Writer's Bookshelf I Anna sitting on stairs.

Anna Olswanger
© Copyright 1998 by Anna Olswanger
After my father died in the early 1980's, I discovered music that he had written thirty years earlier, including the score to a Broadway musical. I never knew my father composed music, or that he wanted to write for Broadway. He ran a music store during the day and led a dance orchestra at night. He worked long hours because he had a wife and two children to support. Composing music apparently didn't pay the bills, so somewhere along the line he put his music, thirty pieces of it, into a file cabinet and left it behind.

My father valued his family above all else. His abandoned music told me that. And after my discovery, I began to wonder what I valued above all else. I had heard of ethical wills, documents in Jewish history which transmit a person's values or spiritual property, so I found a collection and read through it. Then I decided to write my own ethical will, and knew immediately that I wanted to include in it a list of books that mattered to me, many of them published for children:

I am the Mummy Heb-Nefert (Harcourt Brace) by Eve Bunting because the narrator, a museum mummy "black as night, stretched as tight as leather on a drum," becomes aware that all things change, and that her gawkers in the museum are foolish for not knowing it, for not imagining that once she was beautiful.

Gabriella's Song by Candace Fleming, illustrated by Giselle Potter (Atheneum/Schwartz) because this story of Gabriella who loves her mother with her singing intertwines love with creativity, and because the illustrations depict characters who are not Hollywood perfect, but who are peculiar and special, plump and round.

Home on the Bayou: A Cowboy's Story by G. Brian Karas (Simon & Schuster) because like the illustrator of Gabriella's Song, Karas creates eccentric characters who are not movie star beautiful, and because he subtly plants the message in the reader's mind that heroes are what they are because of their eccentricity.

The Bootmaker and the Elves by Susan Lowell, illustrated by Tom Curry (Orchard Books) because the author has audaciously plucked a story from another culture, Europe, and planted it in her own, the American West.

So That Your Values Live On: Ethical Wills and How to Prepare Them, edited and annotated by Jack Riemer and Nathaniel Stampfer (Jewish Lights) because this is where I discovered the tradition of wills which bequeath values, and because I am still moved by the wills in the book, especially this simple one on the wall of Cell 81 in the Bialystok prison: "Isaac Kulbin was killed here July 15, 1944, for the Jewish people. Take revenge!"

So these are the values that I would bequeath in my ethical will: that beauty and joy are transient, and to be treasured; that parents and children can love each other to exuberance; that beauty rests in peculiarity and eccentricity, not conformity; that truth transcends cultures but is rooted in cultures; that destiny can be the source of a meaningful life.

And then I would write in my will an excerpt from the book Sefer Chasidim that I once clipped from this review in a New York newspaper:

God preordains the number of books a person will write during his lifetime. He may decree that a person will write one, two, or three books, or that he will discover new insights in the Talmud, detect ancient manuscripts, decipher foreign languages, or solve other mysteries. And if God reveals something to a person and he does not publish it, he is, if fact, robbing the One who revealed.
So I would encourage the people I love to write and publish their own books by listing in my will references I had used myself: The American Directory of Writer's Guidelines: What Editors Want, What Editors Buy by John C. Mutchler (Quill Driver Books), 1999 Writer's Market (Writer's Digest Books), The Portable Writers' Conference, edited by Stephen Blake Mettee (Quill Driver Books), Writer's Digest Guide to Manuscript Formats (Writer's Digest Books). Each of these books would be out-of-date within a year of my writing my ethical will. But they would reveal to the people I love that I lived in the present, and that I cherished it.

Then I would put my will into a file cabinet and leave it behind. Like my father, I would want to live my life, not with pen and paper, but with friends and family, people who are bigger than books, more eccentric and peculiar, more beautiful. That was my father's legacy to me.

I want my legacy to be the same.

Writer's Bookshelf II

As I write this, I'm losing a cousin to cancer. In my daydreams, I save not only my cousin, but the other people I've lost to serious disease--my parents, a friend from childhood, another close cousin. I ask myself, why didn't I go to medical school? Why didn't I become a doctor?

So now, in guilt perhaps, I struggle to find ways that writing can heal. I know the truth, that writing can't heal a metastasized tumor, but having read Rachel Naomi Remen's Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal, I know that writing can heal what Dr. Remen calls "the hidden wound"--loneliness. Like me, you may have family members suffering from a serious disease. If so, let them know that they're not alone. Let them know that you're aware of their suffering and that it matters. Give them books like Dr. Remen's.

And if your family members can't concentrate on books, give them audiotapes. Give them Andrew Weil's The New Approach to Medicine. Let them listen to Dr. Weil's description of alternatives that encourage the body's own healing potential. Give them Jean Shinoda Bolen's Close to the Bone: Life-Threatening Illness and the Search for Meaning. Dr. Bolen believes that a life-threatening illness brings a patient "close to the bone," to the soul realm. Here a patient has the potential to strip away everything except what is important and perhaps even to save his life in the process. Give them Dharma Khalsa's Brain Longevity, directed particularly to Alzheimer sufferers, but full of suggestions for everyone about nutritional therapy, stress management, exercise therapy, and pharmacology.

Whatever audiotape or book you give, whether it espouses alternative or traditional medicine, is not important. What is important is that you acknowledge your family's suffering and that you stay with them through the pain.

And if illness has made your family members impatient, give them short books rich in story--Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman, for example, a children's book about isolated, mistrusting individuals who come together to transform a vacant lot into a community garden. They share not just advice about flowers and vegetables, but their lives. They heal each other's loneliness. The book is a triumph for Paul Fleishman, by the way. He has played with this narrative form--a weave of isolated strands into a whole--most recently in Bull Run and in Dateline: Troy, but what he made in those books was commentary, not plot. Here he makes a plot with a beginning, middle, and end.

Give them Jacqueline Briggs Martin's Green Truck Garden Giveaway, a practical picture book with sidebars about bucket gardens, bird feeders, even a recipe for "Bug Tea."

Give them Irene Haas' A Summertime Song, the story of a little girl who reunites her grandmother with the doll she lost years earlier. William Joyce told the same story of reconciliation in his picture book The Leaf Men, but here the illustrations, in their lush innocence, are as healing as the plot.

And if, as it inevitably will, your family's pain overwhelms you, read Dan Wakefield's Creating from the Spirit. Read what he has to say about replacing numbing with enlivening, drugs and alcohol with clarity. In a chapter on "filling up," he refers to another book, Spiritual Resistance: Art from the Concentration Camps, which documents artists who defied Nazi regulations on canvas, paper, tissue, in pen, ink, color wrung from tattered clothing, who hid their portraits of their fellow inmates and scenes of camp life in double walls or in the ground, who traded bread for paper or paint, used flour sacks and burlap bags as canvases. On the doorstep of death, they created.

Read Wakefield's book, not because your family is suffering, but because you are, and because you need to know that you are not alone.

Anna Olswanger's latest work appears in Young Judean, Lonzie's Fried Chicken: A Journal of Accessible Southern Fiction and Poetry, and on-line at The Purple Crayon: A Children's Book Editor's Site. Her story Chicken Bone Man won First Prize in last year's F. Scott Fitzgerald Short Story Contest, part of Maryland's annual F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Conference. Anna lives in Baltimore.

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Another story by Anna:
A Jew's Body

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