What Am I Allowed To Write About? by Miriam Sagan

What Am I Allowed To Write About?

I think most writers have to confront—at one or several points in our careers—whether some topics are forbidden. It is actually quite a complicated process, without an easy answer. I developed as a poet in the shadow of the Boston confessional school—Plath, Sexton, Lowell,et al. So spilling the beans was easy enough. But when I got older—and as I wrote more prose and memoir—I had to self censor my desire to tell other peoples’ secrets. The urge was there, but the imperative was pretty clear—these things were not mine to tell. So I didn’t.
Family history seems more complex. After my father’s death I started writing more directly about him, and his family. They were not cliched pale and studious Eastern European Jews. Rather, they were redheaded Ukranian gangsters, of the type found in Isaac Babel stories about Jewish drug smugglers and crime bosses. But much of this was hearsay, or conjecture. Other people in the family might not agree.
My solution was to try and be open about the difference between what I knew and what I intuited, what I’d heard directly and what I’d deduced. I’ve enjoyed this writing, but it is still partially in process. I’m still working to understand it—to own it actually, so it isn’t something outside of my self.
The issue of cultural appropriation is a hot potato in literary academic circles at the moment. I won’t get into the debate, but I do want to look at a tangential question. Is it ok to write about your own ethnic or minority group if what you have to say isn’t all good?
I never thought about this personally until quite recently, when I was confronted directly with it. I was running a panel of Jewish women writers when someone in the audience suggested we shouldn’t be “allowed” to hang out any dirty laundry about our experiences because it would reflect badly on the Jewish people as a whole. I kind of poo-pooed this in my mind until I read a thought provoking essay by a contemporary Mexican writer on the same question. Maybe my initial response had been too facile?
But on re-examining, I’m content with my first response, which was to say that we were “allowed” to write whatever we wanted. I talked about how we—particularly as women—had struggled to give voice to our experiences. One panel member reminded us that writers don’t proceed blithely—we examine this as we go.
The truism about writing is to write what you know. This has always felt constricting to me—I want to add—what I imagine, fear, love, suspect, am puzzled by. Or, as I’ve told myself recently, the solution is to know more—a whole lot more.

Can A Spiritual Problem Be Solved on the Material Level?

The Torah study midrash group I’m in is on Bereishit (Genesis) Chapter 30. We’ve been going slowly. In verse 27 or so there is a conversation between Jacob and his sometime exploitive father-in-law Laban. Both of them are tricky characters—this looks like their last struggle over wealth and preeminence.
I’m just making a stab at understanding the portion—but midrash means commentary, and can apply to one’s own life. And so I’ve been asking—Can a spiritual problem be solved on the material level? Part of me wants to say—of course—aren’t they one and the same if you look deeply enough? Time to forget dualism. But part of me hasn’t found it to work.
I’m involved in some practical dealings that were set in motion by a domineering patriarch. (You guessed it—my dad). If the practicalities are resolved, will the underlying issues be? I’m stating to doubt that.
I put this question out on my network, and although I got fine advice about problem solving, not the answers I was seeking. Of course taking a walk helps a person think—but what I’m describing can’t be totally understood that way. I want to know: can generosity on the material level translate to the spiritual? Can it solve a miserly approach? Sure, everything is connected—but my question is…HOW?
Actually, I don’t need an answer, because this kind of problem can’t be solved, it can only be investigated. I’m not one to veer away from negative feelings. I’ve heard people say—don’t invite your anger (grief, etc.) to tea but frankly I’ll feed whatever shows up. Sit it down and listen to it.
Anyway, I’ve read ahead in the Torah. Pretty soon Jacob (having resolved his dispute with Laban over sheep and goats through the use of some shamanic sympathetic magic) is going to take his wives and children and herds and leave. Out in the desert, he is going to wrestle with the divine.
I’m happier, personally, wrestling with God in a barren place than counting sheep and goats. However, no one can walk away unscathed from such an encounter. In fact, it may leave us crippled and limping. But that is another verse.

I Don’t Want To See Through Another Person’s Eyes Unless I Am Writing Fiction by Miriam Sagan

I Don’t Want To See Through Another Person’s Eyes Unless I Am Writing Fiction

Some of the national dialogue, or at least the tiny liberal bit I’m engaged in, is full of exhortations to try and see things from “others’” perspectives. But I don’t want to see the world through racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic eyes—thank you very much.
I already have enough trouble with myself.
It’s fine—necessary even—to see the beast within. Luckily I saw it young and early. I was in the SDS in college and I was on a picket line when a scab truck crashed through. I started beating on that windshield in a blind rage whose existence I was unaware of. I was only nineteen or so, but I thought to myself “Hey Mir, better pay attention. This isn’t good.” I thought of it later as “freeing the inner Nazi.” It isn’t good, and I’m betting most of us have been more plagued by it in our intimate relationships than anywhere else. I’ve thrown dishes. I’ve wanted to smack a child I said I would never smack.
A huge issue in writing fiction is the ability to develop characters “different” than the author. It’s more of an issue at the beginning, though. The deeper the practice of writing, the more likely it is that characters will have a life of their own. And that they will appear and act spontaneously.
However, I’m tormented by one of the characters in the novel I’m currently writing. She’s an individualist in a go-along-to-get-along group. And I like her. I’ve taken care of her! When she was an orphaned child, I found her foster mothers. I got her a dog. A passion in life. She even had a baby.
I felt betrayed when at the end of the story (I’m still on the first draft) she abandoned her pregnant daughter to walk alone into an unknown future, based on an obscure possibly incorrect apocalyptic vision. I tried to talk her down, but it didn’t worked.
So—is this character me, part of me, or…an actual character with her own destiny and karma. I’m hoping the latter. If she’s me, she’ll end up staying, and the novel will make less sense.
It’s pretty easy to write psycho killers. From Shakespeare’s Richard the Third to “Criminal Minds” the audience enjoys second hand sadism. Our level of identification may vary—but we count on our sense of justice and harmony being restored in short order.
The same cannot be said of our current world. I don’t want to see through the evil doer’s eyes today. I just want that evil stopped.

Letter To My Younger Self by Basia Miller

Dear Basia,

I thought just now I heard you crying at your Chicago kitchen sink, back in January 1977. Well, I was up early here in Santa Fe in January 2017 and was crying too, over the new regime in Washington. Maybe this is just the right time for me to write down some things I’ve learned in the last 40 years and share them with you.

Because of the baby and the 5-year-old, the absent husband and the distracted babysitter—whose pay equals your own—you’ve decide to quit your job. Your world is collapsing around you, and you think you’re supposed to hold it together. Worse yet, there’s a great desert in your heart.

All that’s going on could make you feel despair. Here’s a straight-up instruction : Don’t let it. True, your desert is growing cactuses, while the real world, invisible now, is going to offer you its kindnesses, rains and gardens. You’ll do your part by letting them in. But the world, with its chancy, multiple and sometimes inscrutable energy, can only do so much. To actively accept it is crucial, and how that comes about is what I can only call the great mystery.

One thing I’d suggest for coping is doing a great deal of nothing. Stare out the window. Watch the birds. Cultivate down-time. Everyone deserves a childhood and you were scanted in that. You can create one at age 40. In one of his songs, Bob Dylan sings, « I’m younger than that now, » another way of saying you can work toward innocence. That’s not to say things won’t get worse before they get better.

Another big move will be to work on « give. » Right now you’re oriented not so much toward taking, but toward raising walls (there you are, trying to hold up the whole world !). It’s beautiful to create long sight-lines, get a sense of balance, practice balanced relationships instead of thinking you’re 100% responsible. Giving makes you feel safe and joyful as if grace had descended on you and nurtured your inner life.

There’s also love-making, therapy, meditation—so many ways of allowing the great world in—but I’ll leave them for another time. I hope this doesn’t all seem hopelessly abstract. Believe this is a loving message about growth and aging where you take a part in shaping it. I know you’ll work hard at it and I wish you the very best.

love always,


Nation of Immigrants: In Which My Grandmother Threatens To Drown Herself

Nation of Immigrants

My paternal grandmother Esther was 13 when she emigrated from the Ukraine. She told her family she would drown herself in the mill pond if she was not sent to the U.S. instead of her sister.
Is this story true? Am I remembering it correctly? Who knows. She went.
She was smuggled across a border checkpoint of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire hidden in a sausage cart. Unkosher meat piled on top of a small Jew.
As far as I can ascertain, she was traveling without any family members, although presumably someone was meeting her.
She got her period on the boat. She thought she was bleeding to death. A kindly mother explained about menstruation. Presumably as a stranger, she did not hit my grandmother across the face. This is the custom among eastern European Jews, as well as some Middle Eastern people. To slap a girl’s face on the occasion of her first menses.
Why? You tell me. Shame? A reprimand? Taboo? No doubt. It isn’t exactly mazal tov, whatever you may say. A woman’s life is full of pain.
America is an upgrade. My mother does not slap my face on the occasion of my menarche, although she feels compelled to remind me—I am not slapping you.
Not getting slapped simply for being a woman. Good.
Why did my grandmother threatted to kill herself? Did she long for freedom? Or was something bad happening to her—a girl child? We’ll never know.
So I am sitting in the Saigon, eating yellow noodles. I’ve seen the owner’s daughter grow from a baby cooing in a back booth to being a middle schooler capable of bussing a table. I’m drinking hot dark tea out of a small white cup that has no handle.

Isabel Winson-Sagan Educates Herself To Fight The Power

Essay by Isabel Winson-Sagan

I will admit, I love school. So when Trump was elected as POTUS and I suddenly had a much more vested interest in protecting myself and my community, I started taking classes. So far I’ve done a wonderful self-defense course with IMPACT New Mexico, a non-violent direct action training run by local activists, and coming up I’ll be doing a gun safety lesson as well as a Red Cross CPR/first aid course. I am aware that this sort of thing isn’t for everyone (I mean, who loves school like I do? It’s a sick thing) but this has made me feel marginally better about being a person in our current world. The downside is that feeling like a more powerful agent and learning life skills is not exactly the same thing as activism, and I’m often plagued by wondering what else I should be doing. I’ve donated the max that I can afford to Standing Rock and Planned Parenthood. I’ve been to marches and protests. I will go to more marches and protests. I’m going to town meetings. I’m speaking up on injustice and prejudice whenever I see it, even having already landed myself in special “mediation” meetings with my boss to talk about their policy re: disabled employees. I already volunteer in my community, but I signed up for some extra work- like being a clinic escort for planned parenthood, even though it seems doubtful that my particular town will ever have a need for that.
It definitely does not feel like enough. It may never be enough. But I’m pretty maxed out. Even though I spend a lot of time thinking about how to be better ally, I am in several demographics that need allies themselves. I am not a poc or trans (this may be an oversimplification, but politically it feels accurate). I am a woman. I am emphatically not a Christian. I am queer. I am very disabled (not oh! My back hurts sometimes disabled. I’m not trying to put down that experience, but I am wheelchair disabled. I am last maybe 24 hours without medication disabled. I am it’s a bloody miracle that every day I can get out of bed disabled). There is only so much I can do, so much energy that I have. And deep down, I am tired. Beyond exhausted, really. Will taking these classes really do anything? Is making myself feel better even that interesting of a goal? I understand that self-care is important. I even understand that living your life, living it freely and proudly, can be a kind of political statement. But it doesn’t feel like enough.
I was speaking to a friend of mine on the phone after the election and he said, “Plant a garden. Buy a gun.” While I do not like guns and do not own a gun (I am in fact afraid of guns, hence the gun safety class), I do enjoy this perspective. I interpret it as “Defend your body, and the bodies of those you love. Live outside the systems of power. Live sustainably.” Maybe planting a vegetable garden is one of the most revolutionary things we can do in a time when big business and agri-business run our lives. As someone who basically lives within the health care system, I wouldn’t mind getting out of there too. Perhaps living within sustainable systems is what separates us the most from the grid of industry, the military, and Trump. I am not saying everyone should have these values, or immediately start doing what I’ve been doing. But I am looking for answers.
These classes, useful in the long run or not, have given me some skills on which I can base action. They remind me of who my community is and who I want to be when I grow up. But they can’t be an end in themselves. This is going to be a long fight (it always was a long fight). I’m trying to get ready. 

White Line–Musing on Love’s Education

Driving at night on a dark country road, I always think of someone I once loved who taught me to navigate by the white right hand line. It’s a handy bit of information. I never think of it though, without remembering the relationship, which came to a sad end.
When I bang a jar bottom to open it, when I put raisins or olives in a cooked dish, when I use the expression “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” I think of those who introduced me to these small yet pungent things.