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Posts Tagged ‘#GriotGrind’

NPR’s podcast, Invisibilia, just ran a piece about Max Hawkins, “a kind of unassuming white guy.” Maybe you know Max because he arrived, uninvited, at your Passover seder, or the sushi-making party you threw last year. Because that’s his thing: using technology to find and show up at private events.

And—surprise!—strangers welcome him gladly! Relationships are formed, and good times are had by all!

The piece is skewed to read as wacky, charming, renewing-your-faith-in-the-basic-goodness-of-your-fellow-citydwellers. All that. Definitely played for sweetness: young man realizes he lives in a bubble and uses tech to try new things and meet people he wouldn’t have otherwise met. You can listen to it on the NPR site. It’s a great story.

And it enrages me.

For real. On so many levels: as a woman, as a Black person, as a private citizen who doesn’t have a lot of love for colonizers and gate crashers. This story reeks of privilege, and NPR’s inability or unwillingness to call that out in a real way is frustrating in the extreme. There is a half-second nod to Hawkins’ privilege. But that’s it. The idea is almost acknowledged, and we’re told that Hawkins acknowledges it, too … and then we move right back to the smiley, feel-goodness of this zany tale.

But it’s not that simple. In 2017, in MAGA America, it cannot be that simple.

In the past, you could do an interview like this and never have to include even token acknowledgement of the power of whiteness. Why would you? It was expected that stories would be told from the point of view of white folk, quite often from the vantage point of white men. The white person’s point of view was, simply, the “norm,” and the rest of us were welcome to fit ourselves in around the margins if we could, but we were expected to accept our exclusion and erasure and keep quiet. Inclusion? Not possible.

Also impossible? The idea that anyone else’s feelings or interests or privacy need be respected. The white people are having fun, and that was the only point. Never mind if their “fun” disturbed or damaged someone else, one of those nameless “other” people who count so very much less.

This story is presented as funny and clever, something we should all try because surely all of us could benefit from stepping out of our comfort zones and meeting new people. Really? How well would that work for me as a woman alone to go present myself at the homes of strangers? How well would it work of for me as a Black person? How well would it work for a Black man?

Let’s pause for a moment to consider how unnecessary any of this is. In a city like San Francisco, there are plenty of public events that could have helped Max break free of his homogenous bubble. There are gallery openings, readings, performance art installations, open houses. He could volunteer with an organization working in a neighborhood he’s curious about but never visited. He could join his community board and meet some of the old-timey residents who have yet to be priced out by his gentrifying butt. Why am I supposed to think it’s okay for him to insert himself in other people’s lives because his own life feels boring or stuck in a rut?

As I said, the story does take a quick glance over the wall at privilege: “as a kind of unassuming white guy, [Max] actually didn’t [have to worry about people not responding positively.] (And Max acknowledges this privilege.)” Oh. Okay, then. Max acknowledges his privilege. Carry on.

This hat tip to white male privilege isn’t enough. No points for that little wink and nod. What privilege is it that Max is aware of? We have no idea because we’re just given that pat on the head, no actual information. No, sorry. NPR and Invisibilia, you have failed. You need to take that further. In the case of this profile of Max, a lot of my anger would have melted away if the reporter creating this story had stepped away from the cutesy narrative and said plainly:

Max was able to get away with his shenanigans because he is a young white man who is not aggressively muscular and looks goofily non-threatening. Given the realities of our current society’s entrenchment in rape culture, this kind of reliance on the kindness of strangers isn’t recommended for women. Given our adherence to the belief that all Black bodies are dangerous and criminal and in need of neutralization, showing up at strangers’ doors and demanding entrance to their parties is discouraged for Black folks … well, hell, for all people of color.

But my anger runs along another path as well. Yes, the white male privilege of Max being able to feel safe and comfortable putting himself in places he doesn’t belong would be enough to piss me right off. But there’s more. There’s the raging sense of entitlement that allows Max to decide he has the right to show up at strangers’ homes, at strangers’ private events. That entitlement allows him to made decisions about other people’s lives, allows him to decide that whatever he sees that he wants, he can have. And that is just the whitest thing in the world.

It’s easy for me to believe Max Hawkins is a nice guy. Look at his almost cartoonishly goofy face:

He really looks like a nice guy. That’s not the point, however. Nice people do shitty things all the time. Nice people take full, comfortable advantage of their privilege all the time. They may even, like Max, acknowledge that they have privilege. But when Invisiblia reports on all of that without acknowledging any of it, that’s the problem, that’s what sparks my rage.

Back in December, Storycorps raised hackles by framing an awful story as a heartwarming one, just in time for the holidays … and then refused to take full responsibility for their crap when listeners and readers called them out.

Now it’s Invisibilia’s turn. There is no excuse for presenting a story like this without context, without explicit acknowledgement of the ways in which Max’s life-randomizing hijinks are also dangerous, intrusive, and dripping with privilege.

Is it fair for me to expect more from Invisibilia, from NPR? I say yes. The Washington Post’s new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” tells me that the paper must be held to an even higher level of accountability for its journalism, for its honesty, for its calling out of wrongs and lies. Not that it shouldn’t be held to high standards simply because it’s a major national newspaper. But when you slap that kind of high and mighty line on yourself, you are asking to be put under a more exacting microscope. I mean, Fox News was terrible for years, but when they started describing themselves as “fair and balanced,” that was clearly a call for pointing out every instance of their utter lack of fairness or balance.

NPR presents itself as the news organization that goes beneath the surface, that takes more time with its stories, digs deep for the hidden bits that are crucial to understanding, to informed, critical thinking. That standard of reporting has to apply to all of the reporting. That standard of reporting has to be followed even when a reporter is faced with “a kind of unassuming white guy” who’s doing some madcap thing that seems the perfect idea for a fluff piece. You sell your wares based on the promise of critical analysis. Throwing the words, “And Max acknowledges this privilege” at me is laziness. It’s telling me, “Look, we know there’s more here, some deep mess that needs dissecting, but we’re not in the mood. We like this guy and don’t feel like examining the seamy underbelly of his privilege, don’t want to make him feel bad about this adorably crazy thing he’s done.”

That laziness is bad journalism. There are people who don’t understand what privilege is or how it works, who don’t know how to spot it, who can’t see that it’s lurking in harmless spaces like Max’s decision to amp up the interesting-quotient in his life. It’s up to quality, responsible journalism to point that out.

The decision to ignore the negative aspect of Max’s story is bad for Max, too. As I said, it’s easy to believe Max is a nice guy. He probably means well and didn’t set out to harm anyone. The I-can’t-fully-open-my-eyes, nerdboy look of him makes that easier to believe. He’s a nice guy. By not calling his attention to what he’s doing, by not picking apart his “awareness” of his privilege, he gets to continue running headlong down his slippery slope.

Max’s slope? Monetizing his behavior and taking it public. He is developing a “suite of randomization apps.” Of course he is. Because what he’s done is so fun and clever, and of course lots of other people should do the same.

He hopes to introduce [the apps] for public use in the coming months. He has also created a Facebook group that encourages people to attend strangers’ publicly listed events and offers tips and tricks for doing so.

(I’m not even going to list all the ways I’ve already imagined for this to go horribly wrong, all the folks with ill intent who could take full and painful advantage of Max’s apps. No, we’ll just pretend he’s done something fun and clever and of course lots of other people should do the same.)

When we don’t push people to think about the problematic things they’re doing, they will keep doing them. And, in some cases, they will expand them, and make money from them, and get other people to start doing them, too. Swell.

Being a nice guy shouldn’t give you a pass when you’re doing something wrong. By finding Max clever and off-beat, NPR lost sight of the work it’s supposed to be doing, the quality journalism we’ve been led to expect.

I expect my purveyors of quality news to be aware of the larger world, even in a puff piece about a bored hipster who’s created an app for that.



In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind. I committed to writing an essay a week … but fell behind behind pretty quickly. I’m determined to catch up, committed to 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride.

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I don’t know anything about classical music. I’ve played some — back in my mercifully short career as a high school flutist. I’ve sung a fair bit. I have favorite pieces. There are symphonies I love, composers who generally never let me down, but I don’t actually know anything. I haven’t studied, don’t understand intricacies or what makes one piece speak to me and another leave me cold. I’m that classic, “I know what I like,” kind of fan.

I could fix my ignorance, of course, take classes that would give me the background and vocabulary for all the things I don’t know how to say about this music. I don’t mind my not-knowing, however. Not really. I like coming to this music following my heart, my emotional response, rather than paying close attention to my head.

Last year and this — and again for next year — I have bought not one but two subscriptions to concert series at Carnegie Hall. And they’ve been all classical music all the time. Last year, one of the series was all Russian composers, and that was pretty fabulous. I hadn’t really thought about having a particular love for the Russians, but apparently my musical tastes run similarly to my early literature-reading tastes. Give me the Russians (shame to think this is something I’d have in common with THOTUS)!

The final concert of my subscriptions for this season, the last of my Philadelphia Orchestra performances, was Leonard Bernstein, Mozart, and Robert Schumann. Of the three, as much as I have discovered myself as a lover of Mozart (I resisted at first because it seemed too easy, too obvious — he was someone I was supposed to like), the Bernstein and the Schumann won me, with the Bernstein resonating most deeply.

Just as I love choral singing — my one voice melded into a crowd of others — I love orchestral music, love the singular pieces all playing together to make a whole. And the beautiful playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra under the dynamic and gracious conducting of Yannick Nézet-Séguin doesn’t disappoint.

Favorite moment? At the end of the first movement of the Bernstein, the percussionist is called upon toe use maracas (what does the scoring look like for maracas, I wonder) … and he picks them up … and uses them as drumsticks to play the timpani!! That, truly, was everything. Every last thing.

* * *

Not long ago, I posted on Facebook about how self-doubt creeps in on me, makes me question whether I’m really a writer at all, whether I should just quit messing around and use my time more productively. Watching the orchestra, I wondered if that doubt is fueled, in part, by the solitary echo chamber that is writing. As a member of an orchestra, you can see and hear your work every time you take up your instrument. Your place in the larger whole comes back to you as harmony, rhythm, a full and beating heart of sound. And watching the Philadelphia Orchestra reminded me of some of the self-care I know my creative self needs, things I haven’t been making time for.

I like writing in community. I don’t mean that I like working on group writing projects (although that sounds like fun and could someone please propose one for me to join you on?). No, I mean that I like being around other writers while I’m working. I like basking in and soaking up that creative energy. I like not being alone, like working next to folks who get what I’m trying to do, having those folks be right there when frustration or procrastination hit.

And I know this. But somehow I allow myself to forget. Over and over. Somehow I set aside this vital truth and, instead of finding more ways to write in community, I isolate myself so I can get some work done … and I grind myself down smaller and smaller until I get almost nothing done at all.

My smart, talented lovely friend Lisa wrote a manifesto for nurturing her creativity while nurturing her new child. She drafted it on a dramatic length of butcher paper and hung it on her wall. I’m thinking bout that now, the larger-than-life, in everyone’s face commitment of that butcher paper. I’m thinking I need something similarly large, large like the poster I’ll be making of the Joe Louis fist, large enough that I can’t help but see it and can’t possibly ignore or forget about it.

It needs to say obvious things like “write in community,” but also things like “keep your Carnegie subscription,” “go to the singalong Messiah,” “go to the theater.”

And you’ll notice how few of those things have specifically to do with pen and paper, with me actually doing some writing. But I think that’s another part of the point. Because yes, I need to sit down and work — with other people when that’s possible — but I also need to feed my creativity. When Julia Cameron wrote about “filling the well” in The Artist’s Way, she wasn’t talking about writing every minute of every day. She was talking about the exact opposite, about the fact that we can’t create if the well is dry, if we never give ourselves the chance to take in beauty, nature, music … whatever is going to replenish our spirits so that we can sit down and do the work.

The Philadelphia Orchestra is definitely a well-filler, but my Carnegie season is finished. I won’t be back in my second tier box until the fall. But there are so many things I can do in the mean time. I have a whole summer of well-filling ahead of me, a whole summer to remember to make artist dates and friend dates … and writing dates. I have a friend with whom I have semi-regular writing dates. First summer task: do a better job of making those dates more “regular” than “semi.” It’s a start.

__________

(There was no way I could resist using that title. As soon as I started writing this post, it came flying up from the deepest depths of my memory. I couldn’t even remember what songs OMD were known for, but the name was right there, ready for me to scoop it up. I went to The Google, and was reminded of If You Leave. Oh yes, it all comes back to me now …)



In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind. I committed to writing an essay a week … but fell behind behind pretty quickly. I’m determined to catch up, committed to 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride.

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Last week I printed out a photo of Detroit’s Joe Louis Memorial, the gloriously enormous sculpture of Louis’ mighty fist. I saw it in an article someone forwarded me and immediately knew I needed it posted on the half-wall of my cubicle. Needed it.

This sculpture is one of my favorite things in the world. The first time I saw it, driving from the airport to a conference at the Renaissance Center, I was so wowed I couldn’t breathe or speak for a minute. It is a thing of absolute, graceful power and beauty. It is magnificent.

Here’s one of the pics I took of it in 2012:

I printed the photo from the article (a slightly more close-up, angled, under-the-fist view) and tacked it to my cubicle wall.

I feel it there, casting it’s dark, black spell, enveloping me in its strength and conviction.

So many times during the days since putting it on my wall, I have hung up the phone after an annoying call or looked up after reading an email that has made me sigh and shake my head, and my eyes go right to that picture, go right to that beautiful bright light.

And I feel myself become calm.

The first time I saw it, I was with the woman who was my boss. She was appalled, thought it was “so violent.” I wondered if we were looking at the same piece of art. Violent? Where? How? Could she really not see the sleek, delicious glory of it, its heavy, soul-filling affirmation?

No, she thought it was angry. Angry.

Maybe it is angry. Maybe that’s why I love it, maybe seeing it then — two years before the finally-and-for-good emergence of Angry Stacie — was the initial push, the moment when my heart felt the vibrating resonance of recognition, felt how completely I would come to embrace my rage.

I don’t think so, though. Yes, to the vibrating resonance, but not in recognition of anger, or not anger as such. Recognition of the fullness, the beauty of being exactly who I was — as big, as loud, as angry, as strong, as emotional, as articulate, as fed-the-fuck-up, as loving, as hungry as I actually was.

Which is what it’s giving me now, too. I have to swallow myself at work sometimes, hold back my honesty, pretend to a version of myself that can be made to fit the space I’m given. Like not lashing out when a superior refers to  formerly-incarcerated youth as “little criminals” and can’t seem to understand the value proposition of creating education and job training programs for them. Like not slapping the hand of the coworker who reaches out to touch my hair.

That fist is a signpost, a reminder that I’m still here. A reminder that, even when I have to walk softly, I can still fight, can still push back. That my voice can still shout, even in the dark, especially in the dark. That fist is my mantra, my affirmation, my vision board all rolled into one.

I need the picture poster-size and on my wall at home. That fist. To wake up to it, to fall asleep under its watch. Imagine.


In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week … I’ve fallen behind, but I’m still committed to writing 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following the lead of Vanessa Mártir, who launched #52essays2017 after she wrote an essay a week for 2016 … and then invited other writers along for the ride.

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By now you’ve likely seen and debated the Heinken ad that seems to exist to show Pepsi how social responsibility is done, to show all of us how world peace can be achieved.

You’re not wrong if you’re hearing disdain in there. Maybe you’ve also seen DiDi Delgado’s piece that talks about why this ad sucks.

I agree with Delgado, but I was also totally taken in at first. I want to believe in this ad, in what this ad is trying to sell me (in addition to a cold one). This ad wants me to believe in people’s ability to treat each other with human kindness, wants me to believe when people who have diametrically opposing views are brought together and given the chance to interact one on one, magic will happen. When they face each other in these one-to-one ways, when they see each other as people, the ad assures us, even people with views as extreme as the folks in this ad can see one another’s humanity and treat each other with human kindness and good will. Better still,  the ad suggests that this ability to see an individual’s humanity is the secret sauce, the magic elixir that will change how we look at and treat larger groups of people, whole categories of people.

I want to believe that. I truly, kind of desperately want to believe that. And that’s how the ad suckered me. Of course I want to believe that, so of course I liked this ad when I first watched it. It was almost irresistible. Look how those random, opposing-view-holding, nice English people got their acts together and shared a beer! The world can be saved! Praise be!

Um, no.

I liked this ad, but it also made me incredibly uncomfortable. And, ultimately, made me angry.

My issue with the ad isn’t, as one friend suggested, that there aren’t enough “this type against that type” pairings. They’d have had to make far too many of these ads to cover every possible high-profile, opposing-view pairing. As I said to my friend, however, I think they were cowardly to leave out big-ticket items like anti-Semitism and racism, though I get why they didn’t take them on. The number or type of pairings isn’t why this ad is terrible.

Delgado’s excellent point about “putting regressive ideology on equal footing with progressive ideology” is right on the money. The false equivalencies set up in these pairings is awful. The hateful comments of the transphobic and misogynist men are given to us and we’re supposed to see their comments and beliefs as perfectly acceptable, alternative ideas, we’re supposed to see their comments as the same as a) a woman talking about the need for equality and equity and b) a woman simply stating that she exists. There is no equivalence here. Not even a little, tiny one you can only find with a microscope. No.

We’re supposed to set aside our feelings about the hate these men spew because we see that, oh, hey, they seem like nice guys! Sure. They are nice guys … who believe horrible, horrible things and surely make decisions and treat people according to those awful beliefs – how many women have had to deal with that man’s misogyny in their interactions with him at work or when they’ve tried to be in a relationship with him? The prejudices these men reveal aren’t the equivalent of the thoughts expressed by the women they are paired with – the transgender woman isn’t espousing any view at all. She is simply stating who she is and expecting to be able to live her life. There’s no opposing view for this pair, just one prejudiced person paired with the kind of person the are prejudiced against. Not a shred of equivalency there. These two pairings are harmful and ugly.

Harmful and ugly. And there’s the other false equivalence. We’re supposed to see these pairings as equal to the climate change pairing, and they aren’t. The two men with their opposing ideas and beliefs about climate change are giving their opinions about an idea that isn’t about them as people. The misogynist is talking about women, about people, not about a theory or concept or scientific finding. He’s saying he doesn’t believe in the agency, autonomy, or humanity of a whole group of people.  The transphobic man is talking about people, not about a theory or concept or scientific finding. He’s saying he doesn’t believe in the existence or the right to existence of a whole group of people. Neither of these positions is in any way like not believing climate science.

The other false equivalence is the pairing of women with men being set up as equal to the teo-men pairing. Let’s not pretend it is. Particularly not with the men chosen for the mixed pairs. From the first go, from the second both women duck their heads and let the men move into the space first, those pairs aren’t the same as the climate change pair. And when the dink-or-ditch moment comes, both women step up right away because they are “nice,” and perhaps because of gender-based pressure to be nice. That’s what we’ve been conditioned to be, it’s our role in social situations, particularly those involving men.

And finally we have the big reveal. When that moment comes, yes the climate change guy is surprised by what he hears his build-a-bar partner saying, but he isn’t worried, isn’t afraid. The women are both clearly uncomfortable, and their discomfort seems to come from a place of concern for personal and perhaps physical safety. That moment seems especially awful for the trans woman. Who knows how that transphobic man will respond?

And the “joke” the transphobe plays. It makes for good film, but I can’t imagine the pain that joke caused the woman. It only takes a second for that feeling of rejection to hit, that realization that someone who’s been perfectly nice to you is now repulsed by and turning away from you. Heh. Some joke.

And I’m annoyed by the fact that it seems clear who is expected to have the bad reaction and possibly leave in each pair. The person who is (set up to look) intolerant is assumed to be the wildcard, we don’t know what they’ll do. We assume the other person (who is set up to look like the better person) will be open and conciliatory, ready to have conversation, even with someone who’s just been revealed to have problematic, dangerous, hateful opinions. It annoys me because that is always what’s expected. We are supposed to be open minded, see the other side, listen to what the opposition has to say. And while we may often be the person willing to listen, that’s not always the case and also puts pressure on us to have more open-mindedness than other folks, to leave ourselves in potentially – dangerous situations for the sake of being nice, or polite, or reasonable.

So everyone stays and shares some time over beers. It’s a beautiful thing. Of course it is. The climate denier blowhard decides everything’s fine because he can have a drink with a stranger. The misogynist says, “Smash the patriarchy.” The transphobe gets the nice woman to exchange numbers with him — and immediately makes clear that he is taken, so don’t get any ideas.

It’s not hard to believe that people can get along one on one. It’s not surprising or magic. At my old job, I had to moderate a community meeting in which a lot of angry white people stood up and said hateful things about the immigrants who had begun to outnumber them in the neighborhood, but when I saw those same hatemongers on the street, I’d often see them chatting quite pleasantly with their Chinese, Yemeni, Mexican, Bangladeshi, or Palestinian neighbors — in one case, playing sweetly with a neighbor’s children. Them having good relationships with the people they knew individually didn’t stop them from hating the groups of people thise individuals were part of. I’ve seen this with people I know saying unbelievably racist things to me … and then assuring me that they don’t think of me that way. Liking me as a person didn’t stop them from hating Black people. It just made them think I was an exception to the rule.

Coke wanted to unite us with song, Pepsi with a reality TV star. Now we get arts and crafts with beer. I am irked by the tied-with-a-nice-bow conclusion this ad presents to us and wants us to believe, the completely unrealistic idea that we’d all get along if we could just sit and share a beer. Never mind that I don’t like beer. My life will not be long enough for all the one-on-one drinks that would be required to affect real change. And I’m annoyed by how much I wanted to believe and so let myself be taken in, no matter how briefly.

I’m also annoyed by how quick folks have been to tell me my criticism is wrong, that I should “be happy” because at least Heineken tried. This is part and parcel of the marinated-in-white-tears complaint that folks should get a pass if they’ve tried, that telling them their attempt hasn’t worked makes it less likely that they will try again because we haven’t given them any credit for their messed up attempt, haven’t given them time to bask in the warm sunshine of our love and praise.

Yeah, that.

Look. This is life, not everyone-gets-a-hit little league. I have neither the time nor the inclination to pat people on the back when what they’ve done is make a hash of things.

In an attempt to do something good, something clearly much more carefully conceived and executed than the Pepsi ad, Heineken has, instead, put out something patently disturbing and dangerous. Would “greater progress on ideal scenarios” — as someone in my mentions accused me of wanting — be desirable? Of course they would, but I’d be happy with “first do no harm,” and this ad does harm. So, an entity with worldwide reach had put something harmful into the world. And that’s a) a problem, b) fair game for honest criticism, and c) not something to be overlooked simply because we assume the intent was good.

People have also felt the need to tell me how I should respond to this ad, as if the problem isn’t with the ad but with me being too ignorant to understand what I should be seeing when I watch it. As if.

I was told that I should “recognize it for what it is. Be happy it wasn’t just a callous money grab. That they’re at least TRYING to get it right.”

Yes, well, see above about the back-patting and how inclined I am. And, tio, do you really not think this was a money grab? Also, no. It’s not acceptable for anyone to be telling me how I should consume or respond to … well … anything. Punto. And really, thus harkens back to the anger that flooded my mentions when I had the nerve to admit that folks wearing safety pins didn’t make me feel happy or supported or more safe. As a genre rule, when a marginalized person — particularly one from a group that is presumed to benefit from the behavior or change in question — tells you, “Hey, there’s something wrong here, something is making me u comfortable,” your response shouldn’t be to tell that person to shut up, to tell them how they should be responding, to tell them how very appreciative they should be that someone wanted to do anything for them, no matter how flawed the finished product turned out to be.

It is important for us to acknowledge when folks get thing right, when they try to do something productive and helpful. But, of we ever want folks to actually get it right, criticism is necessary . Without criticism, the people who made that ad only hear praise, get to think they did it 100% correctly, that there’s no need for improvement, no need for them to learn how to do this work better. I’m not interested in patting people on the back because their intention was good. I have, in fact, no idea what their intention was, other than to interest me in buying their beer. I can only judge what they’ve shown me, and what they’ve shown me is extremely flawed and troubling.

So no thank you to anyone who wants to tell me how to respond, how to feel. I’ll keep feeling and speaking and responding in the ways that work for me, in the ways that can foster actual change rather than silencing myself because people want to feel good about a beer commercial.


Oh, I fell off the wagon completely on this essay challenge, what? But I’m back, friends. I’m back. I’m miles behind, but I’m determined to catch myself up. Sadly, it seems the world is determined to provide me with things to get pissed off about, so there should be some solid essay fodder in all that mess. Welcome to the ride. ❤

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As in lifting something heavy. As in the weight of something heavy. And H is for Heavy. As in something of great weight, difficult to lift, move, or carry. As in of great density, thick or substantial.

And what does all of this have to do with my decision to spend this Poetry Month writing chōka? Yes, that would be the rearing of my Little Hater’s ugly head. Let me explain.

Last week, I noticed that I was feeling comfortable with my poetry challenge. Anyone who has read my April writing for more than a minute knows that I have struggled mightily with poetry, with the idea that I can write poetry, with the idea that I would have the nerve to post those poems online, with the idea that I would have the unmitigated gall to call myself a poet. Just about every April since I started my blog, I come here and try to push back against all of that and write poems. I force myself to post them, even when I know they aren’t even good enough to be called mediocre. Because I have to. Because to not do that is giving in to that mean, awful voice that has been telling me since I was 18 years old that I can’t write poems.

Learning a new form sometimes pulls me out of that negative loop very nicely. I don’t know what or why that is. Maybe it takes so much focus for me to wrap my brain around the new patter there isn’t room for my Inner Critic to slip in.

So I was feeling that, feeling pulled away from that mean voice, content to just play with the words.

I’m sure you can guess where this is headed.

Yes. As soon as I noticed that I was feeling comfortable … all that comfort drained away and the tidal wave of doubt flooded in. Of course..

My doubt wasn’t about whether or not the poems were good. Or, rather, not much about that. It is generally a given for me that the poems aren’t particularly good. I am always surprised when I like a poem I’ve written. That is hardly the anticipated result. So I chided myself for not writing good poems — that one from Thursday night is still pretty unforgivable — but then I realized that quality wasn’t what had me thinking negative thoughts about my poems.

No, my Inner Mean Person was kicking my teeth in because my poems were boring. Plain and simple. My poems weren’t about anything substantive. When I did my last year of aruns in 2014, I was just getting into genealogical research, and my poems were about Samuel and finding family and history. When I did prose poems in 2015, my poems were little Black Lives Matter protest songs. In 2009 when I started this April business, I wrote about love, about Sean Bell, about Black death. From the beginning I’ve landed on serious subjects. My poems may not have been good, but they had weight. Heft.

Thursday I wrote a poem about having “Boogie, Oogie, Oogie” as an earworm. Such a piece of fluff as could be carried away by the softest exhalation.

Of course, there are plenty of heavy, serious, somber things to write about. Every. single. day. But I haven’t found my way into those stories, found the way to tell my piece of any of those stories. And so I — and you, dear reader — am stuck here, in this fluffy place. And maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe I need to be here, churning out banal chōka to give my brain a rest, a chance to sort through and process all the everything else. Maybe when that’s done, I’ll find my way back to writing poems with heft.

Spring

Smooth, shining spring day
here at last, reminding me
of April in France
Paris opening her arms
no longer stiff, cold
finally welcoming me.
Claude driving us fast
along the Champs Elysees
the air honeyed, light.
Spring reminds me of Ludlow
those days with Walter —
was it pollen in my eyes
blinding me to him?
A later spring, me and Ray
the back of his bike
cruising up the Palisades.

It is again spring
and this old woman’s fancy
turns to thoughts of love
(loves) in the dim long ago —
wringing verses from their bones.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.

(Is this an essay? I’m going to call it one. It needs more work, but it’s enough of a start to give my revision some direction, an idea of where I wanted to go.)



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The first day of spring. At last! At last! At last! (… which is silly because we had a troublingly-mild winter, but it feels real all the same because this is always a welcome moment: the slide out of winter and into spring.)

And this turn of seasons, this chilly equinox sends my thoughts careering forward to National Poetry Month, looming large on the horizon.

Last year was the first year since 2008 that I didn’t write poetry in April. The first year since 2009 that I didn’t pick a form and stick to it for the month. I was sad to let that creative challenge fall by the wayside, but I just didn’t have back-to-back marathons in me.

Last spring was when I discovered that I needed another knee surgery. I was walking with difficulty, in pain all the time, and I couldn’t dredge up the energy to compose poems.

Today — two surgeries and two “procedures” later — I’m feeling much more like a real, whole person, much more like the kind of person who could attempt a month (or even just a day) of poetry writing.

Thank goodness!

But there is still the question of what poetry? What form will I write this year? I have two weeks to test some waters, try a few forms on for size, see how they look and feel, see what I want to explore for 30 days.

Do you write for National Poetry Month? (Do you write poetry during the rest of the year, too?) Do you have a favorite form? And what do you do when inspiration is elusive and midnight’s nipping at your heels? Sometimes, when that well has been dry, I’ve used prompts from Poetic Asides. I don’t always feel those prompts, but sometimes they are just what I need. One of my favorites came when I was writing prose poems in 2015:

How to Write a Policy Memo

First, figure out what a policy memo is. Because “policy” is one of those things that turns your brain off, makes you fear that all your inadequacies will be revealed under a blinding, white-hot light. Like the instruction: “For questions 9 through 24, use of a graphing calculator is permitted.” Next, learn something about the subject of the policy memo you’ve been tasked to write. Which you probably — surely — should already know but really you don’t. And please refer back to Impostor Syndrome fear noted above. Then follow the instructions laid out on the eHow page you found on writing policy memos. Because eHow really helped when you wanted to learn about sewing a kick pleat, about writing a cover letter. Clearly you can trust eHow for all things. Discard your first draft. All those words! All those strange, floating ideas supported by nothing, anchored to even less. Start over … and maybe stop saying the words “policy memo” in your head. And start over. This time, remembering that you know things, have been in this field a long time, and maybe POLICY isn’t some shaggy, tusked and fanged monster licking it’s glistening lips over your vulnerable underbelly. And start over. Remembering that you have data, can add a table or a graph, that the world won’t end if this isn’t the final draft. Proof before you seek comment … because you know that when you want to say “one city,” your fingers betray your brain and type “onceity,” as if, in the great onceity of time, you had any clue how to write a policy memo. Back away from the computer. Go home for the weekend.

I liked prose poems. Maybe I’ll try those again this year!

Are you going to join me next month for 30 poems in 30 days?



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

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On Thursday I wrote about getting the news that I hadn’t been awarded a writing residency I’d applied for. In their comments, Heidi from Wordsmithing and Akilah from The Englishist expressed interest in the DIY writing retreat I made for myself in 2012, and Akilah’s comment made me realize that I’d never written about it. So today I will.

In 2012, I decided to send myself away to write. In both 2010 and 2011 I’d gone to VONA and had my heart and mind and craft blown wide open. For 2012, I decided not to apply, but rather to take the money I’d spend on a VONA week and create a two-week writing vacation.

I was nervous about doing it because I’d never been particularly successful with writing on vacation in the past. I’d turned out a few pages, but mostly spent my time vacationing and maybe (maybe) writing in my journal. But those had all been vacations and not specifically writing retreats, and I wanted to believe that calling my trip something different would actually help flip whatever switch in my brain needed flipping to get me to be more productive.

So I planned.

  1. Find a place to go. I searched on Flipkey (like AirBnB) for a place to go. I searched in Mexico, in the Caribbean, in France, in Canada … Everything looked great, nothing looked right. And then I clicked to an apartment in Tulum and the first photo won me. It was a slightly fuzzy picture of a sunny kitchen table. When I saw it, the first thought I had was, “I could write there.”
  2. Figure out when to go. The retreat was going to be my birthday present to myself, so I wanted to go in the fall, as close to my birthday as possible.
  3. Make a plan for writing. I made my schedule very simple: I would write all morning and go to the beach in the afternoon (it was going to be Tulum, after all, home of one of the most beautiful beaches on the planet). I also signed up for an online writing class and planned the timing of the trip so that I’d be in the middle of the course while I was in Mexico.
  4. Make a plan for what you want to get done during the retreat. There was a story I’d been fighting with. I knew that, if I was ever going to find my way through that story, I needed to understand this one character I’d been avoiding. So I decided that I’d use my retreat to write about him, to figure out who he was so that I could make sense of what he was supposed to be doing in my story. I don’t know if this part of the equation is necessary for everyone, but having a specific project in mind before I started helped me. I wound up writing other things during the retreat, but having this clear idea already laid out in my head helped me know exactly where to begin on day one.

So I was good to go. I was still worried about whether I’d get much work done, but I figured I’d done as much planning as I could or should, and that I’d have to trust myself.

I got to Tulum, the apartment was as lovely as the photos had led me to believe, I set up my writing corner of the dining table, and went to sleep early so I’d be ready to dive in with my schedule the next morning.

My schedule didn’t work out at all. Not even a little. Here is how almost all of my days went:

I got up early and had a little something for breakfast. I sat down with a cup of coffee or tea and started working. After working for a while, I started to feel ravenously hungry and had to stop writing … which would be when I’d discover that it was somehow 3 or 4 or 5 in the afternoon, that I had been working all day.

Two weeks in Tulum, and I made it to the beach twice. Twice. That is actually a crime, I think.

But —

I wrote like a crazy person. I wrote more in those two weeks than I normally write in a whole year.

I have never felt more content, more perfectly at ease in my body, more perfect. I was completely exhausted at the end of every day and fast asleep before 11pm … and then up with the sun to start all over again.

A big part of the success of my retreat was signing up for that online class. It was a class with Minal Hajratwala. I’d taken an online class with her once before, so I knew what to expect. Minal is an amazing and amazingly generous instructor. The materials she prepares, the exercises she gives … always fabulous. I was taking her Blueprint Your Book class during my retreat, and I had a huge breakthrough thanks to two of the exercises she gave us. She is an entirely lovely person, and if you have the chance to take one of her classes, I enthusiastically recommend it.

__________

It’s definitely not necessary to go to Tulum or to go away for two weeks to make a DIY retreat work. You can stay right in your town. You can:

  • Find an AirBnB place that’s not crazy expensive (my apartment in Tulum was $50 a night), rent it for as many days as you can, and go write.
  • Apartment swap with a friend who lives a short train ride or drive away, sit at her desk or at his kitchen table, and write.
  • Stay in a hotel for the weekend, order room service, tell housekeeping to leave you alone, and write.
  • Find a co-working space that will let you rent for 2, or 5, or 7 days, and let the fact that you’ve paid for the space inspire you to actually spend those 2, or 5, or 7 days writing.

The important things are to 1) set aside time to work, 2) be in a place where you can work without interruption, and 3) hold yourself accountable to giving yourself that time.

I’m looking forward to planning a retreat for myself for the end of the summer. I don’t know if I could ever be as insanely productive as I was in 2012, but I like having that bar to aim for.



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

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