Interview with the Memoir: A Foreign Country, by Emjay Wilson-Scott

For my ongoing series of interviews with memoir writers, I spoke with Emjay Wilson-Scott, writer, artist and wine maker. Her book, A Foreign Country, shares her adventures in Sweden and Europe when she was a hippo,exchange student in the 1970’s/

Emjay has an MFA in Video Art from the SF Art Institute and a Masters in Scandinavian Language and Literature from U.C.Berkeley. Her poetry has been published in periodicals in Sweden and the United States. She and her husband own a small vineyard in Potter Valley, California, where they grow and bottle award winning Pinot Noir. Click the link to Naughty Boy Vineyards for more information.

Why did you pick this particular moment in your life to write about?

Despite my dyslexia, I have always felt a need to write, I wrote my first poems at seven (that I am aware of) and I wrote a children’s book as a child. I have written and published poetry all of my life, read poetry in San Francisco, and worked in Performance Poetry. I entered the Art Institute in order to start working with Video and poetry in the 80’s. I have some work in the Museum of Modern Art and had a show at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

After living in Europe, I felt a need to chronicle events in my life in order to understand them. I tried many times but never really completed a book. My Brother was killed in a car accident in 2001. It made me realize how little time we have. I decided to seriously start writing at that time. I actually took him with me to Sweden in the Character of Fred. He is the only semi-fictitious character in the book, but represents the American side of me that I attempted to hide.

What was the hardest part of writing this book?

I was not very computer literate at the time and had a great deal of trouble with spell-check and Swedish words. I met with two other writers, but would only write and send them without reviewing as it was emotionally draining to write my history. They were amazingly patient with my messy manuscript.

Place is very strong in your book. You really feel the landscape and cultural difference. How did you achieve that?

I have a very good memory, which is sometimes a curse. Because it was such a milestone in my life, I was able to sit and remember and write. The most difficult part was actually sitting down to do it and rewriting.

You self-published. Did you consider a traditional route?

I submitted it to one publishing house and was rejected. It sat for another couple years. Like most of us, I fear rejection. I then figured since I had gone to all of the trouble to write it, I would like to share it with friends. I do not feel it is a great work of art, but I like having on record a time that is lost forever.

Do you plan to write another book?

I’m writing a children’s book right now.

People with Disabilities vs. Caregivers. No one wins.

On August 21, 2015 a Federal Appeals Court reversed a Lower Court ruling regarding overtime pay for Home Health Care Workers. In the ruling, the court ended the exemption  of home care workers from overtime pay. The long term caregivers union is rejoicing. Advocates for people with disabilities are angry. The fight isn’t over.

People with disabilities are concerned that they will lose caregiver hours because agencies will stop paying the full hours people need to stay in their homes. Private pay employers won’t be able to afford their workers. Caregivers are angry because they are paid low wages but must work more than 8 hours a day. Caregivers are fighting for a livable wage and people with disabilities are fighting to live.

When people with disabilities are pitted against the people who care for them, who wins?

This battle reflects a deeper problem. People with disabilities are not considered viable members of society and therefor have no value.  The people who care for them are primarily people of color and women, groups traditionally considered low status. The system of caring for people with disabilities is structured around “cost savings.” As long as it is shown that keeping people in their homes saves society money, then doing so is considered important. But what cost do you place on respect and dignity?

Caregivers work as nurses, housekeepers, drivers, secretaries and cooks. They often bathe, dress, and help toilet severely disabled people and are paid minimum wage. Despite the long hours, most caregivers are dedicated to their clients and feel that they are making a difference in the world.

People with disabilities rely on their caregivers to not only support their physical needs, but to also help them engage with the world and enjoy their lives. The threat that they may lose their supports if a pay increase is mandated is real. State budgets are strapped and agencies run with minimal staff. Where will the money come from? And for those who have  to pay out of pocket for caregivers, will the changes force them to go into an institution simply because their insurance will pay for it?

I am my daughter’s caregiver. I also rely on other caregivers to help me keep my daughter in our home. I gladly work far more hours than I am paid, and I know other caregivers who do the same. Many of these workers are not family members, but they know if they didn’t donate hours their clients would suffer.

It’s time for caregivers and people with disabilities to stop fighting each other. People need to stay in their homes and workers need a livable wage. Rather than suing each other, it is time for both groups to unite and demand increased funding for programs that support the disabled. We need to examine our society and ask why we are so willing to throw people away simply because they can’t care for themselves.

My daughter is back in school, so why am I not writing?

Writing is like exercise; you can have the desire to run a marathon or lift weights, but actually putting on your shoes and working out takes more than desire. You have to force yourself to go to the gym. Force yourself to sit in that chair with your laptop open and fingers hovering over the keyboard. It’s hard work. You have to build stamina and strength.

After a summer of entertaining a child, all I can focus on is “Animaniacs” reruns.

But my book is calling. I have a pile of notes and a complete outline. My plan is laid out. Now I just have to block out an hour a day and build up my marathon writing stamina. In time I’ll be humming through three hours of typing before my butt falls asleep.

Today, I feel like a jogger on that first, painful day.


One special needs family reaching out to another

There are a thousand sleepless nights to get through when your child is medically fragile. Waiting for answers. Waiting for change. I pick up a book I’m too tired to read. Turn on the TV but it’s too loud. So I grab your laptop and start surfing. See what my friends are doing. What trips are they taking this summer? What did they eat? How many selfies did they take? But after a while all those smiling faces make me feel more alone.

I turn to your tribe, the other parents who are up at 3 AM surfing the internet while battling anxiety. Because no one understands dread more than the parent of a special needs child.

We parents would be lost and more confused than we already are without the internet. With chat rooms to swap war stories and blogs to share our ideas we see that we are not the only family in the world held hostage by illness. Instead, we know MediCare and Social Security screws with every family. Paperwork really does get more complicated. Marriages collapse and rebuild. Children thrive despite what experts say. And occasionally we get to laugh.

Reach out. Write it all down. Maybe someone will read it and for a tiny moment I won’t be so alone. Maybe my struggle will help someone else. And maybe, if I take the time to read other stories, I’ll find the answer I’ve needed to hear.

10 things to do as soon as my daughter goes back to school

1. Gather all the doodles, notes and outlines I’ve been writing in between taking care of Rhia and write the first draft of my memoir.

2. Take care of my own health. Get that mammogram and the labs my doctor told me to get in June. Get my teeth cleaned.

3. Clean five months of dog hair, cookie crumbs and dirt from inside my car. Wash the seat covers. On second thought, take the car to someone who will clean all that crap for me.

4. Watch Dr. Who season 8, which is finally on Hulu and which I’ve had zero time to enjoy.

5. Indulge in my favorite hobby, terrarium and miniature garden making. Make enough good ones to sell so I can buy more plants. Mostly, this will be the time to shut off “mommy-mind” and turn on “creative-mind.”

6. Finish a pot of coffee.

7. See friends, especially the one who was injured this summer and who I promised to visit. But I haven’t been able to go anywhere because child is not in school.

8. Contact former clients and connect with potential new ones. I need more editing and copywriting work. Got any? Drop me a line. Please. My kid spent all my money this summer.

9. Trim my eyebrows.

10. Write, write, write, write, write…. and do that some more.

Queen Teen vs. The Communion Wafer

While my daughter and I were visiting family in Louisiana, we went to church. My husband’s family is very religious. I have no problem with religion; my daughter is baptized in the United Church of Christ. However, I’m not a Christian. Jesus was an extraordinary teacher and philosopher, but I don’t believe he died for my sins.

Regardless, we went to church with the family.

My nephew was an acolyte and he was thrilled to show me his long white robe and how  he lit the candles on the altar. Bouncing with excitement, he asked, “Do you want the pastor to come to you, or do you want Rhia to walk to the altar for communion?”

Because of severe ataxia, Rhia uses a walker to get around. Whether or not she should walk or sit for communion wasn’t my biggest worry at that moment, though. Instead, my brain anxiously hummed with the word “communion.” Communion? Who said we were taking communion? Isn’t it a “sin” for us to take communion? I’m not a Christian and Rhia has never been confirmed. My nephew is only 9; he has no idea what he’s talking about.

But before I could argue with him, my mother-in-law said, “The pastor should come to you. That would be easier for Rhia.”

Surrounded by so many eager, loving family faces, I nodded. “Of course.”

Communion. Again I wondered if I should protest, but how could I without embarrassing my mother-in-law? The pastor began the sermon, which was all about sin and forgiveness, so I bit my lip and worried what Rhia would do.

At last it was time. The pastor solemnly walked to Rhia and I with the communion wafers and wine, my nephew trailing him as sedately as a hyperactive 9 year old boy could. The pastor blessed a wafer and handed it to me. I turned to Rhia and signed for her to open her mouth. With scrunched eyebrows and narrowed eyes she opened her mouth and I popped the thin, white wafer in.

“It tastes like paper!” she shouted loudly, and spat it out.

After catching the soggy wads of wafer in my hand, I had to turn back to the pastor for the wine. The man was a pro; his expression never changed as he calmly handed me the wine to give to Rhia. Rhia took a sip and announced, “Tastes like my medicine.”

Trying not to laugh while hoping my mother-in-law hadn’t seen her granddaughter spitting out the body of Christ, I received the wafer and wine with the pastor’s blessing. “Is this gluten free?” I wondered, but decided it was better to just take the wafer and bow my head. When the pastor walked away I shoved the remainder of Rhia’s wafer into my purse. It stuck to the sides of my bag like paste.

Everyone else in the church solemnly went to the altar for their blessing. If anyone noticed how Rhia reacted, they were too polite to show it.

On the drive back to my in-law’s house, I wondered about the body of Christ crumbs in my purse. Could I just throw them away? I didn’t dare ask my mother-in-law. Instead I quietly tossed them under a tree when I got out of the car. Perhaps some birds were blessed that day.

Not Ready to Stay Goodbye to Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart has not left the Daily Show. I know because there are two more unwatched episodes in my Hulu queue. Therefore, Jon Stewart isn’t gone as long as I don’t watch these last two episodes.

Eventually Hulu will erase the episodes whether I watch them or not, so I’ll have to face the truth and say goodbye before that happens. But I simply can’t do it yet. I can’t face another presidential election without Jon Stewart skewering the GOP.

Jon Stewart is my hero and the official spokesman of my generation. Go ahead, laugh at my worship of Mr. Stewart. I’ll be in my room mourning the loss of one of the few sane minds on television. When I’m finished, I will watch those last two episodes while drinking a bottle of champagne and remembering how often he brought me back from utter despair over the political process.

Jon Stewart gave me permission to embrace sarcasm while still giving a damn.