Thursday, July 21, 2011

Telling My Stories: Leaving Frederick for Frankfurt

In an earlier blog entry, I wrote about telling stories and ended by saying that I would tell you my stories in future entries.

Easier said than done.

Where to begin? What story—or stories—should I tell? I originally thought that making a list of possible stories and analytically choosing the “best” one would enable me to start writing. Who else has noticed that being engaged in analytic, critical reasoning does NOT produce the state of mind that supports good storytelling?

In any case, creating a list and picking the best alternative didn’t work for me as I thought about but didn’t succeed at getting any writing done.

Yesterday, when I was walking with a friend, I began telling her about my storytelling quandary and then began to remember how I would get college freshmen to tell their stories when I taught composition at San Jose State University.

Their assignment was to write a personal narrative with a thesis statement that pointed out the significance of the story. To do that, I needed to model for them how to create a personal narrative.

As a teacher, I was on the spot. I hadn’t thought through what story I would tell, but I needed to come up with a story fast.

I was also teaching students to cluster--a technique developed by Gabriele Rico in her book, Writing the Natural Way.

The way to cluster is to begin by putting your subject in the middle of a piece of unlined paper—or a chalkboard if you’re the teacher in a classroom.

I thought about a nightmare about piano-playing that I’d had when I was about nine years old.


Then, when you cluster, ideas will come to you, and you jot them down wherever you want. The point is to be free as you write and not to constrict yourself to any linearity of thought.

I woke up in the middle of the night. I’d been hearing my father play the piano in my dream.


He was playing the music from The Bell Trio in Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. I couldn’t get rid of the lyrics in my head—something about “Rend the air with warbling wild….”

I loved the piano. And we’d sold it.

I was in the middle of the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean. Our family was on the U.S.S. Butner, a military ship that reeked of garlic.


We were moving from Frederick, Maryland, to Frankfurt, Germany.


I didn’t really know why I didn’t like living in Frederick—even as a small child. I wasn’t that athletic and sometimes it seemed like my older sister Ruth had more fun than I did. She liked running in the cow fields across the street whereas I was happier sitting around reading mythology books. One time my mother and I went to Baltimore, which was about an hour’s drive away, for a 24-hour getaway, and I decided that I loved cities.


Moving to Frankfurt seemed exciting—not because it was in Europe—but because it was a city.

But, would we get another piano?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In clustering, after you’ve written down your ideas, you connect them with lines to see their interrelationships and to help you deduce that often elusive thesis statement.



What was this cluster really about? Had I just described a childhood experience to the college freshman in my classroom? Or did this experience have greater meaning?

What the cluster said to me was that change—even when good—could be threatening or frightening. I was happy that I was moving to Frankfurt. My life—even as a nine year old—did get better. I didn’t have to deal with the cow fields anymore. But I was afraid, afraid that we’d never have a piano and that I wouldn’t hear my father play again. My fears, however, were unfounded. My father also had to have a piano, and he purchased one within a month of our arrival in Frankfurt.

Telling the piano story to the students also had a good outcome. I was teaching college freshman for the first time. After telling this story, I had felt pretty vulnerable, almost like I’d revealed too much about myself to my students. I didn’t know what to expect or what they’d think of me.

A week later, the students turned their “Personal Narrative,” 1000-word essays.

Some of their stories amazed me. Rather than having revealed too much in the piano story, I showed them how they could reveal more about themselves, and I made them feel like it was safe to do so.

Authenticity breeds authenticity.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Time to Tell My Story

In Honor of Our German Jewish Roots

For years, I have wanted to share our family’s German heritage in a story.

I was the only daughter of Dorothea, an only child of Meta Kaufmann, my grandmother, known as Omi. When I was a child, there was a circle of kind, caring and witty old and middle aged German aunts, great-aunts, grandmothers and great grandmothers we visited. I listened in on the conversations with Omi,Tante Anna, Eva, Meta (Cordy) and Dorothea, and identified with all of them. I wanted to learn the secrets they seemed to be telling, so I studied German for 9 years, starting at age 12.

Soon, it became my mission to return to Germany at 19, the same age my mother was forced to leave, due to the Nazis. I arrived at 19 and spent a year at Freiburg University, collecting more stories from Dorothea's friends, tracking down Omi's friend in her nursing home, and listening to the idyllic stories of Omi' and Dorothea's lives in Constantinople and Europe.

Dorothea had always told the story of her honeymoon with Gabriel, traveling by boat to Cologne to convince her parents they must leave Nazi Germany now. Otto could not believe the Nazis would put his family at risk. after decades of service to the government. They stayed well past Krystalnacht (when all Jewish businesses were vandalized and destroyed). Other members of the family were unable to get travel papers and were forced to hide out for years during the war. My mother's uncle's entire family perished in concentration camps..

But I digress. The fact is German Jews were quite different from other European Jews. Eastern European Jews continued to practice their religion and culture within strong Jewish communities. For survival, most German Jews chose to assimilate within the greater German culture, following centuries of anti-semitism. After centuries, my relatives felt more German than Jewish and participated in Christian holidays, many attending Christian schools or churches. Although everyone knew who the Jewish families were, people like Opa (my grandfather, Otto Kaufman) were able to rise within the aristocracy and gain leadership positions. Otto established the Deutsche Bank in Barcelona and Constantinople. Under his leadership, Otto oversaw the financing of the first railroad connecting Europe to the Middle East, known as the Orient Express.

So, as I asked questions of the German icons in our family, I discovered a generation gap. The elder generation refused to speak of the Nazi era, choosing to assimilate into America, while maintaining a very German lifestyle with family and friends. When I asked Meta if she ever felt Jewish, she bluntly said, "No", and that was a very emphatic no. Her son,Johnny, and others appeared to share her feelings. Late in life, a few grave stories emerged from the war years, family hiding out, unable to get travel papers and the terror of the Nazis.

Dorothea answered my questions with patience. She emerged from a strict victorian home, joining progressive youth groups before the Nazi era. She was warned by a cousin there was no future for Jewish youth in Germany. Dorothea had to leave her homeland if she wanted to survive, to have any future. She left everything she ever knew, the man who loved her, and at 19, arrived in New York.

Dorothea idolized her new aunt, Meta Lilienthal, her uncle Ernest's wife, where she and Meta first lived. Dorothea was taken in by the progressive, civil rights vigor of their Unitarian Church. Remember, she was joining the Unitarian civil rights movement in the mid 1930's, 20-30 years before the Martin Luther King era. The Unitarian Church took in many Jewish refugees, accepting people of all beliefs, developing leaders in civil rights, women’s' rights, anti-war movements and gay rights. I never faulted my mother for aligning herself with the Unitarians, instead of the Jews, a religion and customs foreign to her. In fact, I admired her constant community activism, inducting me early, too. I started stuffing envelopes by age 12, a political activism that I continue to pass on to my children.

To Journal or to Tweet

I love to write. I have loved to write since my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Koch, insisted we keep a weekly journal (corny, yes). I remember writing about California landscapes and foggy ocean days, nothing too complex. But the thrill of conceptualizing the landscapes and the brilliant days, inspired me. I have continued to keep journals for decades: during junior year abroad at Freiburg University, describing many beer fests and wine fests and the international students and our travels. Throughout the years I emoted on paper, trying to problem solve. Stories of boyfriends, women friends and husband and family. I especially took time to write about the angst with my parents, and brothers. Writing about relationships can be rich and deep. There are endless entanglements and writing, hopefully, helps unentangle them.

My work has always included writing: reports, grants, analyses, evaluations and training development. It means lots of rewrites and edits/. Writing means endless emails, to groups and individuals – creating communication. It can be the most fulfilling part of my work.

But writing is so much more. Remember Oprah’s grateful Journals, turning us on to valuing the positive in our lives. Writing can also mean learning to write collaboratively. Collaborative writing can make you soar when you draft and edit the right words together. Sometimes, you may find you are writing by committee, which means having the patience to slog through and write by committee. But by developing a cooperative committee, it is possible to develop creative cooperative work.

Writing is not just 140 characters on twitter, though there can be an art to refining those 140 characters into a well-crafted tweet. Writing is not commenting on your nieces’s 100th picture of her new baby. However, social media has a place in our current communications and will continue to do so in many formats for years to come.