Posts Tagged 'Chicago Cultural Center'

Wanda & Hanna: Feeling the Illinois frost

The memoir-writing class I teach for senior citizens at the Chicago Cultural Center was cancelled on Feb. 2 due to the blizzard. You know, I’ve seen other winters, and I’ve made it through, but this one doesn’t seem the same. After a phone call to Flo to make sure she was doing alright, I dialed Wanda’s number to see if she was weathering the storm, too.

This is what our street looked like on the night of the blizzard. (Photo courtesy Lora Delestowicz-Wierzbowski, friend, neighbor, White Sox fan and artist.)

My regular blog readers know Wanda from some of her essays I’ve excerpted here. When she heard my voice on the phone, she excused herself to turn down the radio. “I’m tired of hearing all those people calling in anyway,” she said. “All they’re doing is complaining about their long waits for the bus or the train, or the way the city didn’t shovel their street.” Wanda is 88 years old, and she is not a complainer. She credits her own upbeat attitude to her hardworking mother and her beloved uncle, Hallie B. “Hallie B. always told me that people who sit and mope with their head in their hands, well, they never see the good things coming their way.” When I asked her to describe the storm to me, she started out by using her favorite four-syllable word. “Bee-you-tee-Full.”

Wanda has lived in more than 50 different apartments or houses in her lifetime. Her mother was a “domestic” and had to leave Wanda every Sunday to take off and live at the houses she took care of. Wanda lived with one relative one week, a friend the next, and sometimes, with complete strangers. “I tell you, Beth” she said to me once. “I could tell you stories about growing up that would make the hair curl on a bald man’s head.”

These days Wanda lives alone, perched in a small apartment in a South Side high-rise that overlooks Lake Michigan. She writes her essays for class while sipping on coffee, looking out her kitchen window and watching the birds and boats on the lake. “There was absolutely no horizon during the storm,” she told me. “The sky was white, the ground was white, the lake was white. Like someone had draped a fuzzy white blanket over my window.”

Wanda woke up at 3 a.m. the night of the storm and sat staring out of her window for hours. She’d never seen anything like it. It was stunning. “I drank coffee until I was drunk!” she laughed. “It was Bee You Tee Full!”

My regular blog readers are also familiar with Hanna, the oldest student in our writing class. Hanna turned 91 in January and plowed through the snow with Speedo, her walker, to make it back to class last Wednesday. “He doesn’t like the snow,” Hanna admitted. “But he got me here.” She brought an essay she’d written about the blizzard, and I’m excerpting from it here :

The snow muffled the sounds. The silence is stunning. The view is interesting, the ice shelf hugs the shoreline totally, the lake is miles away. It’s all white as far as I can see. Almost blinding. The trees stick out and relieve the monotone, the shoreline and Belmont harbor are clearly defined, but all white. The sky is light gray. I wish I could paint this totally deserted moonscape with nothing moving, the gray sky just a few shades darker. 

And of course, by writing this essay, Hanna had painted the landscape for us. She just used a pen rather than a brush. I walked home after class with a spring in my step. The Yaktracks on my feet were working, Harper could guide at full speed, and Wanda and Hanna’s positive words were helping me look at snow in a different way.

Once home safe & sound I found a message in my inbox that lifted my spirits even higher. You might recall that Francine Rich, my publisher at Blue Marlin Publications was so moved after reading excerpts of Hanna’s writing here on my blog that she volunteered to collect and format all of Hanna’s essays for her. Francine is making sure she sticks with Hanna’s original text but is making all necessary grammatical changes and, in some cases, renaming the stories.

All this work is taking Francine longer than she had anticipated. The email message that made me so happy came from Hanna, she’d heard from Francine. Three files had been formatted that morning, and the task had taken Francine a little over an hour to complete. From Francine’s note to Hanna:

There are 83 files. If I try to devote an hour a day to this, it should take me about four weeks to complete the process. So I figure I’ll be done about mid-March.

This is such a generous, generous gesture on Francine’s part. Thanks to Francine, Hanna will have all her essays organized, formatted and ready to send out to agents and publishers before her 92nd birthday. “I’m having fun with it,” Francine wrote in her note to Hanna. “And may even surprise you with the end results…”. If all those agents and publishers out there are too dimwitted to take on Hanna’s book, it will already be formatted. Hanna and/or her family can self-publish.

All you Hanna Bratman fans out there get ready to stand in line. I predict a trail around the corner and down the block at her first book signing.

Visual art for the visually impaired

I like art openings. Wine and cheese is a favorite combo of mine, and art events make for entertaining eavesdropping.

The "Finster Family Picture" clock, from the collection of Glen C. Davies and Sandra Wolf.

Most of what I know about visual art is thanks to Glen C. Davies and Sandy Wolf, our dear next-door neighbors back when we lived in Urbana. Glen is an artist, muralist, lecturer and curator. He got his early training traveling with the circus, and I spent many sweet summer evenings swaying on their porch swing listening to Glen’s stories of those adventures. Glen’s wife Sandy Wolf has been working diligently as a librarian for the University of Illinois’ renowned Graduate School of Library and Information Science since 1984, and last year she won a Distinguished Service Award for her work there. Both Glen and Sandy are art collectors, and it’s a treat to hear them tell stories of how they find their treasures.

This Friday Glen is giving a presentation at the Chicago Cultural Center about a show he’s put together called Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster. From the Explore Chicago web site:

• Friday, July 23, 5:30 pm:

Gallery Talk with Glen Davies, curator of the exhibition

• Friday, July 23, 6-8 pm:

Opening Reception

I’ve gone to a number of openings where Glen’s own artwork is shown, and after each show Glen singles me out, asks me what I thought, what I heard, my overall impression of the event. He knows I can take in a lot by feeling the vibe in the room, listening to what people say, then using my imagination to come up with my own interpretation. Some other artists beat themselves up adapting visual artwork for the blind, curating special tactile art exhibits, creating 3-D renditions of popular pieces of art. It’s all well-meaning, I know, but the simple truth is that the sense of touch is nothing like the sense of sight. Touch is too particular. Whether it be a sculpture, a quilted wall hanging, or a 3-D rendition, I can only touch one tiny bit of the artwork at a time. I mean, I can spread my hands across a piece of artwork to take it all in at one time, but that’s just not the same as glancing at a piece of art. If I want to really and truly examine the artwork by touch, I have to trace it with a finger. My interpretation is limited to a part of the piece that’s just one fingertip wide.

And don’t get me started about those audio art tours. I like to hear what others are saying while I’m taking in art, and I can’t do that with headphones on. Paying to get into a museum, then walking around listening to a monologue doesn’t make sense to me. I could listen at home, lying comfortably on my couch!

Glen Davies has always understood that I have a unique — and valuable — way of experiencing visual art as is. I go to lectures, I read (or in the case of Glen and Sandy, hear

"Flying Angel" by Howard Finster, from the collection of Glen C. Davies and Sandra Wolf.

firsthand) background stories ahead of time. And like so many others who are blind, I have a good imagination! I also learned a ton about the visual arts by listening to teachers talk to their  drawing students during my stint as a nude model. I have Glen Davies to thank, in part, for my decision to give modeling a try.

When I told him I was considering auditioning for the job, Glen explained how important live models are to art students, then talked at length about a favorite model back when he was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The model was obese, Glen said, which gave students plenty to draw, so many folds and layers. ” Artists like drawing models with some meat on their bones,” he told me. “They’ll love you!”

A backhanded compliment, to be sure, but Glen’s enthusiasm gave me the courage to give modeling a try. Staying still for 50 minutes at a time gave me lots of time to think about my writing, how to reformulate a lead, how to get across a certain idea. I used that quiet time to put together an essay about my modeling experience. Nude Modeling: Goin’ In Blind was published in alternative newspapers all over the country and launched my writing career.

In one of those full circle-type things, my most recent publication achievement also is thanks to Glen Davies. A year or two ago he emailed me the copy he was writing for the book that goes along with the Howard Finster show. He wanted my opinion, my suggestions. The book Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster was published in March. Glen is listed as the author, and Phyllis Kind, Jim Arient, and N. J. Girardot are credited with contributing as well. And if you look closely at the acknowledgments page, you’ll see my name, too — Glen was kind enough to thank me for my teeny tiny part in editing his original copy. Now in addition to being the only blind woman in America to be honored for sports broadcasting, I bet I am the only blind woman in America to be acknowledged in a book about visual art.

If you live anywhere near Chicago, don’t miss Glen’s gallery talk this Friday, July 23 at 5:30 at the Chicago Cultural Center. Look for us there — I’ll be the one with the dog.

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The Deaf Leading the Blind

That’s Wanda helping me as I sign books at the Chicago Cultural Center.

Every Wednesday, Hanni leads me to the Chicago Cultural Center to teach a memoir-writing class for senior citizens.

Eighteen women, great names. Myrna. Sybil. Eldoris. Bea. They’d grown up on the south side, in the suburbs, in Italy, in West Rogers Park. Some have Masters degrees. One finished her undergrad at age 73. Many of them were teachers, a few taught in the Chicago Public Schools. Their stories are fascinating.

Each week I assign these writers a topic, they go home, write 500-word essays, and then bring them back the next week to read aloud. After weeks, months, years of hearing their stories, I’ve come to know a lot of them pretty well.

Wanda is 87 years old and grew up on Chicago’s south side. She has a significant hearing loss, but like so many her age, it went undiagnosed when she was little. In school, Wanda was punished for being rude, or for not listening in class, when she simply couldn’t hear what was being said. Wanda is not a complainer, though – once she sorted things out and got hearing aids, she used her experience to build a career. Her job? She went from public school to public school, testing the kids for, guess what? Hearing loss. Now Wanda sits right next to me during class so she can hear every word. This turns out to be a privilege for me: I get to hear everything Wanda says, too! Today, she said she could tell stories of her upbringing that would “make the hair curl on a bald man’s head.” She often quotes her beloved uncle, Hallie B., who told her, “People who sit and mope with their head in their hands, they never see the good things coming their way.”

The oldest student in class this session is Hannah, age 88. Hannah grew up in Germany. Her family was Jewish. A determined and adventurous woman, Hannah escaped on her own before World War II – she was only 20 years old when she arrived, alone, in the US. Others in her family didn’t make it out in time. “I’ll tell you this,” she says. “I’ve always been very, very lucky.”

Economic news lately prompted me to ask these writers to put something down on paper about the Great Depression. “I’m wondering how it compares to what you see going on now.” Many of them returned with essays about their parents’ view of the Great Depression — Wanda and Hannah were the only ones old enough to have lived through it. The stories the two of them read aloud were so moving that after class I contacted my “connections” at Chicago public Radio, askde them if they’d be interested in recording Hannah and Wanda’s stories.

WBEZ said yes. And though the producer there had only planned on using the stories for a three-or-four-minute bit, he ended up spending more than an hour in the studio with the two ladies. Afterwards he sent me this email:

“Because both stories were so compelling, we just couldn’t cut them TOO short. So, we’re going to air them in two separate parts, on two separate days, as a short “series.” So, Wanda’s will air tomorrow, and we’ll then try to run Hannah’s within a week. I’ll let
you know about that one when we have an air date for that.
So, I hope that’s cool with you and them. They would have been powerful together, but I think they’re just as powerful on their own.

The producer was sooooooo right. Wanda’s interview aired this morning, and she was sensational. Listen yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m so proud to know these women! I can’t wait to hear Hannah’s story on air next week. I’ll link to her story here on the blog once it airs so you can hear it, too. Stay tuned!

Safe & Sound in Printers Row

Just Hanni and me, taking a breather on Printers Row in front of Sandmeyers Bookstore.Book CoverThe party begins…Is that a line?  I’m blushing!Readers of all ages gathered!And of course, no event would be complete without some of my wonderful family present: Mike, Cheryl, and Flo.When Mike, Hanni and I decided to move from Urbana, Illinois to Chicago in 2003 we looked for a neighborhood that would be friendly, safe, and easy for Hanni and me to navigate.
That’s how we found Printers Row.
Printers Row is a tiny neighborhood in Chicago just south of the Loop. The buildings in our neighborhood were originally used by printing and publishing businesses.
Before electricity, printers used natural light to check their work, so the windows in neighborhood buildings are tall and wide. You know, to let light in. The ceilings are high, too, to accommodate old printing presses. Most of the buildings in Printers Row have been converted into residential lofts. There’s always a lot of activity up and down the street, so I feel safe. When I’m walking around with hanni, I feel like people are looking out for me.
Printers Row is close enough to the Loop that Hanni can walk me to my part-time job at Easter Seals and the weekly writing class I teach for senior citizens at the Chicago Cultural Center.

And so, the neighborhood feels safe, it’s easy to navigate. The last requirement: it had to be friendly.
Trust me, it is. In my previous post I told you about the champagne celebration at our local tavern. Now it’s time to tell you about our local bookstore.
Copies of “Hanni and Beth: Safe and Sound” arrived at Sandmeyer’s Bookstore Wednesday. Ulrich
Sandmeyer called me the minute the books arrived. Mike and I ran right down to admire the box load. One book had already sold by the time we got there – a neighbor had seen Ulrich pulling a copy out of the box and insisted on buying it right away.
“There’s not another book like it,” Ulrich said, marveling at the illustrations inside. “It’s going to sell very, very
well.” To that end, Ulrich immediately placed one copy of Safe & Sound in the front display window.
Ulrich owns the store with his wife Ellen — today she pushed that boxload of books on a pushcart to our friends Pat and Carol’s house on Michigan Avenue. Carol and Pat are the couple who watched Hanni while we were in Poland, you might remember my blog about how much Hanni loved her stay with them. Today Carol and Pat showed their generosity once again, hosting an open house to celebrate the publication of Hanni and Beth: Safe & sound. It was only when I sat down to write this blog post that I remembered: Carol and I met on the street! She had seen an article I wrote for the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine and recognized me from an accompanying photo. She stopped me on the street afterwards to tell me how much she enjoyed the piece I’d written. We’ve been friends ever since.
I sat with Ellen Sandmeyer at the party, signing, Brailling, and rubber stamping Hanni’s pawprint into books for anyone who wanted to buy one. And lots of people wanted to buy one. Or two! or three! A woman from the writing class I teach even bought SEVEN — she’s in the Safe & sound Frequent Flyer Club now.
Neighbors were there, friends from my book club , my writing group, my senior citizen class came. My sister Cheryl surprised me by bringing Flo to the party — what a delight!
The event was wonderful. My neighbors are great. Once again I was reminded: Mike and I made the right decision when we decided to live in Printers Row.


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