Archive for the ‘Creative Nonfiction’ Category

When I was a kid, the public library was my Mecca. I took a pilgrimage to the George Peabody Library in Massachusetts every week. It was a behemoth of a building for books. There were three stories devoted to big fat adult books and a whole basement devoted to brightly colored children’s books. I was a connoisseur of books. I skimmed them, devoured them, and savored them. My eyes never processed those tiny, insignificant words. I was too hungry to slow down my gorge fest of fictional stories. Stories about a talking aardvark or a curious monkey or a gargantuan red dog or an accident-prone maid named Amelia Bedelia or a mischievous cat wearing a hat.

When I was six, I learned to speed read by using picture books to tell myself the stories. My eyes skipped over basic two and three letter words, and the book still made sense. The only book I wanted to read that had more words than pictures was Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The voracious reader developed into a child genius because she was “nurtured by the voices of all those authors who had sent their books out into the world like ships on the sea. Those books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.” Just like Matilda, books sustain me and keep me whole.

By third grade, my mom forced me to abandon picture books and read a book with just words. The book was about a boy who lived in a strange town with strange rules and strange ways. My mom called it dystopian literature because the strange town seemed perfect on the outside. The truth was there were many problems with the way people didn’t question rules that took away their freedoms. I wondered if that was why the book was called The Giver. The Giver’s role in the town was to hold onto painful memories so the rest of the town didn’t have to experience them. Jonas, the main character, receives this role. He says that “the worst part of holding the memories is not the pain. It’s the loneliness of it. Memories need to be shared.” Words allow human beings to verbalize their memories; books allow us to leave scraps of memory imprinted on the pages.

Next on my mom’s list of books she wanted me to read was a diary written by a girl who lived in a secret attic hidden behind a bookcase door. She was 12, and I was eight. When I reached the final page, I became disconcerted at the unexpected line printed in all capital letters. ANNE’S DIARY ENDS HERE. The conclusion was sudden and abrupt, leaving me wondering if there would be a sequel. All I got was an afterword informing me Anne Frank had been arrested by the Gestapo, transported to Bergen-Belsen, and died there at age fourteen because of a typhus outbreak. This information was not enough to give me closure. To get it, I needed a detailed, dissertation-length report complete with dates, footnotes, and annotations. My morbid curiosity as to why Anne Frank had been silenced was my initiation into researching the Holocaust. Strange-sounding phrases such as Final Solution, Third Reich, Kristallnacht, and Einsatzgruppen began to enter my vocabulary. I could identify Oskar Schindler, Adolf Hitler, Elie Wiesel, Josef Mengele, and Miep Gies as easily as if they were pop culture icons.

Yet the reason for Anne’s death continued to elude me, and the larger issue of why the Holocaust had to have happened was still beyond my grasp. This was not to say the history lesson was enigmatic. In fact, the information was well within my level of comprehension. The basic facts were clear. I understood who killed eleven million people and how the murder had been performed. I saw the overarching themes: discrimination, prejudice, anti-Semitism, propaganda, genocide, persecution, hate. The brutality, though, remained inexplicable. At the age of eight, my conclusion was that the world was mad, insane, and unbalanced. True, global affairs had improved since the Holocaust, but crimes and atrocities still happened around the world and would continue to happen. Humanity would never learn, and nothing could be done except rant about it. Since then, my worldview has changed because I’ve read more words than Anne Frank ever had the chance to write.

After reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in high school, I now understood why my mom wanted me to read books without pictures.  At one point in the book, a character muses that “words can be like x-rays if you use them properly—they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.” Pictures are powerful, but words contain a subtle magic that shapes mindsets and sways opinions.  Whether with or without pictures, reading a book always made me feel important, intelligent, and impressive. Compared to the other kids, my brain was like flypaper, and stories stuck to it. Nobody could read as fast or as well as I could. Nothing could ever stop me from reading, and nothing ever has. Reading has always my superpower, and a book, my sidekick. Books do more than just ward off boredom and bad guys. They provide comfort during times of great distress when I have to face epic battles in life. With wit and wisdom, they point out the two things that made me the leading heroine in my own life story: my tragic flaws and my moments of excessive hubris. Books act as my personal Jedi Master. They teach me the ways of the binding force that connects people together. They contain words, which are shaped into stories that ring with truth.

The truth is that the words in the books I love have power. How do I know? The film V for Vendetta states, “Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.” Words advise us to take action; they implore us to make a change; they instruct us on what to do, and they convince us of the right course of action. If we’re not careful, words will lead us on a journey that lies in wait for us right out our front door. As Bilbo Baggins, a character in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, claimed, “It’s a dangerous business going out your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Hefty hardcopy books full of printed text sweep me away from the 21st century hustle-and-bustle busyness. Typically, my reading experience is strained because at work I read text on a computer screen that flickers under yellow florescent office light.  I’m constantly interrupted by Facebook notifications, text alerts, Gmail pings, ringing telephones, needy people, and a demanding schedule. The worn bindings of my favorite books offers a retreat back to the childhood memory of when I explored the endless shelves at the George Peabody Library. Traveling long distances to a newly-discovered used bookstore provides an adventurous escape from a humdrum expectation that I have to be constantly on-call and instantaneously connected. My collection of well-loved books represents bookends intended to hold up the entirety of my life story.

I’ve been a reader for so long that the word has become part of who I am. Because I’m a reader, books have shaped me into always being industrious. By the very definition of my name—Emily—industrious is how I am and what I do. What could be more industrious than absorbing words on paper? My eyes—whizzing smoothly across the page. My left shoulder—sore from carrying a heavy bag of library books. My fingers—calloused from turning page after page. Printed ink swirling and curling—the product of a pen carving away at sentences. Just one more—maybe two more pages—before bedtime. I’ve just got to keep striving forward, being industrious. Reading doesn’t just keep me busy; it keeps me breathing. Without words, the jagged green line that marches across the heart monitor might as well be stationary. I need words. They turn the world, my reality, and my perceptions from nonsense into order. Order is in the syntax. The syntax is in order. All is right with the world. With the world, all is right.

Camellia sinensis is a white-flowering evergreen shrub that produces the many varieties of tea, a beverage that has been a rich component of history, an instrumental part of long-standing traditions, and the creator of popular trends. Tea equates to refinement and elegance, and the association is only natural. Like a fine wine, tea is a beverage with class.

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Drinking tea began in China in the 5th century and Japan in the 9th century, and the method became popular in Britain in the 17th century. Tea arrived in England in 1645, and in 1721, it conquered the world through Britain’s expanse as a global superpower when the East India Trading company became a monopoly on tea trade. In England during the early 1700s, tea was a sign of a wealthy household, and the special instruments needed to brew the drink were associated with gentility. At the start of the Industrial Revolution situated at the end of the 1700s, however, tea also fueled British factory workers, and it provided a palatable supplement to lower class families’ bread-and-butter diet. Throughout the late 1760s and into the mid-1800s, “afternoon tea” for the higher classes and “tea break” for the working classes mimicked the tea ceremonies begun in ancient China and Japan.

The history of the murky, aromatic beverage is also a rebellious one. In 1773, American colonists dumped loose leaf tea into Boston Harbor as a form of protest against Great Britain’s heavy taxation laws. This revolutionary act helped spark the Revolutionary War in 1775. The Tea Party, the American grassroots political movement, began in 2009 and took its name from this protest as a model for its conservative stance advocating for the reduction of government spending thus reducing the national debt and deficit in the federal budget. The relationship between the United States and England in terms of tea continued in 1904 when British tea merchant, Richard Blechynden, sold iced tea during the sweltering heat of the St. Louis World’s Trade Fair. Since then, the southern United States culture has popularized heavily-sugared iced tea that is occasionally served with lemon. Americans who make iced will typically reach for either Lipton (an American tea brand) or Twinings.

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Twinings is a master tea blending company that began in 1706 with Thomas Twining opening his shop on The Strand in London, and the company still remains there today. In 1717, Twinings Tea Company was the first beverage shop that opened to women because coffeehouses were for men only. Women could sit and drink a cup of tea at Twinings or take their self-selected blend home with them. In 1787, Twinings Tea Company designed a sign for the shop that also serves as a label for the tea, and to this day, the logo has claim to as the oldest commercial logo in continuous use. The Twinings’ name in bolded serif font represents everything a cup of tea should be: simple, classy, and timeless. Recently in 2006, Twinings celebrated 300 years of blending fine quality teas (such as its popular blends of Earl Grey and English Breakfast) that fit every mood and promise to get the tea consumer reconnected with himself or herself.

In recent years, the pomposity demonstrated by tea purveyors and purchasers alike in regard to their tea blend collections and tea paraphernalia has increased due to highly-acclaimed British television shows aired in the United States. These shows create an option for escapism from the worldwide economic recession. Instead of facing reality, the viewer can retreat to the idealized vision of the doings of a country manor house, which revolve around wealth and sophisticated tea services. Shows such as Downton Abbey, Doctor Who, and Sherlock have romanticized the idea of “high tea,” which is typically served with cups and saucers, fruits and sandwiches, cookies and scones, and daintiness and elegance. Downton Abbey has its own line of “English Rose Tea” and “Grantham Breakfast Blend Tea” on The Republic of Tea website. For Doctor Who fans, a TARDIS (a time machine in the shape of a blue telephone box) tea infuser and teapot and heat-changing mug are featured on ThinkGeek.com. Sherlock Holmes fans have used Adagio.com to sell their own tea blends that are related to both the hit show written by Stephen Moffat and the original stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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Tea was made popular in England during the 1700s because the lower-class population depended more and more on commercial producers rather than their own home-created goods. When they went to buy their bread and butter, they also bought the tea, the drink associated with respectability and high society. Additionally, sellers hawked its economical and medicinal properties, and as more people bought tea, it became more easily available and more widely advertised than coffee or beer. Before long, tea became England’s drink of choice. Tea is even in the 21st century due to its representation of Britain’s national identity, America’s rebellious spirit, and Asia’s soothing tea ceremonies.

To discover if the bitter, astringent taste of tea is a preferred choice, a lesson in preparing it is required. A cup of tea can be created by dunking a tea bag in hot water for three to five minutes. This method was made popular by Lipton Teas, a United States tea brand, which patented the first four-sided tea bag in 1952 to reduce the time required for the brewing process. Another option is for a Keurig machine brings the water to a boil then spurts the water through a K-cup, and ready-made tea dribbles down into the cup waiting below the Keurig machine. For an even faster method, a powdered mix can be stirred into eight ounces of water. These three production methods makes the tea drinker inclined to gulp down the beverage instead of savoring the aroma or taking deep, relaxing breaths between delicate sips. These three methods are for hurried, busy people, but they are not the only methods for making tea.

The long-standing tradition of brewing loose leaves is craft for connoisseurs dedicated to taking the time to create a high quality beverage with high quality blends. Loose leaf tea is stored in air-tight, dark-colored tins to preserve the taste and quality of the leaves, which come in black, white, green, and oolong. Fermentation, the treatment process to preserve tea leaves, determines the different styles of tea and the brewing time. Over-brewing can create a foul-tasting beverage while under-brewing results in a weak flavor. The attention to detail is also necessary for the temperature of the boiling water used to make the tea. An average temperature for most teas is between 150 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit, which take about two minutes on high heat to achieve. The water is first boiled in a tea kettle on a stove and then transferred to the tea pot. To warm the tea pot, the water should remain there for about three minutes and then be transferred to a sink.

A level tablespoon of loose leaf tea produces about one cup. Once this amount is poured into the warmed tea pot, the boiled water should be poured over top of the tea leaves. There is no need to stir the leaves or disturb the pot while the tea is brewing. Next, time the brewing to suit the style of tea. On average, the recommended time is three to five minutes. While the tea is brewing, an infuser should be placed over a mug. An infuser is made of a fine mesh and functions as a strainer for the loose tea leaves. The tea is poured over the infuser and into the mug. Depending on the drinker’s preference, sugar, milk, lemon, or honey can be added and stirred into the tea.

The time-sensitive steps of brewing tea are meant to bring about calm joy, natural grace, and internal quietude. The process of creating the perfect cup of tea requires the presence of mind to stay in the moment, and the clarity to enjoy all aspects of life. From boiling the water to finishing the last drop of tea, satisfaction can be found in the way that tea offers solace from life’s changes. The whistle of a tea kettle, the rustle of bitter tea leaves scraping against each other as they are scooped up, the trickle of hot water into the teapot: these are all sounds associated with a spiritual ritual of making tea. These long-standing traditions create a rare moment of slow, mindful, meditative stillness that comforts and energizes.

In addition to being a wholesome refresher for the spirit, tea adapts itself to the drinker’s needs because it is capable of absorbing different cultures and different trends. Modern-day tea drinkers have demonstrated a demand for ethics in their beverage. They wish to see that tea cultivation is done organically and that tea is grown for sustainability and that tea is traded fairly. Tea is also a time-respected, commonly-known medicinal and therapeutic remedy. Tea contains catechin antioxidants that help regulate food intake and can help with weight loss. Tea is a safe substitute for coffee because it not only reduces fatigue and enhances concentration, but provides calming effects and delivers energy. Tea also boosts the immune system, rehydrates the body despite its caffeine content, and supports the heart by activating circulation and fighting hypertension.

The very act of drinking tea means to adore the beautiful amidst the bland or sordid moments of everyday existence. Those who imbibe tea must show humility and gratitude for the harmony, purity, and tranquility it provides. It gives the body vigor; the mind, contentment. It allows the drinker to become one with his or her true nature. It offers rich simplicity and abundant stillness, which leads to reflective contemplation on life, the universe, and everything. Reverence must be shown for the way it refreshes and revitalizes the body and spirit. It must be respected for the way sustains the drinker from the inside by providing diligence to one’s purpose and by maintaining tranquility in the center. Tea allows a person to set aside self-interest, embrace the genuine elements of life, and possess the underlying natural order of the universe. Tea, therefore, is sacrosanct.

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Ripping equates to accidental destruction. An object needs repair. Content has been compromised because the original has been stolen. In either case, the integrity has been demolished. Ripping in the craft of crocheting has a different connotation. Ripping means a single yank that undoes hours of work. The piece unravels stitch by stitch, resulting in a cascading pile of yarn on the floor. The yarn must be untangled and rolled back into a skein. When you’re an impatient crocheting novice like me, ripping happens more often than not. It’s a frustrating and painstaking process similar to learning how to play people. Finger dexterity is needed for undoing knots and learning new stitches. Looking at a crochet pattern is like the untrained eye looking at a piece of music. Instead of seeing notes, there is just a mess of dots and lines and symbols on the page.

Yet every crocheter has to start somewhere, and best place to start is with a mistake. This lesson–along with countless hours with a crochet hook–created my Nana’s maxim, “It ain’t finished until you rip.” Nana’s maxim about ripping is therapeutic. Despite any setback, with enough diligent persistence, progress always moves the project forward. Mistakes are bound to happen though. They are all a part of the process when living life to the fullest. My Nana lived by this process. She didn’t just highhandedly craft my mom’s prom dress along with countless afghans. She was a master at saying what she thought, and she gave her opinion with a large dose of Pennsylvania Dutch feistiness and spunk.

Nana’s ability to rip without remorse passed down to my mom who passed it down to me. In my family, hooking year through loops links stories together in a way that transcends time. Crocheted items are not merely heirlooms for the touch; they are keepsakes for the memory as well. I follow my Nana’s maxim stitch by stitch and row by row. I keep the tradition alive by ripping out my mistakes and moving forward on feet that are just like my Nana’s, tiny with short, crooked toes.

For years I made the mistake of trying to maneuver my feet into maturity by wearing slinky boots or strappy sandals or sky-high stilettos. None of these shoes fit because they didn’t come in my size: a size one in the kid’s department. I should have been wiser and accepted my own idiosyncrasies sooner. If I had, my flat feet wouldn’t have ached from calluses. Blisters never would have formed where decorative straps cut into my feet, and the skin on my heels would not have been rubbed raw.

This agonizing foot pain was a problem when I played in my high school’s marching band. My feet couldn’t follow the drum cadence’s steady left, left, left rhythm. Marching heel-to-toe with ramrod-straight poster proved impossible, and my silhouette resembled a jerky marionette. Having to always correct my footwork ingrained the belief that I would never fit the expected standards. A perfect performance, therefore, was all about the recovery. At the start of every band show that carried me across the length of the football field, I was a Hobbit setting out on an adventure across J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth. I crossed each yard line knowing:

It’s a dangerous business going out your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.

Once I finally through away all the hellish pairs of shoes I owned, I gained a sense of my true self. My shoulders rolled back; my chin tilted up, and my spine was straight. Oh, The Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss enthusiastically exclaims:

Just never forget to be dexterous and deft/And never mix up your right foot with your left.

I’ve internalized this quote and accepted I’m an oddity in the shoe department. My favorite shoes are kid’s size one black patent pumps that have a tiny kitten heel. They’re graceful, a little whimsical, and have a touch of decorum. When I wear them, I’m able to carry myself with confidence. There’s a slight bounce in my stride that helps to keep my balance. My four feet-eleven inch frame resonates with tenacity and momentum. My shoes echo tap-tap-tap-tap, signalling to the world that I’ll surpass any mistake I make. Crochet hook in hand and pumps on my feet. These things will get me places as long as I believe I”m exactly where I need to be…even if it’s at a place I never expected to end up. Life isn’t lived until you take a risk, boldly rip, and move upward and onward.

Many thanks to Dr. Anne Murphy and Dr. Jane Crosson, both at the Johns Hopkins Charlotte R. Bloomberg Children’s Center, for their stellar medical care and support.

The heart is a crucial part of the human anatomy consisting of four chambers, which allow blood to receive oxygen as it flows through the body’s circulatory system. This definition’s scientific technicality fails to reflect my belief that the heart defines a person. I believe my heart has a distinct way of defining me. I am a patient. I am a patient who has a congenital heart defect. I am a patient with Truncus Arteriosus.

Human-Heart

Although these stark details do not offer an accurate portrayal of my condition, my hospital record does. I am a female who is 4 feet, 11 inches in height. I am a patient with a heart murmur caused by a malfunctioning mitral valve. I am a patient whose aorta and pulmonary artery were combined at birth. Consequently, only deoxygenated blood circulated through my body. I am a patient who, before the age of thirteen, had the following procedures: one stent, two balloon angioplasties, and four catheterizations. I am patient who has had two open-heart surgeries: one at four days old and one at the age of twelve.

Dr. Anne Murphy, my pediatric cardiologist at Johns Hopkins.

Dr. Anne Murphy, my pediatric cardiologist at Johns Hopkins.

Off the hospital record, the two heart donations that I received during these operations are the only reason a jagged green line marches across the heart monitor. Despite these donations, my heart is still incapable of creating a steady THUD-THUD sound like a bass drum. Rather, my heartbeat is a laboring washing machine that generates a sloshy THUMP-schwoosh sound.

THUMP-schwoosh. My heart lurches, pounds, struggles, and survives under the bumpy, white scar that runs down my chest like the links of a long, slender chain. THUMP-schwoosh. My imperfect heartbeat thuds behind sturdy white rib bones. THUMP-schwoosh. The erratic rhythm is a constant reminder of the debt I can never repay, and the noise creates an excruciating conflict inside me. THUMP. I am alive! I can experience sudden epiphanies, unexpected setbacks, askew ideas, and crisscrossing theories that puzzle and perplex but lead to some greater truth. Schwoosh. I ask myself reproachfully, “Am I doing enough? Am I making the most of the life I have been given?” THUMP-schwoosh. My heartbeat is a compass that throbs out the personal conviction “Live! Live boldly; live up to your potential.”

Despite its defects, I believe my heart defines me. I am a patient. I am a patient with Truncus Arteriosus. I am a person who is small yet mighty, determined, and resolute. I am a patient with a pulsing mass of veins and arteries that makes me a bundle of contradictions. I live in constant excitement for today, and conversely, in constant apprehension of tomorrow. The complex organ the size of my fist provides the aspiration to thrive in glorious existence. Under taught skin and sinew, an effervescence surges within the pulsating muscle of my borrowed heart.

My Clicky Pen

Posted: December 9, 2013 in Creative Nonfiction
Tags: , , , ,

I write because of my name. Emily translates to mean “industrious.” What could be more industrious than scribbling words on paper. The pen–sliding smoothly. My hand–hot with the effort. The paper–cool to the touch. Words swirling and curling as they are produced. The pen carving away at sentences. My hand aching as it strives for clarity. The paper manhandled as it is crumpled. Someday I will get it right. I’ve just got to keep striving forward. Being industrious. That’s how I am; it’s what I do. Writing doesn’t just keep me busy; it keeps me breathing. Without words, the jagged green line that marches across the heart monitor might as well be stationary. I need words. They turn the world, my reality, my perceptions from nonsense into order. Order is in the syntax. The syntax is in order. All is right with the world. With the world, all is right.

If only writing were always that easy.

Throughout high school, grammar and punctuation were my worst enemies. I had no patience for diagramming sentences or memorizing parts of speech. I was too much of a rebel to bother making sentences parallel. Comma splices strung my sentences together, what did I care. My battle cry was, “Let those dangling modifiers dangle!” Kerouac would have been proud; Steinbeck was probably doing cartwheels of joy in his grave, but my English teachers were far from thrilled. I became not a very good writer, but I was an excellent re-writer. In fact, without these people and these tools, I’d still be stuck in a backwater small town in rural, middle-of-nowhere Pennsylvania. I never would have made it to Towson, and I’d still think a conjunction is an inflammation of the eye.

My tricks and tips to becoming a professional writer include:

From high school and then college and now graduate school, I’ve learned that being a writer is being part of a community of learners, thinkers, and doers. For me, my writing community is in the writing center. Writing center walls hold an energy that is not only collaborative but also empathetic, which makes it a safe haven for even the most insecure writer. The tables are always full of bustling productivity as the tutor and the writer work side-by-side to share ideas. Paragraphs are rearranged; sentence structure is revised, and style choice is evaluated. In the end, the writer leaves the writing not only with a better paper but also with a better understanding of how to approach the writing process. This noisy hub of conversing, laughing, and learning is home for serious academics, either struggling or successful, who want to succeed in higher education.

My rationale for undertaking the insanity that is graduate school is because I came to love (and still love) writing centers when I was pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Secondary English Education. Turned out teaching middle schoolers or high schoolers wasn’t my thing, and I learned that lesson after four years of higher education. My issue with writing in the public school is that the subject is force-fed to students and leaves them with a bitter taste in their mouths. Composition wasn’t an art. To be good at producing A-level papers, students have to take a radical stance that, in truth, they don’t believe in, nor should they. They shouldn’t have to be Welder of the Red Pen, Oxford Comma Enforcer, or Human Spellchecker. The problem with this radical attitude is that these rules are not something that can be taught. The English language is a wonky, mischievous creature with DNA that is constantly fluctuating. To conquer this beast, the rules must be drilled, boot-camp style, into a person’s head. I’d much rather be a stickler for a bottom-line message with a concise, clear style rather than be overly concerned about proper punctuation.

This plain language approach is promoted in On Writing Well, a book by William Zinsser that I found when browsing the shelves at Towson’s Ukazoo bookstore. This is only one of the many books that mark my beginning as a writer. Crack open a spine; a whole new world awaits–waits to be explored, waits to be questioned, waits to be wondered about. Words spill across the page. Published authors make it look so easy. For me, writing is the hardest way of surviving financially, personally, professionally, and mentally. Writing is a sacrifice: a tedious, time-consuming, and tension-filled sacrifice.

I begin by sitting cross-legged with a notebook in my lap. A fat clicky pen with a rubber grip is in my clenched fist. In the attempt to be industrious, I bend my head over the lined paper I’ve placed directly under the tip of my nose. The refrain of self-doubt begins.

I can’t write: I’m not a writer. Who the hell am I kidding?

The clicky pen’s weight in my hand is comforting. I embrace the painful process that makes me a writer. I put my fat clicky pen to paper. I am alone with my thoughts. Words begin to form on the straight lines as the ideas are released with the quiet scrape of channeled ink. My pen is no longer a pen but a palate of colors. Through informative phrases, my pen chisels a crude slab of marble into a heavenly angel. Harsh, vibrant colors thrown onto a canvas with a few splashes of description can paint a portrait of hell. My pen is no longer a pen but a staff of musical notes. With staccato exclamation marks, a voice sings out. Short sentences with severe periods become the stiff, marcato beat of a marching band in a grand parade. Smooth commas direct the long, fluid sound of an orchestra performing in a huge concert hall.

My pen suddenly halts in its delicate dance across the page. I look down at the lined pages now spattered with words. They are words—my words—that were not there before. This ownership and industry is why I came to Baltimore County. I wanted to be surrounded by words at Towson University, at the CLA Writing Center, at the Towson Library, at Ukazoo, at The Book Thing.

Towson has become more than just my home. This place is my beginning. I came to Baltimore to turn a passion into a profession. Since then, I’ve stopped making set-in-stone plans. I’m not sure where I’ll end up the when the journey is done. Until then, I’m clicking my pen and waiting for the next idea to come.

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Posted: December 9, 2013 in Creative Nonfiction
Tags: ,

Inside the United States Holocaust Museum is a three-story room where grainy black-and-white photographs of a Jewish community hang from floor to ceiling.

Serenity marks the depicted daily routines, and the discolored images do not question or show fear. The immobilized faces stare, completely unaware their exhibit looks out of place in a museum that has death lingering over its artifacts. The dark-haired, dark-eyed features have preserved themselves in various expressions, but to see all of the countless poses, I have to look up, up, up until the back of my head rests awkwardly against my shoulder blades.

The panorama is dizzying. A picnic, a wedding, a play production, a swimming outing. A doctor assists a patient, a violinist practices his instrument, a farmer works in a field, a relative mourns at a gravesite. Scattered in between are portraits—grandparents, aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers—a family tree dressed in its finest. My gaze falls on a giggling girl holding a serious-faced baby. The picture reminds me of my two cousins, and I smile.

Emily and cousins

Emily and cousins

According to a plaque on the wall, an SS squad entered this Jewish community numbering more than 5,000 people and shot them, leaving only 720 survivors.

Tower of Faces

My heart wrenches open. The Holocaust’s gruesome history stretches beyond the picture frames, and the horrifying realism causes the unmoving scenes to come alive. A government’s regime of twisted principles forces Jewish families to live behind ghetto walls or hide behind false names. Next, cattle cars loaded with Jews travel towards ominous-sounding places such as Dachau, Buchenwald, or Auschwitz where their fates were limited to either survival or death.

Holocaust Cattle Car

Circumstances may prove favorable, but this is the Holocaust. Human hands hold a systematic guide to annihilation. Human hands take, reducing other human beings to nothing. Human hands shove and torture, making human beings witness a hell undefined by the ticking of time or the spinning of galaxies. Human hands pull triggers, and in an instant, human beings become numbers without names. This is no logic when human is against human, so I begin to count.

Six million. Six million lost identities. Six million forgotten ashes. Six million pairs of vacant, eerie eyes filled with traumatized anguish. Six million frail shells of skin pulled tight over bony frames. Six million faces. Six million voices. Six million stories. Six million deaths. Six million becomes a garbled, babbling chant. Six million is unfathomable, and the count still continues. Six million does not include the other five million people who were not Jewish but were killed because of their race, creed, disability, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. All told, eleven million. Eleven million dead.

Out of these eleven million voices, one takes me back to when I was seven years old. Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl was in my hands, and each poignant entry was an inspiration. Not only did this witty, inquiring, self-assured young woman want to be a writer but she also found words crucial to her maturing identity. The voice on the page had a dramatic, outspoken disposition, and so connected was I to her personality that I was convinced she was my long lost twin sister. Naturally, when I reached the final page, I became disconcerted at the unexpected line printed in all capital letters.

ANNE FRANK’S DIARY ENDS HERE.

ANNE FRANK’S DIARY ENDS HERE.

The conclusion was sudden and abrupt, leaving me wondering if there would be a sequel. All I got was an afterword informing me Anne Frank had been arrested by the Gestapo, transported to Bergen-Belsen, and died there at age fourteen because of a typhus outbreak.

This information was not enough to give me closure. To get it, I needed a detailed, dissertation-length report complete with dates, footnotes, and annotations. My morbid curiosity as to why Anne Frank had been silenced was my initiation into researching the Holocaust. Strange-sounding phrases such as Final Solution, Third Reich, Kristallnacht, and Einsatzgruppen began to enter my vocabulary. I could identify Oskar Schindler, Adolf Hitler, Elie Wiesel, Josef Mengele, and Miep Gies as easily as if they were pop culture icons.

Yet the reason for Anne’s death continued to elude me, and the larger issue of why the Holocaust had to have happened was still beyond my grasp. This was not to say the history lesson was enigmatic. In fact, the information was well within my level of comprehension. The basic facts were clear. I understood who killed eleven million people and how the murder had been performed. I saw the overarching themes: discrimination, prejudice, anti-Semitism, propaganda, genocide, persecution, hate. The brutality, though, remained inexplicable.

At the age of seven, my conclusion was that the world was mad, insane, and unbalanced. True, global affairs had improved since the Holocaust, but crimes and atrocities still happened around the world and would continue to happen. Humanity would never learn, and nothing could be done except rant about it. Since then, my worldview has changed. Close-mindedness does not make humanity collectively deranged, just certain people. Deluded, they hold fast to their opinions because doing so gives a sense of security in a topsy-turvy world.

The juxtaposition of their view and mine creates two opposing perspectives. Argument becomes circular; debate shifts into a series of fallacies, and senseless bickering is the result. The fact is there, plain and simple. One perspective is right, and all others are wrong. Rather than become outraged when I encounter this kind of blind intolerance, I calmly acknowledge that they have their stance; I have mine, and the two will never coincide because theirs is one of perpetuating injustice while mine is one of activism against it.

For me, activism does not mean a fist punching the air, a symbol of angry rebellion seeking out vengeance. Activism is a salve, enabling me to enfold myself in remorse and internalize the emotion. The effort compels me to listen to eleven million hushed, urgent whispers, and when I do, I empathize; I hurt; I grieve, but most of all, I learn so I can remember. The word “remember” leads to other words: words that raise awareness, words that educate, words that evoke compassion, and words that bear witness. While I may never fully understand the rationale behind the Holocaust, detachment or isolation from the event is out of the question. I am a human being, and therefore, I am connected to this macabre history. Forgetting is impossible.