writing a Life, edited by Patricia Hampl and Elaine Tyler May, is a collection of fourteen essays by people who dance in the no-man’s-land between History and Memoir. The fictional character Forrest Gump said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get,” and this collection is like that. Some are going to be truffleicious and some are going to turn out to be that weird fake cherry cordial flavor.

Contributors include Andre Aciman, Matt Becker, June Cross, Carlos Eire, Helen Epstein, Samuel G Freedman, Patricia Hampl, Fenton Johnson, Alice Kaplan, Annette Kobak, Michael MacDonald, Elaine Tyler May, Cheri Register, and D. J. Waldie. Each chapter begins with an excerpt from the author’s memoir, followed by an essay musing on some aspect of writing creative nonfiction. This makes Tell Me True a useful sampler to guide your memoir reading list: if you like the flavor of the excerpt, make a mental note to get the book.

The book came about as a result of a 2007 University of Minnesota conference called ‘Who’s Got the Story–Memoir as History/History as Memoir.’ As a collection, it is necessarily uneven–just as somewhere there’s somebody who goes through the Whitman’s box hoping to find the cherry cordial, somebody is going to love essays in Tell Me True that left me cold. I found myself most drawn to the chapters by the editors of the book, memoirist Patricia Hampl and American Studies professor Elaine Tyler May, and chapters by Cheri Register and Helen Epstein.

Here are some nuggets (or nougats, to flog my metaphor):

Helen Epstein, “Coming to Memoir as a Journalist,” with an excerpt from Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for her Mother’s History:

“We journalists did not traffic in useless, self-indulgent fantasy. We did research, made acute observations, investigated records, asked probing questions, got the facts. After this proactive work, in the writing itself, we were to erase all trace of ourselves… But I couldn’t remain impervious to the counterculture and new political movements of the 1960s….I realized that the objective journalism I had so idealistically and naively embraced was in fact riddled with prejudice about what was fit to print…. I was becoming aware that we all perceive events–public and private–through the double prism of our culture and personal experiences, and it resonates in multiple echo chambers of memory. Unlike journalism, which demands that reporters ignore or subsume that subjective reality, memoir encourages writers to plumb it.”

Patricia Hampl: “You’re History,” with an excerpt from The Florist’s Daughter:

“I finally understood my job as the classically writerly one–to be an observer–not only of what I saw, but of what I was thinking….”

“You write the books that won’t go away until they’re written.”

Elaine Tyler May, a historian by training, mines court records and other public documents to find mini-memoirs which she compiles into social histories. Her feminist perspective informs  “Confessions of a Memoir  Thief,” paired with an excerpt from Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. 

“History and memory are both interpretive arts. Both genres use carefully selected fragments of the past–memories, documents, events–to tell a story. … Both [historians and memoirists] write creative nonfiction… but the two genres diverge around viewpoint. Memoir is expressed in the first person, showing a particular life in a particular context. History is told in the third person, generalizing from many particular stories in an attempt to crate a larger narrative about change over time.”

“I have built my career on the memoirs of others.”

Cheri Register: “Memoir Matters,” with an excerpt from Packinghouse Daughter: A Memoir:

“Without deliberate attention to context, memoir can indeed fail to convey much meaning. What would Angela’s Ashes be without the crowded lanes of Limerick, or The Liar’s Club without the Texas Gulf Coast oil rigs? … the surest way for memoirists to win readers’ interest and empathy is to locate their personal stories in a public space.”

If these essays/authors have anything in common, it is a theme of American individualism versus our longing for connection–a sense that when we share our individual stories in the genre of memoir, we generate feelings of connection across vast differences in time, geography, and life experience. Indeed, the rising interest in memoir occurred more or less in sync with the decline of social connection (see Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone etc.)

At the end of the day, Tell Me True falls short of delivering an experience like I imagine attending the original U. of Minnesota conference was. I so badly wanted to raise my hand, chime in, or at least hear Q&A between the audience and the panelists.

Reading one essay after the other was too much like eating a whole box of chocolates. Tell Me True would work splendidly as a text for a memoir writers’ discussion group. Each bon bon was tasty; each left me eager for more, but hungrier still for connection with other memoir writers with whom to discuss it.

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