Nina Gaby

Essays, art, and healthcare

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Original title: I’ll Give You Something to Cry About

In honor of Hillary Clinton’s book which comes out today, which I prefer to call “What the Fuck Happened,” which has already garnered tons of hysterical misogyny and controversy (even though it’s just out)…I am reposting a piece I published on ‘ROAR: Literature and Revolution by Feminist People’ last May.

We changed the title to “Still Training for the End of the World.” Although in retrospect, the original title feels so right, you know when you look back and think, wow, what was I bitching about then?????

Sometimes I like to stand in the very spot where I conceived of this piece back in 2016. And while the husband still sits in his same comfy chair, the TV has a very different message. And I am pissed. I am pissed that Bernie Sanders did not shut up and pivot quickly enough to help avert this disaster. I am disgusted with the so-called “Green” and “Libertarian” party egos who did not have enough sense, among other things, to step down and say, hey lets get behind her before something awful happens. 

Something awful happened. And I’m still screaming.   (donate!)



Telling, Breathing



“Show Don’t Tell” is the favorite meme of writing advice. Though, in guru Philip Lopate’s nodal book on writing the essay, I seem to recall that he does dispute this. His is a large book, one that I don’t carry around. Especially not on an overseas trip as now, to Ireland, to a writer’s conference. While at said conference, my most recent creative non-fiction piece is published back home, and I’m feeling quite “all that” until I look at it with a newly critical eye.


I have committed the sin: I told. I barreled ahead and wrote it all down thinking, well, it might help someone else– this exposition of clumsy forgiveness. It certainly helped me to write it and measure how far I have come. And here I am, telling you again. And I should just let you read it if you wish, in this amazing and loving journal Manifest-Station, while I breathe this cleansing sea air and stop apologizing.

So imagine what it is like to be in Ireland, 2819 miles from work, from the honorable but vicarious trauma saturation of my profession. It is as if I am slowly being wrung tight and stretched across the green field, lain across the stone fences, in the sun, drying out. Here on the Dingle Peninsula, once again forty years later. Long walks in the early morning and long days surrounded by like minded souls. Young Madelaine who reads her poetry with the cadence of a classically trained jazz singer as she dances us through her words. Beautiful Leanna and Suzanne, steel and the voices of angels. Elinor, so, so on point. Kathy and Tommy and Ann and Charles who layer their words with transparency of emotion that makes us all quietly gasp. Then laugh. Then gasp again. Judith who doesn’t do her homework the first day (there are tears) and then wows us beyond belief in the second class. Dinty who slices it up with kindness and precision. All of us so holy in our efforts. (I’m the only one judging me, of course.) And then we gather and sing and laugh and eat a lot of cheese. This cheese is very different from the cheese I ate on Dingle forty years ago. Many more choices today. And I am very different. Another story, another type of drying out. And here’s the newest essay, I can only say, I told you.


Non omnis moriar


Non omnis moriar, not all of me will die. A tribute. 

“Autonomy” from Poems New and Collected by Wislawa SzymborskaNon Omnis Moriar - Gaby

Mixed media, porcelain, paper, wood, text by Nina Gaby

In danger, the holothurian cuts itself in two/ It abandons one self to a hungry world and with the other self it flees/ It violently divides into doom and salvation, retribution and reward, what has been and what will be/ An abyss appears in the middle of its body between what instantly become two foreign shores/ Life on one shore, death on the other/ Here hope and there despair/If there are scales, the pans don’t move /If there is justice, this is it/ To die just as required, without excess/ To grow back just what’s needed from what’s left/ We, too, can divide ourselves, it’s true/ But only into flesh and a broken whisper/ Into flesh and poetry/ The throat on one side, laughter on the other, quiet, quickly dying out/ Here the heavy heart, there non omnis moriar—just three little words, like a flight’s three feathers/

The abyss doesn’t divide us/

The abyss surrounds us.

Wislawa Szymborska

Artist’s note: I had chosen a portion of Szymborska’s “Autonomy” as the epithet for my anthology “Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women” published in 2015. The idea that we separate and we go on, we persevere, had become an important theme in my writing. The recognizable connections in this piece have to do with the recent death of the poet, the idea that we leave something behind– “not all of me will die” (non omnis moriar) and the encasement, the box, with its obvious reference to a casket. What is most interesting to me is the fact that I do not recognize these connections myself until the piece is done. Nina Gaby

 Another artist note: Every summer I submit work to two regional exhibits. UNBOUND is a book arts show outside of Woodstock, Vermont and where, a year before I made my first artist book, I was aquainted with the work of Szymborska. Her poem “A Contibution to Statistics” was made into an art book exhibited at the show. I made a deal with myself to get into the show the following year. I made good on that goal. Last year this piece, and another were not selected for the show, but my rambling, dissociative piece on a disintegrating ego did make it in, and I admit the whole thing surpised me. I tend to fall in love with my own work, be it written or visual or even the work I do with patients as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. The creative process has saved me every time, starting when I was four or five, and rejection is a fundamental and inevitable blow. It was not my disintegrating ego, at least on a concious level, but could have been. I have not heard back as to whether my submissions for this year have been accepted. My work is small, fragile, full of esoteric and crowded fragments of memoir. I don’t know if the fact that the judges have all been male has made a difference, or if my tiny, strange statements are too easily disregarded. I remind myself that I should focus on the process.

The second show is the Vermont Book Arts Guild members annual exhibit. It will run this year from July 6-August 25 at SEABA Gallery on Pine Street in Burlington, Vermont. There is an artist talk on Tuesday July 11. This group is a great resource. I will post more on this show after we set it up tomorrow.

 detail Szymborska  Continue reading


Apparently I have forgotten to blog

Media slacker. I get so darn excited when my work is selected for publication. All that free dopamine squirting from neuron to neuron in these otherwise bleak times. So in the manner of unashamed self-promo, these are the last four things I can recall being published. Hugely thanking Entropy, The Diagram,  Proximity, Brevity. And I have my finalist flash upcoming at Quarter-After-Eight, a piece in Rock and Sling’s inauguration journal, and an essay in the long awaited Second Blooming collection edited by Susan Cushman, out this spring.

I’d love to know how others feel about self-promotion. I’m not an MFA, don’t have a significant group of writers around me (although the few that I can share with are worth their collective weight in gold and I have some very smart friends who will read and comment.) Do others feel the rush? Crave the neuro cascade and that momentary Sally Field ‘they really like me’ validation? Or am I alone in this, desperately propelled like an addict for that next fix?

What ever keeps our little fingers flying through the muck.

And a huge shout out to the editors (my legal pushers)…Ander Monson, Dinty Moore, Stacy Murakowsi, the Entropy team.


A Kind of Gratitude

turkeyThe patient was in her fifties, simple alcoholism (as if any addiction is simple) and doing well in her treatment. It was twenty two years ago and the big relief for her was that she had never added crack to her repertoire. “I want to quit smoking cigarettes too,” she told me, so one of her recovery goals was finding something she enjoyed that did not involve bars or bad men and kept her hands busy. She joined one of those ceramic classes that I used to joke about with my art school friends. Once upon a time, during my own days struggling with “simple alcoholism” I was a serious art student, getting a BFA in Ceramic Art and would go on to have my work in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian and support myself and my studio selling my handbuilt porcelain objects in fine craft galleries across the country. Selling pieces I could never have afforded to buy myself, and very much a craft snob. My work was professionally photographed and I was featured in coffee table books. My friends and I called those little hobby shops where ladies went to paint bisqueware “s’ramics” and we often made fun of them. Of course that was just a cover up for shame at our own beginnings, at least my own, in an aesthetically barren, or at least questionable suburb of the fifties, where housewives like my own relatives and neighbors did crafts when their husbands would let them out of the house. Our own living room was full of ashtrays that my aunt had glazed, often in holiday themes, although the pieces I still own and have grown to cherish include a boomerang shaped nut dish in a gold and turquoise crackle and a plate with a shadow image of a little girl in pigtails with my name across the bottom.

One day, after I had closed my clay studio and become an advanced practice nurse, still a snob regarding the university I had chosen but nonetheless somewhat more humble, the patient came in for her monthly “check up.” She had completed the group portion of treatment and was now in AA and reunited with her daughter and grandchildren. Maybe she got her driver’s license back, maybe she was working again. Her appointment was the day before Thanksgiving. She was carrying a box which she set down on my desk with a flourish, lifting out a ceramic turkey with a fan of lollipops as its tail and carefully painted eyelashes. “I made this for you and your family!”

My first inclination, a nod to the loyalty of art school snobbery, was an “oh no” and my second was to remind her that therapists can’t accept gifts. But I did neither, instead I thanked her and in good therapist form we discussed what this turkey represented to her (sobriety, love of family, gratitude for my help, finding a new way to be) and I brought it home and put it in a prominent place on the holiday table, where others said things like “what the hell is that” and my three year old daughter was thrilled and my nieces and nephews stole all the lollipop tail feathers over the course of the holiday afternoon. Twenty two years later it’s hard to find those same lollipops and nothing else fits the little holes quite right so I just put him out without a tail.

For a number of years after I left healthcare and we moved to Vermont, I couldn’t find the ceramic turkey. My husband said it’s just as well, he could never understand my attachment to it, and my daughter forgot about it. We went through some hard times, I gained humility and managed to stay sober. I found the turkey.

I never lost him again, although every year I worry that he won’t be in the plastic holiday crate with my grandmother’s menorah and the handmade ornaments from my daughter’s elementary school days and the frayed felt stockings from my husband’s childhood and my own. I admit there are a few aesthetically pleasing objects in the crate but less than my old self would have thought. Every year now I put out the ceramic turkey as I make dinner for a much smaller crowd-one year it was just me and the tail-less turkey, as my daughter was doing her Junior year abroad and my husband was sick and stayed in bed and my mother had died and the rest of my family was in another state. The turkey flirted with me from his perch on the piano. And I understood a kind of gratitude, a new way to be.


From after the election, 2004. My thirteen year old daughter helps make a minyan in Vermont.

2004 seems like such an innocent time now, for many of us. Although then it was catastrophic. And it spurred me to write one of my first essays published in an important and recognized press. I am sharing it again. My daughter is now a political maven. Almost 26 with her graduate degree in Social Work and a specialty in bereavement and end-of-life. And so it goes.

Making a Minyan in Vermont by Nina Gaby, Seal Press, 2004. Edited by Shari Macdonald Strong

Fall 2004

I find my way to the temple, on a dark side street in Montpelier, only after driving by it several times. There is nothing, really, to distinguish it from the other buildings in this ramshackle neighborhood. My thirteen-year-old daughter rubs the frosted window on the passenger side of the car and looks out doubtfully. I had wanted to find this place, to bring her here, sooner. But since moving to Vermont three years ago, I’d let other things take precedence, triaging emotional and financial survival over issues of faith and community.

We stand on the wheelchair ramp of the temple’s porch, waiting for the doors to be opened. The cold tonight can make its way under even those coats stuffed with the highest level of powerfill.

“Let’s go home,” says my daughter.

I know what she’s thinking. The few times we went to temple in New York were large, fashionable, and bright affairs. This place, with its peeling paint and shabby storm door, looks daunting. But we have driven twenty miles through the cold, and I am trying to be cheery and positive. I want to explain to her that we have come because it is the Friday night after the presidential elections, because I am heartbroken and overwhelmed with foreboding and I am seeking vindication. Because I heard there is a woman rabbi here and I had vowed never to make my daughter sit through a male dominated religious service. Because I need to hear something that resonates with some authenticity from someone on a pulpit in antidote to the religious hypocrisy that has a stranglehold on our country tonight. Because I am homesick for better times. Because because.

But I keep it simple. “Oh come on!” I say. “It’s an experience! It’s so Vermonty.” She sighs and turns on her Game Boy.


There are fewer people in all of Vermont than lived in my hometown in New York. That makes for a very small percentage of Jews. A middle aged woman wearing a yarmulke pulls open the door, “Arav tov”, she says, “Good evening, welcome”.


One of the first things I see is that the women of this little mishmashed congregation here wear yarmulkes, the skullcaps usually reserved for males. I am impressed with this, although I won’t wear one myself. They make your hair stick out. It is bad enough, as the mother of a thirteen-year-old, to have long, gray, sticking-out hair anyway. To place a round little cap in the center of it all would guarantee that my daughter would never, ever deign to come here again.

Not long after the service begins, the rabbi scans the room. She is supported by an aluminum crutch and so tiny that she’s dwarfed by her Great Dane assist. Her own gray curls erupt from an embroidered yarmulke. She is lovely in her white dress, solid and wise despite her small stature.


She tells us that tonight’s piece will be about the Torah, about spiritual roadmaps other than those derived from the moral arrogance of the evangelical right. “But first”, she says warmly, seriously, as she adjusts herself on her crutch, the dog attentive to her every move, “we must say the kaddish, The Mourner’s Prayer, for Ellen’s mother.”


I whisper to my daughter that this prayer can traditionally be done only with a quorum of ten males, a minyan, but she hisses at me, “Mom! We are supposed to be quiet!”


“I thought there would be more people here tonight,” the rabbi says. She scans the handful of worshipers in the room. Ten of us and a baby.

Her eyes light on my daughter. “How old is she? Thirteen. Wonderful. A mitzvah! Because of your daughter, we have a minyan.

Yes, a mitzvah, a blessing.

And in this moment, I find some of the vindication I have come here for.


Fall 1968

The schule, or synagogue, was in Zichron Ya’akov, a tiny village that neighbored the kibbutz where I was living while studying at an Israeli ulpan—a school for learning Hebrew. I was attending “the school of life,” my grandfather said in blessing, forgiving me for not going to college. These were the first High Holy Days I was spending away from my family. I was too young and arrogant to be homesick; too innocent to recognize the frailty of these glory days in Israel, the beloved underdog of the Western world.

Tank-topped and sandaled, I walked from brilliant white sunlight into the dim schule. A gaggle of women guarding the dark vestibule threw a piece of cloth across my arms.

“Mah zeh?” What’s this? I demanded, insolent, using one the few Hebrew phrases I had learned. Shoshana, my roommate at the kibbutz, explained. I needed to be covered up so I would not distract any man from his prayers. We were also to worship in a different space from the men—a chokingly hot, overstuffed balcony.

“What bullshit!” As an eighteen-year-old woman from America, I was not prepared for gender segregation. The vulnerability I felt as the women covered my bare arms only triggered some shame at being overweight. I knew no other shame at that time. I certainly did not know the shame of simply being female.



Winter 1970

It is my second year of art school in Jerusalem. I am living in an old Jewish quarter in a small stone house on an alley, along with my friend Jane and the family who owns the building. The interior walls are painted blue against the evil eye. A hot water tank the size of an O2 cylinder serves us all, spraying a drizzle of warm water over a standup tub two feet across and six inches high.

It is very cold in Jerusalem this winter. The ancient stones hold the chill, and the frost works its way into one’s bones. Central heating in the old sections of town is unheard of. More than anything, more than television even, we miss bathtubs. Jane and I are dying for a good long soak.

We hear that there’s a mikveh, a traditional ritual bathing pool, in a religious bathouse a block away. We cross over to the back of the building where ritual baths are held; the windows are cranked open a bit, and steam is pouring out into the night. We giggle, fully aware of the audacity of what we are about to request. We pound on a heavy green iron door. A woman with a scarf on her head opens it a crack. Jane doesn’t speak Hebrew, so it is up to me to convince this woman that she should let us rent tubs one night a week for payment in American dollars. American dollars! She opens the door a bit wider. She looks out into the alley, to the right and to the left. Come inside, quickly, she tells us.


The deep mikveh bathtubs were a luxury beyond imagination, becoming as much a ritual for us as for the Orthodox Jewish women who attended them for cleansing after their periods, so their husbands could resume marital relations. It was 1970, the height of the sexual revolution. For us, rules existed only to be deliciously broken. The contradictions only made the experience more extraordinary.


Over time, we developed a relationship with the proprietress. She told me that her daughter was studying English and wondered whether I would give her daughter lessons, teach her conversational American, in barter for the baths. Could her daughter come to our room on Abulafia Street, where we could help her with her studies?


The daughter was an earnest, dark-haired young woman—unmarried, so her head was uncovered—and while her legs and arms were carefully covered as required by the Orthodox, layered in gray and brown wool, her skirts were short, and her shoes were modern. While sedate by our standards, her affect was alert, inquisitive. She made no overt notice of the decor in our student quarters: psychedelic posters taped to the crumbling plaster walls, emptied wine bottles turned into candlesticks, ashtrays full of the butts of cheap Israeli cigarettes and the detritus of cheap Israeli hashish.

She came to us two, maybe three times over the next few weeks. We made her tea and sandwiches with peanut butter sent from home. As is the case with many who learn English in foreign countries, her grammar was far better than ours. We dealt with syntax, slang, and dialect. She informed us that she would move to America and go to college soon. Maybe medical school. Her father was unaware of this intention.

One Tuesday evening, Jane and I laughed together as we swung our tote bags, making our way over the deep stones of the road to the mikveh. There was a dry chill to the air, and the stars overhead were bright between the crammed buildings. We gossiped about classes and complained about our boyfriends.

A milky light framed the mikveh windows. But tonight, the door wouldn’t open. I yanked on the handle. I knocked quietly, then harder, the metal echoing each bang. We stood in silence, our chatter interrupted.

From inside I heard a hushed voice. I couldn’t understand it. I knocked again, lightly. Politely.

“Lech mi po,” I thought I heard. Go from here.

            In Hebrew I said, “Excuse me, I don’t understand.”

The door opened a crack and the proprietress repeated herself, with an urgent “Acshav!” Now! From inside, I heard a man’s voice raised in anger, but the door closed before I could understand what he was saying.

The next week we saw the mother and daughter shopping in the nearby marketplace. When we approached them, they averted their eyes and moved on.


Fall 2004

I remember this as I sit among the unmatched folding chairs in the little temple and ponder the fate of the proprietress’s mutinous daughter.

I glance over at my own daughter, who is studiously trying to keep up in the prayer book, lips moving with the cadence of the Kaddish chant. Good girl, I think to myself. As mad as I am at my country, I have to acknowledge this fact: Tonight, in America, she counts—even as a girl.

Later, under the low ceiling of the recreation room, we share a plastic cordial glass of dark grape juice and a hunk of Sabbath challah. The rabbi approaches and thanks us for the mitzvah as the Great Dane brushes gently against us. “You don’t know . . . ,” I start to say. She flashes a wise smile. My polite child thanks her as we zip up our parkas and make our way back out into the dark parking lot.

My daughter is not listening as I start the car. She waits for her Game Boy to boot up.

“I just want to tell you why it was so great that you were there tonight.” I am determined to clarify the whole minyan point, maybe sneak in a bit about the mikveh.

“I get it, Mom.” Her tone is verging on snotty.

We are both tired, and the car slips sideways on the icy road. I concentrate on my driving. You do what you can.

We are almost home, and the car is crawling through a sudden whiteout on our six-mile dirt road, when she mutters, “Kids should be able to vote.”

I don’t let her see how hard I am smiling.


Spring 2007

My daughter, now sixteen, accompanied me to her last High Holy Day service before swearing off religion altogether last fall, and now she enjoys her status as the only atheist in her school. Her progressive rationales make perfect sense. She has become wise enough to know this will all change again and again.

And despite this, she is selected to write and present an essay in the Rotary Club contest. I tell her I am surprised she was chosen, since it is a very conservative organization.

“Oh, I won’t win,” she assures me, and refuses to let my husband and me attend. All she says is that she chose the topic of “The Four-Way Test,” a famous schema that the Rotarians employ to evaluate ethical decision making. I tell her I’ve never heard of it.

The day of the contest, she comes home and announces that she got second place, and that her friend Lauren won. “Lauren was really good,” she conceded, although she also explained that Lauren and the other two kids chose the more neutral topic that was offered. and that Lauren won a bunch of money. My daughter seems genuinely happy for her.

My husband was really disappointed that she wouldn’t let us go to the luncheon and hear her essay. I had been relieved, as I get pretty uncomfortable around large groups of conservatives these days, no matter how humanitarian.

“I didn’t want you to feel sorry for me when I didn’t win,” she explains.

“But why wouldn’t you win?”

Her cell phone rings, and she drops her essay notes on the table before running off. My husband grabs the paper.

“Will you look at this?” He holds up her still childish scrawl.

“What If Bush Had Used The Four-Way Test Before Invading Iraq?”

It is the title of her essay. Below it are the points of the test:


Is it the TRUTH?

Is it FAIR to all concerned?


Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?


Her answers are scribbled in purple pencil below. My husband and I lock eyes. We share one of those perfect moments, and then we call after her to see if she wants to go out for Mexican to celebrate.