Open Lines of Communication

There’s an elderly South Asian woman in my building who doesn’t speak English. I see her in the lobby, in the elevator. And sometimes I see her at the building entrance as she is just arriving or just about to leave. I have carried packages for her from the door to the elevator, or held the door for her as she makes her slow way inside. She is, most times, in the company of a younger, somewhat stern-seeming woman who thanks me if I’m helping or just nods and carries on if we’re passing in the hall.

When I communicate with the older woman, I use gestures and pointing — to ask if she is carrying her packages inside, for example — but I also talk. I use my gestures and pointing as I ask, “Do you need help? Do you want these over by the elevator?” I talk even though I know she doesn’t speak my language. I do it because maybe the younger woman is nearby and will hear me and answer, but I also do it because it would feel strange to remain silent while grabbing her packages and walking away with them, so I hope my sweet, clearly-ending-with-a-question voice will assure her that I am trying to be helpful.

I speak to her, an I make my hand gestures … and she responds. Always. Sometimes, it’s just a nod, but most of the time she talks to me. In a language I don’t understand a single word of. I understand so little about her language, I cannot tell you what language she is speaking. What I can tell you is that sometimes we will go back and forth in our non-communicative communication. I will ask a question and she will answer. I’ll say more, or repeat my question, and she will answer.

It makes no sense at all that we do this. We are accomplishing exactly nothing, but there we are. Stranger still is that, as illogical as those non-conversations are, they are also entirely familiar to me … because I’ve done this before.

My two favorite examples: About ten thousand years ago when I was 20, I hitchhiked around parts of Europe. For most of that hitch, I was with a friend. One late afternoon, we found ourselves in Brussels. We needed to get our bearings, find the youth hostel. We were standing on a street corner when a bus pulled up across from us. I called to the driver to ask if he spoke English. He answered me — maybe in Dutch? maybe in … Flemish? So I asked him about the youth hostel … and he answered. Using my words and my hand signals, I indicated that we had no idea where to go, and he answered again. At that point, my friend asked what the hell I was doing, which was the first moment I processed that the driver and I weren’t actually making sense to one another. The light changed, the driver waved and continued his route, my friend and I were still hostel-less on that street corner.

Fast forward to my last job when I was running an adult education program. When I started there, an elderly Russian woman was in the ESOL program. Tatiana was always dressed semi-formally, her white-yellow hair teased and sprayed into a perfect, spun-sugar beehive. I found her adorable. She saw something in me that she liked, too, always coming by my office to talk to me. Except that she would come by and talk to me in Russian, a language I don’t speak. In Russian, I can give you a solid, “My name is Stacie,” and an equally confident, “I know nothing,” and a somewhat shakier, “I understand a little Russian.” The end. But Tatiana came to talk with me regardless.

One afternoon, I got a call from a social service agency. Tatiana was there, trying to apply for whatever services they offered, but they didn’t have a Russian speaker on staff and were struggling. Apparently, frustrated by their inability to speak with her, Tatiana gave them my number. “Stacie speaks Russian,” she told them.

So my “conversations” with my neighbor are comical but aren’t anything out of the ordinary for me. But really — what is this complete weirdness?

I’ve had curious language experiences before. In Budapest, I sat at parties listening to people around me chatting in Hungarian and waving off my friends when they offered to interpret because I understood what they’d been discussing. Making conversation with a man in Veracruz, surprising myself with my ease in a language I’d only just begun to learn … only to have him stare blankly at me and ask what language I was speaking and realize that my brain had been pulling from French and Italian to fill in the gaps in my Spanish vocabulary. And done that without pause, weaving the three languages together as if they were intended to be spoken that way.

I say all of that to be clear, what happened with Tatiana and that Belgian bus driver, what’s happening with my neighbor is something else entirely. Those other experiences have made me understand that there’s something wacky about my brain and languages. I like the wackiness, and I’m happy when it manifests, although I don’t pretend to understand it at all. But this thing with my neighbor, it’s just odd. Because here is another person participating in the wackiness.

My neighbor now talks to me when she sees me. She uses hand gestures, too, but I’m not sure what she means by them (just as she probably was never understanding my hand gestures in our meetings leading up to now). Mostly she looks and sounds as if she’s scolding me. She talks to me, and I respond — sometimes to remind her that I don’t speak her language, sometimes with general small talk: “I don’t know what you’re saying, but aren’t you glad the elevator’s working again? It was such a pain when it was out.” When other neighbors see us interact, they look at us as if we’re nuts, which we may well be. But as weird as the whole thing it, it also really amuses me.

I want a way to understand what’s happening. After my experience in Budapest, I read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, and I thought maybe my brain was somehow doing whatever it is Aboriginal Australian’s brains were doing in his description of how people on walkabout were able to communicate verbally with people they encountered. (I’m not describing that at all or well, and Goodreads will tell you the book is about something else entirely. Never mind. I hope this way they communicate is still a thing Aboriginal Australians are able to do. It remains one of my favorite things I have ever learned. It connects so many of my fascinations about language, about creativity, about possibility.)

When I’ve thought and written about this in the past, I’ve connected it to The Songlines, but also to a random experimental language workshop I participated in in college. The instructor called it “Super Learning,” and the trick was that we weren’t actually being taught the language. We were, instead, lounging on pillows, drinking vodka and eating poppy-seed cake and listening to music. And yet we learned some basic phrases in Russian (a few of which I can still say, as I noted above).

The idea was that being completely relaxed and not trying to learn Russian would open our minds and let the words slip in. I loved the idea, but since I only learned a few sentences, I wasn’t convinced that Super Learning would be the secret to my Russian fluency.

But whether it’s Super Learning or Songlines, how do our brains do that? And why? And why haven’t I ever heard that everyone’s brain does that? And, if that could explain Budapest, it wouldn’t explain Veracruz — a language mash-up that has repeated itself in Spanish classes I’ve taken since then and more recently when I was trying to brush up on my French. I imagine those are cases of my brain knowing I’m trying to speak a language other than English and just reaching for what it has at hand.

And none of that would explain my neighbor. People on walkabout were able to make meaning and comprehension with the people they encountered. My neighbor and I aren’t understanding each other. We’re communicating … something, but it’s definitely not being done verbally.

And why is my brain so strange with language? And is there a way to tap into this weirdness at will? It always sneaks up and surprises me. It would be nice to be able to call it up when I need it. And can it work for any language? The Songlines thing has only happened with Hungarian and Russian. Why not any other language? And what other forms of communication and comprehension is it capable of that I just haven’t discovered yet? And how can I discover them?

Yeah, a lot of questions I can’t answer. I feel a research project coming on! Well … or at least some feverish Googling. Surely someone has studied this thing and figured out parts or all of it by now.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Finders Keepers

I’ve been thinking about thinking about what form I’m going to write in April, what I’ll spend my month trying and trying to learn and grow comfortable with. I’ve been reading through plenty of lists of poetic forms, looking for one that would feel like the right challenge, not feeling inspired, not feeling pulled in any one direction.

Until today. I might just be onto an idea. In last year’s Girls Write Now poetry workshop, we worked on erasure poems. I’d never written one before, hadn’t heard of the form until that day. It took me a few tries to really process the “how” of it. And today I thought it might be interesting to spend a little more time with the form. And by “little,” I mean the 30 fast-approaching days of April.

An erasure poem is a kind of “found” poem. You start with an existing text and pull out words and phrases — “erasing” the parts you don’t want to use — to create your poem. Robert Lee Brewer at Writers Digest gives a good description of both erasure and blackout poems, and also makes important points about plagiarism and crediting the author of your source text. And Robin Coste Lewis’ Self-Portrait as the Bootblack in Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temps is a wonderful example. Would that I could create something so fine.

And then I thought I should have a theme of some kind. I immediately thought of taking news articles and finding poems in them. There is so much going on that I can’t find words to talk about because it’s so ugly, so painful, so demoralizing, so devastating. Maybe taking someone else’s words and finding my voice in theirs will be a way for me to start talking about some of those things.

Naturally, it turns out that this isn’t an original thought. The New Republic published a piece last October about the rise in erasure poetry that’s been inspired by Trump’s election. The piece includes a link to some stunning erasure poems from Trump’s speeches.

So. Not original. I still like the idea, and I think I will keep liking it enough to have at it come April.

I gave it a try today. I read a piece in The New York Times about Puerto Rican survivors of Hurricane Maria, and used that as my source text. I like Lewis’ style of attribution, so I adopted and adapted it:

Addressing the Crisis
(An erasure of Daiza Aponte Torres’ “The Refugees in New York’s Hotel Rooms“)

My life upside down
my two daughters,
the island
my home destroyed.
Hundreds of families.
We’re barely surviving.
Stranded
after the storm.
Not enough,
discriminated against.
Confined.
Limited.
Denied.
We are traumatized.
No one will know
the disaster continues
every day.

Yes, I think I’ve found my 30/30 challenge. Have you found yours? What will you be working on next month? Want to join me for some erasure poems?

 


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Royalty on the D Train

Last night I had dinner with a friend I haven’t seen in ages. Afterward, we walked to the train. Though we waited on the same platform, she’s an F girl, and I’m a D. My train came first, and we hugged our goodbye. As we separated, I looked at the train and saw an older man in the window watching us. He was still watching me when I walked into the car. He kept his bag on the seat while two other women found spots, then moved it, seemingly to offer me the empty seat. I took the seat because of course, but I also thanked him, though I was undecided about whether I should thank him — yes, those two other women found seats, but letting his bag take space when folks need to sit is rude.

But I thanked him, and he offered to give me the whole two-seater because he was getting off at the next stop. I assured him that wasn’t necessary, so we sat: me looking forward, minding my own business and him, staring at me.


It’s not as though men pay me no attention in public, so this ridiculous staring neither shocked nor appalled me. Even at my advancing age, I have to deal with street harassment on a regular basis. But there was something about this man … I couldn’t put my finger on it. I wasn’t getting a danger alert from my internal sensors. Quite the opposite. I just knew that if I’d turned and looked at him, he’d have smiled and started a perfectly, harmlessly respectful conversation. But … there was something. I kept my eyes forward.


We pulled into the next stop, and he got himself ready to leave. I leaned out of his way and gave him a half smile. And as he left he said, “Thank you, Queen.”

   

And that was it, that “Queen.” Then he made some sense. He was one of those men.


I hadn’t given him enough of a look to register that he was Black. He was so light he could easily pass if he so chose. I looked at him as he left the train, noted his kinky hair, the dzi and red white-heart beads around his neck, the ankh and lion-head ornaments on his cane. When he stepped onto the platform, he came to my window, put his hand over his heart and gave a small bow and a smile, then walked away.


Yes, one of those men. The honor-the-strong-Black-woman men. And I don’t say that dismissively or derisively. I get little enough honoring when I’m out on the street that I appreciate it even when it sneaks up on me. And I appreciated “Queen” as opposed to “my Queen.” That’s a whole other kind of man. There’s honor in there, but it falls somewhere in my relationship to the man who’s speaking. “Queen” on its own is only about me.

I like these random reminders that this is another way for strangers to interact on the street, that it doesn’t always have to be about space-claiming or having our guard up, that there can be these tiny moments capping a warm, lovely evening, these tiny, human moments, offered up with a smile.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Calling a Spade a Spade

A year ago, in the moment when Trump was declared the winner of the election, I made the decision never to say his name in relation to the title he had managed to usurp, and also to say his name only when I had no choice. I spent some time trying to decide what I’d call him instead.There were only about ten gazillion options. I could choose comical, cruel, or creatively crass. In the end, I settled on one of my own: THOTUS: Titular Head of These United States. It worked well for me, and I’ve been using it ever since both in conversation and online–blog, FB, Twitter.

The replacement sat easy with me. I could talk about him and not disrupt conversations too much–most people seemed to think I was saying “POTUS,” so the dialogue could move on without me having to explain and without getting derailed by laughter or people sharing their own creations.

But something’s changed. THOTUS no longer rings right when I say or write it, and it’s not even a full year yet. I’ve kept using it, but have been trying to figure out why it’s soured for me. It’s still got all the goodness it had when I thought it up. How could I have gone off of it already? And yet, I really seem to have done just that. And now I think I’ve figured it out.

Giving Trump a name–whether kitschy, clever, insulting, or crude–seems to let him just a little bit off the hook. And that’s entirely unacceptable. I have no wish to give him any room, to let a cute or funny name shine even the dimmest light of humanity on his hatefulness.

Really, any of the replacement names should work for someone like me who doesn’t want to say his name:

Twitter Fingers
Groper-in-Chief
Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief
Toddler-in-Chief
Cheeto-in-Chief
Toxic Cheeto
Satan’s Cheeto
The Orange One

Obviously, I could go on. Couldn’t we all? You’ve surely heard so many of these names. Dozens, maybe. Everyone has come up with at least a few. (And I’d be remiss not to give special mention to a decades-old fave: short-fingered vulgarian.) We’re all clever and we all despise the man enough that the bile rising in our throats makes us creative in our naming.

But I’ve hit a wall. I’ve come to a place where, for me, calling him anything other than his awful, annoying name … is too cute, too kind, as if by saying “THOTUS,” I’m not really naming him, not really calling him out for every horrible thing. His name, his actual name, needs to be associated with each and every bit of horror he is enacting, enabling, condoning.

The name THOTUS still pleases me some. As I said a second ago, I still like the things I liked when I thought it up in the first place. I like the rhyme with POTUS. Of course. I like the way “Titular Head” draws our attention to his masters, the evil crew of greedy, racist scumbags who guide his every move. And then there’s the casual, sideways double entendre of “titular.” Sure, all of that. And I want to be thrilled if tons of folks were using that name. But no. I’ve got to work on letting it go, weaning myself off.

Does it really matter what I call that man? It certainly doesn’t matter to him. I’m not an active or influential enough online presence to register on his Twitter-ravaging radar. And I’ve never threatened him or anyone else, so There’s no reason for me to find myself on anyone else’s radar, either. But clearly I imagine I have the ability to sway my tiny circle, to anyone who reads my angry rants and latched onto “THOTUS.” Maybe you’ve been casually inserting it into conversations and status updates. I love you for that, and thank you for allowing me to have some small impact on the ways people talk about this man. But now I’m saying let’s pull back.

Is my choice to call the man by his official name a sign of maturity? Ha! Hardly. I’m plenty old, well past my formative years. If I haven’t matured by now … No, I just want to call him out as clearly and directly as possible.

In the last week, I’ve said “Trump” more times than in the whole of the last year. I don’t know if I can sustain it–I feel a little sick to my stomach every time his name comes out of my mouth. We’ll see how I do.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in in the last two combined, so that looks like a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

A place for everything and everything in its place.

So, we have:

Woman without her man is nothing.

And also:

Come and eat grandma!

And slowly, even the most stubborn souls begin to see the value of punctuation.

Woman: without her, man is nothing.

Come and eat, grandma!

Oh, what a different a few dots and squiggles can make.

These are famous ones, of course. I was trying to remember a really wonderful one that wound up in print a while ago, and finally found it:

And this is all silly and a good reminder that commas are life savers (I know Ray’s family and dog are grateful for them!) … but there was a story the other day that also proved that a well-placed comma can mean the difference between winning and losing a legal battle.

I’ll admit that I’m a latecomer to the Oxford comma. I was forced to use it in grade school. But I was forced to do a lot of things with my writing in grade school, and many of them I heartily disagreed with and despised. Once I had a little more freedom to write how I wanted, I began to jettison those things I didn’t care for, and the Oxford comma fell by the wayside with the other castoffs. People have argued with me about it quite a bit over the years — which maybe says something about the folks I hang with¹ — but I have remained stubbornly against. I taught English for many years, and I taught the Oxford comma … but also made it clear that a) I didn’t use it myself and b) no one’s grade would be damaged by the decision not to use it.

But then I got my current job. I got this job, and one of the first things I had to do was edit the big, serious report we were producing. And before the editing began, I was asked to put together a style guide so that all of the people who were adding writing could try to have the same set of rules in mind as they worked and so that changes I made to text would all follow clear guidelines.

Making that style guide was, I have to admit, fun for me (which most definitely says something about the kind of person I am!). I saw the guide as my chance to lay down the law, list out my writing pet peeves, make our sleek and shiny report conform to my writing style. (Oh yes, a little power is truly a dangerous thing!)

Pretty quickly in my style-guiding I ran smack into the Oxford comma. And somehow, for reasons I couldn’t explain and can’t explain now, that comma suddenly made sense. Made perfect, why-didn’t-I-ever-see-this-before sense. And I’ve been using it ever since. (Somewhere, my 6th grade teacher is pointing, laughing, and saying, “I told you so!”)



It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices

__________

¹ This wacky-grammarians-on-my-friend-list business did not extend to the guy who came to a party I threw years ago … who smugly diagrammed the sentences of the people who spoke to him. You may think this is a clever party trick. Trust me when I tell you that it really isn’t.

Third time’s the (age-old) charm.

In which my title really doesn’t make any sense but is, instead, a lame attempt at a pun.

I was in a waiting room today. A doctor’s office waiting room. With lots of magazines, but also lots of books. There’s a shelf full of a rotating collection of random reading material. Today, I saw a book called Ageism and picked it up, not because I had any intention of reading about ageism, but because I thought it would make a good text for me to try another erasure poem. That’s right. I haven’t let this go yet. Wanted to give it a try using the directions for a change. So, while I waited to be called for my appointment, I poked through a couple of pages and picked out some words and phrases. Here’s the result:

Undiminished 

Implicit stereotypes are probably
Not diminished
If anything
The process of bias seems reasonable
Automatic assumptions strengthen
Following unpleasant words
Suggested in context
Regardless of evidence.

Attitudes
Not fully addressed
Join visible markers
Common discourse
Discriminatory language, comments, judgement
All context
Regardless of evidence.

Okay. I can see the value of following the instructions for how to “find” one of these poems. This one actually makes sense, unlike the ones I wrote when I was only getting a piece of the instructions right. (Somewhere, my sister Fox is shaking her head in despair, wondering when her family will ever learn to read directions before starting.)

And now that I’ve followed the rules … I may be done. We’ll see. This did give me some things to think about, however. The words, “the process of bias” practically leapt off the page at me. The process of bias. Yeah. I want to sit with that a while. Last weekend, my writers’ group critiqued the new script I’m working on for Adventures in Racism, and I’ve been thinking about the question I’m grappling with in that comic — how children learn prejudice and whether or how they can unlearn it. The process of bias. Yes. So much to think about here. Maybe this is the path I’ve been dumbly and divinely stumbling along through this whole erasure poem process … keep futzing around until I get back to Adventures, until my mind refocuses on my work.

Found – Poetry in Community

This past April, I didn’t write a single poem. And maybe that doesn’t matter, but it does, too. Every April since 2008 I’ve written poems. Every April since 2009, I’ve done a poem a day for the month. But this year I couldn’t make it happen. My poetry brain shut down. Part of that, surely, was rustiness — for writing in general, but definitely for poetry. I kicked myself over it. A lot. But I finally had to just let it go. It was clear that I wasn’t going to produce any poems, and I needed to move on. I had another knee surgery looming on my horizon, and I had work to do. So I moved on.

But it still ate at me.

And then today, for our third Girls Write Now genre workshop, we wrote poetry. Specifically, found poetry. No matter how many poems I write, writing poetry scares me. Always and always. And, at the close of a year in which I failed to meet my annual poetry challenge, I was more scared than I would usually be. But I have such a good time working with my mentee*, I was looking forward to today’s workshop, despite the looming threat of poetry. Our guest presenter was the amazing poet, Rupi Kaur, and she led us through the creation of our first poem of the day. She wanted us to respond to a series of questions … from the point of view of wallpaper. When she said it, my brain immediately relaxed. Because I could write anything, right? As wallpaper, there was no pressure. I didn’t need to make sense, didn’t need to be clever or “right,” I could just go with whatever came into my head. She asked questions such as, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” and “How do you feel?” And I tried to just write my answers, not worry overmuch about the line that came before or whether or not the end result would amount to anything. And the end result gets weird in places, but it works, too:

In Situ

I am thick with dried glue, stuck fast to plaster
I am lonely — who looks here? Who really sees me?
To flap free in wind, a flag proclaiming a nation …
instead, here — these dry frames blocking the sun, nails in my eyes.
I could have wrapped novels, embraced classics.
Where will I go when the family leaves, the renovation begins?
If only my stripes and curves had value, were valued —
if only I hadn’t bent to the axe blade, given myself to the pulper.
There was shine and power in that new roll,
but that doesn’t excuse bringing my sisters with me.
My sisters, who could have made their own choices.

And then moonlight drapes over me, a silver renewal, washing clean.
I feel myself then — all adornment, all quiet civility —
here, gilding these walls, creating comfort, home.

It’s weird (and that title is annoying), but there are bits that I like. And overall, I like the reminder: that I can put words together however they come together, that I don’t have to agonize over everything all the time, that I am allowed to write things that don’t work and don’t make sense and won’t stand the test of … well … anything. And it doesn’t matter. I can write nonsense and move on to the next thing. I’m amazed at how easily and often I forget that, how adeptly I construct barriers between myself and my writing.

After the wallpaper musing, we worked on erasure poems, taking texts and “finding” our poems within them by crossing out (erasing) the words we don’t want in our poem. And I found a magazine article about making cheese … and created two poems that make no sense at all but which I like very much.

(Untitled 1)

This story, perfect storm.
Community, all, fair weather,
able.
Now made the bargain
opportunities
independent,
opportunity learned.
You —
with specifics,
craft.

(Untitled 2)

I came one day —
delicious-looking.
I asked. He said.
Continued making, starting,
following, famous.

I didn’t know our privilege.
I found minutes
realized opportunity,
a hands-on reality.

She agreed.
They would.
I needed, I could.
I worked truly,
indirectly,
next.

A fun day for this rusty, gun-shy girl. Before leaving the workshop, I grabbed an article about Brazil from a travel mag … I feel more erasure poems coming on!

_____
* I have a new mentee! Naima, who I had the absolute pleasure of working with these last three years, graduated in June and is now off in college. So, in September, I was paired with Sara … and I completely adore her.