23 October 2014

Meetup.com and No Truer Hearts: A fortuitous feedback loop that began on 9/11

This is a story about reaching out, finding kindred spirits and expressing gratitude. And it began on 9/11.

After the horror and shock and pain of the attacks, something amazing happened. People reached out. People asked for help and asked if they could help. This empathetic impulse of the heart expressed itself in millions of ways, from the moment the wounded staggered from the wreckage of the Twin Towers, to weeks and months later. New York City was hardest hit, and its people responded with the greatest displays of kindness and generosity. A big city of mostly strangers became smaller, friendlier,  more caring.

Enter Matt Meeker and Scott Heiferman, a couple of tech-savvy entrepreneurs angling for a new project. They felt the time was right after 9/11 for the Internet to become a tool for making human connections. Meetup.com was born. Today it has thousands of meetup groups with millions of members whose interests range from hiking, to speaking French, to writing. Which is how I found the Arlington Writers Group (AWG). In 2010, about a year after Beverly's death, I was going through a big, big personal crisis. My best friend left me (she was also my wife), and for a long stretch I felt very alone, more isolated than usual in my writing life.

I started to attend meetings of AWG mainly for professional reasons: to find other writers who could help me in my work through critiques, contacts, information and skill-sharpening. I found all this and more. Being around the mix of individuals in the group was good for my soul. Some of the writers were just starting out, hesitant, even, to call themselves writers. Others, like me, had been around the block a few times. There were novelists, science fiction writers, poets and the odd non-fiction writer. But everyone loved to write, wanted to get better, and gave of their skills and insights when it was time to offer critiques of our works.

Which brings us to last night. I submitted the first ten pages Chapter 3 of No Truer Hearts to the group for critique. When the session was over, I breathed a sigh of relief (the reaction was generally positive) and felt a wave of gratitude (people offered some helpful suggestions). A couple of comments stuck out, making me feel I was on the right track. Several people said they didn't know I'd written the chapter and thought it was written by a woman (!). This is high praise. The chapter is about Beverly's high school years, so I feel I have succeeded in inhabiting the world of an all-girl Catholic high school. Others didn't realize it was a biography, and said the chapter "reads like a novel." Which is exactly how creative non-fiction is supposed to read. Yay!

Not every comment was positive, but I took them all to heart and will employ them as I polish the manuscript over the coming months, turning it from something rough into a shiny bit of biography. I'm glad I found this particular meetup group. We are kindred spirits, working often in solitary obscurity, but getting together once a week to share our works, our suggestions, our critiques and our praise. So here's to the talented, persistent, bright and brave scribblers of AWG, and to all who have found kindred spirits in the wake of 9/11.

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.