Getting into the Flow

The sages, that is, writing colleagues such as Robin Gaby Fisher, Brad Parks, and Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts, say you must write 1,000 words a day to free the mind and stir up words, images, and associations.

Maxwell Perkins (left) and Ernest Hemingway in Key West, Florida, January 1935

Maxwell Perkins (left) and Ernest Hemingway in Key West, Florida, January 1935

Deadline demands over the past few weeks have forced me to adopt this pattern. I had thought the approach might be a little too pat, a little too forced. I was wrong.  I am beginning to see the power of this practice as the past comes alive in my mind. The flow of content and words engendered by practice is real.

As someone who is in middle age but feels compelled more than ever to tell stories, I am moved and encouraged by a comment made by Max Perkins, Hemingway’s great editor. Perkins’ remark was included in a post on ScienceWriters today : “I think, in truth, that the best writing of all is done long after the events it is concerned with, when they have been digested and reflected upon unconsciously, and the writer has completely realized them in himself.”

People close to me know that I have been writing a memoir on my life with my late husband, Walter Lucas. I have been working on it for some time. About 30,000 words of text, in fact, forming six chapters were the basis of my thesis for my Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction from Fairleigh Dickinson University, completed in 2013. Part of my problem has been that, in order to describe certain scenes the way they really happened, complete with sensory details, I have to “go back” to those moments. When I revisit those periods, its saps me, drains me.  After, I am sickened by the memories, nauseated and depressed. Even the happy memories are painful to conjure.

A few weeks ago, I realized something important that changed matters for me. Near my writing desk in a dresser, I have stored dozens of folders with pieces of the story. I have Walter’s diary, the contents of which he shared with me when he was alive. I have legal pads from his desk with outlines for legal arguments from cases when he practiced law at his firm, Lucas & Marose. There are other private things. I have many medical records from his extended hospitalization in the intensive care unit at Morristown Memorial Hospital, where he died in August of 2004. Scanning the papers one night, it came to me that the files represented Walter to me — that in a way they allowed him to still be with me. If I were to finish the book, I would have to put the files away. And then he really would be gone.

This fear is the factor that was actually holding me back. Now that I’ve looked at it for what it is, the anxiety  has ebbed. As Max Perkins noted, perhaps I needed time and distance, because the words are there now, in my head. True love is one of the world’s great gifts. Love can’t be uprooted and stolen from you. The feeling lasts forever.

Kitta MacPherson

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My father, John MacPherson, with his Ireland-born mother, my paternal grandmother, Evelyn Mae. (Photo circa 1925)

My Ireland-born, paternal grandmother, Evelyn Mae Dwyer MacPherson, with my father, John “Bud” MacPherson. Evelyn died of pneumonia two years after this photo was taken. (New York, New York, photo circa 1925)

For much of the 20th Century, my father’s father grew roses in a tiny lot behind his white bungalow in Springfield Gardens in Queens, New York. Bounded by a busy, grimy world and contained within a chain-link fence, fluffy, golden Alistair Greys competed with Blumenschmidt tea roses the color of butter. Clumps of Souvenir de la Malmaison, voluptuous pale pink roses favored by Josephine Bonaparte and Catherine the Great, conspired to out-scent small, perfect pink-red Duke of Edinburgh roses.

Jack, my Scotland-born grandfather, doted on these thorny beauties. Nothing in his rose garden received more attention than the velvety, dark, bluish-red Prince Camille de Rohan roses. Jack said they were the color of love. He grew them for his tall, black-eyed, black-haired wife, Evelyn. She was born in Limerick, Ireland, a medieval city nestled on the River Shannon, and long known as one of its country’s most idyllic spots. She missed the smells and scenes of home, including the sweet aroma and enticing symmetries of her mother’s rose arbor. Evelyn died of pneumonia at home in my grandparents’ marriage bed at age 31, leaving my grandfather with four young children, including an infant boy. My father, John, was seven. Jack raised the children and tended his roses, with special attention to the Prince Camilles, for the remainder of his life.

I bring up my grandfather’s garden because, despite its astounding beauty, it represented mixed emotions: It was birthed from longing and sustained by grief. I feel both and I am working to balance them, hold them in my mind at once, with the hope it will help me to see.

My friend and colleague, Mary Jo Patterson, died more than a week ago after a long illness. She was 70. She had a hearty laugh and was happily married with two wonderful adult children. She possessed a laserlike eye for writerly detail. She was a top talent at The Star-Ledger of Newark, a major, profitable metropolitan daily, for more than three decades. She received many journalism awards. She also was my neighbor for over two decades when I lived in West Orange, N.J. We lived on the same street.  Our children grew up together.

Hundreds of journalists, politicians, neighbors, and friends gathered Sunday, April 24 at the Codey Funeral Home in Caldwell, N.J., for a memorial service for Mary Jo. Her husband, David Wald, the Star-Ledger’s former political editor, organized the service. Politicians, including ex-Governors like Richard Codey and Jon Corzine, as well as neighbors, friends, and family attended, but my Star-Ledger colleagues, past and present, dominated the scene.

The Star-Ledger brethren arrived early to show respect for Mary Jo’s memory and convey their sorrow to her family. Many, if not most, had not seen each other since they had accepted buy-outs from the paper years before. All were part of a harsh megatrend – the trying economic conditions challenging traditional business models that in the mid-2000’s forced managers of newspapers across the country, including the Star-Ledger, to take drastic, cost-cutting measures. Reporters retired in waves, at times decimating newsrooms.

Surveying the crowd at the service, I spotted men, clean-shaven and dark-haired when last seen, with white beards and snowy heads. Women, once brunette and blonde, had gone gray.  Reporters with babies when last talked to now spoke of PTA duties for their children’s schools. Many, parents at last view, are grandparents now.

I scanned the group and hugged many people, seeing friends, talented colleagues, and former rivals, and felt extreme longing, not for a place, but for a time. Like the rose garden, the scene was tinged with sadness. I understood better than ever why my grandmother, Evelyn, wept when she heard Celtic music, why my grandfather, Jack, grew misty-eyed when he described the craggy, heather-littered hills of the Scottish Highlands. My grandparents knew they could never return to their beautiful birthplaces. They couldn’t afford to – the Depression had taken care of that. They had brought their memories to America long before and that would have to do. Their worlds were lost to them.

I was seeing a lost world, too. Mary Jo was at the center of the Star-Ledger I knew and, without her, a big piece would be missing. For some time, I realized, part of me has wanted to time-travel to the great, grey newsroom in Newark of the 1990s and early 2000s where so many of us worked, a sea of desks where you could stand at the edge and watch hundreds of editors and reporters diligently and sometimes not so patiently put together the news, features, arts, and sports sections on deadline. There was so much talent in the room and vitality in the air – the kind that landed Pulitzers and many national and state awards.

Jim Willse, The Star-Ledger’s tough guy-preppie, retired editor-in-chief, eulogized Mary Jo and remarked on how so many people in the room were re-connecting. “Life is short,” Willse said. We yearn, he seemed to be saying, for a past we cannot recapture. We can, however, find joy and solace in each other’s company.

My grandparents found refuge in their passion for each other and the family they built. I may mourn my old newsroom, but the Star-Ledger itself, under the management of Kevin Whitmer, is still going strong, its leaders and staff adjusting to the new realities of digital-era publishing.  I experience joy daily in my conversations with my students at Rutgers University where I now teach journalism and writing. I know I cannot entice them to a journalistic life with promises of work in a vast newsroom. But I can mentor them so they learn about the excitement and importance of the work and seek a place in this dawning age of internet journalism.

Last November, I walked outside with Mary Jo. It was an unseasonably warm day. We stepped in golden light on the bright green expanse of lawn at Thomas Edison’s historic home, Glenmont, in West Orange. After she retired from the Star-Ledger, Mary Jo enrolled in and completed a Master Gardener program at Rutgers, pursuing a dream. One of her projects was to revive the gardens at Glenmont with new plantings. We walked by vast beds of shrubbery and fading flowers, as she pointed out her work. Glenmont’s gardens, she said, will bloom from early spring to late summer. She designed it that way. When I visit Glenmont again soon, I will look for the wildflowers she told me she planted. I am beginning to understand that longing is a kind of grief, one that must be experienced and embraced in order to grow. I want mine transformed to a loving remembrance, like my grandfather’s roses.

–Kitta MacPherson


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Trip on a yellow submarine


The Star­Ledger Archive

COPYRIGHT © The Star­Ledger 2000

Date: 2000/07/16 Sunday Page: 001 Section: NEWS Edition: FINAL Size: 941 words

Squeeze on in, the view is worth it


By KittaMacPherson


The bottom of the Atlantic Ocean is a neon green world teeming with life.

About 5 inches from my nose, a purple sea anemone resembling a miniature palm

tree undulates, sucking in tiny specks of light called zooplankton.

A thumb­size cancer crab dances sideways. A pudgy sea robin stops and

flutters, as if it knows it’s being videotaped. It preens for a few seconds

in front of us, then moves along.

We are about 100 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean near the

Manasquan Ridge, a glorified sandbar about seven miles east of Point Pleasant

Beach. The dive is part of a Rutgers University research expedition to study

sea life in an area that has never before been explored.

I am flat on my stomach, stretched along the bottom of a tiny, two­person

yellow submarine, pressed against a front porthole. Seated just above my

knees on a low stool is the pilot, 25­year­old Joe Lilly, who looks through

another forward window.

All before us is serene. Getting down here, though, was no day at the beach.

Before the dive, the 4,800­pound sub was suspended by a hydraulic knuckle-
boom crane and lashed to the side of a work boat, the 110­foot Atlantic

Surveyor. To enter the sub, you have to climb to the side of the boat, step

on top of the curved, smooth­surface sub without falling overboard, and

shimmy through its 24­inch­wide hatch.

I’m 5­foot­7 and what my mother lovingly describes as zaftig, so that’s no

easy task. Once inside, you must fold your body as if tying shoes, thrust

your legs behind you and yank yourself forward with your elbows. Then the

pilot scoots in. It’s a tight fit.

Kenneth Able, a Rutgers University biologist in charge of the research

project, has spent hundreds of hours in the tiny, steel­hulled Delta. He and

another Rutgers biologist, Janice McDonnell, have persuaded me to give it a

”I just can’t wait to get in the sub every time. I’m so excited about what

I’m going to see,” Able said.

With a low thud, Lilly seals the hatch. “Ready below, ready to go,” he radios

to the ship’s captain, Kurt Perl. The winch whines as we are lowered to the

sea surface. Behind me, Lilly pulls knobs and flips switches, and the sub

hums with life.

For a few nauseating moments, the water fills up an air pocket between twin

layers of glass in the front porthole ­ providing ballast, I am quickly told.

The air grows hot and sticky. The light in the sub turns an eerie, frothy

green as we dip below the surface.

I feel as if I have just climbed on the roller coaster at Seaside Park,

anxious, not in control. I know everything will turn out fine but I’m nervous

anyway. Through the glass, the sea world is an endless, formless mint green.

I feel dizzy.

Lilly says we are descending rapidly, but it’s impossible to discern any

movement. It seems as if we are floating. The noises are incredible ­ the

kind of loud gurgling that reminds me of the old television show “Voyage to

the Bottom of the Sea.”

In a minute, we land on the sea floor, soft as a pillow. We bounce gently up.

The scene before us instantly clears, as if someone had turned a knob on a

television to sharpen the image.

All my anxiety melts away, too, as my attention is drawn beyond the sub to

the great expanse. It’s alive out there. No trash, no silt, no sludge. Just

gentle hillocks of clean sand littered with starfish, sand dollars, crabs,

anemones and darting fish. I could be in a small airplane flying low over a

desert dotted with palm trees.

Up on the ship, the scientists are in close communication with us. Able is

listening, via a microphone that sits at the sub’s front, to my description

of the panorama. He will watch a videotape of what I have seen when we return

from the 15­minute voyage.

Off and on for the past 10 years, Able has been trying to discern whether

this edge of the continental shelf is biologically important. The sand at

this part of the ocean bottom is regularly mined for beach replenishment. No

one knows whether that is destroying a habitat vital to the ecosystem of

marine life, especially fish.

”We know less about what happens on the bottom of the ocean than we know

about any other habitat on Earth,” Able said.

In recent years, as beach replenishment efforts have intensified, he has

redoubled his efforts to see whether this series of undersea ridges along the

East Coast is vital to fish populations.

On this Wednesday, three Rutgers scientists who would have joined him have

surrendered their berths to an unusual contingent ­ 13 schoolteachers, the

stars of a Rutgers summer enrichment program focused on marine life. All have

taken dives in the Delta and emerged with tales of sea rays and sand crabs

and real data for Able.

Marge Selfridge of Tuckerton Elementary School wept with joy when she climbed

out of the sub. Ann Farr Marchioni of Bloomfield Middle School jumped out

exultant: “I did it! I did it!”

”For every one teacher who has this experience,” Able said, “there will be

1,000 more schoolkids who will benefit as well.”

At the ocean bottom, time travels quickly. Before we know it, we are being

summoned by radio. Since we touched bottom, 14 minutes have slithered by.

Lilly nudges two black knobs, and air whooshes out from the sub, making us

too light to stay down.

We emerge rapidly, though I can’t feel it, until we pop up on the water’s

surface, the way the space capsules do after splashdown.

We are “topside.”

I have always wanted to be able to say that.

NOTES: Kitta MacPherson writes about science. She can be reached at (973)

877­5836 or PHOTO CAPTION: 1. The Delta returns

from where no other submarine, yellow or otherwise, has gone before, down

near the Manasquan Ridge. Below, fresh from the ocean floor, it’s The Star-
Ledger’s science writer, who is accustomed to a little more elbow room.

2. Chris B. Ijames prepares to pilot the Delta Wednesday with a schoolteacher


GRAPHIC CAPTION:DIAGRAM: The Delta submersible </slimages/20000716p11.gif>

URL:<a href=”/texis/search/story.html?table=sl2000&id=3971fbad2″>Squeeze on

in, the view is fine.

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Kanye and Grief

I am proud to say that my essay on Kanye and grief was published in Scarlet magazine, created by and for Rutgers University Newark students.

I am honored to report  that my essay appears in Scarlet Magazine, a publication created by and for Rutgers University Newark students.

I recently wrote a piece for on how the entertainer Kanye West and his at times over-the-top behavior may reflect his dealings with grief. Reaction to the piece has been strong with responses in both the positive and negative categories. I hope it may further educate the American public about the realities of grief and how to deal with its often-unexamined manifestations.

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Holiday song redeemed

Dominick the donkey song

Holiday songs, silly or not, are connected to our past,  powerful reminders of pleasure or pain. That’s why I wrote an essay, “Learning to Love Dominick the Donkey” in the Star-Ledger of Newark during the holidays.

As I hoped, we danced to “Dominick” late on Christmas afternoon.

— Kitta MacPherson

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Welcome to “Fathom”

“Diver Dan”

Since I was a toddler, dipping my toes in salty Oyster Bay Harbor, the sea has stirred my imagination.

Books I found around my parents’ house, with haunting stories and images such as Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” and Charles Kingsley’s Victorian-era “Water Babies” (now rightly de-shelved due to culturally offensive comments) fueled images of sparkling blue beauty and new forms of living, breathing sentient beings. The sea was an unseen, under-appreciated world of shocking events where a lovestruck girl could trade her voice for a pair of legs and a drowned chimney sweep could launch a journey of redemption.

As a creative stimulus, Diver Dan, the early ’60s children’s television show, stands out for me. Viewed today, the show’s crude special effects may distract some. But to a tiny child who had never before viewed a television screen, this bubbling black-and-white world of wise mermaids, questing aquamen, and talking fish told me that other realms existed beyond my immediate surroundings. My own mind, I realized, could created entire universes.

Since then, and for many years since, I have been spinning tales in my head. Some stories are dynastic, nearly as old and complicated as I am. Some have sputtered out, replaced by something new. It is time to write them down.

And, as I am a science journalist, with many of my stories appearing over the years at my beloved Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., I am still examining and turning over ideas, like starfish glistening on the beach. I want to write about them, too.

This is “Fathom,” my blog. Its name alludes to the depth and beauty of the sea — its allure and mystery. The term refers also to a reporter’s technique of examining ideas from different angles so as to understand what we see.

— Kitta MacPherson



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