If there’s anything as satisfying as laying eyes and hands on the first print copy of a book I’ve written, it’s having the same experience with a friend’s book. Especially when I know how hard that friend struggled to make the book happen. Thus I whooped with joy last week when Ellen Dehouske handed me a copy of We Feed Each Other: Nourishment through Friendships, her “memoir of sorts.”
Joyful tears filled my heart as I beheld this substantial volume with the strikingly gorgeous cover and lovely layout. I had witnessed many of the labor pains preceding the birth of this book.
I first met Ellen about three years ago when she took an Osher Life Long Learning class I taught at the University of Pittsburgh on writing description. Subsequently she began attending the Life Writers group that meets at the Monroeville Public Library twice a month.
I’ve known for a couple of years that Ellen had resolved to write this book, but I did not fully comprehend what she had in mind. I only knew it was a tribute to the vast network of loyal friends who have stood by her through trials and triumphs. She brought dozens of component stories to the writing group, seeking and receiving input on how to make them better. I’d seen her writing transform from awkward to amazing in the process.
I’d also known that food was a theme and she was asking each friend to contribute a favorite recipe. To my astonished delight, she asked me for a picture and a recipe.
What I didn’t realized was how those isolated snippets would weave together to give such a comprehensive view of Ellen. This volume is a tightly focused memoir with dual threads of food and friendship highlighting her personal transcendence.
Gratitude for friendship shines through bright and clear, framed within roles friends played in her life. She grew up without a typical family. Her father died before her memory kicked in, and when Ellen was three, her mother began a thirteen year stay in a mental hospital. Ellen and her younger sister were raised by a succession of emotionally distant relatives.
Thanks to a scholarship, she graduated from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, later earning a PhD in early childhood development. She retired as Professor Emerita from Carlow University. That was not a smooth path. Ellen was hospitalized four times with mental disorders. With the support of friends, she found legal counsel and retained her job when Carlow laid her off after she was hospitalized.
A combination of talk therapy and psychotropic drugs have kept her stable and productive for decades now, and she shares her story as witness that mental illness is just that – illness, much like heart disease or diabetes. It isn’t contagious or scary, nor is it a reason for avoiding contact with the afflicted. Her story is a beacon of hope to mental health patients and their families. Hopefully Ellen’s testimony will build bridges of understanding.
Her story is not a sermon. It’s a carefully crafted journey beginning with a bleak girlhood that nevertheless had rays of happiness penetrating its pallor. It continues through turbulent seas of four melt-downs, ending with profound professional and personal success.
Ellen did not accomplish the miracle of this book on her own. She honed writing skills in classes and groups. She learned to streamline sentences, substituting precision words for rambling phrasing and rearranging awkward sequencing to make them flow. She streamlined stories and used an ingenious menu content to shape her story arc.
She paid for editing and layout help and commissioned an artist to do that brilliant cover. Not only is it gorgeous and eye-grabbing, it’s powerfully symbolic. The significance of the spoon seems obvious at a glance, next to the title of the book: We Feed Each Other. The overlay of tiny icon photos makes sense: this is a book about a friendships. As soon as you begin reading, in the second paragraph of the preface (which you can find in the Amazon preview), she tells of a Jewish allegory of Heaven and Hell, using spoons as the determining element.
One of the most poignant features is that even with all the editors and feedback, Ellen’s unique voice shines through, ringing loud and authentically true.
Write now: click this link to Amazon and read the allegory in the Preface to Ellen’s book. Then ponder myths, legends and tales that might crystalize the essence of an element of your life in a similar way. Free write or journal to get clear on what that element is. Find a writing group, take a class, do something to firm up your resolve to write YOUR story.