Searchlights & Signal Flares


Tiny Lights' On-line Writer's Exchange

Who do you think you are? (10/15/03)



Featured writer: Arlene L. Mandell



Contributors this month:
Anne E. Silber
Arlene L. Mandell
Betty Winslow
Jan Cusick
Pat Tyler
Susan Bono
Terry Law


You Don't Know Me!

by Arlene L. Mandell

"Who do you think you are? Your parents work hard to provide you with a nice coat and you're tearing a hole in it?" She glared at me, her helmet of steel wool hair blocking out the sun. I cowered against the brick wall in P.S. 159's concrete schoolyard. Miss Twisted Face (I don't remember her name) was screeching at me for pulling on a thread where my top button was coming loose. I remember the way my stomach gurgled, the sour taste of the bologna sandwich which was rising in my throat. "I'm sorry," I whispered. I knew she was making a terrible mistake, yelling at me instead of the girl who stole lunch money or the boy who punched smaller kids in the stomach.

Who do you think you are? Many times since that winter day when I trembled in a Brooklyn schoolyard, someone has demanded an answer to that question. Sometimes they put the question more politely: "Why should we hire you?" Or: "What do you know about wine marketing?" When it became politically incorrect to mention age as a qualification, the question was veiled: "Most of the students in our masters' program are...recent graduates. Do you think you'll enjoy...." O.K. So I was 48 years old and the rest of the students were about 23. I learned to look my questioners right in the eye, state my qualifications...and smile. Once in a while the scared little girl would surface when confronted by a bullying executive vice president or a bearded professor emeritus, but she persevered.

When I moved to California from New Jersey and no longer taught college English, the question returned, asked in a quieter way: Occupation? And I would fill in the blank with one simple, inadequate word: "retired." Now who did I think I was?

Recently I spent ninety minutes feeding a FAX machine, one of many volunteers getting ready for Hands Across the County, when good folks give up their Saturday morning to weed and paint and fill boxes with donated food. There I stood with a stack of papers, doing a menial task that required more concentration than you can imagine. I was letting the schools and non-profit agencies know who would be coming to help them. And yes, I was fully aware of who I was and all the things I was capable of doing.

Arlene L. Mandell is a former writer at Good Housekeeping magazine and a retired college English professor. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, countless literary journals, and most recently in True Romance.

Who Do You Think You Are?

  by Anne E. Silber

"No price is too high for the privilege of owning yourself."

-Rudyard Kipling

I would like to change the question to, "Who Do You Know You Are? Because if you don't know who you are, you cannot be authentic. Your writing won't be authentic either.

In many American Indian tribes, a person reaching adulthood was allowed to drop their "baby name," given to them by parents, and take a new name based on who they defined themselves to be. What a perfect system for celebrating growth and change! Best of all, the individual could change names as often as she or he wanted. What that system expresses is that the individual is forced to look inside himself, instead of relying on the definitions of others.

Sometimes, knowing yourself is difficult. That is why Kipling wrote of it as a "privilege," and put the highest value on it. If you accept what others think you are, how can you ever know yourself?
That is certainly not to say that there should not be agreement between you and the rest of the world on the most obvious things. If you are obviously a human being, but go around saying you are a fried tomato, you will be in serious trouble.

No, I am speaking of the core things that make you who you are. These are your values, your philosophy, your choices and decisions. I know who I am because I am firmly rooted in the knowledge of my value-system, my world view, and my reasons for the choices and decisions I make. If they change, I can adjust to the change without losing myself in the process. I understand that change is the only constant.

That is why I can write from the heart, and not from a textbook.

I know myself. And I feel worthy of the privilege.

Anne E. Silber, Author of "Zaidy:A Story of Youth and Age in the 1940's. See: www.annesilber.net

You Don't Know Me!

  by Arlene L. Mandell

"Who do you think you are? Your parents work hard to provide you with a nice coat and you're tearing a hole in it?" She glared at me, her helmet of steel wool hair blocking out the sun. I cowered against the brick wall in P.S. 159's concrete schoolyard. Miss Twisted Face (I don't remember her name) was screeching at me for pulling on a thread where my top button was coming loose. I remember the way my stomach gurgled, the sour taste of the bologna sandwich which was rising in my throat. "I'm sorry," I whispered. I knew she was making a terrible mistake, yelling at me instead of the girl who stole lunch money or the boy who punched smaller kids in the stomach.

Who do you think you are? Many times since that winter day when I trembled in a Brooklyn schoolyard, someone has demanded an answer to that question. Sometimes they put the question more politely: "Why should we hire you?" Or: "What do you know about wine marketing?" When it became politically incorrect to mention age as a qualification, the question was veiled: "Most of the students in our masters' program are...recent graduates. Do you think you'll enjoy...." O.K. So I was 48 years old and the rest of the students were about 23. I learned to look my questioners right in the eye, state my qualifications...and smile. Once in a while the scared little girl would surface when confronted by a bullying executive vice president or a bearded professor emeritus, but she persevered.

When I moved to California from New Jersey and no longer taught college English, the question returned, asked in a quieter way: Occupation? And I would fill in the blank with one simple, inadequate word: "retired." Now who did I think I was?

Recently I spent ninety minutes feeding a FAX machine, one of many volunteers getting ready for Hands Across the County, when good folks give up their Saturday morning to weed and paint and fill boxes with donated food. There I stood with a stack of papers, doing a menial task that required more concentration than you can imagine. I was letting the schools and non-profit agencies know who would be coming to help them. And yes, I was fully aware of who I was and all the things I was capable of doing.

Arlene L. Mandell is a former writer at Good Housekeeping magazine and a retired college English professor. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, countless literary journals, and most recently in True Romance.

Who do I think I am?

  by Betty Winslow

I am a female, growing and ripening and getting better with age, like a fine wine or a great green spreading tree, despite wrinkles and graying temples and aches and pains.

I am a daughter, whose parents have been my support and my encouragement as long as I've had days to be, and whose desire is to be their support as they approach the end of their time here.

I am a wife, with a love for my husband that has only grown stronger and more flexible with time, tempered in the furnace of life, burnished with care, displayed to a world that has forgotten what commitment really means and what it requires. I am a mother, who can nurture not only her own children, but the lost and lonely children they bring home, because my motherlove flows from the Father of all through me to those He puts in my path.

I am a lover - of my husband, of my friends and family, of the world and the wonders therein, of my God, heart and mind, body and soul, spirit and self, with whatever is appropriate in each relationship, extravagantly and well.

I am a worshipper, whose worship comes out in a golden flood of song or off-key humming, depending on the day, as well as through the pen I hold in my hand or the keyboard I labor over.

I am a writer, desiring to use the gifts the Great Creator Himself has given me to make my words sing and dance on the page, and reveal to all who read them how wonderful and original and exciting life is, and how much more life after life will be for those who go on beyond.

(And some days, I am just old and grouchy and not in the mood to write or be nice to anyone or nurture anyone, just curled up with a Coke and some Cheez-Its and a trashy romance, wearing an invisible "Do not disturb" sign on my back and the comforter pulled up to my chin. In other words, I am human.)

I am Betty Winslow, who lives, writes, and loves in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Jan Cusick



"Who do you think you are?" I can imagine my mother, standing hands on hips, asking me that.

In reality I don't think she ever did, not in those exact words. But it was always there unspoken, a contributor to our bilateral alienation.

She felt I was beyond her ken, incomprehensible and pretty much unlovable.

Not a rebel. I never had the courage to make real trouble. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do.

Most kids do. Now it's accepted that children should express themselves, find themselves, not be dictated to but cooperated with.

When I was growing up one was expected to conform. And it wasn't that I wouldn't. I just couldn't. Most of what I saw grown ups doing was just dumb.

I still feel that way pretty much and I don't, I guess, feel like I've grown up yet.

So, who do I think I am? I'm someone who's still becoming me, and hoping for several more lives of reincarnation to get there.

Jan Cusick is a writer who is happily refusing to conform in Santa Rosa, CA.

In answer to: Who Do You Think You Are?

  by Pat Tyler

I think I am

Mostly mother,
partly daughter.

Mostly strong,
partly weak.

Mostly student,
partly teacher.

Mostly gregarious,
partly shy.

I am mostly City Slicker enjoying
dinner and theater with friends
yet partly Nature Lover with my
shoe soles too close to the fire

I am fiercely independent
yet partly needy for love, respect and caring
from family and friends

I am many times unknowing
of what to say or do
Which only makes me human
Much like the likes of you



Susan Bono



Who do you think you are? is both question and challenge any time I pick up a pen to write. Even before I put ink to paper, a chorus of jeering spectators, rather like the bloodthirsty crowd I'd expect to find at the Roman Coliseum, spatters me with rotten fruit and derision.

What makes you think you have anything to say? Who do you think you are?

Thumbs down, and out come the lions to tear apart this trembling Christian.

Seems like I spend a lot of time fighting and dying and resurrecting myself as a harmless wraith that sneaks back into the arena at midnight to do her soft shoe in front of the empty seats. Sometimes when I'm invisible like this I can squeeze out a few lines here and there, especially if I tell myself I'm only pretending to be a writer.

But whenever I actually get beyond that self-defeating band of hecklers in my own head, the question, Who do you think you are? becomes the engine that drives my writing. Who am I and what do I think? What do I think and how can I explain it to myself? I don't feel like I'm pretending to be a writer once I'm following this line of questioning.

Little by little, with scattered words and phrases, I begin to build a model that, for the moment, represents the answers to those questions. These little figures, sometimes crude, occasionally sublime, show me who I think I was, am, should be. Sometimes they let me know who I think I could be. That's the best part.

Susan Bono is learning there's very little difference between thinking you are and knowing you are. And when in doubt, say so, but try it anyway

October 2003

  by Terry Law

Who do you think you are? That's what our neighbor, when we first moved here from Spain, asked, only she asked it in a letter to the editor and said God knows who the hell. All we'd done was move next door in a very small town where we wanted to end our days quietly.

It still smarts. That month she was voted Woman of the Year but I've never found out who she is either. A successful mover, a doer, abrasive as grit.

I doubt if I am a who. More, I think I'm the derivative sum of people around me, those I talk to, those who opine in the daily news. I'm no intellectual, no mother of original thought, not a single example can I give.

I do keep a list of my ideas. They've never been pursued to the patent office, publisher, what have you, so forth. Because, midsigh of success, I find the idea's already been taken word for word and dollarized by someone else, some successopath, someone with a bit more passion and less lethargy than I ever think with.

Terry Law
klaw@neteze.com


Searchlights Editor:

Susan Bono

Columnists:

Christine Falcone, David Samuel Johnson, Betty Rodgers

Susan Bono is a writing coach, editor and freelance writer whose work appears in newspapers, anthologies and the Internet. She has published Tiny Lights, a journal of personal essay, since 1995, along with its online counterpart here at tiny-lights.com. From 2000ó2005 she helped coordinate the Writer's Sampler series for the Sebastopol Center for the Arts. Her short essays and columns have appeared in various anthologies, magazines, newspapers and on the radio. Her most recent credits include Passager Magazine, Red Hills Review, the St. Petersburg Times, the Petaluma Argus Courier, the Anderson Valley Advertiser and KRCB radio's Word by Word.

Christine Falcone has been writing most of her life. Her work has appeared in print and online, and it has aired on public television and public radio. One of her writing goals for 2008 is to find an agent for her recently completed first novel, "This Is What I Know," which was named as a finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Creative Writing Competition out of New Orleans. She is currently in a new writing space, painted purple for inspiration, busily at work on another novel -- this one having to do with the nature of violence.

David Samuel Johnson was reared on a mountain in Arkansas. He lived the bohemian lifestyle in the Ozarks as a hillbilly vagabond, traversing the mountainside shirtless and most of the time shoeless, exploring the sensuality of the aromatic, organic-rich soil of the forest floor or the harsh poetry of greenbriers twined around a devilís-walking-stick. As a kid he wanted to be a writer and own a snake farm when he grew up. His Mama knew she couldn't dissuade him from either goal. When he brought a poisonous copperhead snake home in his pocket, she bought him a book about snakes so heíd know which ones he could bring home and which ones to leave behind. When he wrote his first poem to a girl in kindergarten, she showed him how to use a dictionary so he could spell the word "beautiful." David's goal of a snake farm and the love of his mountain have manifested into a PhD in ecology. Davidís dream of writing has evolved from his first poem in kindergarten to essays in newspapers to interview articles in magazines and columns in this journal. He is living a beautiful dream, some of which you can glimpse below.

David the Writer

David the Scientist

Betty Rodgers and her husband, Ken, live and watch birds in Boise, Idaho. A transplant among transplants, she has chosen to learn the local landscape through the lens of her Pentax K10D. Her writing career began at an early age when she wrote plays and coerced her boy cousins to perform them. She has enjoyed a life-long affair with journalism, writing for the Sacramento Bee, the Cloudcroft Mountain Monthly, the Sebastopol Times and News, and the Boise Weekly. Born in Steinbeck Country, she has also lived in Maine and New Mexico. Betty publishes a bi-monthly online newsletter for Idaho writers, a labor of love inspired by Terry Ehret. In 2006, she published A Mano, a book of poetry by the late Vince Pedroia.

Thanks to all who participated this month. It's good to know you're out there! We're looking forward to hearing from you and those you inspired sometime soon! Check this column each month to see what's new. Return to Searchlights & Signal Flares menu for future topics and guidelines.

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