Holding Silvan: A tale of loss and love

The new mother’s worst nightmare came in shards of bewildering words: “subdural hematoma… basal ganglia… thalami…sagittal sinus…” And the terrible eventual diagnosis: “severe hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy.”

 Monica Wesolowska
Monica Wesolowska

Once they had processed the meaning of it all – that their beautiful baby had no functional brain, no hope for a life, Monica Wesolowska and her husband David made the hardest decision ever required of parents, to let their infant son die. It was a decision complicated by advanced medical technology, a world into which the family was swept up, and by the wrenching physical, emotional and moral issues. But the two grieving parents clung fiercely to the conviction that they were choosing what was best for their son, and to the determination that for whatever time he had they would give him comfort, care and abundant love.

Wesolowska tells this tale with unflinching honesty in Holding Silvan: A Brief Life, a small book that manages to keep the reader mesmerized with what is ultimately a story of courage and, above all, life. She spoke with this writer recently about the book, and those days.

“I wanted and needed to write it,” Wesolowska says, in response to a question about whether the writing was therapeutic. “I felt very fortunate to be able to spend time remembering Silvan. Also, to revisit the time, do research…” Years later, both the experience and the firstborn son are integral to Wesolowska’s life; in the days and weeks after Silvan’s birth there was time only to struggle with the issues at hand. It is the immediacy of this struggle, overlaid with the love that surrounded Silvan as he died, that holds the reader.

After publication, we asked, did Wesolowska get negative feedback? “I was surprised at how little,” she says. “In part, I think it was because so few people want to read a book about the loss of a baby. A few heartening back-and-forths, when people came around. But the most difficult (discussions) are with parents of brain-damaged children. It turns out that what they’re dealing with is much less extreme (damage.)” In such cases Wesolowska tries to communicate the singularity of the choice she and David made. “My goodness, I would never suggest a child with disabilities is not absolutely loveable. I’m not here to judge the difference of your love.”

Holding Silvan coverThere were helpful and unhelpful things that people said and did as Silvan was dying and in the aftermath. The best, Wesolowska says, “were the people who told me I was a good mother. What I was going through was motherhood, and a deep love. The hardest to take were when people said ‘Why didn’t you let him die a different way,’ or ‘How can you be so certain?’”

No one, though, tried to talk them out of their decision. In their Berkeley, CA area, “We were in a kind of liberal bubble,” she says. “But we really struggled toward the end. Legally, it was frightening.”

For all the fear, tragedy and loss, Holding Silvan is surprisingly uplifting. And, Spoiler Alert: there is a happy ending.

 

It was — 1933 — a very good year

Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Ruth Bader Ginsberg is too old? Perhaps she should consider stepping down from the Supreme Court?

These suggestions were floated more than once in the Q&A session after a recent Commonwealth Club talk by University of California Hastings Professor of Law Scott Dodson. Dodson is the editor of a newly released collection of essays, The Legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, whose writers suggest nothing of the kind. Contributors to the book, and Dodson himself, focus instead on the significant contributions made thus far by the 82-year-old justice, and the impact she continues to have on jurisprudence and on life in the U.S.

Dodson was drawn to write about Ginsberg because he “kept encountering her clear and consistent opinions” and wanted to create an objective view of her legacy – notably including gender discrimination, as in the case that ended Virginia Military Institute’s male-only admission policy, and racial discrimination, as in the voting rights case Shelby County v Holder. In the latter case, Ginsberg famously wrote that throwing out an anti-discriminatory measure as no longer needed “is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

As New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote several months ago: Ruth Bader Ginsberg has no interest in retiring.

Carol_Burnett_1958
Carol Burnett in 1958

Several days before the Dodson talk, David McCullough, 82, spoke at another San Francisco event in conjunction with his most recent book, The Wright Brothers. McCullough did not go into detail about his next project, but gives every indication that he is a writer with no interest in retiring.

Meanwhile in Texas, Willie Nelson, 82, has another concert coming up, and the next show planned by Carol Burnett, 82, is almost sold out.

This writer may not have anything else in common with Ruth, David, Carol and Willie, but we take what we can get. 1933 wasn’t a bad year to be born.

 

Figuring Out Who You Are

Hand with book“Please don’t call me Doctor Jones,” said an extremely distinguished PhD speaker I met recently; “I’m just a teacher named Joe. I’ve been Joe all my life.” His name is changed to protect the innocent.

Having one name all your life is almost as interesting to some of us… of a certain age… as meeting a prominent multiple-degree lecturer who calls himself “just a teacher.”

Not someone of many degrees, I am nevertheless someone of many names. Maiden name, married name, resumption of maiden name after divorce, brief and ill-fated second marriage (yep, changed my name again,) eventual marriage to my Final Husband, whose name I took on moving across the U.S. nearly a quarter of a century ago. Because I’ve been writing since college (Fran Moreland) I often joke – though this is not a source of pride, only comic relief – that my literary resume reads like an anthology. Each name still bears its own notoriety, as well as its own burdens.

A fascinating look at what names and name changes have meant to women over the centuries is offered by my talented writer/scientist friend Jo Anne Simson in a recent article published in Persimmon Tree magazine titled “What’s in a Name.”

Names, Simson writes, have been used against women in subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways to subjugate, control and deny their sense of personhood. Probably the most damning of these practices for women in America was the assigning to slaves the surname of their masters, which “ruptured a connection to a past culture from which they had been torn most unwillingly. Moreover, the name change signified an identity conversion from personhood to property… ‘Leave your past behind. You are now property, not a person.’”

This writer’s post graduate experience ended with an MFA in short fiction, University of San Francisco Class of 2000, which conferred a degree but no title. I have, however, managed to keep my final literary name since 1992.

At about the same time I took on the final marital/literary name above, my first grandchild was born, bringing the other defining ID: Gran. The favorites survive.

 

 

Literature, longevity & Mavis Gallant

Literature, longevity & Mavis Gallant

This essay first appeared on Huffington Post

I’m in mourning for Mavis Gallant.

You don’t remember Mavis Gallant? If you’re older than 14, you shared a century with her characters. You would have passed them on the streets of Manhattan, or Montreal, or Paris. They were people you recognized… even if you might not have stopped to talk with them. Where you really got to know them was in the pages of The New Yorker, which published 116 of her stories over a span of 40 years.

Mavis Gallant died recently at the entirely respectable age of 91. She produced sharp, beautifully crafted and highly readable short stories for more than half of those years. Collections of her stories were published in 1956 (The Other Paris), 2009 (The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories), and a dozen more collections appeared in the years in between — it boggles the short story writer’s mind.

And here’s the rub for me: In addition to the mourning, there is envy, admiration and — to be honest — a dash of literary despair. On the one hand is the shimmering example of a writer — a woman writer at that! — still writing great stories well past the age of, ahem, this octogenarian writer. And on the other is the sheer heft of her oeuvre. One volume of collected stories alone ran to 900 pages. We are not talking pages of tripe.

Mavis Gallant understood the abandoned and deceived; her own mother deposited her at a boarding school when she was four, saying, “I’ll be back in 10 minutes.” She also understood the displaced, having left her Canadian home for France, briefly wandering elsewhere in the post-World War II years when displacement was a fact of life for much of Europe and Asia. As a woman who defined the phrase “living by one’s wits,” she turned those wits to short fiction in a singular way. She also wrote novels and essays, critically acclaimed nonfiction.

But here is another rub: On top of the lack of maternal love and affection, Gallant endured other unimaginable emotional assaults and upheavals, realities that underlie her fiction. As a girl of 10, she was lied to about her father — she waited two years for him to reappear because nobody told her he had died. She was briefly and unhappily married, and heart-breakingly betrayed by her literary agent, who pocketed the money from the first New Yorker stories while Gallant struggled with hunger and despair in Spain and France. Gallant took it all in, survived and turned her life to short fiction, to the benefit of us all.

The rubs boil down to this: Suppose you’re a writer with a plain old happy childhood? You’ve already watched with envy — sometimes admiration and way more than a dash of despair — the flood of memoirs documenting addiction, abuse and aberrations of every conceivable kind, most of which inhabit bestseller lists for months. And here are the obituaries for one hugely admired short story writer, with the news that she too has a personal depth of Shakespearean tragedy to mine. Bless her battered heart.

At least she shared it all with us, in those dozens and dozens of marvelous stories. And kept at it until the end of her 91 eventful years.

Rest in peace, Mavis.

 

You CAN go home again…

… but it won’t be quite the same.

I’m just home from a trip to Washington, DC

commons.wikimedia.org
commons.wikimedia.org

for a nice event at The Corcoran Gallery that included a wide-ranging assortment of events — business, pleasure and in between. There were old faces, new faces and vastly altered landscapes, familiar turf and unfamiliar weather.

There were serendipitous treats like catching up with old friends I’ve not seen in a few years or a few decades… in the case of old friend  Roger Mudd, it was a matter of catching up on some 60 years.

Photo credit W&L.edu
Photo credit W&L.edu

And a side trip to my childhood hometown of Ashland, VA, where the characters of many of my short stories roam.

Thomas Wolfe, whose book title inspired this blog post, put it this way: “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.” I wasn’t inspired to lean down my ear on the frosty February earth of Ashland (although the phrase brings fond memories of leaning our childhood ears upon the train tracks to figure out whether a locomotive was en route,) but it was fascinating to find things changed, and unchanged:

The dining room where I ate dinners for some 20+ years features a different wallpaper and is decorated with different art, but it’s still a warm and welcoming room and I was incredibly blessed to be invited to a “Homecoming Dinner” therein with family, old friends and the now residents of the home. 2014-01-31_18-53-31_136

Randolph-Macon College is unchanged in some of its gracious, over 100-year-old buildings and long familiar original campus on which I grew up, but surely changed in the rapidly expanding new campus… and the student body which was all male in my long ago childhood. It was a very special treat to meet with some of the current students and faculty, in class and at lunch. That story follows in a few days here; I hope you’ll stay tuned.

Afghanistan suggestion: Make tea, not war

Greg Mortenson in Afghanistan 3500ppx
Image via Wikipedia

A glimmer of good news from the endless bad-news war in Afghanistan: the people doing the fighting are in touch with someone who was winning, a long time before they started fighting.

In the frantic last hours of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s command in Afghanistan, when the world wondered what was racing through the general’s mind, he reached out to an unlikely corner of his life: the author of the book “Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortenson.

“Will move through this and if I’m not involved in the years ahead, will take tremendous comfort in knowing people like you are helping Afghans build a future,” General McChrystal wrote to Mr. Mortenson in an e-mail message, as he traveled from Kabul to Washington. The note landed in Mr. Mortenson’s inbox shortly after 1 a.m. Eastern time on June 23. Nine hours later, the general walked into the Oval Office to be fired by President Obama.

Mortenson, of course, hasn’t been winning any battles. What he has been winning are the trust, and occasionally the hearts, of Pakistani tribal leaders in a long-running effort to educate their daughters.

The story of this school-building crusade, which came about as a thank-you gesture after Mortenson received help during a mountaineering mishap, is told in Three Cups of Tea. The story of the book — it went nowhere when published with a warrior subtitle, then caught on like wildfire when Mortenson won a mini-battle to bring it out as his originally intended plea for peace — is told in the talks he has been making around the country for several years.

To hear Mortenson talk, as this writer has happily done several times, is to become a believer in hope. Most of us have been coming home saying, “Gee, could we spend a few billions less on platoons and give a few billions to Greg Mortenson’s schools instead?” Mortenson, a giant of a man who clearly has no personal agenda, is not a motivational speaker. But his tale is compelling.

The title of that first book comes from his discovery, early on, that the first step in building anything — school, relationship, whatever — is to sit down over three cups of tea. Hundreds of cups of tea and a few near-death episodes later, he has quietly managed to forge relationships with isolated tribes and build schools for girls who will grow up — perhaps — to think there’s something good about America. Some schools have been destroyed (and occasionally rebuilt), some relationships have gone sour, but the idea that something good can be developed between the U.S. and that wild land without bombs and guns — or despite guns and bombs — is heart-warming. And more than a little surprising.

Mr. Mortenson, 52, thinks there is no military solution in Afghanistan — he says the education of girls is the real long-term fix — so he has been startled by the Defense Department’s embrace.

“I never, ever expected it,” Mr. Mortenson, a former Army medic, said in a telephone interview last week from Florida, where he had paused between military briefings, book talks for a sequel, “Stones into Schools,” and fund-raising appearances for his institute. (The Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to community-based education, primarily for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

But thanks to a few military wives, who read Three Cups of Tea and then insisted their husbands read it too, a connection was made between the warriors and the peacemaker. It is an unlikely, and in many ways perilous, partnership, but if you’ve read the book or heard the talk you probably feel a glimmer of optimism.

The military’s Mortenson-method efforts  in Afghanistan thus far are outlined in Elisabeth Bumiller’s July 18 New York Times report. His own job will now involve convincing the elders that he hasn’t become a tool of the military. It’s a strange world out there. But it seems somehow more hopeful.

Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice – NYTimes.com.

Re eGadgets: will eReaders replace books?

In all the current talk about new eGadgets and their impact, the eBook has pretty much escaped condemnation — except for the dwindling population still committed to the printed page. And some of us hold-outs are beginning to waver.

Two old friends, Peter and Martha Klopfer, arrived from North Carolina yesterday with 60 or 70 books to get them through 10 days on the west coast. Peter, who is a Duke Professor Emeritus of biology,  and Martha, who is a thinker, runner, endurance rider and generally literate person, are prone to go off into the jungles of Madagascar or trekking in the Jordanian desert or climbing Machu Pichu. On these sorts of trips 30 or 40 books in their old-fashioned form are difficult to manage.

Enter the justifiable eReader.

There are by now enough eReaders to fill an old-fashioned 8 1/2 x 11″ piece of paper in 10-point Times Roman type. There’s the pioneering Kindle and the Kobo and the Nook and the Sony and of course the loudly heralded iPad, and there are probably a dozen others poised to debut.

But would you cuddle up with an eReader, asks Cynthia Ramnarace in an AARP Magazine blog?

Absorbing the written word isn’t what it once was. Whether you’re a new convert to e-reading or a die-hard fan of bound pages, you can’t ignore the evolution of reading. News reported by websites, e-mail and text messages is strangling printed newspapers. E-mail has replaced handwritten notes. And entire books can now be read on hand-held computers with a mere 6-inch screen.

The issue Ramnarace and others are debating is all about the reading experience. Can you be transported to another realm, as has always been true with paperbacks devoured on secluded beaches or under old trees in back yards — or under the covers with a flashlight for that matter, by a bunch of words on an eScreen? Maybe. But hard core print-book people think not.

“When books become computerized, you lose that contact with the maker,” says Cindy Bowden, director of the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. “When you pick up a book, you notice the feel, the touch, the way the ink bleeds into the paper.”

If anybody thinks the paperback or its big brother hard cover will ultimately defeat the eBook onslaught, however, it is probably wise to think again. The copies you can buy in a bookstore that can’t also be bought in an eForm are getting fewer and farther between every day.

Not all books are available as e-books, but many are. Of the two industry leaders, Kindle boasts a library of 285,000 books, most for $9.99 each. The Sony Reader provides free access to 500,000 books in the public domain, including classics like Jane Austen and William Shakespeare; the Kama Sutra and the Bible; and contemporary works like Sue Grafton and Dennis Lahane, even “The DaVinci Code.” Another 100,000 are available for purchase from the Sony eBook Store.

Over time, e-readers could prove more economical than traditional books. For the price of buying 26 new hardcover books, one could also purchase the same number of e-books, plus the Kindle itself. And the devices allow readers to sample the first chapter of any book for free before purchase. Digitizing words could help elevate the medium, and in turn, boost a struggling publishing industry.

Peter and Martha are en route to the 40th annual Ride & Tie championship in Trout Lake, WA, where there is great beauty but not library and where they will celebrate their 55th anniversary in a manner somewhat more strenuous than most post-50th observances. After the race, there will be eReading.

Can You Love an Electronic Reader as Much as a Book? The Debate Is On – AARP Bulletin Today.

Is technology addiction messing with your brain?

my brains - let me show you them
Image by Liz Henry via Flickr

This is your life? Beginning at breakfast — or perhaps earlier, in the bathroom — one sizable screen with multiple streams of news, stock reports and data updates across the bottom; tweets in a box on the left; the iPhone nearby holding stacked up e-mails, IMs and calls that went into the mailbox? If so, you are not alone. As a matter of fact, it seems almost no one is alone, or disconnected from technological communications, any more. In the words of New York Times writer Matt Richtel, “This is your brain on computers.”

Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.

These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement — a dopamine squirt — that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored.

The resulting distractions can have deadly consequences, as when cellphone-wielding drivers and train engineers cause wrecks. And for millions of people … these urges can inflict nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought, interrupting work and family life.

While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress.

Richtel follows a family of four through their technology-addicted lives: they go on an oceanside vacation, but soon are all on their electronic devices; one day at the beach is mercifully unplugged. But on routine days, few moments are unplugged.

“And scientists are discovering,” Richtel reports, that even after the multitasking ends, fractured thinking and lack of focus persist. In other words, this is also your brain off computers.”

“The technology is rewiring our brains,” said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world’s leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.

Technology use can benefit the brain in some ways, researchers say. Imaging studies show the brains of Internet users become more efficient at finding information. And players of some video games develop better visual acuity.

More broadly, cellphones and computers have transformed life. They let people escape their cubicles and work anywhere. They shrink distances and handle countless mundane tasks, freeing up time for more exciting pursuits.

For better or worse, the consumption of media, as varied as e-mail and TV, has exploded. In 2008, people consumed three times as much information each day as they did in 1960. And they are constantly shifting their attention. Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour, new research shows.

The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”

We just don’t fully understand what those consequences might be. This space worries. Couldn’t we get our adrenaline the old-fashioned way?

Your Brain on Computers – Attached to Technology and Paying a Price – NYTimes.com.