January 24, 2017
When so much of our politics is trying to manage this clash of cultures brought about by globalization and technology and migration, the role of stories to unify — as opposed to divide, to engage rather than to marginalize — is more important than ever.
President Obama in a NY Times interview with Michiko Kakutani, January 16, 2017
Since the election and the inauguration of our new president, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night feeling hungry for all the classics on my bookshelves, or verses from my favorite poems, or a banana. This is called my night terrors solution. In order to get back to sleep, I have to make some chamomile tea, eat the banana very slowly, and read paragraphs from a Graham Greene anthology, an Edith Wharton novel, or a Raymond Carver short story. The choice of reading material varies. I might browse for a while, take one book out, put another back. I never open my Kindle which usually holds at least three books I am reading in the daylight hours. No, the night terrors solution requires the printed word. I might open my journal and write for a while. Finally, my nerves settle.
This week has been somewhat different, however. I marched in New York on Saturday with five friends. I say marched but, in fact, we never made it past 47th street; we stood, we sang, we chanted, we held up signs.
Afterwards, all in my small group agreed that our despair at the outcome of the election had been lifted with this one national-- and international--act of peaceful resistance to a new regime--not an administration, a regime-- in Washington. The effects are already being felt with fast-moving executive orders targeting the Affordable Care Act, Women's Right to Choose, and the Keystone Pipeline. The pink hats will be on for a while. The marches will continue.
Like most writers, I have been both inside the event of recent weeks and months, and observing the events. On Saturday, I took some photos for my Facebook page, but I also sent text back to myself whenever I spotted a pithy sign or overheard some dialogue. In other words, I was already collecting shared stories, telling my own stories, and writing this blog post. And I had the strange sensation--probably because I already miss him-- that President Obama was doing something similar. He has always kept a journal and is poised to write his next book.
Although President Clinton was also a voracious reader, President Obama is both a reader and a good writer, probably the greatest literary president since Abraham Lincoln. While in the Oval Office, these three imperfect, empathetic presidents found both anchor and inspiration in books.
January 17, 2017
Staceyann Chin and her daughter, Zuni, declaiming poetry.
I went to the Apollo Theater on Sunday for a panel discussion, “Where Do We Go From Here?; MLK and the Future of Inclusion.” January 15 would have been the Reverend’s actual birthday: 88- years-old. How wonderful that his birthday fell during this week of marches and civil disobedience. “Where Do We Go From Here?,” was the title of Dr. King’s last book. It’s still a good question.
The Apollo has been renovated since my last visit there, a gorgeous, welcoming space, and I was looking forward to the afternoon. Sadly, I felt stuck in my seat, sorely disappointed. Solid, incisive questions posed by WNYC’s Brian Lehrer and Jami Floyd went unanswered or evaded. Instead, there were lots of stale ideas, some pontificating, a good bit of posturing. I learned nothing new, nor did I feel hopeful until Jamaican-born, bi-racial, lesbian Staceyann Chin bounced onto the stage. As I rarely frequent poetry slams, I had never heard of her. Whoa!!
Suddenly the audience was upright, all impatient sighs silenced. Even her get-up—patterned tights, a flared mid-thigh dress—declared: PAY ATTENTION.
If agit-prop/polemical poetry is good, it wakes us out of our comfort zones, juxtaposes unexpectedly, and changes the air we breathe. Chin is good. This one-word-after another prose I am writing here can only approximate her performance on the stage.
“I am holding my own sorrow,” she said. That was just one line I caught as she thrashed and flailed her lithe body into her poem stories, aphorisms and tragic truths. “A system sworn to protect us owes us something when it fails.” That one seared. So, too, another which I will have to paraphrase here as it flew by so fast. It was something about white liberal/progressives taking responsibility for white supremacists, their hate speech. Something about finding a way to answer the hate with our own liberal/progressive words.
That’s quite a challenge, something I’ll have to think about in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, I plan to read Staceyann’s memoir:
January 10, 2017
...and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
--From the Book of Isaiah
I had wanted to tell his story or to help him tell his story. He had approached me after a seminar and said he was in transition from the military into humanitarian work and had recently returned from a stint in a refugee camp.
He’d been in Afghanistan, he’d been in Iraq, he still had all his limbs, he spoke English and Arabic and Dari, which is related to Farsi, the language of Iran. He had a very American name—Bryan—and had grown up in a very American middle-class military family in a suddenly—one year to the next, it seemed—impoverished textile down in Northern New England. Many of the young men and women had enlisted or gone to seek their fortunes in the cities across America and the world leaving their bereft extended families behind. He had lost many comrades.
This is Donald Trump’s America. We would do well to pay attention.
For several months I tried to fashion a book proposal about veterans like Bryan, young men and women who had enlisted for economic or patriotic reasons, or both, men and women who were deployed and then re-deployed, brutalized by war and witness to war. Men and women who had decided to become healers and helpers. But they had trouble talking about their experiences in war zones, they had moved on, and the stories never took shape, so I moved on, too, into my next project.
Since then, several impressive anthologies have been published but none, so far as I can tell, celebrate the soldiers who have become humanitarian workers:
Maybe I am thinking about these particular vets again today because there is still so much terrible conflict in the world with no end in sight; or because the promise of peaceful resolutions and solid diplomacy seems even more remote as Donald Trump enters the White House.
There are no golf courses or business opportunities in refugee camps.
We are asked by some to “give our new president a chance,” and to forgive his egregious transgressions and hate speech thus far. Many professionals are trying to rein him in, to educate him. I wonder if this would be easier, or even necessary, if his own sons had been drafted, or enlisted, or lost comrades overseas. I know that Bryan and his decimated unit, deployed and re-deployed, would have a lot to teach our new president about altruism, civility, and world peace.
January 1, 2017
I’ve been dreaming in threes, a trilogy of dreams every night for the past month or so. Dream 1 is a wishful dream, something I need or covet. Dream 2 is an anxiety dream that threatens my very being. Dream 3 is quotidian, a resolution of disparate destabilizing forces during which daily routines are re-established: chopping mushrooms for an omelet, scouring the tub, adding an item to my shopping list. After Dream 3, I open my eyes. The play of geometric shapes on the ceiling, reflections of the cityscape through the blinds, has vanished. It is morning. Sentences surface as I awake to light. I reach for my journal hoping to collect the dreams without being disturbed by my husband’s stirring. He may already be in the kitchen preparing coffee. I shut out the sound and all thoughts of obligations awaiting me. I begin to write.
Dreams are both the raw material for stories and information about my psychic and everyday life. It is part of my writing routine to record them whenever they are remembered, which can be rare, or often. I prefer to begin my day with a dream story in my head and sentences that recall the dream. I aim for precision as I evoke the sensation of the dream’s morphing elusive shape. This is a pleasurable discipline.
I know that many people do not believe that the unconscious exists, but I do. What else is a dream but evidence of it?
In her new memoir, “M Train,” Patti Smith says, “I lived in my own book.” A continuation of that thought might be: I lived in my own dream, or my book is my dream, or my dream became my book.