Sunday, April 16, 2017

Hope and Fear

"We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize."

Each day, two white boards in a peer-tutoring space of the rural community college where I teach, record our students' hopes and fears. 

Recently, one anonymous hopeful someone longed “to make a million” while on the other board somebody else wrote, “I need to see a doctor, but I’m not sure I can afford it.”

In reading these boards, you especially learn a lot about students’ fears. Nowadays some are, indeed, very afraid. “Will ICE be knocking on my door today,” wrote an anonymous someone a few weeks ago. Those words sat beside another’s fear that they hadn’t left enough time to finish an essay. “I’m so hungry,” wrote somebody else.

Seeing fears written in a public but mostly anonymous way somehow makes them more visceral, something I wanted to capture in this post. But I also wanted to document the ways in which the space and the people in it have made hope more tangible too.

One day not long ago, just outside my office door, a young man and woman reflected on a book they were reading for one of their English classes. These Chicano and Mexican American students named all the ways they related to Roxane Gay’s BadFeminist, expressing surprise and delight that a book written by an Haitian American academic told part of their own story as well. A second young man joined the discussion and together the three talked about masculinity’s challenges and traps and the need to open to the feminine and the feminine within the divine, something they felt connected them to their indigenous ancestors.

Only a few feet away, the newly organized Literary Society club meeting was underway. From across the room, I could hear laughter and sensed the joy it contained as the group made plans for a new student journal. This club had been inactive for about ten years, so it was quite a feat that suddenly more than a dozen people were willing to come together and spearhead a project with so much potential meaning on our campus. 

Only a few minutes later, a young man––an international student, perhaps the only one with this formal designation on our campus––came to my door expressing interest in the glitter jars that decorate tables about the room. They are like homemade snow globes and are there whenever anxiety or a need for delight overtakes someone––lift, shake, watch the glitter settle, and feel a bit more settled yourself.

Like many schools, our college has developed this international program to collect big student fees. We imagine our campus populated by foreigners, foreigners with pockets deep enough to save us from whatever looming financial crisis may be on the horizon. But it’s hard to imagine why any one rich enough to fly to the US would choose this tiny underfunded campus when close by are larger cities with the kind of well-funded colleges one sees on television programs America exports overseas.

Nevertheless, this young man chose us, and he is far from home in every way. The jars help him, he said, whenever he feels distressed. 

It was a pleasure to receive his gratitude as the jars mean a great deal to me too. I encouraged him to watch the short film Just Breathe (available on youtube) to learn more about glitter jar origins and purpose without telling him I tear up every time I screen it for myself.

He smiled and made a suggestion. You should have bowls of fruits too, he said, and nuts, on the tables to feed hungry students and the smell of the fruit the textures and so on, it would excite the senses and help people with their writing.

Yes, I thought, what that would be a beautiful thing to do.

Early that morning I’d gone for a run, a practice that back in my life after a two-decades absence, and now, suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, I can’t get enough of it. I could run for hours, it feels, all around the town. Lately, there is the scent of the sea even up in the old neighborhoods, and at this time of year blooming cherries. Peregrine falcons fly high overhead, and old women walk by with dogs who sniff my ankles. I rub the dogs’ heads and say good morning to the ladies knowing one day I will be old because we only ever go one direction.

The memories of these runs sometimes come with me to school, and I feel the blood pumping through my body as I look out at the students working away on their essays or talking with friends, and there is purpose in their focus. They are at it. They are here. I think, yes, there are things to fear in the world right now and so many reasons to hope.

Monday, March 27, 2017

We are All the Public: More from the Writers and Artists of San Benito County Jail

“In August 2015, a mentally ill inmate was beaten to death and another inmate attacked, allegedly by three guards now facing murder charges. Two other jail guards face assault charges in a separate beating incident, and the former head of the correctional union was fired after exchanging racist texts with other guards. The county also has been grappling with two major lawsuits filed by prison rights advocates over conditions.
But the jail break is the first problem to pose a direct threat to the public’s safety.”
––Tracey Kaplan, Bay Area NewsGroup, from an article about the Santa Clara County Jail in San Jose, California

Waking up November ninth to news of Trump’s win was irrefutable evidence I neither knew nor understood my country. While I prepared for my weekly writing classes in the San Benito County Jail, this painful awareness grew inside me. Yet I knew my own pain would not be helpful in the classroom.

On a typical Wednesday, students may be integrating a new roommate into their pod, watching while he or she undergoes detox, and worrying about their own children and families on the outside. It’s stressful enough without having to worry about the teacher’s distress as well.

The jail is set on the outskirts of rural Hollister, California between an apricot orchard and fallow brown fields, a pastoral, eerily calm location. In fact, the small single story jail is so diminished by the grand scale of its surroundings––the wide flat valley open on two sides and the Diablo mountains rising up along the East––that from the outside the squat concrete jail can seem an almost comforting place. Indeed, as far as I know, San Benito’s jail doesn’t suffer from the blatant violence and racist attacks that plague larger institutions, such as Santa Clara’s, outlined in the epigraph above, the one that in its last paragraph excludes both racist guards and incarcerated people from the category public.

Nevertheless, once inside San Benito’s jail, all sense of comfort fades. The thick walls, low ceilings and windowless hallways trap sound, so only the ventilation system and clanging of distant doorways can be heard. By design it seems to squeeze out any sense of beauty or hope.

The misunderstanding captured in the newspaper story, had me thinking about my own students and the damage we allow ourselves to do when we see them and their keepers as separate from our community rather than a part of it, something I feared would intensify under Trump.

I knew, however, that some in my classrooms would be celebrating Trump’s win (I knew because in previous weeks they’d let me know they were fans) while others might be experiencing something akin to my own fear and despair. Some had parents and family members who lacked papers. In a few cases, it may even be the student themselves who were without legal status, which meant they waited behind bars with no clear sense on which side of the border they might end up upon release.

I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I’d do to address these two poles. After all, the men and women of E, F, and C pod live with each other 24 hours a day. Why bring up all the complicated and vastly different reactions people forced to live together in a dark enclosed space might have about the President-elect? My classes were only 70 minutes long, but whatever arose in those minutes would be in the air long after I was gone, returning with each student to the pod where he or she lived out most of each day.

On the one hand, I knew my students to be remarkably adept at getting along with even the most difficult people in the most trying of circumstances. Why I’d witness students extend compassion for those in the midst of an angry detox or long loud arguments with walls, and they’d done so with an ease that had me questioning the ways I disconnected from people whose suffering is on public display simply because there is no private space left them.

On the other hand, amongst this very same compassionate group, I knew there was one especially bright and generous writer who liked to scrawl Nazi insignias inside her writing folders and another older woman who called out allegiance to the Aryan Brotherhood in the sweet sing-song voice of a child.

Of course, these white women explained to me, their Mexican-American and Chicana cellies were exempted from any hate. “These girls are my sisters. They know that,” said the first while the other nodded and continued her sing-song tribute. “Aryan brotherhood! Aryan brotherhood!”

The darker women beside them nodded in affirmation, likewise declaring sisterly affection, an affection that ascended any category outside the classroom itself. “This is our family,” someone said. “Yes,” said another. “We love each other. We’re family in here.”

I watched the moment unfold in awe. Jail culture is distinct and I don’t always understand or even recognize all its codes. Yes, there is often this unity and also everywhere there are teams.

One day there’d even been a few excited moments when someone discovered a bit of Sureño graffiti ground into the plastic tables around which we created our poems. It stuck out because Hollister’s gangs mostly affiliate––loosely or otherwise––with the Norteños, the Sureño’s sworn enemy. I tried to determine if the anonymous graffiti artist might be any danger from anyone in my class, something I would feel compelled to report to one of the guards. It’s in just these kinds of moments I feel in over my head.

Still, every time I get underneath such a moment, I see only people behaving more or less as I might or anyone I know given the same context and under the same constraints, which is to say I’ve never even heard a threat of violence in the jail. I’ve only ever witnessed the careful maneuvering of people trying to assure themselves a bit of peace in an environment where that seems scarce. This leads to exactly the same complicated entanglements that develop between myself and my colleagues on the main campus. An overall cultural devaluing of teachers, forced educational reforms, and inequity between full and part-time faculty and staff sometimes manifests as employees turning on each other in simple and charmless ways.

Jail reminds me, pretty much wherever you go people act the same.

The day after Trump’s victory, the women of E-pod extended me the same warm greeting they had before the election took place. It made me feel I needn’t fear discussing it, and my tongue loosened. Because the E-pod discussion went well, I brought it up again with the men and women of F- and C-pods too. Better to address whatever strong feelings might be in the air, I told myself, rather than pretend they didn’t exist at all.

Some students had yet to hear the news, but those who seemed most likely to abhor the President-elect’s agenda demonstrated less dismay than I had upon hearing Trump won. It was as if because their lives could hardly get any worse than they were at the moment––locked up with limited news of their families (see “Letter to the Captain” in I’m Somebody’s Sunshine for more on this), it hardly mattered who became president. These students shrugged their shoulders and signaled a willingness to move quickly into the meditation and freewriting portion of class.

The Trump fans, however, were gleeful. They spent a few moments in open celebration, talking about all the exciting changes the new president would bring. Maybe it goes without saying that each of them, like me, was white. They talked about building a wall while I wondered quietly what, if anything, Trump might do to worsen already horrible conditions for addicts, the mentally ill, and poor and homeless people––the very folks most likely to end up incarcerated in San Benito County Jail and join writing class as far as I could tell.

Later, one of Trump’s biggest supporters ended up in tears. This most enthusiastic of writers was introduced to white nationalism by a loved-one who was himself was an undocumented immigrant of European descent. “But what will happen to him?” the writer cried out upon finally recognizing a Trump victory might have a direct effect on their family.

“I don’t know,” I said. “At the moment, we can’t know.” This was a student I loved, a serious writer who creates space for others to be brave and greets their efforts with a lot of fervor and support regardless of anyone’s ethnicity or creed.

Watching the tears flow, I lost all desire to punish or blame any particular group as solely responsible for Trump’s win. All of us, we’re in it together, I realized, from beginning to end no matter what side we came in on. After all, it’s false categorization to think anyone will remain unaffected in the coming months. Through its grand distortions hate eventually destroys the hateful as much as it does anyone we hate.

The writers and artists of San Benito County Jail have taught me a lot about love and its other name understanding, which is how author Tich Nhat Hanh names it. He provided I’m Somebody’s Sunshine epigraph and inspiration. To understand someone first we must be willing to listen.

When the public spoke this election what did I hear and what had I been missing? Of course, the public doesn’t exist only in one place. It exists in all the places at once––voting booths and board rooms, street corners and army bases, churches and jails, and so our listening must go everywhere too.

To me it seems an act of violence to include some people in our understanding of the public while automatically excluding others. Whether behind bars or walking the streets, we are all the public.

I encourage you to keep this expansive definition in mind while reading I’m Somebody’s Sunshine. Here you will meet your enemy, who is just as likely to be your friend, and in so doing, are likely to meet parts of yourself.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

If We Knew Then

“Given: A myriad of such delicate chimes,/unlikely rhymes and synchronies/To prove: How I am/the world is/Q.E.D. (not alone)”
––From the poem “On Distance (Quondam/Quantum Overdue Notice)"
by Liz Waldner

For a time, I lived on a tree-lined street in Brooklyn during an in between moment of renewal and neglect. Years earlier, a once elegant if not exactly wealthy neighborhood of brownstones had fallen into disrepair. These were then offered to working class black and immigrant families by absentee owners, who subdivided the once grand homes into tinier and tinier apartments in order to collect multiple rents.

That a young white women, such as a myself, had moved in was one signal that change was once again in the air. Married couples had begun buying the brownstones, restoring entire floors of old buildings to their original elegance, taking up residence, and renting out what remained of the small apartments to semi-bohemian people like me. Gentrifier and gentrified thus greeted each on the street with wary smiles. Our roles marked out by differences in our ethnicity.

In late spring the sidewalks were shady, and I liked to leave the apartment to run down Dean Street toward the Gowanus Canal, sometimes crossing the Brooklyn Bridge all the way into Manhattan. It gave me a feeling of immense freedom, as if at any moment I could run to wherever I wanted to be. I ran before work in the mornings, taking quick showers before taking the train to mid-town to a two-person office where I helped produce AIDS prevention videos.

Dean was residential, but a few clever drivers hoped to cut their commutes by skipping Atlantic Avenue and intersecting Flatbush at the far end of our quiet street. In those early morning hours, school children stood on the corner waiting for the crossing guard’s signal, while people with jobs more demanding than mine rushed past on their way to the station on Atlantic.

The drivers tended toward impatience. If a child or office worker impeded their journey in anyway, they wasted no time tapping their horns. My run took me in the opposite direction, so I would often know more about the cause of a delay than cars further back in a line––a child had dropped a book bag a half-block further up the street, say, or a pedestrian had tripped and stumbled from the curb.

My run, I know, was important to me. But I had distance from the commuters because my journey to work wouldn’t begin for another hour or so. My quarry, at the moment, was my own pleasure, not rent money, health insurance, or any of the daily contracts we make in order to survive.

Sometimes, the honking grew so loud it suddenly exposed the anger behind it. Each person in each car was the inviolate leader of his or her own kingdom and anyone or anything in the way could be shunted aside for the right to claim Flatbush a few moments sooner.

That sound, the impatient honking, sometimes became the soundtrack of my morning runs, and it annoyed me. Why could the world not support the ritual that made the rest of my own stressful day bearable?

One morning, running down Dean, I heard the horns and saw for the first time the reason for a particularly long delay. A block or so ahead of me, in front of one pre-gentrification brownstone, a small yellow school bus blocked traffic.  From some distance, I watched as a man in a laborer’s clothes struggled to carry a disabled teenaged girl, a girl I assumed was his daughter, down the brownstone’s stairs.

I recognized this type of bus from my own childhood, and a wave of associations washed over me. I had, perhaps, hoped to escape just this kind of bus in leaving my family behind in California and moving across country to New York City.  

Back in California, my sister Sally rode a bus just like the one before me. My sister went to a school for severely handicapped children just outside of town, and the bus took her back and forth each day. Childhood surgeries to remove the cancerous tumor in Sally’s brain had damaged it too, and she couldn’t walk or speak easily or do most of the things she had mastered as a five-year old before her operation.

As a teenager it was sometimes my responsibility to put Sally on the bus, but our street was suburban wide and no one ever honked as I went about this difficult task.

Sally, however, wasn’t the bus passenger in the worst shape. On it were children who had been born without arms and legs, and some had heads that seemed swollen to twice the size of their torsos. Others had twisted spines, and their bodies spasmed involuntarily, so their heads and waists were anchored to wheelchairs with padded belts, so they wouldn’t hurt themselves.

Some children’s gazes seemed completely beyond their control. Their eyes wandered from me to my sister to the elm tree beyond the door without rhythm or sense. I often thought I heard moans, though I was in such a rush to remove myself from this mind-blowing world, I never took the time to figure out from whom such moans arose.

Some children couldn’t close their lips, so it could have been that I only imagined moaning to account for the gaping mouths. Drool might leak onto a tiny exposed palm, which I gently pushed aside to make room for my sister, who was assigned an aisle seat. By the time I’d locked her belt into place, she looked as frail and as lost as anyone else on the bus, which was almost more than I could bear.

Sally had a pale partially bald head and large glittering brown eyes that held me in her sights as I stepped away. Everyone in our family loved her fiercely, but once Sally was on the bus with the others, it was easy to imagine how outsiders might miss everything about her that was precious, like I surely did with her classmates. A stranger might only see her ghost-like appearance, mistaking her muteness for absence when really she was alive and loving––more than anyone I know really.

Therefore, as I ran down Brooklyn’s Dean Street, I thought it likely I knew more about what might be inside that yellow bus than many of the drivers lined-up impatiently behind it. Dean was only one lane with vehicles parked along either side. This meant it wasn’t possible for the bus to pull closer to the curb and let commuters slide by no matter how big their hurry.

Some found the delay infuriating and their honks could be heard blocks in either direction. This was the sound punctuating the journey of the father, an older man with neatly combed hair, who was a cluster of slow and careful movement carrying his daughter down the stairs.

As he neared the bus, his daughter’s body listed uncomfortably to one side and her glossy black tresses hid one side of her face. As I came closer, however, it was the tenderness between them of which I was most aware.

Where even a few years ago she might have been a little girl and easy to lift, she was now practically a woman. Her body seemed too large and ungainly for such an old man to carry, but he did, and cautiously so as not to drop her or fall as he negotiated the bus’ entrance.

I saw the father remerge from it and hurry back up the stairs for the wheelchair she’d be needing at school. Angry car horns followed him through every stage. It didn’t occur to me then that I could have helped––that it could have been me retrieving the chair and bringing it down to the bus while he locked his daughter in place. Instead, I ran further down the block my own anger mounting at the drivers who honked and honked. How could they be so cruel? Did they not understand what it took for that father to put his daughter on that bus each day?

Years later I realized, the drivers might not have even known the cause of their delay––their vision likely blocked by cars ahead of them. In fact, it was true! The further one got from the father-and-daughter scene the louder the cacophony of horns became. People honked because they were delayed without any idea why. Nevertheless, they were confident an injustice was being perpetrated. Some stupid someone had underestimated the importance of their morning’s journey, and that stupid someone would be made to pay by the blaring of the horns.

I have been impatient in exactly the same way––angry that my movement (economic, emotional, physical, psychological) faced some obstacle I labeled unfair. I complained and loudly too.

I wish I had understood then that the world is made up of incredible things and somewhere a father is carrying a daughter on his back, trying to keep her safe from famine, from war, or merely the angry blare of New York’s commuters. None of these people exist in a world outside my own. It only seemed so. I needn’t become angry. Instead I offer help.

Likewise, I wish as a teenager, I could have entered my sister’s school bus with a fearless and open heart. Yes, the children I saw on the bus terrified me. If such thing could happen to a body on Earth than anything could. I ran because I couldn’t make a place for that inside my own psyche. I chose then to focus my energies on things I thought were more important––my own ambition, relocating to a major city, meeting new friends, building a career––the makings of a normal life, of which I now hardly believe there is such thing.

I hope the next time my impatience coalesces into a desire to bang my horn, I instead take pause. One breath on its own may help form connection to something outside the tiny bubble I perceive from, the bubble I label reality, just as the drivers named their own bubble reality too. But reality is bigger than any one of these individual perspectives; it includes each one equally––not one person meant for dismissal or exclusion.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Part Two Revision Strategies: Writing without Readers

Part Two Revision Strategies: Writing without Readers

“And what is the main thing, we speak of beauty and good itself, and so in the case of all the things that we then set down as many, we turn about and set down in accord with a single form of each, believing that there is but one, and we call it ‘the being’ of each./That’s true./And we say that the many beautiful things and the rest are visible but not intelligible, while the forms are intelligible but not visible …. Then let’s not be surprised if the carpenter’s bed, too, turns out to be a somewhat dark affair in comparison to the true one.”
––Plato Republic

For many writers enrolled in beginning composition courses, texts are only a site for right and wrong. In their minds, “naturally” talented authors write in perfect drafts. Plus, there is seemingly no such thing as a reader separate from the writer, a reader who has her own needs and desires that might be in opposition to the writer’s expressive strategies.

For example, my students sometimes experience their texts as being made of concrete. Revision, if it exists at all is meant only for removing errors. Everything else about the text is immutable and fixed as a prison wall.

I need them (and myself) to experience our drafts as being made of clay, ready to be wetted, reworked, and shaped into new and infinite forms. Texts can become sites for discovery, experimentation, and play. Something that can only happen if we learn to smash, manipulate, expand, and refine them with curiosity and joy.

For years, I thought and spoke about revision as being made up of four possible actions and two possible entry points. This helped me rework my own writing and made the revision process real for my students, something I covered in an earlier post (“Infinite Revision”).

In setting forth the four actions (adding, subtracting, moving, or replacing) I hoped to create simple ways of entering an abstract endeavor. Through revision as play, I hoped we could offer our readers freshness, surprise, and a less rigid more authentic voice that arose from delight not rigidity.

Until recently, the goal of revision for me was the reader’s on-going interest, but as I explored in last week’s post perhaps the reader’s presence dims rather than illuminates the writer’s ultimate purpose.

It wasn’t until I heard the celebrated author Ottessa Moshfegh name another possibility for revision, one that ignored readers and focused only on uncovering stories in their most illusive and ideal form that I realized my own approach to revision might benefit from further refinement.

Sometime after Moshfegh’s visit to my class, I was awarded a fellowship to the CatamaranLiterary Conference in Pebble Beach. There I worked with Scott Hutchins author of the novel A Working Theory of Love. It was like being taught by Buddha. In his presence, the most anxiety provoking writing tasks––the beginning or ending of a piece, its revision or its goal––became achievable and charged with hope.

Like Moshfegh, when approaching revision discussions, Hutchins never explicitly spoke about readers’ needs. Thus my anxiety about a text’s ultimate purpose may have been eased. He did guide us, however, to closely explore the work of other writers in order to identify how and why we found them affecting.

Everything about Hutchins’ approach to writing and writers was gentle and encouraging. He offered frameworks that made revision seem like a fundamental, even enjoyable task. What he shared was immensely helpful, and in that spirit, I share it with you.

Hutchins draws from Stephen Koch’s excellent book the Modern Library Writer’s Workshop: A Guide to the Craft of Fiction. In it, Koch proposes that there are roughly three primary phases to the writing process.

Phase one is the initial draft, where a writer gathers clay and begins to sense the particular elements in what is being created. Phase two, by far the longest, is where a writer expands, improves, and builds on what the phase one brought forth. Phase three is a time of intense polishing. The writer “cleans” up and ideally reduces the text by about ten percent.

Hutchins also shared what he named as the key ideas he’s taken from Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style. Those ideas are: state things positively; avoid modifiers; use strong nouns and verbs; and pay attention to periodic structure, placing the most important words of each sentence just before its final punctuation.

In his workshop, we therefore spent time scanning our own texts and reworking them with these guidelines in mind. For example, “Don’t revise only thinking of your laziest reader” might become “Find entry points to revision other than reader reaction.”

Likewise, getting rid of modifiers means your sentences will become lively and direct, not “so,” “very,” or “too” lively and direct.

In general, the strongest nouns and verbs are those that are the most specific and sensory. So, whenever possible, use proper names and the most active form of any verb.

Finally, think about the impact and placement of each word in a sentence. Consider placing strong words at the end of your sentences where they will have the most impact. I wasn’t at all sorry to experience how such focused actions, generated such dynamic texts. Or as I should say, I gained confidence witnessing dynamic texts emerge from focused action.

Since then, what I’ve learned about revision is that like everything else about writing, one will never grow bored considering what it can do and how one might approach it. Revision is writing and to write is to revise; it is best to enter all of it with respect for its magnificent possibilities and compassion for the writer engaging in it.