ON HEARING THE SEA GODDESS SHARON OLDS

Calabash_2010 007
Calabash_2010 064I was invited to read at the Calabash Literary Festival in Jamaica over Memorial Day weekend. Then the riots erupted in Kingston and the roads to the airport were blocked. Terribly worried, I called my friend Johnny Temple, publisher of Akashic Books, who goes every year. He reassured me that the problems in Kingston were not going to affect the Calabash festival, which takes place under a huge tent in Calabash Cove, on the south coast of the island, three hours away from the capital.

My husband and daughter were planning to come along, even though Eyrna would miss two days of school in the all-important year of 7th grade. How well a child does in 7th grade, we’d been told, determines her future in the public high school application system. But Calabash is not any occasion. First of all, writers are only eligible to participate every four years. We’d all gone as a family once before, in 2004, when Eyrna was too little to sit through the readings. She spent the weekend swimming in Jake’s salt-water pool with Bob Marley’s granddaughter.

This time, at 12, I wasn’t sure she would be interested, what with the all-consuming issues of things that begin with i-; of boys who flirt one day and are cruel the next; of what clothes to wear so you won’t stand out; and of the ever-present pecking order of middle-school popularity.

Sometimes Eyrna questions our life choices, as in, “Why couldn’t we live in a really big apartment?” Or, “How come you’re a writer, Mommy?” I tell her it was not a choice, really, but a calling, which is hard for her to comprehend. To our extreme surprise, Eyrna’s strongest subjects in school are math and social studies, not English and writing. Kevin and I laugh, relieved that we won’t have another writer in the family.

We arrived at Jake’s, a rustic, beautiful beach resort on Jamaica’s rocky south coast, owned by the Henzell family — who close Jake’s down every year for the festival, and house the participating writers for free — in a veritable deluge. It rained for two days straight and then on Friday night, just in time for Sharon Olds’ reading, the rain stopped. Calabash_2010 Sharon017

A thin, pale woman with silver hair, Sharon Olds stood on the podium under a thatched roof and greeted the audience sitting quietly in white plastic chairs under the tent, by pointing out how small she felt with 2,000 people before her and the entire, roiling sea and black sky at her back. She stood like a portal between the two worlds, magnificent in her modesty but also in her strength, which seemed to emanate from her like a force field. She read for close to an hour. A poem about seeing her aging ass in a hotel mirror for the first time. She read a poem about her breasts, those silly twins who were still waiting for her husband to return to her; she read “Ode to the Hymen,” about losing her virginity; she read a poem about trying to catch a flight to reach her dying father across the continent, before his final breaths. As tears stung my eyes, I reached out for my daughter’s hand. I turned to look at her face as she sat between her father and me, and saw that her eyes were riveted to the stage. She was absorbing every word. She was hearing the message. As women, we do not have to feel ashamed of who we are. We do not have to hide our fears and our sexuality, or our failures and desires. Sharon Olds seemed to me suddenly a sea goddess, risen from the very waves crashing at her back, and I felt the hairs standing up on my arms, electrified. I turned to my daughter and whispered, “This is why we write.”
Calabash_2010 K & E

Calabash_2010 059

Posted in Blog, Uncategorized | 5 Comments

MAKING FRIENDS ON THE ROAD

Ruth Nelda Gonzalez and Me at My Books & Books Reading

Ruth Nelda Gonzalez and Me at My Books & Books Reading

I just got home from my trip to Florida. While snow kept me from attending the first leg of my journey at the Jacksonville BookMania Festival, I did make it to Miami and to Boca Raton.

In Miami, I read at Books & Books and received a warm welcome. The room was full, mostly due to Connie Ogle’s excellent feature article on the front page of Sunday’s 2/28 Miami Herald Arts section: http://bit.ly/bgQiyi

Sometimes it’s difficult to feel so exposed, because my memoir does disclose some pretty personal stuff about my past and my difficult relationship with my mother. But then the most amazing, wondrous things happen if I remain open.

On one side, I am at times blindsided by the rage and resentment from extended family members, who think this kind of stuff — like alcoholism and abuse (verbal, physical, psychological) should be “kept in the family” and never aired in public. This is a shame-based reaction to mental illness that I totally reject. Interestingly, the people who are angry about the book NEVER come forth and tell me they’re angry; they pass the message on in a back-handed, back-channel way, through other family members, or friends, who in turn feel compelled to pass the piss and vinegar on to me. Truth be told: I couldn’t care less. They’re not even my relatives, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t take on other people’s shame any more. I’m done with that.

But, the most amazing result of this book for me is the complete strangers I’ve met at my readings and at book fairs and through email who not only thank me for writing this book, but share their deepest fears and pain with me. This is something I never expected, a gift that goes so far beyond our human fear of shame and dishonor. I am surprised and blown away every time. And every time I begin to feel drained from the strain of deflecting the resentment and anger, someone approaches me out of the blue, writing me an email, or showing up at a reading, or befriending me at an event, and sharing a story that recharges my depleted batteries and urges me to go forward on this weird journey of healing.

At the Brandeis University fundraiser lunch in Boca Raton, five of us women writers spoke to a gathering of 500 women (and 5 men). Dr. Qanta Ahmed, a Muslim woman of Pakistani origin, shared about working as a doctor for 2 years in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. She focused on the similarities between women of all religions; she talked about the commonalities between us all, not the differences. She was a true ambassador for peace. Lisa See, whose great-grandfather was a Chinese immigrant, talked about her family history and the history of the Chinese immigrant experience and how these are the rich sources from which she mines her stories. Thrity Umrigar, a Parsi writer originally from India, shared her childhood experiences growing up a Zoroastrian in a predominantly Hindu society and the experience of being an “outsider,” which is shared by so many all over the world. Barbara Delinsky shared about her incredibly interactive relationship with her readers, and how her topics are often culled from women’s issues in the news. Thrity Umrigar, Lisa See, Dr. Qanta Ahmed

Thrity Umrigar, Lisa See, Dr. Qanta Ahmed
After the luncheon, a stranger approached me and asked me for my opinion: Did I think she was an alcoholic? She began to tell me her story. Her close friend, now sober, apparently told her she had a drinking problem. She wanted to know if I agreed. I told her alcoholism is a self-diagnosed disease; I couldn’t know and couldn’t say. But I suggested she try to stop drinking for 3 months. She said she had no desire to stop. Well then, I said, if it hasn’t affected your life in a negative way, what’s the problem? The problem was the friend who had frightened her.

A little while later, several others came over and told me quietly that they were also in recovery, and were delighted by my outspoken approach to the disease of alcoholism.

But really, the coolest thing that happened was I made a friend. Dr. Qanta Ahmed and I came back on the same flight to NYC. We talked the whole way. We are going to try to bring a group of American women writers to Riyadh to speak to Saudi women as ambassadors of peace. What a world. I am just happy to be alive.

Posted in Blog | 2 Comments

Listening To My Student Read From Her Thesis

Yesterday my MFA student Lynn Bryant at Wilkes University read from her Masters thesis in front of a gathered crowd of her peers and other instructors. She read for ten minutes, a scene in which on the surface, very little happens: a couple has mint tea in a hotel restaurant in Fes, Morocco. But in this scene everything happens. The young man is Moroccan, A Berber who has chased this African American girl from Meknes, where they met in the restaurant of a different hotel, where Alae, the young man, is the maitre d’ — a pretty good job by Moroccan standards. Alae has brought his mother and sister to Fes to meet Willow, as if this is already a formal engagement, as if they’re already committed to each other. He has given Willow a family heirloom, a ring that in his mind binds her to him. Willow is not sure whether she should have refused the ring, run away; and now, she is deeply charmed by his wild sincerity, this impetuous show of affection. The scene shifts between their two point of views. They’ve known each other less than 24 hours and they are about to invest all their hopes, their fears, their dreams, in each other. She takes his hand and allows him to lead her into the lobby, where his mother is waiting.

I can’t stop thinking about this scene this morning. I am wondering if in a world where urgency — gaming, reality TV, and things like that — have taken over our appetite for entertainment, if a story like this, a story so smoothly written, so beautifully internal — a story about the clash between Christian and Muslin cultures — will be appreciated by the general reading public. I worry about this. I want this book to find a publisher and an audience. I think this book is very important.

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

PEN Rally for Liu Xiaobo on New Year’s Eve

I received this email from PEN and felt compelled to share it with you:

Dear Friends,

As you have heard, the Chinese government has sentenced our colleague Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison in China.

Tomorrow’s press event/rally to protest the conviction of Liu Xiaobo in China will take place ON THE FRONT STEPS OF THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, 42nd Street at 5th Avenue, at 11:00 a.m.

We believe this is both a good way to underscore PEN’s commitment to this case and to ring in a year that marks the 50th anniversary of PEN’s organized efforts to defend imprisoned and persecuted writers around the world.

Please join us for this important show of solidarity.

The event will take place at 11 a.m. at a convenient midtown Manhattan location—we will e-mail final details tomorrow. We will gather at the location at 10:45 a.m., and we will have posters of Liu Xiaobo available for all PEN Members to hold during the event, which will include very short readings from Liu’s work and statements by Anthony Appiah and other PEN board members.

More details on the program appear below. Can you please let us know as soon as possible if you can join us for this event? Please RSVP to [email protected], and plan on arriving at 10:45 a.m. to gather together. If you are not in New York City, and would like to hold an event in your area, please contact us for information and materials.

Many thanks, and all best wishes for the New Year,

K. Anthony Appiah
Steve Isenberg
Larry Siems

This Thursday, New Year’s Eve, PEN will hold an outdoor press event in midtown Manhattan to demand the release of Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced on Christmas Day to 11 years in prison for his writings in China.

The press event will feature several prominent Members of PEN American Center reading short passages from Liu’s work. The event begins promptly at 11 a.m. and will last about ½ hour.

The event rings in a year that marks the 50th anniversary of PEN’s activism on behalf of writers who are jailed or face persecution because of their work. Joseph Brodsky, Wole Soyinka, Vaclav Havel, Jose Revueltas, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Alicia Portnoy, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, and Taslima Nasreen, are just a few of the hundreds of writers PEN has freed or defended over the years.

There are currently almost 1,000 writers on PEN’s list of writers and journalists in danger because of their work. Leading the list is Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most prominent writers and a past president and member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, which is doing on-the-ground PEN advocacy in China. Liu was convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” for co-authoring “Charter 08,” a petition calling for political and human rights reforms in China, and for seven sentences in five articles he published on the internet that are critical of Chinese authorities.

PEN American Center President Kwame Anthony Appiah called his 11-year sentence “a scandal” and “a mockery,” and PEN Members around the world have vowed to step up efforts to win his release.

Posted in Blog | Leave a comment

Mr. Bill Canegata

Mr. Bill Canegata, Sixth Dan Black Belt, passed away yesterday, December 9, 2009, exactly three years to the day after Anna Bahceci, George Wimpfheimer, and I passed our Black Belt tests.

Mr. Bill lived with cancer for many years. He was a man of great strength who knew how to control pain and discomfort. He never complained. Though Mr. Bill could no longer instruct us, he still showed up at the do-jang every day and watched us progress toward our Black Belts. He gave us advice and helped us with our forms. He came to our promotion test and sat and watched, calm and still as a boulder. When the test was over, he presented us with our new Black Belts and tied them around our waists.

In 1996, my childhood friend Sandra Isham Vreeland died of AIDS after living with HIV for close to fifteen years. She contracted the disease after receiving a blood transfusion. She had two children, and fought to stay alive for them. She died on my birthday, August 5th. I drove out to Sagaponack, LI, for her memorial service. Her mother, Sheila, was also a good friend of mine and I approached her and murmured that I felt horrible that Sandra had died on my birthday. Sheila looked at me with her penetrating, calm blue eyes and said that there could be no greater honor. “After such a long fight,” she said, “she chose your birthday to let go and finally find peace. That was her birthday gift to you.” Sheila probably never knew the enormous impact her words had on me. What amazed me most was that she was able to offer such comfort when she herself must have been in an agony of grief. But Sheila always believed in a power greater than all of us, in some kind of greater meaning and other planes of existence that we cannot perceive. I decided at that moment that I would try to look at death the way Sheila did, and not the way I was taught to, which was with terror and fear.

59  Kaylie_Black Belt test1There is most definitely a weird synchronicity at play in my life. My father’s best friend, Willie Morris, was buried on my birthday in 1999. My godfather, Buddy Bazelon, passed away a few days before my birthday and on the night of August 5th, 1995, we were sitting shiva in my godmother’s apartment. One week later, Kevin and I got married. Thanks to Sheila Isham, I chose to accept these moments as an honor, rather than some kind of punishment, or karmic retribution.

So it seems only appropriate that Mr. Bill would leave us on December 9th, the day Anna, George, and I passed our Black Belt test. Almost everyone we started with, even those who went on and tested for their Black Belts, have left the do-jang. Not us. We persevere. Not in small part because of Mr. Bill and his courage, and the way he taught us to show up, even when we were sad, or sick, or in emotional pain.

PMA In fact, I think I’ll suit up and go today. Spend an hour with Mr. Luis Sevilla, who replaced Mr. Bill as our instructor, and went at least twice a week to visit Mr. Bill in his last months. Another wonderful, honorable man.

Posted in Blog | 3 Comments

A Pearl Harbor Story

Posted in Blog | 1 Comment

15 Year-Old Jessica Elliott Writes Me A Letter Re: My Memoir

A High School Student’s Response to LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME

I just received the following letter from a fifteen year old student in Illinois. I was so moved by it I thought I’d share it with you. Jessica is a brave young woman and I’m amazed by the candor and honesty of her letter. I wish I’d been this self-aware and fifteen.

“Dear Kaylie Jones,

“In today’s world, there are so many setbacks and obstacles in life that it is difficult to maintain the feeling that “it’ll all work out in the end.” There are many things that make me doubt that I am strong enough to deal with the curve balls thrown at me and to cope with the cards I am dealt.
The challenges that we are faced with, or rather, the manner in which we deal with them, is what shapes our character and defines what sort of people we are. As I reflect on your memoir, I see the reckless and defiant girl who began drinking early in life profoundly changed by the end of the book after she has stayed sober for nearly twenty years and has had a child to be responsible for. The challenge you had to overcome was alcoholism. Mine is diabetes.
Jessica Elliott09I have had this disease since I was ten years old, and my father has always told me that I haven’t fully accepted it, to which I have always answered him, “Of course I have; that’s crazy.” Only, I didn’t admit that it was a problem. No, everything was just fine – I thought it was no big deal to skip medicine here and there, or not check my blood sugars because I didn’t feel like it at the moment. But whether I admitted it or not, my poor control of my diabetes was affecting me – blurry vision, sick days, etc. But all along, my frame of mind was, “Well, I’m still alive, so it isn’t really a problem. …”
Something had to change, or things would get even worse. However, as I realized while reading your memoir, you cannot deal with a problem until you have accepted that there is one. As that famous Alcoholics Anonymous prayer says: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I don’t truly know who I am yet. My life is just beginning, brand new and full of potential and possibility. I cannot control diabetes – I don’t know why I got it, and I can’t get rid of it. But I can control my diabetes. I can take the medicine. I can check the blood sugars. I can make healthier choices. Just as the young woman realizes in your memoir, I don’t want to leave this world with any regrets about not making a different choice … a better one. I want to lead a life that anyone could look back on with pride and satisfaction.
Because of your book, I underwent a process. I have accepted that I cannot change the fact that I have an illness; but I will maintain the courage to keep fighting it every day. The effect it has on me can change. Reading your memoir has given me hope and the wisdom to know that I can control how to become the kind of person I want to be.”

–Jessica Elliott

Posted in Blog | 1 Comment

Thankful — Or Not — It’s A Choice

Ever since I got back from my book tour about two weeks ago, I’ve been in an emotional slump, a kind of low-grade depression that makes my limbs and heart feel heavy. I am not exactly sure what has caused it. Probably a combination of things.

Since the publication of my book at the end of August, I’ve been away from home more than I’ve been here and I missed almost all of my daughter’s first semester of 7th grade. Yet, on the road I made many new friends and learned a lot about my country’s history and culture (having been raised in France through most of high school, I never had a really good grasp on American history and tradition). I loved being in Oklahoma, in Georgia, in Tennessee. I loved spending time with other writers at book festivals and fund raising events. I especially enjoyed spending a week in my dad’s home state, Illinois, with old friends who are the closest thing to family I have. In Champaign-Urbana, at the university, I met an 88 year old WWII veteran who healed his emotional war wounds and gave his life meaning by playing in an army jazz band in occupied Japan after the war. He gave free concerts to the local Japanese population, and ended up teaching wind instruments to Japanese children!!Master Bill Canegata_3rd degree test_77_CROP until he went home when his time was up.

But back in New York, with the holidays fast approaching, I felt overcome by helplessness. I am helpless to give my daughter the big family she craves. We are three – my husband, Eyrna, and me. That’s it. My husband’s mother is not speaking to us because she was offended and mortified by one paragraph in my book that alluded to my husband’s troubled childhood in a home poisoned by alcoholism. I had thought she was accepting of this fact; I had thought she understood the ramifications and repercussions of what her sons had suffered through as children. I was wrong. In fact, it was my husband who insisted I deal with the topic head-on in my memoir. It was my husband who insisted I write the truth; after all, it was his childhood, it was his suffering I was writing about. This was our story; a kind of upside-down love story about how two damaged people in their early 30’s, two Adult Children of Alcoholics, loved each other enough to confront their fears of commitment and intimacy. It took a lot of work, but worth every minute. But one thing we can’t change, the one thing we can’t fix, is the decimation of our families – the fact that we are alone. On the holidays, we are three.

Earlier this month, I spent two days at a symposium with the writer Tim O’Brien, a veteran of Vietnam. He went to the war because he was drafted, an average young man with no special talent or desire for war. But he was afraid to humiliate his family, especially his father, who was a veteran himself. All his life Tim O’Brien has wanted his father to approve of him, to understand him. Now, at age 63, he is a father for the first time, with two small sons, 4 and 6, whom he loves to distraction. This new development, fairly late in his life, has left him with a stunned look. The devotion and overwhelming love he feels for his boys has come as an utter shock to him. He is a changed man. He sees meaning where he used to see none. Now, his greatest worry is his age; that he will not be there for his boys when they reach adulthood; that he will not be there to counsel them and offer them the unconditional love he himself has never known.

I went to see my former Taekwondo master, Mr. Bill, last Tuesday. He is clinging to life by a thin, silvery thread. I try to see him at least once a week, but that was hard while I was on the road. I bring him lunch, sushi platters or Chinese delicacies. On the mornings of the days I plan to visit him, I am gripped by anxiety, by discomfort, by fear. I never can be sure of his condition. This fear is dispelled the minute I arrive at his warm, cozy apartment, which smells of the pine candles he burns. While his earthly body disintegrates, his aura seems to grow stronger and stronger, so that he practically glows. I never much believed in auras and any kind of physical manifestation of the spirit, but I do now. Mr. Bill used to have a walker to get from his armchair to the dining table, a question of a few feet, but now he is on prednisone, a steroid drug used mostly by arthritis patients. It gives him the shakes, but at least he can walk.

We sit across from each other at the small dining table and talk while we eat. He says this is only one realm of existence. He says death is in fact just a transition. He says the spirit is an arrow and when it is released, it is fired straight into God, which is the Center of all things. He will become one with the Universe, of this he is sure. But, he confesses, he still has moments of overwhelming fear. On Tuesday he said, “I’ve been afraid my whole life.”

I met him when he was in perfect physical condition, a Sixth Dan Black Belt at the Richard Chun Taekwondo School. He taught me from my first day, all the way through my Black Belt test. Even though he had cancer and was in great pain, he showed up. He showed up and taught us until he couldn’t anymore. Then he showed up and sat and watched while another master took the class. Then, finally, he could only muster up the strength to come to the dojang once a week. Now, we go to him. We take turns, or go in pairs.

“I’ve been afraid my whole life.” This was hard for me to ingest. He seemed so strong, so fearless. Someone who could recognize the truth from bullshit a mile away. He told me something I really never knew: The best years of his life were the five years he played minor league baseball, first in New Jersey, then down south. This was the old south of racism and segregation, where he could not sleep in the same hotel as his white teammates.

What he didn’t have, what the major league players have that he didn’t have, he said, was stamina. What he could do in the first inning, these guys can still do in the ninth. That was the difference. That is the difference between being average, and being truly great.

“You have an inquisitive mind,” he told me, “your mind is going all the time, asking questions.” I told him that very questioning is making it hard for me to live in a state of serenity. Worrying about the future, obsessing about the past, what I should’ve done differently. How I’m terrified about money; how I know I need a bigger apartment for my daughter, who is growing up and needs privacy. I think I am failing as a parent, because I can’t supply the things she thinks she wants.

“All you need to do is accept that everything is exactly as it is meant to be. All that judging of yourself, it serves no purpose. The only thing that matters is right now, this moment.”

And because I believe him, because he has honored me with the intimate and personal sharing of his slow, painful slipping away, in that moment, I feel nothing but peace and serenity. Unfortunately, by the next morning, I’m back to my low-grade depression, to my worrying about the future, and agonizing over the choices I’ve made in the past.

So today is Thanksgiving. I called Mr. Bill this morning and thanked him for allowing me to be a part of his life. For his words of wisdom that fill me with hope and awe. For our Thanksgiving feast, there will be three of us in our apartment that is too small. And so what? My life is full of love.

Posted in Blog | 7 Comments

Breakfast With the Marines

My friend Ray Elliott took me to his Wednesday morning Marine breakfast at Sammy’s in Champaign, IL. They stood up and clapped, even though my father was regular Army. I told them that one of my dad’s best friends, Eddie Morgan, had been a Marine. He’d joined at 17 and was part of the First Marine Division that landed on Guadalcanal in August 1942. Eddie always told my dad that what my dad had done was nothing — the Army came in after the Marines for a “clean-up” operation on Guadalcanal, a mere garden party compared to what the Marines had been through. One guy at the end of the table called out that his uncle had been there at Schoffield Barracks, just like my dad, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.

“The 25th Infantry Division,” I said. (I know my stuff).

Ray told me that the fellow to my left, Keith Eveland, was with the First Marine Division in Korea. The plates started arriving, each heaped so high with eggs, bacon, sausage, home fries, they could’ve fed an entire platoon. When Keith’s breakfast arrived he opened up the pepper shaker and dumped half the contents onto his eggs.

“Why don’t you just get the hot sauce from down the table?” I asked him.

“Don’t want to press my luck.”

When it was time to leave, he said, “We’re proud of you for what you’ve done with your legacy.”

Posted in Blog | 5 Comments

A memoir by the daughter of World War II novelist James Jones reveals the truth about her life with her father and the consequences of a mother-daughter relationship torn apart by miscommunication and alcoholism

A memoir by the daughter of World War II novelist James Jones reveals the truth about her life with her father and the consequences of a mother-daughter relationship torn apart by miscommunication and alcoholism

Kaylie Jones is the daughter of the award-winning World War II novelist James Jones (From Here to Eternity, The Thin Red Line). She grew up in the epicenter of the literary world. Her brilliant father and strikingly beautiful mother, Gloria, counted such luminaries as James Baldwin, William Styron, Norman Mailer, Mary McCarthy, Willie Morris, Irwin Shaw, and Kurt Vonnegut among their circle of friends. But hidden behind the family’s glamorous image were alcoholism and emotional abuse that would eventually threaten to destroy Kaylie.
In LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME (William Morrow, August 25, 2009), she explores her battle to conquer her own drinking problem, her efforts to honor a doting father who died much too young, and—most of all—her struggle to come to terms with an alcoholic mother capable of incredible generosity and astonishing cruelty.

Come listen to Kaylie Jones discuss
LIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME
in Monroe Township, NJ
Thursday, November 12th at 4 pm
at
Saint Peter’s Adult Day Center, 200 Overlook Drive
Refreshments and book signing
RSVP to reserve your spot: 609-655-6853

Posted in Front Page | Leave a comment