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Jean's Blog (Check out links to Guest Blogs in lefthand Column)


COUSINS: College, anyone?


Years have slipped by so fast
Since last I sat on a slatted bench
Under trees mangy as river rats,
The fat river sluggish ahead
Wrinkling under the blue
Manhattan sky
In spring.

Now and then I hear birds sing,
I hear them through the scream
Of sirens gambling with death.
Childrens' voices vanish past the playground's
Bent iron grid,
Into the rancid breath of city living,
Swooshing down silver slides,
Bundled against the treacherous temper
Of early March.

The past pecks at my mind.
It has scribbled lines across my forehead
And written no words between.
The past, like a dry September leaf
Has lost its flame
And free fall from the tree
In a little dust and crackle

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The Smouha City Venture: Alexandria 1923-1958

This mid-month blog is to alert readers to a new book, just published, and available in print and on Kindle. If you read my memoir, SIPPING FROM THE NILE, you may remember reading about my grandfather, Joseph Smouha, and his transformation of a swampy mosquito-infested area of the city of Alexandria into a visionary real estate development: Smouha City.
THE SMOUHA CITY VENTURE explores various aspects involved in the creation, development and urbanization of Smouha City, a suburb of Alexandria in Egypt.
Joseph Smouha's eldest grandson, my cousin, Richard Smouha, ("Dicky" in my memoir) - with the help of two experts in the fields of historical, archeological and architectural research, Cristina Pallini and Marie-Cecile Bruwier - has pulled together a fascinating historical overview of Alexandria, a collaborative recording of the underpinnings of the incredible real estate venture that our grandfather, Joseph Smouha undertook, which transformed the city of Alexandria in his lifetime.
To the readers of my memoir, THE SMOUHA CITY VENTURE provides a fascinating context to SIPPING FROM THE NILE. It is interesting, entertaining and informative, and contains many wonderful maps and photos. Altogether, it is a valuable document. Delving into antiquity, historical and recent architectural discoveries and first-hand accounts of the events preceding, during and following the birth of Smouha City, Richard Smouha's book is thoroughly researched. It paints a vivid picture of the societal and architectural makeup of Alexandria during the first half of the mid-20th century, as well as expanding what we know about the history of our family and our Smouha grandparents.

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Building My Winter Burrow

A Hibernated World

The months of early Fall whirl into focus amidst the beauty and turbulence of a rising wind dancing the leaves, and the pressures and pleasures of the High Holidays. These months also bring echoes of my losses. My two beloved maternal grandparents died during the High Holidays many years ago. My father died on the second night of Rosh Hashana in 1971, my mother last October. It is difficult not to view this time of year without a creeping apprehension that goes beyond a fear of the ice and cold to follow, the possibility of a winter as long and hard as the last one.
But as we come to terms with grey skies and the sudden assault of a day of wind and chill reminding us that summer is past, along with the squirrels, the woodchucks, the chipmunks, and the bears, we, too, set about building our winter burrows. Only our burrows are built of schedules and commitments, school routines for the young and their parents, shorter days, more demands, and a pace to match.
I have always known that I am a hibernating animal at heart, longing to curl up in warmth and sleep the winter away while others ski the slopes and run in marathons. This year I plan to let that hibernating creature take over.
To that end, I am now busy gathering my acorns and nuts, renovating my environment, whittling down my commitments and possessions to an organized clarity, preparing to use the winter to focus on my new book from the comfort of my home. I have tucked away as many distractions as possible, and have filled the shelves of my writing room with books relevant to the period and location I plan to explore in my novel. I am warning all my near and dear that my transitional year will end when January begins.
Small flares of the energy building in my subconscious are already bursting to the surface, and when they do, I write their messages down. But in my hibernation to come, I will open myself to doing the nothing that leads to something when it contemplates a blank computer monitor day after day after day, while nature rages outside the window.
Maybe the winter will bring cabin fever and nothing more. Maybe the pages I hope to write will never reach out into the world, but no matter how it goes, I am resolute.
If not now, when...?

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The Pond

I am quite amazed to note where these past months have led me. Slowly but surely I have become aware that a life-change is taking place. There has been a flip of the switch and the lens through which I view my world has shifted undeniably into a new perspective, a need for completion, a new close-up, a new set of urgencies: the final playing out of the story that is my life.
Priorities have shifted suddenly and seismically. I am caught up in an urgent need to simplify and clarify, to pare down, to label, to throw out, to bag for the thrift shops, to re-order all the minutae of my 50 years in this apartment..
Time to let go. Time to make order out of chaos. Time to lose everything that has found no place or significance in the lives of my children and grandchildren, and that no longer has a place in whatever time I have left. Time to make up for so many years of benign neglect of daily trivia, as I raced through my life, leaving so much unfinished, so many books unread, so much undone, clinging onto the streaming days by my fingernails in the hope of not missing a beat or falling off the radar.
Time to revel in the beauty of the world.
Fall has come early this year. Up at the country house, there are flutters of gold and scarlet among the leaves. Rust will come later. Last weekend a flock of nine very large black turkeys ambled companionably in the far field, majestically oblivious of the humans watching through the kitchen window. The visiting heron stalked something invisible in the pond. Squirrels, suddenly bursting with purpose, scrambled up and down trees. Summer's breath is still heavy with August humidity but September has arrived, and with it, promises of glory and intimations of winter to come. Grandchildren are back at school in their new grades. Our eldest grandson has started his first year at college. Business lunches jostle with other appointments in the calendar, playing hide and seek with various medical check-ups and the High Holy Days, looming in the middle distance.
Not too far ahead, in November, Thanksgiving offers its magnanimous promise of the old stone house rich with family and fragrant with food and wood smoke once again. Love fills my heart. I contemplate the long trail of years behind me. Still so much left to read, to experience, to complete... to begin.
Whatever lies ahead, I am ready.

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Roses around the Stone Well

The heavy rains of early summer have resulted in a thick blanket of creepers and vines draping every tree and bush with tropical intensity along the way between the city and our stone house upstate. I wonder if the obliterated trees will survive the onslaught.
I look out of the windows of the old stone house and I can almost feel the thickness of dense vegetation closing in, although early landscapers created views of wide swathes of fields bordered sparely by dark conifers and a variety of deciduous shades of green. The climbing roses on one side of the stone well are thriving. The other side refuses to climb. I have given up.
Trees close to the house frame house and flower-beds discreetly, without intruding. They stand benevolent guard, branches weighed down with decades of growth. Out on the front lawn, the giant maple that has been presiding over the house for over a century lost two significant branches in some recent storm which we did not experience. We mourned the evidence as the car pulled up at the head of the driveway. Nonetheless the huge maple still stands proudly, a spectacular sentinel, waiting for the winds of autumn to fill its arms with gold.
And now I see that the hollyhocks planted earlier this summer have grown to amazing heights, red and white flowers alternating with tightly clustered buds straining at their green sheaths to open in the sun. Like lanky girls at a ball, they sway and smile, dancing beautiful blossoms to the music of the breeze.
This old stone house has sheltered hopes and dreams, pain and loss for centuries. It withstands weather and age, waiting for us to escape our daily lives for a brief promise of peace. It waits for us to be restored. I am deeply grateful for its healing walls.
Standing at the window in the kitchen with the view of the pond in the distance, I dream and drift, and that is all. And that is enough.

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Harbinger of hope

An array of dormant orchid plants droops glumly on my living-room window sill, exquisite blooms long gone, stems cut to the nub, broad leaves listing to one side or another. I don't expect much of them, and they don't expect much from me, but because the leaves are still a glossy green I find it impossible to walk them down the hallway outside my apartment and consign them to their doom.
So they sit patiently for months and years on my North-facing window-sill absorbing whatever sunlight filters grudgingly through the kaleidoscope of buildings across the street, and I try to forget that they once sported magnificent blooms on tall and graceful stems.
However, recently, two of them decided that their long sleep had ended. A thin stem rose wavering into the air from the protection of glossy leaves. Tiny buds bulged and later burst into cascading beauty. One produced bright yellow blooms in a cluster, igniting the moment with magic. The other, pink and purple, spaced its blossoms with an artist's flair. Undeterred by the air-conditioning at its roots, it dances in the air that flows up from the air-conditioning unit below and reminds me that as long as there is life, there is possibility, and as long as there is possibility, miracles can happen.
And as I admire their loveliness every time I walk by and marvel at the miracle of their sudden rebirth, I feel a flood of hope that my year of transition and my dormant novel may yet take energy from my subconscious and bloom into being before too long. As long as there is possibility, miracles happen, and my beautiful orchid, dormant for two years, whispers its message to my heart every day.

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Always a Mother

When you come to the end of your rope, make a knot and hang on

Some months ago, I was engaged in clearing out my mother's apartment. Sitting gloomily in a semi-empty apartment on the best chair I could find, my back to the bookcases, where the sight of the empty shelves was like a knife to the soul, I had a thick pile of papers on my lap and a large garbage bag open at my feet. I had been working for a few hours and was feeling exhausted.
My brother and sister-in-law came by, and began sifting through some piles of their own. I rubbed my temples to clear out the incipient headache that was taking up residence there, and I muttered with a huge sigh, "I'm so exhausted. I'm at the end of my rope." My brother and sister-in-law made sympathetic noises and continued their work, and I glanced down again at the papers on my lap. Another for the garbage. I slid the sheet of paper expertly into the bag yawning at my feet and went to lift the next one, a small sheet of yellowing paper, torn at the top, with my mother's handwriting on it and what looked like a squiggle below. I read it, gasped, jumped to my feet, waving it in the air, unable to speak. When I got their attention, I showed it to my brother and sister-in-law, who both exclaimed in disbelief. In my mother's distinctive hand the paper read:

When you come to the end of your rope, make a knot and hang on!"

The squiggle below was a quick sketch of a piece of knotted rope.
My sister-in-law whispered in awe, "She answered you. She's here with us."
My mother had died a month earlier.
In my mind, I heard her voice clearly, as I stared at the piece of paper shaking in my shaking hand, and I knew these were the words she would have said. She had little patience for the faint of heart. I stretched, straightened my back, and went on with the sorting, glad that I had witnesses to such an unfathomable moment.
The piece of paper with her message sits on my desk and urges me forward with my life.
She is gone, but I know she will always manage somehow to tell me what I need to hear.

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the book addict

My good friend, the writer, Alison Gardiner, tagged me for a Blog Hop, which sounded like a fun way for writers to reach out to each other's blog-worlds, so I urge my own visitors to be sure to visit her at her blog, Alison Gardiner
She's a terrific writer with a wonderful sense of humor. You won't want to miss this.
So here goes, plunging into the Blog Hop!
This May blog post will answer the four questions that make up the Blog Hop and recommend other blogs for you to check out:
What am I working on?
For the past two years I have been struggling to produce the novel I always thought I would write. By the age of nine, I knew that words were my passion. I read voraciously and wanted to grow up to become one of the writers whose books I so admired - the rock stars of my youth!
In the past two years, I actually produced 90,000 words and some characters and scenes I was really proud to have written, but somewhere in all the writing and revising and the long pauses in between, I lost the thread and tension of my story. The 90,000 words read like short episodes that failed dismally to build to a climax.
Perhaps this flawed creation is that first novel that every writer writes – the one that gets hidden away and never gets published?
My first published book, SIPPING FROM THE NILE, My Exodus from Egypt [Encore, 2012] is a memoir of my unusual childhood growing up in an Egypt that vanished after the Suez crisis of 1956. It was written in fits and starts in hours stolen from my busy life as a wife, daughter, mother, grandmother and literary agent. It is, of course, nonfiction (although I had wanted its subtitle to be “an impressionistic memoir”) My many years of advising writers reminds me that nonfiction writers are often unable to cross the Great Divide from nonfiction into fiction. Then I remind myself that many reviewers remarked that my memoir “reads like fiction,” so I vacillate between mourning the death of my dream of writing a novel, to hope that all is perhaps not lost.
After months of focusing on my guest blogs and monthly blog posts as well as various other articles and nonfiction pieces with some poems and essays thrown in, I plan soon to attack my fiction block, head on. I plan to take those 90,000 words apart and rework some of those characters and scenes into short stories, hoping they will keep my “fans” interested enough to hang around waiting for the novel that may indeed be hovering somewhere in the middle distance, refusing for the moment to come into clear focus.
And I do intend to write it.
Lately, vivid inspirations have laced my insomnia with insight, but each time, a heavy lassitude and the sloth of sleep deprivation made me delay writing anything down, planning to commit my deathless prose to paper or computer "in the morning.". Sadly, when I really woke up and reached for a pen, no words had survived the surprise of the sudden sweet early morning sleep that snatched me from my musings and plunged me into oblivion.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Such a difficult question, since I do not usually write to genre. My hope is that the novel I write will defy pigeon-holing and take its place somewhere as an absorbing read, with memorable characters and a story that enthralls: a very tall order I know, particularly since we know that my earlier effort is flawed beyond redemption, but I live in hope. At least I have no ambitions to write The Great American Novel. I suppose that somewhere in the soul of this dreamer, lives a realist.
Why do I write what I write?
I wrote my memoir because I wanted to preserve my memories of childhood in a vanished world for my grandchildren to discover. I now know that the book has traveled far beyond my family. It has reached over 30,000 readers, and I have been amazed and delighted to hear from so many strangers who found, in my life story, echoes of their own feelings and experiences in very different life-contexts, seeing it as a universal tale of reversals and survival. That is a true thrill.
As for the novel-in-progress, I love words and the ways in which words can free my consciousness to explore lives and stories other than my own. I write, because defining thoughts and defining the life I observe in words is my love and my craft, my hope, and my dream.
How does my writing process work?
I don't actually have a regular writing process. Whenever I can find a few hours, I sit in front of my computer and immerse myself in writing. Like reading a good book, I can work for hours if left to it, without feeling the need to interrupt, which is why it is so hard to find the right block of time. I write, read it aloud to myself, re-read next day or a few days later, edit, re-write, and go through the whole process again and again. I like to write everything down as it comes to me, and then sculpt and weed until I feel really pleased with the result. I am a firm believer that self-editing is the hidden key to success, and I try to follow my own advice to others.
Now for the tagging. Let us spread our wings outward into the ether and help each other.
I strongly urge you to visit these authors and enjoy their blogs and websites. I have so much enjoyed their writing. I hope that you will find the same pleasure in discovering them for yourselves. I also hope you will scroll down my own earlier posts and click on some of the links on the left:
Alison Gardner
Alison's writing is vibrant with energy and humor. As well as the shorter pieces, she is working on fantasy and mystery novels for middle grade readers and her delight in the craft and the limitless world of writing makes her work a real pleasure and fun to read. Her quirky sense of humor is addictive and her blogs make me laugh out loud. Take a look at the Haggis!
Helen Shankman
Helen is both a fine artist and a superb writer. She has written a rich multi-faceted novel, THE COLOR OF LIGHT, recently published, that takes place within the vivid background of the art world she knows so well. It is a vampire novel, a love story, elegantly written, that surprises and delights. Her short stories are deeply moving and have their roots in the Holocaust, where her parents lost most of their extended families. She designed her own beautiful book jacket.
Iza Trapani
Iza writes and illustrates the most delightful picture books for young children and their attached adults, as well as any adult who has not lost their inner child. Take a look at her website (you can click to it from her blog), as it displays her many wonderful published books. I also strongly recommend scrolling down her blog to last Valentine's Day love-poem. It's a charmer!

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On my wall is a painting,
Patricia's painting.
She is gone, but on my wall
Is with me still
And we are young
And spilling laughter
Floating like blossom in the breeze
Of Hyde Park in spring.
A path unfolds its way,
Destination unknown.
Figures faint and indistinct
Perambulate the gravel,
And my spirit, caught by the painting
On my wall
Leaps to the past,
A bird soaring from a cage,
Feeling the breeze
Lifting my hair
Dancing through trees
Heavy with leaves and history,
Fluttering a heart
Tricked by the weight of years
Into old age.

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Almost 47 years ago on a crisp fall day, I stood in the lobby of my apartment building with my firstborn son, awaiting the arrival of the small school bus that was to take him to school - without me - for the first time.
I was fighting off tears, but he was happily oblivious to my distress, effervescent with excitement, his dark eyes sparkling in anticipation of this grownup moment.
The bus drew up in front of our building, and he pulled frantically at my hand to run to meet it. I wanted to grab him and take him back upstairs. I knew what he did not, that he was leaving me to move into a world which would now be more and more of his own making. I would not be able to intervene or protect. The world of the school bus would be his to navigate alone, and I knew that some of my privilege of motherhood would shrivel and die the moment he stepped alone into the bus.
The bus pulled away, and my tears came. I stepped blearily back into the lobby where a friendly white-haired woman named Rose, sat behind the desk. She peered at me from behind glasses with sparkling crystals embedded in the frames.
"Mrs. Naggar," she said softly, calling me over to where she sat, "Don't cry. He'll be fine. It's a very nice school. Look!" pointing behind me, "Here's Mrs. Barasch. Why don't you ask her? Her girls go to the same school."
I turned, rubbing at my eyes, and saw a friendly woman smiling at me. We started to talk, and friendship began. We have been talking ever since. We shared good and bad life moments, laughed with each other, celebrated with each other, wept with each other. Over the years we met each other's families, shared dinner parties, recipes, and knitting patterns, books we loved and movies we hated, life-changing moments and times of celebration.
Friendship continued long after Lynne and her family moved out of our building, eventually also encompassing a professional side-bar: Lynne went to art school and began to illustrate and write gorgeous picture books. Our lives connected again in a different place, and I became her literary agent.
So today, as she moves toward her March birthday, I honor a friendship that began long ago, and flourishes more than ever as we both age. Our conversation over lunch has changed and shifted over the decades, but we are still the same, swept by the same tides of time, validating each other and supporting each other as we confront the challenges and triumphs of our lives.
Friendship is a unique gift. Thank you, Lynne, for yours.

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