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how instagram helps my writing

How Instagram Helps My Writing

I took a “Writing from Personal Experience” class in Cambridge taught by Mopsy Strange Kennedy. An exercise she often assigned us involved going on “writerly walks.”  She encouraged us to travel our usual paths but make the effort to really notice – maybe for the first time – the details along the route: the bicycle chained to a post, the balustrade in need of paint, the torn screen on a window.  After the walk, we were supposed to write about a particular object, the more mundane the better, but the purpose was to infuse that object with meaning.  It was a good way to develop writing muscle as well as the art of paying attention. I noticed quirks and color and inconsistencies. I noticed the way the sun reflects off a window or the way steam rises off hot pavement, windows that were open wide and music that traveled to the sidewalk, even the scent of hot pizza escaping a delivery bike’s insulated red container. I noticed trash and dog poop, as well as crocuses pushing up through the earth.

Aiming to post a daily photo on Instagram requires a similar practice. When taking photographs, I am not looking for smell or sound, but for an interesting tableau.  It’s easy to take our routines for granted, but when searching for beautiful patterns or color or amusements, we have our eyes wide open.  Social media can be blamed for a lot but, for me at least, when it comes to Insta, it adds an artistic distraction to my day.

Follow me on Instagram @jeanneblasbergauthor.

The Camino de Santiago- A Modern Pilgrimage

In theory, the medieval pilgrimage routes of Europe shouldn’t have held any special allure for me. “It’s such a Christian thing,” several people commented when I told them about our travel plans. I am a 53-year-old Jew, but I am also a lover of the outdoors, of physical challenge, and of meditation. John and I wanted a taste, so we chose a relatively short section, 210km, 10 days, on the Camino de Santiago, a thousand mile and thousand year old migratory path that culminates in Santiago de Compostela, Spain with an emotional mass held in its ornate cathedral.

After attending the high mass (yes, the mass…) with Catholic rites and flair galore, my husband and I found ourselves roaming city streets in search of Jerusalem street, the center of the Jewish quarter that existed before the Inquisition. Where did our people fit in? We were migratory, we were spiritual, where were the monuments to Jews along this meditative way? All we found on the crooked alleyway was a bookstore with Judaica in its window (closed for midafternoon siesta). Still it was something, albeit small, but in a prominent location only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral.

The next morning, we flew to Marrakech, arriving at our riad in the Medina as the call to prayer was sounding. Traveling from the height of Christendom to a Muslim land was jarring. Still yearning for something of the Jewish diaspora, we visited the Synagogue of Marrakech, dating from 1492 – a year ingrained in any American schoolgirl’s head as the year when Columbus sailed the ocean blue… but it was also fourteen years after Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand began extinguishing Jews during the Spanish Inquisition.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to North Africa, the synagogue opening in Marrakech marked that Sephardic migration. I flashed back to my 7th grade French teacher, a Jew from Morocco – meeting her as a privileged, white, suburban kid in the 1970’s made an impact that has lasted to this day. Back then there was nothing more exotic to me than a French-speaking female Jew from Africa of all places. Who knew?

Over forty years later I was traveling to her homeland to hike into the High Atlas mountains. Our local guide pointed out the remains of various synagogues tucked away in small villages. Many of North Africa’s Jews were Berbers, living in these remote places. Morocco has always prided itself on being a pluralistic country, but when it achieved its independence from France in 1956, many of its Jews fled to Israel and elsewhere fearing inhospitable rule.

It wasn’t until I was sitting on the plane, writing down thoughts on the way back to North America, that I mused on our walk along the Camino followed by a journey to Morocco mirroring the migratory pattern of Jews over hundreds of years…. Walking, not toward a religious ceremony, but because they were chased out, first from Spain and Portugal and later from various North African countries.

Similar to Christianity, Islam places pilgrimage as one of its central pillars. Every year, 2-3 million Muslims make a Hajj (a word interestingly sharing the same root as the Hebrew word “chagag” meaning to make a pilgrimage) to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This happens during a five-day period, starting on 8 and ending on 12 Dhu al-Hijjah, the twelfth and last month of the Islamic calendar. It is required that Muslims make this journey once in a lifetime. Their pilgrimage is a demonstration of Muslim solidarity as well as an opportunity to shed material trappings, to focus on self over outward appearance. Shedding material trappings, and self-introspection was also what John and I had endeavored on the Camino.

While we walked, John and I wondered what the Jewish version of a pilgrimage would be. Before the destruction of the Temple, the Hebrew Bible commanded Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times per year: in the spring during Passover, in the summer during Shavuot, and in the fall during Sukkot. There is not a specific trail prescribed, just a returning. Next year in Jerusalem!

We googled and researched in the evening after walking. We discovered the ancient road of Abraham, called the Abraham Path, thinking it might represent the Jewish equivalent of the Camino – but such a journey seemed unrealistic in today’s political climate. It stretches from Urfa in Turkey to Hebron in the West Bank, spreading over thousands of kilometers through Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.

Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the Jews sanctifying time over place. We worship in our homes, not in ornate churches. Shabbat is our cathedral – it exists anywhere – and is marked by time and the lighting of candles, not architecture. It is the Jew’s responsibility to treat time as sacred as opposed to places. Maybe he would have told us that our most important pilgrimage isn’t through tangible geography with a large building our stadium as the end-point, but through time. Below I have copied one of my favorite poems from the Jewish liturgy which is of the same spirit:

Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness –
And often back again;
From health to sickness
And back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding –
From fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat –
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination;
And life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage to life everlasting.

I found a poem called “Pilgrim’s Prayer” on a postcard in one of the churches along the Camino. It asks the question: what good is a pilgrimage if you don’t bring its teachings home? It reminded me of the Jewish text in Isaiah that we read each year during Yom Kippur, “Is this the fast I desire?” asking (and I paraphrase): What is the point of a fast if you are only going to take your discomfort out on other people? A proper fast should unlock the fetters of wickedness, untie the cords of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free. During a proper fast, one should share one’s bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into one’s home; upon seeing the naked, clothe them, and not ignore one’s own kin.

Pilgrim’s Prayer
By Fraydino
Although I may have travelled all the roads
Crossed mountains and valleys from East to West,
If I have not discovered the freedom to be myself,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have shared all my possessions
With people of other languages and cultures;
Made friends with pilgrims of a thousand paths,
Or shared albergue with saints and princes,
If I am not capable of forgiving my neighbor tomorrow,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have carried my pack from beginning to end
And waited for every Pilgrim in need of encouragement,
Or given my bed to one who arrived later than I,
Given my bottle of water in exchange for nothing;
If upon returning to my home and work,
I am not able to create brotherhood
Or to make happiness, peace and unity,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have had food and water each day,
And enjoyed a roof and shower every night;
Or may have had my injuries well attended,
If I have not discovered in all that, the love of God,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have seen all the monuments
And contemplated the best sunsets;
Although I may have learned a greeting in every language
Or tasted the clean water from every fountain;
If I have not discovered who is the author
Of so much free beauty and so much peace,
I have arrived nowhere.
If from today I do not continue walking on your path,
Searching and living according to what I have learned;
If from today I do not see in every person, friend or foe
A companion on the Camino;
If from today I cannot recognize God,
As the one God of my life,
I have arrived nowhere.

I have learned that whether through foreign lands or through my time on earth, I am always on a pilgrimage. I might not be lacing up the hiking boots every morning, but all I can do is put one foot in front of the other, be my strongest, and help fellow souls along the way.

Time Travel

Starting our walk on the Camino each morning, we were smug setting off under a pre-dawn, pale blue and pink sky, the only sound being the chirp of waking birds. But in the northwestern corner of Spain, the sun didn’t rise until 9am. My brain had a hard time reconciling the position of the sun with the time on my watch. No wonder the Spanish sleep late and eat dinner at 10pm, their internal clocks are synced with their natural world. What would happen if we all cashed it in at 4pm during the long New England winters?

After 210KM on the Camino, we went to Morocco to continue being tourists, however, we were Red Sox fans first and foremost. Having downloaded the post season MLB package for international viewing on his tablet, my husband and I were trying to participate in the fun even though we were 9 hours east of the LA start. Before game 5 of the World Series, I set my alarm for 4am, a pattern that worked on previous nights in order to take in the game’s final innings. But on that particular night, all we saw was the last pitch being thrown. The announcer exclaimed the Red Sox had clinched in three hours and fifty-eight minutes. John and I looked at each other, confused. Sure we were groggy, but then I remembered the damned King. The king of Morocco had ruled 24 hours before the clocks were supposed to change that he wished to abandon daylight savings time. Problem was our phones, watches, and alarms didn’t get the message. Note to self: old-fashioned, battery-operated travel clocks are still a good thing. Missing game 5 of the World Series paled in comparison to all the people who missed flights, trains, and business appointments. The King could do what he wanted but Apple products had minds of their own.

Timetables were in disarray and flight times had to be adjusted by an hour so that connections could be made. The citizens were up in arms about the autocratic decision and so in that confusing, passive-aggressive manner of a local protest, still three days later, waiting in line at Passport control, chaos unfolded. Screens had times that conflicted with boarding passes. Dozens of people pushed to the front and cut under ropes, worrying they were going to miss their flights. Not a pleasant ending to our wonderful journey.

When we landed in Boston, I had just enough time to lay my head on the pillow before heading to Scottsdale for an author retreat. It was one week post the Moroccan King’s decision and now it was the US’s turn to put its clocks back. Fine, except I learned Arizona is the exception. Why was I experiencing two local governments in the span of one week that felt the need to be different? Crossing multiple time zones and jet lag, caused an insecurity that I was late and never really knew what time it was. You’ve all heard of FOMO, I was experiencing FONKWTIS: Fear Of Not Knowing What Time It Is. Was this some sort of sign from the universe? Who knew traveling in October could be fraught with such complications.

Forget the world’s clocks and time zones, my body’s clock is what was really thrown off. Fatigue had caught up – being in another continent and attempting to watch the play offs and the World Series was probably a bad decision…. But all the travel west meant I had to wake up in the wee hours of the morning and fight off collapsing at the end of the day. For a weekend trip to AZ I wouldn’t bother to conform. I wrote long essays (like this weird one) in the middle of the night and was waiting for the hotel gym to open in the morning. I had lived a full day before breakfast.

I soaked in every bit of desert sun before leaving for the airport. The sun’s rays and rise and fall provided the energy and charge my brain required. Flying east, I’ll soon be home for the first time in three weeks and hopefully prepared for four months of darkness.

camino packing blog

On Minimalism: Packing or Unpacking

It is always easier to pack more than less. Just like it is easier to spew out a burgeoning overwrought draft than refine a work of poetry. Sitting on the floor of my bedroom with a suggested packing list, luggage weight limitations, and the need to only carry-on, the journey has begun – or at least the mindset – I will be in Boston for about 30 more hours but I am already letting things go.

I won’t bring my laptop, too heavy and tempting for thieves, for example. Might not sound like a big deal, but to a writer, it’s like dropping an appendage. In order to leave it behind, I needed to complete a lot of work this week. I would not allow myself that old procrastination, “I’ll just do it on the plane.” Down to the wire, I submitted THE NINE for copyediting yesterday – whoop whoop! While walking in Spain and Morocco, I plan to write some travel pieces as well as journal and start drafting scenes for a new novel with the working title “In Question,” and get a little jump on NaNoWriMo. I will do it all with pen and paper.

I have decided which paperback to carry with me – the advanced copy of Leading Men by my friend, Chris Castellani.

What else? Passport, credit cards, good shoes, rain gear, Advil, clean underwear, sunglasses, water bottles.

We will be having meals in a few nice restaurants and the weather will be much warmer in Marrakech than in Spain or in the Atlas mountains… So maybe, 2 dresses? A fleece? One of our travel buddies brings only old clothes on these trips and after something is too dirty to wear again, she leaves it in the hotel room. Her goal is to go home with nothing. Others bring very little, maybe with an extra bag folded into the bottom of a suitcase with the philosophy that it’s fun to buy souvenirs and necessary items at your destination.

During the Passover Seder we often discuss the journey and what are the basics – i.e. if you had to distill everything down to just the metaphorical flour and water (Matzah)… What would you carry? With my competitive mindset, I take that as almost a challenge – how little can I live with? With the answer being: A lot less than I think.

This is one of the wonderful lessons of wandering or adventure travel. You are forced to bring less and realize at some point along the way, you didn’t even need half of that. We took a river rafting trip in the Grand Canyon a while back where I wore only a bathing suit morning, noon, and night for 7 days. Even to sleep in and I never looked in a mirror or put on make up. Granted, that was warm Arizona, but I have never forgotten the lesson of that trip.

Shed, shed, shed…

Patience and Purpose in Jury Duty

I had a feeling when I showed up on October 1st my number would get called. I had a pretty flexible week, no true hardship. I had no bias to claim, no obvious conflicts of interest. It did in fact take an interview of almost 90 potential jurors to select the 14 of us who would serve on the jury, and given the prior week’s bruises to our judicial system, I felt compelled to fulfill my responsibility as an American citizen.

I watched my psyche go from feeling like I might be selected, to wanting to be selected, to regretting being selected. From controlling and protecting my time to surrendering my time – and to an inefficient (in my opinion) calendar at that. I was forced to sit for hours with no distractions, just paying attention (wow).

Mine was seat number 5 and looking around the jury box, we were a cross section of society for sure. We listened to seven days of testimony and observed evidence on a topic that was frighteningly close to one of my biggest fears. Colonoscopy. More and more I became certain the universe ordained my selection because I was intended to learn something there. It was like a mini medical school on the topic with one of the country’s leading practitioners serving as an expert witness. I now know enough about the complications of colonoscopy to be scared to death of my next procedure. (I have been on a 3-year testing cycle since age 40 due to a family history of colon cancer.) Great.

Besides the anatomy education I received, and accepting the inability to control my schedule, the experience of serving on a jury boosted my faith in the system. My verdict was coming out pretty clearly in one direction as the evidence was unfolding…. And each evening I would wonder if my fellow jurors felt the same. However, we were not allowed to discuss anything until the very end of the trial when it was time to deliberate. Anyway, even though I was feeling certain, I wondered if the others were as convinced as I was. How often in life can 14 people absolutely agree? We were different genders, ages, races, had varying levels of education and economic backgrounds. We were from all parts of the city. I was expecting a healthy debate when it came time to render a unanimous decision.

After the closing arguments were made and the judge gave us his instructions, we returned to the jury room to discuss. After thirty minutes of expressing our impressions and discussing the relevant points, it seemed like we were all on the same page. A vote proved it to be so.

The defendant breathed a big sigh of relief as our decision was read. A trial by a jury of his peers was his right as a citizen of the United States of America. We had his professional future in our hands. Next time you get called to jury duty, don’t look for an excuse.

sea worthy

Sea Worthy

Our boat was loaded down with golf clubs, hostess gifts, costumes for a Saturday night party, bedding, clothing, and cheese and crackers. The dog was at the sitter’s and the sun was high in the sky. Our plan was to stop first at the gas dock in Avondale before starting our journey north along the Rhode Island coast, through Buzzards Bay to Marion, MA. We wanted to  arrive in time for dinner.

When John went to start the engines, however, it became clear there was a problem. Everyone knows that heart-sinking feeling: plans are laid and the forecast is perfect, but technical difficulties arise. “Ugh,” I moaned.

I took a deep breath, preparing myself for the likelihood we’d be transferring everything from the boat into our car and making the trip by land. Not as fun, not nearly as fun. Fortunately, Mike from Frank Hall’s boatyard met us at the gas dock and walked us through the cause of the problem (one of our batteries was failing) and helped us decide whether or not it was safe to make the trip.

It’s been said that the most dangerous thing to have on a boat is a schedule. One must be willing to surrender to the inevitability of things breaking down, and weather and sea conditions stirring up. Time on a boat is meant to be at a different pace than on land and serves to remind us that we are never in control even though we pretend to be.

This time, we decided to carry on, assured the running engine would do its part to replenish the charge of one of our batteries. We’d make it to Marion, Cuttyhunk, Hadley Harbor, Falmouth, and Edgartown before returning to Watch Hill four days later. And don’t you know every time those engines turned over and purred, I said a prayer of gratitude.

In addition to some anxiety over the battery, we’d also heard a lot about how tricky the channel through Woods Hole can be, with ferries and currents and lots of boat traffic. However, by the time the weekend was over we had made a huge deposit in the bank of experience and navigated it three times.

There is something very satisfying about being tested on the water and rising to the occasion, taking the opportunity to strengthen the resiliency muscle. Yes, our destinations were beautiful and so were our friends and the weather, but this particular trip felt more like an opportunity to learn and gain confidence. It was our first time through Buzzards Bay and our proximity to the Cape Cod Canal sparked my interest in cruising even further north. I love to push our boundaries…. stay tuned.

on-golfing-and-writing

On Golfing and Writing

on-golfing-and-writing

If I look back at the woman I was twenty years ago…

I never thought I’d love golf. I also never thought about the day I’d be staring into my sixth decade on the planet. When you are in your thirties, it’s hard to find joy in a slower tempo. In the same way yoga didn’t appeal to me at that age, neither did a four-hour activity mired with frustration.

It’s only been in the last ten years I’ve come to appreciate the compassion and brain health that comes from a beginner’s mentality. It is so much easier to stick with what we are good at, but there is no growth in that. No matter how much golf I play, I’m always filled with humility and the sense that I have so much to learn. As a writer, reading great books evokes the same feeling. German classes and years of bridge lessons have also put me in the shoes of a beginner, but those practices didn’t stick the way golf has.

That’s because I also love being outdoors. I’ve come to crave the green grass and fresh air, the camaraderie walking the course, my heart rate slowing with the measured, even, pace of the game. A four-hour walk with good friends and no phones: such a luxury in today’s world. Golf teaches me that success comes from taking time and studying my options. Ever try to putt quickly without reading the green? I am a type A personality who multi-tasks and juggles multiple projects at once. Golf has taught me something about concentration and clarity. It has taught me to value precision over power.

Golf benefits my squash and my writing in the same way yoga or meditation does. I like to think of a golf outing as an extended practice in even breathing and intentional thinking. It begins with gratitude for just having the time and the access to play the game. Then, every swing, every new hole is an opportunity to put the past behind and visualize greatness and use positive self-talk. It’s taken me many decades to face down the critic in my head, but rounds of golf have given me millions of opportunities to tell her to go away!

I never thought I’d love golf, I never understood what people liked about it. I can’t believe I’m at an age where I feel this way, but I really do love golf.

Back on Campus – School Stories

back on campusYou’ve probably seen all the photos on Facebook and Instagram – it’s graduation season and I can’t believe how my friends’ children are growing up! Graduations mark a big accomplishment for students as well as parents. Whether its high school or college, it is monumental to have crossed this major finish line.

Our middle son graduated from college on Memorial Day Weekend. It was a wonderful weekend that brought our family together to honor him and all his hard work. There were ceremonies and cocktails and dinners, but what I most appreciated was being on campus.

A campus is an island whether its remotely located or embedded in a town. It’s a self-contained world with traditions and a culture and rules of its own. It is self-governing and is populated by a revolving door of young adults. It has its common spaces and its hiding places. It has its own rhythm with quiet mornings and raucous late nights.

As a parent, walking onto a campus, or into a dorm or classroom building, feels like sneaking – dare I say trespassing after all the tuition we’ve laid out! But we aren’t supposed to be there, when we visit we are voyeurs to a special place and time that is no longer ours. And our children, who have license to occupy the space, might do so with the mindset of a traveler on an extended journey. They will be moving on, after all. So, it becomes a first home away from home, an experiment in living alone.

Aah if the walls could talk. The campus has seen growth and love and dissent and resistance. The campus has seen victory and protest. The campus has seen homesickness and nostalgia. The campus has witnessed trepidation and pride.

Maybe that is why, in addition to the romance of an actual green quadrangle surrounded by ivy-laden brick buildings, I have always loved the campus novel. What do you think of this line up:

I devoured all these books. A writing teacher had me watch “The Sterile Cuckoo,” starring a very young Liza Manelli and filmed on the Hamilton College campus. There are the more main stream hits: Love Story, Animal House, and Harry Potter but I think I’ve made a point – drama or comedy, literary fiction, or a trashy delve into Restless Virgins, lots of people find the campus entertaining. There is something primal about a world unto its own – it’s a microcosm of society, with all sorts of “Lord of the Flies” possibilities.

I am working on the final revisions of my novel, The Nine, which is also set on a boarding school campus. When I wrote EDEN, I hadn’t been aware that there was a whole genre around the “saying-goodbye-to-the-family-summer-home” story line. I am well aware, however, there is a long history of great campus novels. They have been a mainstay of American literature since before Holden Caulfield bolted for New York City. Campuses are filled with intrigue and mystery and the adults in charge of them are managing conflict and staving off scandal. It’s ripe, people. It’s ripe.

I would love to hear what your favorite campus novels are and why!!