Vivian DeGain Better at 50 Blog

Columnist and arts writer

Writers Conference gathers talent as Weam Namou keynotes Sept. 16

Writers seek inspiration at One Community, Many Voices conference

 By Vivian DeGain, The Oakland Press
Author Weam Namou will be keynote speaker for the Detroit Working Writers Conference “One Community, Many Voices” Saturday, Sept. 16.

Author Weam Namou will be keynote speaker for the Detroit Working Writers Conference “One Community, Many Voices” Saturday, Sept. 16. Courtesy Weam Namou

 

Author Weam Namou believes writing can save your life — and the planet. Whether penning a novel, a poem, a political truth or a memoir, her clear narrative speaks with honesty, sensuality, family, food and spice.

She earned this voice travelling from her birth place in Baghdad, Iraq, to Shelby Township, and a sky full of points in between: Morocco, Prague, New Orleans and Paris, for a day. Then she made a spiritual quest to the American West and became a shaman.

An award-winning author of 12 books, her “The Great American Family: A Story of Political Disenchantment,” won a 2017 Eric Hoffer Book Award. She received a lifetime achievement award from E’Rootha in 2012. In addition to her traditional degrees, Namou studied Sikkim/Secheim from a Native American man who lived with Tibetan monks. In addition, she is a certified reiki master and graduate of Lynn Andrews four-year shamanic school, Center for Sacred Arts and Training.

Namou will keynote the Detroit Working Writers conference “One Community, Many Voices” on Saturday, Sept. 16. She spoke about her work with Digital First Media.

Q: Writers say “writing found us.” When did you know you were a writer?

A: When I was in high school, I made a list of what I wanted to accomplish by age 30: Publishing a book. At 19, in Puerto Rico, on an evening stroll near the ocean, I looked deep into the water and decided with definiteness that I would write books. It was a calling.

Q: There is added richness in your bilingual writing. As a Chaldean, a Christian Iraqi, when could you speak and write in English?

A: I speak Neo-Aramaic, Arabic and English. When I arrived to the United States, I was 10 years old. The only words I knew were “yes” and “no.” I learned English quickly watching television and through my wonderful bilingual teacher.

Q: Your work is so spirited — it’s humorous, insightful, spiritual, self-reflective.

A: Since my early 20s, my priorities are family, writing and service. I suppose this caused me to attract spiritual people and experiences, which I later translated through stories. My writing springs from a rich Babylonian heritage, a long line of healers, studies with spiritual masters and my travels. Humor keeps me grounded, so as not to take myself or life too seriously.

Q: What are you reading now?

A: I love memoirs. The power of the real human spirit fascinates me. I just read Susan Boyle’s biography. All odds were stacked against her, her family told her not to go audition, that she’d be a laughingstock if she did, but she went anyway. She inspired many to accept themselves and pursue their dreams. Literary favorites include “Gone with the Wind,” the first novel I read in Arabic at the age of 9.

Q: How about your editing process?

A: By having tough editors, including my former New York agent and those who worked for St. Martin Press, Penguin and Random House, I’ve learned not to be afraid of editing out what doesn’t serve the story. Yet the author must also trust (her) intuition. There’s a fine line between the two.

• If you go: Detroit Working Writers presents the all-day conference “One Community, Many Voices,” Sept. 16 at the Michigan State University Management Education Center, 811 W. Square Lake, Troy. Tickets are $85 for DWW Members, $155 for nonmembers, including a continental breakfast and lunch, keynote speaker Weam Namou plus workshops. Information at detworkingwriters.org/conference, tickets at bit.ly/2wJNLze

Writers Conference gathers talent as Weam Namou keynotes event. Sept. 16

Weam Namou keynotes Writers Conference

 

Anniversary, an Associated Press Award-winning column

In Honor of Sept. 11, 2001 Republished for Love

Married on a day no longer ours alone

By Vivian DeGain

Daily Tribune Column Sept. 12, 2004

September 11 was, before the horrible tragedy in 2001, perhaps the happiest day of my life, my life so far this midlife.

Doug DeGain and I were married Sept. 11, 1982 on a hot, glorious, steamy Saturday in the chapel of the St. Joseph’s Hospital in Mt. Clemens. We had a reception in my mother’s back yard surrounded by her rose garden, under a tented canopy with a classical-guitar and flute duet.

We were both 30, handsome, hard-working and had an instant family,

Doug and Vivian

Our 9-11

with a four-year-boy in tow who walked down the aisle with us. The boy shadowed the man like he had never had a father before. He needed a dad; he finally got a darn good one. The first time Doug visited my home on the east side of Detroit, the boy handed him a six-shooter and said, “Do you like to play cowboys and Indians, Doug? C’mon let’s go up in the attic and shoot ghosts.”

Our family grew annually, with the birth of son number two, number three a daughter, the two of us going in turn to night school for better degrees. He opened a business. I landed jobs and we both clocked-in plenty of volunteer hours for, let’s see, three elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools, countless teams. We still pay college tuition for two. That ghost shooter is 27 today, earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering and started paying his own bills in September 1999.

We’ve marked our anniversaries with the start of another school year, school football season for one, hockey season for another and theater season for the third.

Each Sept. 11, we’ve had fabulous dinners out and delicious nights in, but finally, when our kids grew old enough to be left alone for the night, Doug and I found another unique  passion, perfectly timed for mid-September winds.

We celebrate the glorious color and perfect weather of our anniversary by driving to Pointe Pelee Canada and watching the annual raptor migration as sometimes thousands of hawks, falcons and other birds soar in the heat thermals over the land mass as it diminishes over Lake Erie. Migrating raptors find their way here, from the northern wilds of Canada to the warm winter lands in Mexico.

Think that’s a lot of flying for a little Sharp-Shinned Hawk or even a Broad-winged Hawk, bigger than a crow? Well, monarch butterflies and humming birds do exactly the same thing. All cross over Point Pelee these weeks.

So, for the last few years, Doug and I have headed for the Holiday Beach Fall Hawk Festival in Canada and become awed by the skies. Nice of the national park staff over there to stage such a show for us, isn’t it?

These are the things I remember about Sept. 11, 2001.

We woke early, excited to spend a day in the woods while the kids were in school.

We both had early business appointments that Tuesday, but planned to each be free before noon, fly home to change into our grubbies, grab our birth certificates and get to the Windsor Tunnel.

Pointe Pelee and Holiday Beach are only about an hour away. It’s very magical there, known as a year-long haven for birds of all kinds, especially for song birds like Wilson’s Warblers in the spring and shore birds like the elegant Blue Heron, White Egret and peculiar green Night Heron all year long.

We had worked out a plan to spend the day with our binoculars, breathing fresh sage in the woods, and climbing the three-story high wooden tower that makes Holiday Beach hawk watching so spectacular. Yes, we’d arrive a bit late for the early morning flights overhead, but there would still be plenty to see for late afternoon and evening. Then, a trip to a local market up the street who sells ice cream by the scoop. No fancy dinner this year, mud was the order of the day. One of these days, we said, we will take the camper and stay all night and watch the bats.

I was driving to my 9 a.m. meeting when I heard the NPR radio announcer in my car — a second jet had hit Twin Towers.

A second jet crashed into the same place — that was no freaking coincidence, couldn’t have been. We all felt that same sickening eureka moment at the same time.

When I arrived at my meeting, I found a pay phone, called my husband and asked if he had CNN on? I told him to turn it on right away.

Like everyone, we suddenly had no where to go that day.

Our younger kids, both in high school, came home on time but in a daze. We all sat in the front room hearing and half-watching the events of the day, as if the reruns would change our disbelief into something else.

It didn’t.

One year later, when Doug and I wanted to spend our 20th anniversary without those same reruns, we invited four best friends over for a home-cooked dinner and plenty of good red wine. They came. We never turned on the TV but listened instead to Bob Marley, Van Morrison, Pat Metheny and Miles.

At this moment, I have to ask myself if we’ve yet gone back to Ontario for the date since then. It’s still a blur. Not a good day to cross the border for a few years anyway.

This year, we’ll go back. Perhaps to the sweet little bed-and-breakfast we have found online. Perhaps to the sooty-black swamp, the sandy beach, the lake, the sage-brushed woods or the tower.

Maybe it’ll be a wonderful evening out to dinner or a day of mud and mosquito repellant.

It’s still our day.

It always will be our day.

But yes, now it’s also their day. And their families’ day.  And the world’s day.

But it was ours first.

We mark 22 years, having feathered our nest with our own breast-feathers, having sent our baby chick off to college this fall, and having years ahead of heat thermals to glide through.

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Daughter and Mother, Vivian DeGain, 2016, London

Becoming a Jew by Choice, and every day for the last 11 years

Vivian DeGain: I celebrate becoming a Jew by Choice 11 years ago with the reprint of my essay, shared aloud with my congregation at the time.

For January 20, 2006

Today, the Hebrew calendar date is 20 Tevet, 5766, which counts six thousand years of the Hebrew calendar/ and some 4,000 years of written/ oral Hebrew history, dating to the time of Abraham.

And from that history, two of my favorite stories quote the wisdom of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Sha-mmai: two great scholars born a generation before Jesus.

“Hillel and Sha-mmai are often compared with one another because they were contemporaries, and the leaders of two opposing schools of thought. The Talmud records over 300 differences of opinion between the two schools.

“Rabbi Hillel was born to a wealthy family in Babylonia, but came to Jerusalem without the financial support of his family, and supported himself as a woodcutter. It is said that he lived in such great poverty that he was sometimes unable to pay the fee to study Torah and because of him that fee was abolished. He was known for his kindness, his gentleness, and his concern for humanity.

One of his most famous sayings, recorded in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers, in the Mishna) is: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?

And if I am only for myself, then what am I?

And if not now, when?

“Rabbi Shammai was an engineer, known for the strictness of his views. Writers from the Talmud tell that a non-Jew approached Shammai saying that he would convert to Judaism if the Rabbi could teach him the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one foot. Shammai drove him away with a stick!

“Hillel, on the other hand, converted the man, by telling him, “That which is hateful to yourself, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

Christians recognize this as the essence of the Golden Rule.

Jews credit Rabbi Hillel, and quote the story with two sets of emphasis – one to respect all people – and the other to “go and study….”

Just as these 10 commandments (motion to them) above the Ark are from Hebrew scripture, this instruction has become familiar world-wide.

Thank you all for coming this evening to share my joy as I begin my life as a Jew, with my Hebrew name Chaya Tova bat Avraham v’Sara.

Since my first meeting with Rabbi Joseph Klein was in August, 2004, this celebration represents 17 months of formal study with my teacher (Rabbi means teacher in Hebrew) about Jewish history, culture, holidays and religion —  as well as my own intensive interpersonal investigation.

I began this study as a “grown woman on the outside,” but as a six-year-old Jew on the inside … six, only for having been a good listener to many discussions with my Jewish friends and mentors since college.

But as you can imagine, the process of conversion invites us to question so much more than content. At any age, at any time, a deeper study of one’s faith also connects us to a lifetime of inner identity, dreams, memories, fears, steps and missteps.

This time of study with Rabbi Klein has been the best in my life of much study.

My Rabbi has guided me through my assigned and elective reading list of nearly 200 books, through numerous classes, here with other adults, through religious services and holidays, and through a wonderful 2-week study trip in Israel.

As a caring guide, he’s listened with an intuitive wisdom that has anticipated my volumes of questions, some from me as the 53-year-old writer, wife and mother of three, and some from me as the six-year-old Jew.

You see, as writer Anita Diamant says in her book, “Choosing a Jewish Life,” that is the “go and study” part of Rabbi Hillel’s message, the significant one that I respect so much about Jewish people.

Jews are called “the people of the book” – for the volumes of Hebrew scripture they write, for an active, intensive debate about that text and context, and for the implied requirement to “go and continue to study.”

Because I am a writer, this fits me all so well.

But as a six-year-old Jew, I had so much to learn.

At least once a month I met with Rabbi Klein. “There are no stupid questions” he would remind me. His counsel has been gracious, generous and something I will always be grateful for. He’s been my technical editor for work I’ve published over this course of study. He has asked me the deeper questions I had overlooked or avoided for myself. He took me, and Doug, for a private walk through Jerusalem on the evening of Rosh Chodesh (Hebrew for a new month) to the Kotel, the Western Wall.

He asked me, as did the Rabbis this afternoon who were my Bet Din, my court, and as you have been asking me, so, why do I want to be Jewish?

For me, there are a hundred answers, and each day a few more.

Today, I can best answer this way.

For years I have always thought of myself as more Jewish, less Christian, more feminist, less traditional, more secular, less religious. I’ve read about Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and practiced meditation, but I am a Westerner. Ultimately, I believe in one God, but not an exclusive faith, and that our human intention with God’s help is to make the world a better place.

Jews call this Tikun Olam, “to heal the world,” words echoed in the poem I just read by Edmund Fleg “I am a Jew Because…”

I have come to love Jewish people, your traditions and brilliance… And I love your discourse…when introducing discussion about controversies here at Temple Emanu-El for instance, Rabbi Klein often begins the discussion with the adage, “We’ve all heard that for every three Jews, there are four opinions…” I want to be Jewish.

So for me, it’s more about why do I want to become Jewish NOW?

Because now at age 53, I choose to study and do what I want, and that is to learn and to love Judaism.

Because at age 53, after 27 years, our youngest is in college and our oldest has recently become engaged, so I am between children and grandchildren. It’s never the wrong time to begin a serious study and self-investigation about what most matters.

I want to become Jewish now because when I first came to study at Temple Emanu-El as a guest of Ann Costello, it was August of a presidential election year.

I can’t tell you when I began to see the world as the image of a butterfly – the butterfly’s body as the flattened-out globe – the butterfly’s abdomen as the tiny sliver of the nation of Israel on the world map, surrounded by one wing as half-a-world of Christianity and the other wing as half-the-world of Islam. But that is how I see the world now, and the election made these images very intense in my mind.

I want to be Jewish now because, in my own family history, a German-American history, I have conflicts and seek to learn more. My great-grandfather Josef Otter was born in 1871 in Hausen, Germany. He was blinded by a sniper in World War I, went home to raise a family on his farm with a seeing-eye dog, but on April 4, 1941, died mysteriously because he was blind. He was “undesirable” in a Nazi terror, and was killed for it. Others in his family were drafted into it. Like the children and grandchildren of six million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust, and like all of us, I am left with a guilt, rage, confusion and fear of this unimaginable but real human history. Somehow in my becoming a German-American-Jew, perhaps I can make a stand in this history.

Also, I want to become a Jew because I love to hear Hebrew, and again thank Rabbi Klein, my musical directors Judi Lewis and Steve Klaper, my mentors Anne Costello, Pat Chomet and Ande Teeple, and to virtually all of you here at Temple Emanu-El who have welcomed me with wide-open arms, taught me Hebrew songs and prayers and patiently spoken and respoken the pronunciation as I stumble and learn.

I also want to thank my very supportive husband Doug and our children Michael, Bryce and Danielle for their love, and my extended family, here tonight!

Finally, Since I was a child growing up in Detroit, I have known that God is One, and that we are messengers of light and love in the world. Jews say Adoni is One, and that we are One, and that Tikkun Olam is our job – to heal the world. And that we are the people Israel, because Israel means to wrestle with God, or perhaps to wrestle with ourselves for God’s work here.

Today, I am a Jew…

because, for Israel, the world is not completed, we are completing it.

I am a Jew because

for Israel, humanity is not created, we are creating it.

A  blessing of peace, Shabbat Shalom.

Sacred time with my daughter

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