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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Our Christmas of Catastrophes

Most Christmas memories blend together, a collage of moments in the scrapbook of memories we all carry in our minds.

But there is one from my childhood that stands out.

It was our Christmas of Catastrophes in 1953 when I was 10 and living in a small apartment with my two brothers, my parents and our cat, Kitty.

Chicago was under a snow and ice siege…freezing, slippery conditions that kept us inside as the biggest and most anticipated holiday of the year approached.

We were excited. Our Greek mother had taught us to sing “Silent Night” in Greek to impress our relatives when the big day arrived.

We decorated our tree that just missed the ceiling and sat tucked into the corner of our small living room. The ornaments were vintage now, mostly glass tinted with silver and gold designs and old world themes, from my parents early Christmases together.

Some of our strung colored lights were candles with rising bubbles that appeared when they were lit. Once decorated, the finishing touches were slivers of silver tinsel hung from the branches. It was a happy time for a working class family in the immigrant neighborhood.

Nothing seemed different this particular Christmas except for the nonstop severe weather and the sheets of ice everywhere.

The most popular Christmas song that year was Nat King Cole’s recording of “The Christmas Song.” My father who loved to sing in bars and at weddings had to have it. He called all over the city to find a copy of the 78 record platter and finally found one.

Under other circumstances, my father would not have ventured out in the Arctic grip the city was under, but he was obsessed with the song and was determined to have it for Christmas. So he cleared the car of its snow and ice and began his trek to the record store.

Our cat Kitty, we discovered, was fascinated by the slinky, snakelike glimmering tinsel dangling seductively from the branches. It was a new cat toy to play with and bat with his paws.

However, it didn’t stop there. Kitty wanted to taste the tinsel, and with one stubborn tug pulled down the tree.

Branches snapped, ornaments rolled across the floor, some broke, and we gasped. With tears and laughter we put the tree upright and repaired the damages as best we could to restore it to its pristine state.

It was dark now and my weary father returned with his precious record only to find worsened street conditions for parking his big Caddie. As he attempted to seesaw into a spot, he hit the car in front and in back of him.

Totally exasperated, my dad now had car insurance and damage issues as well as unhappy neighbors to deal with. He finally gave up and came inside in a foul mood. The earlier excitement and family cheer were now gone.

But there was still one more catastrophe that day.

My dad unwrapped the coveted record from its packaging only to discover it was cracked and unplayable.

We did recover from that awful day and still had a good Christmas in spite of the cat, the tree, the car and the broken record.

It was an unforgettable Christmas, our Christmas of Catastrophes.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009-2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Cat photo by Palmer W. Cook

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Hearts & Teardrops: A Geography Lesson

Years ago, sitting in my English professor's office, I found a curious wall map of the U.S.

It was a canvas divided only with states' borders; instead of cities, the painting was dotted with partial and broken hearts and teardrops like pushpins marking an emotional geography.

I asked my professor what the hearts and teardrops represented on the non-topographical map. He told me they were placemarks for locations where hearts still lingered and tears still stained the people and relationships of the artist's life.

It got me thinking as to where I would place my hearts and tears around the country. I have lived in the Midwest, East Coast, and now the West and Southwest.

How many hearts and tears would there be for my sixty some years of living as my relationships changed: marriage, divorce, separation, and friendships that touched me, a mix of love and hurt, joy and sadness?

Some relationships, no matter where they happened, stay with me; others are gone and not stood the test of time.

My personal geography, like the painting, has its share of both symbols marking my emotional terrain throughout the years.

They represent some of the happiest and some of the most painful experiences of my life.

Nevertheless, my emotional geography is not a map I would change. My map is filled with geography lessons that are part of the journey I have known and have shaped me into who I am.

Did I take the roads less travelled? Did I end up in places I never thought I would? Looking back, does it really matter? The detours were often the best parts of the trip.

I'm still traveling and expect I will add more hearts and tears along the way. What's important are the experiences they represent of a life fully lived.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Broken Heart by Billy Alexander

Saturday, December 4, 2010


I close my eyes and breathe deeply.

As I take deeper, longer breaths, in my mind, I am transported.

I stand before an arch looking at the path that takes me into a golden field on the way to the garden, my beautiful, tranquil garden.

I follow the path to the water and the secluded garden where my guide awaits.

It is a spiritual retreat, and only I have access.

It is an inner resting place I have created when there is nowhere else to go. Life’s pressures and stresses are not allowed in my secret garden.

When I enter the garden, I escape the cares and weight of life. My guide is always there …when I am afraid, uncertain and alone. We are connected. We sit beside the water, and my guide listens to my doubts and apprehensions.

I know I can rely on my guide to help me when life is too much, and I need refuge. This is our time and place, an inner world untouched by others, where there is peace and comfort from external reality.

In the garden, I am soothed by my gentle guide. We are detached from the material world.

Protected in my meditative oasis, I transcend responsibilities, worries and anxieties.

In my garden I am calm. I am safe. I am free.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009-2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Archway photo by Maureen McGarrigle

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Follow the Signs

In an old Steve Martin film, LA Story, his character is asking for a “sign.”

He finds it on the side of a freeway, a blinking directional sign, a kind of modern oracle to guide him.

I can relate.

In times when life seemingly presents no answers, I grope for them anyway and somehow they appear when I least expect them and in the unlikeliest of places.

Coming from the doctor’s office, something prompts me to glance at the rear window of the car beside mine, with a sticker that asks, “Have you thanked God today?”

There it is—the message at a time when I’m at a loss for solutions to my child’s serious health problem.

And the signs and their messages keep coming. After an eye-check up, I glance at a parked car’s bumper which shouts,

“Got Faith?” More questions to remind me that I have the answers within me.

Driving on the way to teach my multi-cultural, adult college class of Muslims, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Caucasians: a composite of soldiers back from multiple Middle East tours of duty; single parents, some never been married; some from inner-city projects and gangs; some who have served time—all wanting better lives through education and a coveted degree.

It’s a daunting challenge and responsibility to teach to this diverse population and their mismatched skill levels.

I’m waiting at a stoplight thinking about this night’s class, and to my right I see a church’s corner sign that reads, “Do More Good.”

No specifics, no details or steps to take…just do more good. Seems so simple, yet profound, reminding me of what I can do.

I have learned that when I need them, the signs appear. I just have to follow them.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009-2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Photo by Asif Akbar

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Graduation Flashback: Then and Now

As I watched the students march in procession, I thought back to my undergrad college graduation from the University of Illinois in Urbana.

Now, I was attending graduation as a faculty member donned ceremoniously in cap and gown to support the commencement ritual for the new grads at a local college.

Scanning their faces, I could see the pride and the relief that they made it to the prize. I watched them accept their diplomas while their families and friends shouted and applauded as their names were called.

As I reminisced, I remembered that sunny day when I stood  beaming in my cap and gown, clutching that hard earned diploma in front of the University's Assembly Hall. I was on top of the world.

I remembered the look on my face in the photo my parents took. I was glowing, filled with hopes, dreams and goals for a bright future.

A college degree was my ticket to a new life, better than my parents had, to live the American dream...the first college grad in our family, let alone the only female.

My four years of study prepared me to be an English teacher K-12. I believed that was the life ahead of me.

Graduating from college is what my mother had encouraged me to do after her own education was cut short by a depression which required her to quit school as an 8th grade honors student and work in the local factory to help her  family put food on the table. My father managed to graduate high school which was typical for his generation.

I could relate to the students who pursued a degree while working fulltime, raising families and going to school at night. I appreciated their struggles and determination.

It had not been easy for me either. If it hadn't been for three scholarships and working three jobs, I could not afford to pay for my education. There were no other funds available at the time.

Looking back at that day when the world was my oyster, I thought I knew where the journey would take me: marriage, children, a teaching career and a comfortable life in a small town in the Midwest. I had a master plan and a script to follow. I was all set.

Little did I know, how differently my life would go. I had college credits and a degree but little life experience for what was to come.

Years later after my divorce, I moved East to pursue a corporate communications and marketing career and even became a vice president of a high-tech start-up as my career advanced.

I raised my children as a single parent, then married and divorced again, and ultimately returned to teaching after many years in the business world. Along the way I earned my MA from the University of Richmond.

That was not the plan the day I stood proudly clenching my diploma ready to take on the world, or so I thought.

Where will the journey take the new grads? The one thing I can tell them is that it will be an adventure they cannot imagine and wouldn't want to miss.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

mortar board 1 photo by renata jun

Monday, November 8, 2010

An Object of Affection

Best camera I ever had. No adjustments, no gadgetry…just press the button, indestructible and compact…my Kodak Instamatic.

It was our first summer in Virginia, and the camera was filled with priceless photos and memories from our trip back to Illinois for my father’s second wedding: my daughter as the ring bearer, my children reunited with my brothers, and dad with his siblings from CA who came to see him marry his new wife.

There were still a few pictures left on the roll.

Later that summer, the Instamatic preserved pictures from a trip to NYC with my son, 10 and daughter, 7. A native New Yorker and theatre friend took us “parading,” as he called it, to the Empire State Building, Staten Island and Central Park.

My children and I were making new memories together as we explored the East Coast after our move to northern Virginia from a small town in the Midwest.

When we returned to Virginia, I discovered the camera was missing along with all the memories it carried. I knew I could never replace those Kodak moments.

Several weeks passed before I received a package from someone who had also been in Central Park during the marathon. The Good Samaritan found our address in the camera case and mailed the camera to us.

So the camera and its treasures found their way home, like a faithful family pet that was lost and then returned.

Later that summer, we were exploring Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and stopped for some ice cream at Swenson’s. With tired kids in tow, I left the camera behind, this time on the booth’s seat at the ice cream parlor.

A couple days later, I realized it was gone along with the pictures from our Baltimore trip. A few weeks passed and I received a call from someone who had also stopped for ice cream, found the camera and dropped it off at our home.

Once again the camera was reunited with our family.

I never lost the Instamatic after that summer when we explored our new surroundings. It's now packed away with family albums, slides and other memorabilia.

It preserved the adventures of a single mom and her children adapting to a new life and geography.

Somehow the camera and the memories it saved always returned safely to us. It was part of the family, and through the kindness of strangers who found it in NYC and Baltimore, the camera made it back where it belonged.

Objects do evoke memories. Perhaps that’s why we hold onto them.

Our inexpensive, uncomplicated Instamatic kept our family’s history and helped us hold on to those times when we started a new life together.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2009-2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

New York photo by clemmeson

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Facebook: See me, hear me, feel me, or not

Facebook, 5 million users, so many friends, so little time. Just want to connect, comment, like, share.

Superficial touching, remote caring.

We reach out to each other to gossip, brag, complain, protest to our virtual community of friends and family. We express ourselves and wait to see if anyone paid attention or noticed.

Almost like a popularity contest. How many commented? How many clicked "Like"?

We are plugged in, or so it seems. So safe, so easy to say nothing of consequence, share our lives, sort of, but not real contact.

We live everywhere; our time is limited; this is the best way to touch base.

The phone is hit or miss. E-mail not as quick to let you know. Virtual living in a time-starved, long distance world. Works to a point, can't live without it, satisfying but never filling.

Our anonymous and private lives in a public gathering place, technology's replacement for the village well, pub, stroll through the neighborhood.

Odd that it's called Facebook, an album of faces that stare back at me, on the other side of the screen from me peering in.

Intimacy, closeness, touching, not there. A moment of your time, please. Look at me. Acknowledge I exist today. Facetime via machine time.

Something is missing: time for each other. Stop the clock just for a bit and spend some time with me. Reach out and touch someone across the miles, the time zones.

Did I miss your post? How old is it? Too much information, too little. How are you...really? I wish we could just sit down and have a cup of coffee and tell me how you're really doing.

Our lives are more than bits and bytes. I am human; I am not a machine. I miss you.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Sunday, October 24, 2010

A Different Kind of Retail Therapy

I was in my 20s, just finished my first year of teaching and needed work for the summer.

Though I knew nothing about retail, I accepted a position to run a small women's boutique in the college town where my husband attended law school. The owner was ill and needed someone to manage her dress shop.

For generations, the boutique's proprietor provided personal attention and service to the community. Families of women grew up with her dressing them and depended on her to find just the right dress for the special occasions in their lives.

She carefully selected and ordered dresses for the women of the town as if she were their personal dresser. They were accustomed to her attentive service and the care she took in selecting their garments for weddings, graduations, confirmations, proms as well as the latest fashions to make the women feel special.

Her service and taste were impeccable, and her clients were fiercely loyal. She made them look and feel fabulous.

As her substitute, I quickly learned that women do not tell their true dress sizes, sort of like telling their real ages.

So, when they would ask for a size 10 and were obviously a 14, I simply brought them the larger dress and fitted them without mentioning the actual size, because size did matter.

They would be so delighted at how they looked and left satisfied customers.

I also learned that women needed dresses for extraordinary occasions. This was the mid '60s and social mores were not very flexible.

Looking for a dress she could get married in, a teenager with a baby bump came in with her disapproving mother. There was a lot of tension between them; nothing could disguise that the girl was pregnant. Eventually, I found a garment that they could agree on which helped alleviate the uncomfortable situation.

Another customer, a middle-aged woman, was recovering from a double mastectomy and did not have the special post-surgery bra that hid that fact. Breast cancer then was not as understood or openly discussed as it is today.

She pulled out the tops of the dresses and stared at herself to see what she would like as if she had the bra to fill out her bosom. I was taken aback at her acceptance and adaptablility after such a traumatic life event.

I wanted to console her, to give her a hug, but I didn't, though my heart ached for her. She wanted to be normal, so I behaved as if she were "whole," just a woman buying a new dress. I stood by, as she pinched the fabric forward, and told her how lovely she looked. I didn't know what else to say.

The most startling shopper, a woman with swollen eyelids and unstoppable tears, staggered into the shop. Her voice broke when she spoke in her dazed state. She needed a dress for two funerals. Her brother and cousin were murdered in a bank robbery two days earlier; she was in shock.

She lost two family members in a senseless crime, but she didn't want to wear black. I found a dark brown, tailored dress that gave her what she needed. She couldn't stop crying as I fitted her. I dressed her quietly and gently. There were no words to help.

So my summer of being a personal dresser in a small boutique gave me a new understanding of retail therapy and an appreciation for the owner's devotion to the women of her community. She dressed them for life.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Store Displays photo by Kay Pat

Mannequin photo by msvoluptuos31

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Shirley Temple and "Glee": Good times for bad times

When times are tough, entertainment helps us escape reality.

During the Great Depression of the '30s, people grinned and clapped when Shirley Temple sang, "The Good Ship Lollipop."

Her adorable singing and tap dancing on the silver screen made them forget joblessness, bread lines and poverty. She was a charming distraction from disturbing, distressing uncertainty.

When the dimpled, blond, curly haired girl pouted and giggled, she briefly took them back to childhood innocence and joy.

She was an icon for hope and brought a weary America much-needed relief in difficult times.

Today Glee uplifts us with song and dance during the Great Recession. Even when dealing with teenage angst, the cast breaks into song and dance, offering a sweet retreat from everyday problems.

The TV show helps us forget foreclosures, debt and high unemployment. It makes us feel better. Just for a short time we are transported and delighted.

Both Shirley Temple and Glee are more than entertainment.

They keep life "lighter" for us when we really need it; they help us maintain our balance and avoid despair.

We smile, chuckle and push away the dark clouds.

There's a common belief that the right leader shows up at the right time. 

I think the right diversion also appears when we need it most, and we hug and squeeze its sweetness to help us through the storm. It's a gentle "feel good" reminder of who we are when life is simpler.

Copyright © Erana Leiken, 2010 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"Look at Me" by guest blogger Karen Cross

Look at me.

I am.

No! Look at me!

Which one are you?

I don’t know, I can’t see me anymore…all I see is pain.

I see you. You are a survivor!

Survivor, ha! I am done surviving.

You are so strong.

Am I?

Look at all you have come through.

You mean all I have survived.

Well yes…

Yes, I know I am a childhood SURVIVOR of sexual abuse. My marriage SURIVIVED an affair and now…

Now you have SURVIVED breast cancer.

But I don’t want to SURVIVE anymore, I want to LIVE!

You are so blessed!

Yes, I know.

You were lucky not to have chemo or radiation…


Yes, and I still see a strong young woman. A survivor!

Please stop saying that. I am standing here with no breasts. With medical tubes hanging where my round, supple femininity should be… How is that lucky?


Well what? You have nothing to say? You shouldn’t, because you do not know what this is like. Let me tell you, it is a horror amusement ride at one of those traveling carnivals.

Go on, tell me more…

Well I want to scream, “Let me off this ride!” Cancer, mastectomy, expanders…oh my! And yet there is more to come.

I hear your pain.

I don’t think you do. You can’t hear PAIN!

Tell me more about this ride.

December 31st was when the call came and the doors opened to the house of horrors. The doctor was on the line, and we all know doctor’s only call when it’s bad. He said, “The biopsy revealed cancer. The good news is we caught it early.”

Happy New Year!

After that call, everything is a whirlwind of shock, information overload and tough decisions. Dr. Cox, the breast cancer surgeon, was amazing and thorough in her presentation of options.

With the odds of recurrence lowest after full mastectomy, I made the choice to remove my breast and undergo reconstruction. My life, in one doctor’s visit, had changed forever.

I left the office with my husband and sister; all of us silent. It was a lot to take in, for everyone. Walking to the car felt surreal, nothing would ever be the same.

Fear of the unknown had left me numb. I had now become an attraction on the horror ride, a zombie driven aimlessly through the motions of the events that followed.

Day by day, minute by minute, I ceased to feel. After all, I had to put on a show to protect the ones I loved from the gruesomeness cancer displays.

Along the ride I appeared strong and fearless as I subjected my womanhood to the butcher’s knife. Then the ride appears to end as it comes to rest in front of these mirrors; mirrors reflecting before and after…

And now I ask you, who am I?

You are me…

No, I have changed. Where is the beautiful, confident woman I used to see?

I am still here and yours to claim.

I can’t see you in me anymore. I stand here, after the knife, angry, scarred and altered.

I still see beauty and confidence in you, look harder.

I look and I see beauty shattered with the absence of me and confidence lost in what has been left behind.

Maybe you should look at me.

I am looking and I am lost in my reflections.

I see you, you are the strong one.

Am I?

Yes, nothing’s changed there.

Then you must not be looking, because everything has changed.

On the outside, yes, but you have always been a survivor and…

There it is again, SURVIVOR, why must this be my title? When can I say enough is enough?

The Lord has a purpose for your life and your strength in adversity is how He uses you.

I accept that, but when is it okay for me to just be? When can I just live? When can I stop SURVIVING?

Maybe the answer is in your voice.

My voice? I am sure He has heard my voice. When have you known me not to speak my mind?

No, not that voice. The voice that sang praises as a child with the belief of innocence. The voice that reached others in song through the pain of a struggling marriage, where is that voice?

Oh, that voice.

Why have you silenced it?

I am afraid to sing again. My voice is my soul and I feel I must hide my deepest, painful emotions from this cavalcade freak show.

You can try and hide them, but they are the key to living.

I know...but I feel that once I begin to sing, I just might fall apart.

Then fall apart and let Him pick up the pieces. He feels your pain, He sees your tears and He longs to hear your voice.

Ah, my voice…funny, but I long to hear it too. Can it be that simple? Can it be that this is how this frightful passage ends?

I believe it does.

So, you do see me.

Yes, right here in my reflection…just look at me.

Copyright by Karen Cross 2010

Illustration reference:

Karen Cross is a 40 year old mother and wife. She has three intelligent, sensitive and funny boys and a wonderfully amazing husband. Currently, Karen helps adult learners find their way down the educational path to graduation at University of Phoenix and is one year away from graduating herself with a bachelors in psychology.

As a student recovering from breast cancer, she was provided an outlet for her emotional struggles as she returned to school after her mastectomy to a cathartic course in creative writing.

In that class this piece was born, and Karen hopes it will inspire, touch and maybe evoke the healing sought by all who travel the breast cancer journey back to emotional health.