Today is Martin Luther King Day, and I am home with a holiday from work, able to write because of this great loss of life. So let us begin with him:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Never are voices so beautiful as on a winter’s evening, when dusk almost hides the body, and they seem to issue from nothingness with a note of intimacy seldom heard by day.”
~ Virginia Woolf, Night and Day
The other night, Friday, I went to the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival’s presentation of Lula Del Ray by Manual Cinema based in Chicago. Such an unusual and simple story—an adolescent girl living with her mom in a trailer in the desert in the 1960s at the time of the space launch—but its chief feature was that it was performed live, with musicians, actors, technicians, and overhead projectors. Remember those? Miss O’ used them as a teacher nearly every day. The result of the layered images and slowness and music was that you experienced a whole interior world, so that each moment—from swinging feet while sitting on a rock ledge, to sleeping in a hammock, to listening to a record of two young country stars—became significant.
Before the show, sitting in the Martinson Theater at the Public with friends Heather and Bettina, we began talking politics, and I railed about the week’s events, including the votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which many Americans know as Obamacare, but don’t realize they are one and the same. So vociferous did I become, an older woman in front of me turned around, and I said, out loud to myself, “Lisa, shut up, you’re in a theater about to see a nice show, so please, just STOP with the politics!” And I laughed. I leaned down to the woman and said, “I am so sorry,” and she said, “I was just thinking that this is the conversation I have with my friends all the time.”
Taking moments to breathe: So important. Before the show, I’d picked up a turkey and brie Panini at a deli called Bully’s on Broadway, and had leaned against the Public’s stone facade to eat it. Outside in the chill dusk, staring into the buildings across the street, all that glorious architecture, made me calm but also inquisitive, contemplative. In one of the tall bright windows sat a slender young-looking woman in a sweater, short hair, bent over a desk, who appeared to be drawing. She did this steadily the whole time I chewed, slowly, bite after bite. New York is full of lives, millions of them, behind facades both material and emotional, working out things we can’t even imagine. Sometimes it’s nice to sit and contemplate only one of them, and I found it restful.
And as I write this I realize that my observation, of what was a kind of silhouette of a moment in a stranger’s life, was very much like seeing Lula Del Ray, and there was both emotional connection and distance, both cogitation and peace in each act. And this theater piece had something else: Romance—the romance of the desert, of being young, of listening to records, of space flight and flights of imagination. Also disillusionment, followed by, you know, growth. I miss romance. Thank goodness for books.
Writers Resist: Louder Together
~ Protest sign at PEN rally, January 15, 2017
So in this most UN-romantic of times in America, I want to write about “Writers Resist: Louder Together,” the PEN Rally for Free Expression I attended at the New York Public Library, one of many set for Sunday, January 15, 2017, at libraries across the country, but I can’t stop laughing to think of it. Before I explain, let me say that PEN is a great professional writers’ organization, and while I’ve never been a member, it’s famous for a lot of great work to do with the freedom of ideas. It’s expensive to join for most people, given that unless you can fully participate, and who has time, it acts essentially a charity to promote literacy for other people, a charity about which almost no one will ever hear, which says so much that is ill about this nation. And given how powerful PEN might be at time when President-elect Trump is talking about removing the White House Press Room, the disappointment I felt—no, the agitation and annoyance I experienced at this PEN event—were couched in irony.
First off, you should know that the vast majority of writers in the world are not speakers—neither are most people, but at least writers use words for a living. Writers are introverts, for the most part, so you see where this is going. They are more than a little freaked out by crowds. Volunteers at the event were not, therefore, really “people” people, so would ask us, either sheepishly or with irritation, “Are you a speaker? No? Then you need to be over there; this area is for speakers.” (I placed a semicolon in that last sentence because I do think writers would think of their speaking in terms of punctuation.)
So what did the organizers do with their speakers at this big RALLY FOR FREE EXPRESSION? Did they open with, say, a rousing contemporary song about the world today, sung by someone interesting in terms of body and background? No. They opened (one imagines to establish patriotism, however unimaginatively) with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” sung by a slender young white soprano with long blonde hair. You can’t make this up. Was the first speaker a rousing, stirring voice of a generation? No, it was long-lived Rep. Jerry Nadler, from Congress, greeting us on the plaza (this placement making it hard to see him) with a flat, well meant, and staggeringly rote commemoration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a kind of invocation, but the sound system made it hard to hear him. Did PEN then have the speakers speak from the microphones placed high on the steps? Nope. Each speaker spoke from what appeared to be (at best glimpse) a handheld mike on the plaza level, where only a few dozen could get a view. I sighed as I stood in a small puddle, getting shoved by short old women in interesting hats trying to get a better view. Everyone around me was white. Everyone as far as my eye could see seemed to be white, until I saw two Asian women, one old, one young, to my right. Some clapping happened. Did any speaker within the first fifteen minutes of the event deliver a rousing call to demonstrate that “the pen is mightier than the sword” and that our voices together made us louder and stronger, and tell us this from high up? I must say no. No one around me could hear or see him/her/it, whenever. The crowd, with no trace of irony given the title of the event, kept crying, “Louder!” And no one in authority heard them.
Was there anything amazing after the first fifteen minutes? I couldn’t tell you. I left the plaza and this surreal event and started walking up Fifth Avenue, muttering, “This is idiotic,” when I heard two white (of course) women about my age in front of me, talking good-naturedly about how they couldn’t hear anything and had decided to leave. I touched one on the arm. “Forgive me, but I couldn’t help overhearing, and I feel the same way.”
I went on as we paused there on the sidewalk, “I’m a theater person. How on earth can a group of introverts, one speaker more decrepit and whispery than the last, hold a rally? Why aren’t they talking from the top of the steps? Where was the big opener?” Here I mimed a cigarette and a New York rasp, “What they need is a director!” The women laughed, agreed, and at least this moment of communion felt real. I headed toward the subway steps at Bryant Park, contemplating my next move, when I heard the women laughing again, in agreement, repeating what I’d said. I felt a little bad, because here a great organization planned a vital rally, and all I could do was criticize. I don’t need Bread and Circuses (and this week I read that circuses are, finally, going the way of the vaudeville), but I expected ENERGY, and words expressed as ART, at a rally like this. It was strange. And, unlike the teeming world of the surrounding sidewalks, so, so, white.
In a quiet, internal response to all this, I, appropriately enough, found myself reciting Brooklyn-born poet Walt Whitman:
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
BY WALT WHITMAN
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Maybe I just needed to go and find my own voice for a while. So at Bryant Park I picked up the downtown F Train to 2nd Avenue and walked around the East Village, because that area of the city helps me think. It’s where I’ve always felt the most “at home” in New York, though I couldn’t tell you why.
Something about the age of the city, the low-rise buildings, and bars and cafes and unexpected historical plaques; all the theater on E. 4th Street, from La Mama to KGB Bar and the Kraine, to the acclaimed New York Theater Workshop. I always sort of dream I’ll have a show in one of those places.
Back on Houston St., when I first got off the F Train, I’d stopped for a hot knish from a real deal Jewish deli before I’d wandered to E. 4th St. I had the bag in my hand when I made my way to Swift, a Hibernian pub (for the second time in as many days, since it’s not far from the Public), where a cracked-leather covered stool in an empty corner by the window allowed me to sneakily eat my contraband knish with a pint of Smithwick’s, and enjoy the light of the window to read more from Patti Smith’s simply lovely book, M Train. From this book (M is for mind) I’ve learned that this revolutionary rocker, fashion icon, iconoclast, and artistic legend has, over her life, wanted nothing more dreamily than to open her own café. These dreams of the simple and communal are not unusual, but they can be surprising in spectacular geniuses. A poet friend—perhaps the greatest living poet that almost no one knows about, Jean LeBlanc—would love nothing better than to have a little shop that sold original arts and crafts and other neat stuff, where she could write more poems as I looked out for shoplifters. We want that blend of society and solitude, the warmth of handmade things, and fresh, warm beverages. Sure, it’s cheaper to make coffee at home, or buy a six-pack of IPO, or eschew material possessions for asceticism, but where’s the romance in choices like that? And, boy, do we need a rebirth of romance.
This week, as Onion-esque and Kafkaesque as it may seem, Donald J. Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. Rallies are scheduled, marches are happening across the country, and it’s all totally uncertain as to where this country is headed. And as horrified and depressed as I’ve been over the results of this election, I have to admit a curious thing:
I haven’t felt so alive to myself in my adulthood, as I do now, since the first summer I spent, at age 26, at the Bread Loaf School of English, my first summer of a five-summer graduate program. I’m 52, twice that age, and in having something to so clearly fight against, that my own values and morals, my ethos, my art, my friends and their safety—even the everyday sights of New York City—are at stake, my senses have been sharpened by the prospect of horrors to come, as a broadsword by a whetstone. I hope my pen proves mightier than any sword, or sling and arrow for that matter, from this sociopathic right wing. I tend to doubt it, but one must try.
Burst Your Bubble
To white Christian America, the original bubble people, who ironically think that all of us who move to the Big City are in a bubble, when in fact we’ve BURST our bubbles to reinvent our lives and connect to disparate humans from all parts of the earth (thus perhaps making a new bubble, but WOW, what a bubble!), I say this:
Find some old movies about New York. Nice ones. Watch Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters. Whatever you think of Woody Allen, the man is at his best when he focuses on women and the complications of relationships, because it frees him to examine with real curiosity the beauty and intricacies of New York City. With only white people, a handful of Jews, and with a brief appearance by a black, singer Bobby Short, and taking place in the distance of the 1970s and ‘80s, maybe you white small-town folks won’t freak out. It’s romantic, really. For Allen, it’s all about romance. Remember romance?
Curiouser and Curiouser
The way Lawrence Ferlinghetti was “waiting for a rebirth of wonder,” Miss O’ is awaiting a rebirth not only of romance, but of curiosity. I want to see people looking up and out, talking, listening, reading a fucking book. Collecting small objects of beauty, sending cards to one another, hearing live music, writing of our experiences, or at least sharing a good joke, before the joke on us is one we can’t laugh at anymore.
The most lacking thing for me, the observation that has been freaking me out more than a little of late, is vitriol spewed from mouths, or even hoarse laughter, accompanied by a total lack of affect in the eyes of Americans—a kind of deadness while the mouths move, however nastily or in mirth—and I demand to know, Where are the flashing eyes, where are the twinkles? It’s like inquisitiveness and connection to feeling never existed. While we all feel curiosity when it comes to gossip, say, wouldn’t it be lovely to be curious about why we feel and act as we do toward our fellow men and women and transgendered, and for that matter, PLANET? I think yes. Dammit!
So to all I say, Wake up, take up your pens, but also pick up your goddamned feet. Remember when your mom said, “GO OUTSIDE”? Go OUTSIDE. Go to a bar, to a café, for a walk around the neighborhood. Use your VOICE. Now go LOUDER. And also listen. Really LISTEN. And with love. Care deeply! And let me see the romance in your eyes.
P.S. LINKS TO STUFF YOU CAN DO TO CHANGE YOURSELF AND THE WORLD
Pay attention to everything that changes in the political landscape, and write them down: https://medium.com/@Amy_Siskind/week-9-experts-in-authoritarianism-advise-to-keep-a-list-of-things-subtly-changing-around-you-so-4bc574668100#.7t60yqai7
Read some poetry:
And more about poetry from Jean LeBlanc:
Read about how books created Barack Obama:
Look at art:
Host a salon in your home:
Or meet at cafés:
Dance more. I’m working on that.
And finally, this is how I feel when it comes to teaching America’s youth—this is loud, AND DIRTY, and it’s hilarious.
TURN ON THE LIGHTS! DRIVE OUT THE DARK! Goodnight from Queens.