Originally posted on February 16th 2012, upon returning from two months of volunteering with children in Baños, Ecuador.
There is an addendum which brings my musings up to date as Covid-19 races around the world.
Layers of clouds every shade of white. Blue-white, grey-white, yellow , pink…chalk-white. White, the absence of color, but which reflects and refracts light. Some of the clouds are tinted a delicate purple white. A rainbow of white.
The 737 had pierced each layer of cloud and rose above them all, giving a sweeping view of the tops of Ecuador’s chain of volcanoes, some of which were also white, snow-covered and reflecting the equatorial morning light. We flew across the equator, the “middle of the Earth”, that artificial line which divides south from north. The clouds admit to so such boundary.
Who creates boundaries? We do. National frontiers that demand documents; tribal systems that demand allegiance; gender roles that can bind feet or minds, to name a few.
Now the clouds are thinning out, a few wisps of condensation between the plane and the ocean. The world here is one of air and water. Fire? The roar outside the plane’s windows indicate a fire contained, channeled to move the heavier elements through time and space. A directed burn, controlled and used to move earth in a straight line home.
“Back to reality,” the young backpacker from Vancouver said to me in the airport security line. I responded, “Vancouver is not reality.” But I knew what he meant: home. To the city, where the power of the elements is tamed, bounded, buried, forgotten. Even though vows are made to keep the awareness, once back in the city, human business intrudes upon the magic. It take a lot of work to maintain elemental connection when the layers now moved through are sidewalks, subways, jobs, politics, protests, bills, ads… the elements of life back in “reality.” But back I have come.
More will be written about my time in Ecuador. But first, I must hit the sidewalks and subways, deal with jobs, try to ignore the politics, join the protests, and pay some bills. I will, per usual, ignore the ads.
ADDENDUM~ March 17, 2020, as Covid-19 races around the world.
While many of us meet together on-line this St. Patrick’s Day 2020, seeking community, seeking information, seeking new skills (such as how to meet together on line!), Ecuador, I hear, has closed its borders. Indeed, many countries are closing their borders. Viruses know no borders or boundaries. We are all in this Quantumly entangled world together. Our electronic web of connection now serves for handshakes and hugs. May the net hold.
May the Net hold.
Like a baby turtle discovering water after a slow crawl to the sea, I took to dance as the natural expressive state for living my life. I was ushered early into free-form movement at the light filled dance studio of Genevieve Jones, a brilliant teacher of modern dance in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My mother enrolled me in the class when I was three years old.
Modern dance encourages an unstructured, natural way of moving and a comfort in living in one’s body, of being embodied. It also promotes the ability to venture into open space and out onto the studio floor, often without preconceived steps. (There was a lot of improvisation encouraged in those early classes.) Modern dance give practice in simultaneous “not-knowing” while being grounded and finding your footing. And by extension, it offers a joyous rehearsal of the ability to venture into the unknown world.
In thinking about this, I am reminded of two stories, one literary, one personal.When I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, I was taken by a scene where the young, cloistered Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) is terrified to walk across the open space of a courtyard. She becomes nauseous and dizzy when trying to go out onto the garden path, away from the shelter of the portico. Open space frightened her.
A year or so after reading The Mists of Avalon, I was asked to lead a creativity workshop for school social workers and counselors. After some group work, mainly talking, I asked them to walk across the room one at a time. Just walk across the studio where we were meeting, from one wall to the other. Not one of them would do it. They would not /could not leave the protection of the wall and walk out into that empty space. What was so natural for me was terrifying for them. I quickly amended the movement prompt and all the activities I had planned for that day. Not everyone has had the good fortune to be sent to modern dance class at the age of three
When I was five, I was asked by my dance teacher to portray a skunk in a production of Johnny Appleseed which the older dance students were performing for their year end concert.
Here is a photo of me in that skunk outfit, enormous tail of fluffy feathers, signaling a humorous and free spirited “skunk.” That was me at five.
Another aspect of that early dance training was a secure relationship to the ground. We spent a lot of time doing “floor work:” dancing while sitting, lying down, or rolling across the floor like water. Many years later I was privileged to take workshops with the brilliant voice teacher Richard Armstrong. We would often begin the class by rolling. Richard would demonstrate, slowly rolling his large body across the wooden floor, as graceful as an incoming wave. Secure on the floor and fluid as water. The goal, of course, was to continue that feeling when vertical: supple and fluid while being rooted in the ground, like a willow in the wind.
“Back and down,” is a phrase that I often use when describing my natural way of dancing. I never took classical ballet, which moves forward and up. I tried tap one time when I was an adult. I was an abysmal failure. Tap may not be as “up” in its direction as ballet, but it is not as “back and down” to the earth as modern dance. Ballet, tap, and forms of dance that tend to reach up and away from the earth were not for me.
But many decades later, while living on the island of Hawaii, I chanced to meet the famous singer and hula teacher Diana Aki. I happened upon her at the end of a class she was teaching at the art center on Kilauea Volcano. She gave me a very short, informal lesson in Hawaiian dance. It was a direct transmission in which she “put” hula into my body. At least, that is how I felt about it. And a few years later, in Volcano Village, I had one formal lesson with Kumu Hula, Uncle George Na’ope. These two master teachers transmitted some knowing to me, though I would never call myself a hula dancer. Hula is rooted in the earth and simultaneously flows like water. I understood it at some deep level.
At my core, I am a dancer. And though my art and my profession became speaking (acting, storytelling), the improvisational flow of language comes through a body that was taught early and well to move with grace and ease, to move freely while grounded, and not to be afraid to venture into unknown territory. Thank you Evelyn Ress, my wise mother, who took me to the dance studio on Wilkins Avenue. Thank you to Genevieve Jones, who led me on to the dance floor. And to all my teachers, deep gratitude. I have been fortunate to have had many great teachers, whose lessons in movement, acting, singing, and writing were also lessons in the awareness of the ecstasy of life lived as water and willow: Well rooted, Freely Flowing.
I take it personally, this Red Tide thing. I have walked miles on Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches, talking to birds, singing with dolphins, dancing under a sky wide open and alive with wheeling gulls and often over-arched with rainbows. It is a world I love, this western edge of the sandbar the Spanish named for flowers. Such breath taking beauty. And now, often breath-less.
The narrow stretch of barrier beach between the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida mainland shimmers with life and is filled with color. It is a white sugar-sand and blue-green water world bordered by purplish-green sea grape and darkly fringed palmetto, gifted with daily sunsets
that drench the sky in shades of gold, orange, and red. The delicate blooms of plumeria and exuberant hibiscus are many shades of red as well. And the beaks and eyes of certain of the birdly visitors who come to fish in the Gulf’s clear water, they are a shocking red too.
I have had long conversations with blue herons, snowy egrets, orange billed terns, and little green parrots. I’ve stood in awe watching plummeting brown pelicans snatching dinner from the Gulf. I’ve tracked yellow-eyed ospreys, fish hanging from their hooked beaks, returning to their permanent nests on rooftops. I have watched the cormorants elegantly spreading their shining brown-black wings to dry in the sun. And the unlikely looking oyster catchers with their black and white feathers, pink legs, long, brilliant orange-red beaks and eyes featuring concentric circles of black, yellow and red, always make me laugh.
But the blue-green Gulf water has turned bloody, at least metaphorically. For a long time, only on occasion did the water’s algae over-bloom, turning toxic, killing the sea life. But lately the balance has shifted and there is an ongoing, unnatural incoming tide, caused in part by run-off from Florida’s corporate farms in the interior. Red Tide, they call it. Thousands of fish, along with sea turtles and other creatures whose home is the ocean, die in wider and wider swaths of the warmer and warmer water which has literally been infiltrated by the polluted run-off.Do those birds I have come to love die too? They live on the fish. It is, after all, an interlocking eco-system. Unlike the sea creatures, birds can leave for other shores, some fortunate place as yet untouched by unrelenting heat and insatiable human greed. How much of that liminal world of beach and mangrove swamp, palmetto and plumeria, with its resident and itinerant wild life, will be left for our children? A red monster is eating it. One could say it is the stuff of fairy tale, but, alas, Red Tide is real.
Regina Ress, Roaming Writers Group, Santa Fe Written in response to the painting Red Tide by Diane Remington Global Warming is Real Exhibit, The Museum of Encaustic Art, Santa Fe, NM September, 2019
When I sat down in my window seat on Jet Blue’s midnight flight from Albuquerque to New York the other night, I wondered who would be sharing the row with me. There had been an interesting assortment of people in the waiting lounge: old Hippie types (there are lots of them in New Mexico); a group of very fit older men and women who had just competed in 2019 National Senior Games,(I was told this by a wiry man who assumed I was part of their group); touristy people in shorts and baseball caps; several Muslim families with children (the moms in casually covering outfits but all with brightly colored heads scarves, plus an older woman in elegant black); and assorted other night-flighters.
Two people arrived and sat in my row. Next to me, that older woman dressed head-to-toe in a flowing black dress which had patterns on it of small jet beads, simple but elegant. Her hair, of course, was covered with a black scarf. And a man who looked to be around fifty. Waiting for us on our seats were little pouches containing Jet Blue’s bow to night flights- earplugs and a sleep-mask. The woman picked it up turned to me as if asking, “what is this?” I gestured plugging ears and covering eyes. She smiled and sat down.
As soon as they settled in, the man turned to me and in very good English opened a pleasant conversation to which I immediately responded and we got into talking. Turned out he is her son. They are from Jordan. They had been attending a big family wedding at the Sandia Pueblo Resort. He’s traveled many places in Europe and in Asia. I have traveled some places in Europe and Asia but mainly in Latin America. He’s never been to Latin America. She told him to tell me that I should visit Jordan and see Petra. I said I hoped to some day.
We talked travel. We talked food. (We had a good time with food.) And then he asked me, “Where are your people from?” And I replied “My mother’s family came from Hungary to United States in the 1860s. My father was born in Lithuania and came when he was four.” And then I added “I am Jewish.” He nodded, turned to his mother, and translated that bit of information.
We continued talking. Then we tried to sleep. None of us could sleep much. I guess I did sleep a bit, because when I woke up, they had switched seats and he was next to me. So, at some point, over Virginia according to the small screen on the seat in front of him tracking our plane’s flight, we gave up trying to sleep and he and I continued talking.
We talked about how difficult it is to sleep sitting up on an airplane. We looked at the rising sun together. We talked about how people on this planet form a large and beautiful garden with many kinds of flowers. He said God has created a beautiful place and beautiful people. We talked about how there must be peace. We all agreed that we must stop hating and killing each other. I even got to use my one word of Arabic: šukran (thank you)
When we landed at JFK, from the front of my backpack I unpinned a red button emblazoned in white letters with the words Choose Love.I handed the button to the woman who took it with delight and immediately pinned it on her black dress, nestled among the jet beads. She smiled at me. Her son smiled at me. As it was morning and we all were facing journeys into where we were headed: me, just to the subway to get back to Manhattan and they, a three hour drive to family in Connecticut, I gave them a couple of small coffee candies which they popped into their mouths. I said, “I hope you get to Connecticut safely.” The woman then rooted around in her large, black leather hand bag and pulled out a pen and gave it to me, nodding and smiling.
Sukran Choose love. Give it, receive it, return it. Thank you.
(note: this was written in response to the act of terrorism perpetrated against the Jewish community in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA on October 27, 2018. )
I grew up in Squirrel Hill. When I was a little girl, five, six, seven years old…a little girl… in the spring, my father and I would go to a nursery and buy flats of pansies and petunias and bring them home to plant in the awakening garden on the hillside property surrounding the brick house he had bought shortly after I was born. He’d pretty much grown up in Squirrel Hill. I grew up in my father’s garden. In my memory, the nursery where those flowers came from was very close to the Tree of Life Synagogue.
My father shared the love of that garden and its expression of life with me. I still love gardening. A cousin of mine once said to me, “Wherever you go, work in the garden so that wherever you go there is a garden. I do that. And when I do, I remember my father and his garden in Squirrel Hill.
It is interesting to read articles that are currently being written about Squirrel Hill, articles that describe it, define it. Now Squirrel Hill is part of the story that is the awful history of gun violence in this country. A place named Tree of Life has become a place associated with death. But I have to believe that the roots are strong. And the branches will hold. And though we heading into the dark time of year and what feels to be a very dark time in our country, we must hold the thought that spring will come again and the Flowers will bloom again and the Trees will return Green and Strong.
There was once a giant that took over the countryside. You know, one of those stomp-around and smash-everything, grab the cows and eat them whole, and while he’s at it, eat the people whole too, tyrants. And tired of living in terror not just of the destruction and death meted out by this voracious bully, but by the uncertainly of when it would be their turn, the people of that place, knowing that he is fundamentally lazy, decide to strike a deal with him. They will voluntarily send someone once a year to his cook pot if he will leave them alone the rest of the year.
Now, in these stories, he agrees. But one of those annual sacrifices turns out to be the person, often a “magical child” or, in other versions, the ordinary mother of an ordinary child, who knows how to defeat the giant. There are other versions, other plot lines, of this story. But it is usually a child or young person who knows how to get rid of this oversized bully by guile, generally using the tyrant’s own flaws against him. The giant is once again defeated and life continues.
This story has been told around the world, wherever and whenever selfishly destructive tyrants arise. The imperative to face them down confronts us with the our need to wake up to the peril that lurks in the dark corners of the human psyche and which erupts just when we become complacent and let go of vigilance. The community, then, is shocked into the necessity of resisting and given the opportunity to strike a blow for freedom, indeed, for life itself.
We need to hear this story, these stories, in their many forms. David and Goliath comes to mind. Most recently I have been telling a story from ancient Mexico that I learned years ago about a boy who is the son of a Nahuatl woman and Tlaloc, a Pre-Columbian rain-god. And while the boy is raised as an ordinary human, when the time comes to out-wit the hungry giant and save the community, he know just what to do. He frees the people and is made king of the land. The story says that he never died. And some say that he is still with us, disguised as an ordinary human being, continuing to help us. Some say that each of us has a bit of this “magical child” within.
There was once a giant who ravaged the land. We seem to be living through this narrative yet again. What are we going to do about it?
I’m riding high above the clouds, on a journey crossing Pennsylvania on my way to Santa Fe, NM. The television monitors in LaGuardia airport had been alternately beaming images of children in cages and sounds of TV talking heads reporting on children in cages, children taken from their asylum-seeking parents, being held hostage, it seems, for a wall. I realized that the last time I inadvertently sat in front of that particular monitor in LaGuardia, images of children fleeing Parkland school after the mass-shooting were filling that same screen. I need to stay away from television screens in airports.
I’ve been in New York City for 10 days. At the beginning of the trip, I taught my “Storytelling in the Classroom (and Beyond)” intensive at NYU. Among other things, we were looking at storytelling as social action. At the end of the trip, I was in Central Park telling stories about defeating voracious giants and preening bullies. In the middle, I spent seven or so hours in one day immersed in the Broadway revival of Angels in America. Oh my, how I loved Ethel Rosenberg haunting Roy Cohn!
This past couple of months has been pretty wild for me. Some health issues popped up, due, I’m assuming, to a bit of chaos swirling around my personal life magnified on the national and international scene by the actions of the lizard people who seem to have taken over the world yet again.
In the middle of all that, I received a hundred page manuscript of poems about Auschwitz and Birkenau. My poet friend Carol Rubenstein has spent the past decade going to those haunted places often, diving into to the haunting as only she can, and writing the poems. I have been slowly making my way through her depiction of that ash-covered horror story. To have such extreme history, those places, and “the nameless,” being re-imagined by her poetic responses is unbearable. Especially at this moment in our history, as we create concentration camps for children on our southern border. Friends of mine are caravanning from NY to one of the camps in Texas. Just imagine, we don’t have to go to Poland to bear witness!
And here I sit, serenely sailing at 32,000 feet over Pennsylvania. I spot the Monongahela and the Allegheny rivers, and now the Ohio flowing south west from Pittsburgh’s “golden triangle.” I was born in Pittsburgh, safe from Hitler’s booted enforcers who were then bashing the tender heads of babies like me against walls. I wave to my friend Frances and to some cousins still there. And I wave to my friend Indigo, who built a labyrinth on her tree lined street in Wilkinsburg. When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, I don’t think I ever heard of a “labyrinth.” I think we all need to start building labyrinths on every corner and under every tree. Much better than building concentration camps for babies. Much better.
~~~”Re-imagined, but not Imaginary”..from the preface to The Nameless by Carol Rubenstein
In the 1990s, I was a guest artist at a summer camp in a deeply troubled neighborhood in Philadelphia. The brick row-house that housed the Neighborhood Center was across the street from Norris Square, a small, scruffy, city park. Each morning, abandoned drug paraphernalia had to be removed before our campers sat down for their opening circle on the park’s dusty ground. Along with some great community building activities I learned from the camp director Kathleen Luchtan and the wonderful … and educational interactions… I had with the residents of that “Empowerment Zone” neighborhood, I experienced the power of storytelling to validate and empower the listeners.
Upon arrival one sunny morning, I found myself in the midst of an intense drama. One of the teen-age assistants, hired under a city program called Phila-Job, had disappeared. She had not come home the night before, and her mother had waited till that morning to call the police. When I arrived, the Center was abuzz with Philadelphia police officers questioning her friends while other teens talked to each other trying to figure out where she was or who might have kidnapped her. Members of the neighborhood were out looking for her and there was a constant flow of people checking in and out of the Center. There were two local women, working with us through Ameri-Corps, spearheading the community response. This was a parallel search (and no doubt a more invested and informed one) to the official police investigation. There was great fear for the missing girl’s wellbeing.
I stayed with the younger children, doing storytelling and visual art projects as the staff, the “Phila-Job” teen assistants, the two Ameri-Corps women, and the police officers were all engaged in trying to find her. This went on for most of the morning. And then they found her, the two local women and her friends, not the police. We all breathed a sigh of relief.
Late that morning, our camp-community gathered together to re-set the day in the back yard “safe-space” of that old row house. After we all settled down on our folding chairs, Kathleen asked me to tell a story. Without thinking about it, I began to tell the Haitian folktale, “Tipingee,” the story of a young girl who is saved by her community. Its participatory chant allows everyone in the circle to help save the girl. I can still see us sitting in the fenced-in yard and the two Ameri-Corps women sitting there nodding at each other as the story unfolded, their, postures changing from an exhausted slump to alert, knowing pride. I can see their smiles and the smiles of so many in that circle as they realized that I was telling them their story, that they, that very morning, had taken action to save one of their own. For me, It was a moment of deep understanding of the power of storytelling to touch us, to validate us, and to heal.
I have since that day used Tipingee’s story, along with other stories, in times when events unfolding in the “real” world were impact us and my listeners. For instance, two days after the horrendous shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, I was scheduled to give “warm-fuzzy” holiday program for adults and children in a coffee-house/art gallery. I found myself not changing the program, but definitely shifting how I framed it and told it. The children had a great time. The adults, hearing the same stories, heard deeper resonances that touched on, but did not name, the tragedy that was on all of our minds. They, too, enjoyed the program, but for different reasons.
I facilitate a workshop called On the Moment: Storytelling in Times of Crisis. I first led the workshop at the Sharing the Fire storytelling conference in 2002, principally as a response to 9/11. Unfortunately we now seem to be in a time of ongoing crisis. There have been a series of natural disasters and, as a rescue worker who came to NYC described the 9/11 attack, to me, “non-natural disasters” as well. One of the great gifts of storytelling is its flexible immediacy as well as its ability to address difficult topics indirectly through metaphor. As storytellers, our ability to respond to what is happening, both in the world and in the listeners who have gathered to hear story, presents us with the opportunity to not only entertain, but to ease minds and hearts, strengthen individuals and create community. What kinds of stories, what themes, what images can we bring when asked to show up for our listeners when the world is falling down? Storytellers know!
(for information on the workshop, contact me: email@example.com) The story referenced is: “I’m Tipingee, She’s Tipingee, We’re Tipingee Too,” a story from The Magic Orange Tree by Diane Wolkstein)
We are heading into a week that features two holidays about re-birth, Passover and Easter. There are tiny purple flowers blooming in the garden and the rose bushes and trees are putting out hesitant buds. Here in New Mexico, life peeks out after the cold drought of winter. Persephone is signaling from the Underworld, letting us know she is on her way to rejoin her mother Demeter to insure that Life may continue. It is always good to note that life may continue.
Why do I feel the need to repeat that mantra? Perhaps to affirm the possibility, assure my readers and myself that despite the auxiliary verb “may,” there is a glimmer of hope, an actual chance, perhaps even good odds that, yes life may continue.
I want to tell you about a project with teens that I was asked to be a part of this month. And to share with you a beautiful essay by Michael Tallon, These Magic Kids, that is about the young people we’ve been watching take the reins in the fight for life here in our beleaguered country. My takeaway from watching these amazing “children” who are raising their strong voices in defiance of a kind of death cult that seems to have ridden off with the sanity of much of this country is: Life may continue, perhaps stronger and wiser than ever.
I’ve been listening and talking to a number of young folks these past couple weeks, not just the ones in the news, but in the streets before during and after the March for our Lives here in Santa Fe this past Saturday. I want to tell you about some kids I met at a conference held by FCCLA, a national life skills and leadership organization for youth.
I was asked to be a judge at a state wide competition where some of the FCCLA members made presentations of projects they’d been working on. Winners would go on to the national competition. I was one of two of adults judging the presentations of a project three students did to raise awareness of FCCLA in their schools and communities. There were an 8th grade African-American boy from Tucumcari, NM and two Latinx high-school girls from Albuquerque.
These students created PSAs, social-media campaigns, before-and after surveys, workshops, and other events to get the word out about FCCLA. They brought portfolios describing their processes, goals and results and they made oral presentations about them. They were chosen to come to this state competition at the Marriott Pyramid Hotel in Albuquerque. We may have been in a fake “pyramid,” but there was nothing fake about these kids.
These three had not had the privilege of the kind of educational and community resources that the Parkland students have. But they have the same passion, focus, drive, and determination we’ve been seeing on TV. And they obviously have at least one fine teacher-advocate for their futures. They were well spoken, organized, focused, and sweet as they could be.
When I asked the 8th grade boy from Tucumcari why he chose to join FCCLA, he replied that he wanted to learn how to comfortably talk to strangers. I know he said more than that, but I was struck by this young African-American taking the step of working on the skill to look the world in the eye, not with fear…which leads to so much anger…but with calm, friendly confidence. He and the two young women from Albuquerque are my in-person representatives of this new generation of Americans. I’m so glad they are here. Let’s help them.
(This blog was written in response to a brilliant article by Michael Tallon about the students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The link to his article is below. This photo of Emma Gonzalez is from the article.)
Several days ago, the word “shithole” was spewed from our nation’s capital and rocketed around the world. This was in reference to certain countries, certain populations, certain kinds of people. While this latest insult to humankind has been ricocheting through the world’s consciousness, I have been working on my annual love stories concert to be performed next month at the Provincetown Playhouse in NYC. The Heart of the Matter, which I am creating with poet/bassist Larry Roland, is an hour of stories and poetry about the human capacity for love. Not romance, but the fierce love that creates connection, holds life sacred, and preserves the world.
I’ve the good fortune to be staying this month in a small condo on Florida’s Gulf coast. At around 2 PM yesterday, while working on the love stories program (and fending off thoughts of shitholes and such), I was suddenly compelled to get up and leave the computer. Without changing my clothes, not even putting on lipstick, which I generally do to face the world, I grabbed my wallet and my keys and headed out. I walked down Gulf Boulevard to JD’s, my favorite bar and restaurant and there I lived “the heart of the matter.”
JD’s sits on a narrow stretch of barrier beach between the Gulf of Mexico and Florida’s Inter-Coastal Waterway. On the front veranda of the old wooden building perches a ten-foot high, blue and pink wooden octopus with a smiling mermaid hanging out on one of its tentacles. When you enter JD’s, you are in a world of free-form funk with a slight buzzy edge to it. The restaurant is festooned with permanent Christmas lights, fishing nets and tons of seashore kitsch.
There are three rooms: the piano bar up front, a laid back dining room in the middle, and the Back Porch, a bar which rocks, even at 10 in the morning. What Happens on the Porch Stays on the Porch proclaims the sign next to the list of all-day happy hour drinks. The Back Porch is where I hang out when I go to JD’s. There is something magical about the place, which attracts a community of fun loving and pretty open odd balls. It is a safe space to go and listen to great live music, dance with or without a partner, and to meet some good folks. I always feel better about human beings when I go there.
So yesterday I walked over to the street behind JD’s to check out what kind of music was coming from the Back Porch that afternoon. Drums. Not a drum set, but Congas. Heart music, masterfully played. All right! I stood outside, watching the drummer through the window. Yeah, some fine music being offered up by a big man, his voice, his hands and his drums sending sweet sounds into the air. I went in and stood against the door to get my bearings, to get a sense of who he was and who was hanging out on the Back Porch that afternoon. It felt really good.
I looked to see where I might sit down as there were no empty tables. An African-American couple was perched on wooden stools at a high, narrow table. On the other side of the table, there were three empty stools. I walked over and asked if I could join them. Warm vibes and welcoming smiles greeted me. We were joined about an hour later by two Puerto Rican sisters recently moved to Largo from the Bronx. With them was their colleague, an Irish-American, Special-Ed. teacher. So there we were, the five of us, talking, dancing, sharing food and drink, sharing laughter.
When Red, the drummer, launched in to “Sweet Home, Alabama,” I kicked off my shoes, got up and began to dance. No one was on the dance floor but me. No one joined me. It was me and Red and the music. When the song was over, there was applause from around the room. I bowed to Red, turned around and bowed to the assembled Back Porch regulars and sat back down with my new best friends. The waitress came over and told me a man wanted to buy me a drink. I hesitated, then accepted and went over to talk to him. He was in a motorized wheel chair but said that when he is in his manual wheelchair, he dances. I said, “Well, maybe we can do that next time.” A young woman at the bar grabbed my hand and said, “You dance so fucking good!” She and her boy friend and I danced together a bit later. I told her that she danced “fucking good” too.
Now here’s the thing: we were all kinds of people-different ages, different backgrounds, different “colors.” We were a rainbow perched on our wooden bar stools, sharing stories, photos, even a few minutes of on line conversation with one of the Perez sister’s children and their new puppy up on the Quantico marine base in Virginia. I write all this because the instant community formed in that Back Porch safe space gives lie to the “shithole” image of America smacking us around at the moment.
So what’s this got to do with the “heart of the matter?” I like to quote Anne Frank. She wrote in that precious diary of hers that she believed that human beings, in their hearts, are really good….that “in the end it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end.” At the heart of the matter is love.
I say amen to that. And I also say, if you start to lose hope, head for the Back Porch. And if you can’t find one in your neighborhood, create it.
P.S.: As I didn’t take any photos yesterday, here is one I took in Salvador, Brazil at a festival in the Pelourinho. Drums, dancing, people gathered to celebrate life.