29 August 2015

Advertisement for my new book...

Now that SUMMER TO FALL is published, I thought I would assemble a little visual enticement for curious readers. :)

12 July 2015

Announcing...my first novel!

I have finally, finally, finalized my first novel, titled Summer to Fall. (That's the cover...photo credit to me, a fortuitous beach moment.) Originally written in 1992-94, I shopped S2F around to editors and agents and received supportive words back in the mail (yes, this was in the Internet's childhood, when e-mail was not appropriate for manuscript sharing). Supportive words, yes; compliments, many; but no offers or contracts. YA fiction was not hot in that era, and nostalgia for the 1980s was, at that cultural moment, absolutely unimaginable.

So Summer to Fall dwelled in the latter-day version of the proverbial desk drawer—surfing from Nessa-computer to Nessa-computer, Mac Plus to Performa to iMac to PCs x 3. I've made lots of changes to that MSWord file over the decades...and now, I'm self-publishing this baby, thrilled to have seen it through.

Towards that end, I've posted some images here so that I can upload them to my Pinterest account. See, on Pinterest, I've established a board called Lara and Bryan's world, from Summer to Fall. In a superfine act of Internet criss-cross-apple-saucing, people who look at that Pinterest board will be directed here...and people reading this right now (that's you!) will be directed there. The mind boggles. 

And all for a humble little manuscript about two New York teenagers named Lara and Bryan who fell in love, once upon the 1980s. Dense with rock and roll, drizzled with jazz and even some classical piano, hemmed in by skyscrapers, awash in nighttime lights and dazzling Rockaway Beach sunshine, and dressed to the 80s nines...I hope you'll want to give Summer to Fall a read, once it's open for business. 

This is my author pic, courtesy of Steven Albert (please check out his artwork!) Steve took this photo in 1986 on a smoggy summer afternoon, up on my roof in Queens, NY. It may be my favorite portrait, and it certainly represents my book's world in a perfect microcosm.

And now, the crossover pics, below. My dear friend Joe Caffrey's gorgeous images fortuitously reinforce places and scenes that appear in S2F. Check out my Pinterest board for even more!

31 August 2012

The First Day

Prelude: Lydia is now a high school student. :)
Over the years, various friends have made very kindly observations about Pete's and my parenting style, and our family unit being cohesive and happy. I'm always appreciative, but I don't always feel I merit it. So I thought I would share a moment in my mothering continuum that highlights my imperfections.

With Lydia's first day of high school looming, I began asking questions of her a couple of weeks ago...about style choices, comfort level, growing up. As I had done with Zoë before her, I bought Lydia Teen Vogue and Seventeen so that she could see some of this year's fashions. A Maine island is not exactly the locus for up-to-the-minute teen styles, and besides, when I was her age, I was obsessed with knowing what was popular. I didn't necessarily emulate those things (mostly because I couldn't afford it), but I just.needed.to.know.

Freshman year of high school was also my moment to begin using makeup. Horrific, not-right-for-my-skin-color make-up (viva los 70s). Those of you who know me well, know that the Makeup Era for me was exceptionally short-lived.

I offer these reminiscences about me because they highlight my mom choices. So, back to that: I bought the mags. Lydie read them over, or so she said. I asked if she'd seen anything she liked, or that she might want to buy in a similar style next time we shopped.

"Nooo, not really," said my 14-year-old daughter.

Urgh! I thought to myself. Usually Lyd loves spending time with me, talking about stuff we both like. She's not in any kind of rebellion stage here. She just plain was not interested.

Fascinatingly, Zoë is now living back at home and serving as a secondary mom voice. She's different from me, and has her own completely personalized sense of style. Apparently, colors-matching is a huge must-do for Z. She has critiqued Lyd quite a bit lately for not matching—and, bizarrely, for wearing basketball shorts instead of cargo or cloth shorts. (This is definitely in the WTH realm for me, but they're sisters, so I let them work it out between themselves.) But take note: neither girl will a) wear makeup or b) show skin. They're adamant. And sometimes teenage Nessa is totally baffled.

Okay, here's where I turn into a kinda villainess. One of my least-appealing maternal hallmarks is my strident voice. I get impatient and I do not typically yell or demand, but I do cut right to the chase and expect back-and-forth conversation. My children, accustomed to a pretty serene and laissez-faire home environment, sort of freak out when I go for the sharp-focus on an issue. Who blames them, I guess. But maybe it's a Queens holdover for me. And in this instance, when I've spent two weeks dropping hints about first-day-of-school attire, and I get a distinct lack of action back for my troubles, and it's the night before the first day...I'm gonna go strident.

Thus, last night when we got home, I asked Lydia if she had done her laundry and selected an outfit for school. "Yep, I did the laundry," she answered.

The outfit, I pressed. What did she choose?

"Oh, I dunno, just...jeans and a T-shirt, I guess."

I drew a resigned breath. Then I launched into a strident (told you!) explanation of.... First impressions. And big changes in one's life. And opportunities to maybe change one's image a little bit when one moves from a class of 15 kids to a class of, say, 70-ish. People judge a little more in high school, I lectured on. And you don't want to be wearing, say, a T-shirt that might look childish, or something that just doesn't look right. Because teenagers remember stuff like that.

[I am not pleased with myself for this stream-of-rapidfire-consciousness that I released last night. But look, I had one hour to take her shopping if she didn't have something that would fit her, and given her growth curve, that was a distinct possibility.]

"So please go upstairs and choose something," I ended it.

First, she came down with a long-sleeved shirt of Zoë's. An entirely inoffensive item, but a little heavier than the weather requires. I'm sure I looked crestfallen, because here I'd just blathered about style and change and reinvention, and she delivered ehh. But I didn't say ehh...I merely explained that the shirt she'd chosen was too warm and maybe too plain and--

This was where she began to weep a little. "What? What is it?" I asked.

"I-I don't want to disappoint you! You-you said not childish!" she sniffled.

[Commence my self-hatred. Sigh.]

So, I re-stated everything, softer and less accusatory. And sent her back upstairs, hoping I sounded kinder, to try again.

A few rummagy minutes later, she came down with a red Snoopy tee and a pair of Zoë-handmedown jeans. Hmmm. Zoë, I should add, was sitting across from me in the living room, making acerbic comments—which I enjoyed, truly: her participation, and her relative maturity. She added the occasional observation about the way MDI High School rolls, which greatly helps me—I don't have a clue. 

Collectively, we tried to figure out if a Snoopy tee was right for MDIHS. I asked Lydia if she liked what she had chosen, was comfortable with it. Yes, she said.

What can I say, a former New Yorker who thinks people should dress up for the first day? Nothing, clearly. In fact, acerbic Zoë mentioned something about how I'd encouraged her to dress up for the first day, only for naught, since no other Island kid had evidently gotten my urbanite memo.

I share this vignette because Lydia chose her own way despite my strident leanings. And I am so, so proud whenever that happens. Moreover, she reported after school today that two different girls had complimented her on the sweatshirt she decided to add this morning: Zoë's Totoro character. So that made me doubly proud: my girl rocks handmedowns by choice and gets props for it.

The moral: she knows what's right for her. She's smarter at that, in fact, than I am. Which is, ultimately, my best parental goal. I'm just sorry that sometimes I don't reach it with my best self forward.

28 April 2012

An accidental poem

My friend Tavie wrote a heartfelt note earlier this week about accidental poetry centered on the topic of elder care. It reminded me of this poem I drafted circa 1995...for years I've worked and reworked it, and have come to the conclusion that the ending will, sadly, never satisfy me. And I also worry that it's murky (a sure sign I've stared at it too much.)

Leaving Room 107

Leaving Room 107 (Leta’s Room)
and cross over to other side
and go to other side down to
end near kitchen and then turn and
go up to Fred’s room and go in
and wait. Then go up to other
end and turn and come to
table to eat

I found these instructions
after he died.
folded into pants-pocket
shape, red ink fading to pink,
they were my grandfather’s compass
around the nursing home
that never was familiar.
No matter how hard he tried…
no room in his brain.

Leta was his one true friend.

Four years older—her mind intact,
her body tentative—
she did the thinking
while Grampy, still strong,
gave her his arm.
Widow and widower
walking together.

After three years
Grampy was asked to move.
(Something vague about
needing more care.)

Soon after,
Leta had a stroke,
robbing her mind,
taking her speech.

We visited,
and she cried
harder than I’ve ever seen
anyone cry—
wailing, unable, alone and afraid.
Grampy stroked her cold hand
and said, “Now, now,
that’s okay. Old Fred’s here.
Remember me?”

One week later, Grampy fell,
dizzy from flu.

He never walked again.

In memoriam:
Leta B. Chisholm
May 16, 1900 – March 22, 1993 

Fred H. Arnold
January 23, 1904 – May 21, 1993

19 January 2012

A poem from my NYC foray

Scribbled with a golf pencil amidst the restless, peopled din of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's main entry hall, as I sat on a time-smoothed wooden bench and pondered my churning emotions. This poem so demanded to emerge that I had to buy an appointment book at the museum shop (on clearance!) just to get the blank paper for it. (An appointment book full of NYC artwork, bien sûr.)

Metropolitan Life

New York makes me stride,
pound pavement with purpose,
inhale deeply of fume and grey,
see what is not here in a startling overlay:
people who guided, places that shaped,
conversations that mattered, touches that linger.
I am at once teenager and remainder.
I have to be here. I want to be here.
I must create. I keen just to be.
Sidewalks unending...tonal layered sunset
only the beginning...
lights will not sleep. Silver transit perpetually
lurches. Emotions sharpen.
Dear God, I finally know what Mom lived.
The invigorating snap of everyday,
the intoxicating promise of better,
a now of swirling senses
limned with a bright edge.
A deeper, richer home.
An intentional life:

the sweet, brute unknown.

NBR 1/7/12

1/7/12: Self-portrait at the Temple of Dendur, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

06 December 2011

The Odds

I've had the song "Do You Love Me?" from Fiddler on the Roof stuck in my head for a week now. The local community theater is performing that show next spring...but moreso, perhaps one of the things that's driving this earworm is the realization that shrill Golde, skeptical Golde, is the same age as I am now. And her inability to assert her love for her 25-years husband, as touching as it may be, differs so profoundly from Pete's and my origin story—which has a Christmas moment as one of its highlights.

[This long and winding tale has pictures. Gather 'round.]

Peter and I bandied about the idea of getting married within two weeks of falling in love. Incredulously, sheepishly. At that juncture—freshman boy, senior girl—it was ludicrous, and we told no one of our wild notions. But by 1988, it wasn't outlandish anymore. We'd be living together in my apartment that fall, as a trial run. We were inseparable and still quite amused by each other...in fact, I doubt we had ever argued. And passionate, for certain...like crazed weasels. So with all of those factors in mind, we went to Peter's parents' summer home in Nova Scotia, during a gathering of extended family, and we announced out loud for the first time that we intended to get married.

The response was enthusiastic and warm; I can still hear the joyous peal of my mother-in-law's exuberant voice, and can still taste the fizz of the James Ready lager we toasted with. Much to my surprise, we immediately found ourselves discussing rings and dates and locations—topics Peter and I, not known for our pre-planning skills, had not been seriously considering. Our relaxing vacation thus morphed into a strategy session for an event we'd purely been imagining in terms of us.together.always. Calendars whipped out, family diamonds discussed...a dress?? a tux?! And of course, the elephant in that rustic, wooden-walled cabin: what religious denomination would be guiding this ceremony?

Well, no-brainer: we wanted our wedding to have a decidedly Quaker feel. This, despite the numerous Catholic weddings-of-friends I'd already attended, and despite my mother's probable distress at this prospect. I wondered if perhaps we could combine our traditions a little, to soften the blow...?

And herein, the fly landed in some unexpectedly gooey ointment. As relaxed and free-thinking as Quakers may appear to be, they are, in fact, governed by centuries of gently stated, deceptively simple rules. Which my mother-in-law Pat handed to us (and we still own), embodied in a slender, red-bound book called Faith and Practice. (Don't let that "slender" part fool you: they've cogitated on these things and forged them by consensus into softly brushed steel.) And what's more, Pat explained to us, as an elder of her meeting, she'd seen that combo-platter marriages didn't have a great track record. She advised that we stay within the straight-and-narrow channels of Quaker tradition. This meant:

1) the bride enters the meetinghouse alone, not with her father;
2) there is no music, none, zip, during the ceremony;
3) there is no ceremony to speak of, just an exchange of vows between the couple in the context of a silent meeting for worship; and
4) there is no officiant.

Oooooooookay. Deep breath. That's a steep shopping list to sell my mom, who would essentially be footing the bill for this departure-from-centuries-of-Catholic-family-marriages. "No music?" I squeaked.

Pat said (and would reiterate numerous times in the months to come) that the closer a couple stays within the proscribed traditions of the Germantown Monthly Meeting, the more likely the marriage is to succeed.


If you're Catholic, you know what pre-Cana is. My sweet young husband-candidate did not. As we reviewed the suddenly shocking strictures of the Religious Society of Friends, we began to reconsider: should we do this in the Catholic Church instead? But I knew in my heart that Peter would never survive the indoctrination protocol that Catholics require: the pre-Cana sessions wherein a couple had to prove themselves, basically, and learn all of the rules and regs of a successful Catholic homelife. And, like, swear to raise the kids Catholic, which was never our intention.

Good God. Whose idea was this marriage thing...?

In hindsight, I suppose we might have rebelled against Pat's somber pronouncements and crafted a marriage ceremony that incorporated poetry, our own vows, and "Horizons" by Genesis (the music I wanted to march down the aisle to, on my brother's arm). But I didn't want to launch this marriage oppositionally, and I mean, have you met Pat Reifsnyder?! So as 1988 went along, we settled on a Quaker pathway. The location would be our then-hometown of Brunswick, Maine, and the ceremony would be arranged under the care of Peter's parents' meeting of Germantown (PA) Friends.

Now, I said there'd be no officiant...true statement. But a Quaker wedding requires the couple to be interviewed by elders of the meeting—a married couple themselves, who assess the readiness of the intendeds, and render a judgement of "clearance" on the marriage-to-be. Back at Lake Annis, in the lamp-lit wooden cabin, Pat Reifsnyder assured us that this would not be arduous or obstructive like pre-Cana; it was just a one-off meeting, a formality.

And thus we come to Christmas 1988...my fourth consecutive holiday among the Reifsnyders in Philadelphia. I'd come to adore these rollicking gatherings, felt completely at home with everyone. Reifsnyder holidays were 100 times more joyous and 100 times less stressful than the events of my Queens childhood. I mean: no drinking, no arguing, no physical violence. Pretty sweet. From the very beginning, the Reifsnyder fabric wove me in. 

Christmas 1988 would be the perfect time for our Clearance meeting with the elders, it was decided. Our wedding plans were barreling along; an old, worn estate diamond glinted on my left hand, purchased with Peter's hard-earned pay as a grocery bagger. A date selected: the day after Pete's college graduation. (Yeah, I'd snag this morsel without delay, and ba-boom: adulthood.) Flush with holiday cheer, Pete and I drove over to the E---s' house: a couple he'd known for years. He'd babysat their children. I detected his comfort level with them immediately, and when the conversation started, I was as honest and talkative as I usually am.

The E---s were interested in my origins. So I told them my child-of-divorce story, my mean-stepfather-who-used-to-rule-the-roost story, my scholarship-kid-kicks-ass-and-gets-into-little-Ivy story. The little Ivy, Bowdoin College, being the point of intersection for me and the gangly Quaker boy over there.

Mr. E--- sort of hijacked the conversation at this point. "You know, sometimes people meet, and..." he crossed his index fingers into an X. "In the middle here, that's when they've met and found common ground, but you see, after some time they diverge again..." Blah blah blah "life experiences..." blah blah blah "challenges..."

My face pinched into puzzledness. What was the point, Mr. E---?

Well, I'll cinch it up for you: Peter Reifsnyder and Nessa Burns were deemed unready for marriage by the elders of the Germantown Friends Meeting. This meant, basically, that the wedding as we'd been planning it was off. "WHAAAAAT?!" Pat bellowed as she heard the news. Peter and I just gaped, wallowed, and mentally grappled. Instead of a triumphant train ride back to Queens, wherein I would tell Mom all about Reifsnyder Christmas #4 and update her on marriage preparations, my insides were leaden with a bewildered failure as I stared out the window. Every Christmas light I saw seemed fuzzy and dimmed. Worse, I truly felt as though I were no longer the person I'd thought I was. Not worthy. Not Peter's equal. 

But never mind what I felt. Patricia Reifsnyder was absolutely aflame with indignance. She believed that her youngest and his chosen ladylove were more than ready to be wedded. And so, she yanked strings at the Quaker meeting and had a new elder couple assigned to our case: Betty and Steve Cary. I had no idea who they were at the time, but let's just say they're like Quaker royalty (seriously, check out Steve's obit: http://www.haverford.edu/publicrelations/news/stephencary.html). I returned to Philly just before New Year's, still weighted and terrified that our plans were derailed for good.

There was one tiny bright spot in my pocket when I headed back south: a mixtape. And even better: a mystery mixtape. You see, one of the points of intersection on those crossed index fingers was Peter's and my mutual love of obscure, cheesy oldies. We used to make each other unlabeled mixtapes (ON CASSETTE, YES WE'RE OLD) and play them in the car, so that the recipient would have to guess each song as it played. Many a long car ride from Maine south flew past as we pondered the songs and plundered our trivia brains for answers.

The mystery mixtape I carried was our Christmas gift from a demi-god of obscure music, Bill Feis. One of my brother's best friends at the time, Bill had a collection of dusty, cranky vinyl that was unparalleled. Peter and I had only begun to collect vinyl ourselves, and we aspired to the kind of indiscriminate archives that Billy had assembled over in Staten Island. It was actually quite an honor to be given this tape; handed down, if you will, by a respected elder. Billy had followed the rules: the tape box was unlabeled, and stuffed inside was a scruffy piece of notebook paper on which he'd inscribed the cassette's musical contents. I had not even peeked at this--I held onto it so that Peter and I could compete on "name the song and artist" as we drove home (triumphantly) to Maine. 

Except we had a drive to make to Haverford, first...to meet the Carys. And so, as the car wended along twisty, wooded Pennsy Main Line roads, we slid Bill's tape into the deck to calm our nerves.

I can still put myself back in that car...the laughter, the disbelief, the bonding. There we were, thinking we had music-trivia stones...and reeling out on an endless brown ribbon of tape were obscurities we couldn't have named with a gun to our heads. "I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman" by Whistling Jack Smith. "Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo" by Sophia Loren. "Ode to a Critter" by Roy Clark. "Shoot Me With Your Love" by Tasha Thomas! My God, this was hopeless. Neither of us was gonna win this trivia contest. Who owns this stuff?! By the time we arrived at the Carys', we were dizzy from hilarity.

Thus fortified, I took a breath as we entered that Quakerly home (Oriental rug, check; wallsandwalls of books, check; folk art, check) and, despite my every tendency, roped in my chattiness. Answered questions briefly and calmly. Adult Nessa wishes I'd been able to really hang with these noteworthy people and get to know them, but way too much was at stake.

We passed with flying colors. And by that, I mean, we passed the William Feis test of compatibility: the couple that adores ridiculous old music together, stays together. Oh, and the Carys must have sensed our concord too, because they cleared us for marriage. (And a rockin' New Year's 1989 celebration.)

Coda: Bill put a song on his tape called "White on White". Do you know it? Yeah, we didn't either. (Nor the artist: Danny Williams. Dang! how are we supposed to know that!) But its lyrics made it clear: in Billy's inimitable, twisted-hipster way, he was congratulating us on our nuptials-to-be:

White on white, lace on satin,
Blue velvet ribbons on her bouquet.
White on white, lace on satin,
My little angel is getting married today.

Here she comes in her wedding gown lookin’ like a queen.
She has been my only love since she was thirteen.
I’ve been dreaming of this day and how proud I’d be,
When she came walkin’ down the aisle and held out her hand to me.

White on white, lace on satin,
Blue velvet ribbons on her bouquet.
White on white, lace on satin,
My little angel is getting married today.

I’ll be waiting to kiss the bride when her name is new.
Standing oh, so close to her silently saying “I do.”
I’ll be holding back my tears till she’s gone away,
‘cause she’ll belong to someone else when the organ starts to play.

White on white, lace on satin,
Blue velvet ribbons on her bouquet.
White on white, lace on satin,
My little angel is ge-e-etting ma-a-rried today...

The summer 1988 Reifsnyder family gathering at Lake Annis, NS.

My mother-in-law's inscription says it all.

Feis' relic of a playlist. You'd better believe we still own that tape.


08 May 2011


"Happy My Day," you say to your kids upon waking up on this bright May Sunday. But despite the successful laugh line, you know it's not true. This day is hers, and she's not here.

The photo of Mom you put up on Facebook took your breath away, in fact. The familiarity. That facial expression, her blend of humor, pride, and a little bit of on-guard. Because you were not easy to guide, and you and she were emotionally dissimilar--a practical soloist versus a blindly gregarious optimist. But as your adulthood finally took hold, you frequently supplied things the other lacked (usually by telephone, but that was the negotiated landscape).

Her eyes are looking right out at you in this scanned Kodak moment. It's the moment, a signature capture commemorating her triumph that, somehow, you did not flunk out of the prestigious college she had prayed, yearned, demanded you would attend. You're a dazed mess, because graduation was held on a humid, stormy day inside a gym on campus. (You had never been in that gym, ever, before the day you graduated in it. Which is a hilarious little digression. And the hangover. Oh, the hangover.)

Your path and hers diverged so completely after this day. You stayed behind in that town, that state, and she returned to her New York City existence--the loner in a sea of people, sounds, and visual arrays. She liked it that way, like a cork bobbed on a wavy, ceaseless sea. Punch in her numbers on the first telephone you ever owned (brown, with that big dumbbell handle you could cradle under your neck for efficient multi-tasking) and she would be there, always. You could see her in your mind's eye where she sat. You couldn't bear her aloneness, yet you couldn't fix it. And her maternal voice would flip on as soon as you had a crisis. Maybe you couldn't fix things for her, but she frequently did so for you.

On My Day, you get up and dress for a social outing with your family. Maine's still damply chilly despite the new springtime, so it's sweater and jeans time. Your afterthought, after the jewelry and the combed hair, is one of her scarves. There can be no greater symbol, really, of Mom's New York existence than these filmy, silky, satiny relics of her work life. Saks Fifth Avenue, B. Altman, Bloomingdale's, Bergdorf's--her colleagues bought clothing there, but Mom could only afford scarves. Almost all of her scarves, which you've inherited, are prints and colors that you would never ever select. And there's something 1970s about them that feels unreachable. But when you twist them, roll them, and knot them loosely around your neck, they become a little more you. And tucked underneath a sweater collar, they are subtle.

It's on you now, today's scarf. Some kind of comic-book burst of color, you don't even know what's pictured. But here's your My Day present: it smells exactly like her. Six years this month that she left this earth, and her scarves still bear her scent as though you just opened the drawer in her bedroom and stole something for a night out in Manhattan.

And as you write this piece, your youngest comes into your office and hands you an essay, trilling "Happy Mother's Day!" Unbelievably unique prose, and an overwhelmingly optimistic sentiment expressed in the piece, which is called--not making this up--"The Energy Given From Others." It is Your Day, it is Her Day, and it's His Day too. Revel in your fortunes, and hold your mother close.