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Children Never Forget Injustice

My blog title today is a quote from Virginia Woolf’s first novel, “The Voyage Out.” Had Ms. Woolf lived into the 21st century, she might have been on the stage in Washington D.C. as a spokeswoman for March For Our Lives. She anticipated this moment of struggle and pain, as have so many others. She lost loved ones in war, her psyche was hammered in The Blitz, she insisted on a room of her own to write, she would not be silenced by illness or skeptical readers, or the patriarchy of a conventional, class-ridden society.

Now a tragedy has shaped a new movement with charismatic leaders. What the so-called grown-ups can't do--get out to vote, govern humanely, regulate what harms us--the next generation will. Until the Gay Rights Movement began, nonviolent protest movements were mostly—not entirely, but mostly-- led by brave young men with women on the sidelines as help-mates and companions. Not so today. The gender equality on that stage in DC over the weekend was telling. We are in the midst of profound change, visible in every news cycle.

Enter Stormy Daniels, a registered Republican, last Sunday night. Her story is a culmination of weeks of discourse about sexual harassment in the work place, and though her “relationship,” if we can call it that, with “the President,” if we can call him that, was “consensual,” it became a threat and a travail to Ms. Cliffords’ family. Her decision to speak out is heroic. I am sure she now needs 24-hour protection, as do some of the organizers of March For Our Lives. I know what it means to need such protection. It is terrifying. To say that these young people are courageous is an understatement.

The producers of 60 minutes portrayed Ms. Cliffords with the dignity she deserves. The story was not in her big breasts, or choice of occupation, but in the intimidation, the hush money and the lies, and on the sometimes inadvertent revelations of a so-called president’s character.

The camera mostly focused on Ms. Clifford’s face, on the articulate woman with a story. And the choice of a non-abrasive, respectful interviewer—a gay man—was smart. Anderson Cooper has a quiet, reassuring presence. The pace of the questioning remained relaxed, as if to say: this is what happened, judge for yourself.

Every journalist struggles to find the armature of a story. The pressures of the marketplace often make this difficult—60 minutes has to compete with delayed sports every week—and when they landed Stormy Daniels, the marketing department was undoubtedly pleased. They could have pandered to the salaciousness of the sexual encounter, but they didn’t. Their presentation of a controversial woman remained tasteful. It was the perfect conclusion to an inspiring weekend.  Read More 
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The Lazarus Man

I met the Lazarus Man on the A Train last week. Tall, well-dressed, dark-skinned and handsome with a sonorous voice, he offered me his seat and asked me if I read the Bible.

As literature, I said.

He was wearing a gold ornamental necklace that fell gracefully to his chest, Lazarus and his two dogs. I didn’t know the story.

Jesus restored Lazarus to life, he said. You’ll find the story in the Gospels:

“Here was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores."

Angels descend when we are weary and troubled, he continued. I see both on your face today, neighbor. You will be restored to life.

Is that a prophecy or a promise?

Both, he said.

Then he introduced me to his wife who was sitting to my right.

Fifteen beautiful years, he said.

And does a religious man such as yourself vote? I asked.

Praise God, I do, he said, and laughed.

Because one wonders, or I do—let me just speak for myself—what on earth these cynical and opportunistic politicians of ours are thinking or, more importantly, feeling. We’re real people out here, working hard, raising our families, traveling on the unreliable A Train, going to the shops to buy food, worried about health insurance.

I have no answer other than kindness. It’s in the Bible. Ah, I see we have arrived.

Our conversation had taken place from 59th to 145th Street. How much time had elapsed? Just a few minutes, not even a half-hour.

And now we must leave, he said. It was good to meet you today, neighbor.

Likewise, I said. Thank you for giving me your seat and your blessings.

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Chasing the Whale, Part 2

--This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.
--To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme.
Herman Melville in “Moby Dick”

I have finished “Moby Dick”, but not yet read the biography of Melville by Andrew Delbanco, as I promised myself. I am spent, but also pleased that I finished the book, much of which I enjoyed. The most evocative passages are hyper-real—the ship languishing at sea, sailors swaying on the masts, whales making love. The most endearing characters are from shithole countries—a life at sea has no borders—and Captain Ahab is a self-destructive, compelling, vigilant narcissist who surfaces from his cabin as obsesssion calls. The voyage of the Pequod is a death march from beginning to end.

Dear reader, what possessed this author, under the influence of the elder Nathaniel Hawthorne, to write this epic, encyclopedic tome? And how did he finish it in one year? If I had been a woman editor of this male author’s Great American Novel, I might have suggsted one or two cuts :). Would the Great American Male Author have resisted my suggestions? Or would he have exercised his prerogative? Indeed, I might have told him, the work itself is a Great Leviathan and must be slain in two—leaving the first and last sections slung together—as a novel. This is where the most evocative alliterative prose resides. But, no, it will be a stet, published as written, a draft of a draft of a novel with a “mighty” theme.

Was it Melville’s intention to outdo every English-language novel ever written? To become the Most Famous American Novelist of the 19th century? In an 1868 essay in The Nation, John William DeForest searched for the Great American Novel, thus coining the phrase, and did not mention Melville. Novelists, he suggested, stagger under a heavy load if they attempt greatness.

In the 21st century, we disdain hubris and admire humility among—and within—our writers. Reviewers and Oprah may puff up successful writers and create celebrities of them, but sensible writers know the limits of five minutes of fame as inspiration. They have to get back to work; celebrity addles the mind. No writers I know, even great ones, would ever admit publicly that s/he deserves fame or that their work is a masterpiece. Many even shun readings and interviews.

In his inimical, modest way, 20th century writer, Norman Mailer, asserted that he would write The Great American Novel. Instead, he wrote “The Executioner’s Song,” which is an excellent nonfiction book that reads like a novel.  Read More 
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Writing By Hand

I wonder if taking a drawing class will improve my handwriting? I’ve just read a bunch of manuscripts for my workshop tomorrow night and I can’t believe the clanky, messy scribbles I’ve made in the margins. They’ve become harder and harder to read, nearly illegible, even to myself at times. My handwriting, dear reader, needs a week of contemplative rest at Kripalu with lots of massage and italicized hikes in the woods. Italicized! Why did that word surface?

I used to love italic calligraphy when I lived in London. All the children and adults I taught there wrote in the most gorgeous, precise italic script. I thought it very clever, as the Brits would say, to teach italic to school children, and nothing else. No print, no transition to cursive. Now that American schools have mostly abandoned instruction in cursive, it makes even more sense. But what are children learning in the US School Districts? Only “print” and typing apparently. I don’t know if this is good, bad, or simply convenient. Why not teach italic? Would that make sense? Probably not. The teachers would have to learn it.

While living abroad, there was so much that was new and interesting to contemplate every day. The Brits do speak English, right? Why, then, couldn’t I understand what they were saying? I wrote in a trance, I wrote constantly, I became a writer, I decided to learn italic script. I collected cartridge pens with different italic nibs—they even make them for left-handers—and enjoyed penning greeting cards with long messages and filling journals, large and small. Traveling by plane and writing postcards was a problem, however, as the cartridges always leaked en route, so I eventually settled on non-leak pens while air-borne, not as much fun. Once landed, I searched out stationary stores to purchase pens for the duration of my stay. Les stylos italiques? I gave them away to the concierge as I paid my bill unless I was returning to London by train and ferry.

I try to persuade my born-to-electronics students that hand-holding a pen is a pleasing sensory experience that amplifies the connection between brain and written word. At the very least, it slows us down in a meditative way, I say. Mostly, they honor my professorial status and give it a try. But the silenced phones surface at regular intervals to read “notes.” Plus ça change.  Read More 
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