Yesterday I spent all day out in the heat at Planting Fields. I acknowledge the privilege I have: access to a friend w/car, a paid day off, NOT having to work and/or live outside…but I also think a lot about what it means to have to travel to see grass, trees, flowers – to have space to walk in nature and away from crowds. Ages ago I made a choice to move to NYC and then to the tiny apartment where I’ve been for many years. And there are many good things about NYC (and my tiny apartment) but all those photos friends post about yards and gardens and sunrises or sunsets, help to build a depth of regret and longing that I can’t quite reason or write myself out of. Now, this is, in theory, a blog about writing and reading, and my life is often spent immersed in editing, reading, writing while trying to balance a “day job” that has nothing to do with any of those things. And part of why I live in NYC is to have access to the world of writers and readers and publishers. But with the pandemic, my life has become one lived mostly inside: I have a disability and have been working from home since March of 2020. It’s a privilege but also can feel like punishment. In the hours I’m not working at the day job, I write book reviews (mostly for Publishers Weekly & The Brooklyn Rail), I read manuscripts (mostly for Black Lawrence Press), I curate and edit an indie publishing newsletter (Sapling – for BLP), and I recently completed a stint as guest editor for The Masters Review Novel Workshop. I read over 200 books a year (only some for pleasure), I read a few hundred manuscripts, and somewhere in there, I go to school (Starr King), I write, and I write, and I write. Even if I had access to sunrises and grass and flowers and trees on a daily basis, would I have time to savor them? To savor life? I’ve recently been reading (again) about “mindfulness” – that overused term that seems to be an attempt for many of us to fix those symptoms that cause us suffering: stress, anxiety, eating too much or too little, grief, aches, pains, and so many other parts of what it means to be human and alive in this time. Assuming you have a job and a place to live – which I know isn’t true for many Americans, not to mention many others across the planet – so many of us fail to acknowledge the privilege of our own lives: a relatively safe place to live, enough food and clean water, bodily autonomy (oops! lost that one), maybe even the opportunity to pursue our dreams. Perhaps, for me, mindfulness exists in those moments when I just stop and acknowledge the many good things in my life – not the ache for trees, not the anger at injustice, not the chronic pain, or even the little failures I see in books or manuscripts I read. It’s when I stop and take pleasure in a phrase or a sentence that works (!) or the drift of clouds above the brick building next door. It’s when I stop to breathe, stretch, or turn the page, maybe even appreciate my body’s ability to move with strength and power. Perhaps for me, mindfulness also exists in the call and response at a protest I recently attended while acknowledging my fear of crowds, other people, contagion, violence, noise, all the many reasons to be afraid. Perhaps for me, mindfulness exists in the act of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and shifting the chaos of sound and vision, of fear and anger, and of people and trees and sky into words.
In the days since last Tuesday’s election, I’ve heard and read exhortations to “build bridges,” to “start a dialogue,” and to “express ourselves through art.” I’ve also read and heard many people say “there’s no point” to the ongoing protests in many American cities. Most people who know me know that I am an intellectual, a critical thinker and abhor violence. Aside from a few Freedom of Choice or Anti-War gatherings, it’s been years since I’ve participated in a street protest. I’m painfully shy, loathe crowds and have found in the past that most protesters hold more extreme views than my own.
This time it’s different. I could argue the math: HRC won the popular vote (as the days pass, it appears, by a large margin). I could argue the political history: the Electoral College was created in a time when 75% of the current American population did not have the vote and it has become largely irrelevant and an impediment to Democracy – silencing the will of the people rather than aiding in any balance of power. But while there are those in the NYC protests whose signs reflect these views, there is a much more urgent reason we are marching. We are certainly not “professional protesters” (as Trump has claimed) but average New Yorkers of all genders, races, and age groups. These marches are not about “being sore losers” (as Trumpians claim), nor are they about “being unrealistic” (as pundits and politicians tell us). Instead, this is about drawing a line in the sand. Or to quote one of the signs I saw yesterday referencing Gandalf (LOTR), a line beyond which hate “shall not pass.”
As the days pass and the incidences of hate crimes increase while the Government does and says NOTHING, it has become important that we march, that we hold signs high that read “Muslim Rights are Human Rights,” “Trans Rights are Human Rights,” “Refugees Are Welcome Here,” “We are ALL Immigrants,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Nasty Women Fight Back.” I’ve read posts on Facebook and heard from otherwise relatively compassionate white friends that we all need to move on and to move forward together. No, we don’t. We ALL need to stand up against Fascism, against Racism and Misogyny and Homophobia and Anti-Refugee and Anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence. We ALL need to march in the streets in vast numbers until our Government hears us and says loud enough for Trump’s followers to hear: “We will NOT tolerate violence against our citizens and we WILL prosecute hate crimes and hate speech.” And until THAT happens, please do not ask any of us who are marching to “build bridges” with people who think gay-bashing and Muslim-bashing and assaulting women and spray painting swastikas in school dorms and chanting “build a wall” at kids in school cafeterias is “freedom of speech.”
We did not vote for hate. We did not elect Trump. And we MUST stand up against his followers. Hiding at home or “getting back to normal” or thinking posting photos of yourself on Facebook wearing a safety pin counts as activism, cannot be our collective response. Give to the ACLU, volunteer in your community, wear a safety pin but ALSO get out there and raise your voice. Because until we ALL march, until we are ALL loud in our condemnation of hate, they will do nothing. #notmypresident
In the wake of yet another terrorist attack, I find it hard to stay focused on the myriad projects with deadlines looming (or already passed). But one thing I learned from those horrible days in september 2001 in NYC when the dust was everywhere and sirens became a part of our daily soundtrack is that there is a way through and for some of us, that way is with words. I write to understand the world. I write to understand myself. And when I can’t understand either, I write because I have to. That may sound pretentious or self-involved (aren’t all humans by nature self-involved?) but I really believe in the healing power of art. For several years I volunteered as a writing workshop facilitator at the Brooklyn Vet Center leading workshops for veterans with PTSD. They didn’t write about combat all that much and (with a very few exceptions) they were positive, mutually supportive and wonderful writers. The opportunity to write with them every week was one of the high points of my writing life. While that workshop ended due to a mixture of organizational dis-organization and my own PTSD making it difficult to take the subway to/from Bklyn every week, I still draw strength from that time spent writing with men and women who have witnessed horrors I will (I hope) never see. To be real, no one is “safe” and there is no such thing as “normalcy” (a word thrown around a lot in the days and weeks after 9/11 in NYC). But I can’t live life worrying every minute about when the next attack will come. And on those days when I just can’t see how we will ever get through this, how humanity will ever become “humane” on a global scale, I know I can’t do much but what I can do is write. And whether that writing helps anyone else? I don’t know. What I do know is that it helps me: to process rage, sadness, guilt, and confusion. So my advice to you: take some time this week, this month, this year to write, to read, and to write some more. Art does matter. Writing does matter. Even if you are the only person who sees it, it matters.
As I prepare to drag myself from the Day Job campus to the Grad School campus in the midst of a Heat Wave, I’m once again questioning the wisdom of my continued residency in this monstrosity known as New York City. Granted, I live two blocks from one of the best art house cinemas in the country, within limping distance of several “vegan friendly” restaurants and am surrounded by politically like-minded people. However…as summer slides into fall with no apparent signs of abating and I continue to struggle with various strained ligaments, fused vertebrae, and a twice daily walking commute that not only destroys most footwear but also looks to be destroying my ankles, knees and peace-of-mind, I wonder just what it is that makes New York City so great? A recent long weekend (my “summer vacation”) spent in Cape May, NJ made a close friend ask me this question I often ask myself: why do I stay? As I stared out at the waves I’d just spent the day floating/swimming/being pummeled by, another glorious sunset, and the spray of leaping dolphins (yes, dolphins…), I could only say, “because I don’t know where else I could live.” It’s not just about being able to get a decent meal delivered at 4am but it’s about intellect, transport, access and an odd kind of freedom. I no longer really care about the music scene in NYC and most of the clubs in my neighborhood are closed now or too filled with kids for me to like being there. After all, I’m not in my twenties any more but that’s okay. What I mean by access & transport is this: I live near four (or more) amazing bookstores (not to mention those guys who sell good books on the tables outside the NYU library). I can walk to 3 different Farmer’s Markets. I live near two of the best libraries in the country, if not the Western world. I can see pretty much any kind of music I might want to pretty much any night of the week. I can also see the best the literary world has to offer – often for free. I can take a train and in an hour I’ll be at a beautiful beach or a really stunning hiking trail in the woods. I work with people who not only read the books most white liberals read but some of the people who wrote those books. In fact, I’m surrounded by white liberals, radical, intellectuals – most of whom are successful professors, writers, artists, or filmmakers. So why ever leave? Because I live in a 5th floor walk-up in an apartment that has no kitchen cabinets or counters. I can’t have furniture with wheels because the entire building is listing to one side. I’ve never had a yard or a garden. I’ve never owned a car and couldn’t afford to park one or put gas in it even if I did. Everything I own has to fit inside a 400 square foot space. Unless I go running (which I can’t do right now) early in the morning several blocks away from my apartment, I never see the sun rise. And I only see it set if I stand on a roof somewhere or hang out in New Jersey. I live completely surrounded by water but only get to swim when I take a train for an hour to the beach. There are 5 separate construction projects one block from my apartment that show no signs of ever ending. And then there are the white people. As a white person myself this may sound hypocritical but really, I moved to NYC for the music scene and for lack of a better word, it’s “diversity.” I grew up in a place completely surrounded by white people. Granted, every time I leave NYC I feel like I’m completely surrounded by white people (not to mention Republicans and Fundamentalist Christians) but the longer I live in my neighborhood, the more it seems to have lost any diversity it once had. But really, where would I go? None of the outer boroughs appeal and although moving back to the PNW holds its particular appeal, wouldn’t that just be a whole lot more white people? I don’t know the answer but meanwhile, it’s 90+ outside, smells like fungal rot and another semester has started where I’ll be doing my best to find ways around the white male narrative so prevalent in grad school and I’ll be trying to teach my muscles how to run and climb again but most likely I won’t be seeing any sunrises or sunsets for a good long time. Not to mention dolphins.
In the midst of mid-terms in my PhD program, I’ve decided what with all that spare time I have, to sign up for another year’s National Novel Writing Month. I’ve done this process four times with varying results. 3 out of four, I’ve completed a “novel” or at least the required word count. One of those novels went around to agents a bit and now sits sadly on my hard drive waiting to be revisited. A friend asked if I thought “that whole writing a novel in a month” was a waste of time. I’d argue that no writing is a waste of time (aside from some “academic” writing or that FB posting I do when I should be doing other things). That said, whether or not I’ll “do” anything with the novel I plan to write this November isn’t really the point. It’s the writing itself that’s important. One year, I wrote the first half on a very long flight, wrote a few pages over Thanksgiving and finished it up on the flight back to NYC. This year I’ll try to find time by getting up earlier, going to bed later, and cutting back on my already limited social life. Final papers for the fall grad school semester will be looming and likely, too many manuscripts to read for Black Lawrence Press but all the same, I will get a first draft of a new novel done. And maybe I’ll even post part of it here if & when I remember that I have a blog.
While seemingly most of the city is out of town on vacation, there are those of us who work in Higher Ed who are slogging away at all the myriad tasks that are required for a new college semester to get rolling. Full-time faculty are returning, as are administrative colleagues who were away on research trips. People ask me about my summer. My summer has been spent (mostly) in the city working and aside from one quick jaunt to the Adirondacks planned for Labor Day, is now over. Next week I head out to the wilds of NJ for my new Ph.D. program’s Orientation & my classes start the day after Labor Day. Meanwhile, my writing suffers. I still write a poem-a-day during the week (sometimes more) but all the stories I started this summer remain in first or second draft – some likely to remain there for months. Sitting with a long-time artist friend over tea this past weekend, I listened to her talk about a documentary film she’s starting and catching up on her various other output (hard cover book of her illustrations, an installation, etc.). On Friday, I met up with two musician friends – one of whom is playing shows as part of a music-inspired-by-books series before heading out on a UK tour. The other has started a small press and is launching her own line of soaps and perfumes while continuing to play live shows and put out a song a week. Both have full-time jobs. Then I think of all the many creative people in this town who talk more about doing creative work than actually doing the work and I find myself happy to have such accomplished friends and hope that their ongoing creative work will give me the kick in the butt I need to finish my wayward stories and send them out before the pressures of maintaining two jobs and a Ph.D. program swallows all my mental energy. There is a plethora of articles (and books) on how women write when they have kids – maybe it’s time someone wrote about how women create while working full-time, part-time and trying to survive one one income in NYC.
A friend just complained to me yesterday that this summer has been “too cold.” Living on the top floor of a walk-up in the E.V., I’m constantly dealing with temps 10-20 degrees higher than those who live closer to the street. The street itself reeks of NYC in August – that sort of baked garbage & bodily fluids stench that hangs around well into September. And my a.c. has decided to quit. And my landlord is sending exterminators through the entire building whether or not we have bed bugs(I don’t – this time) and wants our apartments “empty” except for furniture. And my apt is full to the ceiling with books – all of which I’ve been sorting through, trying to choose which to keep, sell, give to friends or donate. I’ve also discovered a box(es?) full of manuscripts I’ve abandoned over the past few years – some deserving of abandonment, some not so much. All of which has brought me once again to some basic goals – not keep so much “stuff” and to finish more writing I’ve started. I’ll probably post some excerpts here and send others out into the wide world. Oh & I have the “summer cold” that’s going around and am thinking a farm in Oregon might be a better place for me to be. Meanwhile, here’s a book of “verse” about Oregon from 1914 by Andrew Franzen: https://archive.org/stream/poemsoforegonoth00fran#page/n3/mode/2up