Nina Gaby

Essays, art, and healthcare


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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.

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A PENANCE. A BLESSING. A DEADLINE. A guest blog on SHE WRITES PRESS.

[SWP: BEHIND THE BOOK] [SWP: BEHIND THE BOOK] 20130418-105222.jpg
POSTED BY NINA GABY ON JULY 14, 2014 AT 5:30AMVIEW BLOG
In anticipation of writing this blog post for BEHIND THE BOOK, I immediately sat down and wrote a whole craft essay instead. More of a memoir, actually. About waitressing. It really did apply, at least to much of this process. I wrote about being “in the weeds,” an old restaurant workers’ term for being too busy to think about anything except for the rush, about just needing for it to be over and going home with your greasy pockets bulging with tips. And “In the Weeds” will make a great craft essay one day. But this needs to be more about today and this process with a hybrid publisher, this very first rodeo on my own, and the complicated experiences that pushed me towards editing and publishing Dumped: Women Unfriending Women.
As organisms, we tend to respond adversely to pain: it makes us wiggle around and eventually move in some different direction. The details of my own experiences with being dumped by friends over the years are the subject of my essay in the anthology. As I tried to make sense of this dynamic, I began to talk about it a lot, had begun to publish essays in a few anthologies myself, some articles and short stories (I had become a real writer), and everyone said, Wow what a great idea, do a book, yeah, call it “Dumped,” that’s so awesome. I was becoming impatient with where my life as a writer could go. I was about fifty-nine years old at the time, and on the precipice of old age. I had also written the first draft of a novel about the same experiences I was writing about in Dumped, but fictionalized (and funnier) and a collection of micro-prose. The writing had probably saved my life, as well as my opening a studio and doing some visual art, and having my career as a psychiatric nurse practitioner to fall back on when our life kind of went to pieces. A huge lesson in all of this becomes the contrast between who stands by you, who doesn’t, why, and what the lasting effects might be. In my case, I kept writing. And thinking about all the other women who had these stories to tell.
The comedian Jonathan Winters once said “I couldn’t wait for success, so I went ahead without it.” I knew Brooke Warner from her days at Seal Press, where I had published a couple essays and had talked with her about another idea, a proposal I ultimately abandoned. I remembered her as skilled and enthusiastic. I hired her as a consultant/coach on Dumped. Through Brooke’s connection to another editor, I was introduced to an agent who was interested in my proposal. This was encouraging to me, a novice, and probably kept me going. But the agent needed famous writers as contributors to my collection if she was going to sell the idea. I was impatient. I had good writers–not famous, but really good. Then I got a couple of famous writers, but by this time, Brooke and I had the conversation about her press. At first I hadn’t understood how it worked (on some levels I’m still trying to figure it out), but it seemed like I was climbing up on the wave of publishing’s future.
As I wrote on my blog site: “Did I dream of the traditional route? Getting on the train to Manhattan to lunch with my agent and strike a big advance with a major publishing house? That image also has me in white gloves, nylons, and a tight-waisted suit, much like the one my mother would have worn when she accompanied my father to do just that when I was a little girl. And if I focus on that, I might just end up too old to even get on the train without serious help.” I signed on with She Writes.
In addition to renegotiating how we view publishing, I then had to renegotiate the “power” differential. I was now an editor. I posted a call for submissions to Dumped in Poets and Writers; I went to a conference on creative non-fiction in Oxford, MS and met several women who are contributing and one who has offered to write my foreword. A dear friend gave me a list of writers from her MFA program. I stalked a famous writer on a new book tour for permission to reprint one of my favorite essays of all time. I tried stalking a couple writers at AWP but the weather had grounded them elsewhere. I was disheartened by well-known women who would never get back to me. I was heartened by people who helped out in so many different ways. I got together with women who I thought had dumped me only to share our opposing perspectives. I stayed far away from others. And then I had to really be an editor and reject work. Yeah, I had to reject work. Me, the oft-times-rejected, had to reject. Me, dedicated to giving new writers their first chance. I’m a pro at my day job, setting boundaries all the time. But this is different and maybe the hardest part.
The hardest part except for time. We do not, but we should, anticipate the power outages, the cataract surgeries, the computer problems, the sudden injury leaving our back too twisted to sit at the computer. Problems at the day job that might require shopping for a new interview outfit. The death of a friend, then another, leaving us too breathless to focus. Enough time goes by and we will have to re-experience the holidays, throw in some Seasonal Affective Disorder, another ice storm. Terror. Lots of things get in the way. But to be so busy with something? A penance. A blessing. And now a deadline.
I take solace in the words of Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon who wrote in the May/June Poets and Writers about the birthing of an anthology, “Labor of Love”: “It’s just way more work than you can imagine. Even if you imagine a lot of work, it’s more.”
My focus today? I envision a beautiful book in a pile at AWP next March on the She Writes Press vendor table. Next March, the other side of the weeds.