Thursday, August 14, 2014

Thoughts on Writing: A Blog Hop

After a wonderfully relaxing vacation in Southern Spain, I came home to find an email from Maria Maldonado inviting me to participate in The Writing Blog Tour. As you can imagine, changing the scenery from rustic beaches, majestic mountains spotted with lazy bulls and sunflower valleys to the urban landscape of New York City was not easy. So getting invited to a 'blog hop' was exactly what I needed. I’ve known Maria Maldonado for a life time. Not only is she a clinical associate professor of medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and the program director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at Stamford Hospital, she is also an integral part of my family. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, the “Narrative Matters” section of Health Affairs, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.  She blogs on medical education, health equity, and other matters pertaining to medicine at http://mmaldonadomd.tumblr.com/. You should visit her site. She’s a wonderfully, deep feeling writer.
            The purpose of this blog tour is to talk about writing so we can learn from one another and connect ourselves with other intellectuals who share in this uniquely personal art form. To me, writing has always been a dance with solitude. Although the audience is always out there, the act itself is an intimate and complex tango with all the demons and angels that make up my identity. Yes, I suppose anyone can write. But few have the tenacity and courage to make a life of it. It requires surrender; an acceptance of success and failure as equals and the recognition that in the silence of the moment writing never fails to enlighten.
            So, with this purpose in mind, here are the questions I’ve been asked to ponder:
            What am I working on? I’m currently working on a novel that was born out of a conversation with my son who suggested I write about a new society. I had been stuck on revising old projects for a while and he proposed a completely new, dystopian novel (I believe he said it was absolutely okay to do what other writers are doing) Then he added, “Write something I’d like to read.” Since I consider my son a philosopher with deep thoughts and big questions about life and existence— I felt compelled by his request. I’ve been working on this novel since and as it turns out, I’m enjoying myself tremendously. The developing story is about an independent community charged with fulfilling a young adult’s vision that makes them question the true nature of leadership & our responsibility to others. The novel is my primary project these days although I will continue to post on my blogs.
How does your work differ from others of its genre? I’ve been told my writing speaks to the intellect and the spirit. This makes sense because I’m an educator with a thirst for knowledge and a respect for research. But, I’m also an artist which makes me a rare breed. On the good days, I like to call myself an alchemist of the soul. Years ago when I attended New York University, I wrote a research paper intermingled with poetry. The professor loved it but she didn’t know how to grade it since it was supposed to be academic writing. Fortunately, she figured out a way to give me credit for the piece without having to throw out her tightly defined rubric. This goes to show you that even back then I had a tendency to mix things up a bit. In sum, my writing is infused with questions I hope will inspire people to examine the world we live in and how we can make a difference.
Why do you write what you do? I write about topics that help me build trust with myself, with God, with people and with the world. I write about themes that matter the most, themes that are universal and integral to our existence. I often use my writing as a platform to rant and rave. Life and living are sorely imperfect and writing is an opportunity for me to make peace with the ugly. I write about topics that stimulate the brain, help us transcend the mundane and rethink ourselves out of the box.
How does your writing process work? I’m a spiral writer and just in case I just made that term up, let me explain. I write and then spiral back to the previous page, edit and then continue on, spiral back a bit, edit and continue on. This is for two reasons. First, I need to revisit what I’ve written so I can get back into the zone. Second, I’m a teacher at heart so I find it painful to write without revising at the same time. I’ve read this is the worst thing you can do as a writer—revise while you write, but after many years of doing it compulsively, I’ve accepted this as part of my personal process. Fortunately, it somehow works out in the end. As for the novel I’m working on right now, I’m experimenting with something completely new. I’m writing without a master plan. I’m allowing the novel to unfold like an onion. The truth is, I have no idea where it’s headed. Each day (and I’ve made a commitment to write at least 10 pages a day), the story reveals itself in the moment. It’s not to say I don’t ruminate about it when I’m not writing (that’s impossible!) but I don’t really have it all charted out. This has been extremely liberating to say the least. When I told my daughter (who is a budding writer herself) she said, “Isn’t that so much more fun?” Yup. It is!
It gives me great pleasure to pass on this conversation to a writer and educator who I met a few years ago while grappling with one of my first writing projects. His name is Jude Hollins. Jude lives in Harlem, teaches in the South Bronx and wakes up around 4:30am to write. His current novel project involves a futuristic NYC with diverse characters that reflect the “majority minority” reality that already exists in many American cities. I highly recommend you visit his blog and website where he discusses the YA genre with all of its peculiarities. Jude’s writing is fresh, inventive and quirky. He effortlessly captures the creative lingo of the young people he writes for. Jude will be posting his Writing Blog Tour on August 21. Check him out at  shuiverse.blogspot.com and http://jude-hollins.squarespace.com


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Monkey Business

Dear President Business:[ii]

When we first met, I was in awe. It was the spell you cast on your followers— the way they’d stay up to all hours of the night waiting to get one moment of your time. Such power could only come from light, I thought.

It’s been said you are brilliant. I, too, was impressed by your ability to hold steadfast to a vision. A wise man in your midst once told me you were like the Wizard of Oz! If truth be told, I wanted to believe in your magic, especially at a time when my beloved field of education is in need of magic.

I told myself there’s nothing wrong with power and control if it can lead to good. What can be wrong with working for a man who has the power to get me back home? 

I put on a Monkey Suit for you, President Business. I did it willingly because I was sure it was the best I could do. I told myself I was President Obama, working with the men on the other side of the aisle.

But, people are afraid of those who know themselves. An enlightened woman cannot be enslaved.[iii] 

The more I believed in myself, the less time I spent at the alter of deference.
The more I spoke up for love, the less time I spent at the alter of workaholism.
The more I participated in conscientious engagement, the less time I spent at the alter of illusion.

Still, I was a willing soldier until the end. Not sure if the fight was right, but I believed I was fighting for what is mine.

Dear President Business:

The time has come to retire the monkey suit.

Perhaps one day you will realize you deserve freedom too.


***

        “Simply with complete conviction, I accept my freedom.” Ernest Holmes

                Dreaming is God’s gift to me. Without dreams, how does one survive? At night, pay attention to your dreams. Dreams are the language of God.[i]
                Last night I dreamed I was visiting a company.
                I arrive late but people are waiting for me in a circle. Amongst them, is my step-father, the man who taught me that conservative action has the most merit. Taking my seat, I pass a full length mirror.  I’m wearing a dress with many colors and I’m carrying a carpet bag shaped like a kidney bean. My hair’s disheveled and my eyes are bright and exciting. I’m a cross between Mary Poppins  and Willy Wonka.
                “You look unique,” my step father said inspecting my outfit.
                I take my place in the circle. I feel confident that what I hold in my bag will astound them, but as the dream progresses, I realize I had forgotten my folder. It was the folder that held all my important papers, education designs and the research I had accumulated over the years.
                At first I get anxious, but when I look around, I see the people in the circle are dressed equally inventive just like me. Each one has on a different color, each one distinctive.  One fellow, for example, wears purple glasses and a tie over a t-shirt. Realizing my audience, I ask, “What exactly do you guys do here?”
                One woman sits at the edge of her seat, listening. I talk to her about my last project and she says “We’re doing that already.” I realize I don’t need my briefcase filled with papers.  All the contents are old and useless. I get the sense she’s looking for something that doesn’t fit in a folder.
                She is looking at me, anticipating.
                 “What do you guys do here, exactly?” I repeated.

***



[i] The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho
[ii] The Lego Movie
[iii] “The Rebel,” Osho

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Through the Looking Glass

I was born into this life time with no money but I swear I must’ve been rich before. Not once or twice rich, but a thousand times rich, like over and over. The piss of it is, I've now been reduced to the life of a voyeur. As I peer through the looking glass, I feel my pulse slow down. That familiar calm washes over me. Like when I walk down a super-wide chestnut tree lined street with mansions and manicured shrubbery. I feel perfectly at home. Fancy restaurants don’t scare me. On the contrary! I feel magnanimous. Especially when I get up to go to the bathroom. I glide past onlookers, keeping my eye on the tall windows that overlook the moon lit water, thinking the whole time I'm beautiful and free. Then, when I’m washing my hands with lavender bubbles and dry them on a perfectly folded laundered cloth—I'm a flower and I come out taller and with a sense of purpose. Five star hotels and quiet white sand beaches make me purr like a cat and all I want to do is nuzzle up with someone and think about making love. There, in the riches, the sun is always out even when it’s raining.  

Those are the times when it’s easy to ruminate about God and nature and the art of floating.

My life's not easy now.  I get smacked with guilt because my mind wanders to my past lives with such deep, deep longing. I chastise myself and try to convince myself that I must learn to master the art of compassion for the common man. That in mundane drudgery I'll find God. But, I don’t understand their humor. And if you can’t laugh then you’re just a sorry shit.

The truth of the matter is, being poor makes me angry. Not only are things darker and grey and broken and harder and longer and crowded—poor people are brainwashed, too. They believe that there’s some virtue in suffering. As if to be a better person you have to leave the kingdom for after you’ve died. They seem to think that wanting nothing is the door to spirituality.

That’s bull shit.

Giving up wealth is not the same as never having it. If you think Tolstoy or Gandhi.

The truth is, if you’re worried about the basic things in life, you have no time to think about anybody but yourself. Abundance is free for the taking, folks—I know because I’ve lived it before and it’s simply amazing. I did a lot of good in the world while I was free of debt and free of suffering. I had love to give, endless bounty.

So, what the hell? Why was I born into this lifetime with no money?
It must be one of God’s jokes. Maybe he wants to see how long it will take me to return to the natural state of things. Frankly, I’m anxious to get there quickly because this sure ain’t easy.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Encounter

Beneath the surface lies a past I recognize. It is a pulsating beat, the rhythm of a force field, the web of a thousand spiders glimmering under moonlight. It is more familiar than my husband. Where did it begin and how will it end? Stemming from the cavity I call subconscious wisdom, I am fully aware that I am in The Struggle.
The presence haunts me because it is a call to action. One moment I think its humility and the next I think humiliation. Is it the same thing?
I’m riding a roller coaster. Below my feet, the rumble is the steady. I belong to one destiny. It’s as if hands have already molded me and I’ve awakened to discover I am a sculpture being chiseled out from the mountain that is my surrender. Surrender to who or to what exactly?
I confuse God with the Devil these days. I thought they were two separate entities but now I know that each is the side of the other, both intertwined and engaged in the primordial struggle that is both inside and outside me. Either way, I am thirsty for it now that I know I don’t have to push passion aside to be good.
I recall the moment I realized I was no longer in possession of my soul. I could see the shadow behind him in my dream. He had many arms writhing this way and that, like the Indian Goddess Kali. They say Kali is the Goddess of Destruction, but the Destruction of the Ego is what she means. His legs were crossed at the ankles, which made him innocent and vulnerable but not in a child-like way, but rather the kind of softness a man develops after being devoured by demons but lives to survive.  Like Kali, he is soft, but in an instant can be taut like a black whip.
There was nothing transparent about that first moment, and yet—I was being exposed to more truth than I had in a decade.
Shortly after that moment, my life became more fiction than fact. I know now this is a stage of the soul.

 

 

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Still Thinking About Running Away



There’s a plant in my upstairs hallway dying. The plant’s been with my family for almost fourteen years. Almost as old as my eldest child. Older than some marriages. My plant’s dying and I wonder if I’ve done everything in my power to save it. Save her. My husband says there’s a life span for everything. I bought her a bigger pot and watered her a little less, then a little more.  I whispered to her as I passed, caressed her long green fan-like leaves— I did all I could do and she’s dying anyway because there’s a life span for everything.

Some things are beyond me. There is, after all, some great decision maker. Don’t mock this talk of fate, just accept it as part of life. I mourn her and watch her wither away, curious how she's reduced me to a child again. My tears well up and my lip curls into that tiny pout of a mouth that should only be seen on little girls of two and three-- not forty something, not me.  I don’t want to let her go because now she’s part of my home.

Funny, I think my sadness must come from the world. This monster like grip, scrape in my throat.  We are not under a spell, oh no, we see it and wave it away with disregard, smug-like and disrespectful like, yes. Or we sit in it and wallow with shame.

Me? I’m learning to flow with this melancholy. I blow like a reed or fall into the rhythm of dance. It's a ballet. On and off the stage, I float, from tragedy to joy. I am alone in effortless beauty gliding, then struggling to break free, a villain's grasp. This dance keeps me in. It allows me to weep, off stage. It reveals beauty in life and a sardonic justice because at least it’s not static. It’s like watching the air ruffle under fabric— gentle and subtle but captures your attention.This air is the only thing that matters. It's change.

I’m getting old, perhaps, when I see things this way.

What do I have to hope for? My children? Who will they become in this world so slight, too slight for their beauty? Will they get swallowed up or will they dance?

Yes, it is true. I’m getting old when I see my plant dying and I compare her death to my life and a ballet and in the end I fear for my children and simultaneously glow in the thought of their beauty ever on my mind.

Then, I wonder when I walk down the halls of my school— do the people there see the energy of my soul leap outside me? Do they feel my electricity? Or do they see a woman, emptied and cold like the numbers on the computer, data lines? 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A Fly On the Wall

If I were a fly on the wall, I’d see you sitting there straining to see why his neck tie is tightened too tight or why his knuckles are fist white wrapped like five bullies around a sharp number two pencil.

If I were a fly on the wall, I’d see rows of books lined up in a dark wood book case; books that tell the story of how we do teaching and leadership and all those things that schools say they do but sometimes, you know, those things just remain bound up between a hard cover and a bibliography.

If I were a fly on the wall, I’d see five side glances that speak one unspoken truth. It is the riddle of one relationship multiplied by every school identified and categorized for transformation.

Who can blame you?

If I were a fly on the wall, I’d see the empty box of tissues propped up against a brand new binder that’s half full and half empty with promises and hope and distrust and simply, a binder is just that. Black and white words and numbers on a page that tell half lies and some truth too.

If I were a fly on the wall, I’d see compassion waft over us like the sweet aroma of roast pork on a Sunday and then in a quick second a foreboding sense of despair.

If I were a fly on the wall, I’d see you and me and him and them and all of us, caught up in one critical moment of suggestion. The art of deep listening and trying to make sense out of  non-sense and the perennial battle of freedom vs control.

Things stay the same when they should fall apart.

The endless shuffling of roles.

But I’m not a fly on the wall. Not this time. This time I’ve been chosen to sit beside you; to hold your hand and bear witness to your suffering. Perhaps it was my higher-self that chose for me but all the same it’s me. I’m close enough to breath in the same air you breathe, to share your human-ness-- as if-- in fact, I am just a reflection of you in the mirror…or so it seems.


Have I gained perspective or is it loss?


Friday, December 06, 2013

Madiba & the Bonus from God

Listening to BBC this morning, a gentlemen from Soweto was asked why the African people weren’t crying. He replied that they understood Mandela’s death as being a celebration or a “bonus” from God for a life well spent. Those words had a profound impact on me. I remembered the conversation I had with my husband earlier. We spoke about Nelson Mandela’s 27 year life imprisonment and the suffering that goes with such a brutal sentence. We discussed whether such suffering is needed in order to change the world and we explored the significance of sacrifice.  At the end, I told him that Mandela had little choice in the matter, that his life evolved that way—it was his destiny, I said. I reiterated that regardless of his imprisonment, in the end he freed a country. My husband nodded but then added a harsh reality. Close to 50% of black African youth are unemployed and hungry in South Africa. Are his people really free?

Mandela will be remembered for many things but mostly for emerging from a life of struggle and suffering with no bitterness or hatred. This transcendence of his own experience, people think, was critical in the healing of his country, both black and white. Starting out as a “militant” freedom fighter and caged for a great portion of his adult life, Nelson Mandela died a beloved leader who is credited for leading South Africa out of apartheid into democracy.

There is much to think about here, on the first day of our mourning. What does his life teach us about the nature of freedom and the fight for justice?

I’ve been grappling with this question for years and very recently with great intensity. It goes hand in hand with my ever evolving interpretation of my role as an educator and a change agent. In response to an enticing job offer, I’ve been asking myself what I’m willing to do (or not do), what I’m willing to give up to be an educator, and not only that— to be an educator with a seat at the decision making table. It has become clear to me throughout this process that there are always two conflicting forces at work—one living in accordance with one’s principals and modeling freedom tirelessly and the other agreeing to sacrifice freedoms in the short term in order to gain access & advantage in the long run. The latter, it seems to me, is what happened to Mandela and I want to know if he would have had it any other way.

Following the gentleman from Soweto, another man spoke about Mandela’s infinite emotional intelligence and strategic thinking in the years following his imprisonment. I can’t imagine what 27 years behind bars might do to a person’s mind, body and spirit and even the site of President Obama visiting his cell and looking out through the small window onto a dry landscape is as powerful & deafening as a holocaust survivor standing in the center of a concentration camp three decades later.  How can we integrate the feeling of overwhelming shame and suffering that human beings inflict on one another? It’s like trying to explain how we allow a child to die of hunger in one country while in another, we throw half eaten steaks out after a dinner meeting.  How can we make sense of a human spirit that survives torture? I think what I’m curious about is do we really believe Mandela gained the gift of emotional intelligence from the suffering his oppressors imposed upon him or do we tell ourselves this to appease our conscience?  Do we say Mandela is like Jesus Christ who suffered and died to free us all from our sins? 

Perhaps I’m in denial about the purpose of life or the road to freedom, but I’m beginning to question how we understand freedom.  Must we sacrifice ourselves, someone else or a group of people in order to heal, experience justice or have goodness in our lives?  Is this notion of sacrifice just as archaic as slaughtering a lamb or throwing a child into a volcano, an offering to the Gods?

If each of us stopped for a moment in full and complete presence and said, it is not required that we sacrifice anything or anybody in exchange for love & belonging, safety & shelter, health & well-being, fulfillment & self-realization—then what would change about our behavior and the choices we’d make?

I’m in mourning today for the life of Nelson Mandela, our Madiba. But I agree that his death is a celebration and a liberation from a life of profound suffering, sadness and sacrifice.  I want each of you who are talking about Nelson Mandela in schools to discuss what his life means and what we can  learn from it as we grapple with freedom, justice and our fight for an egalitarian society.  Furthermore, I want you to think about what you think you have to sacrifice in order to gain what you have told yourself is for some “greater good.”  Ask yourself who and what you are sacrificing and what damage that might do at the present moment. Imagine that it might not be necessary that you suffer, that you can live freely and offer freedom to others at this very moment. How would that belief change your life? How would that change how you teach?