Saturday, January 17, 2015

Where do stories begin: A word or an image?

Where do stories begin? A sentence…a word, an image, a character, a dream, a question, a puzzle, a mystery, a hope, an overheard conversation, a picture, a feeling? Or is it the story itself which is compelling you: the struggle through crisis towards the happy ending, the illness and grief followed by healing, the joy found and hope revived after heartbreak, the resiliency of the human spirit, your spirit? Do memoir and novels begin the same ways? Do you begin with a character or a story?

My novels always begin with a character or characters. The birth of a child and the midwife-medicine woman-priestess disturbed and enthralled by the signs that appear is how my story MoonSense starts. One novel began with the image of a Mexican mother keening into the ground because her son has left to go up to El Norte. A young woman vacations in Mexico when her traveling companion mysteriosuly disappears. Eventually these two characters will meet. Another began with an elderly woman watching from a window in her wheelchair, lonely and aching for companionship, a grumpy, stubborn woman who must face her own difficult personality. And another starts with a singer who songs heal but has a family secret she must uncover.

A poem, however, may begin with an emotion and an image from the world around me, where I happen to be sitting, in nature, in a cafe, or on a bus, for example.

Memoir has to begin with a story, as well, but where do we start? Which memory do we choose? In Flowers in the Wind, my memoir of ten years of communal living, I wanted to start with the first time I walked into the hostel and met the people who would become my family, the tribe I had been seeking, for the rest of my life. But I had to fill in the reasons why this was an important encounter. I had to write about the influence of the ‘60s and the ways that freedom was intertwined with wanting to belong, a sense of belonging. Without that urgency of wanting to belong, the story of joining a commune and sticking with in despite the challenges and shadows does not make sense. Why would I give up my own choices, why would I allow my autonomy to be taken away, unless there was an investment, a huge emotional investment? I believed we were heading towards salvation, towards perfection, toward being able to heal the blind and the lame and take care of the oppressed, and that these people were mine to keep.

But then I had to tell the story of the first time I traveled to Mexico and was shocked by the extreme poverty and humbled by the simple grace of the family who received us into their home, a home without even a toilet, who treated us as special, important guests even though we barely spoke their language and hardly had anything in common except faith in Jesus. And how I recognized my own selfishness and self-centeredness.

And then I realized I had to go back even further, to the epiphany at Arlington Cemetery when I was 11 years old and suddenly awakened to a belief that war is wrong. The moment I became a pacifist. The moment that became my purpose when the anti-war movement started and I felt I had found my tribe, those who believed as I did in peace and love.

This is different than the memoir of living in Israel for three years which begins with getting off the ferry boat and ends with leaving on an airplane, a cut and dried beginning and ending.

Where does you story begin, with the moment that changed your life? Which moment? The one that set in motion the search for answers, the one that broke your heart and set you up to long for love, the one that was a dream of something you would hope for the rest of your life, the choices made out of disappointment, the choices made out of strength?

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Return of the Light, turn of the Seasons

Here in Minnesota we are having a brown Christmas, in contrast to last year when I thought I might be stuck at the house, unable to get out due to the snow storm. Grey skies are not my favorite weather. I consider myself a Mediterranean girl and in Minnesota by default. Or that is to say, by way of love for my grandsons. And once I accepted that I was here to stay for a period of time, have made my home here, there was the realization of dreams come true, the many wonderful opportunities of living in a culturally vibrant community, the joy of my spiritual community, the ability to get medical insurance immediately so I could take care of the necessary hip replacements, the circles that I am part of and the work I believe in that we do.

Is it possible to love the Light within so much, so deeply, so constantly, that the weather outside is nothing more than that: weather, subject to change, a condition? Is it possible to hold both the thought and acknowledgment that the weather is probably a sign of climate change and all the repercussions coming more quickly than we had imagined and still hold to the belief that we humans are creating a better world of generosity, peace, and interconnectedness? Can I behold the good and the bad, the light and shadow, at the same time and not choose sides, simply allow them to each whisper to me something sacred, something wise, something true? Can I hold my light no matter the cost of what has been demanded from me in my life: the losses, the grief, the regret, the pain, the betrayals, the disappointments, the fall and the failures, the struggle and the shame? Didn’t Jacob wrestle with the Angel until the Angel had to put his hip out of its socket in order to escape? And wasn’t that a blessing, a reminder daily with each step he took, that he encountered that Angel, that he demanded to be blessed, that he received that blessing and it could never be taken away? His life was changed, he was transformed. 

I have been blessed by such a bountiful generous universe, blessed with love and the ability to have my heart break over and over and yet be stitched back together, to choose joy despite the weather report. I have been blessed with work I love to do and the ability to get up out of bed, get where I need to go, and find waiting for me inspiration, kindness, cooperation, conversation, order in the midst of chaos, meaning in the midst of suffering, light in the midst of darkness.

I have been blessed with the memories of heat and warm beaches and a brilliant aquamarine sea stretching before me and nothing to do but enjoy a meal, a friend by my side. And I have been blessed with sorrow that lets me know I am human, I have loved fiercely, I will never let go of the love I have known but I will let go of my ghosts, my regrets and my stubborn refusals. I say Yes. I say Yes. I say Yes. To the rain, which reminds me of how much I love the sun but still I carry the sun perpetually within me, a heart beat away.

May this days of holy time for reflection grace you with replenishment of your oil, whatever that means to you: family or friends around a table sharing a meal and laughter and stories, quietude and rest, music and singing along, a fire in the hearth, a belief in miracles which never ends.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


I want to remember that I was hungry so that I never forget to say thank you over a meal, an orange, a sliced cucumber, just picked strawberries from the garden, a gift of Christmas cookies.

I want to remember that I was confused and lost and yet I found my way. I learned to ask for help. I learned that I am not alone. Let me never forget that where I belong is exactly where I am.

I want to remember that I was cold so I will bless the sun, the heat, the hot water, hot pad, blankets on a bed, a shawl around my shoulder.

I want to remember that I was exhausted and let my body stretch and release into corpse pose while my breath rose and fell in a rhythm of contentment.

I want to remember that the grief threatened to carry me over the edge. I could not unfold my wings scorched from the burning of my child’s body into ash. The edge between madness and the ability to carry on, the dance between oblivion and love, feeling that one more day in such pain was impossible. And yet I walked step by step and took one more breath while my wings were repaired by the loving hands of friends and angels and my own determined self.

I want to remember that I was terrified and did it anyway. That I was angry and choose words instead of a fist. That I was betrayed and learned forgiveness. That I was a stranger and found home wherever I could light a candle, say a prayer, learn a name.

I want to remember that I stood in darkness in order to adore the light, I stood in silence in order to find my voice.

I want to remember my tears and the way they brought me salt.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What will you do in the time that remains?

I'll wear blue. I'll wear the moon, I'll dress up in starlight. I'll dress up for dinner, even if it's only me at the table. I'll wear pajamas to dinner, alone in my apartment, the red lampshade a miniature fire.

I'll wander the wild, the space between sea and sand, with my heart beating to the sound of waves hitting rock. I'll walk to the park holding my grandson's hand, cherishing every moment before he lets go. We'll pretend we're racing off in a fire truck. I'll shiver in the shade before I coax him into the sun.

I'll wear berets, pink and grey and salmon, and pretend I never left the childhood estate of traveling through foreign lands without a dime in my pocket. I'll remember to say thanks every time I turn on hot water, I'll remember those cold buckets of water poured over the head.

I'll sit with a book in hand and rejoice in words. I'll dance to world beat and wish I could stay up all night. I'll surrender the last crumbs of self pity to the lake, to the fishes and the ducks. I'll love as fiercely as ever, as untidy and profligate as wildflowers. I'll remember the birds flying in formation to land on the sunset waters of the Bosque, the breathtaking beauty, so many wings.

I'll dream of that trip to Paris, I'll keep my passport up to date just in case. I'll drink Scotch and eat tid bits of news gleaned from fb. I'll listen deeply to my heart, to your heart, to the guidance from the Holy Ones, to the call of the trees and the voice of the rocks, to the conversation we have begun of blazing depth and incandescent laughter.

I'll sit by the fire and spark into poetry, into song. I'll pray on bended knees with hands upraised and open, hoping for an answer, hoping for a sign. I'll pray in silence and aloud, remind us that we carry light within.

I'll leave behind a box of photos and stories. I'll let you decide which ones to keep and which to toss away.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Even on your worst day you are surrounded by things you care about—

Worst day: let’s not think about the worst day. Let’s think about waiting for the bus in sub zero temperatures and stomping your feet and dropping coins in the snow and wondering why you are doing this when you could still be under the blankets, curled up in dreams? And then the bus arrives and you sit down, frozen fingers tingling back to feeling, and you think of the little boys you waved good-bye to as you ran out the door. How once again love saved you from despair. How you could be a drunk under a bridge or a pile of ashes thrown to the wind but you had those babies to think about, the grandsons, new life. How the little one throws his arms around you and says I love you. And that makes the grief, the bankruptcy, the arguments, the disappointments, the months when you had no home to be embraced and sheltered within, all recede into the past. And you remove your wool beret and run your fingers through your graying hair and think how it could have been cancer like your good friend, dead one month after diagnosis, or it could have been HIV like a man you love, or it could have been the fibromyalgia that plagues a writer you know who can never take a step without planning for ways to reduce the pain. And so you tap your feet in your red suede boots that you bought last minute, thank God, and don’t think about the worst. You think about poems on the computer waiting to be printed and the writing group where you’ll drink free coffee and sit around a warm table, free to be yourself, free to praise the snow.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

In Jerusalem 1989

In memoriam of my beautiful son Samson

     Jerusalem felt lively, colorful, friendly. After many months of strikes, demonstrations, and desperation as the Arab populace found their income decreasing, the shops had opened and the atmosphere was relaxed. While my parents toured the religious sites, shrines, churches and tombs, the boys and I wandered through the Old City bazaar, looking at t-shirts, ceramic oil lamps, rugs, mezuzahs, candle-stick holders, and the whole potpourri of hand-made things. They loved to bargain, surprising shopkeepers with their fluency in Hebrew, stubbornly arguing the price down, proudly carrying off their treasures. They each picked a t-shirt with the inscription: The Army--a way to travel, meet interesting people and kill them. I bought sandals.   
     Shlomo, Orit, and Kobi were young Israelis who befriended us. When it came time to leave the apartment, Kobi convinced Shlomo and Orit to take us in. Now we were surrounded by Hebrew conversations and the boys became fluent. Kobi liked to make them laugh. We would go to a cafe to drink coffees and cokes for hours or to a bar and drink beer until late into the night. Kobi had indefatigable energy, driving us to the beach, to the cafes, to a party on Shabbat night. He asked Yoan what he wanted for Christmas, a holiday he didn't celebrate. When Yoan told him a Christmas tree, he went to the Arab quarter to purchase a plastic tree that we couldn't even afford to decorate. I had almost no money but Caren passed her cleaning job on to me while she took a babysitting position. I cleaned a tiny delicatessen from top to bottom for three hours every night. The woman who worked behind the counter resented me because the boss hadn't paid her for three months but paid me cash at the end of every evening. It had to be that way because I needed to buy food for the boys and school supplies and decent shoes.
      Winter was cold and we huddled around the electric heater in the evening. Someone had given me green corduroy pants and I had finally located the thrift shop, mostly a pile of clothes thrown in a heap, where shirts and pants could be purchased for a couple of shekels. I had a beautiful leather jacket that Jay had found in a trash can and given to me.
     Sholmo's parents wanted to sell their apartment. Since it was in the Orthodox neighborhood, they were worried that the presence of "Christians" would contaminate it. Whenever people who were not Sholmo's friends came over, we took the tree apart and hid the pieces under sheets.

--excerpt from Flowers in the Wind
© 2014 Wendy Brown-Baez

Friday, March 28, 2014

Coming Home to Joy

Eight years ago if you had told me that I would be able to survive, I would have looked at you in disbelief. If you had predicted that I would find ways to heal, I would have been astonished. After my son's death, I could only put one foot in front of the other, day by day. I had tremendous love from friends and family and support from colleagues and counseling and yet, I was in such a state of shock that I was operating on instincts, not rational, not able to foresee any future at all.

My instincts told me to go back to work, that it was better than the agony of my own turbulent guilt, and I did until the wheel of fortune took me to Mexico and Alejandro. My instincts told me to hold onto Alejandro, who was both a distraction and a refuge. He knew how to live on a pendulum between deep denial and enjoying life's sensual pleasures. I knew he would not pity me, but in fact, one of the last straws between us was the way he demanded I show up to work at the gallery when I had dengue fever and should have been in bed recuperating, with a kind hand bringing me cool drinks and Tylenol.

Seven years ago when I moved to Minneapolis, if you had told me that I would find ways to meld my gift with my passion to be of service, I would not have believed you, even though my hunger for poetry had come back. Coming to Minneapolis was another turn of the wheel of fortune: my son asked for my help with childcare. I used to claim I would never live in such a cold place. Here I still am, 7 years later.

That first winter, I attended a poetry reading at The Loft for the publication release of Songs Along the Way. I remember it because the temperature was 20 below and I asked my daughter-in-law to give me a ride. I assumed there would be a small turn out. I was still disoriented, in an altered state, and raw with grief that felt like my skin of my heart had peeled away. I was surprised to watch the auditorium fill up but despite standing room only, the seat next to me remained vacant. Was it Sam's spirit come to comfort me? I left that reading to go home and write my first poem since leaving Mexico.

Five years ago if you had predicted that I would create a life I love, I would have seen a small glimmer through the fog. I would have considered the Twin Cities writer's community as a place to begin. I created brochures and sent out proposals, showed up for open mics and asked questions, attended every reading I could get to. Won a McKnight grant, published a book of poetry.

Three years ago if you had told me that I would feel joy, astounding joy that permeates my entire being, the joy of doing what I am meant to do, of  using my gift and my desire and my vision, that I would heal, I would have been astonished. I would not have been able to imagine it. But joy has been gifted me, I feel blessed.

Sam's death is not something I got over or ever forget. If I choose to hold the moment of getting the phone call in my mind, or seeing his body at the funeral home, or the afternoon at the Chama where we scattered his ashes, the visceral reaction is as potent as ever. Sharp unbearable pain shoots through my heart. In the poem I wrote a description of my grandson, "When he smiles, it is enough to crack the scotch-taped fissures of my heart back into shards. It is your smile, carbon copy family trait." These memories are enough to crack all the fissures back into shards. The fissures that I have spent the last seven years filling in with gold lacquer, painstakingly matching each surface to the other to resemble the whole.

Poetry performances for Dia de los Muertos where I shared my anguish, poetry performance at Patrick's Cabaret where I told the story also healed me as I realized that death comes for all, death is part of the cycle of life. Death is natural. Sam's death was a choice he made and I can choose the way I mourn, publically and privately.

What I learned as a writing instructor/facilitator is that when I write, there are two paths. One will take me deeper and deeper into the story: what happened to me and what I feel about it. There is no end to that branch of the story. I can tell it over and over, because the emotional pull is powerful. Or I can choose another branch: what it means, what patterns I see, where it leads me, what has been the lesson, and how I can change and transform because of it. And as the writer responsible for the circle, I deliberately choose that branch. That is what I write about and share. When I led workshops under the funding of the grant, writing with battered women and homeless youth and heart patients and care-givers, I was writing weekly or twice weekly and choosing that path over and over again. What does it mean to me, what did I learn, where do I find inner courage and strength, what do I still have, what are my blessings? And I began to heal, not only enough to keep going, not only enough to be engaged with laughter and friendship and love and curiosity and pleasure, but real joy. An inner knowing that I am where I am meant to be, that I am living my dreams, that I am connected to others in deep ways and that I love my life. I am blessed. I am grateful.

If you had told me even last year, that I would be overwhelmed with ecstatic bliss, that I would dance again under the Mexican moon, that I would be filled with Presence of Spirit and that I would be overcome with love, I would have been incredulous. This joy is beyond any previous experience I have ever had. Beyond when I fell in love, when I gave birth, when I sat in a Spanish cafe and listened to flamenco, when I celebrated with friends, when I held my first book in my hands, when I spoke my truth on stage and was held in the arms of my audience. This joy is a state of being. I have come home to myself after long years of wandering. Like Dorothy clicking together her ruby slippers and saying No place like home. It is the center towards which I have been traveling all my life. While I am here, I know I can always return. Whenever grief or disappointment or frustration or longing knock me off-kilter, I know it is here, waiting for me, invincible, mine.