Sometimes the past is too painful to write about

In honor of the 30th anniversary of the movie Back to the Future, I asked the writers in my memoir classes last week to think about their own family histories. “Write about where you’d like to travel back — or forward — to,” I told them. “And then, explain why.”

Many, many writers wanted to go back and observe their parents before marriage, and many shared old photographs of the relatives in their essays. Two brought props — a writer who wanted to be on a train with her Uncle Harry (he worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency) brought his cane along to class — complete with a stiletto hidden in the handle.

Another writer arrived in class with a mimeographed copy of a handwritten letter she’s inherited from the 1800s. “I’d like to go back in time and see how my great-great- grandfather Patrick here in America reacted to this letter from his mother in Ireland.” FromHer essay:

His mother’s handwriting is beautiful, and it looks like she wrote with a pen dipped in ink. Ink smudges on the pages make it difficult to read, but I think one line in the letter asks him for a lock of the children’s hair. Did he send her a lock of their hair?

Another line of the letter read, “I would have written before Christmas but waiting thinking that you would be up to your promise and as I did not hear from ye I promise you I had a lonesome Christmas.” Patrick’s great-great granddaughter wondered out loud in class Whether this letter made Patrick sad. “Did he feel guilty?” she asked in her essay. “Did Patrick ever see his dear mother again?”

Writer Marion Jackson wrote about the past, too, but it wasn’t easy for her.

Marion attends a writing class at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre in addition to our “Me, Myself and I” class at the Chicago Cultural Center, and she loves her creative life here in the city. “I’m glad you asked about my ancestors,” she wrote in an email to me after I gave the assignment. ”But it would be so painful going back for my history information, my families past of pain.”


Marion Jackson mustered the courage to take on her ancestors’ past.

Marion is African-American. Her ancestors were slaves here in America. The essay she brought to class acknowledges how heartwrenching it is for her to look back at what her ancestors went through to have her end up in America, how they were treated when they arrived here, how they “endured unmentionable, evil unbelievable forms of punishment and torture and were systematically separated from their families.”

Our ancestors helped in the building and the feeding of America. Working, building, slaving in the field cooking and cleaning, making the slave owner wealthy, they had all the profit, pleasure and comfort, all the slaves had was the pain of labor.

Marion points out that after the Civil War, most former slaves had no financial resources, property, residence, or education. “Not having an education for 300 years, they could not read and understand the reconstruction policies,” she writes.  “To this day… there has been no compensation, no retribution, not even an apology. The unfairness and injustice angers me.”

Conversation after Marion’s reading focused more on history and reparations than on writing memoirs. Ninety-four-year-old Wanda was eight years old when her great-grandmother died. “She told us stories of what slavery was like,” Wanda said, almost in a whisper. “I just can’t go there, I can’t write about it.” Before we went on to hear from the next writer in class, I asked Marion how it felt to write her essay. “It didn’t help with anything,” she said with a sigh. “I want people to know this, but it makes me angry to write it down.”

After class was over, I asked Marion if I could share excerpts from her essay with my blog readers this week. “I’d be honored,” she said. Marion doesn’t realize that we are the honored ones, having the opportunity to hear stories from her life every week in class — and now here, on this blog. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, and I am so grateful that my complicated life journey landed me where I am now, leading these memoir-writing classes. Every week is a history lesson.

The class Marion and Wanda attends meets in downtown Chicago this morning, where ddemonstrators have taken to the streets to protest the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, an African-American teenager who was shot by Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke 16 times in October of 2014. I’d been expecting a low turnout in class due to the holiday, but now I wonder if writers might make a special effort to be there to talk together about the release of a video of the shooting — and the Cook County State Attorney’s decision to pursue a first degree murder charge against Van Dyke.

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Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day, and I am so grateful that my compllicated life journey landed me where I am now, leading these memoir-writing classes. Happy Thanksgiving to all you memoir writers who share your life stories in my classes. Every week is a history lesson.

Mondays with Mike: Southern Nights

Allen Toussaint and the President after Toussaint received the Medal of Honor for the Arts, 2013.

Allen Toussaint and the President after Toussaint received the Medal of Honor for the Arts, 2013.

It’s been a blur of a week so today’s post, forgive me, will be short and may be a little splintered.

  • I spent most of last week in Washington, D.C., starting with a gargantuan conference and trade show called Greenbuild. The organization I work for —PHIUS—exhibited there, and my colleagues and I staffed the booth. My feet still hurt and my voice is recovering. But it was a good show for us, and I’m especially proud that PHIUS Executive Director Katrin Klingenberg won a Women in Sustainability Leadership award from Green Building & Design magazine. She had some pretty good company, and she belonged.
  • Managed to squeeze in a visit to our friends Pick and Hank in Northern Virginia at the end of the week. Beth was supposed to join us, but the snow in Chicago grounded her flight and she didn’t make it for the night. But I still had a swell time.
  • Of course, the ISIS story is ongoing and I continue, like pretty much everyone, to follow it. And to look for context and a better understanding. Found lots of good stuff, including this one in the Independent. The article isn’t exactly calming, but is informative in terms of the history of the region, and the history of the borders. Those borders were drawn not by the residents of the region, but by Western powers after World War I. Worth the time.

Finally, something that sort of got lost in the aftermath of the Paris attacks was the death of Allen Toussaint, a one-of-a-kind songwriter and musician. His catalog includes everything from Working in a Coal Mine to What do You Want the Girl (or Boy, when Bonnie Raitt sings it) to Do to Fortune Teller to Southern Nights (yeah, that pop song Glen Campbell sang). Beth and I were fortunate to see Toussaint perform a slew of his songs at the Old Town School of Folk Music a few years back—just a wonderful performance, and he told some lovely stories between numbers.

One of them was about the aforementioned Southern Nights. About why he wrote it, what it reminded him of. And then he performed it—no offense to Glen Campbell, but it’s a completely different song when Toussaint performs it.

He told that same story during an interview with Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot on their Sound Opinions radio show last year. If you want a treat, download the interview here. You’ll be forced to listen to a public radio supported by message when the program first downloads—but it’s brief. Once it ends, if you want to skip straight to the story about Southern Nights, go to the 47:30 mark and keep listening. It’s a compelling tale of how his childhood memories inspired the song. Followed by a beautiful performance.

If you can find the time, though, listen to the full interview. A whole lot of joy and beauty and essence of New Orleans float in Allen Toussaint’s voice and his music.

Having been able to see him perform live is one of the myriad wonderful things I’ll be thanking my lucky stars for this Thursday.

Have a great Thanksgiving, y’all.

Time out for Seeing Eye dogs

That's Ray mugging for the camera.

That’s Ray mugging for the camera.

Realizing I wouldn’t be able to see when his schoolfriends raised their hands to ask questions, my six-year-old great nephew Ray volunteered to help me call on kids in all three of the first-grade classes we visited at his school yesterday. All of the first-graders at Westmore Elementary had read Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound before Whitney and I arrived, and that meant they had time to come up with some pretty thoughtful questions. Examples:

  • What kind of dog food does your dog eat?
  • How can your write a book if you can’t see?
  • How do you drive when you’re blind?
  • Can you get that thing on her back off of her by yourself?
  • What if you’re with your dog and you bump into something?
  • When your dog isn’t there with you, how can you see?
  • What does the safety pin do? (This after I’d said I put a safety pin on the tag inside anything I wear that is black)
  • What happens if your dog gets distracted?

Whitney was as spirited as the students we were visiting, so we answered that last question with actions rather than words. After she flipped to her back (with her harness on) to beg the kids for a belly rub, she popped up to lick a first-grader in the front row. Time for her seven-step obedience ritual:

  1. “Whitney, sit!” She sat.
  2. “Whitney, down!” I pointed to the ground, and even though she uttered a huge groan while she did it, she managed to lie down.
  3. “Whitney, sit!” She popped back up.
  4. “Whitney, heel!” I held her leash, walked four steps forward while she walked along at my side.
  5. “Whitney, sit!” She sat.
  6. “Whitney, rest.” I stood in front of her, put my palm up in front of her nose for a second, walked backwards away from her, and she didn’t make a move.
  7. “Good girl, Whitney!” That’s what I said when I returned to her side.

When the obedience routine was over, one first-grader exclaimed, “It’s like a time out!” We had a ball at Westmore School, and as I write this post, Whitney is enjoying a real time out: she’s fast asleep under my desk.

Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art — Goin’ in Blind

A11Y_allHere’s a statement you don’t hear every day from a blind blogger: I spent a morning last week at an art museum. I wasn’t the only blind person at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art that day, either.  Sina Bahram was there, too.

I met Museum of Contemporary Art’s ‎Chief Content Officer Susan Chun in early September when she and I both spoke at “Greater Together,” Chicago’s first Cultural Accessibility Summit. The Museum of Contemporary Art had hired Sina Bahram to help them design an accessible website, she mentioned Sina’s work during her talk, and she sought me out afterwards to invite me to meet him the next time he visited Chicago.

Sina Bahram is the founder of Prime Access Consulting (PAC), a consulting firm that works with museums all over North America so that all visitors, including those with disabilities, can access the facilities and appreciate what’s inside.

Sina has had a visual impairment since he was born. When he was little, he used to get really close to his older brother’s computer screen and squint. “But that didn’t really work out so well!” Today he uses a screen reader, and he’s working on a Ph.D. in computer science in human computer interaction at North Carolina State.

The tagline for Sina’s company is “Innovation through passion, technology, and universal design,” and Sina’s own passion for the subject really comes through when you meet him.

“My company has a deep belief that making things accessible starts with universal design,” he told me, explaining that they don’t start a project thinking about how to make a building or a website accessible for people who have visual impairments or mobility impairments or another specific group. “We want to help our clients to design — and create — things that can be enjoyed by all users.”

I would have thought that designing a site for the Museum of Contemporary Art, where they especially want to show off the beauty of their artwork and exhibits, would be difficult. But Sina says that’s because of this commonly held belief that if something is accessible it can’t be pretty or creative, it has to be ugly and boring.

That is wrong, and spreading that myth can harm everybody from designers and developers to users. Sina says you can make anything simultaneously beautiful and accessible, and you can see, ahem, that for yourself now: Museum of Contemporary Art unveiled its new website a week ago using Coyote, a toolkit and project to create and publish visual descriptions of all of the images on the Museum of Contemporary Art’s site.

And that’s a lot of images!

The Coyote software was developed by Sina Bahram’s team at Prime Access Consulting, and it’s an open source tool. Staff members from all across the museum used Coyote to produce image descriptions that allow people who are blind or have visual impairments to “engage more fully with the visual arts.” Check it out.

A version of this blog post appeared Monday, November 16, 2015 on the Easter Seals national blog.

Mondays with Mike: Mightier than the sword      

This past weekend Beth and I took in a movie at an honest-to-goodness movie theater where we shared a bag of movie popcorn. This is something we do infrequently and with some care—that is, we have to have confidence that the film will be dialog heavy, to the point where Beth can follow on her own. I can freeze and annotate a movie aloud at home fine, but not so much at the theater.

We chose well.

The new movie Spotlight has been getting rave reviews, and I can happily say that it more than lives up to the kudos. Some of the subject matter is difficult to be sure—it involves the Boston Globe’s investigation of priests abusing children, and the Catholic Church’s systematic and diabolical cover-up. But the movie is not prurient or sensational in any way. Instead, it tells a riveting and ultimately satisfying—if somber—story of how important good journalism is, and how difficult it is.

One of the cartoons posted by Hebdo cartoonist Joann Sfar posted on his Instagram feed.

One of the cartoons posted by Hebdo cartoonist Joann Sfar posted on his Instagram feed.

If you liked All the President’s Men, you’ll love this. If you just like good filmmaking, you’ll love it. (Writer/Director Tom McCarthy has some interesting Chicago history.) Great writing. Great acting. Two thumbs and two big toes up.

Besides reminding of the critical role the press plays in a democratic society, the movie honestly points out that, by the same token, when the Fourth Estate fails, there are consequences. In the wake of horrific events like those that played out in France, the press can get caught up in the emotions of the moment, feed nationalism and jingoistic tendencies— for example, the failed coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war.

Or it can keep its collective head and play a healthy role.

Right now, there’s a little of both out there. But it’s been gratifying to run into some thoughtful work—for instance, several writers have pointed out that terror attacks also ravaged Beirut, Kenya, Iraq—and let’s not forget that Russian Airliner.

Here are three items I found particularly helpful in trying to sort things out, and I hope you’ll give them a read and that you find them useful:

This piece by Charles Pierce in Esquire points out the elephant in the Mideast: generous funding of ISIS and other terror groups that comes from nations that are labeled as Western allies. Pearce cites documents from Wikileaks indicating that the State Department has been urging that we persuade these “allies” to clamp down on terror funding for some time. Apparently to no avail. (H/T to our friend Dean Fischer, who shared this on Facebook.)

Speaking of Wikileaks and whistle blowers, a predictable meme in the Paris aftermath has been the efforts by some to try to blame Edward Snowden and his leaks for the attacks. It’s total rot, as this piece by Glenn Greenwald makes clear. The story also raises some serious questions—at least some of the attackers were on intelligence radar, but still they prevailed.

And the most poignant, inspiring and emotionally clarifying thing I saw was an article in the British Independent. The article excerpted and translated images and comments from a Charlie Hebdo who posted on Instagram after Friday night’s awfulness. (H/T to Chuck Miller.) For one thing, the drawings and commentary signaled that the courageous and talented people at Charlie Hebdo are still at it.For another, apart from policy issues, this artwork manages to communicate some inspiration and resoluteness—and even a bit of joy. I hope you’ll give the drawings and the translated messages a look.

Here’s a taste from the cartoonist who loves his city and culture:

For centuries lovers of death have tried to make us lose life’s flavour.

They never succeed.

Those who love. Those who love life. In the end, they’re always the ones who are rewarded.

Mel’s three songs

On Friday WBEZ (Chicago Public Radio) invited writer Mel Washburn and me to their studio to talk about the Sum Up Your Life in Three Songs assignment I gave to my Chicago memoir-writing classes last week. Mel is in the Monday class I lead for Lincoln Park Village. During the interview, Morning Edition host Tony Sarabia played excerpts from songs Mel had chosen and had him explain how he’d narrowed his choices down to three. If you heard us on the radio Friday — or listen to the interview online later –you might enjoy reading Mel’s entire essay about his three songs. Here it is:

Three Songs = My Life (A Memoir)

by Mel Washburn

I don’t play a musical instrument. I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. But I love to listen to music. And my tastes in music have changed from time to time, reflecting, I think, changes in the way I feel about the world around me.

During the 1960’s, my favorite song was Bob Dylan’s Masters of War, which he sang while accompanying himself on guitar and harmonica. His voice was raw, angry, and accusatory as he sang:

Come you Masters of War,
You that build all the guns,
You that build the death planes,
You that build the big bombs…
Like Judas of Old, you lie and deceive
A world war can be won, you want me to believe,
But I see through your eyes,
And I see through your brain,
Like I see through the water,
That runs through my drain.

Dylan exactly expressed my thoughts and my feelings about the powerful men who were in charge of our nation’s war economy, the men who had orchestrated the nuclear arms race and the genocidal war in Viet Nam. Like Dylan, I wanted to see them trampled and defeated.

After George McGovern lost the 1972 election in a landslide to the perfidious Richard Nixon, it seemed that the Masters had won. I was tired of feeling angry. My favorite musician became Ry Cooder. In five albums released during the seventies, he made versatile use of electric guitars, horns, strings, backup vocals, piano, etcetera to record unusual and expressive arrangements of traditional blues, calypso, gospel and country songs. One of my favorites was the 1930’s How Can You Keep On Moving? which spoke for the Okies, who were harassed by cops and vigilantes as they travelled west to escape the Dust Bowl:

How can you keep on moving unless you migrate too?
They tell you to keep on moving, but migrate you must not do.
Yet the only reason for moving and the reason why I roam,
Is to move to a new location and find myself a home.

Ry Cooder gave this song a bouncy marching rhythm, accompanied by slide guitar, drums and horns. Yet he sang it in a hopeless, mournful voice. This ironic use of traditional materials to comment on the fundamental absurdities of life, without preaching and with a sort of resignation, mirrored my thoughts about the world at the time.

In the 1980’s, I began listening to orchestral and chamber music. One of my favorite pieces is Ralph Vaughn Williams’ ethereal, hopeful violin concerto called The Lark Ascending. Though commentators routinely try to express the ideas expressed in pieces like Lark Ascending, to me their value is that they allow you to experience profound emotions without being tied to ideas.

Recently, however, I find my tastes rounding back on themselves. In the ten years since our government began its Global War on Terror, I have often returned to the ideas and feelings that long ago made Masters of War my favorite music.

Can you sum up your life in three songs?

Chicago Public Radio (WBEZ) is asking listeners and on-air guests to sum up their lives in three songs. This past week I asked writers in the four memoir classes I lead here in Chicago to take on this challenge as well.

The WBEZ web site acknowledges that limiting your lifespan to three songs may not be easy, but could be fun. It suggests you pick three songs from different periods in your life, or maybe three tracks that simply sum up who you are. For my memoir classes, I asked writers to give a short explanation of why their three songs sum up who they are. Many writers spelled out the lyrics to the songs, and in class, some even sang them.

Ninety-four-year-old Wanda wrote that God Bless the Child reminds her of growing up during the depression on Chicago’s South Side. She said she could especially relate to the part where Billie Holiday sings, “Rich relations give, Crust of bread and such, You can help yourself, But don’t take too much.” These days Wanda likes listening to Dinah Washington’s What a Difference a Day Makes. “I went to high school with Ruthie Jones,” she laughs. “That was her name before she changed it to Dinah Washington.”

Wanda’s fellow writer Nancy grew up on a farm in Central Illinois, left for Chicago to attend Northwestern University, and stayed here after graduation to teach elementary school. Her love for Broadway musicals influenced her selections.

Nancy chose Oh What a Beautiful Morning from Oklahoma for her years on the farm, and the line “If you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught,” in the song Getting to Know You (from The King and I) inspired her to choose that to represent her 34 years as a teacher. “The little hint of romance between Anna and the King of Siam also reminded me of those years,” she explained. ”I loved visiting the bars and restaurants in the area and perhaps hoping for a little romance.” Nancy’s entire essay is posted on the Beth’s Class blog — You’ll have to go there to see what she chose for her third song.

Only a handful of tunes were chosen by more than one writer. Two writers summed up their retirement years with the Beatles song Let it Be, two young women (they’re not even 70 years old yet!) chose Helen Reddy’s I am Woman, and two other writers chose Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Trouble Water for their young adult years.

Two writers chose Patty Page’s Tennessee Waltz, too, but for entirely different reasons. One remembered lying on her older sister’s bed and feeling grown up while listening to Tennessee Waltz on a transistor radio in their shared room. The other remembered The Tennessee Waltz as a song she danced to in college with her first love. “It was our song,” she wrote. “But it didn’t last forever.”

Bob was one of many writers who had Chicago (My Kind of Town) on their lists, but his reasoning for picking that Frank Sinatra tune was a bit different from the others who chose it: the line “Chicago is why I grin like a clown, it’s my kind of town” makes him think of an uncle and aunt he lived with when he was a teenager.

“Uncle Morrie worked as a circus clown at Riverview Park, where he roamed the park and entertained the crowds.” Bob’s aunt Sylvia worked there, too. “She worked at an amusement stand where she wore a bathing suit and sat at the top of a long slick slide, waiting for people to pay their dime and throw 3 balls at a target. Whenever anyone hit the bullseye, it would release Aunt Sylvia, and she’d slide down the sleek slide and hand you a box of candy.” And that’s exactly how Bob’s Uncle Morrie met his Aunt Sylvia. “Uncle Morrie walked up, played his dime, and hit the bullseye with the 1st ball,” Bob wrote. ”Aunt Sylvia slid down the slide, handed him a box of candy, and that was it. It was an immediate attraction for both of them.”

Jim and Mary Katherine “Kathy” Zartman.

Writer Mary Katherine opted for three songs no one else in class chose:

  1. I’ve Got the World on a String
    “From the distance of many decades, I consider my childhood and early adulthood as secure, generally happy and optimistic. And after adolescence, I seemed to be in love, intermittently, with one man after another.”
  2. Oh, Mary, Don’t You Weep
    Mary Katherine eventually married the man of her dreams, and for a while the two of them had the world on a string. “Euphoria didn’t last, of course,” she wrote. “There were some staggering body blows to our world. Some of it had to be concealed, so nobody knew the full extent of our challenges.”
  3. September Song — based on a familiar poetic metaphor that compares a year to a person’s life span from birth to death – describes Mary Katherine’s life now. “For me, the romantic commitment to spend precious days with a loved one is easy to expand into spending our last precious days with all those we care about, for example spending precious days with friends in a memoir class.”

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