My name is Hollis (Part One)

We suffer losses, and it is such a Hobson’s Choice as to which one is the deeper cut. Those losses caused by death final and fatal and the ghosts that haunt from that place. Or those losses that linger and will not die and have the good grace to become ghosts.  – Charissa Grace White

Mr. Jankowski is addicted to licorice.  I flip open my notebook to page 10.  117 Spring Lane.  No name Jankowski: seen twice.  Last time on April 19 wearing pea green pants, a long denim shirt worn through at the elbows and horrible sandals.  Should not wear sandals, I had written, toe nails like machetes.  Refer to Dr. Goldberg, retired podiatrist, 402 Briar Patch Ct.  Then I added, addicted to licorice.  No one should eat that much licorice.  Refer to Dr. Bowman, retired physician, 223 Bluebonnet Circle.

I put my notebook back in my pocket and chewed my pencil a little while I surveyed my street.  Ms. Phillips had already brought out her trash.  By now she was sipping her Clamato juice and dancing to Julio Iglesias’ greatest hits.  She had been a prima ballerina and still donned pink tights, a black leotard with plunging back and a thin pink belt to exercise three days a week.  “At 81,” she said, “I deserve the weekends off.”

I like to visit her on Mondays.  She makes a pan of chocolate covered marshmallow cookies every Sunday and allows herself only one: her devotion being too great and her leotard too form-fitting to annihilate the pan.  She told me if I don’t come over, she’ll have to throw them down the disposal and no 11-year-old with a heart would ever allow such deliciousness to meet such a horrible end.  So, I make sure I’m there to do my part.

Booth Brantford lives two doors down from No name Jankowski.  I visit him on Tuesdays.  He lives in a two-bedroom ranch and the way he ties back his curtains make his house look like it’s winking.  He was married for 65 years to Barbara Ann McClusky.  She died last year, two days after Christmas and one day before their 66th wedding anniversary.  He’s been a mess since.  All he eats are microwavable meals, when he eats, and he’s worn the same sweater for five months now.  Barbara Ann knitted it for him before she died and he can’t part with it.  At least it’s been washed, but a navy blue snowflake sweater in mid-June is alarming.

When I visit he tells me about how they met and when he felt his love starting for her. He said it’s like a seed of longing was planted in the center of his heart.  As is bloomed, he realized he couldn’t be without her.  He found himself dreaming of her silken hair and how her slender shoulders would feel beneath his heavy hands.  How he could sit for hours watching her, already having memorized the slightest details of her frame and face, like how her right eye had more green specks than her left and how the birthmark at the nape of her neck reminded him of four-leaf clover.  It wasn’t really.  Just a reminder of one.

He likes to show me pictures too.  They had four children together.  Two didn’t live much past birth: one had a lung disorder; the other was taken by rheumatic fever.  The two that were left are grown now.  The oldest is a lawyer in Brooklyn, who, according to Booth, sold his soul for a condo in Manhattan.  The other is a playwright with an addiction to sadness.  They never visit, which doesn’t seem to bother Booth, but it bothers me and I’m sure it would bother Barbara Ann.

On the other side of me live Marty and Irene Buchanan.  They are transplants, like many on my street.  They’d spent most of life in Dallas in the restaurant business. Morty was the sole-proprietor of Mort’s BBQ Pit.  At the height of their smoked empire they had six locations and even bottled and sold their own sauce.  He told me what was in it once, but I’d been transfixed by a spider spinning its web (that’s not learned, you know; they hatch knowing how to do it) and missed the last three secrets to the sauce.

I think Irene was truly beautiful.  She has the softest looking skin that creases in places it should:  around her mouth for having laughed and around her eyes for having cried.  Her cheeks are perfectly round and always rose-colored.  I know it’s natural because she doesn’t wear makeup, Morty wouldn’t hear of it.

They never had children; she miscarried nine times.  The doctors never did discover what was wrong, so she took it that she was.  She named each of them and collected seashells for them, neither of which she told Morty.  He’d scream and yell about the nine vases of strategically placed and meticulously chosen shells around their home.  He didn’t know, couldn’t have known really, that they were shrines to his children.

She’d told me once about a friend of hers who had lost a baby.  Every year on the anniversary of his death she’d release 16 butterflies, one for every week of his life.  Irene couldn’t understand it.  God had already taken him so far away.  Why would she let the butterflies go too?  I thought of answering her question, but knew it was the sort you asked not expecting an answer.  The answer was in the slump of her shoulders and the wetness of her eyes.  I saw that too.

My house is in the exact middle of our street, which is perfect for me.  A noticer.  I live with my grandparents, Nan and Pop, in a retirement community in Florida.  I’ve been here for four years, after cancer took my mother and booze took my father.   Nan and Pop are special and not in the way the kids at school call me special.  They say it as a bad thing when I know it to be good.

Nan was a therapist, so she’s always encouraging me to talk about my feelings, which sometimes I do, but mostly I don’t.  I think she wants to try to right with me the wrong she feels she did my father. “Hollis, you know you can tell me anything, right?,” she always asks after she gulps a little of the air lying around.  She gets a look a little like a crappie I once caught and waited too long to put back in the water: eyes too wide, cheeks sucked in.  It pains her to say my name, I know; it reminds her of my father since Pop became Hollie long ago.

Nan makes me breakfast every morning: fluffy sourdough French toast with a little vanilla and a lot of cinnamon; thick-cut smoked bacon, which she always arranges in a heart on my plate; sausage links; a grapefruit half with a piranha-teethed spoon; strawberry pinwheels and, when I’ve been really good or she’s really sad; steel-cut oatmeal swirled with raspberry jam and chunky peanut butter.  Pop has eaten this way for nearly ninety years.  He thinks things like high cholesterol and heart disease are eventualities of a life well-lived and tells any doctor he meets just that. “When death comes knocking, I hope it’ll let me finish my French toast,” he says.  And he has every confidence that it will.

Like most of the homes here, ours is a ranch.  It’s painted a slate blue, that reminds me of my mother’s eyes, with big white shutters.  There are flower boxes beneath every window, some with berry-colored impatiens and others with miniature roses, and a red door with a silver-plated knocker.  Hanging outside the kitchen window are Nan’s wind chimes.  She gets lost in a sea of bubbles when they play, washing the same dish again and again.  Sometimes, when the wind is sleeping, I run my finger lightly across the front of them anticipating their canorous pings and tings.  The sound is soothing, just like Nan says.

My room is the best room in the house (for obvious reasons).  Nan said I could do whatever I wanted to the walls and even volunteered to help me paint.  On one wall, I have a Scrabble board with the word combinations needed to make a 2,044-point move using the SOWPODS dictionary and the word sesquioxidizing (it’s not in the normal dictionary, but it should be).

I’ve always been into words.  They fascinate me really.  At age 6, I started reading the dictionary.  I started with the letter a, which is an obvious beginning, and have continued since then.  I study and memorize seven words a day, since people smarter than me say that that’s the magic number.  By my calculations, that’s about 12,775 words to date, give or take.  But, when I feel like I’m going at a snail’s pace, I let myself pick a word from elsewhere, like the SOWPODS dictionary (I know it’s a little renegade, but it seems to work) to let the color back in.

On another wall, I have a painting of Einstein, which I did myself, and one of my favorite quotes of his: The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.  Actually, it doesn’t really look like Einstein; it looks more like Amos Slade from The Fox and the Hound.  But whatever.

On the third wall, is a painting of my house.  The house where I lived with my parents before Mom got sick and Dad got lost.  Nan and I had a picture to paint by, although I didn’t need one.  I even remembered to put in the tulip garden Mom had planted and her garden maker: what is for you will not pass you.  She spent hours out there, especially once she found out the cancer had come back.  I think that’s why those flowers bloomed long after they should have died, like she did.  I think they lived off her tears.


“I don’t need my name in lights”

A few months ago my husband asked a probing question:

What would you do if you woke up famous?

Like everyone-knows-my-face-and-name famous, I questioned.
Yep, he responded, like that.

He was intent on an answer.  And I was quiet, searching for one. Then.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t want success. That I don’t want to be recognized for talents I believe I have. But famous?? That is entirely different.

Contrary to what I may seem, I am an introverted person. I love flying under the radar, allowed to notice and not be noticed. I love peace and quiet. I love being with myself–wholly–even in the dark moments when I’m skillfully negotiating the craggy peaks of my heart’s hurt. I love being allowed that luxury, the luxury of figuring out who I am without the noise of others telling me who they think I am.

Surely, that doesn’t mean there aren’t those in my life who try to make their truth my own.  There are.  But at least they know me. They aren’t complete strangers who take issue with the way I cut my hair, what I choose to eat, or worse…who attack my sacred personhood because of something they read or watched on t.v.

So that famous??
No. Thank. You.

Then last week, while driving to meet a girlfriend for lunch, I was heart hit by a song on the radio:

I don’t need my name in lights
I’m famous in my Father’s eyes
Make no mistake
He knows my name
I’m not living for applause
I’m already so adored
It’s all His stage
He knows my name

As I drove through tears, I realized I’m already famous to a precious and cherished few. They know my name and more than that…they know my heart. That is why the song moved me.  Because it spoke to one of my deepest truths: on any given day, I’d prefer to be Known than known of.

That is my heart’s scripture. Today. Tomorrow. And forever.

I don’t know what the next few years will bring. And I don’t know where my talents will take me, but it doesn’t matter.  I am Known.  And that knowing is more fame than I ever dreamed of.

Elizabeth Berg, a man named Andre, and writing true

On August 16, 2013, I kissed my husband curbside and anxiously entered the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Chicago. I was wearing my favorite jeans, a polka-dot blouse and my black pumps, the ones with the large leather bow near the toe. But the space felt wrong, like the cafeteria on the first day of school: a virtual minefield of social suicide and no map to guide.

I looked around, knowing full well I would find no familiar faces, but hoping I could spot aspiring writers, that perhaps our hearts would seem familiar to one another. And after a few trips up and down the stairs, I spotted them. Comrades in pen. Soldiers of prose.

We were all nervous. Sizing up the space and each other, then scanning the large area for a face we’d seen only briefly, if at all: that of Ms. Elizabeth Berg.

I had met Elizabeth previously, but doubted she’d remember me. I had been too nervous, too giddy that warm summer day when she’d spoken about the motivation behind her novels, including her most recent, Tapestry of Fortunes.

Meeting Elizabeth.  May 10, 2013.

Meeting Elizabeth. May 10, 2013.

Afterward, as she signed my copy, she told me of a workshop that was in the planning stages. It would be in Chicago. “If you’re serious about writing”, she told me, “I think it would be a wonderful experience for you. Please try to come.”

And then there I was, waiting for the first of three days with one of my most beloved authors .

Her latest novel, which I enjoyed, but doesn't hold a candle to my absolute favorite, The Pull of the Moon.

Her latest novel, which I enjoyed, but didn’t move me nearly as much as my absolute favorite, The Pull of the Moon.

Elizabeth wrote my name before I spelled it, hence the addition of "who wrote before she listened" to the inscription.

Elizabeth wrote my name before I spelled it, hence the addition of “who wrote before she listened” to the inscription.

There were five of us: different ages, different backgrounds, different writing styles and different motivations for putting pen to paper. But we all had two things in common: we all loved Elizabeth and we all wanted to learn from her.

The ladies from the workshop (L to R):  Sandy, Ginny, Chrissie, Me and Marilyn.

The ladies from the workshop (L to R): Sandy, Ginny, Chrissie, Me and Marilyn.

She told us our time together would be sacred. That we would bond quickly, share more and share bigger because of the intensity of the workshop. She asked us to be open to feeling everything that came, even the terrifying and difficult. That it would make our writing more authentic. And then she said this:

“Don’t be afraid to feel. The good stuff is where the bullshit ends and the truth begins.”

I nodded my head in response and heard the tinny clang of my armor, heavy and protective: Bullshit. Yes, that’s what it was.

On day two, Elizabeth shared with us where our talents might best be suited. I had prayed all night for her lips to form the word novelist, but instead she told me she saw me as a children’s book author. And called my writing ethereal. Afterward, as we sat tight and straight like Popsicle sticks, I asked the ladies if they felt the same. Ginny, who I’d grown to adore, stepped closer, “It’s just what she thinks; it doesn’t mean anything…unless you think it does.” But it did. Elizabeth Berg was telling me I’d be a great children’s author. Perhaps she was right. Since she was Elizabeth Berg and all.

I was dreading day three. Its focus, dialogue, had never been my strength and I’d convinced myself it never would.

On that day, Elizabeth gave an assignment:

Today’s assignment is to go out and listen to people talk. It can be anywhere: on the street, in a restaurant, in a bathroom, in the hotel lobby, on public transportation. Pay attention not only to what they say but HOW they say it—you want to pick up on natural patterns of speech. What gets emphasized? What makes for pauses? Hesitations? Repetitions? Is there a strident quality to what they’re saying? A lyrical one? A dull one? How does emotion affect the way something is said?
…Try to replicate cadence, a natural and way of speech. Try to avoid clichés or dialogue that goes nowhere; have your assignment be a little story. Understand in your mind who these characters are before you make them talk: see them clearly in your mind.

I felt sick to my stomach. I had no idea where to go or what to write. So I wandered down Wacker, turned left on Michigan and saw a man standing in a doorway, a paper cup in his hands and a cardboard sign around his neck. Written there were two words:

I’m hungry

I looked at him as I passed, but I didn’t See him, and continued to walk until I found a door that looked interesting and walked through. I ordered my lunch, then sat at a table near the back, behind a young couple and away from the noise. She was pleading with him to stay together, despite their parents and their friends’ objections. But he heard nothing. He was messing with his iPhone and jamming to the tunes heard on his bright red headphones. She looked down, around and down again. And then there was silence.

I started to eat my lunch, but couldn’t forget the man’s face, his sign and those written words: I’m hungry. So, I got up, bought him some lunch and headed his way. When I held out my hand, he cocked his head and put his pointer finger to his temple. It stayed there as he sized me up and then extended his hand toward me:

“My name’s Andre.”
“Pleased to meet you, Andre. I’m Dani.”

I asked him if he’d mind having lunch with me to which he replied, “pull up some concrete”, which I did. He told me about losing his job, his apartment and his family. He told me about life on the street, sleeping under Wacker Drive, “which smells like trash and dead things…’cept in winter.” How his friend had a dog, “one of them smooshy ones with rolls” and how he helped them make it: “People seems more inclined to feed a starving man with a dog, ‘poor thing’, they always say.”

He told me about working in factories in Kenosha. And I watched him hide his hands as he told me how badly he wanted to shower, “to get clean, you know?”.

Then he told me this:

“Yous my present from God today. People don’t see me. But you, you stopped. And looked at me. That there’s a God thing, mam. Yous a God thing.”

I shook his hand again and told him I needed to get back. And then looked him straight in the eye: “It was nice meeting you, Andre. Thank you.”

I ran to the hotel and began feverishly scribbling the account of our conversation, as if I were watching from the outside. And when I shared it with my group, I cried, overwhelmed by what had happened and how he’d let me in. “That was a God thing,” I told them.


That first day in the Hyatt lobby was 365 days ago. One week later I started this blog and since then have referred back to things said by each woman who attended, to Andre, and, of course, to Elizabeth, who reminded us on our last day together:

“Writing is not a craft, it’s a calling.”

I know now I was called to this place and that I couldn’t fully be here without my traumas and triumphs. That you wouldn’t hear me or See me without them. So in honor of Elizabeth, Andre and my nearly one year blogging anniversary, I’d like to extend my heart in thanks to those who have sprinkled light and truth on my path, those who have Seen me and had the decency to hold my gaze in this precious space:

To Ginny, a beautiful writer and friend, thank you for believing in my voice and experiences. And thank you for believing others would as well.
To Charissa Grace, a wordsmith if I’ve ever known one, you are true heart. Thank you for being Family.

To Jane, a tender soul and talented writer, thank you for breathing kindness, acceptance and grace.
To Stephen, a man of passion and stalwart faith, thank you for your time, your willingness to consider and our continued conversations.

And finally, to Elizabeth Berg, who taught me about the sanctity of writing true. May you know I always will.

Tadeusz Borowski: Auschwitz Serial Number 119 198

Image courtesy of PAP/CAF via

Image courtesy of PAP/CAF via

I first heard the name Tadeusz Borowski as an undergraduate student in Amherst. At that time, I had rather sophomoric ideas of the horrors authored by the Third Reich and of its henchmen, and was scarcely aware of the songs of its survivors. Of course, I’d heard of Levi, Spiegelman and Wiesel. And I’d read Plath’s “Daddy” as a teenager. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the words I would read that semester. Nothing.

Our syllabus consisted of many required readings: Maus, The Destruction of the European Jews, Night, and selections from Chaim Kaplan’s diary. It also included poetry from Nelly Sachs, Paul Celan, Yitzchak Katzenelson and Dan Pagis. But the reading that haunted me most was Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. His words, his deceptively simple words and oftentimes frigidly detached account of the unimaginable, proved to lyrically amputate a chamber of my beating heart. Forever.

After falling into a Nazi trap at a friend’s apartment, Borowski was sent to Auschwitz in late April 1943. It is Auschwitz, then, that serves as the main backdrop for the fictionalized stories found in his brutally gripping book and about which the novelist William Styron wrote in his acclaimed novel Sophie’s Choice: “Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response. The query: ‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’ And the answer: ‘Where was man?’”

Borowski’s words anchor deep into the most sacred of places. He shows what one will do for an extra bowl of soup or a proper pair of shoes. And challenges the more traditional roles of perpetrator and victim. He also weaves a thread of normalcy through the most abnormal and ghastly of circumstances.

In this selection, he writes about arrival at Auschwitz:

You have no idea how tremendous the world looks when you fall out of a closed, packed freight car! The sky is so high…
…and blue…
Exactly, blue, and the trees smell wonderful. The forest ̶ you want to take it in your hand. (p. 126)

The entrance to the main gate at Auschwitz I.  It reads "work makes you free".  Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via

The entrance to the main gate at Auschwitz I. It reads “work makes you free”. Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via


One of the most chilling features of Borowski’s prose is its icy delivery. It proves to recreate such intensity that the reader is often left breathless:

The lights on the ramp flicker with a spectral glow, the wave of people ̶ feverish, agitated, stupefied people ̶ flows on and on, endlessly. They think that now they will have to face a new life in the camp, and they prepare themselves emotionally for the hard struggle ahead. They do not know that in just a few moments they will die, that the gold, money, and diamonds which they have so prudently hidden in their clothing and on their bodies are now useless to them. Experienced professionals will probe into every recess of their flesh, will pull the gold from under the tongue and the diamonds from the uterus and the colon. They will rip out gold teeth. In tightly sealed crates they will ship them to Berlin. (p. 48-49)

Female hair found in Auschwitz warehouses after liberation.  Image courtesy of Polish National Archives via

Female hair found in Auschwitz warehouses after liberation. Image courtesy of Polish National Archives via

Here, he recounts the terrors of the crematoria:

Often, in the middle of the night, I walked outside; the lamps glowed in the darkness above the barbed-wire fences. The roads were completely black, but I could distinctly hear the far-away hum of a thousand voices ̶ the procession moved on and on. And then the entire sky would light up; there would be a burst of flame above the wood…and terrible human screams. (p. 84-85)

A door to a gas chamber in Auschwitz. The note reads: Harmful gas! Entering endangers your life. Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via

A door to a gas chamber in Auschwitz. The note reads: Harmful gas! Entering endangers your life. Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via

An Auschwitz  warehouse filled with shoes and clothing from those who were gassed upon arrival.  Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via

An Auschwitz warehouse filled with shoes and clothing from those who were gassed upon arrival. Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via

Omnipresent in Borowski’s stories is the theme of deception: deception by the Nazis, deception by both friend and foe and deception by strangers. That theme is magnified in the following: “It is the camp law: people going to their death must be deceived to the very end. This is the only permissible form of charity” (p. 37).


After being liberated in Dachau, Borowski lived in Bavaria, Paris and Berlin; finally returning to Warsaw in 1950. It was there, nearly 63 years ago, on July 1, 1951, that he gassed himself. He died two days later on July 3.  He was 28 years old.

Sadly, he was followed by others. Others who had peered into the soulless recesses of human eyes and lived to tell about it. Others like: Paul Celan in 1970, Piotr Rawicz in 1982, Primo Levi in 1987, and Jerzy Kosinsky in 1991. Surely there are others, many others. But these are those who survived to share their stories through a written medium. Those who left us with “Death Fugue”, Blood from the Sky, Survival in Auschwitz, and The Painted Bird. Those who live on in elegant typeface in books throughout the world. And through such, are immortalized.

After all these years, Borowski’s suicide still perplexes me. I wonder what went through his mind as he entered his kitchen, opened the gas valve and repeatedly inhaled. I wonder if he thought of his wife, who had bore him a daughter, Małgorzata, just three days before. Or of his friend’s arrest by Polish Security, the same friend at whose home Borowski himself was arrested 8 years prior. Or of the freight cars and the high, blue sky.

And I wonder what justice there was in such a death. And then realize it was not about justice but rather about hope:

Much of what I once said was naïve, immature. And it seems to me now that perhaps we are not really wasting time. Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different. For a better world to come when all this is over. And perhaps even our being here is a step towards that world. Do you really think that, without the hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyzes them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill. It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers. (p. 121-122)

Tadeusz Borowski hoped for a better life. For peace and rest and flameless dreams. And perhaps, as much as he tried, it wasn’t possible. Perhaps Auschwitz and Dachau weren’t just horrendous experiences, set apart. Perhaps they became a part of him, like a song, and the only way to silence that song was by stepping on his own throat (20). Perhaps that was his peace.

Perhaps it was enough that he lived, survived and, above all else, loved.  He wrote: “I smile and think that one human being must always be discovering one another ̶ through love. And that this is the most important thing on earth, and the most lasting” (p. 110).

Perhaps there is hope in that.



Borowski, T. (1976).  This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (B. Vedder, Trans.).  New York: Penguin.


My sacred place

“Go to the desk. Stay at the desk. Thrive at the desk.” -William Matthews

Everyone has a place—their place—where heart and breath slow, and stillness and contentment reign. Maybe it’s the inside of a train, the white sand of a beach, or a treasured bookstore. Maybe it’s a cushy chair at a local beanery, the zoo, or a bench at MoMa. Or maybe, if you’re truly lucky, it’s a space within your own home.
Since my mother-in-law’s arrival we’ve been working on my nook. Truthfully, I’ve been adding to my stash since last year, but I needed her expertise to bring the space to life. To make singular items create a mood and tell a story—my story.

And that’s just what she did.

nook_right wall_close
My nook is my sacred place.

It asks nothing and gives everything. It smells of sage blossoms and vanilla and is guarded by cheery owls and pink hippos. It highlights my love of polka dots and dresses, quotes and candles. And it houses a tribute to our three little angels, who watch over me from the halls of Heaven.

Generally, I go there to write, but it’s also great for naps, tears and counting to 10 (not necessarily in that order).
Everything there is a reflection of my heart and a representation of my spirit, from the decorative boxes holding pictures of loved ones to the small collection of books by my favorite novelist, Elizabeth Berg.

Elizabeth Berg
This place oozes me.

It honors my past and cherishes the possibilities of my future.
It brings the kiss of life to my craft and heart.
Four simple walls and a collection of stuff do all that.

nook_desk view

What a wonderful and blessed thing!