Hey! I am a bookworm!

Swimming Through My TED Talk

Warning: This essay, if delivered as a TED talk, would be more like two TED talks so I’m glad I don’t have to memorize it. I hope you enjoy the read all the same. It’s probably of interest to anyone who is thinking about doing a TED talk or who is currently preparing their TED talk or who has done a TED talk or who was part of the first TEDxNewport event or who is a fan of TED talks or curious about TED talks in any way.

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What is the surest way to get someone to binge watch TED talks? Select them to present one. Months ago, at the end of June, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when I happened upon this news item: “Who Is TED and Why is He Coming to Newport?” It was from an online news website called “what’s up, Newp?” and I clicked through to it immediately and read with interest.

Because wayyy back in 2009 I was sitting in my yurt on the coast of Oregon waiting for someone to tap my shoulder with their magic wand and transform me from fish biologist to author. And most likely I was wearing the hunter orange down vest and glittens that I wore to “work” every day because, yes, we lived in a tent and my husband bought me a glass desk, which was almost always cold. I’d been working on the manuscript of my first book, a memoir, for three years by then and we’d recently returned from living in Costa Rica where, conversely, I’d sat in my bikini all day learning how to transform real life into scenes with dialogue. I had what in hindsight would turn out to be early first pages, over 600 of them, and was drumming my half-alpaca-covered fingers on my icy desk trying to figure out what to do next when suddenly an email popped up from my oldest child, Hannah, who was a student at Georgetown 3000 miles away. “Alicia just wrote to me and said, ‘your mom should do a TED talk!’” I had no clue who TED was or why he’d want me to talk but always welcome a diversion so I Googled it and thought, “That’s nice. I wonder what Alicia thinks I could possibly talk about?” Then I tucked that whole idea away in one of the many folds of my brain, which just so happened to be the section most active at 3 a.m. when it jolts me out of a great dream, hollering, “Hey! Are we ever going to do that TED talk?”

But back to June. I clicked through all the tabs on the brand new TEDxNewport website and started copying and pasting. I learned that the theme was “Tides of Change” and read the description, which ended with, “tides affect other biological rhythms and give life to an intertidal ecosystem, an environment that exists between the high and low water lines, where organisms have adapted to life under constant change.” Having spent a good part of my life in that exact intertidal zone, I was already kicking off my shoes and hiking barefoot along the damp sand. It continued, “Like the gravitational pull of the moon, there’s a certain magnetism about Newport that draws many people here and pulls us back even after we’ve left.” Bingo. Having spent my life leaving and returning to my island home, this was the perfect theme for me.

The deadline was in July and I dutifully submitted not one, but two ideas. I was ready to do a TED talk and I wanted in, whether I talked about the dance, Epilogue, or banning mass balloon releases. The notification date was the beginning of August, so when that came and went with no word, I figured I wasn’t selected and carried on. Lo and behold, one month later I received an email from Alyssa, the organizer, with the subject line: Congratulations, you’re a finalist! I opened it and read, “We received over 60 submissions and nominations, and your idea has made it to our top 25. We have 12 spots available for the event, and there’s one more step before we make our final decisions.” She asked that I provide a detailed outline in less than a week, ugh, then gave a little spiel about the time limitations of the talk and etc., asking that we reply in five days.

Even though I detest outlines, I was so excited, but, wait, which talk? So I fired back an email and a week later we chatted by phone while I watched my son’s soccer game, deciding that I should present a performance-based talk along with the dance—Epilogue. I drafted up a quick outline, emailed it, then waited to hear if I was chosen. She promised to let us know who the 12 finalists were on Monday, September 12, but another week later we received an email saying, “I’m asking for your patience for one more day; I will call you tomorrow with the final decision. Thank you for thinking outside the box, and whether or not you’re a speaker at this year’s TEDxNewport, please continue pushing boundaries and engaging the community.”

The next day, I was back at a soccer game when Alyssa called to say I was selected! Woo hoo! She followed up with an email introducing the speakers and we all signed our life over to TED, who owns all the content. The schedule was produced and supplemental materials sent and we were off and running. I had about one month to get my act together. Right away, the Newport Daily News wrote an article, “TEDxNewport Announces Upcoming Speakers”, in which they revealed this about yours truly, “besides her career as an author, Kittel has taught Nature Day Camp at the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown among many other activities.” For some reason they opted not to mention my groundbreaking work at Frosty Freeze (where I showed such clear promise at age 12 by inventing the sundae on a spoon) or my actual, salaried career as a fish biologist, but I guess they know the “best words” to sell newspapers.

It would have been awkward to back out now, so I began my crash course in TED talks. I learned that TED has been around since 1984 and is broadcasted in over 100 languages around the world. The global TED community “aids in heightening awareness by unionizing like-minded and curious souls while giving them a place to gather.” TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design and their tagline—ideas worth spreading—speaks for itself, the goal being to cultivate and share ideas. In the next days, I watched so many TED talks that now my 3 a.m. wake-up calls came with a soundtrack—the TED intro music complete with the magnified water drip and, yes, applause.

I started clogging up my FB feed by posting my favorites, #watchthis!, including this most excellent talk by Chris Burkard on “The Joy of Surfing in Ice Cold Water” (http://www.ted.com/talks/chris_burkard_the_joy_of_surfing_in_ice_cold_water) or “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator” (https://pc.tedcdn.com/talk/podcast/2016/None/TimUrban_2016-480p.mp4) in which Tim Urban who, while also supposed to be writing his TED talk, admits to pulling up the map of India on Google Earth and zooming in to the bottom of the country, like 200 feet above the ground, and spending the next 2.5 hours scrolling up to the top “to get a better feel for India”. And I could totally relate. I nodded with solidarity when he said that when he was invited to do his talk, he thought, “Yes, it’s always been a dream of mine to have done a ted talk in my past!” Only now his dream had come true. I still had work to do.

I was learning. But I inadvertently took Tim’s talk to heart, providing myself with SO many interesting distractions it seemed my goal was actually to earn a Masters degree in Procrastination. I read Google Alerts from Chile and crocodile updates from Costa Rica and availed myself of new breakthroughs in anti-aging. I battled pantry moths and bought moth traps and two pairs of boots on Amazon. I wrote two essays, submitted one photo to a contest, and turned in the manuscript of my next book to be edited. We went to Maine to pick apples and pumpkins, climb Mt. Pisgah, and help my dad close up for the winter. My friend’s only child died in his 30’s from cancer and my cousin ended his life at age 20. Another friend miscarried twins and 64 bereaved moms were added to the closed FB group for Miscarriage and Stillbirth that I co-moderate for The Compassionate Friends. All of these things filtered through my thoughts about my message. It was time to get to it.

I took seven pages of notes on how to write/give a TED talk and wrote eight versions of an eight-paged talk called Just Keep Swimming that, like this essay, was about twice as long as the allotted time. I sent it to Hannah and Christiana and the very same Alicia from paragraph two to edit as they gathered in Oregon to run a half-marathon. I traded edits with my friend, Kim, who was doing her own TEDx talk in New Bedford. All agreed with the voice of Joyce Maynard that lives in my writer’s head—Start Over. Back in my basement I stared at a blank Word document and agonized over these two questions: What is my IDEA worth sharing? Is this too much about ME? I studied my notes over and over, notes like this: The primary goal of your talk is to communicate an idea effectively, not to tell a story or to evoke emotions. These are tools, not an end in themselves. I tried to force my wandering way of writing into this neat TED outline:

  1. Start by making your audience care, using a relatable example or an intriguing idea.
  2. Explain your idea clearly and with conviction.
  3. Describe your evidence and how and why your idea could be implemented.
  4. End by addressing how your idea could affect your audience if they were to accept it.

I started over.

Three weeks out from the event, I ditched the whole Just Keep Swimming theme, switching to Why We Should Share Our Stories, and it all came together. I fine-tuned my words into a ten-minute speech to be followed by the five-minute dance, allowing for three minutes of the unknown to make it under the official 18 minutes allotted by TED. It was an idea worth sharing.

Then I began practicing. We had to memorize our speeches, no notes, no teleprompter, which was probably the most daunting part of the whole experience. I hadn’t memorized anything in decades. I divided my speech into nine sections, highlighted key words, and imagined moving between three locations on stage, even though we were forbidden to step off the round red rug that is the hallmark of all TED talks. And I practiced everywhere I went. In every room in my house, while driving, while waiting in the parking lot for Isaiah to get a haircut, while waiting in the parking lot for Bella at dance, and, the best place of all—while swimming every day in the ocean. In the fall. In New England. In case you’re reading this in the future.

On Saturday, two weeks before the event, I swam alone at Third Beach. It was forecasted to be the last warm day of the week and I didn’t want to miss it in spite of ominous clouds threatening all around. “Let’s pretend we’re at a cocktail party,” I said in my head as I swam down the shore to Peabody’s Beach. I liked the idea of walking onstage with a glass of wine, just in case I needed it. Because, as I’d say, “I am Irish, after all.” Every day in the ocean is different and even though the water had been crystal clear two days prior, the visibility was so poor I could barely see my hand. I turned around at the end of the beach and was returning along the shore, reciting the darkest part of my speech about Noah and Jonah’s deaths, when all of a sudden the water turned black! I looked up to see that the clouds had grown to cover the sky and it was now raining, precisely fitting the mood of the story at that moment. I swam on.

A few days later, the air was a chilly 47 degrees but it was sunny with clear skies and the sea was calm. Billie and I headed into the ocean at Second Beach, also cold, but “once you’re in, you’re in” is our motto. We swam east through crystal clear water that always feels like a gift to me as I swim with a mask and snorkel and watching the bottom gives me something to look at. We swam all the way down to Sachuest Point, the furthest we’d ever gone this fall, and on the way back I was reciting the introduction to Epilogue, fittingly the final section of my speech. I was saying how you should share your stories because you never know where that path will lead and just as I recited, “it might simply be amazing!” I swam over a gorgeous pink jellyfish, probably a lion’s mane, definitely a stinger, but beautiful. I stopped to admire it ballooning its slightly striped hood, tentacles moving gracefully below, and the timing could not have been more perfect. “Indeed,” I thought to myself, “simply amazing!”

The next day, I swam with Sarah and finally got through my whole speech without forgetting any lines. My fingers and feet were numb but the water was clear, again, and pale green under a gray sky. Contrary to popular imagination, we rarely see anything more than water and seaweed when we swim in the ocean. So swimming over two quahogs feeding was a first for me. Ditto for three skates, their smooth silhouettes camouflaged by the sandy bottom, the second of which I came upon just as I was reciting a line about how, like sea glass, some day the sharp edges of pain will be worn smooth. These were magical moments and they all helped me memorize my speech, which I was definitely afraid I was going to forget as soon as I stepped on stage.

Friday, November 4, was the day before the event and my final rehearsal swim with Liz and Sarah. I was swimming along reciting to myself the news of Isaiah’s birth when a small group of large, ephemerally pale fish darted past. And that was a perfect wrap. I was as ready as I’d ever be, although I truly wished I could swim my speech instead of standing on stage to say it. Because even in November, that was something that I knew I could do. Be brave and do hard things, I reminded myself.

After our swim, I put myself on “vocal rest” as if I were about to play Elpheba in Wicked, as opposed to reciting a ten-minute speech. But I’d been battling a scratchy throat for a few days so I skipped attending the final high school football game with my family thinking Chilly, night air! and stayed home to drink hot liquids, iron my clothes, and practice my speech in my bedroom, instead. I’d recently learned all about vocal prep from the book, Unnaturally Green, by Felicia Ricci that I dove into after seeing Wicked in September. Ricci is a member of the tribe who have played Elpheba, which, as she informed, is one of the most challenging female vocal roles to perform. From her, I also learned to eat a banana before my own “performances” and I had one ready to go for the morning.

In the weeks while I’d swam and recited my speech, I’d began dividing my life into BT/AT, before TED and after TED. BT I tried to clear my calendar as much as I could so I could practice, practice, practice. Halloween came and it’s probably no coincidence that I colored my face green with some smelly old face paint I found in our Halloween costume box and attended a party as the real Elpheba, finding both Dorothy and the Scarecrow there, too. After TED I had plans to hear Ruth Reichl speak in Providence, then would come the election, then celebrating a combined 55th Birthday Bash with Andy and friends in Virginia, then Thanksgiving, Florida for my dad’s birthday, Christmas in Chile—all easy and fun things I looked forward to but didn’t allow myself to think about too much. Because that was all AT and Ted was not yet in my past.

But before we head into the final leg AT (yes, the end is near), I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention that one of the interesting asides about this inaugural TEDxNewport event is that just recently the founder of TED, himself, Saul Wurman, sold his 13,000 square foot Newport mansion—The Orchard—for $2.5 million, which was a whopping 77% decrease in price from the $11 million it was listed for. The house boasted 16 bedrooms on either 4.75 or 8 acres, depending which news source you believe. All agree that it’s located on the Cliff Walk, boasting killer ocean access and not one, but two outdoor pools, plus an indoor one, so plenty of swimming options that I sure hope someone is enjoying because I know I would.

So, why did Mr. TED, himself, practically give The Orchard away? In his words, “I love living in this house, and I’m not blasé about it at all, but this town is an intellectual wasteland without any sense of humor.” Huh. “Hah,” I want to say, followed by a really witty joke that even Saul wouldn’t get at first. I imagine myself repeating it, even. “I live reclusively behind a fence,” he admits, so it seems doubtful that he ever had any kind of visitors at all, never mind one or two smart and/or funny townspeople. I can’t even tell you for sure where his house is located because he never invited me over for so much as a game of Marco Polo, never mind an intellectual discourse. In fact, I didn’t even know he was a Newport resident for 17 years until he wasn’t. Still, I can’t help thinking that he might have enjoyed our intellectual wasteland’s first ever TEDx talk. Right? He might have even found our ideas worthy of sharing.

It was an epic day, all in all. There ended up being 13 talks and mine was last, number 13, which is my lucky number after all so that was just fine. It was tough swallowing my nerves all day, almost eight hours, and I think I lost about five pounds in the process in case you’re in search of a new way to lose weight. But I wore my red cowboy boots because they scream, “I am not afraid.” You can’t simper or shy away from a challenge with red boots on your feet. You must, as Micah says, “Be a warrior, not a worrier.” One glance at your feet lets everyone know that you are there to kick some booty. And so, the minute I pointed my toes forward and stepped onstage with a glass of icy chardonnay in my hand, everything fell into place. “Let’s pretend,” I said, swimming right on through my speech with the black clouds, the pink jellyfish, the quahogs, the skates, and the ephemeral fish all awaiting their cues.

The spotlights were blinding and I couldn’t see anyone so it felt like it was just me in my mask and snorkel anyway. Midway along, I actually reminded myself, You are not alone! So don’t wander offstage or start talking about swimming or fish or something, okay? Because I have been known to digress, like I’m about to do right now . . . being suddenly reminded of the time back in those yurt days from paragraph two when I was practically hooked offstage at a FisherPoet’s reading with strict time limits because I’d ad-libbed my introduction, rambling on and on about my night at the Elbow Room in Dutch Harbor, once called the second-most-dangerous bar on the planet, for so long that I didn’t even get to finish my actual reading, appropriately titled Dam It. I left that event with my pride still in hand, albeit dripping through my fingers, while firmly clutching both the free t-shirt and the can of tuna they’d promised. Which is also when I started saying, “I’ll do almost anything for a free can of tuna,” even though the opportunity has yet to present itself anew.

I finished my speech forgetting only one passage, which was most likely the direct result of attempting to multitask by externally delivering a TEDx talk while internally reminding myself to pay attention. Nobody noticed, of course. It wasn’t missed and made no difference in the end, although I’ll share it with you now. As per my memorization method described above, it’s from the fourth section, stage Left (which was actually red TED rug, Left), “We are very good (see how I did that? even though it didn’t work) at sharing our joy in this society but not so great at sharing our pain. And the result is that when we find ourselves in those deep, dark places, we feel alone. And we wonder what’s wrong with us. And we wonder why everyone else is having such a perfect life.” There, now my speech is complete.

Safe to say that one of the happiest moments of my life was saying the actual completion of my speech, “Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Epilogue,” then ripping off my head microphone (another first) and hurrying down the offstage stairs to join the audience. I settled into one of the ancient folding seats as the dancers took their places onstage. I sipped my wine with relief and joy bathing every nerve in every cell of my body in a cool, communal Amen! I wished time would simply stand still or at least stick a spotlighted placeholder on that moment so that it could be revisited over and over, world without end, as Bella, my niece, Ava, and my other incredible back-up dancers shared the gift of Epilogue one final time. I listened to the words I’d written and recorded, listened to my voice saying the names of my dead sons aloud in the Jane Pickens Theater where I’d watched movies with other people’s voices for five decades of my life, and I was fulfilled. I marveled at this, the culmination of my talk, the final example of why we should share our stories—“Because it might just lead you to someplace that’s simply amazing!” And I was, simply, amazed.

Now, at last, I can channel my inner Tim Urban. Now it is AT. The suggestion of Alicia and those 3 a.m. awakenings have been fulfilled. My dream has come true. I did it. And I did it with Hannah in the audience. And I did it with Bella and Ava and 14 other girls from my official school of 36 fish, and Miss Pam, the creative genius behind the whole story of Epilogue. I did it with a last-supper-worthy group of phenomenal speakers, all of whom have wise and witty ideas worth sharing and whom I’m so happy to know. We were the first, ever, after all, and I’m grateful for Alyssa and Meg and all of the brave and bold TEDxNewport brainchildren for all their hard work. I learned a great deal about a wide variety of subjects from plastics pollution to how chemo drugs are poisoning us all (yes); from how educational systems have and continue to fail us all to the timely truth about Touro Tower. I’m glad we don’t have sex with horses any more. I’m in the market for some excellent art forgeries. And I’m happy that TED has created a place where people can take off their costumes and proclaim who they are and have always been, claiming their place as one of the four female speakers onstage for this brave new event in a town that is, indeed, worthy of meeting the challenges of its founder. Clearly, these are ideas worth sharing because I channeled the voices of the Leese sisters only one week after our event, saying with a tiny smile to a slightly injured soccer player in Richmond, VA, “It’s a good thing you’re tough.” And so, like everything we do in our lives that is worthwhile, in so many, many ways, both foreseen and unforeseen, I am, indeed, so happy now that I have done a TED talk in my past!

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img_0735Me, AT, jumping for joy at Second Beach!

 

P.S.  Here’s my official TEDxNewport bio, which is excellent, but also neglected to mention my chilling performance at Frosty Freeze . . .

Kelly Kittel

Marine Biologist, Author, Mom

Kelly is a Middletown High School alum with a Marine Affairs degree from URI. She served in the US Peace Corps as an environmental educator in rural Jamaica before beginning her career as a fish biologist. She spent time studying a variety of species and managing renewable energy projects from the Bering Sea to the Columbia River Basin and became a prolific writer on the subject. After a series of heartbreaking family tragedies, she took to writing as a form of healing; her novel Breathe won IPNE Awards for Best Book & Best Narrative Nonfiction and was received with praise and gratitude by so many struggling with grief of their own. Kelly is a mom of 5, currently living with her husband (who happens to be from Newport, Oregon) and their youngest two children on Aquidneck Island. Her talk, “Why We Should Share Our Stories”, demonstrates how humans connect with each other when they share their experiences out loud, no matter how painful.

What Goes Up . . .

Note: This is a Guest View I wrote for Clean Ocean Access published in the Newport Daily News last night, May 18, 2016.

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If you Google the phrase, “What goes up, must come down” you’ll learn that it’s attributed to Isaac Newton. You’ll also find the following explanation: “Things that are launched into the air will return back down to the ground. Why? Because of gravity, that’s why.” As a resident of Aquidneck Island, I can be found on the beach almost every day, often humming the tune to Spinning Wheel, the song by Blood, Sweat and Tears that begins with Newton’s quotation. Because almost every single time I walk the beach I see the crumpled remains of balloons along the tide line.

Balloons litter our shorelines. Colorful ribbons once clenched by sweaty toddler fists unfurl across the sand like desiccated jellyfish tentacles. And this is one of the biggest problems with balloons—they look just like jellyfish to the critters gulping them down by mistake. Clean Ocean Access (COA) receives regular boating reports revealing that the quantity of balloons found offshore is staggering. Whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and birds have all been found with ingested balloons blocking their digestive systems, slowly starving them to death. Which isn’t the festive image we typically associate with a party balloon tied to someone’s mailbox. Or released en masse to mark a special occasion or memorialize a loved one.

As a bereaved parent, myself, I’ve been cringing for years as folks gather in graveyards and on goal lines to release bundles of balloons. It’s a nice symbol, craning our necks to watch the colorful orbs float up to where we picture our loved ones waiting, hands outstretched, to receive them. Especially our dearly departed children, who will never, ever delight in that iconic symbol of birthday celebrations again. But none of us truly believe that heaven is just a balloon ride away or that our beloveds will actually be the happy recipients of anything we launch into space. Remember Newton? Instead, other creatures will be on the receiving end, but not in the way we’ve intended.

Balloons are usually made of natural latex, which is biodegradable, but the decomposition takes many months, the ribbons even longer. Others are made of Mylar, a kind of foil, and these can float for hundreds of miles before descending. After we’ve watched them float up, up, and away and moved on to other things, the beautiful balloons we’ve released will ultimately either burst or slowly deflate. Gravity ensures their return to earth and that goes for Chinese Lanterns as well. Once the flame burns out, their metal and bamboo remnants entangle birds and choke livestock.

Nationwide, the balloon debris found in beach cleanups has tripled over the past ten years. Here on our island, COA Beach Cleanups have netted over 1800 balloons and fragments in the past three years. One Sunday in May on a weekend marked by both Mother’s Day and school graduations, my son and I picked up over a hundred balloons in the one-mile-stretch of Second Beach. What we see on our beaches is our second chance to clean up this problem but it’s also an ugly reminder that we missed our first chance, which was to think before we released.

A handful of cities and states have enacted laws banning the release of balloons and lanterns, along with the White House, National Park Service, and even Disney World. COA is working to enact an island-wide ban on balloon releases this year as part of our overall goal of eliminating marine debris from the shoreline and changing human behavior to improve ocean health. Our little state is only 37 miles wide and 48 miles long but we have 400 miles of shoreline, much of which is littered with something or other. The Balloon Council spends millions of lobbying dollars to keep balloon releases legal when they should be included in existing litter laws because, after all, that’s what they are.

If you want to memorialize your loved ones or mark a special occasion with something lofty, there are better alternatives. For streams of color high in the air, why not fly kites? How about a mass bubble release? Or monarch butterflies? Homing pigeons? Or my favorite—plant a tree. You can watch it grow and it will provide years of habitat for animals and birds instead of killing them. If we can’t protect the marine life swimming around us here on our island we don’t deserve to call this place our home. And we are all just spinning our wheels.

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Happy Earth Day 2016!

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Earth Day is today, April 22, and I am wondering if we could all pause for a moment to think about this silently spinning orb beneath us that we call home. Every day is Earth Day for the residents of this planet, all 7 billion of us, which is a staggering number and one that is taxing the carrying capacity of our planet in many ways. Have you thought much about your planet today? How do you think our planet is doing, overall? Are we taking good care of it?

I think the evidence is all around us that we’re not exactly winning any awards in the stewardship department. We have some pretty major issues facing us—global warming, resource exhaustion, endangered species, crop failure, and lack of clean drinking water, to name a few. I keep looking and listening for the good news and am not seeing or hearing much in return. So, my fellow Earthlings, it’s time for some house cleaning.

There are many simple things we can do to help the planet and ourselves. Let’s start by lighting our nests with compact fluorescent or LED bulbs. Have you had a home energy audit? Time for us both to check that off our lists. With heating oil prices rising every month none of us can afford to heat the outside. How about taking advantage of the many affordable solar options? Our panels are hitting our roof in May. Take inventory of how many things you have plugged into the wall and try to eliminate one or two. Can you live without that hand lotion warmer? And what is your room temperature? Could you put on another layer and lower the thermostat or open the windows and let the breeze blow through instead of shutting yourself inside with your air conditioner? How about your appliances? Are they all energy star rated? Are you doing as much as you can to reduce the waste you create, reuse what you can, and recycle what you can’t?

Let’s take a look around outside. Is there a sunny spot in your yard where you could grow a tomato or some strawberries? Or flowers to help bees, birds and butterflies? Aching backs aside, gardening is a wonderful activity to teach your kids and for your wallet, health and soul! Do you compost? Do you have a place to put a clothesline? The dryer is not only one of the biggest energy users in your house, but all that lint you throw away is actually bits of your clothes wearing out. Do you really have a pest problem and is your lawn really that bad or could you live without adding those chemicals to your house and lawn and, ultimately, the ocean. How much time do you spend outside listening to the birds and observing nature? The average American spends 20 minutes a day, but that includes time spent in a car! Do your kids go out and play? Do you?

These are just some of the many things we can do to become better stewards of our home, the planet Earth. After all, there isn’t another one we can move to when we’ve finished with this one. To quote a Facebook post, “We can’t all do everything, but we can all do something.” Remember, we did not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children. Let’s leave this place for them in better shape than how we found it.

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Epilogue: The Dance, Part Two!

To accompany my last blog, here is the YouTube video of Epilogue from Star Quest, our first competition of four! Epilogue earned a Platinum Award and won a Special Judge’s Award for Epic Storytelling. The judges’ comment included words like beautiful, deep, lovely, and amazing. One judge cried and said, “thank you for sharing.” Another said, “this is not a competition dance, it’s a work of art!” Enjoy!

 

EPILOGUE: The Dance

East Bay, South Coast dancers find their ‘inner fish’

Erin Rae’s School of Dance team members Kaitlin Costa (left) and Ava Aguiar of Portsmouth (middle) rehearse the dance, in which half of the dancers can use their legs, and the other half their arms. Photo by Richard W. Dionne Jr.

WESTPORT — It’s not every day you see young girls dancing to a voiceover that references fish fossils, blood cells and losing babies.

But that’s what’s happening at Erin Rae’s School of Dance in Westport, where a competitive dance squad is interpreting a somber piece written by Portsmouth author Kelly Kittel and choreographed by Pamela Mateus.

Bella Kittel of Portsmouth (middle) is among the dancers rehearsing a piece that’s partly based on her mother’s book, “Breathe.” Photo by Richard W. Dionne Jr.
Bella Kittel of Portsmouth (middle) is among the dancers rehearsing a piece that’s partly based on her mother’s book, “Breathe.” Photo by Richard W. Dionne Jr.

“I said to Miss Pam, ‘Can you dance to words like placenta and fetus?’ And they are,” said Kelly, whose daughter and niece — Bella Kittel and Ava Aguiar, also of Portsmouth — are among the 35 girls rehearsing the piece that will debut next month. The troupe, which also includes girls from Tiverton, Little Compton and Barrington, will have its first meet March 4 at the Providence Performing Arts Center.

Kelly wrote and recorded the voiceover for the four-minute dance, which is partly based on her 2014 book, “Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict.” The memoir details how the family coped with two back-to-back tragedies — the sudden death in 1997 of her 15-month-old son, Noah, and the subsequent loss of another baby, Jonah, who died in utero only nine months after Noah left them.

It’s pretty heady subject matter for young girls, some of whom aren’t yet in their teens, but then again this dance studio has tackled topics such as concentration camps and Ellis Island.

“Kudus to this studio,” said Kelly. “They don’t just do ‘Peter Pan’ and ‘Cinderella.’ They keep it real.”

Inspired by book

The idea for the dance took shape after Pamela read Kelly’s book. She was moved by Kelly’s grace and strength and was particularly struck by one passage.

Kalliopi Monoyios (left) and Kelly Kittel share a laugh during a chat with dancers from Erin Rae’s School of Dance in Westport last week. Ms. Monoyios is a scientific illustrator who worked alongside famed paleontologist and “Inner Fish” author Neil Shubin. Ms. Kittel, of Portsmouth, is the author of “Breathe,” a memoir in which she shares her story of losing two babies within 9 months of each other. She wrote the voiceover for the dance, which is partly based on her book. Photo by Richard W. Dionne Jr.
Kalliopi Monoyios (left) and Kelly Kittel share a laugh during a chat with dancers from Erin Rae’s School of Dance in Westport last week. Ms. Monoyios is a scientific illustrator who worked alongside famed paleontologist and “Inner Fish” author Neil Shubin. Ms. Kittel, of Portsmouth, is the author of “Breathe,” a memoir in which she shares her story of losing two babies within 9 months of each other. She wrote the voiceover for the dance, which is partly based on her book. Photo by Richard W. Dionne Jr.

“There’s a line that says, ‘When someone asked me which one of my sons I missed more, I asked them what would you miss more, your left hand or your right?’” said Pamela. “I wanted to do something that conveyed that so I thought, what if half of the group could only move their arms and the other half could only move their legs?”

Kelly agreed to write something, but she was flummoxed as to what would be appropriate for such young dancers.

“I wasn’t about to write a story about losing kids and family conflict,” she said. “One day I sat down and my daughter gave me Neil Shubin’s ‘Your Inner Fish.’ I’m part fish so I thought I’d somehow work that into this: ‘I’m part fish, you’re part fish, too.’”

The 2008 book by the famed paleontologist examines fossils and DNA to show how humans evolved from fish. Mr. Shubin discovered the 375 million-year-old Tiktaalik fossil, known as the “fish with hands.”

Kelly worked in bits about Mr. Shubin’s book, microchimerism (the presence of fetal cells in the mother’s bloodstream) and losing babies, too. Other than working with the same instrumental piece that shares the dance’s title — “Epilogue,” by Icelandic musician Olafur Arnalds — the author and choreographer worked separately, “in a complete vacuum,” said Kelly.

But when she showed up to a rehearsal in November, Kelly was amazed by what she saw. “I had my words in my head and I looked at what they had done and it matched almost exactly, to the point where when they talk about microchimerism, that’s right when my daughter Bella and my niece Ava do their little duet — and they’re probably both carrying my blood cells.”

Pamela agreed. “When we put the narration to the music, it just happened really organically and it really evolved from there,” she said, adding that “Epilogue” is her favorite piece in a decade of being a choreographer.

‘Crazy case of serendipity’

Despite her strong involvement with the dance, Kelly is a supporting player in a wider program tying together modern dance, classical music, scientific illustration, fish fossils and more.

Posing along with the dancers for a group photo are (starting from second from left in the front row), Terry Wolkowicz from the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, choreographer Pamela Mateus, Portsmouth author Kelly Kittel and scientific illustrator Kalliope Monoyios. Photo by Richard W. Dionne Jr.
Posing along with the dancers for a group photo are (starting from second from left in the front row), Terry Wolkowicz from the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, choreographer Pamela Mateus, Portsmouth author Kelly Kittel and scientific illustrator Kalliope Monoyios. Photo by Richard W. Dionne Jr.

In what she calls “a crazy case of serendipity,” one dancer’s mom is Terry Wolkowicz, education director for the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra. It just so happens that while “Epilogue” was being rehearsed, the orchestra was also focusing on fish. The two paths intersected during one of the dance rehearsals.

“(Kelly) started talking about Tiktaalik and my daughter went, ‘Wait a minute,’” said Terry, adding that the fossil’s name had been

Each year, the orchestra picks a classical music concept and connects it with other subject areas to share with local students, said Terry. “This year our concept is adaptations in motion. We studied classical music but also connect it to biology and scientific illustration,” she said.

The orchestra chose Mr. Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” for this year’s educational program and showed students how a fish’s movement in water could be graphed so it appears as musical notation, said Terry.

“All those melodies are being collected from 140 classrooms and we’re scoring it for a new piece for orchestra that’s going to be premiered at the end of February. It will take us from life swimming in water to moving onto land and finally to flight,” she said.

The Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford also got involved by setting up designated TRAM stops throughout the zoo. Parents can scan a symbol through a QR reader app on their phone to view NBSO “playing music that moves just like that animal,” said Terry.

Ava Aguiar of Portsmouth (middle) and other dancers rehearse "Epilogue" last week. Photo by Richard W. Dionne Jr.
Ava Aguiar of Portsmouth (middle) and other dancers rehearse “Epilogue” last week. Photo by Richard W. Dionne Jr.

Also joining the program was Kalliopi Monoyios, a scientific illustrator originally from Chicago who worked alongside Mr. Shubin and whose artwork appears in “Your Inner Fish.” She traveled here recently to lecture on “Your Inner Fish” at the zoo and led presentations on scientific illustration to students in Tiverton, Little Compton and elsewhere.

“This whole thing is about communicating science through art,” said Terry. “We can communicate science concepts through classical music, but we can also communicate the same type of science understanding through dance.”

Last week Terry, Kalliopi, Kelly and Pamela all sat down with the dancers during a break in rehearsing “Epilogue” to talk about how all the different topics were related.

“It’s really wild how the whole thing came together,” Kelly said while watching her daughter Bella rehearse “Epilogue.” The epilogue in her own book, she pointed out, is entitled “The Book of Bella.”

“There are no coincidences,” she said.

KK

PS Here’s the link to the article online to see more great photos!

What Goes Up…

Kelly Kittel in Costa Rica

If you Google the phrase “What goes up, must come down,” you’ll learn that it’s attributed to Isaac Newton. You’ll also find the following explanation. “Things that are launched into the air will return back down to the ground. Why? Because of gravity, that’s why.” As a resident of the Ocean State, I can be found on the beach almost every day, often humming the song, Spinning Wheel, which begins with Newton’s quotation. Because almost every single time I walk the beach I see the crumpled remains of balloons along the high tideline. One sunny spring weekend marked by both Mother’s Day and local school graduations, my son and I picked up over a hundred balloons in a one-mile-stretch of our favorite beach. It’s no surprise that balloon debris in beach litter surveys has tripled over the past 10 years.

Balloons litter our shorelines. Their colorful ribbons once clenched by sweaty toddler fists unfurl across the sand like jellyfish tentacles. And this is one of the biggest problems with balloons—they look like jellyfish to the critters that eat them by mistake. Whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and birds have all been found dead on the beach with balloons inside of them blocking their digestive systems, slowly starving them. Which isn’t the festive image we typically associate with a party balloon tied to someone’s mailbox. Or released en masse to mark a special occasion or memorialize a loved one.

As a bereaved parent, I have been cringing for years as folks gather in cemeteries and on soccer fields to release balloons by the handfuls. It’s a nice symbol, sending something up into the heavens where we picture our loved ones waiting to receive them. Especially our children, who will never delight in birthday balloons again. But none of us truly believes that our dearly departed will be the happy recipients of anything we launch into space. Remember the song? Other creatures will, but not in the way we’ve intended. Balloons are usually made of natural latex, which is biodegradable, but the decomposition takes many months, the ribbons even longer. Others are made of foil, Mylar, and these can float for hundreds of miles before descending. A whale calf recently washed ashore in California, dead from choking on a Mylar balloon. Killing sea creatures in the name of our loved ones is not the sort of myth we should be perpetrating. Dead sea birds entangled in pink and blue grosgrain ribbon is not how we’d intentionally choose to honor our babies.

After we’ve watched them float up, up, and away, balloons either burst or slowly deflate. Gravity ensures their return to earth and that is true for Chinese Lanterns as well. Once the flame burns out, their metal and bamboo frames can entangle birds and choke livestock. A handful of cities and states have enacted laws banning the release of balloons and lanterns, along with the White House, Park Service, and Disney World. But the Balloon Council spends millions of dollars lobbying to keep balloon releases legal, encouraging us to litter with their products. Balloon releases should be included in existing litter laws because, after all, that’s what it is.

If you want to memorialize your loved ones or mark a special occasion with something lofty, there are alternatives. For streams of color high in the air, why not fly kites? How about a mass bubble release? Or releasing monarch butterflies? Homing pigeons? Or my favorite—plant a tree. You can watch it grow and it will provide years of habitat for animals and birds instead of killing them.

Breathe

Kelly Kittel is a mom, an author, and, in her own words, part fish. Her first book, Breathe, A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict, is the winner of  IPNE’s Best Book of the Year and Best Narrative Nonfiction, and was an Honorable Finalist in the Readers’ Choice International Book Awards. Link to her  website, follow her on Twitter, and like her on Facebook.

NOTE: This is a guest blog post I wrote for Martha Reynolds Writes at: http://tinyurl.com/pr9w4yn

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

In 1988 Ronald Reagan declared October Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month (PAILA). That was the same year I said, “I do,” to my husband, Andy, blissfully unaware of either the sound of the President sharpening his pencil or how many babies we’d come to lose. You may not know about this month either, especially in lieu of all the hot pink athletic gear running around for Breast Cancer Awareness month. With only a dozen months and dozens of worthy causes, we’re forced to share.

The PAILA Movement began in the United States in 1987 and on October 25, 1988, President Ronald Reagan designated the entire month of October as the month to remember these little lives lost too soon. I must have been preoccupied with preparing for my wedding when Ron turned his attention toward so many silent screams those 27 years ago, because I was only made aware of the PAILA month a few years ago, long after I’d lost my babies. I’ve had 13 pregnancies and have 5 living children so I wouldn’t be surprised if others, like me, have no idea about this either. Certainly nobody is running around a football field wearing anything symbolic.

The original leaders of this movement were three gals from Wayzata, Minnesota, Sherokee Ilse, Susan Erling, and Ronda Wintheiser, who ran a nonprofit organization called The Pregnancy and Infant Loss Center. This was before computers had us all hunched over so these three ladies actually wrote old-fashioned letters and telephoned folks, urging them to join pens in yet another letter writing campaign to Congress. Many organizations threw their hats in the ring including SHARE, Empty Arms, Hand of CA, Unite, MEND and others. To celebrate their success, in the spring of 1989 hundreds of bereaved families marched on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. carrying some 500 quilts stitched with thousands baby names. The first Memorial Service for babies who died in pregnancy or shortly thereafter was held right then and there on the Capital Steps.

With the month in hand, the campaign to dedicate October 15th as Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day (PAILRD) began in 2002. Robyn Bear, Lisa Brown, and Tammy Novak petitioned the federal government and the governors of each of the 50 states. That same year, October 15, 2002 marked the first observance of PAILRD. By then, 20 states had signed proclamations recognizing the date. As a result of the American campaign effort, the House of Representatives passed a resolution on September 28, 2006 making the date official. To date, all 50 American states have yearly proclamations, with Arkansas, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, South Dakota and my own state—Rhode Isalnd—adopting permanent proclamations.

Each and every day, in communities across America, expectant moms will feel their baby’s first kick; parents will listen to their newborn’s first cry; and families will celebrate the birthday of a healthy baby.

Also each and every day, 13 babies will be lost to SIDS and other sudden, unexpected infant deaths; more than 70 new parents will have listened sadly their stillborn baby’s silence; and countless lives will be lost to miscarriage and other causes of infant death.

An excerpt from an OpEd I wrote reads: “Each year in the U.S., over 26,000 mothers deliver a stillborn child. That’s one in every 160 births. If you add neonatal death, which is the death of a baby within the first month after birth, those statistics double to equal more than the number of people dying in car accidents each year. And if you add miscarriage to the mix, one in every four women have experienced a loss that is enshrouded in secrecy.”

So what, exactly, is stillbirth? Stillbirth is the death of an infant in-utero at 20 or more gestational weeks. As I wrote, more than 26,000 babies are stillborn in the United States each year. That equals 70 babies born in silence each and every day. Almost half of these deaths occur at or near full term and often seem to be otherwise healthy babies. The majority of stillbirths (85%) occur before delivery with 15 percent occurring during labor and delivery. Nearly two-thirds of all stillbirth deaths remain unexplained but researchers believe this is due to the failure to investigate the deaths, rather than a medical mystery.

Stillbirth deaths cut across all socio-economic classes, races, religions and maternal age groups. No woman is immune. Some of the more common causes for stillbirth are uncontrolled diabetes, preeclampsia, cord accidents, infections, placental abruption or other placental problems, and birth defects or chromosomal abnormalities. The risk factors for stillbirth include advanced maternal age, obesity, smoking, uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension, and previous stillbirth, neonatal death or other fetal losses. After a stillbirth, few hospitals offer to perform an autopsy, placental exam or clinical testing to determine the cause of death and few parents have the presence of mind to ask. Mothers who suffer a stillbirth do not receive recognition in 25 out of 50 states. There is no certificate of birth, rendering these births virtually invisible.

While studies for potential strategies to prevent stillbirths are ongoing, the following are some helpful strategies for pregnant women to follow to help reduce the risk of stillbirth. And I’d add to this list one thing—deliver at a hospital with a NICU if at all possible.

  • Begin to monitor your baby’s activity at around 28 weeks with kick counts.
  • Don’t smoke, drink alcohol or use drugs (unless prescribed by your doctor.)
  • Report any vaginal bleeding, leakage or sharp pain.
  • If you are post-term, discuss options with your doctor. Pregnancies longer than 42 weeks may be at increased risk for stillbirth.
  • Don’t hesitate to request a second or third opinion anytime during your pregnancy if needed to put your mind at ease.

Now let’s talk about miscarriage. Miscarriage is the term used for a pregnancy that ends on its own, within the first 20 weeks of gestation.  As many as 75% of all conceptions miscarry. This statistic is an estimate for the percentage of fertilized eggs that do not go on to result in a full-term pregnancy, factoring in both known miscarriages and failed implantations that usually pass without the mother ever missing a period. About 22% of all conceptions never complete implantation. 31% of pregnancies confirmed after implantation end in miscarriage. This means that about 1 in 3 pregnancies probably miscarry but this number is from a population of women who were being closely studied and were therefore confirmed to be pregnant at the very earliest point that it’s scientifically possible to detect a pregnancy. In real life, most women find out they are pregnant at a later point than the participants in this study. For the general population of pregnant women, this is the most relevant statistic—about 15 to 20% of all women with a verified pregnancy will end up having a miscarriage.

Most doctors agree that once a fetal heart is seen beating on an ultrasound, the chance of miscarriage is much lower. Once the heartbeat is heard, usually at the end of the sixth week or beginning of the seventh, the baby has crossed a major developmental milestone and the miscarriage rate drops again. At 7-12 weeks the risk drops to 5%.

Over 80% of miscarriages occur before 12 weeks, so the chances are good for a healthy baby once you’ve finished the first trimester. Again, many individual factors are in play, but if 15-20% of pregnancies end in miscarriage and 80% of miscarriages occur in the first trimester, a safe estimate would be that in the general population the risk of miscarriage after 12 weeks is only 3-4%. After 20 weeks, when a loss would be termed a stillbirth rather than a miscarriage, the risk is around 1 in 160.

Of course none of these statistics are very comforting to expectant moms and dads whose dreams are shattered when they don’t beat the odds. We could build a stairway to heaven with all the hearts that have been broken by the loss of tiny babies. I’ve had a handful of miscarriages, myself, including the rare 3-4% variety at both 12 and 16 weeks, exams of which concluded both were “normal, male fetuses”. My son, Jonah, was stillborn at 37 weeks due to a placental abruption. None of these things were expected. Tragedy rarely is. One commenter on the above wrote, “the US with its near endless resources to provide excellent prenatal care, ranks an unacceptable 34th in the world for infant mortality.” Let’s hope that bringing awareness during this month of October will lead to improvement.

K3

Some resources:

http://miscarriage.about.com/od/riskfactors/a/miscarriage-statistics.htm

http://www.pregnancyloss.info/info-howcommon.htm

http://www.firstcandle.org/new-expectant-parents/kicks-count/

 

 

Dear Mr. Vice President

Or: Waiting For the Other Shoe to Drop…

In Memory of Beau Biden, 2/3/1969 – 5/30/2015

Joe Biden may seem like a man on top of the world. Maybe even you, yourself, have looked at him with envy. He’s the Vice President of our nation, after all. He’s second in command. He gets to drink beer with Barack. He has a loving wife, a good-looking family, a wonderful smile, and a full head of hair. He is privy to national secrets most of us will never know. Or maybe you’ve never thought too much about him.

But if you have, you probably think he’s achieved the highest level in Maslow’s Hierarchy-self-actualization. “What a man can be, he must be.” As a
career politician, he’s poised on Hillary’s Step, pretty damned close to the highest pinnacle on Mt. Everest, wouldn’t you say? Don’t you look at him
and think to yourself, “Yessiree, that Joe Biden, he’s a man on top of the world.”

I know I did. Until yesterday around 4 am, that is. I was driving home from dropping my husband off at Logan Airport. As the sun rose on the eastern edge of our nation, I was one of the few people awake on a Sunday morning. With the radio as my only companion, I heard the sad news. Beau Biden was dead. Learning that he’d left behind a wife and children, my first reaction was a gut level, “Oh, no, his poor family.” As a bereaved parent, my second thought was for his poor parents.

But even I wasn’t prepared to learn next that this was not our Vice President’s first dance with the grim reaper. Nor that the lovely Jill was not, in fact, Beau’s mom. Sound bites followed about how decades ago in 1972 as a young Senator, he’d buried his wife and daughter following a horrific car accident during a Christmas shopping outing, of all things. Neilia. Naomi. Names we never knew. And even though I hadn’t even had my first sip of coffee, I leaned in. They had my full attention. The accident left Beau and his brother in critical condition. Happily they’d survived. Until now.

Yet another cruel reminder that life can be, oh, so unfair.

I am a bereaved mother too-many times over. I have buried two children and lost many more before they were fully formed. And I know this much to be true. We bereaved parents are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even when it already has. Three days ago, I never gave Joe Biden a first thought, never mind a second. I assumed he was just fine and didn’t need my consideration. Today I am holding this man in my heart. And my heart aches for him.

Now I’ve listened to this speech he gave to the military organization, TAPS, in 2012. Now I know the measure of this man. And I know that he is not, in fact, a man on top of the world. As he says in that profound speech, he understands why people might even want to take their own lives. “Because they had been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again.”

For me, today, this man is no longer simply my Vice President. Even though I voted for him. I may have nothing else in common with Joe, but this much I know. Once you’ve felt that black hole in your chest Joe so aptly describes in his speech, your life is permanently changed. Artificial constructs like politics and wealth and even religion lose their luster. Once you’ve crawled on bloody knees through the valley of the shadow of death, you see the world differently. You look towards the heavens more than you do the opinion polls. You scan the skies for rainbows instead of billboards. You gaze at the stars at night instead of watching reality tv shows. Life, as you know it, is real enough for you.

K3

Chiseled: A Review and an Interview with the Author, Danuta Pfeiffer

I met Danuta Pfeiffer last August in Portland, OR at the Willamette Writers Conference. I was volunteering in the “So You Want to Write a Memoir” salon where writers could get some refreshments and chat about their memoirs to get advice on any story problems they were having. Danuta joined in and I liked her instantly. The group of us, which included Che Guevara’s nephew, brainstormed titles with her. She mentioned that she was a former host of the 700 Club and one idea, The Black, The Blonde and The Baptist, tickled my irreverent funny bone. I’m happy she kept it as a chapter heading but as big a deal as that may seem, now that I’ve finished reading her amazing memoir I know that her tv career is only a small part of her story. She is much more than that and Chiseled:A Memoir of Identity, Duplicity, and Divine Wine is a much better title. I’m honored to call this inspirational woman my friend and look forward to reading with her on June 14 at Pfeiffer Winery.

Here’s my interview with this dynamic woman followed by my, yes, lengthy review of her book. Grab a glass of wine and read on. I promise you won’t be disappointed. And there is nothing duplicitous about that.

K3: Why did you write Chiseled? Why this book; why now?

DP: The book was never supposed to be about me. I had made a promise to my father—who told us stories of his life as a war hero, a world-class sculptor and Olympic ski medalist—that I would write his book one day. Years after he died, I discovered audio tapes he had made of his life, and began to transcribe them and write his book as promised. But circumstances in my own life led to false starts on the book, dead ends in my research and surprising discoveries. Eventually, I realized the book was about my own story blossoming under the shadow of my father’s life.

K3: How long did it take you to write Chiseled, and what was your process like?

DP: Oh brother! It took me 25 years to complete the book because the ending kept changing! Not only that, but the themes evolved over time. My greatest asset was my writers critique group—Authors of the Round Table. We met once a week for about 17 years. We were all good cooks and wine lovers, so we drank and ate our way through to completion of each of our books.

While it was a social group, certainly, we were no-nonsense when it came to critiquing and assessing each others work. We were quite disciplined and the motivation helped our process. Interestingly, all three of us quit working on our books, feeling pretty exhausted and disappointed in the agent and publishing rejections we were receiving—then, bam! All three of us published within two months of each other. Two of us are self-published and the third was published through a small, independent publisher.

K3: What are some of the book’s themes?

DP: The themes begin with the title itself. Chiseled can mean to cut close, to carve out, or to trick and deceive. The story involves the themes of faith, identity, betrayal, family secrets, redemption, forgiveness, alcoholism, single Moms, blind adoption, deception, dysfunctional families, overcoming obstacles, love and finding peace—whew!

K3: What was especially difficult about writing the book?

DP: Life is a moving target. My life was evolving and the memoir had to keep up with the changes I was going through. Even more demanding was the need to process those changes into something meaningful and constructive. There were times in my critique group when I would be reading a passage for review and I’d break down and cry halfway through, or my fellow writers would tear up. Those passages in the book told me that while difficult to write, they were honest and spot on. In other instances, I found the twists and turns and discoveries I made completely upended the earlier assumptions I had about the story. Dealing with that as an author was a challenge.

K3: Was there anything that you learned unexpectedly in the process of writing this book?

DP: I learned many things: how to be a good writer and how to persevere. I examined the forces that made me tick and the impulses that affected my father and mother. It was a very intimate experience to dig that deeply into the psyche of my family.

K3: Now that your story is out in the world, tell us a little bit about how the book is being embraced by your readers? Is the experience everything you expected?

DP: I am stunned by the response to Chiseled, Kelly. My perspective was so personal and subjective that I didn’t really have a clue how it would affect my readers until the reviews starting coming in. I think you might feel the same way with Breathe—you learn how it touches others who may be going through the same sense of loss or betrayal and discover the book is a healing agent for some. Some of my readers have said the book has empowered them as women, or given them a different way of seeing their lives. And others have couched their impressions with vague references to pain in their lives as though they have not yet learned how to talk about it, but found some encouragement between the pages of Chiseled. That feedback has surprised and honored me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

K3: What has been the best thing that’s happened to you because you’ve published this book?

DP: I have left a legacy for my children and grandchildren—an explanation for my life. It is surprisingly gratifying. And I have come to terms with my understanding of the Divine and have been able to lay aside dogma, religion, and the deities in my life.

K3: You were a public figure and you used real names. Did you consider changing names or were there any special considerations you had to make? Have you had any response from people whose names you used?

DP: I changed many names out of respect except for a few public figures and one person, the former producer of the 700 Club who allowed me to use his real name. The response has been positive, although one public figure in my book had claimed a faulty memory for some of the scenes I have described. All in all, I tried to be fair and did not write the book to denounce or condemn anyone. This is the story of my life and not theirs and I tried to make the other characters more of a backdrop to my own story.

K3: Do you have another book in the works?

DP: I have a screenplay in mind—called Chiseled!

K3: Thank you! I, for one, look forward to eating lots of popcorn while watching that film!

Here’s my (lengthy) review of Chiseled:A Memoir of Identity, Duplicity, and Divine Wine.

“Ultimately, this is the memory of a lie.” So begins this powerful memoir by a woman I’m honored to call my friend and fellow author. “This is a story of how that lie carved a greater space for my soul.” Throughout this amazing story there are so many, many beautiful lines like that one as she weaves her life story with themes like carving, faith, family, marriage, wine, and success.

Danuta Pfeiffer’s childhood began like a fairy tale and ended in a nightmare, her father presiding over his family as both lover and monster. Of the former version of him, she writes, “he seemed so rooted to the ground that the very earth seemed to hold him up higher than the rest of us.” He was a master carver and some of her very best language derives from her observations of his work. There are so many wonderful passages to savor and I highlighted 34 notes on my Kindle. “He caressed wood like a lover, fingering the grains, reading the cambial Braille, fondling the sinews and muscles hidden in the fibers. My father was an alchemy of flesh and steel swinging his mallet, chiseling rhythmically into the wood. Long into the night my mother, brother, and I slept to the lullaby of the sculptor’s song: tapping tools and the gentle rasp of wood chips spiraling to the floor. By dawn, curled shavings rustled underfoot like crisp autumn leaves, remnants of his long night of lovemaking.”

Her father carved beautiful statues for a church he’d long abandoned. She writes, “I watched in wonder as shape emerged from the unshaped. Grotesque at first with the effort of becoming, body parts wrenched themselves from the fibers: fingers arthritic with unfinished knuckles; a coarsely hewn arm; a chin stubbing out from the grain; a rib as new as Adam gave to Eve. Before my eyes, Jesus was born next to the refrigerator.” That last is one of my very favorite lines. Ever.

But as time went by, his descent into drunken madness accelerated and he channeled his anger and frustration into both his work and his family. “His tools were both delicate and destructive. Sometimes he coiled bits of wood with an instrument as dainty as a dentist’s probe and other times he lunged at a carving with a chisel shaped like a soup can. His mallet was a rounded stump of wood concave from years of pounding, held by a rolling pin handle. I often marveled at how his biceps looked as round and hard as his mallet.” Again, she describes so wonderfully, “This was, in part, his genius. It was also his flaw. His creations seemed to claim bits and pieces of his life; their muscles flexed with his strength; their tendons tensed with his will; their faces filled with his sorrow . . . until slowly, agonizingly, bit by bit, Daddy became the man on the cross.”

As Danuta matures, she realizes, “We enjoyed much happiness on the bruised and battered back of my mother’s youth, shielding us from the scorching heat of my father’s blazing temper.” Ultimately, they had to escape. Following Danuta’s fall from the grace of her father’s eyes, which I won’t spoil by recounting here, her mother moves them from Michigan to Alaska, proving this very thing, “Though my mother was as soft as an English mist, she was stubborn as a London fog.”

Before she has her first wrinkle, she has lost sons and lovers. Of this she writes, “This ate at me like groundwater nibbling at the foundations of my emotional life, generating little landslides of failures until my losses outweighed my gains.” She glides into the 700 Club hostess seat as if by divine intervention, admitting, “My learning curve as a sidekick-cohost evangelist looked like a hockey stick. Within weeks of joining the television ministry, I stumbled into the role of an unordained surrogate pastor to millions of people who asked for my prayers, requested guidance for their lives, and wanted my interpretation of scripture. Before I learned the words to “Amazing Grace”, Christian organizations booked me for speaking engagements.”

But eventually the bloom fades from that particular rose. The political aspirations of her co-host lead to daily shows with scenes like this. Pat Robertson tells his devoted followers, “We need to pray that Congress approves a plan for a stronger military and a stronger nuclear defense. We need those weapons. It’s just got to happen.” Pat turned to us, signaling our support for big guns and bigger bombs. It was just another day proclaiming the love of Jesus on CBN.” When Roberts is exposed for dealing with African tyrants, among other things, she writes humorously, “The Second Coming of Christ would have to wait for another John the Baptist.”

Ultimately Danuta’s own faith is tried and some very big questions plague her. She asks, “As for the death of people, did they not pray hard enough for their lives? Did the Lord take them because they were termites, or nonbelievers? Or were they good solid Christians and the Lord just wanted to “take them home?” If the Lord wanted them because they were good, was being spared a punishment? Or did they die because, of all the people who were saved, they lacked God’s mercy the most? I wish I had asked those questions.” These are some of my own top questions and I hope some day we’ll both get some answers. She writes, “I carried that glow even after the love dimmed. Then I carried that glow by faith. And when faith wavered, I continued my relationship with Jesus as a memory of what used to be.” She might have left the show on her own volition, but before she has the opportunity, she’s fired as quickly as she was hired.

After the 700 Club, Danuta’s life slides into a downward spiral fueled by her alcoholic husband, their failed marriage, and the loss of everything they own. At the risk of simplifying things, divorce and biking combine to save her soul. And angels. As she writes, “Sometimes, in God’s silence, there come angels. Two angels in my case and not easy to see because they came while I was clouded by despair, but they persevered.” She bikes the west coast from Vancouver Island to San Diego with one of these angels and learns to Breathe again. And she meets her soulmate, the owner of a winery in Oregon where she can fulfill this affirmation she has written, “I want happiness, passion, hope, choices, time to write my father’s book, control of my own life, peace, to be in love, a home in the country, to ride my bike, freedom from stress, to plant a garden, to make a difference with my life.”

Ever the prodigal daughter and in spite of their alienation, she carries her father’s voice in her head, “Danuta, some day you will write my story.” Her father has long since died, but she has tapes he recorded, “thirty-six reels in the same sorry shape as our relationship, corroded by time and neglect, some parts flimsy as gauze.” Here her story comes full circle, looping back to page 26 where she writes, “And so we lived, bound to a longing that was not ours and to a past we couldn’t share, imposters attending my father’s counterfeit life.” She travels to Poland where “On the table, empty vodka bottles posted the rounds to oblivion and ashtrays brimmed with half-smoked cigarettes that smoldered like forgotten days.”

There, instead of filling in the missing facts of her father’s life, she learns that his stories have mostly been lies. There, she learns for herself what she’d written earlier as she prepared to tell her brother that he was actually her son. “Identity is your root and your foundation. I wouldn’t know how it felt to have those securities shattered until years later, when it happened to me, when I would lose my own identity. Only then would I understand how precariously we walk the tightrope of trust—a thin wire of confidence. Balance is an art form that requires sure footing and focus, maturity, flexibility, and an ability to waiver without falling. These things I would learn when my time came.” It is at this point in the story that her time has, indeed, come.

In spite of my lack of brevity in this review, there is so much more to this story than what I’ve recounted. More plot points. More characters. More beautiful imagery. Danuta Pfeiffer is a skilled writer and story teller. But art imitates life, so more than that she is an amazing woman who has led a fascinating life. I’ll leave you with this final thought and hope that you will have your own experience of her words, discovering for yourself where this last sentence leads. “Like my father, I shied away from God, losing my faith to sorrow and neglect, allowing it to ebb away one small grace at a time. The lifeline to the God of my catechism frayed until the threads could no longer sustain the weight of my needs. When the power of the sacraments and the saints no longer sheltered me from the ravages of my young life, I looked elsewhere for my salvation.”

K3

Happy Breathe Day!

Happy Breatheday!

Happy Breatheday!

BREATHE IS ONE!

I used to say I was a Fish Biologist undergoing metamorphosis to an Author. I think it’s safe to say that in the past year I’ve completed my transformation. Now that my first book has taken wing, I can simply call myself Author.

In the past year, I’ve ditched my pajamas, donned make-up, and attended about thirty events from readings to book signings to book clubs—my personal favorite. I’ve spoken at conferences and been interviewed on the air and in print. Breathe went on a thirteen-stop blog tour and has 100 fabulous five-star reviews on Amazon where it was ranked Number One for Books on Dysfunctional Families and Number One on Kindle for Motherhood, Family, Women’s Personal Growth. It was selected by Aspire Magazine as one of the Top Ten Inspirational Books for March. With few exceptions, these things were all firsts for me. To find myself standing at a podium in front of a crowd of over 100 people was a far cry from the girl who once changed colleges to avoid taking public speaking! And I can honestly say that I’ve loved every minute of it!

I’ve opened talks from coast to coast with the quotation, “There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you,” explaining how, for me, Breathe was that story. I wrote it to tell the tale of my sons and to help other people. I realized shortly into the past year that the most defining characteristic of Noah and Jonah’s lives used to be that they’d died. That was the extent of what most people knew or remembered about them. And then came Breathe. Now reader after reader meets them, most for the first time, and they hold them in their hearts and learn that they lived. Telling their story has shattered the silence of other untold stories.

The past year has been one of the most joyful and yet, like many things in life, it has also been bittersweet. Andy’s mom died in March and mine in September. My mom, who often admonished that I was wasting my writing talent, lived to see me publish my first book for which I’m grateful. They say that writing your story makes it two dimensional and reading it makes it three. Our moms live on in the pages of my book and every time I read their voices in a bookstore or a library is like bringing them back from the grave and into the room.

For all of you who’ve supported and encouraged me to live my dream, I thank you from the bottom of my gizzard. And if you don’t know what I mean by that, it’s time you Breathe-d! As with all of my children, I pray that Breathe will continue to march forth and make the world a better place. That it will help others and be treated kindly. And that it will live a long, long life.

K3