Getting by with a little help from our friends.

Rearranging my position
On this friend of mine who had
A little bit of a breakdown.
I said breakdowns come
And breakdowns go.
What are you gonna do about it,
That’s what I’d like to know … *
The all-important question that I won’t be asking anyone any time soon.
Had a troubling conversation earlier with a friend who is definitely entering cabin-fever-freak-out territory. She’s been home longer than I have and called me today to discuss some catastrophe options she has been debating with herself.
Let me just say here that discussing — in a level of painful detail — catastrophe options is not a thing I want to be spending my time doing out loud. It’s bad enough that I have these thoughts from time to time. I don’t need to say them into the cosmos.
My friend is really scared, and I feel for her. We are scared. Most of us, maybe especially here in New York City, are scared. That’s real. And the reality of it makes it hard to take on someone else’s fears along with our own.
I said this to my friend, and she laughed. She acknowledged that she’d had “a stress explosion” all over me. “But,” she said, “didn’t I also give you today’s blog post?”
And look at that. She did.
I don’t want my friend to be so scared. She’s having trouble being home alone for such an extended period of time. That’s a problem I’m not having, so I tried to help her think of ways to fill her time more effectively. What she really needs, of course, is not to be on lockdown. I can’t do that for her. I offered to spend time with her virtually, as long as that time wasn’t spent thinking of all the terrible things that could become realities. I definitely can’t do that for her. We’re going to try streaming movies together. I hope something about that experience helps her.
It’s hard to take care of people from a distance. But this is what we have. We have each other long distance. We have whatever ways we can reach out, whatever ways we can offer calm, whatever ways we can be a listening ear, whatever ways we can offer a welcome distraction. Whatever ways.
__________
* Paul Simon, “Gumboots” (Graceland)

It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

The Wild Unknown

Since August of last year, I’ve had the pleasure of co-hosting a monthly storytelling event at an art gallery in Brooklyn. This is the show’s sixth season. It was started by a poet who has a love of the oral tradition, of the magic of stories around the campfire. Every year, he selects a pair of hosts, and every month the hosts bring two storytellers in to share 15-minute tales with the always-appreciative audience.

Three years ago, a friend of mine was hosting and he invited me to come tell a story. OMG, but that was fun! I was crazy-nervous, but it was also great to get to share some of myself in that way.

When I was asked to host, I was excited to give it a try. I had, however, no idea what I was getting myself into. Finding storytellers is hard. But really hard. Sometimes people say “Yes!” right away, but sometimes I ask one person after another and come up empty again and again. And even once I have people, I have no idea what to expect. I haven’t asked people who are storytellers, and everyone is super nervous about having to tell a story — not read something they’ve written, but stand in front of people and tell. I’ve asked people who are interesting to me, people who I know have a lot of interesting things about them. These things don’t mean they’ll tell a good story, but I am lucky: they always do tell good stories! The challenge of coming to be a storyteller unlocks a new door for them, I think. I mean, many of the people I’ve invited are writers, so they definitely understand a lot about how stories work. But writing a story isn’t really as much like telling one as you might think.

One pure joy of this hosting journey has been my completely delightful co-host, a young woman who is an artist and an actor and who creates in so many amazing ways, and who is full of energy and light. We connected as soon as we were introduced, and are already planning future projects to work on after our hosting year has ended. I can’t wait to see what our next adventure will be!

We’ve been having a lot of fun on this ride … and then COVID-19 hit. Our little Park Slope gallery with barely enough space for five people to distance themselves socially wasn’t going to be open for this month’s event. So … we did what half the world has done lately: we went on Zoom!

I was nervous: what if no one showed up, what if my computer froze (it’s done that in a few of my meetings this week), what if someone noticed that my house is a mess?! You know, all the worries.

But … all the worries were over nothing. Tonight was so much fun!

A — People came. As we approached start time, my computer screen started to do that intro-to-the-Brady-Bunch thing with all the squares popping up to show who’s joining the meeting. Not only did people come, but they came from places they wouldn’t normally be able to join from! We had folks joining from Long Island and Colorado. My cohost is Australian, and her mom zoomed in from outside Melbourne! So tonight was our first international showcase!*

B — People were so nice. This is one of the things I love about our in-person event, the way the audience is always ready to embrace the storytellers. And that was definitely true tonight.

C — The storytellers were sweet and open and wonderful. It’s such a gift to have people give you their stories, to trust you to hear them. I feel so lucky every time.

Every month, we have a theme for the evening. We’ve tried to have our themes connect to whatever show is up in the gallery. And we pick them well in advance. This month’s theme was “The Wild Unknown,” picked when we had no idea we were about to be plunged into the wildest of unknowns. Couldn’t have had a better theme for tonight.

COVID-19 didn’t beat us, couldn’t keep us down! We laughed and cried and laughed together. Which is maybe a good thing to remember as we shelter in place and pray for safe passage through this unsettling and straight-up terrifying time.

Storytelling can move us. Storytelling can connect us. Storytelling can make magic even when we’re not in the same physical space together. Storytelling is how we weave ourselves and our worlds together. I am so lucky to be a part of this. And I can’t wait to do it again in April!

__________
* I really just want to say, “Wicked cool!” when I’m this happy and excited. I’m trying to rein it in …


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

The Cure for Cabin Fever

(I just keep hearing the Styx song, “Too Much Time on My Hands” …)

The folks who work at the management company for my apartment building may have watched or read The Shining recently. They’re worried about all of us cooped up in our apartments day after day, slowly losing our minds.

How do I know? They sent out an email yesterday: “At Home Activities List for Residents.” This email is HUGE, full to bursting with ways to use your “corona-cation.” So many kinds of time-drainers, organized into categories like cooking, reading, games cleaning, crafting, creating … and on and on and on. There are activities for kids, ideas of things to do with your pets, online fitness classes, series to stream …

They are worried! They want to keep us focused and sane. No “Here’s Johnny!” meltdowns for us!

I can’t be mad at that. But I’m amused.

__________

Meanwhile, we seem to be pretty okay so far. Thank goodness, since these few days are just the opening beats of a long, complicated symphony. We’ve got several intricate movements to get through.

Today I went for a walk. A zoom meeting I had at lunchtime was canceled, so I took advantage of my surprise freedom and got out into the sunshine. It was lovely.

I walked up the hill to the park, then down the much steeper side of the hill to the grocery store (this is the second of my two grocery stores, not the store I visited last week, the one that was in apocalypse mode). And the store pleased me by having most of what I looked for, particularly toilet paper … not a lot of it, but some, and no one was fighting anyone else to get at it. None of my yogurts of choice, however. Sad times.

After the groceries, I walked a few blocks down … to. the. liquor. store … and picked up a couple of bottles of wine. Finally, my house is fully prepared for lockdown.

I’m glad I went out. it was only an hour out of the house, but it was welcome. It was great to feel the sun on my face, great to see just how carefully so many of my neighbors are observing the PAUSE. Good on them. Good on all of them. Grammarly says my writing in this post is mostly sad and gloomy. I don’t see that. I see caring in that comical email from the management company. I see pleasure in my walk in the sun. I see appreciation in my gratitude for my neighbors not being out on the street. Yes, all of that. Something else for me to remember: get out of the house! Go be in the sun for a few minutes. Be socially-distant but also breath fresh air.

Yes,


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Ugh.

I was out and about today, casual little jaunt uptown for my post-operative screenings. The hospital is nowhere near my house, so getting there is a long subway ride and then a several-blocks walk. All that traveling for the to-ing and the fro-ing reminded me of something I haven’t thought about in a while — how much people don’t like dealing with other people’s disabilities.

I remember being on the subway once years ago — maybe this was back when I first damaged my knee — and having a man shove me out of the way to get to an open seat I was trying to reach. When he’d settled in his seat, he looked up at me and said, “Well, I didn’t break your leg.” As if that somehow explained or justified anything that had just happened.

I understand that people don’t like to be inconvenienced, and a disabled person is an inconvenience. A disabled person on the street means other people have to maybe make extra room or slow their own pace until they can get past the slower-moving person. A disabled person on the bus or train means that polite and courteous people should offer up a seat, and no one likes to give up a seat on the train or bus.

And you, like everyone, want to keep your seat. So you don’t offer me your seat … and that’s when the guilt starts. You castigate yourself for not offering your seat … and you argue back about how tired you are and how you had the seat first … and how that woman doesn’t even look all that disabled or old or whatever … but there are billboards all around you talking about giving your seat to disabled people … and, and, and … and you start to get annoyed about having that conversation in your head … and there I am still standing there without a seat.

I get that. I do. We’re all tired. We all hate the train. We all want to just get where we’re going. I really, truly get it.

What I don’t get is open hostility. If you don’t want to give up your seat, don’t. Everyone’s life will go on. Yes, I might think less of you, but probably only for a few seconds. It’s more likely that I will forget about you immediately. Let your guilt boil up inside you and bubble out in the form of treating me horribly, saying something disparaging and ugly? That I’ll remember. And probably you will, too. Because it’s entirely possible that you’re not actually a horrible person. But then you felt guilty about sitting and not giving up your seat, so you snarled at a cripple … and that made you feel more guilty, and you can’t stop thinking about the whole mess for the rest of the day. Well, that’s on you, friend. All you had to do was not do that. All you had to do was sit there and not give up your seat and you could have had a perfectly unbothered day.

Today I had five different moments of someone feeling the need to be rude to me because of my cane. What the hell? Is it the moon? Is it the Mueller report? Is it allergies? That’s really a lot more than I should be expected to expect.

Do better, neighbors. Do better.


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!

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.