The ProsenPeople

Best Friends

Monday, January 12, 2015 | Permalink

Lesléa Newman is the author of 60 books including A Letter to Harvey Milk, Nobody's Mother, Hachiko Waits, Write from the Heart, The Boy Who Cried Fabulous, The Best Cat in the World, and Heather Has Two Mommies. Her most recent book, I Carry My Mother, is now available. She is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

“My cello is my oldest friend, my dearest friend.” – Pablo Casals

My pencil is my oldest friend, my dearest friend. We met when my family moved from a 60-unit apartment house in Brooklyn to a four-bedroom house on Long Island. I was eight years old and my world was shattered. In Brooklyn, I could walk to school, Aunt Gussie’s Candy Shop, Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes, and most importantly, to my grandmother’s apartment across the street for a kiss on the keppie and a nosh (her homemade blintzes were to die for). In my Long Island suburban neighborhood, there was nowhere to go. Nothing was in walking distance, and my mother, born and bred in Brighton Beach, had not yet learned to drive. After the bus dropped me off at the end of the school day, I was stuck in the house. The hours between then and the time my father came home from his office in the city and supper was served were endless. My mother watched what she called her stories—“As The World Turns” and “All My Children”—in the living room. My brothers played stickball in the street. And I retreated to my bedroom with a stack of books.

One day, having read everything I had carted home from the school library, I picked up a pencil and began to write. What emerged onto the pages of my black-and-white composition notebook was a long, sad story about a dog being hit by a car. Somehow I knew I needed to make myself cry over all I had lost: my friends, my neighborhood, my independence, a teacher I had especially loved, proximity to my adored and adoring grandmother. The little fluffy dog I killed off in my story was my ticket to my own grief. Alone in my room, I could cry over him, which I did both as I wrote the story and as I read it afterwards. And then strangely, I felt much better. And thus a writer was born.

My pencil kept me company through a lonely childhood, a difficult adolescence, and my tumultuous twenties when I struggled with an eating disorder. I never wrote because I had something to say. I always wrote to see what I had to say. And to this day, I do not write to be understood. I write to understand. Writing is how I make sense of the world: the world inside me, the world outside me, and the relationship between the two.

Though half a century has passed since I wrote the story of the little dog, in many ways I am still that sad little girl who uses her writing to make herself cry. This was especially evident two years ago when I found myself back in my childhood bedroom, having returned to take care of my mother who was suffering from two deadly diseases brought on by her lifelong love affair with nonfiltered Chesterfield Kings: bladder cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). My mother was one tough rugeleh and she expected everyone around her to be tough as well. She insisted that she was fine and didn’t need help, even when her face clenched tight as a fist and she moaned in pain. (“I’m not moaning, I’m kvetching.”) One day, we struck a deal: she promised to tell me the truth about her illness—clearly she was not “fine”—if I promised not to cry. And once again I kept my feelings bottled up until I could creep upstairs to my bedroom where my pencil—my oldest friend, my dearest friend—awaited me. Every night for four weeks, I tucked my mother into the hospital bed we had set up in the living room, cleared away dishes of food she had no appetite for, shut the light, and tiptoed up the stairs. And there in my room, after I sobbed into my pillow so she wouldn’t hear me, I picked up my pencil and wrote a triolet, which is a French poetic form that contains a specific rhyme scheme and repetition pattern.

Why did I choose such a rigid form to write about my mom’s impending death? I didn’t pick the form; the form picked me. Like an old, dear friend, my pencil instinctively knew what I needed to get me through a time that was simply unbearable. The unyielding structure of the triolet not only held my poems together, it held me together. Focusing on rhythm, rhyme, repetition, and line breaks brought me closer to my own grief and distanced me from it at the same time. As I wrote—and rewrote and rewrote—the same words and phrases became a bell of sorrow resounding deep inside me, forcing me to confront what I so desperately wanted to deny. At the same time, focusing on form and struggling with the challenge of fitting all I was feeling into 8-line stanzas with a prescribed pattern, gave me some distance from my emotions which offered a temporary respite from the deepest sadness I have ever known. Writing in this way took a lot of concentration. My pencil knew I had to use my head to pour out my heart. Like a true friend, my pencil saw what I needed and found a way to give it to me.

She was just here and now she’s just gone
In a New York minute I lost my mother
How can the rest of the world carry on?
She was just here and now she’s just gone
On whose loving breast will my head rest upon?
I’ll search all of my life but I won’t find another
She was just here and now she’s just gone
In a New York minute I lost my mother

Excerpted from “The Deal” © 2015 Lesléa Newman from I Carry My Mother, Headmistress Press, Sequim, Washington, 2015. Reprinted by permission of the author.

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October Mourning and Tikkun Olam

Wednesday, October 03, 2012 | Permalink

Lesléa Newman is the author of 60 books including her most recent book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. She is blogging here today for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

“And you shall lay down, and no man shall terrify you….” Whenever I stand up in shul on Shabbat and recite those words from the prayer for peace, I am transported back in time to 1998, and across many miles to Laramie, Wyoming.

It was October, and I was all set to travel out west as the keynote speaker for Gay Awareness Week at the University of Wyoming. My bags were packed, and my speech was written. “Heather’s Mommy Speaks Out: Homophobia, Censorship, and Family Values” focused on the difficulties I had in getting my book Heather Has Two Mommies published, and how important it is for every child to see a family like his or hers reflected in a piece of literature. As a Jew growing up in the 1950’s, I knew what it was like to read books about children trimming the Christmas tree and looking for the Easter bunny. Books like Sammy Spider’s First Hanukkah and A Mezuzah on the Door had not yet been written. Growing up without seeing a family like mine in a book or movie or on a TV show made me feel like I didn’t belong. There was no place for me.

As a child, I couldn’t articulate my need to see someone like myself reflected back at me by the culture at large, let alone do something about it. As an adult, I could write books for children whose families were considered “different” so that they did not feel so alone.

But two days before I was to step on the plane, Jim Osborn, the head of the University of Wyoming’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Student Group called. He told me his friend Matthew Shepard, who was also a member of the LGBT group, had been kidnapped, robbed, beaten mercilessly, tied to a fence, and left to die. He was discovered 18 hours later by a biker, and was now in the hospital, in a coma. Jim knew that Matt being attacked right before Gay Awareness Week started was not a coincidence. “I would understand it if you wanted to cancel your appearance,” Jim said to me.

The words that flashed through my mind were: If I am not for myself, who am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? Jim seemed to think that any speech I could give would have a healing effect on his community. As a Jew, I take the job of tikkun olam very very seriously. So I told Jim that I had every intention of being there.

A few days later, as I gave my speech, my eyes kept wandering to an empty seat in the front row of the auditorium. I pictured Matthew Shepard sitting there. I had seen his picture in the newspaper. I knew he had been on the planning committee for Gay Awareness Week. I knew he had planned on being at my presentation. Instead he had died that very morning, killed by two men who hated him merely because he was gay.

I have always felt that the pen is mightier than the sword. And so I wrote an essay called “Imagine” in honor of Matthew Shepard and have read it aloud to start off every college presentation I have given since my trip to Laramie. But I knew there was more that I could do. In the past few years, many young people who were bullied for being perceived as being gay had taken their own lives. How to stop the bullying and the suffering? What more could I do? As a published author, I had a voice that people listened to. With this gift comes an obligation. Tikkun Olam. The responsibility of repairing the world.

On the tenth anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder, members of the Tectonic Theatre project, who had gone out to Laramie right after Matt’s murder to conduct interviews to create their theatre piece, The Laramie Project, returned to interview the people of Laramie once more. On the eleventh anniversary of Matt’s death, I attended a performance of The Laramie Project—Ten Years Later: An Epilogue. That night I couldn’t sleep. The words of my mentor, Grace Paley, echoed through my mind: Write what you know you don’t know about what you know. I knew a lot about what had happened to Matthew Shepard. I also knew there was a lot that I didn’t know. And so I picked up my pen. Immediately, a thought entered my brain: use your imagination to create fictional monologues from the silent witnesses of the crime, like the fence, the moon, the wind, and the stars. That’s crazy, I thought to myself. But then I remembered the words of another of my mentors, Allen Ginsberg: first thought, best thought. And with that in mind, I let the words flow out of my pen.

I knew that I would never know what happened to Matt that night. He wasn’t around to tell me. And the two men who killed him have recounted the events in ways that contradicted each other. Even if I could speak to them, I could not rely upon them to tell the truth. And so, I called upon the silent witnesses of the hate crime to tell me what they knew: the truck Matt was kidnapped in, the fence he was tied to, the moon that looked down upon him, the deer that kept him company all through the night. I trusted my imagination to create these fictitious monologues, to tell me what I knew I didn’t know. I wrote 67 poems that explore the impact of Matt’s murder, but when I came to the end of the narrative, I felt something was missing. The book was intended for a teen audience, too young to remember Matt Shepard. How to end such a book without devastating my young readers?

I knew the only way to find out how to end the book was to return to Laramie. Jim Osborn took me around town, to the bar from which Matt was abducted, to the courthouse where his murderers stood trial, and finally to the site where Matt had been beaten and abandoned. I stood at the fence, and hoping G-d would understand, counted the ground, the sky, the wind, two hawks that flew overhead, a pile of snow, several tufts of grass, and myself as a minyan in order to say Kaddish for Matthew Shepard. I placed a stone from my own garden on the fence to show that someone had been there and that Matt had not been forgotten. I sang “Oseh Shalom” with tears streaming down my cheeks, and when I got on the plane to return home, the last poem of the book came to me. Of course the book had to end with a prayer. A prayer for a better world. For all of us.

PILGRIMAGE

The land was sold and a new fence now stands
about fifty yards away. People still come to pay
their respects. - Jim Osborn, friend of Matthew Shepard


I walk to the fence with beauty before me
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want

I walk to the fence with beauty behind me
Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash

I walk to the fence with beauty above me
Om Mani Padme Hum

I walk to the fence with beauty below me
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit

I reach the fence surrounded by beauty
wail of wind, cry of hawk

I leave the fence surrounded by beauty
sigh of sagebrush, hush of stone

OCTOBER MOURNING: A SONG FOR MATTHEW SHEPARD. Copyright © 2012 by Lesléa Newman.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.

Passover Giveaway!

Friday, March 23, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Looking for a great afikomen gift? Well, we've got it. It's Lesléa Newman's newest book, A Sweet Passover, which features Miriam, who is "sick, sick, sick, of matzah," until she learns "why we eat unleavened bread during the eight days of Passover"...

We're giving away one signed copy of A Sweet Passover, which you can win by posting your favorite Passover recipe below (or a link to one), a link to your favorite Passover recipe on Twitter using hashtag #JBCBooks, or on our Facebook page. A winner will be chosen at random on Tuesday, March 27th. 

And, to get the juices flowing, we've included the recipe for "The Best Matzoh Brei in the World," as told to the author by her father:

This is a fun meal to make with the help of an adult. Always make sure an adult helps you when you are cutting items and using the stove or other hot surface.

This recipe makes one large matzah brei.

Ingredients:

7 pieces of matzah
warm water
3 eggs
¼ cup milk
pinch of salt (optional)
2 tbsp butter

toppings such as applesauce, sugar and cinnamon, maple syrup, sour cream, and salt and pepper

Utensils:

Large mixing bowl
Small mixing bowl
2 large plates
fork or whisk
measuring cup
mixing spoon
frying pan
spatula
knife

Break up seven pieces of matzah into small pieces and soak in warm water in the large bowl for one minute. Then drain by covering the bowl with a large plate and tipping it to let the excess water run out.

Using the fork or whisk, beat three eggs together in the small bowl with the milk and a pinch of salt (optional), and then add this mixture to the crumbled, drained matzah. Mix together well.

In a large frying pan, melt the butter

Pour the matzah brei mixture into the frying pan. Spread it out evenly so that it resembles a large pancake. Cover and cook over a very low heat for about ten minutes, until crisp and brown on one side (raise the edge of the matzah brie with a spatula to check if it’s crisp and brown).

When the matzah brei is cooked on one side, turn it over by placing the other large plate over the pan and then flipping the whole thing over. While the matzah brei is on the plate, add more butter to the frying pan, if necessary. Then slide the matzah brei from the plate back into the pan to cook the other side. Again, cover and cook over very low heat for about ten minutes.

When the second side of the matzah brei is crisp and brown, it is done. Cut into wedges and serve with applesauce, sugar and cinnamon, maple syrup, sour cream, or salt and pepper. Essen In gezunt!