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Canadian born, I moved with my husband and two young daughters to a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley in 1973. We now live in a small village climbing the Gilboa Mountains, where we press and cure our own olives, grow lemons, figs and apples.

Twice Pushcart nominee, three poetry collections, the most recent The Startled Land published by Wind River Press 2003. A prose collection to appear later this year.

In the balance of things

The writer's head was wrapped in a scarf that had been rolled up to pull the hair back, so I could see the way her hair parted, her forehead and the brown skin, like weak coffee I thought. I heard her lips move, but I didn't stop looking at the scarf, orange and green stripes that turned into yellow; I'd just been in Cambodia and was amazed at the scarves the people wore - often barefoot, often torn shirts, but everyone wrapped Khmera scarves over their heads, mouths, sometimes a sarong pulled between their legs then tied at the waist, sometimes swung over the woman's breasts and back into a deep pocket to place their infants in - I'll never forget that baby in Siam Reap, when his mother rolled him into place between her breasts and like a pigeon, he sounded content, like pigeons I remember from our attic when I was a child.

The writer touched her scarf from time to time as she spoke, but before she opened her new book to read, she re-tied the bow so that it sat firmly on the very top of her head. I wanted to talk to her, tell her I'd just returned from Cambodia; from the sound of her voice I knew she'd understand that I wanted to tell everyone what I saw, was sure she would know what I meant.

"In the Negev I saw the pillar of Mrs. Lot," she said, "and now I understand why she turned back; she'd borne her children there, left her mother and her home there. She had to take one last look - I can understand that," the writer said.

Then the writer added: "I hate my Mother, hated my mother. My new book," she said in a quiet voice, " is The Autobiography of My Mother."

How surprising to write someone's autobiography, I thought - especially someone you hate, especially when it's your mother, especially your birth mother, especially when you had many fathers, and a brother who just died that you really didn't know.

When the writer said: "I tend to cannibalize my life, turn it into my imagination in my writing," she stared into the crowded hall, stopped at a young man's face whom she welcomed because he had been at every reading, and she was glad, she said, that she had a friend in this strange country. That young man sat in the row ahead of me, and I hoped she also saw me. "I am ruthless in my writing, I use my life to say what I must," she confessed.

That's when I started to take notes, write as fast as I could, record what she said about her latest book, how she felt her honesty obsessive, even destructive, but in the balance of things, who cares she said, and I felt a weight slipping away, when she said: "It's far too late to worry about that now - it's my life and I'll take what I must from it."

Because of her, I realized I was saving myself by writing about my life. I heard her say: "again I've exposed myself, again, I have to realize it." She tugged at the collar of her blouse, pulled it away from her throat - when she said: "On my last book tour for Mr. Potter, I took a break, came home for a few days before I had to start out again to tell the world who Mr. Potter was, and it was then, while I was resting that I received the news that my brother had died. My brother died, and I didn't know about his life. I began to write about what I didn't know about him, when I should have been resting - and I only wrote with dark glasses on, and I drank gin, more gin and still more, with those dark glasses."

When I came home I rushed to take a look at my notes, turned the pages looking for more about her brother, why she was sent away when he was born, how he invaded her life by not being part of it, and how his death was doing it again, and how she delayed the second part of her book tour to take her brother's body back to Antigua for burial, and I looked at my notes, wanted to know more about what happened, to remember what she had said, and saw that I had written about my father.

At the top of the page was: I know my father is soon to be 89 years old. I know that he will die one day, maybe soon, and what I fear is not his death, but his life. I rarely call him, don't write him letters anymore, but I think of him, see him, even when my back is turned, I know that he is there and I am looking for my real voice, because I am looking for his, not the one that shouts about his suffering, but the one that knows what's holding him in that sad place.

I know that I have been separated from him for a long time, yet I know that I can't manipulate my life without him, or with him. My father has invaded my life as the writer's brother did to her. I know it's far too late to find the answers, but as I said, it's about saving myself. Again, I've exposed myself, and again, I realize what I've done.

Interrupting the narrative

I used to live with the ambition of a writer. I wanted my life to reach epic heights, spread over page after page, and be bound into a book that would gain the respect of Random House editors.

Words used to tease me, they'd jangle like loose change, interrupt me, instruct me to remember detail, list emotion, highlight conflict. Words, ironically, got me to live in order to write about it later. Their grip was brutal. They demanded I sustain the moment so it could be shaped into a memoir.

Today I see writing as a menace, as a radical process that disoriented me, kept me on a leash, and grabbed me from the depths of events while protecting the experience for a waiting page. Writing became a mechanism, pushing me out of my house, claiming 'your home will suffocate you, so pack your bags, go and find your story.'

I'm shutting drawers on thousands of sheaves of paper waiting to roar with what only I know. I'm getting to the heart of my life without a notebook, without a pen. I'm finally bold enough to defy the manic urge to document. I no longer bank experiences, molest them if I have to, form or deform them till they fit.

I slighted my life by using it as a prism for a story. I forced myself to let go of emotions that didn't suit that purpose. Sometimes I glorified secrets. Sometimes I shined up an event so that it became what it had never been. I indulged private moments for the sake of exhibition. I exploited my childhood.

I know that I've interrupted the narrative I once cared desperately about. I admit I've left the drama unattended. But I can't keep track of what I've seen any longer, I can't journal feelings or log personae and places.

At first it felt morbid. I felt insecure. But, living is more enchanted now. I don't reduce time to something that must have exceptional content. I'm celebrating what's happening without notes. I'm contemplating what is straight on, without a filter. I'm no longer hoping for a best seller.

Copyright © 2007 Rochelle Mass