Deep summer: a time to walk by the water
and reflect on the sea . . .
My poem, “Released,” published in Lost Tower’s Along the Shore Anthology
And my photography, “Paddling the Sea,” in the Tishman Review
My poem, “Released,” published in Lost Tower’s Along the Shore Anthology
And my photography, “Paddling the Sea,” in the Tishman Review
Although I wrote “The Surprise of the Unknown” two springs ago, I am still reminding myself of it’s message: “The unknown is a source of freedom.”
Yet, through this practice of choosing better feelings, I am now more eager than ever to follow those urgings toward promises of good . . .
The Surprise of the Unknown
Printed by GFT Press, Fall 2016
The Surprise of the Unknown GFT Press FA 2016
As I have been processing my own feelings about this election, I’ve also been watching how others are working through their own emotions.
And I found this. It’s a simple way for each of us to share a few words in a space we inhabit together, no matter who we voted for, no matter what we believe.
But not all of us live in NYC and can post at the 14th Street subway stop.
So if you think it helpful, Post-It here.
Post just a few words (in whatever cathartic way is best for you) in a comment below.
After the Orlando shootings, Larry, a black gay male, wrote this Ode to Orlando as a way to try to work through his devastation. I offer it here because in writing, we share, we heal, we find hope, and we fight for change.
An Ode to Orlando
by Larry Buckhannon
Conditioned to think the world hates you,
You find solace among those who feel safe.
Drinks, music, and Snapchat videos with the crew
Explode as you cling to the ground with hands chafed.
Everyone around you is dropping like flies,
The smell of the ammo clouds your mind
The screams, the pleads, the sorrowful cries
The glee on his face, as each victim he finds.
Horrific, yes, but it’s a wake-up call—
This senseless loss of innocent lives
Of fifty loved ones should unite us all.
There needs to be a ban on guns nationwide.
For there cannot be change unless we fight
Against the evils, the killing, and especially the fright.
*Larry is a graduating senior. Although he walked in Commencement 2 weeks ago, his last class at John Jay College is my summer online Introduction to Creative Writing.
Dear Dr. Sacks,
When I read about your final rest after your fight with cancer, I wished I could have asked you so many questions.
This desire to talk with you started in July when I came across your beautiful “Periodic Table” essay. I thought about your Milton-sky “powdered with stars,” and I wondered: Even though you have been stirred to embrace physical science in the more stressful times of your life, you then have also been able to write about these sciences so accessibly and movingly. Why?
What do you think writing brought you? Did it lead to emotional healing in your past? And recently, did reflecting on your cancer allow you to experience a better quality of life—even as you contemplated being near that life’s end? I wish I could ask you now how much the writing of your life has been cathartic to you.
That it has been cathartic is evident. But the cost to you of writing through your cancer these last few months is something I know nothing about. I haven’t experienced what it feels to be nauseous all day, or to suddenly get very tired, or to look down a tunnel at my next birthday and not believe I will reach that end.
But I do know what it is to feel words. Words that are shaped exquisitely and meaningfully are words that heal. And you have brought so much healing to others through the writing you have shared with us.
Thank you for your willingness to “bear witness” to what you have seen and learned. Thank you for your kindness to all of us who have read your essays and books, because through them, you opened to us your walk toward the unknown.
Thank you for reminding us, even in your last days, that by asking questions—and through the pursuit of answers—we, too, can “bear witness.”
And when my end comes, I hope I will find the same Sabbath you have written of: “that in the seventh day of one’s life, when one can feel that one’s work is done, one may, in good conscience, rest.”
I wonder how writing brought you healing, even through dying. But I don’t wonder at the healing your words have brought to us who have read them. It is because of you, Dr. Oliver Sacks, that although we are not less afraid, we have become more brave.
The night the riots were exploding around Baltimore because of the death of a black man in police custody my daughter got pulled over by an Ohio State trooper. She and some friends were driving back to Oberlin College from a trip into Cleveland. My daughter wasn’t stopped because of the color of her skin or because the trooper wanted to find some reason to search her vehicle. He simply thought there might be something wrong with her car and was trying to keep her safe. It turns out he was right about her car problems, and he waited with my daughter and her friends until the tow truck came. Then the policeman gave them all a lift back to the college in his squad car.
My daughter, with her white skin and red hair, will never feel the fear of racial profiling. Her only interactions with law enforcement have been positive. And I have to admit, I’ve used the white-teary-eyed-woman card to talk a trooper or two out of ticketing me for moving violations in the past.
I absolutely have no idea how it feels to be discriminated against because of what I look like.
So how can I talk about racial profiling in any kind of authentic way? How can I judge what pushes someone to violence on the streets when I have never been treated unfairly by the law?
I am a white woman teaching English to students of color at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Sometimes I’m the only white person in the room. What can I teach them about social justice when I haven’t lived their lives on the streets of NYC? What do I really understand about any of this? Yet, because I’m their professor, they look to me for answers. How can I give those?
But Charles can.
Charles Davidson is a 40-something black man who was born in Baltimore. And now he’s a colleague of mine at John Jay. When we sat down for coffee yesterday, I asked him to help me grasp a little of what this feels like to him, because even if I will never get hit with the punch of what it’s like to be discriminated against, I can try to listen. I can try to sympathize. I can try to learn.
“Charles,” I said, “tell me.”
“I’ve been angry these last few days.” he said. “Really, really angry. You can’t possibly understand that feeling of fear—that when a policeman looks at you, he’s looking for trouble.”
“But Charles,” I said, “I mean, you dress really well, and”
“Do you think that matters?” Charles interrupted, shutting down my naive response. “Do you think as I walk down the streets of Baltimore or of NYC a policeman is going to say to himself, ‘Well, that black man obviously has a Ph.D., and he is an upstanding citizen, so I will give him respect.’ Do you really think that’s going to happen?”
I opened my mouth to answer. Then I closed it again. When Charles gets into lawyer mode, I have no defense (and none is needed). So I just shut up and listen because that’s how I’ll best learn.
“So I’ve been really angry,” Charles said again. “I’ve been on Facebook and other forums, and I’ve been writing and debating and debunking. And it was all words and arguments, and my anger just kept rising.
“Years ago my father’s office was in Baltimore just a few blocks from where the worst of the recent rioting took place. I was pretty young when my family moved to the Maryland suburbs—where so many wealthy black families have escaped the city. Did you know the Maryland suburbs have the highest concentration of black affluence in the nation?”
It was such a rhetorical question that he didn’t even wait for me to shake my head no.
“But in all my anger,” Charles said, “it finally occurred to me that I was just talking. I wasn’t doing anything. Here I was, a black man with Baltimore roots, just spitting and spouting. And then I realized that precisely because I am a black man from Baltimore, I have a bigger responsibility to do something.
“These are my people. And I’ve left them behind. We’re supposed to be taking care of each other, but those of us who could moved to the suburbs and left those of us who couldn’t behind. What was I going to DO about that?”
Charles’ eyes, a light brown ringed with dark, were intense. We’re good friends, and I know this look. It means I need to get ready—because Charles, in working through his own questions and coming to his own answers, always blasts my thinking, challenging me to higher levels.
“Did you know,” Charles said, “that there are over 100,000 people in Baltimore right now without water?”
Charles never throws down a non sequitur, so I waited for his connection between riots and water bills.
“Imagine that your power is out, that you don’t have running water in your house, the police are breathing down your neck—just waiting for you to look like you’re going to do something wrong—and the grocery store where you’ve been working part-time for 10 years just laid you off.
“You’d feel desperate, wouldn’t you? You’d feel angry, wouldn’t you? You then might do something ill-advised out of that feeling of hopelessness.”
At least in this I can relate, if only a little. When I was a child, my family was on food stamps for a while, and when I was a young adult, I sometimes didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills, or even how I was going to pay for my next meal. But those were just instances of difficult times in my life. I can’t imagine living in that never-ending crisis.
“So then,” Charles went on, “I thought, what if I could alleviate just a little of that desperateness, if only for one family?”
“The water bill,” I said softly.
“Yes, the water bill,” he said. “I went online and found out that anyone can pay a past-due bill for someone who lives in Baltimore.”
“And so you did,” I said, as I watched Charles’ face move in memory from his past agitation to his current peace. “You paid someone’s bill to get their water turned back on.”
“Yes, and it completely changed me,” he said. “It took my focus off myself and my own anger and placed it where it needed to be—on someone else. And when I started looking outside, wanting to connect with someone in some small way, I knew that all this talk about racial profiling and the right or wrong of riots is going nowhere, unless we DO something positive—unless we show that love can be a force for good.”
“Charles,” I said, “You are forcing me to be good as well.”
As we parted, we kissed on the cheek, and I thanked him again for his constant gift of pushing me to grapple with complex issues while also distilling them into simple good.
So the next time I go into my classroom, I’ll tell my students about the gentleness of a policeman who helped my daughter, while also realizing it could have gone down differently for her if she’d had darker skin. And I’ll tell these students that I’ll never fully be able to understand—to feel—what it is like for them to be discriminated against.
But I’ll also tell them that my friend Charles does. And since I can’t be a role model to my students in these complicated racial issues, I hope that they will let Charles’ actions be an example of how they should behave.
Because in one act of paying a water bill, Charles is an example to us all—simplifying it all into this: we have a responsibility to show kindness and love toward others.
So right now, I’m going to this website to help pay someone’s water bill in the city of Baltimore.
Even after my tutorial with Charles, I know I’m still really unqualified to SAY anything.
But I’m absolutely able to DO something—a little something—that I hope will make a difference.
Last Friday I was skiing with my friend Sandy. I had just turned 50 a few weeks before and wasn’t sure what to think about it. Sandy said to me, “Sara, do you realize that you’ve entered the decade of faith and fight and fun?”
As we rode up the lift together, Sandy encouraged me to live the next 10 years under that motto. After all, it had worked for her. And beyond. Even in her 70’s Sandy is one of the most energetic, optimistic people I know.
We talked about making snow angels (which she still does) and about wanting to fly–wondering if in heaven we will be able to do that without wings. We talked about how skiing is almost like flying. And we talked about music and hope and why people have forgotten they were born happy.
I teach writing to college students, and the first question I ask them is this: “When you were little, what kind of person were you?” Always they share of how happy and carefree they were.
But when does that happiness get covered over? How long does it take for the hard things of the world to beat our joy down into the bottom of our memories?
So I ask them to write those hard things, and I write along with them, and in the process we find little pieces of joy–like fragments of stained glass–rising up through our writing, coloring and lighting our lives again.
“Sara,” Sandy reminded me, “this is the decade of joy for you. Have faith. Fight with passion for what you want.”
“But mostly–just have fun.”
A girl from the bucolic hills of Virginia (where there are cars) but who now lives in New York City (where there are buses and trains) is sent by her administrators to Brooklyn–by train, by herself, and in the rain.
She takes the wrong train, takes the right train, walks (in the rain) to the address that the blue dot on her iPad map directed her to, and then stares up at a sign that says “Francis Scott Key Middle School.”
“Oh no,” she thinks. “I’m at the wrong building.”
But then a security guard appears and says, “What are you looking for?”
The girl who has taken wrong trains and traversed Brooklyn (in the rain) can’t, at this point, even remember the name of the place she is trying to find. But she is told that there are 4 different schools in this one building, and a middle school is not one of them. That went defunct years ago, but the sign was never taken down.
As the girl is trying to pull up her email for information, she tells the security guard that she is there to observe a College Now teacher for City University of New York.
The security guard looks at her, looks at her very wet iPad (because she left her umbrella in her office, even though she knew it was raining) and says, “Hope you didn’t ruin that iPad. But even if you did, what do you care? Anyone who is here to observe a teacher must have money. Lots of money. So you can just get yourself another one.”
At that moment the girl from Virginia is feeling very homesick. She doesn’t remember it EVER raining in Virginia. And even if it sometimes does, it is a soft, nonjudgmental, bucolic rain.
The security guard escorts her to the classroom. She finds a seat at the back, and her jacket drips a small puddle onto the floor.
But it takes a total of one minute for the girl from Virginia to completely forget about the wrong trains, the right trains, inappropriate economic discussions, and even the rain.
She forgets because she is watching a master teacher engage his students in a NYC public high school in innovative, energetic ways.
The poem the class is discussing is Langston Hughes’ “America.” She listens as students read with voice and vigor and then as they take turns relating the poem to the America of today.
And she thinks that effective teaching is effective teaching—no matter where it occurs–whether in Virginia, in New York City, in other parts of America, or for that matter, anywhere else in the world.
And in that space and that place of teaching and learning, she feels completely at home.
Later, as the girl from Virginia leaves the school and walks toward a coffee shop, admiring the brownstone buildings she is passing, she notices that the rain has turned soft—not a bucolic soft, but a Brooklyn soft.
Which, after all, might be the same thing.
Climbing mountains backward, being blown onto my back by the wind, and reaching back into the layers of my past–this old, but new State of Mind just came out in an anthology devoted to stories of hiking the Grand Canyon.
“I look down from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon feeling completely displaced. What am I doing here?”
A poem in the villanelle style
Vision does not just see the way,
But guides to the intangible
Through courage and creative play.
But if, when we look ahead, we stay
Silent and fearfully still,
Won’t all our vision fade away?
And how can we, in fear, play,
When our laughter is killed,
When our courage is stayed?
But true vision invites creative play—-
When courage pushes timid will
Forward, with action into the day.
Then instead of cold dismay,
We discover the unknown fulfills
Our need to engage in joyful foray.
So as we laugh, we also pray
That this solid, intangible
Vision will not just see the way
But will guide us—-through courage and creative play.