Friday, November 10, 2017

On one year ago yesterday

It's hard to believe that it was one year ago yesterday when the world came to an end. At least that's how I felt after the 2016 election . I remember not being able to process the result. I remember my mind shutting down and how awful that felt.




Yesterday, IRL the election seemed a tiny memory. I guess that's what is meant by moving on. I made new artwork and posted it to my etsy site. I showed it to the eighth graders who I subbed for yesterday. "I hate the word 'peace,'" one said. She made a V with her fingers and rolled her eyes. "I don't hate the meaning, just the word. It's so cliche." I guess she's right. In too many ways.



Yesterday! Gratitude should have been thy name!  If for nothing else, it wasn't one year ago. IRL, energized students lived their lives. I walked with a bounce through my hectic day. But I looked over my shoulder and recalled one year ago yesterday, when the world became incomprehensible.

Yesterday was so much better. I painted rainbows. Believed in peace, even thought it's true. Peace is a cliche.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

On taking it all in

For the past week, the brick and cement that comprises FIT has come alive. I walk past and stare; students with paintbrush in hand transform this dreary section of the city, just blocks from Penn Station. The painters are more fun to watch then the designs that flow from their dreams to the surface.

Which is not to say their work isn't brilliant. It is. But I get a vicarious buzz from my brief imagining of myself at 20 or 30, with paint on my brow in deep concentration. Their intensity and fierceness become my own. For a few moments, I'm in love with the city.

On days when the unexpected rises up and grabs me, there is no other place I'd rather be. Manhattan is gorgeous with its sheer ability to be home to so many contrasts. Overflowing garbage cans on street corners emit toxic fumes; texting zombies ask for nothing of me, but get under my skin; and then, the joy of street art, outdoors--insistent upon being seen.

In a few weeks, my students will take a final exam based on readings about Manhattan. There are eight million New Yorkers in the five boroughs and eight million New York Cities, says writer Colson Whitehead. Each one of us has our own experience, our own loves, our own hates, and the things we barely notice--until they're gone. What was the store that came before the Starbucks? The Barnes & Noble? The pharmacies and banks that arrived enmasse, in spite of the recession? What was there before the store that became the store that became another? Had we known at the time its days were numbered, we would have treated it with more respect says Whitehead. At this moment, my favorite Lower East Side yarn store passes before my eyes, the only place it will ever live, since it too became a revolving door of others.

In a half hour I'll leave for work. I'm being observed today; I hope it's not a bad omen that I'm not nervous. Too much confidence isn't always good. Nerves make me better, more genuine. At least they did in my writing life. I miss that raw, desperate feeling of the necessity of every single word. Like the outdoor painters at FIT. Each brushstroke, standing on a ladder in the dark at 10:00 p.m., getting it all out, making magic. 

Saturday, September 16, 2017

On starting anew

Yesterday 7:30 a.m. I sat on the #4 on my way to the Bronx to teach an early class. I looked up from a handful of student papers and noticed an array of college ads. Filled with promise and purpose, they touted: Your future awaits. Discover your potential. I felt seduced.

The thrill and joy of beginning came to me in a wave of nostalgia. I remembered being thirty years old, returning to college and believing the world awaited. I was ten years later than my peers, in a hurry to catch up. I didn't milk all I could have out of my courses. It went so slow, until poof--it was over. I had my degree. One thing checked on my list of to-dos. There were so many -- start a career I loved and live a great life were at the very top. Honorable endeavors, difficult to pull off for the complicated and serious young woman I was.

Now. Many years later, I don't have lists. There's only what I need to do (keep teaching) and what I want (great life, still, but not so plotted.) I'm in my tenth year of teaching some form of Freshman English. In starting this semester at a new college, surprises make my work life come alive. For starters, there's the beauty. On this sprawling Bronx campus I'm greeted with acres of greenery and hills, open sky and old stone buildings. Each Friday when I walk through the gates, I breathe deep and gear up for the trek across campus.

I walk past Theater and Music, then the gymnasium, then This Hall and That Hall, the football stadium, and finally I arrive. I linger at the door to my classroom, take in the streaks of sunlight as they filter through the shades, spill onto the old-style wooden desks. I'm so happy here, I feel silly. My students are  nursing majors. We read essays and articles that I've never before taught, never before read. I stay one reading ahead of them.

Starting new is a gratifying way to bring an uneventful summer to a close. In July, without a summer class, I signed on with an agency to do background work in movies. The agency's calls were spotty and always on days when I was at my part-time gig. So much for the essay I would write about my days in film. And then two weeks ago -- if fall semester hadn't started up, I would have been a guest at a Bat-Mitzvah in Orange is the New Black. 

From what I hear, being an extra is grueling. Twelve-hour days. Six a.m. clock in. Not much pay. But, still. I want to explore, go to hair and make-up, begin another new thing. Especially when I'd never in my life, written this on a to-do list.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

On everything

To add to the "big break" post below, the student writer did indeed sign a contract. May the publisher-bidding wars begin! This girl is on her way to a very new life--or at least through a very exciting door.

I'm inspired and a teensy bit envious. I'm in search of my own new door, one that sparkles in the way the start of my fervently wanted careers once did. I don't yet know what my new door will look like, how hard or easy it will be to turn the knob. Maybe I can polish up the careers I already have. Get my own students book deals or jobs or simply help open doors they hadn't considered--maybe (hopefully) I already have. 

Present time concern: I woke up this morning thinking about pocketbooks. Not dreaming of them, but rather seriously considering if I had one to match the outfit I would wear on Thursday (see photo below) This is a strange concern for me, because when in doubt, I grab the backpack and that's that. But it's also not unusual that at this particular time I'm thinking of outfits and matching this and that's, because I'm traveling to a time when these things super-obsessed me.

On Thursday eve, I'm attending a high school reunion. I'm not the reunion type, simply because I always fear I don't have much to show for myself (my self esteem plummets to those hazy not-so lazy days) and I'm not the rah rah rah type--but, then, that's not exactly true. Once upon a time I was. And when people look beyond my librarian glasses and love for hard-cover dictionaries, after they say "you were a cheerleader?!" they see my go-team smile which hasn't washed off in, well, 40+ years. And it will be right at home at this very specific get-together, a cheerleader reunion.

When I first saw the invitation, I was overcome with dread (high school self-esteem). I "rented" a grandchild (friend Debby's adorable little one), pulled myself together (along with the cute outfit that has no matching pocketbook), and got into it. I created a late sixties playlist--Dionne Warwick, the Beatles, the Supremes, Fifth Dimension, Herman's Hermits, the Temps, and the list of all my favorites goes on.

What felt two months ago like an event I couldn't possibly attend has taken on the warmth of nostalgia and reminiscence. Who will I see? I imagine, once insecure girls, too, who've grown into themselves. Who will I be? Proud of who I've become (leaning in that direction) or aware of my flaws? (Uh uh.) 

High school is the door I'll stand before this week. I'll turn the knob and step inside. I'll likely wear the yellow skirt and top that has no matching pocketbook. And no one will care.
(I'm second from the top right, the one with the fold through her face.)

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

On someone else's big break

I have the chills. I'm not sick, just super-excited for a CUNY student whose life is about to change in ways she can't imagine. And I'm remembering too when the possibility of fame came knocking at my door, via the exact same vehicle.

My friend and colleague taught a children's lit class at Bronx Community College this summer. Her students, many of whom are immigrants, wrote books informed by their childhoods in their home countries. Katherine kept telling me about one book about a parrot who flies to New York from the Dominican Republic, seeking America's fortunes. As the book moves along, one thing leads to another, and mangoes enter the scene. When I closed my eyes, colors popped behind my lids--orange, red, blue--I began to dream about going to DR, the heck with the U.S. (for more than mangoes, but that's another story).  

Well, Katherine must have seen brightness, too. She contacted a writer at The New York Times and told him about her class, the stories, especially the one about parrots and mangoes. He saw color, too, I'm certain. Because an article about the young woman was in yesterday's "Side Street" column.

"She's going to get a book deal," I said with confidence. And today--one day later--Katherine called me. "You're a genius!" she said. "A top NYC agent wants to represent her!" Not a genius, just been there, and I know the power of the Times. But still, I get a wonderful onset of the chills. Lovely little pin pricks tickling my arms, my scalp. How great for the student. And, too, for community college students, so many of whom don't see glitter ahead.

Deep sigh. Pen to page. Fingers to keyboard. Show up. Every day or as often as possible. Not just at the writing but for myself. Whatever the creative impulse. Many years ago, when my call came, I wasn't ready for the agents. It wasn't because I hadn't shown up for the writing--I had--two three times a day, and when I was on fire and had the time, all day. But my inner work--the fixative that writing served me--hadn't yet solidified. 

Agents. Book deals. They're not part of my dreams anymore. Writing time has been replaced by the gym, the precious 40 minutes on the elliptical when I put on the headphones, tune out and sweat. For the past month I've noticed that I get that runner's high, or at least, am emotional and physical putty all day. Why stir my well with words, when they always find their way to something inside, not-yet-fixed?

An RSVP to a family wedding sits on a shelf near my door. I haven't seen these cousins in years; they likely think I won't go. I'm in conflict. It's the first time since the election I would be at political odds with a sea of people. It's a traditional ultra-orthodox affair--something to experience, engage in, respect. I want to rise above that which blocks me. Or at least, put it aside. It's the "right" thing to do. But I'm not quite sure.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

On practice


I learn a lot about practice through my painting classes--most importantly, without practice, there is no good art--in fact no bad art, for me. And "bad art" is ultra necessary in order to get to the good, to align with my process. There are students in my beginners class that are impressive in their advancement. They're slow, methodical. My painting is brisk, rushing to get the picture down, the exact opposite of how I watercolor.  My teacher, always with the right words at the ready, says, quick is good. You're going to go over this when it dries, define, shade; you had to do this to get to that.

I haven't been practicing at home this summer, save once. All I have to show is the canvas to the right. I attempted to copy in acrylics, a picture of a floral arrangement done in watercolors (Deb Watson painter). I look at my reproduction and say, not too bad. Now comes the real work. Define the flowers, go over the first layer to shade and create dimension. Mimic my teacher, who with a flick of his wrist, a petal appears, a real flower is born! I memorize how he holds the brush, whisks it over the bubble of a flower(?) I've done. I try, but amnesia sets in within seconds How does he do that? Question to self: can I bring a similar attitude of acceptance and grace to my students when classes start? Demo demo demo--and lots of practice.

My teacher is always in beginner's mind. I carry my beginner's mind to yoga practice. In fact, yoga is all about practice for me, but it wasn't always so. My first two years in yoga class I watched my neighboring yogis, became frustrated when I couldn't align my posture, balance, twist my arms and legs as they did. It wasn't until I read Donna Farhi's Bringing Yoga to Everyday Life that I learned, the poses were only 5% of the point. Perfect was only perfect when I could do the pose without pain. Perfect was perfect when I practiced against a wall or with props, or sat it out. The perfect practice--using my inner wisdom about what's right for me, taking that mindset off the mat and into the painting studio and the rest of life. And practicing that every day.

This nonteaching summer has led me to spend many afternoons at my new favorite city hangout--Bryant Park. Specifically the backgammon tables. One of the teachers spent some time explaining  strategy to me and philosophizing about life. On one particular day, my dice were loving me--doubles, almost every throw--lucky, I said, modestly shrugging. The teacher said something like, there is no such thing as luck, unless you show up to receive it. I'm not kidding. My world is filled with Buddhas. They keep me practicing.

Friday, June 16, 2017

On becoming a good teacher

In my last post I wrote about having had a good spring semester. What contributed to that was having had a course theme that I felt passionate about--activism and societal change. That passion energized and inspired me. I discovered the other day in my painting class, another route to being a better teacher--become a student. It doesn't matter what subject and whether the teacher is great or awful.

When I studied memoir writing in grad school--I learned what kind of teacher not to be--my first writing teacher talked about her life stories--the basis of her numerous memoirs--at least 50% of the time. I didn't have the guts to talk to the program director. Instead I looked across the table at my one friend, we rolled our eyes, and swallowed our disappointment. But I learned a lot-- good and even great writers aren't by default good or great teachers. And, too, I made a mental note to never do that to my own students. It's their class. Their money. Their time.

A few years ago I began studying watercolor painting. I learned from my teacher that patience and practice were the road to talent. She said it over and over (in not those exact words.) I have little patience, no room in my apartment to Practice...or this is the lie I tell myself. And I firmly believe there is no painting talent in me waiting to emerge.  But I brought that philosophy into my English classroom, and I became (at least that day) a better teacher. At least one who understands when a subject doesn't come naturally.

Now, I'm taking an acrylic painting class. My teacher is--I apologize in advance for the word I'm about to use--Awesome! Yes, he is from the school of lemons to lemonade, a thick mess of green on green paint strokes into shadows and light. For two hours a week, I'm immersed in a world where mistakes and messes and screw-ups don't exist. That eye-sore of paint? Necessary in order to layer and develop.

I wanted to take a pad and write all the mantras down. I want to bring them to class in September and tell students-who-fear-English class (which is 90%), "I know and feel your pain." Instead I will bring them a montage of photos--the one I took at 79th and Amsterdam, the painting in process (above right) and still in process (below left).