09 October 2014

Between the Here and the Hereafter, between science and faith

My radar is always attuned for news and notes about how people think about this life and the next. This article in The New York Review of Books about the recent wave of afterlife-related books illustrates that 1) there is a lot of money to be made in the afterlife publishing business, and 2) while there are some patterns in the description of near death experiences (NDEs), there is a lot of variation. Everyone, in the end (so to speak), has his or her own private idea of heaven, or something else, or nothing at all. It was especially interesting to read about the Biblical literalist who believes that no one can come back from heaven, because the Bible says only those who die (and stay dead) can go there.

And what new scientific study appears (by coincidence? yes, yes, by coincidence) on my news feed but one dealing with NDEs and out-of-body experiences (OBEs)? The most fascinating conclusion is that the concept of death is being re-defined because consciousness appears possible for several minutes even after the heart has stopped. There has long been anecdotal evidence of this, and I'm reminded of one wish my mother had as she was dying of cancer: to have some calm classical music playing so she could have it as her last earthly experience when she passed on.

Another interesting finding? That most of those who could recall a NDE described things, often unpleasant, that did not correspond with the typical NDE: a feeling of well-being, peace, light, contentment, etc. Instead:
While 39 percent of patients who survived cardiac arrest were able to describe a perception of awareness, they did not have any explicit recall of events. This, in particular, suggests more people may have mental activity initially but then lose their memories after recovery. Among those who reported awareness, 46 percent experienced a broad range of mental recollections that weren't compatible with the commonly used term of NDEs; these included fearful and persecutory experiences. [Emphasis added.] Only 9 percent had experiences compatible with NDEs and 2 percent exhibited full awareness compatible with OBEs.
Don't expect a spate of books, though, about the afterlife as a "fearful and persecutory" place. That is not what people want to read about. It's clear that the more we learn about our most complex organ, the further we expand the panorama of what we know as opposed to what we can only speculate about.

07 October 2014

'Rare Bird,' by Anna Whiston-Donaldson: A brave and bright memoir of love and loss

Say what you will about the Internet -- its often suffocating avalanche of cat videos, celebrity sludge and infinite lists of what you simply must eat, read, watch or do -- sometimes it can lead you, purely by chance, to an exceptional person. Which makes it all worth it.

Like the time I was perusing the news a few weeks back and read an article in the Washington Post about a local woman with a sad story who has just published a book. It is about the loss of her son and how she struggled to move on. So I think: hmm.. this is a big part the book I'm writing. Interesting. Before the accident that took her son, she had been writing a blog about her kids, her marriage and -- thrift store finds! Which, some of you may know, my house is full of. So of course I click on her blog and am immediately taken by her keen eye, her lively writing style and most of all her sense of humor.

A few days later, I notice in the Literary Calendar section of the Sunday Post that she is having a signing and talk at a local bookstore. I think I was the first one to buy a book, arriving early because I was sure there would be a crowd. There was. Family, friends, former students, blog followers, fellow bloggers, former classmates, neighbors, and that special group of persons who had also suffered the loss of a loved one -- 99 percent of whom were women. I did feel slightly out of place, but I also felt at home. Here was a women who had walked through the fire, was still finding her way, and had produced a remarkable account of that journey, Rare Bird. The line of fans waiting to have their copies of the book signed was long. I waited until it shrank. I told Anna that my youngest had the same name, and was attending the same college that she had: James Madison University. She smiled and signed my book, "To Tony, Soar!"

There were a number of reasons I was eager to read Rare Bird. There was, of course, the subject of love and loss and moving on, which is at the center of No Truer Hearts. It is a process we all go through, so it is universal. But just as every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, the experience of grieving and recovery is unique to each individual. The other thing I was keen on seeing was how Anna Whiston-Donaldson would do what I would have to do: take the reader to a very frightening and sad place. No one wants to wallow in terror and depression, so writing about death and suffering is not easy. Some people refuse to read or watch things that darken their hearts. But Anna tells a story of both heartache as well as hope. Of slogging through numb, gray days but of being uplifted, of healing, of learning to smile again.

Beverly's story has many similarities. Anna talks about things that happen before and after her son Jack's death that seem to give meaning, shed light, offer hope. There are Bible verses, dreams, comments, signs, visions, ways in which she feels that God is making his presence felt. The questions of religion and the afterlife come into play in Beverly's story as well. In her life, too, there have been dreams and visions and various portents pointing to more than everyday existence. The questions of the Here and the Beyond were ones she struggled with to the very end.

Rare Bird has taken me on a rewarding journey. My guide was an author whose honesty, open heart and keen observations made vivid the people in her life, their feelings, their quirks, their triumphs as well as their failings. By laying bare the nightmare she endured, the nightmare of any parent, she took me to a terrible place, eyes wide open. In the days and months and years that followed, though, I got to experience the gradual way she came back from the abyss, with the help of family, friends, strangers around the world, and her God. Anna's unique journey, in the end, is about finding a way to just survive the loss of her son and then to get him back. Forever.

When someone does exceptional things in the aftermath of losing a loved one, you realize that the person who was lost had to be exceptional to elicit such a response. In Rare Bird, Anna takes us on her odyssey of healing, which is a great gift in itself. But she also paints a loving portrait of her Jack, which is yet another gift. Beverly did what she did because of the Sean she lost. And her story, too, is about rising out of the darkness and finding Sean again, and sharing his legacy with the world in a number of ways.

The world is too, too full of people not worth spending even a minute with. (We all have our list..) It's nice to get to know a few -- like Anna and Jack, like Beverly and Sean -- whose lives in one way or another inspire us, shine a light and warm our hearts, and are worth keeping in our memories for a long, long time.

30 September 2014

Beyond the words: Reading Beverly Eckert's poems... and wondering

A poem is like maple syrup.

No, I'm not talking about being sweet, or even sticky. I'm talking about concentrated. Intense. Essential -- as in having the quality of "essence" -- something basic and important. Poem-as-syrup is part of a metaphor I use when talking about different genres. A novel is like a tree: expansive, sprawling, complex, grand. A short story is like a leaf: compact, almost like a miniature tree, but self-contained and unique in its own way. But a poem... ahh, the poem. It's like maple syrup because it is intense. In one drop it can tell the story of the whole tree, and not just the tree but the sunshine that warmed it in the summer and the cool nights that colored its leaves in the fall.

A poem, at the end of the day, is many things. At its most basic level, it is a collection of words and their meanings. But the words carry more than their own weight. Because of this, a poem is also the emotions the words arouse. It is the images they conjure. A poem shows the power not only of words as words, but words as rhythm and rhyme, of lines and verses that speak through their length and shape as well as their content.

All of these thoughts came to mind as I read one of Beverly's poems from her high school years at the Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart. I'm working on a chapter about these important years in her life, and I've been lucky enough to get copies of some of her poems and other writings. They are wonderful ways to catch a glimpse of different aspects of her character, her state of mind, her emotional journeys. The poems are sometimes straightforward, sometimes enigmatic, sometimes both.

Knowing much of the story of Beverly's life and of her husband Sean's, one verse in particular from one poem has stood out, made me wonder, haunted me even. And one line, that stretches across the page, like a snake. It is from the poem "The Ash Tray," about the vision she has of a snake rising from an ashtray, full of menace. She wants it to go away. "Go back where you came from," she says.

                 But it began to hiss
                 And the hissing began to form
                 Words like----smoke;choke----coughing----coffin-----breath

The more I've worked on putting together a story of Beverly's the life, the more I've come across moments that can only be described as strange, unsettling, inexplicable. In this case, it was the writing of a simple poem during emotionally turbulent teenage years. A simple poem that today, after the passage of time and the unfolding of events, seems to convey more than words and their meanings. It carries a hint of mystery, a touch of the ineffable.

11 September 2014

Why read (or write) a biography? Lessons from two lives: Beverly Eckert and Sean Rooney

Every September 11th, I think back to the day -- how it gradually evolved from routine to ominous to shocking and... unbearably sad. Like an earthquake, it shifted the path of my life. Now, here I am, remembering the day, remembering Beverly Eckert, who I met because of 9/11. Here I am, thinking about her beloved, Sean Rooney, who perished in the rubble of the South Tower, who I only got to know about through the fond memories of Beverly and Sean's friends and relatives.

Two lives.

I had met Beverly in 2004 because that earthquake set me on a course to "do something" in connection with 9/11. And so, after sitting through a dramatic meeting of the 9/11 commission in a crowded hearing room on Capitol Hill, I spoke with Beverly for the first time. The next day, I wrote an article about the meeting and about Beverly, whose story I began to learn about. She and Sean had met at a high school dance, fell in love, lived a life of joy and accomplishment.

Until that day.

They were on the phone in those last minutes, he struggling to escape from the floors above the inferno, she frantic to give him any information she could to help him. When it became clear that there were no exits, neither through the doors to the roof, which were locked, nor through the stairs and elevators down, which were blocked and spewing intense heat and choking gases and smoke from the inferno below, they began to say their goodbyes, their final "I love yous." They had lived and cherished a life together with many "I love yous." Through the phone, Beverly heard the roaring avalanche of the massive tower coming down around Sean Rooney, silencing his last "I love you." Beverly softly spoke into the phone. "Sean... Sean... Sean..." She sat helpless on the floor of her home in Stamford, Connecticut, clutching the phone, watching the TV image of the dust cloud rising from Sean's office tower high, high into the Manhattan sky.

Beverly sat. She knew. He was gone.

Then she got up.

Her life before 9/11 was as a busy insurance executive, as loving (and sometimes high-strung) partner and wife to Sean, as dedicated daughter, loving sister, doting aunt, and the most thoughtful and energetic friend you could ever ask for. After 9/11, she made an entirely new path. Organizer, advocate, lobbyist -- all for the causes of 9/11 family members and for the future security of the country.

Which is how we met. When I learned Beverly's story, I asked if she would like to work with me on a book. She deliberated for several weeks, then agreed. The process has had its ups and downs, but my efforts over the years have been constant. Then came the crash of Flight 3407 on a snowy evening in January 2009 and Beverly was gone, too.

My writing continues, and on this September 11th I think about lives -- Beverly's, Sean's, everyone's. Why write about them? Why read them. My first impulse to do Beverly's story was the amazing arc of her love of Sean and her determined efforts after he was gone. That story in itself was worth telling. But the more I've discovered about the lives and personalities of Beverly and Sean, the more I see other reasons to write and read their story. One of the main ones is that they offer lessons for us all. To see the unfolding of a life well-lived offers us an example to emulate. If an average person can do exceptional things, it gives us hope and inspiration and strength in our own struggles, our own quests.

And so, on this 13th commemoration of that terrible day, I express my gratitude for the example of two exceptional people. Beverly Eckert, for her artistic talents, her impish sense of humor, her generosity of spirit -- to friend and family alike, but most of all for her gutsiness, her drive and the shear force of her will once she set her mind on a course. She and a small group of other 9/11 family members took on Washington and won. Sean Rooney, for the way he could make anyone smile, anyone his fast friend; for his skills in the kitchen, in the garden and in the workshop, skills he shared with an open heart; for his courage and expansive spirit.

Two lives.

How so very sad that they were cut short too soon. How so very wonderful that they touched so many while they were alive. And when their stories are told, they will have a chance to touch even more.

16 May 2014

Another Milestone of 9/11 Memory: The Museum at Ground Zero

With the opening of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, another important step in the process of remembering has taken place. Family members, including Beverly Eckert, argued passionately that the footprint of the Twin Towers was sacred ground that must be preserved for eternity -- down to the bedrock. There was much debate after 9/11 about how the area around Ground Zero should be used. The developers wanted to minimize the space for the memorial and museum. The family members and their supporters would not tolerate the commercializing of this hallowed space, and in the end their view prevailed. The story of this struggle will be told in No Truer Hearts.

A good account of the museum experience appears in the New York Times. But every person will have a unique encounter with this thoughtful and moving exhibition of that clear-skied September day.

08 June 2013

Writing a biography means tracking changes, from the ground up

Anyone who's ever done serious research will tell you that the digging part is mostly tedious. But the feeling you get when you find a shining nugget makes it all worthwhile. I've got a passel of nuggets after years of work on No Truer Hearts, many of them placed in my hand by Beverly and her friends and relatives. Here's one I stumbled upon while trying to find maps and photos of the area around Wickham Drive, the setting for the book's first chapter. It's an aerial photo taken in 1951, the year Beverly was born. It shows mostly open fields and golf courses in Amherst, northeast of downtown Buffalo. The photo gives me a wonderful window on how this area changed during the course of Beverly's life, from a bucolic space of fields, streams and woods, to an orderly grid of suburban streets and homes.

A current satellite image of the same area illustrates the dramatic changes that development have brought. The story of Wickham Drive is the story of the rise of suburbia, repeated thousands of times around the country. It is the story of the baby boomers growing up with backyard cookouts, go-cart races in the streets, block parties, and sock hops in garages. Beverly's summers on Wickham Drive tell that story through the eyes of a creative and optimistic girl.

29 May 2013

On Beverly's birthday, some new readers of her story

Beverly Eckert comments on documents and articles at her 
dining room table in Stamford, Connecticut while I take notes 
as part of our work on No Truer Hearts. [Photo: Anthony Toth]
Everyone knows how solitary an act writing can be. Three years ago, when my marriage fell apart, solitary turned to aching loneliness. I looked around and realized that I had not a lot of friends around who were writers, members of my tribe. Not a lot of friends period, in fact, since my closest chums were scattered about, far from Arlington, Virginia.

Then, in conversations, meetup.com kept coming up. "It's a great way to meet new people!" I was told. "They have groups for every interest." So I was happy to find a group called the Arlington Writers Meetup Group, and I started to attend its Wednesday evening meetings. At first, I felt anxious and out of place. I'd never been much of a "joiner," plus this group was made up mainly of people writing fiction -- young and old, greenhorns and old hands. I had dabbled in fiction and poetry, but my writing life has centered on journalism and scholarship. But they were all writers, and that was the important thing. They devoted most of their meetings to offering critiques of members' works. And whether the discussion was about an offbeat sci-fi short story or the chapter from a young adult novel, I felt at home. Writers are writers, after all. We believe in the magic of words strung together in just the right way. It felt good to be around people who lived the life and spoke the language and cared about the power of story. I looked forward to the day when I could present my own work, this biography I've been working on, and see whether my attempt at this daunting genre would strike any chords with these discerning readers.

Well, today I find out.

Just over a month ago, I asked if I could submit to the group at the end of May. I was eager to become more of a participant, after many meetings where I just offered the odd word of advice. It helped, too, to have a deadline, so that I would feel an extra push to finish the first draft of the first chapter of this book. As the time for submitting approached, it dawned on me that the day of the critique would be Beverly's birthday: May 29th.

Some people would call this a sort of sign; others, a mere coincidence. I count myself in the second group, but I understand what drives the hearts of the first. We are all hungry beings. Hungry for love, which is epitomized by Beverly's story. And hungry for meaning. When a strange, unlikely concurrence of events pops into our view, it can serve to sate this hunger. It can seem utterly meaningful, fateful, just right. In a world of chaos and confusion and pain, it is the most natural thing for this fragile human heart to seek order, logic, a comforting master plan.

Whatever you may believe, one thing is true: life is a journey, and each of us does our best to make it enjoyable, meaningful, filled with the things we love. A biography is one person's travelogue of that journey. Back in 2004, I asked Beverly if she would allow me to chronicle her journey. When she agreed, it was my first step on a daunting and rewarding undertaking. Putting the first chapter in the hands of the members of my writers group is another important step.

I think it's the perfect way to celebrate the birthday of a woman who was never afraid to take that first step. And the one after.