Empowerment through Language...

Friday, September 30, 2011

Language as a Weapon...the Political Spin & the Skewing of "Entitlements"

Remember the harried call for "the moral majority?" How about the clarion for "family values?" Or how Spiro Agnew called the left "effete, intellectual snobs?" The tone of the rhetoric of the right for nearly 2 decades was to accuse the left of violating the values of the American Family.

I have been asking a question for a few months now: why is it not "family values" to expect and support a citizenry that is

  • Nourished;
  • Housed;
  • Healthy;
  • Educated;
  • Employed and able to earn a viable living; and/or
  • Protected in their elder years?

Why is asking that our citizens can expect that which was promised for the entire Baby Boom now the tool of politicians who are spending millions, and eventually billions, of dollars to be elected? Why is the language so skewed and that bias is to demonize Americans for desiring, expecting, and striving for the American Dream? I just do not understand.

Language is a tool...a weapon...a volatile premise. I often ask high school students to tell me names of famous people who have changed the world through the effective use of language. Their list is comprehensive. I believe that I blogged some responses in previous posts. They also understand that there are negative changes that have been wrought through effective language and skilled speech writers and orators.

We have a field of politicians waging verbal war and not addressing the very pressing issues of the day. One that really bugs me is the notion of "entitlements." The implication from the Right is that Americans are asking for something they do not deserve rather than being given title to the funds that they have deposited into the system since they first started working. And the press seizes that word and supports its usage from all sides of the fences. Just as the media supported the sanitized term "ethnic cleansing." Every election and every administration delivers at least one term, one word or phrase that then becomes the lexicon through media enforcement. Remember "weapons of mass destruction" that started with Clinton and ran rampant in the Bush years. How about "embolden?" When was the last time you used that word before it coming from the White House press room during the Iraq war that has helped bankrupt our nation? How about "Not on my watch?" These are now commonalities because the White House, at some point in time, spoke them and the media seized the moment and tattooed them into the public consciousness. How about "maverick?" And the bold claim of the "Silent Majority?"

Language is precious and beautiful. Language is brutal and damning. It is both a weapon and a tool, and it is a way to "embolden" as well as enslave.

Our nation is in a weakened state. We must be ever conscious of the tone and scope of our words. And we must regain our own legitimate self-respect and power as a society. I am not sure how. It seems insurmountable. But I know that the current rhetoric is not going to do it. I know that the bullying of the right and the left of each other will not accomplish it. Breaking the unions, vilifying teachers, attacking those who work in public services, and defunding the many valuable programs that have made the quality of life in our nation what it has been until very recently (and is currently highly threatened by "reform") will not achieve it.

I also know that being silent will be the worst option.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reclaiming Self after Slipping through the Cracks

Last Friday, just one week ago, over a great looooong lunch at Sparkytown in my hometown with a new colleague/friend, Yvonne Murphy, I made a life-changing decision. I am going to finish my B.A.

I declare this publicly so I cannot back out.

I have been declaring it all week to friends and colleagues. I want this decision to be a part of my body consciousness and I want to move beyond the roadblock I have negotiated my entire adult life.
I recognize and own that I have also accepted and even created the roadblock. Other times I have contemplated returning to college and getting the degree and it has usually been lack of funds that I have allowed to stop me. It was partially that factor that caused me to leave school in the first place. But now, 3 weeks before I turn 58 (just 2 years shy of 60!), with the loss of my major contract and no solid work ahead (or so it seems this morning), unable to even place my hat in the ring for many jobs I know in which I could be fully effective due to this perceived deficit, I can no longer avoid this completion.

I have written before of why I am so committed to my students and to the work in schools, especially the disenfranchised, the overlooked, the undervalued and insecure; I am them. Care to see who some of those young people may be as I am. And honestly, it is so easy for educators, psychologists, sociologists, politicians, etc., to focus on the youth of color as the ones who are slipping through and away. So much of the discussion is focused on urban education and urban life as the cauldron of neglect. In fact, it is often. I overstand the plight of poverty and how it is statistically weighted in the Black citizenry of our nation, and fully recognize the struggles of Latino/Hispanic Americans as well. I must also point out that we rarely even see indigenous people represented on any PowerPoint pie chart of the poor and disenfranchised.  But that also becomes a marginalization and stereotype that people can use to keep their assumptions about people of color intact, to perpetuate the stereotypes, as well as continue to allow many others to be faceless and failing.

It is so easy to identify "these kids" as single-parent children, or children whose parents are negligent, abusive, drug users or drunks as well as other than White. Yet, some of those same traits also occur in cul-de-sacs of McMansions. Another consideration: there are caring parents who are poor as well. Sure, the incidents of broken homes and suffering families may be skewed toward people living in poverty but I see these same conditions in rural school districts of predominantly White students, as well as parents who are anything but present regarding their children in suburbia. I actually believe that most children are at risk in America. Look at the divorce rate. Look at the spread of addiction and substance abuse across all socio-economic strata. Look at the decimation of our system of education and the conversation in America today on the floors of Congress, at town hall meetings, and on the news squawks.

Teachers are often the first line of defense for a child in need. But then, can we place all that responsibility on them? And are they always able to manage recognizing the signs? Teachers did not see that I was a solitary child, that I felt completely outside of my peers, that I had tremendous responsibility for my siblings, and after my mother died, all that was magnified significantly. Guidance counselors and adults did not see that I was in a desperate depression. College professors did not see I was at risk for dropping out and barely hanging on. I fit an image of smart young White kid and I acted well for adults.

After I left school, with no emotional support from key adults, such as both my fathers, I slammed through life like a pinball. I have a multitude of jobs in my history and a long list of attempts at alternate careers, often stymied by my lack of a diploma. Ironically, most people now who know my work or collaborate with me assume I have graduate level degrees. I am a graduate of the school of learn it as you go and learn it well to compete. But I lose out too often. I have made a series of poor choices. Other times I have just been stopped for other reasons and family matters that took precedent in my forward movement.

In the meantime, I have also accomplished a long list of amazing feats. I need to be more focused on that tally than what I have not achieved or where I believe I have failed. I find I am not always my best judge.

Now is the time for me to accept that I am my own obstacle in the lack of degree. A diploma is not an assessment of my worth. It is just a way to qualify my knowledge, talent, and skill for the system in which we operate. It is a necessary prop in a society and a generation that has lost a value for self-education and skilled trades. It causes me great concern when I hear all this national conversation about the press for college. But that is a topic for another post, I imagine.

I was frightened off from meeting this accomplishment over and over for the past four decades. Now is the time to stop believing that I am not worthy, that it is too hard, that there is no money for me to do it. I have $150 to deposit in my checking account today...all the money I have. I stripped out my very modest IRA to pay bills this summer. I somehow made the mortgage payment and last month's car payment last week. I can pay another bill that will stop one of the incessant phone calls from a creditor or another with this check. 

I am teaching a couple of courses and I have a small part-time job. I am hoping for another opportunity for employment. Next week I present with my collaborator and creative partner at the Preemptive Education Conference in NYC, then on to workshop with students who will be working in New Haven Schools and offer a reading of our poetry at the University of New Haven. We will sell some books as well.

Then I will come home, make arrangements for my transcripts from three different colleges, if they can find them in the vaults, and sit down to chart my course to my college diploma. That meeting should probably happen just around the time of my birthday. I can't imagine a better gift to myself. 

And, I will continue my work...and continue recognizing myself in the faces of the young Black man in the back row, the freckle-faced girl huddled near the window, the Mexican 4th grader who loves to write and cannot stop, the boy who sings all the time and thinks no one will ever like him, the child in every desk, the teen behind every hip posture, the faces of those who just need to know that there are adults who believe that they are marvelous just because they are alive.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Today I Wear My Poet Hat

There is a lot of pressure when self-employed. The scramble for work, the constant follow-up, the volunteerism, the press to market and generate income, the bills and deadlines are enough to make for constant anxiety. Sometimes even panic.

My poetry is taking second chair to all the other needs at this time. I am getting a little itchy but other priorities are leaving four cycles of poems dormant in my binder. But I am one to take my time with a poem anyway. I described it today as "worrying a poem to the bone." I am not satisfied with the first draft; in fact, I am rarely satisfied with the tenth draft. I am one of those poets for whom the act of honing, revising, dallying with the image and language is a joy as well as a vital obligation.

As an editor for many years, I read hundreds of submissions annually. Now I am making the final decisions for a poetry journal. This is rather daunting. I know what it feels like to get the "not this time" letter in the mail so I have empathy for the human on the other side of the SASE.

As an artist educator and workshop facilitator, I witness how difficult it is for someone to translate one's own experience and emotion to the page, and then to take the step to place that work in front of a reader, much less to throw it into the arena of publishing and, thus, critical judgment.

There is so much space between the moment a person commits their humanness to the page and the competition for pages in a journal. Editors have to consider that there is a tender spot in each writer's heart that yielded the poem we are screening, critiquing, accepting, or sending back.

On the other hand, the poet has to remember how many people are out there, sitting at their computer or over their notepads, pen in hand, creating something significant to themselves. They have to reflect on how many poets are taking their five poems of the moment and placing them in the mail for consideration. The competition is keen. We can never underestimate the sheer numbers.

So often, I feel that poems we consider for publication are a few steps short of their own capacity. This is disconcerting. The push to publish sometimes blinds a poet. The delight in creating a poem may often veil our eyes from the opportunities to shift the poem from competent, or even good, to marvelous. So will the desire to see our names and verse in print.

I continue to ask, "What is the rush?!" Certainly the contest and reading period deadlines are motivators but why not sit with the poem a little longer and notice that a word has been repeated three or four times, with no true purpose to the repetition. Or notice that the whole first stanza is not only editorializing and telling the reader what the poem to follow is about, but that it is burying a spectacular line that would open the work up with true panache, and thereby engaging the reader immediately in the experience rather than narrating it? Or perhaps the poet can take the time to proofread the submission and avoid the sloppy typos that shed a callous light on their professionalism? There will always be another reading period or contest. In fact, the plethora of such is diminishing the whole and making the whole business entirely too confusing.

Now I will say that I am honored to be in a national community of poets and to serve them with my efforts, as are my colleagues who work together diligently to publish our journal. I admire the commitment of our entire staff, all of whom (including me) are volunteers. 

I also want to say that often I contact a poet whose poem is so close to stellar to suggest edits that will take it to its fullest potential, based on comments as the poem circulates through our ranks. The poets are always gracious and the usual comment is, "Wow, thanks. I did not even notice that."

But that not noticing is another problem. We are charged with the responsibility to notice by our nature and post as Poet. If we do not give the poem ample attention to observe the blemishes and missed opportunities, we are failing the poem, the potential audience, and ourselves. Every syllable should count. Every syllable should earn its way into the piece. And every syllable should sing.

We also have to remember that we are limited thematically by the essence of human nature and the human condition. Although we may be feeling the excruciating pain of a parent with a critical disease, the heartbreak of loss or abuse, the joy of a newborn child, the bliss of a bird in flight, so are thousands of other people who may be poets as well. We are motivated by our own pains and pleasures to create art. But we then are well advised to step away from the creation emotionally and take a good hard look from the points of craft and uniqueness. How have we described that circumstance or individual in ways that make our own voice and vision unlike any other?

This is the finer element of making a poem and making it our own. It is also the key to more publication. Lastly, it is the path to fullness and satisfaction as a writer and creative being.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Many Talents to Admire...Always Something to Learn

A few posts before this, I spoke of my two young nephews. They constantly amaze me, just as their older cousins always have. Their older cousins are now adults with blossoming professional careers, one a few hours away, another on the other side of the country. I have so many reasons to be proud of these humans of the next generation of my family. I want every opportunity to spend time with any of them.

This past weekend, my 9-year old nephew spent the weekend with me while his parents traveled for a wedding. We had a great time in this last morsel of summer. He has a love of artistic things, not the least of which, drawing. We spent all day Saturday on my back deck, making bookmarks for family and friends, and he drew incessantly. We made cookies. He schooled me regarding the best selections of Nick On Demand. We never did get the WII working with my old-school television.

Meanwhile, my 12-year old nephew was a few miles away, helping his mom in a remarkable way; he was replacing a broken garbage disposal! He has a natural talent for mechanical things. I would never know where to start with something like that but there he was, under the sink, wrench in hand, helping my sister-in-law puzzle through a plumbing dilemma. She was so proud of his ability to parse out the task as they partnered to take control of this critical home repair. I have the text photo to document his skill!

My younger nephew is chatty like me. His cousin is quiet and introspective. I find I am quieter when I am with him than I would be on my own. With his cousin, I join in the blow-by-blow narration of the day. These boys each have strengths and assets that I admire. They also both "get" me, in their own ways. I "get" them as well. They show me what their generation is experiencing and they remind me that an authentic life is all any of us should aspire to live.

They both also remind me that humor is a balm.

This weekend, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, they reminded me to stay present. They reflect purpose and joy. They help me be more of the woman I am, and without even knowing it, they fuel the poet in me, as well as the educator.

My youngest nephew and I headed to the zoo on Sunday, leaving the TV coverage of the sadness behind; he is unburdened by any of those painful memories. He was in charge of the camera. We stopped to admire a cherry red 60's vintage Chevy Impala. We stood on the edge of the parking lot high above the skyline of Syracuse, observing it like a panoramic photo. We made jokes and engaged in some clever word play. This guy has a great vocabulary, I have discovered.

As we walked toward the entrance, my boy queried, "Aunt Georgia, is your whole life a poem?"

I stopped for one step, started walking again, and quietly replied, with a smile in my tone, "Why yes, now that you ask; I guess my whole life is a poem. Thanks for noticing."

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Writing Is Writing Is Writing

I shall be frank. It has been a tough summer. Nearly all the work I projected did not manifest. Budget travesties in the current climate of education and in the face of a horrid economy have meant that, once again, the rug has been pulled out from under me. I am running on fumes and prayers to get through while work is very slowly presenting itself over the next few months. The career of an independent teacher educator is not for the faint of heart.

In the face of all of this, I facilitated other poets/writers throughout the summer, both in the two workshops I taught and in the work I do as managing editor of the Comstock Review. I also wrote a great deal, although not much poetry. But I have been journaling quite regularly and extensively, keeping my gratitude journal nearly daily, and working on my accomplishment journal. I have committed seriously to this blog as well. I have posted twice as much this year thus far as either of the two previous since I started this journey in cyberspace. My readership has grown and I hope I have be of service in sharing my experiences and reflections. 

I am quite accustomed to the quiet times when my poems hibernate. I have been enjoying the freedom of prose with the counterbalance that blogland boundaries create. I am examining the world through a different lens when I write for this page; however, I am actively writing, consistently reaching out, communicating with the world, expressing my joys, frustrations, and sometimes even righteous indignation.

In 5 weeks, I will turn 58. It is crazy and a bit terrifying. I am feeling a remarkable urgency to get the words in my head and heart onto the page and before people to whom they carry meaning and message. I hope that the muses take me back to verse soon but until then, I have my keyboard and my three journals to help me fulfill my destiny and purpose as writer. I sincerely hope I have plenty of time to exhaust the language I carry with me, to make some sort of difference.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Still Another Teachable Moment

I have two young nephews, the youngest of my siblings' children. In the hustle of my life as a teaching artist, and many months spent on the road with this career, I often miss important events in their lives: school plays, sports activities, even their birthdays. In addition, since so often I am waiting for payment, or am faced with the current challenges of the economy, they suffer not just the lack of time we can spend together but maybe even the things that we would do together that I cannot afford. I regret these obstacles and they do not deserve to reap the consequences. I lost time with my older neices and nephew and now that they are all grown, I want to make sure I am present and active with these two, to get it right, and to be a source of support and affirmation, a person with whom discovery and laughter are constant elements.

A few weeks ago, with the summer vacation waning, the three of us were in the car headed for a hike at a wonderful place south of Syracuse called Tinkers Falls. One of my nephews, the 12-year old, had been there with me once already but his 9-year old cousin had not. This would allow the one boy to show the other what he had discovered and be a bit of a mentor.

The discussion of the looming school year, the list of summer activities left to do, the roller coasters that were yet to be conquered, was primary on our drive. I posed the question: "What if you could go to school for an extra hour each day but you could have a longer summer vacation? Would you do that?"

There was a quiet moment of contemplation, probably during which they each listened to an inner dialog that likely runs, "Oh no, there Aunt Georgia goes again with another crazy idea."

Additionally, I proposed that the extra hour per day could be designated for electives, enrichment, extra study time, or intra-murals, etc. This didn't sound so bad to any of us all of a sudden.

I suggested that we figure it out. I pulled out my driving log and the pen I keep in the pocket of my car door and handed it to my older nephew. "Let's do the math...multiply 180 days of school by 6 hours." I marveled at the weird way he computed the total. I admit I am clueless about the ways math is taught to children now and I would never be much help with homework. But he came up with 1,080, the total of instruction hours they now experience.

So then we agreed that they would lose 20 days of school if there were a month more of summer free time. So the next step was to multiply 160 theoretical school days times 7 hours of instruction. Once we had a sum, it turns out that there would be 1,120 hours of school plus an extra month to do summer stuff. That sounded pretty good to all of us. Who could we talk to? Could we ever get this idea across to people who make decisions? We figured it would be unlikely.

We talked a lot more on our 30-minute drive, mostly about what the 9-year old might find when we got to the falls. 

While I walked the path, and the boys walked the nearly dry creek bed, taunting frogs and finding fossils, their pockets grew burdened with more and more weight. They know I love to collect rocks so a lot of these were gifts for me. But we also had to embrace another teachable moment: once you start finding rocks you like, you find even more. And once you start picking them up, you had to carry them. They grew heavier. The best lesson: some of them you leave behind and rely upon the memory of discovery.

I cherish each one of these memories because some day these two gems of my life will be adults. My goal is that they will be sitting with friends, talking about being kids, laughing as they share stories, and they will say to group, "Let me tell you about my crazy Aunt Georgia..."

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Treasures throughout the House

Awhile back, I posted about the treasures and gifts that students give to me when I am in residence in schools. I am completely delighted when a young person makes me something, even the smallest note or drawing, and I keep every one. I have several file folders in my cabinet but I also have them on my desk, tucked into my journal, framed on my wall.

Often with student art, I am able to decode the image and respond appropriately with a compliment or a question. Every so often, I am stumped. In winter 2010, I was in residence in a small rural town in southern New York, working with 6th graders. One boy, a very outgoing kid and very invested in the poetry projects we were investigating, came into class the last day with an paper mache art project in hand and a bit of a scowl. I offered my compliment on his sculpture and he grumbled that he did not like it. I asked "Why?! It is a great cat." Oh my...wrong! He declared, "See?! It's not a cat; it's supposed to be a wolf."

Darn...I messed up by not letting him tell me first. I never did manage to master paper mache and I have never successfully created a realistic sculpture in any art project I have ever attempted so I fully empathized with his disappointment. But I complimented the work anyway. In turn, he asked me if I wanted to keep it. I said I would be delighted, no matter what manner of animal it was.

I got the piece home and adjusted to life with my virtual pet. My own cat had just died so I was somewhat comforted with this little being. And the pseudo cat became my project for a few weeks. I moved him around the house, as did my friend Brian, and we took pictures of the still cat in live cat poses. First, the kitchen:

Soon the cat moved to the living room to check the weather report on television:

He proved to be a scamp and an acrobat as the holiday decorations were being put away:

My virtual pet finally settled into a semi-permanent perch on my dictionary in the dining room. Humorous as it is that I keep a dictionary on a lectern in my house, why not?! I am poet with a penchant for word games. I find it both appropriate and practical.

As for the cat, his original owner starts 8th grade this week and is likely a foot taller than the last time I saw him. The cat, well, he serves great purpose as he minds my words and hopefully wards off the wolf at the door.