The bones of my 1881 apartment building have been exposed. A structural shoring-up demanded of the landlord by the City. The subway below shakes the building. One September day in 2001, a low flying plane also shook the building. I remember a day many years ago when a section of my living room wall tumbled in.
Periodically our notorious landlord is forced to “improve” the building, or at least make it safe to live in. They replace the old red bricks with grey blocks. Sturdier, I am sure, but the history is lost. This month, chunks of an internal wall are being replaced by cinder blocks. But some of the bricks hold on. “We’re still here,” they silently proclaim, “crumbling but still standing”
In old buildings, the walls hold memory. In old people, memory, too, is held, not just personal, but societal, historical, spiritual. I’ve been in this building since 1971. It holds memory of me, or at least I imagine that those original bricks do. Over the years there have been periodic replacements of structural elements along with the change in the tenant society from old Italians to young artists to young wall street types and now to a frequent roll-over of NYU students. But some of us old ones are still here, two neighbors even longer than I. We are still here. And miraculously, so is this shaky tenement.
I like old buildings in old places. Rome. Jerusalem. And yes, Greenwich Village. There is a felt sense present, both horizontal and vertical. The time line spreads out awareness and adds deep layers to experience. At least for me. At least for me.
This Summer Solstice I awoke early, early enough to go out into the garden and, if not to sing the sun rise, at least to sing the sun’s appearance through the trees and over the house next door. I go out often to sing up the Sun, though not as often as some folks who know in their hearts that we co-create life with all of nature and that if someone doesn’t sing the sun up each morning, it might not return. Serious business, living on a fully alive planet earth in a fully alive and interconnected universe.
So there I was in the garden singing a song to the sun. As I began, “Morning Sun, Morning Sun; Come my way, come my way,” I was joined in song by one of the large crows that visit the garden for a splash-about in the birdbath. Well, they don’t really splash-about. They stand at the edge of the bowl, an imposing presence, dipping their big beaks into the water.
Anyway, that morning, when I was singing in the garden, a crow started to answer me. Or perhaps he was bringing me a message. Some bit of Crow knowledge. Maybe he was simply commenting on my voice the way we comment on theirs. So I sang “Morning Crow! Morning Crow! Come my way, come my way.” He did not come my way, but did put out a loud “caw caw.” So I continued the song. “Morning Crow, Morning Crow! You deliverin’ a message here today?” Another squawking “caw” and he flew away.
I don’t think of myself as a bird person. But I do try to pay attention. And I remember to pay attention especially when I’m out in nature. That is why we all need to spend time out there, to practice paying attention.
Here’s an old story of mine about a bird. I was walking down Highway 1 in Big Sur, California some years ago, heading from my cousin’s cabin where I was staying, to do a work exchange at Esalen Institute about a mile south along that gorgeous stretch of California Coast. I was enjoying the early morning air, filled with the scent of wild fennel, my eyes feasting on the Ventana Wilderness rising up to my left and the cobalt Pacific down below to my right, when I noticed that over my head was a red tailed hawk which had flown low and had begun to circle me. It was so low I could see its feathers, its beak. I just stopped dead in my tracks. I watched it as it reeled and circled. Then I started getting a little nervous and thought: maybe this guy is looking for lunch in my hair! I wasn’t too sure. The Hawk circled and circled. And circled.
You know how we human beings always have to be some where? We are so busy- busy all the time and that morning I was on my way to work. So, I thanked the bird for the gift of its presence and I walked away from that circling. I walked out of his circle.
The hawk flew on ahead of me and when I got down the road a ways, he began to circle me again. This time I stood still. I had no where I had to be but there. I watched until that hawk had finished with me. When he flew on off, I bowed and walk on down to Esalen.
That is a story I’ve told various times, the last time being this past Saturday night for a Solstice program I gave in a small amphitheater in Elena Gallegos Park on Sandia mountain overlooking Albuquerque, NM and the Rio Grande Valley. The sun was setting in its New Mexican, fireball form over the mountains west of us. There was a breeze, which kept the gnats at bay. We were up there to honor the Sun, the Light, and all our Relations. That is, the animals, birds, rocks, rivers, grasses, trees, even those gnats!
I began to tell my Big Sur Hawk story. I pointed to the sky, directing my listeners’ eyes to the hawk which had honored me that glorious morning so long ago in Big Sur. I lowered my arm and eyes and I noticed that the audience’s eyes stayed looking up. Some began to point. I looked up again. There above me was a red-tail hawk circling, right then, right there. The story of my California memory turned into the story of that New Mexico moment.
Had this hawk come to listen to the story about his California cousin? He stayed till I finished it, then flew away. Was he simply curious about the gathering of two-leggeds sitting on stone benches listening to the speaking, singing, and dancing one in front of them who was pointing skyward? Or was he, perhaps, bringing a message? I do not claim to know the answer to those questions. I merely report what happened.
I live in lower Manhattan, a mile and a half north of the World Trade Center.
From the almost floor to ceiling window in my kitchen, I have a fabulous view – unobstructed- south east, south, south west. From that window, in 1971, I watched the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center go up. On September 11, 2001, I watched them collapse.
That morning, I was at my computer, trying to sort out which of the many NYC mayoral candidates to vote for in that day’s primary, when a low flying aircraft—sounding very much like a roaring demon set free from the underworld—flew directly overhead, shaking the foundation of my one hundred year old apartment building. I thought it was some idiot helicopter pilot showing off. It was not. And that plane, the first of four we’d be seeing in the news that day, didn’t just shake my building—it shook the world. The war was in my backyard.
While the horror and chaos of Ground Zero unfolded, we New Yorkers poured out of our apartments and began to do what we could to set things right. I have lots of stories about all that. Here is one.
The day after the attack, I went over toward the Hudson River, a few blocks to the west of me. The road along it, West Street, had become a major highway for rescue and recovery vehicles. I found myself at the corner of Christopher and West. That corner is iconic. Decades ago, it was the old water front… replete with gangs, including the notorious Hudson Dusters; then it became..and still is… the destination of the enormous Gay Pride Parade, Christopher Street having been a center of Gay culture for years. But in the aftermath of the attack, the open spaces on either side of West Street became a bustling center for sorting and distributing food, drink, medical supplies, clothing, and other needed items for the rescue, recovery and clean up crews. And the street was the main artery downtown.
As I walked down Christopher toward the River, I heard cheering and whistling, and clapping. When I got to West Street, I discovered several dozen of the local folks standing at the corner, cheering on the workers going to …and coming from Ground Zero. Some of them had signs: “Thank you! ” “God Bless You!” “We love you!” So, I joined them.
Shortly after I got there, I watched a National Guard unit roll by. I stood cheering with my Greenwich Village neighbors as the army made its way down West Street to Ground Zero. To be cheering the army as it rolled into NYC was odd enough; but to be standing at that iconic corner, which in the old days had been known for its “leather bars” and less than straight prostitution, to be standing there, cheering the US Army…was mind blowing.
And then this vision: rolling south was the biggest piece of heavy machinery I’d ever seen. Not a tank, but a huge earth mover. And who was driving this down West Street? A young African American soldier, a woman, her hair in intricate cornrows. And with a free hand she gave a thumbs up to all of us who stood cheering and clapping. This small woman in army fatigues, driving this enormous bull dozer. I never cross that street at that corner without remembering that moment and that soldier.
For weeks and months, people stood at the corner of Christopher and West….cheering the fire trucks, police, military vehicles, sanitation trucks, all the vehicles going up and down the highway. There was only one piece of business at the south end of that road: the “Pit,” the Trade Center site, Ground Zero. And since then, each year on 9/11, a group of people stand on the median strip of that road, holding thank-you signs and waving flags and clapping. And still the police, fire, sanitation and anyone who understands what those folks are doing there, honk in response. The corner was officially designated by the City as Point Thank You. There is a sign there for the tourists to read.
As for me….When I am in NYC on the morning of 9/11, I go out to the end of the Christopher Street pier and sit quietly. I look at the river and harbor, I look at the Statue of Liberty, I look at the empty slot in the sky line….now with its new tower filling some of that gap. And I breathe. Then I join the group at Point Thank You and wave and clap and cry. It is a good thing to do.
“Teacher! Teacher! Thank You!”: A Subway Platform Blessing
Saturday, as I descended into the steamy W 4th Street station to catch the C-train to Central Park, I was a grumpy mess. Existential shakiness compounded by a heat dome and humidity. And having to rush. I’m not good at rushing in the morning.
I walked to the uptown end of the platform, knowing just where to stand to get into the exact car from which to exit at the precise staircase to emerge on to the street just where I needed to be to enter the Park. The sign of a real New Yorker…positioning yourself on the train for a quick exit. (That, and knowing how to get cross town on the subway. Sometimes, in the big city, it is these small things that count.)
As I looked around at all the many weekend change-of-service signs and the flashing delay warnings on the digital kiosk, wondering if my problem would not be so much position in space as in time, a woman walked toward me, smiling. She looked vaguely familiar.
She said, “I know you”
I said, “I know you too.” But I couldn’t place her. Chinese, I thought. 40ish. In a tee shirt with Egyptian figures on it, capri pants and sunhat . And that smile.
“English,” she said “You teach English. Washington Heights. Thank you. Thank you!”
“Yes!” that’s where I knew her from. It was odd, though. Most of my students were Dominicans, with a trio of Russian doctors one year just to shake things up a bit. And once a young woman from China who’d told the story of her grandmother’s bound feet…much to the shock of the Dominicans. But this was not that woman And all that had been years ago. Years.
“English. You help us so much. How is N.Y.U.?”
Whoa! “Good, “ I said. I am still teaching there.”
“Central Park,” she said. “You tell stories. We have lots of fun.”
Double whoa! I vaguely recall that one year, a group of my students from Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation came to hear me tell stories in Central Park. She remembered. It had been at least 10 years.
We chatted. She was so excited to see me. I was excited to see her.
“Thank you, thank you,” she said again as the C roared into the station. Then, as I turned to enter it, “Bless you,” she called out.
“And you. Thank you and bless you,” I said and stepped into the car.
No more existential shakiness. And why be grumpy? I was on my way to see two of my friends tell stories at the statue of Hans Christian Andersen –where I would be performing the following Saturday…my 24th year in the Andersen storytelling series. And a lovely woman spotted me waiting in my chosen place on the platform for what I had thought would be the perfect car to make a quick exit. Instead, that precise place put me in the path of an angel who reminded me of who I am and who gave me a gorgeous blessing. Great way to start a Saturday.
For the 2016 National Storytelling Conference this summer, I’ve been asked to give a workshop on using storytelling to teach language. This will be a sample lesson from one of the graduate courses I teach for the Teaching/Learning Department of New York University. I taught ESL to adult immigrants in New York City for over ten years as well as English and performance skills to foreign students at Santa Fe University of Art and Design the past three summers using storytelling as a core method. Here is a blog I wrote for The National Storytelling Network’s website about why storytelling is so effective for teaching languages to any age, for any level.
by Regina Ress
By the age of three or so, most of us can speak our native language. We’ve learned its basic structure, a lot of the vocabulary, and, remarkably, how to play with it to create fluid sentences. It is not memorized: it is “acquired.” How do we do that? The great linguist, Noam Chomsky, has suggested a kind of built in “Black Box, ”something inherent in all human beings that fosters this fundamental and oh-so necessary skill. What triggers that first learning? Listening to language. That is why is it so important for babies to be talked to, to be read to, to be told stories!
Because language learning begins with listening and speaking, storytelling is a fabulous tool for teaching language, whether one’s first or tenth. Along with telling and listening to the basic narrative, traditional storytelling often has repetition and rhythm, audience participation such as “call and response,” audience involvement through making predictions or suggestions during the telling, and often some opportunity for role play. From the original text come fluid telling, extemporaneous responses, and opportunities for linguistic improvisation. Reading and writing can be brought in as extensions, of course; however it is the oral-aural-oral experience which so directly opens the way for linguistic learning.
Besides enhancing the practice of the “four skills” (listening, speaking, reading and writing), storytelling teaches vocabulary, functions (making requests, asking questions, etc), and grammar.
It engages the “whole learner” and the “multiple intelligences.” And it is a great way to create community, encourage cross cultural awareness and provide a safe space for personal expression.
I am a big advocate of the use of folk tales. Because they are simple in form while not being simplistic in theme and can be told with simple to complex vocabulary and grammatical structures, they are readily accessible and engaging to all ages and all learning levels. As they come from all cultures and often address shared problems such as dealing with the wily foxes and dangerous crocodiles of life, they are inclusive and can address the students experiences and challenges. The stories and the activities spun from them (including personal stories based on them) definitely help to promote a communicative classroom. And it makes teaching and learning enjoyable.
Join me at the NSN National Storytelling Conference in Kansas City for some language learning pedagogy wrapped in the form of storytelling fun.
Come learn more about this topic at Regina’s workshop at the 2016 National Storytelling Conference, July 21-24, in Kansas City, Missouri. www.storynet.org/conferenc
In the fall of 1970 I moved into a semi derelict building right next to the old Russian & Turkish Baths on East 10th Street. A group of us were intrepidly (or foolishly) living on the block between First Avenue and Avenue A at a time when to cross A was sort of a guaranteed mugging at knife point. We did not cross A. Nor did we venture into our block’s most famous building, the last of the old NYC bathhouses. It was not until the late1980’s that I finally braved it. I was immediately hooked. Welcome to Eastern Europe in NYC, 1892! Welcome to the Baths.
Today’s NY Times (1/30/16) featured an article about the Baths. Well, I did live next to it in that long-ago time. And I finally ventured in for a good sweat, a hose-down scrub from Agnes, or a Platza in the Russian Room. From the article I see it has both changed and not changed. Here’s a story I wrote about it back in 1992.
THE BATHS: Today, after appointments uptown, downtown, and back to midtown, I ended my day in the East Village at a kind of duck down, out of town, heat up and cool down at the Tenth Street baths. I climbed the crumbling cement front steps into the old tenement, walked down the dark, narrow hall leading into a truly other world. This bath-house is, I think, the last remaining of the old “real” baths in the City. There is nothing trendy, pretty, cute, chic, or particularly comfortable here. Not one gold cupid. No no! I was not at a “spa;” I was at Ladies’ Day at the Russian & Turkish Baths.
On the first floor there are rows of bunk beds and lockers in a dark room (half the lights don’t work, or are simply not turned on.) Women in badly fitting cotton robes lounge about, moving slowly, or napping on cots. If you want, there is a “restaurant” where you can get health juices or chicken soup and smoked fish, depending on your orientation. I undress quickly, donning the somewhat tattered robe and enormous rubber slippers issued to me when I showed my pre-paid, punch card.
I descend the stairs into the basement and enter a steamy, tiled room. It is draped with naked female bodies of varying and often quite amazing sizes, shapes and colors. Old Ukrainian women from the neighborhood, young Black models with beads and cowrie shells bedecking their bellies, a number of young Soviet immigrants speaking Russian, a group of beauties chatting in Italian, an anorexic 65 year old. Like me, she’s a regular.
Some women have green mud on their faces. A couple Black women look truly odd with great dark eyes peering out of gray green masks framed by long dreads or braids. Some women have bodies covered with black mud. Some women sit rubbing their arms and legs with abrasive sponges. We are in the ante-room of the “Baths.” I hang up my issued robe and join the naked ladies. (There are a couple days a week that are co-ed. I’m not interested in going somewhere to sweat in a bathing suit.)
There is a wooden sauna available. Not many people use it. More popular, and hotter, is the “steam” room…a small room with wooden benches and a set of old, hissing apartment radiators. It is very hot in there. Anyone who has lived in NYC tenement know how much steam those radiators give off. I go there first to open my pores for the real goal, the Russian Room.
The Russian Room. A big square room with a stone furnace taking up one quarter of it. Enormous stones, cemented together. God knows what they burn in there! Whatever, it is HOT. There are three tiers of cement benches, over which a few wooden slabs have been places for brave souls to sit on. There is a pipe running around the center row, with a spigot every 4 or 5 feet. Buckets receive icy cold water….rarely does anyone sit on the top tier. Too hot.
Some women sit with their feet in the buckets. When I first started going, the buckets were wooden. They’ve been replaced with plastic ones. Not as authentic, but probably a bit more sanitary. Every few minutes, a woman stands, take a bucket and pours the ice cold water over her head. Me too, you bet! This is the best.
Really! This is the best. The room is built of stained cement looking a bit like an abstract painting in sepia and grey. There are cement covered beams and some old wooden ones showing too. The air, thick with steam, too, looks like opaque cement. And on the wall, two signs declare “save water.” Joke. The spigots are rarely turned off; water is a constant in here. The sound of it, the feel of it. That’s the point. It’s the Baths.
When I am too hot, I duck back out to the ante-room for a sit. I look around. There is an icy cold tiled swimming pool. People plunge in to recover from the intense heat of the Russian Room. The walls are tiled too, and along with tiled curlicues and such are the words “James Stravato Tile & Marble.” I wonder how many years ago Mr. Stravato did the job. I wonder how many of the old tenements here on the Lower East Side have his tiles. Possibly he also put in some of the marble fireplaces. (When I lived on Cornelia Street in 1967, in my tiny hole of an apartment there was a Carrera Marble fireplace. The Italians, like the rest of us, have interesting priorities. I was told that when they came to America, many of them brought marble for fireplaces.)
Generally when I go to the Baths, I get a hose down scrub from Agnes, a woman whose thickly blue veined legs look like that old Italian marble and whose slab of a marble “massage table” sits alongside the pool. She uses a garden hose and a seriously abrasive spongie-thing to give you a good cleaning. But today I decide to spring for a Platza, a therapeutic scrub with oak leaves.
My masseuse, a young woman, leads me back into the Russian Room. I lie on the massage table right next to the cement furnace. She covers my head and face with a towel. She proceeds to scrub and pummel me with an oak leaf scrubber which looks like a feather duster made of leaves. She scrubs with very hot water. She slaps. She rinses with buckets of cold water. More scrub. Then a good massage. Roll over. Same on the other side. All this takes about 20 minutes. Time is suspended; It feels like an hour. The woman finishes with a bucket of cold water and the instructions: “Go to the Pool.”
In an altered state of body and definitely of mind, I carefully make my way out of the cement hot box to Stravato’s tiled pool and descend into its icy waters, briefly. I’m out as soon as I’m in. I make my way to a bench and listen to the 65 year old anorexic talk of how fat is she getting (Her ribs show, she is so thin.) I listen to her story and nod. I can do no more.
When recovered from Russian Room heat and oak leaf pummeling, I realize it is 6 O’clock and I need to get home to make dinner for my son. I leave the basement bathhouse, re-enter the cot lined dressing room, and slowly put on clothes, discarding the frayed bathrobe and rubber slippers in a barrel. I make my way to 8th Street and the M8 crosstown bus. I look at all the people on that bus and wonder what their day was like. Mine definitely ended in Dream Time.
In January, 1991 I was at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California for a month work-study program. The Gulf War was raging, but we were studying peace. Along with training in Esalen massage, meditation, group dynamics, and other Human Potential explorations, we were graced with the presence of visiting scholar Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk and interfaith teacher. He gave us several talks and was “on campus” for other teachings and private hang outs. .
I would join him in the lodge for lunch when I could. He was always gracious and a quiet eating companion. I loved his “Grace.” So many of us were saying long prayers as grace…thanking the plants and the animals for the giveaway of their lives that we might eat/live. And then we would start to include the farmers, the truck drivers who brought the produce, the people who made the tires for the trucks, etc.
Not Brother David. His Grace was “Thank you for the food.” Said it all! I adopted that. If it was good enough for a Benedictine monk and Buddhist teacher, it was good enough for me.
When he came to talk to our group, describing his journey from living under Nazi rule in Austria to his present reputation as a “Benedictine-Buddhist” teacher, he spoke of his core teaching, Gratefulness. His book, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, had been publish some years before. And when he spoke of Gratefulness, he said…basically: People say that when they are happy, they will be grateful. No, no….when you are grateful, you will be happy. I so clearly remember him saying that. And since that time, I have quietly put that idea into the center of my being. Not that I am always successful, but it hums along as an underpinning to my life walk. It is a very popular idea, now. I find that encouraging.
One of my best memories from that month at Esalen was when I found myself sitting with Brother David one night in one of the famous Esalen hot tubs, perched on the cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We sat in silence and listened to the night sounds under a full moon.
Grateful? Oh yes. For my life, for my teachers, for all the remarkable beings who have touched my life. So nourishing. Thank you for the food.
One Halloween night a few years ago I had a gig from 5:30-8:00 PM a block west of Sixth Avenue, two blocks from my apartment, which is on the east side of the Avenue. This put me on the wrong side of the massive Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. This meant…I couldn’t get home.
You must understand that what had started as a small and very local parade here in the Village back in the day…and yes, I lived here back in the day….this local, heavily gay, drag queen and cheering supporters, and fabulous puppets, and such…this yumminess of a let-it-all-hang-out local event was at some horrible point discovered. It morphed, monster-like, into a massive, sound truck laden destination-excuse for tourists from world to let their inner-crazy out. Yes, there are still great costumes to be seen. And some good bands. But if you live here, don’t try to go anywhere. Or, to come home for hours before, during and after the Parade.
I live on the east side of Sixth near Houston Street and the Halloween Parade starts a few block south and proceeds a mile or so up the Avenue. Streets are blocked every which way. Far too any people in various stages of array and disarray fill the sidewalks and those blocked streets. Thousands of cops, uniformed and not, hang out on every corner and the barricades are up. If you are not participating in the dense revelry, it can be a daunting to go anywhere. So….that particular Halloween night, I couldn’t get home from my gig on the wrong side of the parade. Knowing that the staging area for the Parade was a just few blocks south of where I was, I wandered west a couple blocks and then south on 7th Avenue and then east to Spring and Sixth, figuring I could go below the staging area and cross Sixth and thread my way back up my side of the street.
Once I got to the Spring Street staging area, however, I found myself in a huge party. Wow. OK! It was a beautiful, warm night and I was feeling the good vibes, so I hung out watching floats and groups and the wonderfully costumed spirits who were entertaining themselves and each other, keeping their energy up and partying while they waited to join the already in full swing parade. I stayed there watching, dancing, and talking to people for about an hour and then I insinuated myself into the middle of one the samba bands as it moved out of the staging area and on to Sixth Avenue.
I had draped my wildly skull-and-bones patterned shawl over my back, which counted as a costume, so I could legitimately join the parade. I worked my way to a place in the middle of the big samba drums and danced my way home. It was a very, very slow walk home, though a very, very rhythmic one, for sure. Indeed, it must have taken at least half an hour to go the few short blocks to my corner. But I was having such a great time, I didn’t leave the group. I stayed with the band till we got up to Waverly Place, a few blocks north of my apartment. That probably took another half an hour. Lots of stopping. Lots of dancing, (And occasional quizzical glances from the leader of the band trying to figure out who the hell that dancing woman was in the middle of his drummers.)
I left the parade at Waverly, not wanting to go the full route. I’d had enough. And I did want to go home. But, I felt energized and washed clean by the vibrations of the drums and the shakereis. There I was on a balmy night in the middle of a huge street party in the ‘hood. By moving with it, instead of trying to “cross” it, I had danced my way home— past the fire house with its memories of 9/11, past the corner where I’ve lived for more than 40 years, past the Waverly Movie Theatre-now the IFC, past a lot of my past..and present. I got home, feeling filled with gratitude for the music, for the movement, and yes, for the wildly exuberant Greenwich Village Halloween Parade. I hope my future brings me more samba!
I wrote this article in 1999….about working as a storyteller in schools during the week of the Columbine High School shooting.
It holds true. It holds.
(originally published in Storytelling Magazine, December 1999)
In the Spring of 1999, at the height of the Kosovo “ethnic cleansing,” I was invited to teach the Holocaust in the schools of Palm Beach County, Florida. (Florida is one of seven states that mandate Holocaust studies.) This was an amazing invitation, or as I saw it, “assignment.” I created two different programs, one, a poetry process for classrooms and the other, a storytelling assembly.
In preparation, I searched for folk tales and other stories that dealt with themes I might address. I read a lot of material on the Holocaust, talked with a survivor from the Warsaw Ghetto, and forced myself to look at photographs. On the plane to Florida, I read Yaffa Eliach’s Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. I arrived in Forida two days before the shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. The day after the shootings was my first day in the schools.
Between the ongoing images from Kosovo, my immersion in the Holocaust, and the news coming out of Littleton, my heart was torn open. I found myself crying suddenly, at odd moments. I was working principally in Middle schools and on wide open campuses. There were bomb threats at a couple of the local schools and feelings were running high, both of sadness and apprehension.
I questioned myself, “What are you doing in the schools at this moment?”
My answer was, “Doing something for the kids.” I was wading into the situation; introducing a topic hard and painfully relevant; bringing information, metaphor, opportunity to question; offering a means of expression and a chance to be heard.
In my classes and assemblies, we looked at the need to stop hatred and violence before it gets out of control and affects the whole community (see “The Duel of the Cat and the Mouse” , Tales of Mogho, Guirma, ed.); we looked at strength and power vs killing (see “Strength” in Margaret Reade MacDonald’s Peace Tales); we looked at megalomaniacal leaders (see H.C. Andersen’s “The Wicked Prince”). In the poetry process I led the students through, we looked deeply at personal loss. I then shared with them the history of Terezin concentration camp and the art and poetry created by the children imprisoned there. (See, …I Never Saw Another Butterfly… Volavkoya, ed.). We talked about prejudice, inclusion, compassion. We talked about whatever the students brought up.
The students’ responses were varied…as varied as the schools and grades I was working in. In my three weeks residency, I taught in grades 4-10 in private, public, and an alternative school for potential drop-out children of the sugar cane workers out by Lake Okechobee. Many of the young people wanted to share things they knew about the Holocaust. Some asked really good questions. One seventh grade student asked about how much the United States knew and what did we did to stop the killing. “That’s a very good question,” I replied…. and before I could find my way in and out of that enormous topic, another student brought up the incident of the St. Louis, the ship filled with refugees the United Stated refused entry to. (It returned to Europe and most of its passengers perished.)
One of the poems about personal loss, written by a tenth grader, was about losing the “ground beneath my feet.” What an incredible springboard from which to talk about what happened to the victims of the Nazis! The discussion in that class about losing everything in one’s reality… physical, relational and even personal identity…was rich and deeply serious.
The stories, too, were marvelous springboards for discussion. With “The Duel of the Cat and the Mouse,” the discussion led to the many excuses we make not to get involved, the “bystander” issue. The fact that we often equate bullying, hitting, and even killing with “power” and “strength’ is shown starkly in Mac Donald’s story. After my telling of the Andersen story, there were discussions not only about Hitler, but other historical tyrants, the situation in Yugoslavia, and how sometimes young people follow the wrong leaders.
A number of the students brought up Kosovo. And sometimes the topic of the Littleton killings, which hung around the edges of our discussions always, found its way in to the center. In one “gifted” class, it surfaced after a rather lengthy discussion of Holocaust issues brought up in our story/poetry session. I left them with their teacher, hotly debating the role of the media in reporting school violence. They needed to talk about it, and our session had provided a forum.
To be in the schools, at that moment, was an enormous responsibility and a grand opportunity. Without talking directly about Littleton, a minor incident in the history of the world, but, at that moment, a major incident in the world of America’s schoolchildren, we addressed some of the issues swirling around their reality. And I was there not simply with hard facts, endless statistics, and terrifying images, but with stories and poetry. I was there with images that touch the soul, spark the imagination and invite compassion.
The week after I returned to New York City, at a New York Storytelling Center Board meeting, we began talking about the Littleton, CO massacre. Mike Seliger’s son had shown him something from the internet about how young people feel we grownups would do as usual: agonize over the Littleton incident and then forget about it…and them.
“Let me speak to that,” I said. Having just returned from my experience in the Florida schools, I spoke about the opportunities we storytellers have to address, both indirectly and directly, the serious concerns with which our children are wrestling. Indeed, we storytellers are a blessed group. Through image and metaphor, through the seemingly simple vehicle of story, we have the chance to address the BIG themes of the human soul. As always, I am grateful to be working with story.
This past few days for me has been about Manhattan…the tv show about the Manhattan Project which created a town that did not exist on a high plateau in northern New Mexico near Santa Fe. The town is Los Alamos. In those days, it was a post office box. Manhattan: the atomic bomb project, not the island along the Hudson River I’ve lived on most of my life. I was contacted to write a part of a diary of a Russian spy for a prop for the show. I was contacted because I am old enough to write “old school” handwriting: cursive. Sometimes age is a benefit.
I picked up the diary (several in case I screwed up) and 5 fabulous pens at the warehouse where the Prop-master, is making props. I walked in and jumped back. “My God! That’s an atomic bomb!” Yup…that’s what he was working on. This week they are filming the Trinity test. I knew what I was looking at having recently been to the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos. Yes, I had braved the checkpoint and driven into the town “on the hill.” And what went on “on the hill” 70 years ago STAYED on the hill. At least until two days in early August, 1945.
I had a great kibitz with John. He says I am “adorable.” I’ll take the compliment. (remember, I got the gig because I am old enough to know how to write cursive!!)
I took it to them early Monday and was on set, which is on the campus of
Santa Fe University of Art and Design, where I have a faculty meeting on Thursday…
for about an hour. I was walked through the “checkpoint/gate” to the town that had no name,
and I watched as they geared up for the day’s shoot. 1940′s cars, old army vehicles, actors in costume (army and civilian), and lots and lots of technical equipment in that dusty street between barracks, science labs, the old telephone booth and that gate with its big sign: What you see here, what you hear here, what you do here, STAYS HERE. Los ALamos, 1945.
Various people looked at the diary and it was decided more pages were needed. I’d been given some text…with the entry for Feb. 4 needing to be at the top of the right hand page about three quarters through the diary. They all decided that my handwriting looked great, but more of the book needed to be filled. So I went home and after getting the final “yes” from the final-say-guy, I made up more entries. I had great fun adopting her tone, dropping in the code names of the guys she’s spying on, and bitching about “Athena” who is always “stirring the pot.”
Tuesday early early my alarm woke me in the middle of a dream I was having about Siva.
I staggered around, had a cup of strong black tea before I left the house. Neither John nor assistant prop-master Doug were there on set when I got there. I was asked to wait for them if I could.
For sure! Willie (local guy, prop guy) said…help yourself to coffee or anything. So I got a cup of crew coffee with sugar and ate a cliff bar and then when John showed up I had a Dunkin doughnut with him. When in Manhattan, do as the crew does. I’m wired on sugar. caffeine. and 11 grams of protein in that cliff bar.
Again various people looked at the diary and OK’d it. It was then given to the only black person I’d seen
on set…a woman wearing a Brazil soccer jersey…who was instructed to take it and AGE it. I was thanked and told to send an invoice billing “Atom Productions, Inc.” Of course. What a caper!