A Becoming First Lady

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I had mixed emotions while reading former First Lady Michelle Obama’s best-selling memoir Becoming. On the one hand, I was filled with admiration for the integrity, grace and determination Mrs. Obama has shown since her early days growing up on the South Side of Chicago, the child of blue collar workers who sacrificed everything to give their two children the best possible chance at a good life. On the other hand, I felt saddened and angry at how swiftly the improbable Obama ascendancy to the White House and the substantial progress made during Obama’s two terms in office are being dismantled and discarded by the Trump presidency.

Like many First Ladies before her, Michelle Obama was a reluctant political wife. Her main concerns as her husband campaigned first for state office, then U.S. senator, and finally for the highest office in the land were for her two daughters and their well-being. She strove to keep their lives as normal as possible and did not allow them to become pampered princesses in the White House. She also found a way to use her stature as First Lady to further the causes on which she had been spending her professional life before Barack Obama became president.

During the Obama presidency, the White House became a more inclusive and vibrant place. The many minority staff members were made to feel valued and important. Lesser known minority artists and regular citizens from less privileged backgrounds, especially children, were welcomed time and again to special events and to help with Mrs. Obama’s signature mission: helping children become healthier. Kids from a local school came regularly to tend to the giant fruit and vegetable garden initiated by the First Lady. They were able to enjoy the fruits of their labors quite literally with dishes made from the produce they harvested.

The crucible of political life was not always kind to the Obamas. Too often, mean-spirited antagonists criticized their looks, clothes, or gestures, looking for ways to cast them as “other” and not quite American. Even their teenage daughters were criticized for rightly finding the whole presidential Thanksgiving “turkey pardon” ludicrous.  Through it all, though, Michelle Obama kept her dignity and hope, reminding herself that the majority of Americans she had met in her life were good and compassionate people.

Reading Becoming made me nostalgic for a truly kindler and gentler administration. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the Obamas to relinquish the White House to the hateful man who had spent years questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship and had campaigned on a divisive, racist platform.

Still, I will take a page from Michelle Obama’s playbook and choose to be hopeful. I will choose to believe, as she clearly does, that we are all still in the process of becoming – hopefully, becoming better people bringing a better world for our children.

On Writing

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I’m currently reading Amy Tan’s newest book, Where the Past Begins: A Writer’s Memoir. In it, Tan describes the inner workings of her process as a writer. She details the struggles, the loneliness, the uncertainties that accompany a writer’s life.

I have always considered Amy Tan one of my most admired writers. Her stories of motherhood, childhood loss, and the Chinese experience are deeply moving and, it would appear, deeply felt by Tan herself. Indeed, she describes how her life experiences have informed her fiction, sometimes at a subconscious level.

It’s a writing cliche to say, “Write what you know.”  For Amy Tan, that dictum seems to hold true. While her stories play out in other times and places, the emotional themes of love and loss reflect the tragedies Tan experienced in her own life.

Over the past three years, I have merely dipped my toe into the writing life. My twice weekly blog posts have helped me express my beliefs, vent on politics, and, most importantly, delve into my past and present life experiences. Like Tan, my urge to write comes from a need to explore and make sense of the joys and tragedies in my life in order to understand myself better.

It also helps to realize that a successful and critically acclaimed writer such as Tan struggles mightily with her writing. She dissects every sentence and discards whole chapters – sometimes even whole novels – in an effort to write something worthwhile.

The writing life is a solitary and difficult one, one without many signposts to show the writer she is on the right path. In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield encourages artists to press ahead, creating and expressing themselves on a daily basis no matter what, knowing that the jewel of a good idea will emerge if we can push past resistance and feelings of inadequacy and inauthenticity.

As a new year approaches, I plan to use the insights of Amy  Tan to renew my writing efforts and to learn how to use adversity to inform my work in a deep and meaningful way.

Happy Anniversary

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A year ago today, I began this blog. Filled with excitement and determination, I declared to the blogosphere my decision to pursue my writing. Every week for the past year, I have written at least two blog posts, and as I have gotten used to that minor discipline, I have found it much easier to put my thoughts in writing.

I also began writing once a month for my hometown newspaper The Hinsdalean. Having come up with all kinds of ideas for blog posts has made it easy to find subjects for my column as well.

There have been failures and frustrations. One is that I have fallen off from daily work on my memoir. Doubt has crept into the process, and I feel certain what I have written is nothing but garbage. Today is a good day to recommit to the process. If you are a writer, I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. I think it might be time for me to revisit that wise book of advice for artists.

The one thing I am proudest of, however, is that I have ventured out into the public sphere with my own beliefs and opinions. I have tried to be as authentically me as I can be. If that is one of the goals of life, then I am on my way.

Thank you, readers, for taking the time to hear me out. I love getting comments, both here and on Facebook. And I look forward to sharing a part of myself with you in the year to come.

Was Blind, But Now I See

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In keeping with my theme this week of reviewing memoirs by friends of mine, I would like to mention another great read for your Labor Day weekend – Long Time, No See by Beth Finke.

Beth Finke and I were intrepid reporters and editors for our high school newspaper, the York-Hi. I fondly remember Sunday pasteup nights in a bygone era when we had to put together each page of the newspaper manually (a lost art in this digital age).

I learned early on that Beth had Type 1, or juvenile, diabetes, and that she took it in her stride as a teenager. It wasn’t until our ten-year high school reunion that I realized the terrible toll diabetes can take on an individual. In the class memory book, we were each invited to give an update on our lives. In Beth’s, I read, “I am busy learning to be a blind mother.” Although I knew blindness could be a side effect of diabetes, I was stunned to realize that my former classmate could no longer see.

Years later, I reconnected with Beth and discovered that she had continued to write and that she had penned both a children’s book about her disability entitled Hanni and Beth: Safe and Sound and a memoir with the cleverly named title Long Time, No See. Reading the book gave me a new window onto the world of my former classmate and, more importantly, into what was lost and gained by her blindness.

With humor and honesty, Beth chronicles the many hurdles she faced growing up with a life-threatening disease. She clearly illustrates the strength of her indomitable mother Flo as well as her own ups and downs coming to terms with her illness and her eventual succumbing to blindness. Beth’s adult life has been marked by job discrimination, infidelity, and caring for a severely disabled child. It has also been marked by love, determination, and the support of family and good friends, as well as her husband Mike.

I loved Long Time, No See, and I appreciate Beth’s willingness to share her story. It certainly opened my eyes about many things in life. I highly recommend that you give it a look.

For more information, go to bethfinke.com.

Good American Wives

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Susan Blumbeg Kason is an accomplished writer. She is also a friend of mine. Besides living in the same town, we both have Chinese children. Mine was adopted, but Susan’s was the product of her marriage to a Chinese national, a marriage that is at the center of her recently published memoir Good Chinese Wife

Good Chinese Wife is a clear-eyed portrait of a marriage gone wrong. In her memoir, Susan describes the infatuation with China and Chinese culture, as well as the youth and naiveté, that propelled her into a relationship with a man she hardly knew. The memoir has all the ingredients of a good book: a riveting, page-turner of a plot, well-drawn characters (a difficult feat when said characters are real people), and an unflinching honesty that shows her desperate attempts to make her marriage work as well as the bravery she exhibits in protecting her young son. The book premiered to critical acclaim, and as a writer myself who is currently working on a memoir, I can only hope I have the skills and especially the courage to look at myself and my life with such candor.

Another great memoir that details the unraveling of a marriage is a book by another friend, Margaret Overton. Margaret and I were high school classmates back in the never-you-mind!s. Her memoir Good In a Crisis has also received rave reviews since it was published in 2012. In it, Margaret describes the disintegration of her marriage, her near-death experience due to a brain aneurysm, and her life after divorce. Despite the fact that Margaret is tall, blond and drop dead gorgeous, she endures the most horrific dating experiences and subsequent down periods in her life. Although the book is at times laugh out loud funny, it is Margaret’s complete honesty that gives the book its meaning and authenticity. I am in awe of her talent and heart.

I highly recommend both Good In a Crisis and Good Chinese Wife to anyone looking for an honest, devastating,  but ultimately uplifting story of a woman in crisis.