Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Put Your Butt Here

July 26, 2013
Put my what where?

Put my what where?

My seventh-grade students dream bigger than any directive.

When a street sign like the one we saw on the way to the High Line tells them Place your butts here, they will comply like good citizens, and then defy like even better citizens. They are budding semanticists who know that words both open and close doors.

Each word has a special charge.  Thus surely my students will also put their “buts”  here—and their “ifs” and their “ands”, amending signage to reflect a vaster cause:  Please place your dirty cigarette BUTTS here, but don’t stop moving your ANATOMICAL AND MOTIVATIONAL BUTT towards the greater good. 

When their personhood and minds are respected and “bolstered”–thank you for adding that to our vocabulary list, Obama!–my students think with their hearts: with this kind of cognition from a contingent of twelve-year-olds, the results move (the urban equivalents of) mountains.

Writing Up High:  What's your inner phenology?

Writing Up High: What’s your inner phenology?

These young people follow the signs that maintain convention only in so far as this doesn’t handicap the growth of a vital community.  Otherwise, we teach them how to edit radically, and use words to set everybody free.

My students now look at their city and see the secret gardens reestablishing themselves incognito in the most misshapen, arthritic sidewalk cracks, in rich and poor neighborhoods alike.  Like the human spirit when nourished, these “invasive” plants won’t be held back.

This same crew is learning Urban Ecology.  I make the pleasant mistake of writing Nettles Prick on the board as part of a parsing lesson.  They have to squeeze their anatomical butts and slow down their breathing to keep from erupting into hormonally-mandated giggles without end.  Prick: thank goodness some body parts are inherently funny.

The Buddha said all life is suffering, and certainly studying grammar, were it a shaming prison for their otherwise rolling thoughts (as it is often taught), can be that.  But these little Buddhas know how to keep the joy in the rules and the rules in service to saying what they need to say.

Serious Laughter Pollination

Serious Laughter Pollination

A short prayer to the Curriculum Fairy: May all young people use their whole body and whole mind to follow their whole heart.   May all young people sit down on their anatomical butts RIGHT HERE and refuse to budge, should anyone try to fence them from their wildest dreams out of  fear about the vestigial societal anatomy they may dismantle in the process.

May those who would rather pick their butts than support our young authentically have an ingrown hair that wakes them up to what pain is.

May all young people without exception be happy, healthy, safe and at ease.

(And to all you young people who are applying to college shortly and are ready to write your essays, visit our Essay Intensive programs to guide, inspire and challenge you HERE!)

Natural Grammar

Natural Grammar


Big G’s Loose Leaf

April 12, 2013

Writer’s Block is Relative

To console the stymied artist, Sidney Sheldon, a writer known for his TV-style serialization, explained, “A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.”  Sheldon’s reliance on formula made him prolific and successful, but his career was much steadier than his mind.

Yes, the unreliable state of our world can make a person think that its presiding deity may have been manic-depressive too.   However, my job today is not to diagnose archetypes, but to be cheerful.

With the stinky red dry-erase marker, I write Sheldon’s quote on the conference room whiteboard.  Over the heads of my students, out the floor-to-ceiling windows, midtown Manhattan looks like a Legos project.

K reads Sheldon’s explanation aloud solemnly.  How hard it is.  Nods of resonance from my twenty-eight adolescents, confronting their own blank pages: Yeah, man, rough.  Epic rough.  A few of them even touch the pages on the desk like they might a crush’s arm in the cafeteria.

Sheldon had a god who dug deep for content, and my boys know about having to dig.   This fellowship serves young men of color with big dreams.  Sometimes their dreams are bigger than their attention spans.

dreamscape.  attention span can be seen reflected in water.

dreamscape. attention span can be seen reflected in water.

It’s August.  In business casual, sequestered at the enrichment program, they adjust their belts under the tables.  Some chew on their lower lips, hoping for a big lunch sandwich.  Look fondly toward where their phones are charging.  J sticks a pick in his hair as if an exclamation point for his acrobatic thinking.

T rereads the quote and says, maybe for the first time, Oh, that totally makes sense!  Who is the guy that said that?

A writer, I say, just like you guys.

Hmmm.  “Being a writer” just got an upgrade from chore-status.  A ruffle of self-importance sweeps the room.  The corporate building—with fifty-plus floors, King of the Lego’s—is freezing cold “to protect the equipment.”  Even my 16-year males, testosterone toasters, have the shivers.   Their body heat could normally power a small shack, or at very least a reading lamp.   I want to hug them.  If I could, I would be a hut for all of their dreams to stay warm and alive.

But right now, I’m doing some sloppy math on how much it costs to keep a financial behemoth like this so chilly.  My inner conservationist wants to reregulate the building’s temperature to protect the truly premier equipment—our bodies, absolutely irreplaceable.   But flesh and blood are not expensive enough to put first (or so goes my snarky assessment), and so the AC rules.  My students, empathizing now as God’s newest colleagues, focus their gazes on the quote.  Knowing just what Big G feels like, ay-ay-ay-men, they bend over and write.

Ideas & Images come in patchwork.  That’s how I suspect the world manifested itself during the imaginative flurry and giddiness of creation days.  My little brother’s hot breath.  Laughed at in school for the immigrant mispronunciation. Stopping mom from hitting dad with a vase.  Doing HW in the bathroom stall.  The bright orange tubes for spanking.  The cliff-face.  Sham Valedictorians.  At the beginning of a long, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes exhausting process of intellectual transformation, my students are realizing that god must be a workaholic.  Or at least a serial fiction writer.

So while they play Creator, chewing on their pens—or mine, if I’ve lent them—, hunched over, a few of them protecting their pages with an arm, I play Nature.  From where I sit, October is still far off, but I’ve already decided I want to be her for Halloween.  I’ve never been one to plan a costume, and now I don’t need to.  I am already wearing it, and always have been.


Dress me

It might feel like Nature is not in the conference room, or purposefully aloof from this part of the city, but she is.  Just like Big G is, streaming through the big hands and edgy minds of my teens.

With my beloved J, who riffs on the magnificence of evolution all the time, I have been watching BBC’s Life & Planet Earth, ingenious series that move up close and personal with all the animals and plants that live Here.  The film crew reveals the design of the macro and microcosm in tandem—the profligate octopus, the swollen mycelium, bowing pines, Arctic pin-wheeling sky.  Their cameras can capture even the blinking eye of a hummingbird.  Most of the shots make me cry.


Flower sneezing bless you

But here’s why I dig on Nature as writer and artist.  She’s is not so attached to her own ideas—not any of them.  She’s too prolific for that.  Each idea is just fine: none are particularly special.  She creates in excess of need and favors only what works, without preconceived notion or plan.  She doesn’t brag, but she puts out everything she’s got.  She’ll never explain to you fully how her mind works.  She’s got art down to a science.

Nature hands God a fresh piece of paper on demand.  And so I walk around with loose-leaf, catering to those whose enthusiasm has driven them over the edge.   K takes a small stack.  T has written more than his name and school and is nodding with approbation at his paragraph.  Not so hard after all, to bring a little life into their narratives and the room.  Just let them pretend heaven is impatient for their proposal, and have faith that earth, running out of some things quickly, still has ample ink.

Unfathomable Web of Verbs

January 6, 2013

What Moves


emergent subject

My former student, J, to whom I taught Latin years ago when he was a totally bewildered but well-meaning (as they say) 8th grader who would spend most of the class cooing at the pigeons on the window ledge, writes to me:  I love your writing.  I would buy your book!

these be the messengers

these be the messengers

J, do you mean my invisible, incipient book? The one I feel in my belly like a prayer searching 

 for muscular wings?  For a few weeks in the fall of that year, I was very sick with mono, which is only supposed to afflict you from sharing Dr. Pepper sodas or callous, drooling make-out sessions when you’re 14, but I guess Mono didn’t get the memo.  One day my headache was so intense that another nail-bitten student asked me if he could go to the bathroom and then came back after fifteen minutes with a half-steeped Lipton black tea in a Styrofoam cup.  Here, he said, handing it to me.  I got this for you.  He had taken note of my habits, if nothing else.  I could see where he had drawn on his hands with his pen.   And, he added.  I didn’t do my homework.

 Sometimes one accepts love in any medium.


leaves i love

leaves i love

Plus, it was Mono that stopped me in my tracks enough to show me the potency of yoga, what yoga was really up to, the face it only reveals once you’ve drawn the mental hospital curtains and signed up for the spiritual blood transfusion, come what may.

So all these years later, to have an attuned, adult-ish J praise my work is just the right medicine for a different kind of disheartenment.

Moved by his profusion, as any writer would be, I say: I think I have a book in me, but I don’t have a subject!

He returns:  If you cannot find the subject, look for the verb.

This is exactly what we instruct young Latin students to do when learning to read the language.  It’s not how literate Romans thought or operated.  But the verb is kind of the boss of the sentence, and it can be useful to take orders from a boss when confused.  Once you find the verb, most of the mystery of the subject is removed, for the verb’s inflection fixes its pronoun correlate: if the inflection is a he-she or –it (shit, for short), the subject cannot stray, nor escape the tyranny of the verb’s decision making.  It bows and complies.  If you didn’t understand any of this paragraph, count yourself in good company.  Now you know or remember what it is like to be an 8th grade boy.

So there is a correlate in writing: when you find your action, the movement, you also know what or who is moving.

The maxim is kind of Taoist-sounding, when it isn’t just irritating.

what moves

what moves

And when you are an 8th grader, you take the issue of grammatical agreement personally.  As if the Romans set out to make things complicated for you.  And did a damn good job.  I’ve heard many a middle-schooler whine this whine verbatim: Why did they make Latin so hard?  The legacy of the Romans was hair-tearing grammar.  The aqueducts were really a second-tier invention besides their puzzler syntax.  And for this contribution, no one can forget them, wish as they might.

And the subsequent frustration can cause weird, reactionary behaviors (I’ve seen them firsthand)—again, mostly in males: photographing your own eyeballs, seeing how swiftly you can stab a pencil point in the spaces between the fingers of an outspread hand, before you miss and stab yourself.  OopsmayIgotothenurseIjustpuncturedmyfinger?  No.  She’ll just stuff a cracker in the wound.  Conjugate this verb first.

not eight grade boys not learning latin

not eight grade boys not learning latin

But as a rule for writing, as for living: do you know, really know, what moves you?  And if you only sense it, down deep in the pre-syntactic zone of embodiment, can you dare to eff the ineffable?

Because once the prayer comes out of your mouth, its wings take it where it pleases.  You cannot author a bird’s whim.

Bummer Marriage

I rush into the train station as best I can in my air-cast.  It’s a hobbled rush, really. O.K., so not a rush at all—more like a heroic limp.  The time remaining until the train arrives, displayed on the digital screen, is increasing rather than decreasing as I stand there, helplessly late for work.  The trains are cryptic and uncompassionate on Saturdays.

A bum sits beside me on the platform.

He looks like he’s in rough shape.  He’s got a few crumpled and sweaty dollars in his hand.  He unrolls and re-rolls them, watching the physics of it intently, like he is hoping they will turn into a greater amount than they currently are.  The bills are vaguely waxy.   He also looks like he might have just climbed down the beanstalk.  He regards me.  I have dressed for the wrong season—yesterday it was winter, today it feels like early spring.  My dirty backpack and long down coat are on the bench in a heap beside him.   He appears jealous of their heap-ness.

please let it come

please let it come

Will you marry me?  He asks, like a dart protruding from a cloud.

Me: Sure.

Bum: Really?

Me: Sure.

Bum: Hey, wow.

[Considered pause.]

Bum:  So, what should we do now?

Me:  I don’t know, it was your idea.  Come up with something.

Bum: Hmmm.  Could I have your phone number?

Me: Remember this: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7.

Bum: I have no memory.  [Points to long scar above his eyebrow.]  Car accident.

Me: Ouch.  A long time ago?

Bum: Yeah, when I was a kid…[Regarding me freshly.]  What is your job?

Me: I’m a teacher. I’m on my way there now.

Bum: Oh?  Why don’t you dress up nicer for work?

[F! I’m in my good clothes!]

Me:  Because I’m dressed up on the inside.

Bum:  Damn.

We nod appreciatively at one another.  My subway comes rushing in, like it knows it is late and feels vaguely performative about its compensatory hurtling entrance (This makes me think of when my students are late to class and arrive excessively out of breath, as if they climbed Mt. Washington to get to me rather than walked down a hall).  I gather my things to board.  The Bum looks disappointed, but we have that kind of arrangement—each of us able to go our own way, with respect for the other.  On a scale of 1-10, this marriage already gets a 9: mutual regard, easy conversation, agreement about when to say more and when not to, and effective, even instantaneous decision-making.  Voila.

When the doors close, he is still looking at me, his dollars hanging loosely in his hand.  As the train departs, a spiderthread of affection trails backward, the web of life growing ever-weirder in the fullness of its design.


Just End It Write Now

February 25, 2012

Writing After

Holy Surmounting

Writing after a long time of not doing so is like biking with a flat tire, uphill in a Chinook, loaded with too many groceries in the basket.   That much dread in the legs.  Some pyrotechnic, autogenic inspiration, or at least a mule-deer genie of the place, ought to help one surmount the landfill, crammed with non-expressive detritus of thoughts, between the last time you wrote, and this moment of articulation.

Instead, just a few curses now and then, which the wind handily tosses back in your face.  And then it starts to rain, as if Nature strives to impress Noah, one-upping his last watery debacle.  It rains so hard the foothills disappear.  You wonder about that elusive magic of the sentence, and why it has no refuge for you now.

I have been reading excessively beautiful material on grief, and it inspires me to return to the object of my own grief, a writing project I started and abandoned, because I couldn’t make it breathe.  I think of an herbalist I know, trying a third time to resuscitate a newborn, whose limpness is clear, because its mother is watching warily from the corner, the way she would watch a rabbit nearing the scarcity of her vegetable garden.

The project, now dormant, was a book I was to write on the life of my beloved friend Liz, who appeared in this blog as mortal and ghost alike and who died at 103 years-old, two Septembers past.   The time after someone dies is tracked like the time just after they are born: in months.

I send this missive up as a postmortem salutation, aiming for a respectful love as full as a full moon, which can’t get bigger, more itself, than it is at that moment– like the moon Liz died beneath, and like the being she was while she lived.

These missives are engineered by Imagination’s slight-of-hand: Undertakers loving the loads that they have undertaken. A rumination on the preposterousness of endings.

Your Terminal

Endings Perplex

Even though it can be hard to discern a person’s last true breath, the End that follows is usually impossible to miss—because, unlike all of the life that came before it, the End is unwavering itself.  Its status doesn’t change.  Facebook would cringe at the thought.

“THE END” is usually impossible to miss

When she was young, my little sister penned “THE END” on everything she created with MORBID FINALITY.  Even if her story was only two sentences in length, “THE END” took up the rest of the page—much like our END will supersede our existence in its infinite duration, compared with our brief presence.

Not only did she make clear where the end was, she sometimes pressed so hard with the pen that she ripped the paper—a penetrating finale.    The end could be like that, too, like a club smashed over whatever came before, the narrative adventure that led up to it.   As my sister wrote, her thick blonde hair spilled over the page like a magician’s curtain.  Her little girl fingers clutched the BIC pen (mightier-than-the-sword indeed) and spelled these two words more meticulously than any of the others, with the same kind of pen her Daddy used when he did things that looked Important.

Looking Important

And then she would hold out the story for someone to read.  “The End” hardly ever felt comfortable where it was, like a tundra overtaking the little word gardens above it.  No panning out with cinematographic flare, no red-ribbon’d sunsets, no rump of a horse riding off into the pastoral numb arms of nature, two riders atop:  just the short thread of a life—or lives—of mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, which, as soon as possible, wound up cut.  At this juncture in her orthography, my sister still wrote many of her letters backwards. The direction of  a “b” or “d” was negotiable.  But “The End” never suffered from any adulteration: “The Enb” just wouldn’t carry the same authority.  I’ll try some Hemingway-esque shorties, in her style:

All “The Ends” are False– Except Maybe This One

The undertaker, enamored, carried her out of the room.  The End.

Some are more False than Others

The undertaker, enamored, carried her out of the room.  She walked right back in. The End.

Or, mitigating the blow

The undertaker, enamored, carried Liz out of the room.  But she didn’t go along completely.

When he came into her bedroom where she had died, he looked at her like he recognized her—little old lady, truth is beauty, beauty truth sort of thing—as if she resonated with the heroine of a verse he’d read as a child, something death could be, but never actually was.  She looked fresh as a daisy, as the saying goes, like she had actually rejuvenated, rather than stiffened and dried, in the hours since she went from creature to corpse.  Only the corners of her mouth looked suspiciously caked.

What is a dead person, really?  Traces of being alive and the suffering that is its hallmark remain on the body.  You want to see the bed-sore on her bottom?  It’s hard to move into stillness.  I want to know if the undertaker wills himself to forget that what is in front of him is a (former) person, or if he is content with matter as matter.

Flowering Conclusions

She’s got her last date with you: The End. That’s who waltzes her into the Grand Ballroom. We tucked the roses into the bed-sheet as he wrapped it around her.   She’d like the idea of two men taking her out; one tall, one short, it’s like the rhymes we had to memorize, the ditties.

When the pair comes to claim our dead—and I’ve only seen it happen twice– there is a tall one and a short one, evoking balance for those who say goodbye to the body.  See?  Some humans are big, some are small; some live on, some die and are done.

Liz didn’t think there was a God “upstairs”, but I had the feeling God’s Proxy was in the apartment on the floor above hers, tinkering, attaching her spirit to the Cosmic Pulley and hauling her up through the ether.  Even her spirit had heft, waited around the apartment like a drone of bees.  I heard the undertaker rattling out through the front doors, and suddenly the apartment was no place to be, like the monkey house at the zoo without any monkeys in it.  What is this strange smell? What once happened here?

What if the undertaker fell in love with her, like the rest of us had?  Maybe he would sing to her from the street, late September wind rustling about in the garbage, as he loaded her, wrapped up like a burrito, into the back of his dark car.  At that time, not one leaf had fallen, though Fall was just around the bend, hiding in the doorways, ready to surprise you with a temperature drop any morning now, any morning now.  Liz had been the first leaf on the Great Tree to go.  What is this pain so deep in my chest I feel some organ is trying to tie itself into a forget-me-knot?

The undertaker put her into the sleek trunk, meant for human equipage.  He crowed—just like the real crows, alighting on the benches, pinions flapping as poems do in the sky of grief, triumphing over the toppled ice cream cups in the dusty Champ De Mars.   Look at this bounty, fallen, mine.

Yes, she agreed, pragmatic more than romantic.  Very well. Get on with it.

He got on with it.