Category Archives: other words

The Newsroom We Need

Neon_sign_NEWS.jpg
news·room  ˈn(y)o͞ozˌro͞om,  noun  1.  the area in a newspaper or broadcasting office where news is written and edited.

 

The Newsroom We Need

 

I live in Arizona, which has been my home for the past eight years. I work in Arizona. I vote in Arizona. This year, I voted early. And tonight, I watched in horror as my Facebook feed filled with the stories of friends—and then friends of friends—who had been denied their legal right to vote. One, two, five, then a dozen times, and growing. One of my friends K, who is in her mid-thirties and has been registered to vote Democrat since she could vote, was told she wasn’t registered with a party. She took her toddler with her to the polls, and, after being told she couldn’t vote, left confused and frustrated.

Many Arizonans trying to vote had to wait in line for three, four, five hours to do so. Some of them did this outside in blazing Arizona heat. Some of them were still waiting in line at 11 p.m., four hours after the polls closed.

Then, not even an hour after the polls officially closed—when only nine percent of the precincts were reporting and people were still waiting in line to vote—the Associated Press called Arizona for Trump and Clinton. How on earth, I thought, was this responsible journalism? How could anyone report with any certainty when the percentage of precincts reporting was so low?

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Like many Americans, I watch a lot of television. On my laptop, many episodes at a time. Some of the television I’ve seen is satisfying in the way that french fries are—cutting a craving but not gratifying long-term. Every now and then a show stays percolating in my mind long the last episode.

For weeks, I’ve been immersed in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom. The show is smart and witty, with fleshed-out characters, who are both deeply-flawed and deeply-noble. When I finished the last episode this week, I grieved that the show was over. Not only because of the complicated plotlines, strong acting and pacing, but because the show revolves around the central need for integrity, the desire for capital T Truth, and the tenacity required to get the story right.

 

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The show opens with news anchor Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels, sitting on a panel of journalists at Northwestern University. A student from the audience asks all of the panelists, “What makes America the greatest country in the world?”

 

“Diversity and opportunity,” answers one journalist.

 

“Freedom, Freedom, and Freedom, so let’s keep it that way,” says another.

 

McAvoy avoids answering the question with a straight answer until he is sick of the moderator’s prodding. And then, he does, with a long monologue. He says that America is not the greatest country in the world:

 

“…There is absolutely no evidence to support the statement that we’re the greatest country in the world. We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies….We sure used to be. We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reasons, we passed and struck down laws for moral reasons….”

 

The speech—a lbeit generalizing and nostalgic in a way that misremembers major injustices in American history—is an act of unplanned honesty that galvanizes the show.

 

For years, McAvoy has been beholden to his ratings but this one moment of candor begins a torrential journey of reporting the news differently. He might not have undertaken this choice without the push from News Division President Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston) and his old/new executive producer and old/new love interest McKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer).

 

And yet, this is the news he knows he has to do. News that asks hard questions of guests, politicians, and administrators; news that helps to shapes the debate; news that reports on difficult and complicated stories and manages to do so in a timely way.

 

With my fellow Americans, I have watched this election season unfurl into a disaster that looks nothing like the democracy we often claim with pride. Like so many of us, I have ingested countless hours of coverage, watching commentators suss out differences between Hilary and Bernie (on the odd chance he is mentioned), listening to political journalists on the ground reporting Republican state primaries.

 

I have seen footage of Trump speaking at these rallies: proposing a ban on Muslims immigrating to the U.S., threatening the wives and children of alleged terrorists, calling Mexicans rapists and murderers. I have seen the videos of Black Americans being punched and pushed out of Donald Trump rallies as he yells, from the platform, “Get ‘em out of here!” Most recently, at a Trump rally in Tucson, a protestor was peacefully exiting the convention center when a Trump supporter sucker-punched him the face before violently kicking him on the ground—this while Trump supporters behind the brawl cheered and threw up their hands in celebration and Trump spoke into the mic calling him a “trouble-maker,” telling the crowd that protestors like this one were “taking away our First Amendment Rights.”

 

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The Newsroom takes place in the not too distant past and reflected back to us almost in real time. The show aired in 2012-2014, with storylines beginning in 2010 and ends in 2013, and viewers see those stories we remember flickering across our monitors and TV screens: the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the shooting in Tucson of Gabrielle Giffords and eighteen others, the Boston Marathon bombing.

We begin to see all that goes into getting it right. We see beyond the anchor to a cast of producers, reporters, cameramen, editors, technicians, and digital experts. We watch them securing the guests, drafting questions, checking the facts, deciding what to include and exclude, creating the graphics, editing content, and finally putting the news on the air.

As we get to know the characters, we witness their intense desire to break the news—but more than that, the obsession to get the story right. We feel their accountability to viewers, demonstrated by long hours in the field and a willingness to take responsibility for their journalistic fuckups.

I fell in love with the characters not only because of the thoughtfulness with which they are written, but because these are the people I need right now in the current political climate. Smart, conscientious, people—imperfect but striving—who are doing their best to communicate really complex issues to a community that desperately needs that dialogue.

 

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The problem with calling primaries with only nine percent of precincts reporting and people still standing in line is that you can’t be sure you got it right. And you are also telling the people in line to go home, that it’s all over. It’s irresponsible.

The problem with media covering Donald Trump’s candidacy incessantly is not only that his name has become ubiquitous, filling and filling airwaves and inflating his importance. The problem is that the media has been covering Donald Trump’s candidacy incessantly without editorial intervention. They’ve reported on the appalling things Donald Trump has said without mentioning how appalling it is that he said them. In an effort to be perceived as “fair and balanced,” many mainstream media outlets have failed to fulfill the media’s oldest role of watchdog. It’s irresponsible.

That the honesty of these TV-portrayed journalists has resonated so deeply with me—to the point that I miss them like friends—makes me realize how much I am craving honest dialogue in the media.  While some journalists are working hard to do this, some networks and news outlets seem less concerned with speaking the capital T truth and widening their scope of perspectives than with not making waves. A recent example is the firing of Melissa Harris-Perry, a television host whose show was recognized for its diversity of guests in terms of gender and ethnicity. The show was canceled after she wrote a critical letter of MSNC to her staff members about feeling that her show was being deprioritized by the network.

 

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The Newsroom’s Will McAvoy is a Republican and in Season 2’s “Election Night: Part II” he is asked by a Republican political analyst on his show about this affiliation. She asks him: “Do you call yourself a Republican so you can make a claim to credibility when you attack the GOP?”

He responds, “No, I call myself a Republican because I am one. I believe in market solutions and common sense realities and the necessity to defend ourselves against a dangerous world and that’s about it. The problem is now I have to be homophobic. I have to count the number to times people go to church. I have to deny facts and think scientific research is a long con. I have to think poor people are getting a sweet ride. And I have to have such a stunning inferiority complex that I fear education and intellect…in the 21st century. But most of all, the biggest new requirement, really the only requirement is that I have to hate Democrats…..”

In a party that has such requirements not only in fictional TV but in real life, we see a presidential candidate who has won twenty primaries regularly threatening people because of their nationality, ethnicity, or chosen religion. How is it that when Donald Trump decries and threatens people he is not universally written off by media professionals as reprehensible? I’m all for difference of opinion but what about when that difference requires the scapegoating of entire groups of people?

Last week, The New York Times columnist David Brooks took responsibility for his own participation in the maelstrom of attention to Trump and in the underestimation of Trump and the undercurrent of his rise. He wrote, “Trump voters are a coalition of the dispossessed. They have suffered lost jobs, lost wages, lost dreams. The American system is not working for them, so naturally they are looking for something else. Moreover, many in the media, especially me, did not understand how they would express their alienation. We expected Trump to fizzle because we were not socially intermingled with his supporters and did not listen carefully enough. For me, it’s a lesson that I have to change the way I do my job if I’m going to report accurately on this country.”

We need our media to get real. We need their honesty and integrity. We need to stop calling hate a difference of opinion. We need to ask hard questions and demand answers. And we need to stop elevating the voices of candidates who are more concerned with the sound of their own voice than they are with the voices of the American people.

In the final minutes of the first episode of The Newsroom, just after reporting an in-depth coverage of a breaking news story, News Division Director Charlie Skinner meets McAvoy at the anchor desk. “In the old days, of about ten minutes ago, we did the news well,” Skinner says. “You know how? We just decided to.”

 

 

 

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prism

Kara Walker silhouette from " Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power"

Kara Walker silhouette from “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power”

 

prism (ˈprizəm/) n. piece of glass or other transparent material cut with precise angles and plane faces. Prisms are useful for analyzing and refracting light (see refraction). A triangular prism can separate white light into its constituent colors by refracting each different wavelength of light by a different amount. The longer wavelengths (those at the red end of the spectrum) are bent the least, the shorter ones (those at the violet end) the most. The result is the spectrum of visible light, or the rainbow. Prisms are used in certain kinds of spectroscopy and in various optical systems.

 

 

Netflix is proposing I watch White Christmas. White Christmas is one of the many classics I watched with my grandma growing up. We would often screen films on American Movie Classics in the living room, after she popped popcorn on the stove. I got to know Rita Hayworth and Audrey Hepburn and Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire while curled up on that old brocade couch. I found the stylized nature of these films comforting, conjuring nostalgia for a time I never experienced first hand. The fancy dresses with foundation garments underneath, the finger-waved hair, the three-piece suits and wingtips and fedoras, the inexplicable breaking into song or dance at any moment. These glimpses gave me access to my young grandmother. The one with bright red hair and sweet collared dresses, who was a secretary after attending Washington University in her hometown of St. Louis.

 

White Christmas, released in 1954, features Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen and is mostly a remake, in Technicolor, of a film made less than a decade earlier: Holiday Inn. Filmed in black and white, Holiday Inn was the movie that first introduced the world to the now-standard holiday song “White Christmas.” In the middle of the film, a cardigan-sweatered Crosby croons “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” and pauses in playing the piano to reach over and ring the bells that are hung on the Christmas tree with a silver spoon.

 

The 1942 film revolves around two old buddies, Jim and Ted, played by Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire respectively, who used to have a musical act in New York City, who are intensely competitive, and who fall in love with the same woman, an aspiring performer Linda Mason, played by Marjorie Reynolds. Jim starts an inn in Connecticut—the Holiday Inn—that features monthly performances based on each month’s signature holiday. He hires his love interest Linda to perform alongside him. There is singing. There is dancing. There is a friendship strained by the friends’ mutual love of and competition for one woman. There is misogyny and stereotypical gender roles. And then there is the issue of blackness and whiteness.

 

I vaguely remembered the premise but mostly the feeling of sitting with my grandma in her living room when, a few years ago, I rented the DVD from a local video store. I remembered the costumes and the dancing, the coy smiles of this old school romance. I recalled the stunning solo number by Fred Astaire, who tap danced across the floor while throwing down firecrackers for the Holiday Inn’s celebration of the Fourth of July.

 

What I didn’t remember was the performance from Lincoln’s Birthday, which is astonishingly picked as the holiday for February instead of Valentine’s Day. Necessitated by the plot that requires Jim to disguise his beloved so as to ward off advances from his friend and competition, he makes a quick change and the number for Lincoln’s Birthday suddenly becomes a minstrel show. Bing as Jim emerges in blackface with a top hat, beard, and cane. Linda’s face is painted black as well and her hair spikes out into a myriad of ribboned blonde braids.

 

My jaw dropped. I had no memory of this scene at all. And I wondered: Was it because I was too young and had no context for what was happening? Did my grandma see the issues of the scene and choose not to tell me? Did she not see the scene as problematic enough? Did she avoid talking about it with me because of its problematic nature?

 

The song “Abraham” unfolds with Bing Crosby singing against a full orchestra also in blackface. The blackfaced banjo player sits in the far back on the ground. The waiters and waitresses are in blackface as well, the women adorned with kerchiefs and petticoated polka-dotted skirts.

 

The film also features a black housekeeper character named Mamie and her two young children, a girl and a boy, who also participate in the song. After Bing’s first verse, the camera cuts to Mamie. Holding her children on her lap, Mamie sings the question: “When black folks lived in slavery, who was it set the darkie free?” Her daughter sings a reply: “Abraham.”

 

Holiday Inn Bing Holiday Inn Marjorie Holiday Inn Bing and Marjorie

 

Research reveals that some broadcasts began to show an edited version of the film in the 1980s. (How that worked I’m not exactly sure since this section of the movie also reveals crucial plot points. For example, that touching moment when Jim proposes marriage to Linda while painting her face black for the minstrel show.) Turner Movie Classics didn’t edit the film because they believe in broadcasting films as originally cut. And until more recently, American Movie Classics also ran the film in its original form.

 

This all makes me think I saw the original uncut version.

 

As offensive as this scene is, as horrible as it is to think that someone deemed it acceptable to create this musical performance and then use it as a lynchpin in the film, someone made that choice. Many someones. And to revise a cultural artifact that reveals its time, who was in power and what they thought, is dangerous. Revising texts in this way is to pretend that popular culture was not feeding into racist attitudes and actions.

 

But even more dangerous, I think, is the outrage so many white Americans often experience about the past that can nullify or desensitize us to the reality of the present. And our present involves a system that privileges and protects white people over and over again solely because of the color of our skin. Our present praises and makes permissible a system that results in the demoralization, degradation, dejection, and death of black and brown people.

 

Like so many Americans, I have felt devastated and angry this last week about the lack of an indictment of Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. When I returned home the night of the verdict, my desire to hit something was so strong that I ended up punching my mattress for a while. I felt a sickening feeling in my stomach, a combination of fury and grief, a few days later when watching the video that shows a Cleveland cop shooting and killing 12-year-old black child Tamir Rice a mere second after the officer got out of his car. There is no sound in the video so all you see is a small body standing upright and then crumpling to the ground. Devastating. Not to mention the local news story that led by attacking the character of the victim’s father instead of the confounding fact of an officer killing a child holding a toy gun. These deaths are tragedy accumulated because Michael Brown and Tamir Rice (and Trayvon Martin and and and) are not exceptions but part of a long line of African-American people killed in this country because of the color of their skin and because our country refuses to look at the reality and pervasiveness of the racism that we are founded in and on.

 

We would like to think we are so much farther along than Holiday Inn. But that’s just not true.

 

Only two weeks ago, Jacqueline Woodson was presented with the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her book Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir about growing up in South Carolina in the 60s and 70s, dealing with Jim Crow and the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement. And at this pinnacle moment of her career and artistic work, Dan Handler, the author of the popular Lemony Snicket series, made the joke that he “only just found out she was allergic to watermelon.” I can’t imagine what it would feel like, on one of the most important nights of your life, to have your accomplishments smeared with insults and reminders of the very injustices your work strives to illuminate.

 

Woodson responded in a New York Times editorial entitled “The Pain of the Watermelon Joke.” She traces her repulsion for the fruit as blossoming out of understanding its history. The fruit went from being tied to summer traditions, the lightness of family and childhood, to the rotting mess of racism. She writes, “…by the time I was 11 years old, even the smell of watermelon was enough to send me running to the bathroom with my most recent meal returning to my throat. It seemed I had grown violently allergic to the fruit. I was a brown girl growing up in the United States. By that point in my life, I had seen the racist representations associated with African-Americans and watermelons, heard the terrifying stories of black men being lynched with watermelons hanging around them…In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in. In the eyes of those who told and repeated the jokes, we were shuffling, googly-eyed and lesser than. Perhaps my allergy was actually a deep physical revulsion that came from the psychological impression and weight of the association. Whatever it was, I could no longer eat watermelon.”

 

Woodson writes in the piece about how she realized her childhood dream of becoming a writer and about how she and Handler have been friends for years. She mentions that when he served watermelon soup at his Cape Cod home last summer, she told him she was allergic. Of his comments at her award ceremony, she writes: “In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from. By making light of that deep and troubled history, he showed that he believed we were at a point where we could laugh about it all. His historical context, unlike my own, came from a place of ignorance.”

 

Ignorance of history and also denial of the significance of the small things in defining the large ones. A watermelon joke is not just a joke in the face of the history of that stereotype.

 

I am reminded of Sam Hamill’s essay “The Necessity to Speak” in which he talks about witnessing violence in the form of war, domestic violence, the criminal justice system, and abuse. When discussing domestic violence, he references popular culture’s complicity in and condoning of it. He writes, “When James Cagney shoves half a grapefruit in a woman’s face, we all laugh and applaud. Nobody likes an uppity woman. And a man who is a man, when all else fails, asserts his ‘masculinity.’” All forms of oppression are different but all oppressed groups are ultimately linked. And they are linked by the times in which someone said or did something oppressive and demeaning that an onlooker decided was no big deal. Oppressions are linked by slurs and taunts and side-glances and critics that say: “aren’t you taking this a little too seriously?” and “can’t you take a joke?”

 

Back in August immediately following Mike Brown’s shooting, Jon Stewart closed a segment of The Daily Show called “Race/Off” by saying: “Race is there and it is a constant. If you’re tired of hearing about it, imagine how exhausting it is living it.”

 

The media reporting of protests surrounding the lack of indictment in Ferguson have focused largely on the “mobs” of people, on the intensity of people’s anger, and not on the reason for their fury. There have been some wonderful articles comparing the difference between why white people riot (winning or losing sporting events) and why black people riot (verdicts like “not guilty” for Zimmerman or “no indictment” for “Wilson,” i.e. no justice for innocent black people being killed). I am reminded too of the two almost identical photos published just after Katrina: one of two black people and the other of two white people wading through water with food from a flooded grocery store. The captions revealed that the black people were “looting” and white people were “finding food.”

 

Last weekend, before the grand jury released its ruling, I read Claudia Rankine’s new book Citizen: An American Lyric. Through lyrical prose about her personal experiences, politics, and pop culture, Rankine explores the perpetual presence of racism in the lives of African-Americans and the extent of the damage it does. On the front cover is a white backdrop with a black hoodie torn from its torso.

 

Except for the last page, written in first person, the book is in second person: firmly placing the reader in the slot of “you.” She writes in one section about Hennessy Youngman, aka Jayson Musson, who, in youtube videos, “advises black artists to cultivate ‘an angry nigger exterior’ by watching, among other things, the Rodney King video while working.”

 

She continues: “Youngman’s suggestions are meant to expose expectations for blackness as well as to underscore the difficulty inherent in any attempt by black artists to metabolize real rage. The commodified anger his video advocates rests lightly on the surface for spectacle’s sake. It can be engaged or played like the race card and is tied solely to the performance of blackness and not to the emotional state of particular individuals in particular situations.”

 

“On the bridge between this sellable anger and ‘the artist’ resides, at times, an actual anger. Youngman in his video doesn’t address this kind of anger: the anger built up through experience and the quotidian struggles against dehumanization every brown or black person lives simply because of skin color. This other kind of anger in time can prevent, rather than sponsor, the production of anything except loneliness.”

 

“You begin to think, maybe erroneously, that this other kind of anger is really a type of knowledge, the type that both clarifies and disappoints. It responds to insult and attempted erasure simply by asserting presence and the energy required to present, to react, to assert is accompanied by visceral disappointment: a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”

 

I want to repeat her words again: “anger is really a type of knowledge, the type that both clarifies and disappoints….a disappointment in the sense that no amount of visibility will alter the ways in which one is perceived.”

 

I read an article recounting an event in St. Louis following Mike Brown’s shooting where ten black mothers sat and talked to an audience full of mothers—of different ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds—about the experiences they had in talking to their children about race and racism. Director of Racial Justice at the YWCA in St. Louis Amy Hunter told a story about a time when her son was 12 and noticed a police officer following him as he walked. He was only five blocks from home. When he arrived and told her what happened, he asked, “I just want to know, how long will this last?” She cried as she relayed to the audience what she told him, what she had to tell him: “For the rest of your life.”

 

Can we just think about that for a second? That for his whole life, this child, this mother’s son, this boy then young adult then man, this human being will have to walk the “right” way, say the “right” thing in order to attempt to preserve his life. And even if he does everything “right,” he is still at risk of being harmed or killed solely because of the color of his skin. How many more lives lost? How much more will it take for us to change a system that is harming and killing so many citizens of our country?

 

I understand that, as a white person, my perspective is limited and that I cannot fully understand the grief and anger of black individuals and black communities in seeing this same injustice and violence perpetuated over and over again. I felt myself paralyzed this past week with what to say in relationship to this, wondering when and if I should write anything at all.

 

I grew up in New Orleans, a city segregated by color lines. And without anyone ever needing to really explain the idea of separate and unequal, I saw it everywhere. And what I mostly saw was good-hearted white people pretending that nothing was happening. This is happening. People of color are being killed and oppressed solely because of the color of their skin. This is happening. The criminal justice system is rigged against minorities and people of lower socio-economic status. This is happening. Black kids are being killed while white kids are being given the benefit of the doubt. This is happening. People of color are not “playing the race card,” people of color are being played, by a system rigged to oppress them.

 

I believe that many Americans will look back at this time and be as appalled as we are now by lynchings, by blackface, by Interstates built through African-American communities. That’s not good enough, to hope that one day we will look back and be appalled. Let’s be appalled now. Let’s do something to change this.

 

Before Isaac Newton, people believed that pure light was colorless and that light was “altered into color” from interaction with matter. Experimenting with prisms using refraction, Newton revealed the opposite, that light included within it the whole spectrum of color. That a prism didn’t create color but rather separated it, showing what was already present.

 

In ophthalmology, prisms are used to diagnose and treat deficiencies and diseases of the eye. Ophthalmologists use light reflected and refracted by prisms to examine the eye for vision problems so they can be treated. It is only in altering angles, in finding mirrors, in looking in different ways that problems can be identified, that vision can become clear.

 

 

 

Here are some pieces I found insightful/helpful/encouraging/profound in reference to Ferguson:

On Ferguson Protests, the Destruction of Things, and What Violence Really Is (And Isn’t) by Mia McKenzie

Telling My Son About Ferguson by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow

It’s Incredibly Rare For A Grand Jury to Do What Ferguson’s Just Did by Ben Casselman

Twelve Things White People Can Do Now Because Ferguson by Janee Woods

This Is What Darren Wilson Told the Grand Jury About Shooting Michael Brown by Jaeah Lee and AJ Vicens

“Not An Elegy For Mike Brown”: Two Poems for Ferguson by Danez Smith

Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops. It’s white rage against progress. by Carol Anderson

Interview with Mike Brown’s parents

 

Claudia Rankine’s amazing book Citizen.

 

 

 

 

 

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cap·tain

deadpoetsrobinwilliams

 

1cap·tain

noun \kap-tən also kap-əm\

: a person who is in charge of a ship or an airplane

: an officer of high rank in some branches of the military

: an officer of high rank in a police or fire department

1 a (1) :  a military leader :  the commander of a unit or a body of troops (2) :  a subordinate officer commanding under a sovereign or general (3) :  a commissioned officer in the army, air force, or marine corps ranking above a first lieutenant and below a major

(1) :  a naval officer who is master or commander of a ship (2) :  a commissioned officer in the navy ranking above a commander and below a commodore and in the coast guard ranking above a commander and below a rear admiral

c :  a senior pilot who commands the crew of an airplane

d :  an officer in a police department or fire department in charge of a unit (as a precinct or company) and usually ranking above a lieutenant and below a chief

2 :  one who leads or supervises

3 :  a person of importance or influence in a field <captains of industry>

 

 

 

 

“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable, I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

—Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself in Leaves of Grass

 

 

 

 

Robin Williams died today.

I don’t know quite how to explain how I feel about this. Sadness doesn’t quite cover it.

I miss him and I didn’t know him. I wish he were here.

Williams was a master of comedy. However, it was his serious roles that moved me most. But if you look closely at even his comedic roles, there is always something serious there, too. 

I hadn’t realized how young I was when Dead Poets’ Society came out. I was ten. And I’m pretty sure I saw it not too long after that. Maybe I was a few years older. But what I know was that I wanted him to be my teacher. The way he was on fire for words. The way he encouraged his young students. The way he told them that the things that mattered to me mattered. He made them sound their barbaric yawps and I was a scared little kid who desperately wanted to yawp, too. I wanted someone to give me permission to yawp. And when the lead character, the student he encourages to follow his dreams and be himself, commits suicide because of the competing pressures of what he wants and what his parents want, I felt that sadness deeply. I felt the tragedy as if it were happening to someone I loved, in a community I cared about. When Williams’ character is told to leave at the end and his students one by one stand on their desks, defying their old teacher and old ways of thinking and being, I felt as if the sea changes that had happened inside them had also happened inside me.

When I saw Williams as a young doctor bring to life patients who had previously been catatonic, enslaved in their frozen bodies, his joy was mine. And when the meds stopped working suddenly, when he couldn’t figure out what went wrong, when suddenly he saw the patients he had grown close to become closed off and isolated again, I wept. And not tiny tears, not a single drop rolling down a check, but full body quaking kind of weeping.

We could say, yes, Robin Williams was a good actor. And we would be right. But it was more than that. He was tapped into something greater, in who he was and what he did. I always felt like there was some aspect of every character that was him. And not in the “he always plays himself” way. He played everyone and still was himself. He drew the essence out of each character. He showed us what human looked like and in doing so, he showed us ourselves.

He didn’t show us the selves that we carefully curate and dress for the world. He showed us our whole selves: broken and flawed and terrified, risking and failing, fucking things up for the millionth time. He showed us our whole selves: fragile and vulnerable and joyful and filled with love. He made us laugh because he knew what it meant to weep. He made us weep because we understood that to be human is to be everything at once, that there is tear in every roll of laughter, that what makes us beautiful also makes us breakable.

So in this, he was my teacher. And he was one of the best ones I’ve ever had. I am sad he had to leave us so soon. I’m grateful he was here.

 

 

 

 

 

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,

While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

But O heart! heart! heart!

O the bleeding drops of red,

Where on the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

 

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,

For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;

Here Captain! dear father!

The arm beneath your head!

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.

 

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,

From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!

But I with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my Captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

 

 

–Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

 

 

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mor·tal

Portrait of Philip Seymour Hoffman by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin

Portrait of Philip Seymour Hoffman by Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin

 

mor·tal  (ˈmôrtl) adjective  1. (of a living human being, often in contrast to a divine being) subject to death: “all men are mortal” synonyms: perishable, physical, bodily, corporeal, fleshly, earthly, this-worldly, human, impermanent, transient, ephemeral; of or relating to humanity as subject to death: “the coffin held the mortal remains of her uncle”; informal  conceivable or imaginable: “punishment out of all mortal proportion to the offense”  2. causing or liable to cause death; fatal: “a mortal disease”  synonyms: deadly, fatal, lethal, death-dealing, murderous, terminal: “a mortal blow”; (of a battle) fought to the death: “from the outbuildings came the screams of men in mortal combat” synonyms: irreconcilable, deadly, sworn, bitter, out-and-out, implacable: “mortal enemies”; (of an enemy or a state of hostility) admitting or allowing no reconciliation until death synonyms: unpardonable, unforgivable “a mortal sin”; Christian Theology, denoting a grave sin that is regarded as depriving the soul of divine grace; (of a feeling, esp. fear) very intense:”parents live in mortal fear of children’s diseases” synonyms: extreme, (very) great, terrible, awful, dreadful intense, severe, grave, dire, unbearable: “living in mortal fear”; informal very great; informal dated long and tedious. noun  1. a human being subject to death, often contrasted with a divine being synonyms: human being, human, person, man/woman, earthling: “we are mere mortals”; humorous a persona contracted with others regarded as being of higher status or ability: “an ambassador had to live in a style that was not expected of lesser mortals.”

 

Like many, I was struck and deeply saddened by actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death earlier this week. As so many gifted artists do, he opened himself up to this world in order to make the work he did and he couldn’t, at this particular moment, contain it all. Being so permeable in a world so full can be hard to bear. Today, the dictionary project hosts an essay by Mike Miley in tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman.

 

 

Tribute to Philip Seymour Hoffman

 

I can still remember the sense of wonder I felt the first time I noticed Philip Seymour Hoffman in Scent of a Woman. His performance in that film usually doesn’t get mentioned because the film is so clearly Oscar bait for Al Pacino, but in it Hoffman plays the nasty ringleader of Chris O’Donnell’s school chums, a real bastard whose sense of entitlement is surpassed only by his lack of remorse over it. While everyone else in that film was sheepishly letting Al Pacino chew up the movie, Hoffman was busy dominating the film with an unapologetic youthful bravado that demanded your attention and respect. I normally looked away from bullies in the movies, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him; he was just so real, so unlike anything I’d ever seen. In a perfect world, it would have been a star-making turn for Hoffman, but that wouldn’t come until later. Much later.

Plenty of acting and writing textbooks stress the importance of creating three-dimensional characters, but that all just sounds like empty platitudes after you’ve seen Philip Seymour Hoffman do it. Hoffman acted in 3-D long before such a thing was cool, and he did it selflessly, without calling attention to the fact that he was doing it and demanding your accolades. Even though that’s what all actors are supposed to do, he did it with such commitment, honesty, and passion that he revealed how much other actors had been holding back on us, slipping us illusion and evasion when they were supposed to be delivering truth and contact.

Hoffman gave each of his characters the fullest depth of emotion and transformed words on a page into living, breathing human beings who stumbled their way through life with dignity. Whether Hoffman was front-and-center in a film (the widely lauded Capote, the criminally underseen Owning Mahowny) or barely noticeable in the background (Magnolia, Moneyball, Almost Famous) he commanded the screen, making both the film and everyone around him better. Paradoxically, his smaller parts are where Hoffman made his largest impact in a film. In the hands of lesser actors, these would be considered thankless supporting roles, but in the hands of Hoffman, these roles are those ones that stuck with you because rather than settling for making these characters into cheap jokes, Hoffman made them human beings, warts and all. In fact, Hoffman made you love his characters because of their warts, because they were unguarded and caring enough to let you get close enough to see their flaws. Hoffman gave truth to such human shortcomings and made you feel less ashamed about the flaws you had.

Like most people feel about their favorite actors, I liked Hoffman best because I identified with him: overweight, pasty, equal parts ribald, joyous, compassionate, and pathetic—this guy was exactly how I saw myself. But now that I think about it, that’s just how we all are. That’s the kind of truth you can only learn from a great artist, and while we may have just lost a lot of great work from such a giving human being, he’s already showed us more about ourselves than we could ever hope to know.

 

 

photoMike Miley teaches Film Studies and Literature at Metairie Park Country Day School in Metairie, LA. His writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film International, The Huffington Post, Moving Image Source, The New Orleans Review, and now here. He just #killed his Twitter for New Year’s and is toying with the idea of coming out of retirement and making films again.

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cap·tive: part two

hermanwallace

photo from nola.com

photo from nola.com

 

 

 

cap·tive  (kap’tiv) n.  [L. captivus  <  captus, pp. of capere, to take; cf. CAITIFF],  1.  a person held in confinement or subjection; prisoner.  2.  a person who is captivated.  adj.  1.  taken or held prisoner  2.  captivated  3.  of captives or captivity.

 

Today, Herman Wallace died.

 

I wrote about Wallace last month. He is a man who spent forty-one years in solitary confinement after being convicted of the murder of a prison guard. He and fellow inmate Alfred Woodfox, the other man convicted, have maintained their innocence these four decades. They were originally convicted for armed robbery in 1971. When they entered Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, the two started a Black Panther chapter in order to work for equity for black inmates and to encourage reform of a prison that allowed, and seemed to encourage, brutal violence and rape. The men believe starting the chapter led to their conviction. According to Wallace’s counsel, there was a bloodied fingerprint found at the crime scene that belonged to neither man. The prison guard’s widow does not believe the two men are guilty.

 

Wallace was freed on Tuesday. Even that was a battle. Petitions began for his release back in June, when he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. On Tuesday, Federal Judge Brian A. Jackson of the Middle District Court of Louisiana overturned his conviction, saying Wallace’s jury was “improperly chosen in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantee of ‘equal protection of the laws.’” Women had been excluded from the grand jury. Still, the state tried to keep him, quickly appealing the ruling. Judge Jackson again ordered his release, saying a failure to release would “result in a judgment of contempt.” An ambulance took him from Angola straight to a hospital in New Orleans, where supporters gathered to welcome him home. He died in his sleep at a friend’s home this morning.

 

Jackie Sumell, the artist and friend Wallace collaborated with on Herman’s House, said, “If he dies a free man, we have won.” And I believe this to be true, but I also know that nothing can be done to reconcile those forty years in a six by nine cell. Nothing can be done to reconcile a life that could have been so much more, a life that we, all of us, set limitations on by virtue of our flawed system. Nothing can be done to reconcile the thousands of others who have spent years in solitary, their lives forgotten because they were and are hidden from view. What makes Herman’s case stand out is that a larger audience knows about him because of people on the outside. Wallace, Woodfox, and Robert King (convicted of a separate crime and held in solitary for twenty-nine years), were dubbed the Angola Three after a young law student discovered their case in 1997 and realized the men were still in solitary after more than two decades. The artist Jackie Sumell, upon learning of Herman’s case in 2002, started a correspondence with Wallace which led to a collaborative art project which led to a documentary film. But what about all the other Hermans?

 

One tragic aspect of the way we punish people in this country is how we tuck them out of sight. We act as if because they have broken a law, their lives no longer matter. The most tragic part, though, is that we are either unable or unwilling to see that, in different circumstances, they could easily be us. We are all capable of rage, of violence, of error. We are all trying to get by in a world that is full of suffering, but we do not all have the same footing, the same privileges, or the same opportunities. Nelson Mandela said, “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.”

 

It is convenient for us to hide away the people that remind us of our own capacity for darkness. If we don’t have to look at them, we don’t have to look at ourselves.

 

Our unwillingness to view prisoners as people creates a safe cave for us. A cave where we can blame others for all the world’s ills, a cave where we can protect ourselves and our families from those that would harm us, a cave where we can live our lives without fear, a cave where we can deny our own failures and violences. But the cave isn’t really protecting us. It is another kind of cage. The cave cages us because deep down we know that stories we tell to protect ourselves have holes. We know that each of us has the capacity for great brightness and the capacity for dark. If we could acknowledge our own shadow selves, maybe then we could really open to those around us. Maybe then, we could create a system that sees the gray area between black and white. Maybe then, we can approach one another from a place of compassion.

 

Many people have said that the way we treat others predicts who they will become. Researcher and storyteller Brene Brown has said, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”

 

We need to reform our criminal justice system in this country. We need it for the people who have been wrongly convicted. We need it for the ones who have committed crimes. We need it for those of us who have never been sitting there waiting for a judge or jury to decide on our fate. Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” We have choice about the kind of society we want to be.

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port⋅ance

four.preview 

 

Wednesday was The Dictionary Project’s 4th Birthday! So, according to four-year-old development, at this point The Dictionary Project “wants to try new experiences” and is “developing greater self-control and ingenuity”; also, “pretend play is more complex and imaginative and can be sustained for longer period.” The Dictionary Project “approach[es] the world with great curiosity and uses its imagination to help understand it.”*

 

This project has been a beautiful unfolding, and I want to thank each and every one of you for your part in watching The Dictionary Project grow and develop over the years. I am looking forward to what this new year brings. As is tradition, we’ll start enter this fifth year of posts with a post about our first-ever bibliomanced word: portance.

 

One of the goals this year is to make the project even more interactive, to invite you more and more into the conversation, so please feel free to comment on your thoughts on our posts or words. We can start with this one. What does the word portance bring up for you?

 

 

port⋅ance (pôr/t’ns), n. [Early Mod. Eng. <Fr. portance < porter, to bear, carry; cf. –ANCE], [Archaic], conduct; bearing; carriage; demeanor

 

 

My Carriage Is Missing A Wheel, Too

 

Our culture is very concerned with appearance. How we look, how we dress, how we cut our hair, how we walk, how we speak. According to The Economist, Americans spend more on beauty annually than they do on education. We are encouraged to give such care and scrutiny to our own carriage and the way others carry themselves.

 

When I switched schools, from an all girls school to a co-ed school, in seventh grade, I walked nervously across the blacktop that first day to find where my classmates were sitting before the bell rang. I was a chubby, shy twelve-year-old. I began to look around and the girls in my class seemed so much older than me.  With their hair piled atop their heads in high ponytails, they walked with confidence, swaying their hips; they giggled and flirted with the boys. They had a sort of sureness about them. And I realized, to my dismay, that they all had shaved legs. I found a spot and sat cross-legged on the ground, pulling my light blue plaid skirt tight across my knees, and waited for the bell to ring. The rest of the day, instead of focusing on meeting new friends or teachers or how to navigate around the school building, I contorted myself into as many shapes and directions as possible in the hopes that no one would notice the hair on my legs. The last thing I wanted was to be exposed as unaware, as deeply uncool.

 

Underneath the entire obsession with appearance—plastic surgery and weight loss plans and new workouts and wrinkle creams and and and—rests deep fear of our own vulnerability. We want to be perceived on the outside as what we don’t always feel on the inside: whole, complete, okay. The word portance comes from the root porter: to bear, to carry. We believe we have to carry our selves, our lives, our burdens, our shames, our wounds on our own, and in this belief is rooted one of our deepest sources of suffering: the feeling of alienation and separateness from others. Also resting underneath is a deep yearning to belong. In trying to bear our hardest heartaches alone, we deny ourselves the very connection we so deeply desire and that would help us through these difficult moments.

 

I read a very powerful article in The New York Times the other day entitled “The Trauma of Being Alive” by Mark Epstein. He speaks about his mother who says she still grieves for his father, her husband of sixty years, four years after his death and that she “should be over it by now.” Our own grief and others’ grief makes us uncomfortable because we are reminded that we are capable of fracture. We are reminded that, no matter how careful we are, we will break. And our own denial of this inevitable breaking only makes our fear stronger. So we tell ourselves to “get over it,” we tell others to “move on” because we want to deny the reality that we live in an uncertain world.

 

Epstein explains that each of us experiences unavoidable traumas, both big and small, that are simply a part of being alive. He writes, “Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster.”

 

Often, we measure our degree of being okay in relation to our perception of the ease of others’ lives. Look at their sweet family, look at their published book, look at their high-powered job, look at their happy facebook status, look at their fancy house. We assume from our external examination of their carriage that they are getting it right while we are somehow getting it wrong. We assume they live without struggle. Or we assume that they have learned an easy and infallible way to bear.

 

American Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön says, “None of us is ever OK, but we all get through everything just fine.”

 

 

carriage-parts

 

One of the meanings of the word portance is “carriage.” It would be nice if our carriages maintained their fresh paint, their newness. But as vessels, they are meant to be used. And use results in wear. Paint peels, curtains fray. Doors get nicks and scrapes. We are on our way somewhere and we suddenly feel a jostling and hold on as we are thrown by a lost wheel. We have to stop for repairs. We look underneath the carriage for gear adjustments that need to be made. We put on a fresh coat of paint. We travel on.

 

What if we strove for a different kind of bearing? One that had less to do with the posture of our body and more to do with the posture of our spirit—a posture that we can accept regardless of its changing nature based on where we are in our lives? What if instead of worrying so much about the timbre of our speech, we committed to saying words that are true? What if instead of thinking of good bearing as where we were born or how much money we make or how “successful” we are, we defined good bearing as the ability to bear life, even when it is hard, with grace or without.

 

We don’t have to look for every nick, scrape, or paint peel on the outside of other people’s carriages. We can choose to knock on the window and look at the person inside. When stranded on the roadside with a bad wheel, we can invite another to help us whole our carriage so we can travel again. The very nature of this life requires us to bear, to carry, but it does not require that we do it alone. In order to connect with others, we have to be honest with ourselves, to speak our truth aloud. In acknowledging our struggles and imperfections, we give the people in our lives—our friends and neighbors and even those people who challenge us—the opportunity to safely acknowledge their own.

 

 

And a little 4th Birthday song for you:

 

 

*http://www.pbs.org/parents/childdevelopmenttracker/four/

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Shiva

Photo by the amazing Jade Beall. Taken July 5, 2013.

Photo by the amazing Jade Beall. Taken July 5, 2013.

 

Śiva (ˈshi-və, ˈshē-)  n.  one of the principal Hindu deities, worshiped as the destroyer and restorer of worlds and in numerous other forms. Shiva is often conceived as a member of the triad also including Brahma and Vishnu.

 

Shiva is a god of contradiction. He is the destroyer, who incinerates the world as it is, and the creator, who transforms the world out of the ashes. He is the ultimate ascetic, abstaining from all worldly pleasures, and he is the dedicated lover and husband to Shakti/Parvati, the intensity of their love quaking the earth. He is the practiced yogi sitting calmly in meditation with no distraction and the dancer trembling his limbs furiously, his movements destroying and remaking the world.

 

He is, in many ways, all of us. He models the ways in which we defy categorization and solidity, each of us shifting and changing over time, letting go—with acquiescence or with fighting—of that which no longer serves us and making room for that which does.

 

For as long as I can remember, I have internalized the words “I am not a dancer.” This, despite that the fact that I love dancing. This, despite the fact that the sound of music and particularly the rhythmic beat of drumming is what makes me feel most myself and most alive. After quitting ballet at six and auditioning for and not making the cut for several dance teams during my time in adolescence, I decided that this was not an identity I could own. I could dance peripherally, at weddings and, if I was not too demonstrative, at clubs. I allowed myself hip sways and arms held in the air when I danced to brass bands back home in New Orleans. Over the years, I increasingly gave myself more permission to dance. But I did not allow myself the moniker dancer.

 

Rumi said, “Whosoever knoweth the power of the dance, dwelleth in God.”

 

 

Dancing Shiva

Dancing Shiva

 

 

Another manifestation of Shiva is as Nataraja or The Lord of Dancers. Shiva holds the world in balance and this is seen too in his dancing. In Tandav, the cosmic dance of death, he dances to destroy the universe. Peter Marchand and Christine Gruenwald write, “Shiva Nataraja’s dance represents both the destruction and the creation of the universe and reveals the cycles of death, birth, and rebirth….Under his feet, Shiva crushes the demon of ignorance called Apasmara Purusha, caused by forgetfulness. One hand is stretched across his chest and points towards the uplifted foot, indicating the release from earthly bondage of the devotee. The fire represents the final destruction of creation, but the dance of the Nataraja is also an act of creation, which arouses dormant energies and scatters the ashes of the universe in a pattern that will be the design of the ensuing creation.” On the night of Shiva workship, devotees honor him by imitating him: singing songs in his praise and dancing all night rhythm of the drums.

 

Last fall, I started going to African dance classes in Tucson. As a white woman born and raised in New Orleans, a still deeply segregated city, I had strong hesitations to attend out of worries of appropriation of a dance that was not from my ancestry. I went with these hesitations and concerns, which still remain as part of the process, but I stayed because of the drums, because there was something about these drums and this dance that propelled me, not only across the floor but into a more complete and authentic version of myself.

 

Still, in those first few classes, I held myself back. I told stories about how I didn’t belong there, about how the other dancers were so much better than me, about how I was making a fool out of myself, about the lack everyone could clearly see in my body and in my movements. But around my third class, the stories quieted down. I could see the stories for what they were: irrelevant and untrue. The deepest truth was that I love being there. That I love dancing. And this love and this love alone made me into the thing I could not call myself before. Only when I destroyed the story that I was not a dancer was I able to really dance.

 

I used to think it was important to preserve containment at all costs. I believed that to avoid any kind of spillage or cracks or breakage was to make myself safe. But in the past several years, I have realized the vitality that comes from things breaking apart. I see that it is only this breaking that allows for new forms to take shape, for new breath to be invited in. From the ashes can rise new ways of being that would have never appeared while the old ways were immaculately intact.

 

July 5 was my birthday. For a few years, I’ve had a tradition of bibliomancing, randomly and blindly selecting, words from a dictionary on my birthday. To me, this feels like a way to honor my birthday and to invite in any messages or words that may be helpful in this new journey around the sun.

 

This year, I used a Pictorial Webster’s Pocket Dictionary just given to me for my birthday from my friend Amelia. The picture I turned to depicts Lord Shiva, Hindu god of destruction and transformation. That I turned to his image—when I could have easily turned to “Sequoia,” the page before, or “Skeleton of Dinosaurs,” the page after—feels significant and fitting. For years, I have listened to my yoga teacher talk about the ways different gods and goddesses are allies in the path. And I see these gods and goddesses as helpers, as models, as examples of the ideas and concepts they represent. Shiva, like Kali, can be given a bad rap because he brings powerful destructive forces. But as I understand it, these forces are sent to destroy the attachments our ego clings to, the ones we no longer need. In getting rid of attachments that limit us, we make room and create spaciousness for the most fluid and most authentic version of ourselves to emerge. Shiva encourages us to destroy, to dissolve, to deconstruct in order to make way for more genuine creation.

 

Shiva may be capable of destruction but he also wants to give offerings, to save lives. Shiva is almost always depicted with blue skin from the myth in which he saves humanity by holding in his throat poison that was churned in waters and threatened womankind and mankind. Shiva is painted carrying a trident, the three tips representing creation, protection, and destruction of the universe. Shiva is seen as a source of both evil and good, of destruction and rebirth. In his embodiment, he shows us the light and dark contained in this world and within each of us. He shows us the capacity to hold it all.

 

 

Shiva statue in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

Shiva statue in Bangalore, Karnataka, India

 

I have a Rumi of the Day book that I read from each morning before I sit in meditation. And each year on my birthday, I am struck by the poem for July 5. However, the time and distance of a year gives me time to forget and then to appreciate it anew. In “The Tree of Awe,” Rumi acknowledges the inherent contradiction of life’s joy and suffering and the necessity of both light and darkness. He writes, “No matter how fast you run, your shadow more than keeps up. Sometimes it’s in front. Only full, overhead sun diminishes your shadow. But that shadow has been serving you. What hurts you blesses you.” And “Darkness is your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.” And “You must have shadow and light source both.”

 

We may think we want only full brightness, but I can tell you from recent experience of 109 degree heat and high humidity in Tucson, that sometimes shade is most welcome. Sometimes we need the shadow to appreciate the beauty and warmth of the light.

 

When I dance now, I do so because the dance is in me and wants out. Instead of self-consciousness, I come to dance with a deep appreciation for those around me and for this life and for this body that carries me through it. Some days I dance to burn off old stories and some days I dance in appreciation and honor of the beauty in my life.

 

I am grateful to Shiva for appearing on my birthday to remind me of the power of destroying and razing and of renewing and recreating. These are the makings of a life, and I am grateful to experience both the light and dark offered in mine.

 

 

 

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cor·re·spond·ence

photo by Mary Lynn Richard

 

cor·re·spond·ence /ˌkôrəˈspändəns/  n.  1. a close similarity, connection, or equivalence. 2.  communication by exchanging letters with someone.

 

Note: I wrote this post on May 22, 2012 . I set it aside, thinking I would add to it and neglected it it for awhile. Posting it now, in its May form. If you don’t know of The Rumpus or Letters in the Mail, you should check both out (links below)!

 

What is it about letter writing that allows for such closeness and intimacy?

Last year, The Rumpus started a “Letters in the Mail” program, wherein authors would scribe letters and The Rumpus would send them to subscribers through the mail. I signed up immediately.

And then this past April, they invited subscribers to participate in “Letters to Each Other,” where subscribers would send in a letter (no more than one page, front and back) with a SASE envelope. Then their letters would be sent to six people and they would receive six letters in return.

I received my letter last Thursday, and I cannot tell you how exciting it was to open my mailbox and find that thick envelope.

I think what I love most about letters is their real vulnerability. Letters are not theoretical, they are meant to be a container for one’s thoughts and ideas, a place for truth to be relayed. Even letters between artists that involve philosophy and intellectual spiralings typically also involve a moment of doubt. These are not set in stone, they are inked on paper. In that way they are ephemeral. They are meant to be recordings of a moment. I love this too, their in-the-momentness, their sheerness, their see-through nature.

I wrote my first reply today, and what I was amazed at was not only my ability to but my desire to share intimate details of my life with someone who is an almost complete stranger. Is it the anonymity? Maybe that’s part of it, but we do know each others’ names, at least she will have mine now. I think it is also because she shared intimate details with me, ones that although differing from my experience, I could relate to, and I valued so much that emotional honesty.

Letters are drawings of our names in the sand. They reveal who we are in this precise time of being, a being that is unstable, a self that will change. They are a place that, beyond beautiful prose or constructed narrative or clarity of thought or firm declarations, simply demand honest reflection and an attempt at connection. And we all have the ability to offer that. And isn’t that at the end of the day what we most need from one another? what we most need to offer of ourselves?

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sug·ar

 

1sug·ar     noun     \ˈSHo͝ogər\

1: a : a sweet crystallizable material that consists wholly or essentially of sucrose, is colorless or white when pure tending to brown when less refined, is obtained commercially from sugarcane or sugar beet and less extensively from sorghum, maples, and palms, and is important as a source of dietary carbohydrate and as a sweetener and preservative of other foods b : any of various water-soluble compounds that vary widely in sweetness, include the monosaccharides and oligosaccharides, and typically are optically active

2 : a unit (as a spoonful, cube, or lump) of sugar

3: a sugar bowl

 

2sugar     verb     sug·ared     sug·ar·ing

transitive verb

1: to make palatable or attractive : sweeten <a story sugared with romance>

2: to sprinkle or mix with sugar

intransitive verb

1: to form or be converted into sugar

2: to become granular

3: to make maple syrup or maple sugar

 

 

I found Sugar at a time in my life when I was mourning severed connections, reflecting deeply on myself and my life and my choices and experiencing raw loneliness. My life was by no means in shambles, but I still was struggling with boundless uncertainties and deep self-doubt.

An advice columnist for The Rumpus, Sugar’s columns are exactly the opposite of what repels me from other columns. They are not didactic. They do not pretend to solve someone’s complicated problem or deep question in one neatly wrapped up answer. They are not formal or impersonal. They do not have an imbalanced or hierarchical relationship between advice seeker and advice giver. There is no air of superiority.

Instead, Sugar is a cartographer of the heart; she reaches into the map of her personal history, pulling out threads of her journeys and struggles and celebrations and weaving them through readers’ questions. Here, she says, look at this. And this. And this. In authentically crafting stories that navigate their way to an answer of sorts, she offers words that resonate with all readers, no matter whether they have been in the same situation as the advice seeker or not.

It isn’t that Sugar is telling us things that we don’t already know. Sugar taps into the deep register, the inaudible murmur resting below the words being said and she echoes back this thrumming in the truths she tells and the way she tells them: with honesty, with compassion, with love. Often those writing in don’t only need to address the current situation in need of attention and healing but the deep wounds that lie beneath it. And these wounds—of not feeling worthy or of being ashamed or of being scared to love or to be vulnerable or take risks because of our past hurts—these are ones we can all relate to.

Tonight, Sugar is having a coming out party in San Francisco, to tell the world who she really is. But as she said in one of her columns, we already know who she is: “…I quickly realized that telling stories about my life was often the only way I knew how to communicate the complexity of my advice. Your story spilled into mine and then I spilled it back into you, with hopes that we’d all find ourselves somewhere in the big story that belongs to all of us in a place we made up called Sugarland, where you know me already, even though you don’t know me at all.”

 

 

Researcher and storyteller Brene Brown has a brilliant TED talk about vulnerability. One of the things she discusses is that there is only one major difference between whole-hearted people, those who live with their whole heart, and those who don’t, and that is that whole-hearted people view vulnerability as a necessary part of life. And they see that vulnerability involves risk (to say “I love you” first, to do something they’ve never done before, to ask for help) and they choose to be vulnerable anyway. Sugar’s columns are built with vulnerability and they encourage this sort of way of being and living in her readers.

I brought Sugar’s columns into my freshman composition classroom this past fall to show them examples of how to use personal narrative to make a strong and clear point. We read one of her columns aloud and discussed how she went about telling her story and for what effect. Then, students had to answer one of her letter writers using their own personal experience. They talked about loss and grief and insecurities. Their words spilled over with hope and fear and love and disappointment. And when they were finished writing, one of my students asked: Can we see her answer? What did Sugar say?

I never know how students will respond to lesson plans and had hopes for this one. But it was about something more than craft or pedagogical goals: I wanted to expose them to the rhetoric of love. One of the things I love most about Sugar is that she writes her column because the letters she receives need to be read and these stories need to be told. We all need tending to. And in reading and in responding, she has created and held a space for us, where we all can feel less alone, where we all belong, where we have the opportunity to be whole-hearted people, together.

 

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plot

 

1plot \`plat\ n.  1 :  a small area of ground  2 :  a ground plan (as of an area)  3 :  the main story (as of a book or movie)  4 :  a secret scheme : INTRIGUE

 

I have been going by the house for years now, every time I am home for a visit. It was just a shell of where we lived but I felt compelled to visit every time I was back in New Orleans in the years following Katrina. A few months ago, my mom sent me an email to tell me that the house had been razed. It’s just river sand now, she wrote. She said she picked up three pieces of brick (one for her, one for my dad, one for me), a small piece of wood, a small piece of latticework—the traces that were left behind. She said she wanted to lie in the sand and make a sand angel, to place her body on the earth itself, but a truck drove up so she just pretended.

I knew, then, what to expect when I went by 3324 Vincennes Place, and yet, I was surprised all the same. I was taken aback by the shock of green grass usurping the plot. I had expected river sand, but since my mom visited, there had been time for old seeds to sprout up. To fill this hole, this gap, this absent space.

I thought: how odd to witness so clearly an absent place that is so full, this place that occupies so much space in my in my memory. The lot looks enormous without our house on it (hadn’t my mom mentioned that in her email as well?). Just one small block of green. It was hard to imagine all those rooms, all that our house contained.

I pulled out my journal and tore out a perforated page. On it I wrote: THIS WAS HOME. This (space). Was (past tense of “to be,” as in is no longer). Home (a place where families are born, where dreams are dreamed, where mornings break and evenings are put to bed). I took pictures of the sign resting in the grass in front of the plot. I took portraits of myself with my arm extended, holding the sign. I walked around the perimeter and traced the word HOME with my finger in the river sand. Then I took a stray stick and signed my name in the corner of the plot before tucking the stick in the back pocket of my jeans. Three trees stood as sentries at the back of the land and then there was just the span of grass and sand and the neighboring fences on either side.

 

 

The sidewalk had 3324 spray-painted in orange, over a version painted in white. This now marks the address since there is no longer a house to mark the space. Addresses are random numbers and letters we assign to places to make them ours, to make them home, to tell people where to find us. While I was sitting in the car across from the plot where our house was, a mail carrier, mail in one hand and a bag crossing her body, walked by the empty lot on her route.

I scanned my body. I felt tears behind the lids of my eyes—held, not held back. There was a sort of soft gnawing in my belly. I didn’t feel sad really but rather vaguely numbed out.

This was a place I had been saying goodbye to for years. A place I came to visit as one does a deceased family member in a cemetery, over and over again. Our home died to us and now the traces of it, save a long thin piece of wood with blue paint that I found and took, are gone as well.

And although this moment felt like it should be the natural point of closure, the final goodbye, I couldn’t imagine stopping my visits: even if there was a new house there, even if there was a new family in it. In the movie version of my life, we might end here as the protagonist bids farewell to her childhood memories and her childhood home and steps off into her very bright future. Maybe there would even be a flash-forward to her home-to-be, complete with husband in the doorframe and children eating breakfast at the kitchen table. So why do I feel its not over for me and this land?

It’s not a compulsion, this desire to visit. It’s more like coming to sit in silence with an old friend. There’s a kind of peace that comes from being there—from remembering what was and seeing what is real now. I can sit with all the fond memories and the painful loss of this place. It feels real. It feels authentic—this mix of beauty and joy with grief and sorrow. This house taught me how to live life and bear it all: how to grow, how to be nurtured and to nurture, how to love and also how to unexpectedly and without warning, let it all go. To say goodbye. To unhand expectations of what the space you rest your life in looks like.

 

 

I feel I owe this land so much—the place I was born into, where I took my first steps and read and wrote my first words, where I learned how to embrace and be enclosed in the arms of somebody who loved me. I learned to cry, to mourn and to go on, still and always, with the movement of life. I learned about the richness that lies in details—in the shape of a sill, in nicks, slants, the flaws we perceive as such or the ones we find charming. I learned how to observe and how to write those observations down.

It occurred to me as I sat across the street from my childhood home that while I thought I had been coming back to grieve and let go, I was also coming back to honor and pay tribute to the home that held the space for me to become who I am, to the sacred spot where my mom, dad and I became a family. I realized I have continued to come back, all these months, all these years later, because I am so deeply grateful.

 

 

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