After another longer-than-anticipated absence, I return to my News and Notes section, humbled by the well-known line from Burns’s “To a Mouse.”
… The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley …
Is it “essay” or is it “story?”
Many have concluded that “essay” is more widely used than “story” with respect to my type of nonfiction, memoir-style writing. While I understand the importance of following the convention, it’s difficult for me to think of what I write as essays. When I write, I always imagine that I’m telling the story to “listeners.” I have this same feeling when reading at the table during one or another of the Red Oak Writing critique groups, which I have belonged to for several years. So, please indulge me while I struggle with the transition from “story” to “essay.” This might take forever.
Three new stories…or essays.
“The Other Side of the Screen Door” has been rewritten several times, the most recent of which (several days ago) is the result of outstanding suggestions from current and former members of the critique group.
“But One Mournful Chord” was published in the Jewish Literary Journal. (News and Notes, 1/19/2017). The slightly revised version on this website includes a short paragraph concerning an unpleasant incident with a tray of gauze-wrapped capsules.
“Exodus Redux” was published in the anthology, Family Stories from the Attic(Hidden Timber Books, 2017.) With the permission of the publisher, I’ve posted the story exactly as it appears in the published anthology (News and Notes, 1/20/2017).
One more thing.
Last March, I posted a News and Notes item about our friend Taif Jany and his website, http://wethehabibis.com On International Women’s Day, Taif sent me a copy of the following “celebration” that he wrote to and about his mother. With his permission, it’s reprinted here in its entirety, with minor revisions.
What he wrote is moving and important, especially in today’s destructive political climate. This week, Taif is also celebrating his ten-year anniversary of being in the United States, on his path to citizenship.
“THANK YOU FOR EVERYTHING”
I was browsing through some of my old pictures from Iraq, and I came across this picture of my mom: a beautiful, elegant, fashionable, and most importantly, fierce Iraqi woman.
This International Women’s Day, and as we all celebrate the amazing women in our lives, I want to celebrate and thank my mom: a woman who did the impossible to help me get to where I am today. She truly defines what it means to be the best mom anyone could ask for.
I want to share one story about her. In 2008, I was a refugee living with my mother and one of my brothers in Damascus, Syria. We had been living there for nearly two years after we had left Iraq in late 2006. And one day, I received the happiest news of my life: that I was going to the United States.
I had just received my acceptance letter to attend Union College in Schenectady, New York and also my student visa. I could not believe it at first, and I was so excited to go home and tell mom about it.
As I was climbing up the stairs to our fourth-floor apartment, with an acceptance letter in one hand and a visa in the other, it suddenly hit me: how am I supposed to leave mom alone in Syria?
My brother at that time was working in France, and so it was just mom and I for a few months. She was my best friend and support system. Her health wasn’t the best, and I knew it would be difficult for her to wave goodbye to her youngest child.
But I didn’t want to let these thoughts overtake my excitement, and I was so eager to tell mom about the great news I got.
It’s hard to put into words and describe the happiness I saw on mom’s face once I told her that I was going to finish my education in America. She saw her youngest child with an opportunity to receive the best education of his life. She was proud—and that made me even happier.
However, as we sat down to talk about it, I was starting to feel guilty that I might leave Mom alone. So I asked her a very blunt question: “What do I do? Whatever you decide, Mom, I will happily do it.”
And here is why I said earlier that she is the best mother anyone could ask for. My mom, with teary eyes, answered my question this way:
“Throughout my entire life, I have worked so hard, and sacrificed so much, for you and your siblings to be successful. All I want for all of you is to finish your education and have a prosperous future. I give you my full blessings to go to America.”
Today, after more than 10 years since the day I had that conversation with Mom in our little apartment in Damascus, I am proud to say that I have made it in America.
But none of my successes in life would have been possible without you, Mom, and for that, I say, “THANK YOU!”
After 4 years of separation, Mom came to my graduation from Union College in 2012.
I’m a bit dismayed by how long it’s been since I posted any news and notes, and any of my stories. Of course, there’s a good explanation for the absence, but not everyone wants to read all of the details (a.k.a., excuses.) So, for the moment, I’ll just say it’s good to be back, and thank you for being here, as well.
Red Oak Writing. While I haven’t recently posted any stories on my website, I’ve continued to write and to attend Round Tables led by Kim Suhr, director of Red Oak Writing. Over the next couple of weeks, beginning today, I’ll post a number of new stories that will be included (in one version or another) in the collection I am preparing for publication (through one channel or another.) Kim, with her customary skill and vision, is playing a major role in editing and organizing the stories. All of my fellow writers who participate in Red Oak Writing have provided much needed criticism and encouragement. Please stay tuned.
Lake Effect. If you go to my Home Page or List of Stories, you’ll see that one of the new posts is a link to LAKE EFFECT, a very popular Milwaukee radio show (WUWM, our local NPR station.) I was given the honor to be a guest on the show last December, and to read a story about surviving December and the celebrations of Christmas and Chanukah. The short version I read was drawn from a longer story with a much different tone. I like the short version better. On the WUWM LAKE EFFECT site, you’ll be able to read, or listen to me read, “Genesis Among the Crabapples.”
Two interesting and important websites…
wethehabibis.com You have to check out this wonderful website of musing, recipes, videos, and more, all created by Taif Jany, a dear friend of our family and, I happily hasten to add, our daughter. The site is relatively new, and Taif will be adding to it on a regular basis. Here is an excerpt from his bio, and another from the Home Page.
I was born and raised in Baghdad. When I was 16 years old my father was kidnapped on his way home from work. I was forced to flee Iraq with my remaining family and seek refuge in Damascus, Syria. We’ve never heard a thing about dad.
After spending about two years in Syria, I came to the United States as a student. I went to school at Union College in Schenectady, NY and moved to Washington, D.C. right after graduation.
Being alone in America, away from my family and my favorite falafel stands, I was forced to teach myself how to cook. This is mostly because I really missed my mom’s homemade food, but also I started craving Iraqi food in general. When it comes to food, Iraq (in my humble opinion) is the hub of food in Western Asia (YES, IRAQ IS IN ASIA! Bet you didn’t know that.) From world-famous sumac kebabs and lamb stews, to dolma and masgoof (grilled fish), Iraq is where it’s at!
That being said, I quickly learned that America is a place of abundance in many ways, and food ingredients is no exception. In the United States, I can access many items that we don’t have in Iraq. One in particular has forever changed my life. Let me tell you all about it.
We the Habibis offers delicious homemade food, promotes cultural exchange, and builds community…Wait, tell me that you know what “habibi” means? No? … Okay, “habibi” … means “my love.” Don’t get too excited. I don’t know you, and I’m taken. More commonly, “habibi” is a term of endearment that we use back home when we greet friends and relatives.
Here’s a free Iraq-Arabic 101 tutorial:
You’re outside in your garden smoking hookah. Your buddy roles through, you go: “Shako mako habibi?” which loosely means something like “What’s up dude?” Get it? Good!
Oh what? you said “habibi” is for men only? Not here it isn’t! I use “Habibi” to describe both ladies and gents. Technically the female alternative is “habibti”, but I’m only allowed to use that for my girlfriend.
I have created We the Habibis not only because I wanted to share my passion for food with you, but also because I want to create an environment that promotes cultural exchange and builds community among readers.
ethansuhr.weebly.com Also, take a good look at the website of Ethan Suhr, a first-year film student at University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Ethan has helped me build my own website and maintain it. In truth, I’m not sure the site would be up and running without his help and encouragement. I’ve been impressed by his creativity and technical knowledge, but also his ability to listen carefully to his clients’ needs and aspirations, and address them in his designs. Ethan’s talent is very apparent in his own film, art, and music he has included on his website. And he answers his phone calls, or responds to them promptly!!
A few weeks ago, I visited with Lisa Williams, one of the cast members in the 2017 Listen to Your Mother performance at Alverno College. While enjoying a carry out lunch from Oakland Gyros (no, they don't pay me,) we reminisced about the show, what we would like to achieve as writers, and our shared experiences working in and consulting with various social service agencies. The first time I heard Lisa read her story in one of our cast rehearsals , I was moved to tears, as were others in the room. Lisa has given me permission to post her story here, and I'm pleased that she is the first "guest" author on this website.
(My own LTYM story can be found on the Home Page or in the List of Stories of this website.)
The anthology, Family Stories From the Attic (see post, below, from 1/20/2017) is now available for purchase from:
Boswell Book Company
Barnes & Noble
Family Stories from the Attic is an anthology of essays, creative nonfiction, and poetry inspired by family letters, objects, and archives. Nearly two dozen contributors from the United States and Australia tell stories of immigration and migration, loss, discovery, secrets, questions, love, and the search for meaning and identity. Editors Christi Craig and Lisa Rivero bring together both experienced and new authors who will prompt writers and non-writers alike to think about their own family treasures and histories in new ways.
A book launch will be held at Boswell Book Company on Saturday, May 17 at 7 p.m. The event will include readings by anthology authors from their own "family stories from the attic."
Last Thursday, March 30, the Writers' Showcase (at Comedy Sportz-Milwaukee) was, by all accounts, a great success. It was a privilege to have been one of the readers, and to be associated with such talented colleagues. They inspire me by their creativity and their skill.
For the event, I reworked one of the several versions of a story that deals with a single event, on a single day, circa 1950. This day did much to shape my convictions and actions concerning race relations and social justice. The title of the piece is "It's As Simple As Black and White," and it's posted on the Home page of this website.
I have to admit that until this year, I hadn't known anything about the national productions of the Listen to Your Mother show–other than I should have done so more often, I'm sure.
The LTYM website, listentoyourmothershow.com states: "The mission of each LISTEN TO YOUR MOTHER production is to take the audience on a well-crafted journey that celebrates and validates mothering through giving voice to motherhood–in all of its complexity, diversity, and humor–in the form of original readings performed live on-stage by their authors."
To learn more about the Milwaukee show for 2017, visit http://www.listentoyourmothershow.com/milwaukee where you'll also find a list of "cast" members (i.e., "readers") and a link to the national website, where it is written: The videos of presentations from past shows are inspiring.
In February, I auditioned for the Milwaukee "cast," and am delighted to have been selected. As we heard each other's stories during our first two rehearsals–and laughed and cried together–it became obvious why the Listen to Your Mother Shows have moved so many audiences throughout the country. The Directors of the Milwaukee show–Alexandra Rosas, Rochelle Fritsch, and Jenny Gaskell–have provided our cast with an environment that has been warm, encouraging, and supportive.
Don't miss our LTYM Milwaukee show. Alverno College (Milwaukee) Wehr Hall on Sunday, May 7 at 3 PM.
Additional information will be posted on the Listen to Your Mother/ Milwaukee website.
By the way, I'm very proud to be the only "guy" in the cast. The same is true with respect to the list of authors whose work is included in the Hidden Timber Books anthology, Family Memories From the Attic. (See, my 1/20/2017 post.) So...what's up with that?
Red Oak Writing (redoakwriting.com) led by its Director, Kim Suhr, “… offers programming for writers of all levels of ability and experience.” Online critique groups also are offered. The groups I have been in for the last year and a half have been led by Kim, and have been a learning experience that ranks right at the top of a long list. Kim is a wonderful writer, and you can read much of her work on her website, kimsuhr.com.
Visit www.redoakwriting.com or phone 414-881-7276 for more information
A version of “Exodus Redux”–one of the stories in my collection, The Color Red–is included in the Hidden Timber Books (hiddentimberbooks.com) anthology, Family Stories From the Attic: Bringing letters and archives alive through creative nonfiction, flash narratives, and poetry. Hidden Timber Books is a new publishing house, certain to develop a strong reputation for quality and creativity. I know a number of the other contributors, and their work is outstanding.
I've enjoyed working with Lisa Rivero, publisher, and Christi Craig, editor, while preparing "Exodus Redux" for publication. The story focuses on my early education in (and rhapsodic departure from) a Jewish day school in St. Louis.
The anthology is scheduled for publication early this spring. By agreement, each story may appear only in the anthology for a specified amount of time following publication; when the anthology is published, I’ll post a reminder on this page. Meanwhile, take a look at the HTB website, and the bios of the contributors to Family Stories From the Attic.
My story, “But One Mournful Chord” was included in the February 1, 2017, volume of the Jewish Literary Journal (jewishliteraryjournal.com). The story explores my reactions to the deaths of my uncle and grandfather, and my tentative steps in the passage from adolescence into manhood.
Please use the link to the JLJ website to read this story and other non-fiction, fiction, and poetry. In the January volume, Susan Hunnicutt's fiction piece, "I Hate Being Jewish," is one of my favorites.
The JLJ editors have adopted this approach: “Although the concept of “Jewish” is a broad and vague one, leaving this term undefined will allow for the largest breadth of material to qualify for publication.”
I'll post more about this journal on a regular basis.
In November 2016, I was privileged to be asked to participate in a well-attended and unique public reading in Milwaukee: A Picture and a Thousand Words.
Ten pictures (photographs) were provided as “prompts.” Anyone who wished to submit a story was asked to choose one of the photographs, but limit what they write to no more than 1,000 words. The organizers of the event chose ten submissions, among the many they received.
My 1,000 words, prompted by a photograph of a carousel, abandoned and in disrepair, were drawn form a much longer memoir piece about the death of a dear childhood friend, and the separate paths our lives took. The reading was titled, “The Thing is Albert…” It will be posted soon on this website, as will the longer version.