Empowerment through Language...

Friday, December 30, 2011

Goodbye 2011 - It's Been Good to Know Ya!

Every year, I find the transition from one year to the next unsettling. Perspectives change just in the passage of a day into another year. It is odd. This year, Samoa is losing a whole day as they switch to a time zone that is more in keeping with their primary trade partners. That is how elusive and malleable time is, because it is an arbitrary construct that suits the mood of humanity more than the cycles of the moon or the turn of the seasons. Time makes things convenient and provides agreement among our species, as well as conflict and guilt. This is proven every time we are late for any appointment.

The end of the year is the review time for many of us. I enter every year saying, "Next year is my turnaround time...the challenges will ease...I will make my breakthrough to stability..." Then, each year gives me many blessings and a wrath of challenges to adjust to as I journey through the calendar.

As I entered 2011, I was extremely optimistic. I knew it was the year that Our Difficult Sunlight was going to be released, after 3 years in the making. I appreciate Teachers & Writers Collaborative for publishing the book, taking the risk on our proposal. 

This book was going to open many doors and further my career, as well as provide new opportunities for my coauthor, Quraysh Ali Lansana. Somehow and with many bumps and trials, the book was made manifest, starting as a thought and a list of ideas nearly 6 years ago. It is a remarkable accomplishment. What I did not anticipate was that promoting it was going to be so dependent on the efforts of Q and myself. But we know how to do that. We have been promoting our own books of poetry for years. So we rolled up our sleeves and got busy. Most of our promotional efforts is through personal contacts and the internet; we are building our market and the books are getting into the hands of those who benefit from our pedagogy, even if at a slower pace than we anticipated. 

I have lost one of my major contracts in the 2011-12 school year due to the impact of the economy on school districts. It is a travesty what our leaders is permitting and actually orchestrating in the realm of American education. I could go on for a long time about this issue. I Tweet about it regularly. And now it affects me directly.

With the rug pulled out from under me again, I have been scraping together what I can to get through these past 6 months until I could redefine my work profile and recreate the sources of income to replace that work now gone. I have been in a dark place in all of this but I have also responded by stretching beyond the boundaries I have previously recognized or created. What has come of that is a confidence in my work and capacity that I did not possess before this. I see myself as a mature artist with a body of work as a foundation that gives me pride and a hope for all the new work that is lined up in my brain and in various files on my computer like planes on the tarmac at O'Hare.

I am 2 months behind on almost all of my bills. I am shuffling funds to meet the most crucial need any given day and sometimes arguing with bill collectors as to why I cannot agree to their suggestions for the payments they want at that moment. I have found that if the employees on the other end of the line are American, they almost always understand my frustrations. They live here and they are talking to hundreds of people like me every week. I will get through. I know this. When I am most frightened, I remind myself that I will get through because I am resourceful, resilient, and relentless. And because I always have...why would it change now?

I have a wonderful part-time job working at the Downtown Writer's Center as workshop coordinator. I follow in the footsteps of Jennifer Pashley in this role and hold a hearty commitment to this organization, now in its 11th year. I have taught there since the beginning and now we are planning for new programs that will continue to build that community of writers in the Central NY region. I also continue to teach there, which is a delightful experience in supporting other writers achieve their own capacity. After all, we teach what we want to learn!

Quraysh and I developed a number of trainings throughout 2011 that were exhilarating as they unfolded, including a day with educators at the Jane Addams Hull House Museum last winter. We attended several conferences to offer panels and workshops, all of them a tremendous success. We met many teachers and teaching artists who are striving to connect with our nation's youth throughout the country and in spite of the many limitations. We celebrate them all for their efforts.

We both visited colleges and universities to share the book and our own creative work as poets. I look forward to many more opportunities in the realm of higher education. But I am very grateful for those thus far, especially our trip to the University of New Haven, and my visit to Waynesburg University this fall.

We have applied for a nomination for an NAACP Image Award. We have so many to thank for this past year for welcoming us and helping promote our book. We are hoping for much recognition and continued support of our book to develop and grow its market, now that the snowball has started its roll down from the mountaintop. We will endeavor to find ways of sharing our pedagogy, as presented in ODS and, hopefully, we will realize great success for the efforts.

I am personally hoping for several other opportunities for which I have made application. I am often reminded by my dear friend, Dale Davis, of the advice of the great Al Poulin, founder of BOA Editions, Ltd.; she tells me that Al would often say that you have to launch many balloons into the air. At some point, the more options one pursues, the more likely success will unfold. Then we must also remember: it is a waiting game as well. To wait with optimism and accepting that I am of the caliber of candidate for any grant, fellowship, consulting gig, or other career opportunity but without attachment to the outcome in the waiting. This is the most difficult aspect of facing the future. 

School projects start in a couple of weeks. I will return to one of my favorite schools, the Watkins Glen Middle School. I will also be introduced to two new schools in Horseheads, NY, in a collaborative arts-in-ed project with the Arnot Art Museum in Elmira, NY. This is a gem of a cultural experience in a small city, a surprise and a treasure trove of art.

I am also creating programming with the Schweinfurth Memorial Art Center in Auburn, NY, another fabulous museum and arts community in another small city. Art is everywhere and often undervalued, but, like school reform, another lengthy and emotional discussion.

I also continue with my efforts as managing editor of the Comstock Review. I have been very tardy in the publishing schedule as I learn how to integrate this important job into my life but we have come through our 25th anniversary and I am planning for the future while I catch up on the backlog. I only hope that all the poets will continue to be patient and forgive for the delays. I also anticipate that the quality of the issues will be satisfaction enough. I am proud of our journal and it is an honor to facilitate the publication of so many talented writers. Here's to many more years but that, again, is a lengthy discussion regarding building that future and all that it involves. 

I have other projects that are brewing, other potential sources of income and career development. I will repeat my New Year's rituals of meditation in the 30 minutes leading up to the turn at midnight from one reality to the next. I will ring the bell 108 times, as I have been doing since I first visited the West Coast and sat in the zendo at the Hartford Street Zen Center in the late 1980s. Then I will take all of the little prayer requests I have written and placed in a special receptacle throughout the year and burn them in my chiminea with some lavender and rosemary. I will release my fears and disappointments and petition the universe to move me forward and answer my prayers. I will wake later that morning feeling refreshed and I will continue to put one foot in front of the next as I progress through the year. Here's fingers are crossed...

I am filled with gratitude for the countless blessings of this year, too many to cite here but clearly cataloged in my gratitude journal and etched on my heart. This miracle of life, even at its darkest, astounds me.

Thanks for reading my blog throughout this year and I hope you will continue to return. Please share my link with friends. Consider purchasing Our Difficult Sunlight, either for yourself or for a friend who teaches. I am entrenched in the progressive education reform tweeting world. Find me on Twitter if you do that sort of thing: @gappoet. It is always a spirited exchange!

Have a happy and safe New Year. Be well in all ways. Have a happy and safe New Year. I will see you in 2012. Proceed and be bold. I will see you in 2012.

Friday, December 23, 2011

My First Airplane Ride - Memories of Christmas

Here's where my life on the road began: at five, my mother took me to Hancock Airport in Syracuse, NY, and put me on a plane to MacArthur Field on Long Island. The plane was impressive, like a giant tin toy. My little legs climbed the stairs in the cold night air, then I entered the tube of the plane, where a stewardess in a trim uniform and bright lipstick smiled wide as a lazy moon. She took me to a seat. The plane's engines started up and the propellers whirred and rattled. I was the only child aboard.

During the flight, the stewardess took me to the cockpit. It was magical, the view through the windshield, the reflection of all the lights and dials glowing the data twice, the handsome pilots in starched white and sturdy caps. I think they gave me wings. 

When we arrived back on earth, I walked down the stairs to the tarmac and towards the small terminal with the stewardess, where I was met by my birth father. I was there to fulfill his visitation rights. I don't remember how long I stayed before I did the trip in reverse, minus the tour of the cockpit, and returned to my home, my mother, my stepdad, and my baby sister, my life.

This was the only time I made the journey by plane until I was 16, again flying to put in time with my father of origin. 

By the time I was seven, it had been agreed that I was to spend every other holiday with my father; biannual Christmas visits and in the off years for that holiday, I was shipped to him for Thanksgiving and Easter. I also had several weekends during the school year that I made the journey, and two weeks each summer.

To save money, always the case with my father, I started traveling on the New York Central to Grand Central Station. The tracks were so close to the Hudson that, in the winter, I feared the train would slip the rails and we would pummel into the cold water. I didn't know how to swim. I worried I would die. I moved away from the window. I was alone, the rhythm of the train rocking me out of my worry.

By this time, my father had remarried. I had to assimilate into a new family, his in-laws. I had grown a new family with my mom and stepdad, who will be known as Daddy from now on. My birth father will always be only that. I was four when Mommy married Daddy. My first sister came not long after that. With that marriage, I gained new aunts, uncles, cousins, my wacky Grandpa Chris, and my beloved Grandma Anna. And now, my new stepmother's clan was to be mine, or so was the expectation. I hardly knew her but I was supposed to adjust immediately to her family tree.

The first Christmas with that stepmother seemed sparkly. My stocking was huge, I got a giant doll that later came to spook me at night during my summer visit. She was just too close to my size and her eyes were always open.

That marriage failed a couple of years later. But not before the winter that stepmother #1 taught me to knit, or so she thought. I was thrilled. I stepped back onto the train to return home with a ball of white yarn and a pair of blue aluminum knitting needles, probably size 8, same as my age. A row of stitches was cast onto one of them. I slid the stitches back and forth, confident in my skill and fully engaged for a long time. I remember showing the conductor I was knitting, very proud of myself. We rode up the Hudson and along the Mohawk; I slid the little white loops back and forth with precision, but never looping the yard to add a row. I forgot that part of the process. It didn't even dawn on me until what seems like hours later, when I realized that my project was not any longer than when the train pulled out of Manhattan. My mother, a skilled knitter herself, showed me again and I have been knitting ever since. I still love counting the stitches over and over, as the one long strand loops into a sweater or a tea cozy, the yard wrapping through my fingers, the consistent click and swoosh of needles against each other.

Eventually, my father married a third wife, a woman I just love. She was from a huge family, her parents Italian immigrants. It was overwhelming and joyous. A remarkable number of names to learn. I also had to reacquaint myself with all the aunts, uncles, and cousins on my father's side each holiday. I never really felt like I belonged in any of these families. I was always painfully disconnected in those gatherings and so very far from what my siblings and parents were doing.

By this time, I was riding Greyhound, the cheapest option yet. That suited my father even more. At least an 8-hour trip into the Port Authority, if weather permitted. It was torture, especially the one year it snowed so hard the trip took 11 hours and the drunk sitting next to me passed out and slept all the way to Albany with his head on my shoulder. I pressed my face against the freezing, wet window just to try to pull away from his stale breath. I was 10.

It was even worse after my mother died. Being away from my brother and sisters was horrid. I don't know if they even remember that I was not there half of our holidays each year. I don't know why any of this was ever permitted, actually, but that can never be answered. Suffice it to say, it was another time, things were different.

When in I was in high school, life changed dramatically again, when Daddy fell in love. Finally healed from my mother's death, he met the woman who would become his second wife (my third stepmother). She came into our lives with another family, another tradition to uphold, a whole new circumstance to learn.

I have been immersed in blended families for decades before the term was ever coined. I have been looking for the context of family my whole life. I believe myself to be among family but the constructs of the relationship always change for me, even as an adult. As the unmarried one in the family, I used to spin circles to visit all the different houses of my family members, and then sometimes those of the families of the men I might be dating.  When I bought my house, I stopped traveling on Christmas. No public transportation. No being in a corner of the room with people I know but am not always sure that I fit in. I spend Christmas in my own home and others are welcomed to visit me. Here, I am at peace, with my gleaming Christmas tree, and my knitting needles in hand. Maybe next year, I will buy an airplane ornament to nestle into the branches.