Curses and Blessings, reprise

What can happen when you’re given time and space alone with your ideas? When you’re sent off to a little cabin and someone else is cooking your food and tending to the day-to-day management of your comfort and well-being? When you’re told that the only thing you have to do is whatever you want to do?

Well, any number of things can happen, I suppose. I’ve had very different experiences with writing residencies and retreats. The similarity across all of them — the DIY and the formal ones — is that I’ve come back to my “real life” changed in some way, come back with some new understanding of the writing I went away to work on, which is precisely what I go away for. So … excellent!

How that realization or understanding happens isn’t at all similar. My first DIY retreat, I spent all day every day writing out one character (I was mostly a fiction writer then). I wasn’t working on the story that character was part of. I was digging into his history, trying to understand how he became the man who showed up in the story I wanted so badly to finish but which I couldn’t finish if I didn’t understand that man.

In the end, I wrote so much about him that I realized he was the main character, that the story he’d stepped out of wasn’t the central story at all, as much as I love my original protagonist. That was definitely not the place I’d imagined finding myself at the end of the retreat. Not even close. But I learned a lot about how I feel my way into a story and how to work with story elements and more formal tools to shape a successful arc and land sure-footedly at a conclusion.

At my first formal residency, I’d planned to write scripts for my comics project. I started a script, and it was a solid start. But, but the end of the two weeks, what I’d done most was learn more about how comics work, how sequential art moves with and without words and that some of my ideas were feeling awkward and clunky because I was writing scripts that were at odds with the medium I’d chosen. I did a lot of drawing, which I hadn’t expected, and learned some things about my drawing and what I want from my artwork.

And now …

I came to Alaska with a plan. I decided a while ago that I want to turn my “Fat Talk” essays into a collection. I had an outline of what pieces were needed to complete the arc I’d imagined for the collection. All I needed was time to really sit and focus, time to start building those missing pieces.

Except that’s not what my time has been here at all. I’ve been writing, yes. I wrote a whole new essay that is at least a strong skeleton for what I want the finished version to be. I’ve done some bits of other, not-part-of-the-collection writing. I’ve read through all of the existing essays and made notes for things that need revision, places where I need to go deeper or where I need to steer back on course.

So … productive. But also … not. Everything has felt a little off, a little not quite what I needed to do.

And then Sunday happened. Sunday, I ran up hard against the wall of: what even is this project? what’s the point? what am I trying to say, anyway?

It’s not an unfamiliar wall, but slamming into it is never welcome. And, to be clear, this isn’t La Impostora creeping up on me. She’s always lurking, but this question, this wall, is different. It’s more the realization that I don’t have the clarity about the project that I thought I had. Similar to the realization during that first DIY retreat that I’d been focused on the wrong character, that I was supposed to be writing a very different story.

What do I do when I run into the wall? Well, this time I did some good and some annoying things. I slept. A lot. I hung out on social media. A lot. And then — finally — I started journaling, writing out the conversation I needed to have to get answers to the questions the wall was asking. I made notes. I made lists. I asked and answered the same questions a few times. I just kept writing.

Slowly, and then more quickly, an answer — the answer — began to come clear. I fought it a little, falling immediately into the control freak role that sometimes creeps into my writing, trying to force things to go the way I want them to rather than the way they actually need to. Because, if the answer that was taking shape was really the answer, most of the writing I’ve done has to be undone and then rebuilt in profound ways … if it’s usable at all.

So here I am, halfway through my residency, with a project that’s totally in shambles.

And this, this is what can happen when you strip away the distractions of work and daily life and spend oceans of time with your ideas. This right here. The curse and the blessing.

Time to pick up my pen and get the fuck to work.


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Upended

You may know that I live in Brooklyn, that I live in south Brooklyn. My neighborhood has probably been in your news today because I live in Sunset Park, the neighborhood that was the site of the subway shooting during this morning’s rush hour.

I wasn’t there, and I’m totally fine. My train stop is one away from the stop that is captured in all the videos and photos. I am in that station all the time, of course, because it’s on my way to work, on my way home. Sometimes I transfer trains there.

This morning I went to work late. I often try to avoid the height of rush hour if I can. Too many people, and too many of them without masks these days. So I was behind the violence this morning, got stuck not being able to move forward and no idea why. Transit staff told us there was a “smoke condition” at 36th Street, which was true as far as it went. When I got back to the street, I contemplated the bus, but a brief chat with a woman at the bus stop told me that no trains were running at 36th Street, and the only buses in the opposite direction were out of service.

I stood in the rain a while, then decided my best option was to declare today a work-from-home day. And I fully acknowledged and appreciated that I have the privilege to do that when many many people do not.

So I walked home, and that’s when I found out what had caused the “smoke condition” that frustrated my commute.

*

I’m devastated by the shooting on the subway. How could I not be? Violence like this is always horrifying and devastating. And being trapped in a subway car with someone bent on killing you … I mean, it’s the worst iteration of a fish-in-a-barrel scenario.

I am heartened by the news that none of the injuries are life-threatening. I’m also heartened by the news that there is at least a “person of interest” in the case. But that comes along with the awful awareness that the shooter is still at large.

When I was washing dishes tonight, I realized something that this incident has to mean for me. I’ve written about disturbing and frightening encounters I’ve had with strangers. And each time I’ve thought not only about my own feelings, my own safety. I’ve tried to have empathy for the other person in the story.

So isn’t today the real test? Can I have empathy for the man who attacked the people on the N train today? I think I’m failing here … and I’m not feeling inclined to try not to fail. I can have empathy for people with untreated mental illness, but I’m not ready to paint today’s shooter with that brush. We don’t know anything about him. Yes, I can decide that anyone who would commit such a heinous act must be mentally ill … but I don’t actually believe that. I think mental illness gets a bad rap, gets blamed for all sorts of things for which it’s not responsible.

But this is still the test, isn’t it? Tonight, I re-watched the “Empathic Civilization” video that I first saw 10 years ago that got me thinking in a very intentional way about empathy. I can acknowledge that man’s humanity. I can acknowledge his anger, his pain. But empathize with him? Why would I want to?

The purpose of empathy is to help us understand how other people feel. Having that ability to understand others’ feelings is supposed to trigger generous or helping behavior in us … “generous” in the sense that we want to give of ourselves to other people. Empathy helps us build social connections.

So why have been telling myself all evening that I need to empathize with the man who carried out that attack? I’m not interested in working toward a world where we welcome in the people who want to kill indiscriminately, people who are comfortable striking at the peace of mind of millions of people, destabilizing a city’s equilibrium.

Maybe what I want is something else. It probably is good if people can understand the feelings of someone who would carry out an attack like the one in the subway (or any other mass shooting). If we understood the feelings of those people (I am struggling not to say “those killers,” but really, that’s what they are), maybe we could figure out how to help them so that they never reach the point of terrorism. So someone needs to be striving for empathy, but I’m not sure it’s me.

So where am I left? I don’t only want to have anger and horror as my responses to this man. My compassion is for his victims, and for everyone who has been traumatized (and re-traumatized) by his actions. I have anger. I have horror. I have disgust. I’m trying to find some room for something more, something more overtly constructive, something that lets me feel hopeful for change, let’s me feel hopeful, leaves me with hope.

Upended

Chilled, rainy morning. Nature fussing, showing now.
She twists your plans, could have it be snowing now.

But this isn’t about nature, it’s about anger,
about violence and the wind that’s blowing now.

When did we get here, this disregard for others?
But it’s not new. Our disdain is flowing now.

On days like today, that flow breaches the levees,
knocks us back from the line we should be toeing now.

I, Stacie, watch my neighbors wander – cold, confused.
what we thought we knew, understood, all going now.

National Poetry Month 2022: the Ghazal

As I’ve done for more than ten years (what?!), I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April … and I’m saying that boldly, knowing that I’ve already failed. I couldn’t find my way through to a poem on Day One, but I’m determined to continue.

The “Ghazal” is the form I’ve chosen for this year. Here is the structure and a little backstory (thank you Poetry Foundation):

“Originally an Arabic verse form dealing with loss and romantic love, medieval Persian poets embraced the ghazal, eventually making it their own. Consisting of syntactically and grammatically complete couplets, the form also has an intricate rhyme scheme. Each couplet ends on the same word or phrase (the radif), and is preceded by the couplet’s rhyming word (the qafia, which appears twice in the first couplet). The last couplet includes a proper name, often of the poet’s. In the Persian tradition, each couplet was of the same meter and length, and the subject matter included both erotic longing and religious belief or mysticism.”

Should be interesting!

Can I get a Claritin?

I have allergies. To all kinds of things: fruits, vegetables, animals (my cat!). I’ve learned to live with and work around my allergies. So I take meds. For years, Claritin was my savior. One tiny pill that started to work super quickly. Just that one pill, and I was good for hours and hours. I don’t know if my body changed or if my allergies changed, but Claritin stopped working for me. These days, I bounce between two new meds, making my decision based on whether the pill makes me sleepy or lets me get on with my day. The sleepy-making one works better, but I can only take it when I don’t care if I fall asleep.

I’m stalling.

This isn’t the slice I was going to write. It’s the slice I decided to write because it’s nicer. But never mind nicer. I’ll just dive in with the real slice.

I have allergic reactions to people, too. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does … whew! Don’t I wish I had a Claritin then!

I first noticed this about ten or so years ago. The project I directed meant I had to meet and sometimes work with a very powerful, famous man. Everyone who worked on the project was thrilled to have the chance to interact with this man, to get to say that they could call him by name, that they had shared a meal or a joke with him. Feh.

I could and can still easily acknowledge the incredible work he’s done. It’s extraordinary and beyond impressive. I respect him for that work, for the ways he’s been able to grow and expand it.

But the man himself? No thank you. The moment he entered a room, everything in me soured. He’d make a joke, and I’d have to choke back the bile rising in my throat.

And he knew it, too. I don’t think he would have been able to articulate what was going on with me, but he certainly knew something was off between us. I would catch him sometimes, looking at me with pure confusion. I made no sense to him. And how could I, when I wasn’t making sense to myself?

I fussed with myself, trying to puzzle out what my problem was. I talked to a friend about it, describing my responses in comparison to seemingly every other living being on the planet.

“You’re allergic to him,” she said. “On sight, everything in you — you physical self, your psyche — rejects him. Like if you ate a fig.” (I am super allergic to figs.)

That idea — that I could just have a complete, visceral rejection of another person — had never occurred to me. And, although it sounded exactly right when I heard her say it and I’ve adopted her language and have been saying it ever since, the idea troubled me. What does it mean about me that I can so completely reject a person I don’t even know?

As I said, it doesn’t happen often. I can really count on one hand the people I’ve had this response to. I’m not talking about not liking someone or being disgusted by someone. But truly feeling an instant, full-system revulsion and rejection. When I have to be near/around that person, my physical response is akin to the way magnets repel, a dramatic and natural force driving me away from that person. I’ve never figured out how to counter it, only how to live with it.

And I’m thinking about it now because I’ve just recognized that it’s happening again. I’ve been working with a group that I enjoy supporting. I’ve been working with them since mid-way through 2020, and I’m getting deeper into the work, which means I’m working more closely with a lot of the group members.

And tonight, watching playback of an instructional video several of the group members made, I recognized my response. There’s a woman in the group to whom I’ve been responding from the beginning, and it wasn’t until hearing her voice tonight that I recognized my repelling-magnet response.

And maybe it’s not something that can be helped. Maybe I’m always just going to have allergic responses to people. But I want there to be a way to solve this, to not be repelled. This woman I’m responding to seems to be a genuine, kind, caring person. If I could get over this allergy, I’m sure I’d have a lot to learn from her, that I’d enjoy being in working groups with her, might even socialize with her outside of the group.

I have no idea where to start, what parts of me I need to be investigating to figure out what’s triggering this response. This is a part of myself that I’m not happy to recognize. I want to be hopeful that calling myself out can help me find some answers. I wanted this to be my slice but then shied away from showing this decidedly less appealing side of myself and started writing about my “real” allergies instead.

But the false start works for me. Those OTC meds saved me and continue to save me. I wish there was Claritin for this reaction. And I’m joking, but I mean it, too. I have work to do to figure out what in me causes this response to other people. It would be wonderful to have some magical “Behavior Benadryl” that would let me have a normal interaction while I’m doing that work.


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Pick and Mix

We have a serious package theft problem in my building. So many things have been stolen in the last two years. Deliveries went missing before the pandemic, yes, but these two years of financial hardship have amped up the stealing. I understand being desperate, but no one in this building has much money, and stealing isn’t cool any time.

As terrible as it is to say, I was actually glad when I learned that other people were being robbed. For a while, the thefts felt targeted. No one was talking about it, and I thought I was the only person losing packages.

Whoever is stealing my things must have such an interesting sense of who I am. One thing they for-sure know about me is that I’m a fat woman. They have stolen package after package of clothing orders. I am the fattest person I’ve ever seen in this building. By a significant degree. Why the fuck do the thieves keep taking clothes they can’t wear?!

So they know I’m “a person of size.” Here’s a shortlist of other things they’ve taken that maybe round out their picture of me:

  1. A DVD of The Godfather, Part II
  2. A pair of semiprecious pendulums, one onyx, one tourmaline
  3. A set of cookie cutters
  4. Fingering and laceweight yarn and some silk roving
  5. Vitamins and body lotion
  6. A set of markers and a couple of coloring books

Now, for all of these thefts but one, the shipper has either refunded or reshipped. So I have just about all of my purchases. It still sucks.

The gem store that I bought the pendulums from refused to reship or refund. We had a lengthy email exchange, but they wouldn’t budge. Their reasons? First, they were so sorry, but I couldn’t prove I didn’t receive the package, and I could easily be lying to them. And while that’s true, it’s pretty ugly. Also, how am I supposed to prove to you that I didn’t receive a package? Send you photos of my empty hands? What? Second, they asked me to understand their position as a small business. Those products were expensive, and it would be a hardship for them to refund my purchase. Excuse me? Yes, those pendulums were expensive. The thief had them. The shop had my money. The only person who got nothing in that exchange was me, and losing that money was no small thing for me, either. Obviously, I won’t be shopping there again.

Twice, the thieves have expressed their judgment of me and my shopping choices. Right before lockdown, I came home and found a bag on my doorknob. Inside was an opened package and a note saying the package had been delivered to another apartment by accident … um … except, packages don’t get delivered to our doors. And, even if they did, you’d figure out the error by looking at the label, right? You wouldn’t need to open the package — and open the inner packaging — to discover it wasn’t for you. I guess the slipcovers I bought for my chairs were particularly unappealing, so completely unappealing that the thief decided to give them to me. I’m guessing they wanted me to know how undesirable those slipcovers were so I’d step up my game and start buying more attractive and steal-worthy items.

During a weird moment of early Covid, I bought not one, not two, but … FOUR manual typewriters. (I’m not kidding. Let’s not even try to understand why.) It should only have been three. I fell in love with and bought a blue Royal Safari. Then I bought two similar blue typewriters because I thought the three would look so nice side by side displayed across the top of my bookcases.

But the Royal was stolen. Super-quickly, too. I got the delivery notification when I was on my way home from work, and the box was gone by the time I got home 30 minutes later. I was so mad about the theft, I went to eBay the second I got in the house, found and purchased another Safari. (Seriously. I am ridiculous, but I stay totally on-brand. It’s a really lovely typewriter … makes me think of Eero Saarinen and the TWA terminal, which does and doesn’t make sense.)

The next day, I opened my door and found the box on the threshold, open, all the packing materials spilling out, and my Royal sitting there, waiting for me.

That thief must have been so angry. They must have thought they’d really scored with such a nice, heavy box. I would have loved to see the look on their face when they got through the packaging and found a MANUAL TYPEWRITER!

I’m sure they cursed my name. I just wish that failed theft had inspired them to not steal from me, had put the fear of ugly slipcovers and typewriters into them. Alas.

On my floor — and I imagine this is happening on other floors, too — we’ve taken to bringing one another’s packages upstairs when we see them. I love this about my floor neighbors. It’s a little comical that, like the thieves, I am developing a clear sense of my neighbors’ shopping habits … and they’re learning about mine.

Maribel down the hall is an Amazon fanatic! The elderly couple next door to her buys paper goods in bulk (at a rate that I struggle to fathom). K across the hall reads a lot of uber-cool art and culture magazines that are too long to fit in the mailbox. And Yana at the other end of the hall has had several plant deliveries (it’s from bringing up her packages that I learned about the online plant store from which I’ve now acquired several new plants).

I appreciate this new way my floor neighbors and I are taking care of each other, but things still go missing. We can’t all be home all the time to catch deliveries before the thieves go shopping in the mailroom like at pick-and-mix.

When I cut my hair, I came home from the barber and had a moment of freak-out because I didn’t have a pick. I hadn’t owned a pick for decades, and I hadn’t thought at all about needing new tools. Naturally, I went right online to order something (yes, I have a shopping problem). I bought a very basic, cheesy one — metal teeth with a Black power fist on the handle. Of course. (Let me pause here to say how annoyed I was to find it called a “pik” or a “pic.” Are you kidding? Why would it make sense to drop a letter?)

I got the delivery notification mid-day yesterday, got home from work and found … nothing.

Great. It’s the first theft in a while. And it’s not earth-shattering. It just pisses m off. I wanted that pick. Obviously, I’ve been doing my hair for almost two wee sand have realized that I don’t really need the pick. But I wanted it. And now I don’t have it.

I am sympathetic about people having a rough time financially, especially during the last two years. But we’re neighbors. We’re supposed to be a community of some sort, and you’re so comfortable stealing from people you probably have the audacity to smile at in the elevator or hold the door for? Ugh.

Also, I know my sense of my building as a community is super naive. I know it.

But I’m right too. I had the ability to live with that belief for the ten years in my old apartment. Packages were left outside the house — sometimes half-hidden behind the trash cans, sometimes left in plain view — and I never lost a single one.

Yes, we were much more of a community there, but anyone and everyone could and did walk by the house. And somehow everyone managed not to steal anything. And yes, that wasn’t during the pandemic, but it was during the Great Recession.

Sigh. I have no cause and effect here. No real point, either. I just want people to stop stealing my stuff. Full stop. (And now Thieves in the Temple is in my head … a Prince earworm is never a bad thing, but I don’t want to associate that song with this mess.)


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Under the Influence

Yesterday, a friend and I went to the New Museum to see the Faith Ringgold – American People show. Such an amazing, amazing exhibit. The show spans three floors of the museum, and as we were entering the second of the three, my friend said the most kind and impossibly-erroneous thing to me: “If you were a quilter and a painter, you would absolutely be Faith Ringgold!”

That is one of the craziest “if” statements ever made … and also a really beautiful thing to have someone say to me. When I burst out laughing, she doubled down. “You know it’s true. You tell stories the way she does, stories with pictures, stories in pieces.”

Again, crazy to think any work of mine would have any real thing in common with Ringgold’s … and again, a lovely, loving thing to say to me.

But what’s actually true is that there is a connection between Ringgold’s work and my storytelling with pictures, and I’m touched that my friend would have seen that through line. I mean, there are the obvious connections that I can think of now that I hadn’t considered in that moment … like my comics and the stories I write for my photographs. But then I realized there’s a deeper connection, one I didn’t see until I reflected on the show last night.

Thinking about Ringgold, and thinking specifically of Tar Beach and Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, I remembered something my friend wouldn’t have known about but which absolutely draws a line between some of my storytelling and Faith Ringgold. I took a workshop many years ago about making paper quilts with students. The “quilts” were a kind of story quilt with images in some squares and text in others or images and texts in each square. I had forgotten about that workshop. I kept the quilt squares I made that day for years — I might still have them in my boxes of teaching materials.

The story I worked on that day was a nine-block quilt about my half-sister, about my sadness at knowing I have a half-sister somewhere in the world but have never met her. I’ve written that story a number of times since that workshop, but that was the start, that was the first time I put it on paper.

Making that story quilt reminded me of Duane Michals’ photo stories, which I’d discovered by chance in the Paris MOMA and fallen in love with. I spent some time making stories with my photographs after seeing Michals’ work. I enjoyed doing it, but it didn’t feel exactly right, not yet.

Years later, when I started taking pictures for IG, I immediately went back to stories. That was my whole reason for joining IG — to take pictures and make stories to post with them. And every time I’ve participated in the 24 Hour Project, that has been my way of doing the project, writing tiny stories for each of my photos. The pictures and stories I post now feel right, so much more what I had in mind than the stories I wrote back when I first discovered Duane Michals.

My museum friend — whose name on this blog is Grace — saw that connection, one I hadn’t even seen myself. I’d drawn the direct line between Duane Michals and my IG storytelling, but I’d forgotten about those paper quilts we’d made a lifetime ago at the Literacy Assistance Center, forgot about sitting with a room full of adult ed teachers, reading Tar Beach to each other and talking about how the story works in Ringgold’s book and how we could take a story from our own lives and distill it down to a handful of collage images and sentences. It’s a way of storytelling that settled into my head and heart, and it continues to bubble up and out all these years later.

I love Grace, but there is no world in which I would have grown up to be Faith Ringgold. Faith Ringgold needed to be Faith Ringgold, and the world needed her to be. But I like seeing the connection, seeing the way her work touched me and settled in me, so deeply I didn’t need to think about it, just needed to let it push me forward.


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot