Saturday, December 27, 2014

Book Review: Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s

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Book Review: Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer’s, by Esther Altshul Helfgottby Nessa McCasey, PTP, CPT, Mentor, International Academy for Poetry Therapy

 After reading and reviewing Helfgott’s previous book, Dear Alzheimer’s: A Caregiver’s Diary & Poems, last year, I was looking forward to reading her new book of poems, as Esther writes with such compassion and love through the troubles and tribulation of illness (and death). She refuses to shrink from honesty, yet there is no malice in her honesty, even here in these poems about grief. This book is the moving-forward steps that became Esther’s life even as she was still looking for Abe in her community, as if her soul wasn’t convinced that her deceased husband was truly gone from her. I consider this anecdote: There is a story about tribesmen who were guiding an archeological dig but suddenly stopped and refused to go further. The archeologist didn’t understand and was unsuccessful in making the tribesmen go any further. Then the tribesmen picked up their gear and set off once more. When asked, they responded: “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.” As I read the pages of poems in Listening to Mozart, I felt myself calming down and experiencing the process of grief as if I was giving my soul time to catch up to me. I certainly hope that happened for Esther as she was writing.

Emotional loss in our fast-paced lives may indeed cause any of us to need time to rest or restore ourselves. Writing as Esther did in this regular rhythm in the form of a journal over the time of mourning her husband’s death could have become the way for herself/her soul to catch up as she processed this major life transition.  The living must take some time to leave the dead behind us. And some day, each of us shall also be left behind. It’s a necessary fact of life. To offset any cruelty about that fact, we have poetry as loveliness to sustain us.
The journey I take as I read through these poems, measured out in three sections that definitely mark a path of grief, recalls for me my own weaving in and out of the grief process. It is good to make these marks on the page and note for ourselves (and others) the path we have trod. The marks we make are our own measure of our being here, alive. We all know we shall die, but the marks we make are meaningful. Abe’s marks are in this book, as he left an imprint of himself on Esther, through their years together, through their love.

Two of my favorite poems:

I write you

onto the page

how else

to keep you with me –

memory fades your wrinkles


I miss

you less

when I write

Listening to Mozart is divided into three sections, bringing a lovely rhythm to the book: Part One: Pulse, Part Two: Breath, Part Three: Sinew. It is as if the poet is plotting out her own way back to herself through these sections. In the first section, Pulse, her grief is evident in nearly every poem.  Abe is “there” with her continually. The second section, Breath, begins with a reminder that Abe is still near her: “touch my arm / you feel his” and each poem seems to remember him but with less sadness, instead with strong memory, marking the days through the calendar’s progression. It is in this second section that Helfgott starts to make logical decisions to appreciate their life together, even while she has to let it go now. She finds compensations to sustain her:

how lucky I

am to have

this chair –

the one you used

to sit in

The final section, Part Three: Sinew, is much more coming back to herself, recognizing that Abe is there, but he’s now able to move more into the background so that Helfgott may go on herself.

I didn’t know

I was having fun

until I saw



of me and Emma –


in the park

She notes that her heart still longs at the third anniversary of 

Abe’s death, but she admits to no longer wearing the mourner’s 

The final poem in the collection reminds me that just showing up and writing is what we all need to do. The writing will take care of itself, but we must show up and write. Esther Altshul Helfgott has done that so well – she has shown up and written through Alzheimer’s and now through the mourning of her husband’s death. She has given us a gift as she did all the hard work and we get to read it.

As a poetry therapist, my professional practice is to choose the appropriate poem to use with a client. In Listening To Mozart, there are indeed individual poems useful for prompting conversation and personal writing. Additionally, this entire book would be a recommendation that I make to a client who experiences grief after long illness. Grieving is a process that takes more time than we typically are allowed, but writing through the process of grieving allows us to take stock more carefully of where we are on that journey. I would encourage my client to write in Esther’s journaling manner, a few lines each day, and see what results. Not all of us will write a poetry book, but we might be able to help ourselves be aware of gifts that come to us while we are grieving.  Simply reading the poems in this collection offers companionship for grief and learning about another’s journey through the process. I found that to be the case for myself in reading this fine collection of poems. -Nessa McCassey

Thanks for stopping by,

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Writing Process Blog Tour: The Four Questions

Thanks to Donna Miscolta for inviting me to join the Writing Process Blog Tour. I'm to answer four questions, then tag three more writers to continue the chain.

     1. What are you working on? I'm working on two books of poetry. The first, Driving Home from Mother's House, is about my mom, Anna Helfgott (1899-1996), who was for all of my life (little did I know it) the center of my life. Writing Mother onto the page helps me understand the strengths and weaknesses of our relationship and how that mother-daughter bond informed the relationships I had with my father, sister and brother, not to mention my own children and grandchildren and, of course, my two marriages. 
     I've been writing poems for this work since 1982 when I took classes from Heather McHugh and Nelson Bentley. I happened to have been in their classes because, while I was enrolled as a doctoral student in history, I needed to take a break. I thought poetry would be the best way to relax and have some fun. The poems encompass the various stages of my emotional and intellectual development, that is, from ages four years old or so, through elementary school years, high school, young adulthood and periods of aging and aging some more. Many of the poems have to do with my mother's political activism - her leftist and union activism in the 1930s and her involvement with the Seattle Gray Panthers in her later years. She was in practically every demonstration in Seattle until she was 90 years old, fighting for civil rights, women's rights, and most of all, a single-payer health care system. I hope to include some of Mother's poems in this collection. She was also in Nelson's classes. 

     The second manuscript concerns shadows my family lived with from the 1940s on: 1) the McCarthy era witch-hunts and 2) a hovering but absent much older half-sister - Leah (1926 - 2010) - from my father's first marriage whom I didn't meet until I was an adult. Then she told me "I don't want a sister." She did, however, embrace my brother, thereby reinforcing a class-difference and betrayal dynamic, as well as a woman-hate-woman kind of sexismMy sister Dorothy (1944- 2004) and I were not in our half-sister's obituary, though our brother was.  For me, this led to the devastating realization that Dot and I did not exist in a world that we carried with us (at least I did) since childhood and reinforced the fact that my brother had an extended (and internal) family that my sister and I were never invited into. This second manuscript is called My Two Dead Sisters
     2) How does your work differ from others of its genre? Obviously psychoanalysis informs my work, but everyone's work is different, as it should be. There's no jello mold for writers. We all have different voices and different life experiences, which we write from - or in spite of. I entwine different writing modalities into my work, as I did with Dear Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's Diary & Poems (Cave Moon Press, 2013). Poets write in a variety of ways, entwining one genre with another. My last book, Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer's (Cave Moon Press, 2014), I thought I'd do all in Tanka form, but something inside me refuses to conform and I ended up playing with the form and taking it into a variety of directions. 
     3) Why do you write what you do?I write what I have to write, to figure out what I'm thinking and feeling, to understand and to remember the past. This, so I can better understand its relationship to the present and why the present has turned out the way it has, to a certain extent at least. I'm psychoanalytic in my thinking and the oedipal drama is present in my work, as is the emphasis on the first few years of life, as they were defined by the ethnic, class-driven and sexist nature of my environment. Diary writing tells the truth of my internal experience perhaps more than anything else, and so I weave my diaries and some history - historical facts from my parents' lives and my half-sister's life - into both manuscripts, Driving Home from Mother's House and My Two Dead Sisters.
     Including the Diary within the space of poem and story helps me continue with my writing projects. I never liked compartmentalizing, separating one part of myself from another, as one needs to do when working in engineering, say, or cutting someone’s chest open to perform heart surgery, even writing a traditional biography; fortunately being a writer allows one to invent new forms, entwining pieces of one part of the self with another; so in my work I give myself permission to include diary entries into the whole of my texts.  I'm trying to do this in the history text I'm writing, but it's not so easy.

     4) How does your writing process work? As I mentioned above I write what I have to write. When I was experiencing Alzheimer's with my husband - and it was my experience as well as his, I as the caregiver and he as the holder of the disease - I continued keeping a diary as I have most of my life (the one period I didn't write in a diary was during the eight years of my first marriage). So along with my Seattle P.I. blog Witnessing Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's ViewDear Alzheimer's was born. Both came from my immediate experience, as it was happening. When Abe died, at one point I was having a hard time accessing my feelings. I wanted to talk to him, but I didn't know how. So I played around with form; and Tanka helped me. With Tanka and its song-like style I was able to figure out what I wanted to say to Abe. I ended up writing love poems to him, which I hadn't known I wanted to do. That's how Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer's came to be. 
     I'll end with this: For years, I've been working on a biography of the Viennese-born Seattle child psychoanalyst, Edith Buxbaum, Ph.D. (1902-1982). I wish I could say I'll finish that work in the next two years, but I need to complete my poetry manuscripts first-- so I can move on with my internal life. As one extended-family member said sarcastically: Watch out for those demons.   I do, by writing in poem and diary. But History is what I got my Ph.D. in after all, and I don't want to leave it behind  Plus, I love doing historical research and writing it up, as I have for example at HistoryLinkour wonderful encyclopedia of Washington State.
     When I finish Driving Home from Mothers House - 2015 projection date - and My Two Dead Sisters - 2016 projection date - I'm set on completing the Buxbaum project.  She was an important figure in Seattle's women's, psychoanalytic and social work history and she deserves her say. My goal is to help her say it by 2020. I won't even be eighty yet. 
Thurs. Aug. 28 - Couth Buzzard Books
Thurs. Sept. 11 - Ballard Library
Sun, Nov. 9 - Jewish Family Service
I've tagged the following writers to join the Writing Process Blog Tour.

JennyNeill chases stories at the intersection of agriculture, wellness, and business with a keen interest in sustainability. Her career has taken her through a variety of communicator roles in corporate and non-profit work settings. She has also worked as a sommelier, assistant travel planner, and health content architect. Jenny lives in Seattle and loves wine, coffee, film noir, whale watching, cheering for Sounders FC, and crashing a good dance party when traveling abroad.
JosephE. Lerner  I have worked as a photographer, filmmaker, writer, editor, and small press publisher. My poems and flash fiction have appeared in 100 Word Story, deComP MagazinE, Gargoyle, Jet Fuel Review, Matchbook, Pif, PoetsWest, The Prose-Poem, and elsewhere. I'm also an alumnus of the Clarion SF Writers Workshops. 
ElisabethHanscombe is a psychologist and writer who completed her PhD in 2011 on the topic ‘Life writing and the desire for revenge’.  She publishes in the areas of autobiography, psychoanalysis, testimony, trauma and creative non-fiction. Publications include Meanjin, Island, Tirra Lirra, Quadrant and Griffith Review as well as in the journals, Life Writing and Life Writing Annual: Biographical and autobiographical studie. Her work appears in  psychotherapy journals and magazines throughout Australia and the United States, including Stories of Complicated grief: a critical anthology edited by Eric Miller PhD, (NASW press); Eavesdropping: The Psychotherapist in Film and Television, (eds) Lucy Huskinson and Terrie Waddell, Guilford Press, (Routledge 2015). She is an adjunct research associate at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

From Jew to Jew: Dear Sharon

This is my response to your article, “We are here to stay,” in The Times of Israel, June 22,  2014: I wrote to you privately – cousin to cousin - not expecting my words to be printed in an online publication or anywhere else; but since you chose to publish them, I take this opportunity to stand by my words and to explain those that I did not clarify well enough.If you choose to use these words in print, my name should follow. I will not hide from them. 

I did not say that I was an atheist (though many respectable people are). Rather, I do not presume to know whether God exists or if the idea of God was created by human beings or if God Himself/Herself chose to inculcate that idea within us. I certainly do not presume to know what God or G-d promises to the Jewish people anymore than I know what God might promise to any other people. As far as I am concerned we of the human race are all one people and any “promise” God might make to one people I have no doubt that His or Her goodness would extend that promise to all people. 

When Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were kidnapped I was devastated – as you were -- devastated that this should happen and in my family’s – your family’s - neighborhood.  I felt as if those boys were my children, as much as you felt they were yours. Unlike you, I do not believe that prayer will bring those boys back to us. Good will and peace will bring them home. But Netanyahu and others seem bent on war and this is where I must clarify my words. I said “The whole world is looking for peace.” Here I was wrong. I do not believe that some like Netanyahu and Cheney, for instance, look for peace; rather, they seem to enjoy the fight. I do not. 

You write: "Perhaps those Jews in the US who do not believe in G-d and his promises to the Jewish people should not try to help us so much. Those who bless Israel will be blessed.”  Sharon, I am a secular Ashkenazi Jew, just as much a Jew as you are in your religiosity. My mother and your husband’s father - sister and brother - were just as Jewish in their secular thinking as you are in your religious thinking. Your late father-in-law, my Uncle Izzy, would be as appalled by what is happening between Israelis and Palestinians as my mother, Anna, was. I do not accept your telling me not to “try to help us so much.” Everyone must try, each in his or her own way. Jew and non-Jew alike. 

I am not a shul-goer, though I have tried that route-- to my leftist's mother’s surprise. What I see happening in American shuls and Temples, regardless of denomination, is an attempt to find identity through the state of Israel and the Law of Return. I do not feel that I have the right to make aliyah when I am not escaping prejudice. This is certainly not to say that there is no antisemitism here; there is, and in Europe and elsewhere. But the kidnapping had to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not antisemitism; we are not in the midst of a Nazi Holocaust. 

My homeland is North America. I do not feel I have the right to usurp land that I do not need out of fear that there will be another Holocaust or because God “promised” me the land. To my mind, that is an absurd notion used to maintain power, not peoplehood. Human beings wrote the Torah. You are using a religious, i.e., fictitious dictum, to gratify your needs and fantasies about what our world should look like. And it is our world, all of ours. We must negotiate on all sides to make it work for all of us. The best thing about Judaism -  and it is mine whether I am religious or not - is chesed/kindness. I do not see chesed coming from you toward the Palestinians any more than I see it coming from them toward you. 

You write: “Hamas terrorists have not shown even one photo of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali.” Has Israel shown photos of all the children the IDF has killed? I want Eyal, Gilad and Naftali home and well. I also do not want other children or you and the rest of my family in Israel to be so cavalier as to think you can go anywhere you want, as if there is no danger, as if you own all the land. 

You may not think this letter comes with love but I assure you it does. If I did not love you, your husband and his sister - my first cousins - and the rest, I would not be so upset. I loved your husband's mother, my Aunt Ruth, all the while I knew how religious she was and what her attitudes were. Uncle Izzy loved her too, and that is why their children went to Hebrew school. It was not just because of Ruth; Uncle Izzy went along with it, just as everyone in the family did - Orthodox, leftist, secular - because we loved Ruth and still do, her memory. We also love a lot of other people and want them all to live in safety. 

Sometimes people who live far from the problem can see more than those who live closest. You will not shut me out of the discussion; in fact, you have brought my Jewish voice to the fore when I did not think I had one.        
Love to you and the family,              

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Writing to Heal

I haven't been here in quite a while. I've been over at the Seattle P.I. writing for the blog Witnessing Alzheimer's: A Caregiver's View, as well as a few other places.

This week I was honored to be asked to write a guest blog for alzheimer', an important resource for the Alzheimer's community and I thought it important to post here as well as on the P.I. blog.

This short essay, Writing to Heal,  discusses my latest book Listening to Mozart: Poems of Alzheimer's, just out from Cave Moon Press. The book launch will be at the Elliott Bay Book Co. up on Capitol Hill, Tuesday July 1, 2014 at 7 pm. The reading is free and everyone's welcome. The more the merrier! I hope you'll be able to make it.

I have a lot on my mind about what's going on in the world so I'll be using this blog for other issues as well. For now, thanks for stopping by,