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When All Else Fails

I wish I were writing today. I wish I were writing more than this blog post and a Facebook announcement for a reading/performance of Nomads on January 6, 2015. Not that far away, had to be done. The curators at the Cornelia Street Cafe plan far in advance, put up information on their website. And what else am I working on? Nothing. Except for this blog post, my journal, emails, marginalia on my students’ papers, my clients’ manuscripts. Is this enough? Never. A writer prefers (needs?) a project to look forward to every writing day. But there cannot always be a project.

In the hiatus between projects, what to do? Take walks, read, teach, keep lists. Lists of what? Five things from your childhood, Natalie Goldberg suggests in her new book, “The True Secret of Writing; Connecting Life With Language.” Make lists, no interpretation. What does she mean by this? Is it possible not to interpret? Is it possible to suppress the story-telling instinct? I don’t think so. When all else fails--no time, no ideas--shall I make a list on the subway? In the supermarket? Yes, why not? So yesterday, I bought some new journals (a pack of three slim lined red moleskines) and began to take notes about everything in front of me, so to speak:

* a man dressed in camouflage waiting for the Amsterdam Ave. bus. His arms are tattooed and his face is painted to match the tattoos. What is his story? Is he a vet? In costume for Halloween? Or what?

* a family –mother, father, older sister, grandmother—on the A train singing nursery rhymes to their toddler . How do I even know that they are a family? What makes them seem like a family?

I wrote maybe ten observations throughout the day and every one, without exception, was the beginning of a story.  Read More 
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The Words We Use

When I first arrived in London what seems like eons ago now, there still were golliwogs on Robertson jam jars and black and white minstrels on television. Having participated full throttle in the Civil Rights Movement in the US, I was stunned and enraged. Ex-Colonial Masters in the secondary school where I first taught were perpetrators and their students—mostly from the Caribbean—were, to their pleasure and amusement, imaginary golliwogs come to life. To say that there was cruelty in that school is an understatement. Caning, slippering (with a gym shoe known as a plimsole), humiliation. “These children are so backward,” the teachers said over and over again. But it was the country that was backward at that time, or these teachers in particular, to be fair, as the school system was in the midst of reform which was taking a long time to percolate outward to the worst schools.

My husband and I stayed in Britain for a decade; our daughter was born there. Over the years, as entrance into the EU became a reality, there was increased tolerance for the “other.” So many “others” were being born British, born Londoners, cosmopolitan and borderless. And so many “others” were visiting and studying in England, and so many young Brits were traveling and working abroad. This kind of voluntary migration shatters insularity. The neighborhoods, though divided by class, were integrated racially. People were socializing, dating, marrying. So I was surprised to discover that a British friend who visited New York the other day is still using offensive words and finding new uses for them. I am sure she is an anomaly, living in a small village, prey to the sensational press—Islamic terrorists these days instead of golliwogs. And offensive words still on her lips.

“Stupid,” was always a favorite, “naughty” another. “That’s a stupid woman,” my friend said on the M4 bus which travels from my neighborhood into Harlem and beyond. I had wanted her to feel the contours of my divided city, contiguous ethnic neighborhoods living peaceably side by side without much interaction. And a young black woman got on who was obviously unwell, perhaps even on medication, and her reflexes were so slow, her lips and hands trembling, that she didn’t get up fast enough from the side seat reserved for the elderly and disabled when an elderly woman got on. “Stupid woman,” my friend said again. That brought me back-ward to my early days in London.

“She is unwell,” I said, correcting my friend. “The words we use to describe people matter.” Earlier she had referred to our native people as “Red Indians,” and prided herself on not having any “laborers,” in her family. Class prejudice as well as racism, I thought. How quaint.  Read More 
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