Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Stories that Just Spill Out

Sheila Levin: Writing what she knows

While traveling, I have heard some very personal and often surprising stories.  These are not your usual oft-told, this-is-who-I-am biographies.  These are stories that, perhaps, were bottled up. Now that the genie has arrived, the teller can release his secret burden. And know that when this trip is over, the listener will not be around. And the teller will never again be in that person's presence, forever embarrassed by his confession.

Recently, while on a trip to the Amazon, I met  Sheila Levin -- an intense and charming woman who, while sitting in an airport lounge, revealed to me some of her story. With Sheila's permission, I'll just say that her stunningly beautiful mother, who apparently looked like Rita Hayworth, wanted little to do with Sheila, and at age 5 she was sent off to a high-end boarding school, even spending summer vacations with the head mistress. Brilliant and determined, Sheila eventually made her way to Barnard College and became a boot-strap kind of survivor who forged ahead in life.
The author in  1982
Among other things, she was on the front lines of the effort to rescue Jews from the former Soviet Union. She plunged into politics, though not on her own account. And she became a mother to several children of her own -- trying to do a better job than her own mother did.
Sheila also wrote a novel. After the trip, she sent me her first book, written in 1982, as a much younger woman, shown in the flyleaf with raven hair and light eyes. Having heard some of her personal story, I was curious to read Simple Truths. It proved to be a voyage for me to parse the real Sheila from her fictional character.
"It's a first novel," Sheila had said, somewhat apologetic.
Three decades later, with more of life behind her than before her, Sheila has come out with a second book, Musical Chairs.  It's a political page-turner about two women politicians and the men who surround them. The tension of the book? Each of the women has secrets they fear may emerge under the glare of a political campaign. Threaded throughout the intrigue is a maelstrom of emotions -- passionate love and friendship love, rivalry, loneliness, ego, the quest for power, and misunderstandings that lead to tragic results.
This is a book that only someone who has lived awhile could write. Yet with maturity, whatever personal experience she brought to it -- and I'm sure she did -- was disguised by her craft.
After all, that conversation in the airport lounge could only have been a Cliff Notes version of Sheila Levin's life.

While I'm telling stories of strange stranger encounters, here's this one, from a fellow traveler on a hiking trip in Italy. It spilled out one evening as we sat down at what we feared would be the boring end of a very long table.
One day the man, in his early 70s, gets a letter telling him that he has a half-sister he never knew about. He is in disbelief but his parents are no longer alive to question. So he insists that he and this woman get DNA tests. Astoundingly, the tests prove that  she is not his half-sister. Instead, she is his full sister. No, she wasn't given away for adoption. It turns out he was plucked from the arms of his father's secret mistress several states away and raised by his father and his wife. The woman he thought was his biological mother his whole life really wasn't. The mistress kept  the second child, his sister.

Shockingly, he later learned that people in his small town knew the story but had never told him.
Life…. stranger than fiction.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Lisa Scottoline: The Joys of "No!"

Lisa Scottoline: her to-do list shrank 

On leaving my newspaper career, I  was given this advice:
Learn to say "No."  
As any parent of a toddler knows, we're born programmed to say "no."  So you have to wonder how standing up for yourself and your precious free time gets so problematic with age.
Women, especially, are taught to please.
Mystery writer and columnist Lisa Scottoline takes on the say-no issue in her column in the Philadelphia Inquirer. For her, it's a skill that should, like a fine wine, improve with age.
In her ode to aging, she says her guilt and need to make others happy had turned her life into a big to-do list. "And it wasn't even my Things to Do List," she writes. "It was everybody else's."
It took her 50 years to figure it out, but she discovered that when she said no, "I didn't die. On the contrary, I started living my own life."
But like a glass half empty or half full, there's some risk-taking in saying "no." You might also deny yourself the opportunity for a new experience. When my children were little, I loved the now out- of-print Richard Scarry book, Pig Will and Pig Won't about two sibling pigs. One was the good pig who always said "yes." The other was the stubborn, negative piggy who always said "no."
Guess which one ended up having the most fun?
The trick for us who are "new and improved," as Scottoline calls herself, is to know when saying "no" to others is really giving ourselves the permission and the time to say "yes" to what we really want to do.
Whatever that is.