Reading My Old Letters

My sister Susannah moved from her house to a condo in Ohio. And sent me a packet of letters I wrote her, mostly from the 1980’s. It’s quite poignant to look at—and I can hardly stand to read it all. I go from being a run about with numerous lovers in San Francisco to meeting and falling in love with my first husband Robert. And then I complain about his lack of ambition. And worry about his hypoglycemia. On to Santa Fe, where I don’t expect to stay, and soon enough I’m pregnant. Robert reports that all over town people ask him “Has the poet had her baby?”
That baby is now a grown married woman, the never ambitious and eventually very ill Robert is long dead, I am long married to Richard and old enough for social security. A cliche like “where does the time go” is hardly ample for my feelings.
In the letters, I recount a meeting with an old sweetie, the one who got away, who broke my heart. I write: “He is out here on business and we spent the day talking. He actually cried about the past—but perhaps more about the dog than me…. Of all things, X. also called to apologize for his behavior. Old lovers never die, they just get schmaltzy when you’re about to get married…”

On the literary front, I’m embarrassed to report that in 1983 I was trying to write a second feminist utopian novella. The first was “Journey to the Commune of the Golden Sun” which was published in “Maenad” but is too embarrassing to re-read today. There NEVER was a second such novella—I refer to a few attempts to write one as VERY DIFFICULT. Well, now there is. I’m about to start the third major revision of “Future Tense of River” which I started in 2015…more than thirty years past my projected date.

These letters are so obviously me. I give romantic and sexual advice, I speculate on every bit of gossip, I read Tarot cards, and review novels, mention when it rains, and give updates on everyone I care about. There are rather elaborate descriptions of cats—my cat trapped on the roof, our old orange family cat and more. I have gigs, or I need more gigs. Then I have too many. I buy red Capezio shoes. I report blowing my budget on plastic jewelry. I can’t really remember the shoes, but I still have some of those funky earrings.
There is introspection, too. I say: “I know exactly what you mean about showing your real self to only a few people…this makes it difficult to ask for help.” A problem I note to this day.
A postcard for 1989 shows snow geese at the bosque and notes that “Isabel eats applesauce and can (sort of) drink from a cup.” And yes, it’s raining.

Why Do I Fast by Baro Shalizi

Like other of Baro’s friends, I’ve asked him about Ramazan (Ramadan). I’m delighted he has written about this in a way that will enlighten readers.

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Why do I fast?

It is a question many of my friends ask. I have been in the habit of fasting since I was quite young, perhaps eleven or twelve years old. I have always found fasting to be soothing, calming, almost meditative. As I grew older, I found it to bring about a spiritual awakening, a closeness to my maker, a way of removing myself from the franticness of daily life—I didn’t have to plan for meals, call friends or clients for a cup of coffee or tea. It also made me more generous towards those who had less and didn’t get three square meals a day. Through fasting, at least on a physical level I understood their suffering. I cannot even imagine what the psychological and emotional suffering must be. It is one thing to voluntarily fast and quite another to fast from lack of choice, lack of food.
As a youngster, I fasted a couple of days a year. After all, it isn’t proscribed until after puberty. As I grew older, I fasted the full 30 days required, not eating or even taking a sip of water from dawn to dusk. Having seen the benefits of fasting, now, in addition to the month of fasting, from time to time, I fast for a couple of days or a week at other times of the year. I have often wondered if like Biblical King David, I could live my life by fasting alternate days?

The Difference Between Fear & Awe

I’ve recently done several things that frightened me. Knit a hat. Handled a rifle. Looked at the sun. Not a super exciting skydiving list, because I’m easily frightened. But worthwhile nonetheless.
Knitting is supposed to be soothing. Although I’ve been knitting for a decade, all I’ve ever made are scarves. A larger project stalled. Three D is beyond me. As my neighbor said, “I knit for my nerves.” But I so wanted to knit one of those cute beanie hats. Isabel got me a pattern and encouraged me. Two friends had already given me patterns, but that didn’t work. I need my hand held, because of…reduction. Knitting two together. Eep.
So, Rich and I were driving to Nebraska to see the eclipse. It’s a long dull drive. I was knitting, variegated gray wool, with the pattern propped up. “God damn fucking A son of a…” I’d say under my breath every so often, perplexed by my count. “Knitting is just so relaxing,” I told Rich, just to make him laugh. And finally, I did it! Stitched it up, and it fit! But not before I broke a sweat.
On to rifles. I want to improve as a shot. My ever helpful son-in-law offered me a safety lesson to start. Holding lots of unloaded rifles. Understanding how they work. Aiming. Pulling the trigger. Tim is a good teacher. “Cars are more dangerous than guns as a rule,” he said. “But you are familiar with cars, so they don’t seem scary.” (Actually they do seem scary, but I didn’t want to be a complete wimp). Tim also emphasized reality. “If you point an unloaded rifle at someone and they don’t back down they are probably a psychopath, and you are going to die anyway.” We laughed.
Humor is a good antidote to fear. So is competency. So is accurate perspective.
So what about staring at the sun? My mother was a very anxious person. She warned me many many times to
1. Not put a plastic bag over my head
2. Not climb into an abandoned refrigerator and close the door
3. Not look directly at the sun
Now, these things seem pretty unlikely. However, during the eclipse, you can look at the sun during totality. And I was worried even during the partial. I’d sneak a peak through welding goggles (courtesy of the ever useful Tim). At totality I clutched Rich, took off the goggles, and looked. The sun eclipsed by the moon hanging like an enormous jewel or magical eye in the heavens. It was extraordinary.
Later, I had to google “Have I gone blind looking at the eclipse?” Apparently I wasn’t alone.
Fear is uncomfortable, inhibiting, and sometimes just emotional illness. But awe is a special thing. It tells me I can appreciate the cosmos even in its remote vastness.

The Visible Woman by Miriam Sagan

It is not the world’s job to see us. It is our job to see the world.
On a pleasantly rainy day this July I had two disparate experiences. I read about how older women don’t feel seen and I got “hey babied” in my neighborhood.
Not feeling seen is of course a sad state. It can derive from—and lead to—depression. So what do we mean when we say we don’t feel seen?
On the most superficial level, it might mean that for women being young and conventionally attractive was once a source of esteem that has now faded. You can deconstruct this however you want, but for me the bottom line is I’ve never felt safe entrusting my sense of self to the passing glances of strangers. I was amused to get “hey babied” although let me confess—the dudes in question were pretty antique. However, if this never happens again, I’m not going to care.
And that’s because being old is not making me more insecure. And also, although many men are very important to me as spouse, family members, and friends—I don’t care about what “men” in general think of me.
OK, I’ll admit it. I don’t hate being old. And don’t tell me—you’re not old. Because I patently am. I’m old enough for social security. I’m only seven years younger than my maternal grandmother was when she died at what was then considered a ripe old age. I’ve been widowed. I can remember dial telephones. Trust me on this, when I feel the amazingly rich weight of my own life experience I do not feel young.
Probably in part I feel seen because I’m loud and noisy, I wear bright patterns and colors, and I often laugh hysterically in public…I’m sure people look at me and think “I wish that woman in polka dots would keep it down!”
On a deeper note, I think one reason I feel seen is that I’m connected to my community. I run into people I know all day in my smallish city. Does this mean everyone know me for who I really am? No, that is reserved for an intimate few. And that’s what I prefer.
Another thing—maybe the most important—I see myself. I take off all my clothes and dance around to loud music. (Anyone watching might think—I wish that naked woman would keep it DOWN). I drape myself with scarves and look deeply into my own eyes. I try on different outfits and shake (aspiring to be like Tina Turner in her sixties) in the mirror. I do not ask myself to enumerate my physical flaws, my many ailments. Instead, I say—looking good, Mir. I’m not in denial. I don’t think I’m young. I’m just happy to be alive and able to dance and I want to share that with someone special. Myself.

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.