Thursday, September 28, 2017

Top 5 Reasons to Start a Women's Writing Group

I'm starting a new new women's writing group on Monday, here in Narberth, called Girls Write Out. (Thank you, I like the name too.) Why?

1. Writing is an isolated activity, and can feel lonely. Writing together in a group, giving and receiving feedback has been essential to my development as a writer.
2. A number of women I know express something like this, "I really want to write, but I don't know how to start." Or "I'd love to write but I struggle to make time for it." Or "I have a book I want to write, but I'm stuck." I relate to these obstacles, and I wanted to make a space where women can gather and write, together, in a supportive community.
3. I have started and been a part of other writing groups, some of which helped me a lot, some of which damaged me quite a bit. I have come to believe that a writing group needs a leader, someone to establish ground rules and ensure the rules are respected. This allows everyone to feel safe, and when we feel safe, we do our best work.
4. I believe we all have stories to tell, and I want to encourage new writers, and established writers, to claim their stories, write their stories, and share their stories.
5. Writing is how I make sense of the world; it is one of the ways I heal. I want to help other people find that outlet.

One of the students from a previous workshop had this to say:

"Over the course of a month in 2015, I took Julie’s weekly writing workshop and was impressed with her thoughtful and organized style, which drew on multiple tools to engage our group, encourage and draw out our ideas. Julie established a nurturing atmosphere for the workshop. We learned from Julie and each other. The positive vibes and different writing styles of the group emboldened and challenged me to open up and continue trying."

Please contact me if you're interested in learning more about Girls Write Out at

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Fuck You, Death

No one else I love is allowed to die. I'm serious. My heart can't take another one. I woke up yesterday morning, on my 41st birthday, and logged onto Facebook to see birthday wishes. As I scrolled I came across a post from Carol, my first writer friend. It was a sweet photo of one of her nephews as a child. I "liked" it, then noticed a comment that said, "This brought a tear to my eye. She loved her nieces and nephews so much." Wait, what?

I looked at the other comments, my heart beat picking up the news before my head could. Why was that written in the past tense? Why had this been posted by her husband? What the fuck was going on? I didn't want to believe it, but I messaged a mutual friend, asking if Carol had died.


Between my birthday and my last day of a job I really loved, I couldn't absorb that news yesterday. I wouldn't let myself even think about it. But this morning, after sleeping in, meditating, praying, talking to some friends, I looked at Carol's blog, and read this, her last blog post: Writing the Story of Your Life.

You have to be made of stone not to cry reading that. But I knew Carol, I loved her. And I didn't know her cancer had returned. We saw each other mostly during the summer, when I was closer to her home in Cape May. We hadn't talked in a few months, but I thought nothing of that. I was going to call her next week to set up a catch-up date.

I didn't get to say goodbye. I didn't get to tell her how much it meant to me that she befriended me at my first ever writer's conference; that she asked for my email information, and that we struck up an easy friendship. I didn't get to tell her how much I admired her perseverance with her writing. How she inspired me by self-publishing her two beautiful novels. How much I admired her move from Philly to the shore, and how she went after what she wanted in life with gusto.

Her last blog post talks about how she can be a friend to us from the beyond, but you know what? Fuck that. I have too many angels already. I don't want anymore. I want to have decadent pancakes with her at Clary's. I want to walk with her on the beach, or through Stone Harbor, looking at books. I want her support when my book comes out. I want my novelist friend, here, on earth, where I need her.

I will move through the sadness and anger, eventually, and the shock. I know I will. I've done it too many times before. And I will call on her help from the beyond. I do believe that my loved ones are still with me, in a different form. But I hate this.

The price for having a big, beautiful, rich life, so full of love, is having to say goodbye to people, sometimes much sooner than we are ready to do so.

Carol, thank you for your friendship. Thank you for your belief in my writing, and in me. Thank you for your work. Up until your last days, you wrote and published work that deeply moved me, and countless others. I'm angry we won't have any more writing from you, and I am so grateful, bone-deep, that you shared the work you did with us. Help me to follow your example, to have an eighth of your courage, persistence and grace. Thank you for blessing me with your love.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Young Love and Our Lady of Guadalupe

This post originally appeared as an essay in The Philadelphia Inquirer, December 2015.

By Julie Owsik Ackerman

Antonio had told me for weeks not to miss the celebration for Our Lady of Guadalupe, but then he had broken up with me. What to do? In my own Catholic upbringing, we have May Processions to celebrate Mary in the spring. They involve little children, a ceremony, a Mass, some punch and cookies afterwards maybe. But during my junior year of college in Cuernavaca, Mexico, my friends had insisted that the celebration for La Virgen could not be missed, broken heart or no.
So, on Dec. 11, I go with my Mexican friends, who were also Antonio’s cousins, to the festivities, having no idea what to expect. A party night for Mary? It is chilly for Cuernavaca, around 55 degrees, and we huddle outside the Guadalupe shrine closest to my friend Norma’s house. The neighborhood women pass out warm tropical drinks that tasted like guava. I wait, stomach clenched, and find myself praying to Mary for help. Help me to stop loving him. Help me to stop hurting him, and myself, and my boyfriend from home. I wouldn’t have prayed to the Mary of my youth about these troubles, but La Virgen, I think she might understand.

Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Virgen or Virgencita to Mexicans, is the apparition of Mary when she appeared to an Aztec man named Juan Diego in 1531, 11 years after the arrival of the Spanish in Mexico. She returned to this humble man four times, asking him to go to the bishop and build a temple in her honor on the spot where she appeared. She explained, “All those who sincerely ask my help in their work and in their sorrows will know my Mother’s Heart in this place.”

Asking an Aztec man in 1531 to go tell the bishop to build a shrine is kind of like asking an undocumented immigrant to get a private audience with the governor for a pet project. But Juan Diego did as the lady asked him. He went to see the bishop, who asked for a sign that he was telling the truth. So the lady told Juan Diego to gather up the roses that were blooming, on a hillside where there had never been flowers, put them in his cape, and not to show anyone but the bishop. Again, Juan Diego followed instructions, and when he went to the bishop and opened up his cape, the roses tumbled out revealing the image of the lady. That image of her still exists, on the same cape, hanging in the cathedral built on that hillside.

Mary appeared to Juan Diego as a dark-skinned, dark-haired woman, speaking his native language, Nahuatl. She doesn’t look otherworldly, angelic, but like a real woman, and she sounds like the kind of mom everybody wants.

We wait at the shrine, drinking our punch. I wish mine were spiked with tequila, but no such luck. Norma knows that Antonio and I have broken up, and though she has no official position, I know she thinks what everyone seems to think — I should live in the now, enjoy myself. I hear drums in the distance, then a sound like a parade approaching. The dancers appear.

They are all young men, dressed as viejitos, old men and women, their costumes including demonic-looking masks, raggedy clothes, canes. They do a simple, traditional dance that came from the village in Guerrero from which their families originated. Percussion fills the air, but the loudest sound I hear is my heart, as I watch only my love. It’s obvious who he is, costumed or not. He and my host brother are the tallest pair by far, and he the most graceful dancer. The rhythm, the dancing, the night — it’s enough for me to forget all the reasons we shouldn’t be together.

“You’re staring,” Norma says, nudging me.

I pull my eyes away, look at her. “I’m watching the dancers.”

“You’re watching one dancer.”

I sigh, don’t bother denying it. Help me, Virgencita.

“It is well, littlest and dearest of my daughters. Am I not here who is your Mother?”

After dancing for a while, the viejitos remove their masks, greeting friends in the crowd. I want to run, I want to hide, but what is the point? We share all the same friends. I might as well get used to this.

“Are you not under my shadow and protection?”

Antonio approaches, extends his hand in the customary greeting, kisses my cheek. I think I might crack in half from the pain. I see the same hurt on his face, which is no consolation. Why did we break up again?

“I’m glad you came.” He says it so quietly, with such sincerity. It is an arrow in my heart. I can’t look at him, only nod.

“Hey, cabrĂ³n!” one of his buddies shows up with a flask of tequila — thank God — and offers it to us, pouring it into small paper cups. The women pass out tamales and more punch, but after a precious few minutes it is time for the dancers to process on to the next shrine.

He turns to look at me. “Will you come with us?” he asks.

“How long will you dance?”

“All night.”

And then I see it — why we have broken up. Because as much as I love being here for this moment, this is only a moment to me. I am dropping in, passing through, and he is upholding a tradition passed from one generation to the next.

“Yes, I’ll be here,” I say. For now. I don’t have to add this part. He knows it. He kisses my cheek, lingering for only a moment longer than he should. I inhale his scent, like spring rain, reach up a hand to touch his face, but stop short.

He returns to the dancers, I return to Norma, hollow as the drums that surround us.

“Here I will see their tears; I will console them and they will be at peace.”

I am not yet at peace, but following the dancers that night processing from shrine to shrine, I begin to believe in La Virgen. I lose a boyfriend, but I gain a Mother.

Julie Owsik Ackerman is finishing a novel based on her experiences studying in Mexico. <>

Friday, October 14, 2016

10 Sweetest Things, 5 1/4

My baby is 5 already. Five and a quarter in a few days. Where do the days, months, years go? I just re-read some old entries, and was struck by how much I had forgotten. Everyone says that you forget things, but I didn't really believe them.

So, for the sake of remembering, here are 10 sweetest things about right now:

  1. He holds my hand as we walk to school. These days may be numbered, so I enjoy every last one.
  2. He kisses me goodbye, in front of his whole class. Ditto above - days numbered.
  3. He hugs me, both spontaneously, and when asked.
  4. He makes up his own songs. All the time. Sometimes I question the content, like the one with the refrain about drinking alcohol, but mostly they are about God's creation (Catholic School), or whatever he is looking at (ie living room couches.)
  5. He loves to read stories together. Current favorites: The Pout Pout Fish, Star Wars anything, and anything haunted.
  6. He asks us to make up haunted stories, almost every day, then tells us when they get too scary.
  7. He loves to help: vacuuming, feeding Nalu, emptying trash - any job he can do around the house, he does with joy.
  8. He's a road warrior. We can drive 6 hours to Central New York, with nary a complaint from the backseat.
  9. He's generous. He'll share his dessert, even if it's M&Ms, and he only has a few left.
  10. He loves to tell jokes. He's even creating his own material. He'll be writing his own blog entries soon.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Hey Mexican National Futbol Team, Here's What to do in Philly

First of all, let me say, Bienvenido. Nuestra cuidad es su cuidad. Having spent a lot of time traveling in Mexico, enjoying the beauty and culture of your country, I wanted to offer some tips on how to spend the time you have in our corner of the world.

1.       Get a cheesesteak. It’s our thing, what we’re famous for here in Philly. So unless you’re vegetarian, then yes, get the requisite cheesesteak. Dalessandro’s is the best cheesesteak in Philly, but, it’s a bit out of the way, in Roxborough (600 Wendover St, Philadelphia). You can’t go wrong with Jim’s (400 South Street), Tony Luke’s (various locations) and most people like Pat’s (1237 E. Passyunk Ave.) I’d avoid Geno’s, since they have an obnoxious order--in-English-only policy.
2.       If you’re looking for a taste of home, go to the Italian Market in South Philadelphia – now full of Mexican restaurants and markets. The Taqueria Veracruzana (908 Washington Ave.) is my favorite, but feel free to shop around.

3.       After filling your belly, be sure to wander down South Street. Night or day, something interesting is always happening on South Street. It’s a great place for people-watching, for shopping, for wandering.

4.       From South Street, head into Old City. Here is where you’ll find Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. You can learn about the early history of the United States, including fun facts about the hot and sweaty summer when the Constitution was debated.

5.       Round out your visit with a stroll down the Ben Franklin Parkway, modeled on the Champs Elysees in Paris. Walk the wide boulevard, enjoying the fountains, flowers and sculptures. Duck into the Barnes Museum to see an amazing collection of modern art, the Rodin Museum if you enjoy sculpture, or head to the mother museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where you can see a bit of everything, including two works by Diego Rivera.  

6.       Finally, no trip to Philly is complete without running up the steps of the Art Museum, like Rocky, and jumping up and down at the top. It’s fun, it’s silly, it’s mandatory. Just do it. Then take your picture with the Rocky statue at the base of the steps.

There are many more things you could enjoy here in the summertime: a Phillies game, a trip to the Jersey shore, an afternoon at a winery, an outdoor concert at the Mann Center, dinner at one of our many world-class restaurants. Do it all, and come back again. 

Sunday, July 19, 2015

A Wish for All Young Ball Players

And in honor of my dad and the St. Bernadette's Beavers...

Originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on April 15, 2015
Julie Owsik Ackermanis a writing coach for college applicants

Spring means crocuses, robins, and baseball. The Phillies come back to town, and little boys and girls are fitting their hands into leather gloves, running the bases, and swinging a bat. I began playing baseball on a boys' team, at the age of 5. I hated it. I would have preferred dance class, but no one was going to tell my mom that her daughter couldn't play baseball because she was a girl, and it was probably easier to take all of her children to one place. So off to the baseball diamond I went week after week.

After that first season, my parents switched me to the girls' softball league, which I liked better. I had three brothers, and lived on a block with all boys, so having girls around, at least at the ball field, was a relief. But did I even enjoy softball? I don't know. It's hard to like anything while you're learning. In those first years I just remember being at "The Field" all the time. We practiced when it was still so cold that my hands were red and raw, and would sting when I caught a ball in my glove. Other days we baked in the sun, thirsty and unsheltered. In the early years, I tried every position, kept showing up, kept practicing, and over time, became a decent player.

Although anyone could play in the town Little League, it was a big deal to make the St. Bernadette's school team. So when I made it in seventh grade I was pleased. In eighth grade, our coach got sick, and the call went out for volunteers. My dad asked me what I thought about him coaching. He had played Division 1 baseball at St. Joe's University, coached high school sports for years, and my brothers in many things, but could he handle girls? There weren't many options, so I said we could give it a try.

At our first team practice we told my dad we didn't want to order hats.
"What?" he asked, incredulous. "This is softball."
"They'll ruin our hair," one of the Nicoles explained. This was the 1990s - big bangs were important.

What would Dad do? Get angry? Force the hats on us? He thought for a moment, then said: "OK, I guess we'll vote on it. How many people want hats?"
A few nerds raised their hands.

He laughed, and then said, "OK, looks like we won't be wearing hats this year."
It may seem a small thing, even silly, this respect of our big bangs, but it was brilliant. With that vote, he showed us - he showed me - that he respected us, that he heard us, that our opinion mattered.

So began a magical season. With Katie Weinrich pitching, me at first base, the team's solid defense, and some good hitting, the St. Bernadette's Beavers were almost unbeatable. I'd never had so much fun. Winning will do that. Winning with your dad as the coach, and your friends as your teammates, well, that's a dream season.
The golden season tarnished a bit when I contracted chicken pox right before the playoffs. Restricted to bed, I learned the news when my dad came home from each game with his play-by-play report. It was torture to be lying at home, missing the pinnacle of everything we had worked to accomplish, but the team kept winning and winning.

In a movielike ending, the doctor cleared me to return for the big game. We had made it all the way to the Archdiocesan Championship, playing to be the best Catholic school team in the whole Philadelphia area. I was so proud, so pleased, and so glad I could be there with my teammates. Pock-covered or not, I was ready to play my heart out.

The score was 1-0. It was the bottom of the fifth inning (we played only six). The bases were loaded with one out, and I came up to bat. Here was my chance, to knock in the winning runs for my teammates. I gripped the bat, breathed, waited for my pitch, and when it came I knew it. I swung with all my pent-up weeks of frustration, crushing that ball. CRACK! I knew my glory moment had come. Just like in the movies, I heard the screams, I felt the joy, then no! No! THUD. The ball landed. Directly in the shortstop's glove. I was out.
Everything went silent. It was supposed to be the best hit of my life. How could it end this way? I walked, trembling, back toward the bench, and when my dad put his arm around me, the tears just poured out.

He hugged me and let me cry, let me be the 13-year-old that I was. After I calmed down he said, "Jewel, that was a great hit. You did everything you could. I'm proud of you."

We lost the game.

When I recently asked my dad about the game, he said what he has always said, "If you had hit that ball two feet in the other direction, we would have won."

That was a good lesson to learn. Even when you pull yourself up from a sickbed and have a chance to be a hero, all you can do is swing the bat - you can't control where the fielder is standing.

I can't lie. The loss still hurts a little. But in losing, I won something way more valuable. I learned that day that my dad was proud of me even when I wasn't the hero, even when I lost. That is my wish for every child this baseball and softball season.

Our Heritage Connects us to Family

In lieu of writing any new material, I thought I'd share some work that's been published elsewhere over the past few months. Happy summer :)

Members of the Cara School of Irish Dance in Drexel Hill dance along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sunday.

Originally Published in The Philadelphia Inquirer March 17, 2015

By Julie Owsik Ackerman
Why do we care about St. Patrick's Day?

I'm a third-generation Irish American. My mom's grandparents immigrated from Ireland and my grandparents were born in Philadelphia. So if I'm not looking for an excuse to drink too much Guinness, why celebrate at all? Why does it even matter to me that I'm Irish?

For me, the answer is that it mattered to my grandmom, and I loved her. Dorothy Higgins Wade grew up with Irish parents, in St. Brigid's Parish, in the Irish community in East Falls. Although she moved out to the suburbs when she married, she carried a love of that community and her Irish heritage with her, passing that love down to her daughter, who passed it down to me.

In 1997, Grandmom, my parents, and I traveled to Ireland for a family reunion. More than a hundred family members gathered from the United States, Ireland, England, and Australia for the occasion. It was the first time my Irish American grandmother had ever visited the homeland, and she was thrilled. I was 21 that summer, a wee lass, and was suffering through a heartbreak in true Irish fashion - by drinking a lot, writing poetry, and crying on the shoulder of anyone who would listen.

The trip helped me in ways I couldn't have imagined. After arriving in Dublin, the first odd thing I noticed was that everyone there looked like my family. I'd never been anywhere like that before. This was comforting at a time when I was feeling so lost and rejected.
Also, the Irish really are the friendliest people you'll ever meet, a trait that Grandmom and I both shared. Over the course of the 10 days, we would leave Grandmom on a bench to rest while we explored, and every single time we would return to find her with a new friend. Every time.

It became increasingly difficult for me to be sullen and sad while surrounded by so many cheerful and friendly people.

After a day in Dublin, we made our way to Sligo for the reunion weekend, and we had a big party. One of my younger Irish cousins had just joined a boy band, which sang a few songs at the gathering. That band would turn into teen sensation Westlife a few years later.

After the party, some cousins and I went out to a club, and I met a cute Irish guy who kissed me in an alcove while rain poured outside. Walking home later, my cousin Julie and I lost our way and hitched a ride with the local police. Dancing, kissing, riding in police cars - Ireland was bringing me back to life.

After our weekend in Sligo, we went out to the family farm in County Mayo. As I stood with Grandmom in the doorway of the small home where her mother was born, my pain didn't disappear, but it shrank a bit.

I saw that, yes, my broken heart mattered, but in the scheme of a life, it wouldn't be the only thing that would matter. I couldn't articulate it yet, but I know now that a seed of hope was planted that day with Grandmom: I would love again; I would marry; I would travel one day with a beloved child and tell him about people I loved who had passed on; he would hold my hand while I cried, just as I did for Grandmom.

All of those things have come true.

So when St. Patrick's Day comes now, I don't start drinking at 9 a.m., and I don't go to parades or pull out a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses.

But I do make one of Grandmom's recipes, handwritten on index cards just for me. I do listen to some Irish music, even if it's just Blackthorn in my kitchen. I do call my mom to hear her say, "Top of the morning to you, my pretty colleen."

And I do remember how much it meant to go to Ireland, to be with my Grandmom and my family, and to see that I was a part of something bigger than myself. I was loved, maybe not by one particular man, but by Dorothy Higgins Wade and a whole clan of crazy Irish folks.