“How Can I Help You” and Other Three-Dimensional Questions

i-in3cvejg-evan-dennis-2

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
— Lilla Watson

My first year at Barnard, I was part of a tutoring program where we went into public schools each week. It was called Students Helping Students. I loved doing it and can still picture sitting on the floor in a hallway, quietly cheering as a kindergartener made his way through “Are You My Mother?”

I also see now that it was White Students Feeling Good About Themselves by Helping Kids of Color in Underfunded Schools. Both of these are true, because truth is never one-dimensional. And I am still unlearning aspects of my amazing education, and educating myself about how not to be just another nice white lady.

But I have always remembered the name. And for as much as I’ve changed and hold myself to waking up, some things really are threads. The seeds of being of use, of using my skills to connect with other people — those are still here, in the form of women helping women and writers helping writes and humans being good to each other.

Questions of what I want feel short-sighted, and as always, I need to find that place where “what I want” intersects with “what do you — what does the world — need?” It’s a strange interplay, because needs are often most powerfully met by making an offering of some kind, the truest one you have, rather than taking a poll first and then scrambling to see what you can give. In other words, there has to be a balance, a meeting place, between self and world. Service and need. You and me. I and thou — minus the holier-than-thou crap.

This week, I finally dove into working on a manuscript of poems. It will be my third collection, and I’ve felt it swirling around for months now, a wispy suggestion to start that I couldn’t quite grasp. I don’t know what clicked — maybe it was writing a poem a day for a month. Or the urgency to connect, and this being one of my ways.

It’s too easy to write in generalizations. To write about bodies, to write about color, to write about religion. To use words like “justice” and “equality” and “safety” that must withstand so much battering. I fail when I attempt to write about these words. But I can assemble a book of poems. I can say, come in, sit down, and write what’s true for you. I can and will continue to ask what makes you happy, what brings you joy, what frightens you most. Where is your conviction?

I’m sitting here at my kitchen table, as I so often am when I come here to write. I’m sitting here being white. I’m sitting here being Jewish and gay and female and short and big and small at the same damn time. On my run this morning, I thought about all the times in my life I’ve had to remember how to dream, because dreaming got drowned out by the competition and walked not through but right into the doorway.

I do this, you know that by now, right? I sit down and start typing (actually, I sat down and started this hours ago), and just connect the dots and usually have no idea where I’m going. This is no different. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where our country is going, though all I have to do is be awake to see that this is not a difficult one to guess. It’s going exactly like this.

It’s more polarized than ever, and all the movies about good and evil, about light and dark, have come true. Life imitates art and art imitates life until there is not point in distinguishing the two. Reality TV is politics and politics is the usual and not becoming jaded requires fierce strength, which we might enjoy momentarily but no one can sustain for long alone.

Which is why we need each other. Today, a coaching call. I heard: “Stuck, frustrated, embarrassed, want to help, white, privileged.” These were words that came up again and again. And we talked about how to be present and keep moving forward, rather than spiraling into stagnation, which is about as self-focused as it gets. We talked about showing up, as a learner, as an observer, and what it means to know you get to trust yourself.

“How can I help you?” takes on a whole new dimension of importance, and the answers are not always clear, nor is that always the best question. So be patient — and remember that this fight, like truth, like life, is three-dimensional. It’s happening in real time, and it’s not about feeling good or meeting our own needs, but about our liberation being bound up in each other.

Courage and heart and risking sounding like we don’t know what we’re doing, because sometimes we don’t, and the only way to start getting clear and making any kind of impact is to stumble through. Not one of us is some kind of savior, but uprisings happen when enough individuals refuse to play by the rules, especially when the rules are a sick and twisted distortion of reality, revisionism, and willful ignorance.

As a writer right now, it’s easy to feel pretty deflated. But to give up my voice that easily would be a betrayal to everything I care about. It may or may not matter, but I will keep offering my words. I will keep being as kind a human as I can, and as awake a white person as I can (though I will not use the word “woke,” as it does not feel like mine to use).

And I will assemble this next collection of poems, as an offering from my heart to yours, because it’s one of the only things I know how to do for sure.

30/30 Poems in November: Beautiful Wild Thugs

ufomxgheugk-todd-diemerThe last day of November, 4:00pm.
pouring rain, nearly dark.
If you’ve ever lived in New England,
you know what I mean– dank, the kind
of chill that’s hard to get out
from inside your bones,
and how what you want more
than anything is to cancel everything,
climb under the covers,
turn on the twinkle lights
and off the news,
and get cozy.

As we ducked into the car,
I said this would be great
in the spring– just think of the flowers!
And that’s when she reminded me:
The rain rots the leaves,
and that rot becomes the most fertile
place for beautiful and wild things
to grow. Obviously you hear
the metaphor and run home
to write about it, but then autocorrect
changes things to thugs
and suddenly beautiful wild thugs
are growing out of the rot,
taking the dark humor
and making it into something new,
something with a whiff of hope
you might catch on your way
from this season to the next.

Let’s be beautiful, let’s be wild,
let’s turn things into thugs
and thugs back into things
that grow from the mulch
and have survived this and worse.
It’s the last day of November
and nothing is what we imagined.
I will not tell you to get over it,
but here — stand under my umbrella
until the skies clear.
The sun’s up there somewhere.

30/30

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Thanks to all of you for keeping me going writing 30 poems in 30 days. Because of your generous support, I met my personal goal of raising $500 for the Center for New Americans. (If you’re so moved, you can still contribute.

This was a fabulous practice for me, and sparked me to finally get cracking on my third collection. “Why I Was Late for Our Meeting” (working title) is in the works. Stay tuned!

29/30 Poems in November: Hipster Coffee Shop

hipstersWhat is it about hipster coffee shops,
always some achingly sexy song playing
like Modern English or The Cure,
Mazzy Star or Joy Division —
something you might have listened to
25 years ago when your own ache
was like a distant star
that had exploded but would still take
decades to reach your life?
Over in the corner at a tiny 2-person table,
a mama with a newborn
nursing in a sling. The scent of rosewater
wafting over. A lonely-looking guy
wearing red headphones
drinking from a lime-green mug.
A social worker on her lunch break,
rainbow ribbon hugging her name tag —
she looks so familiar
you can hardly keep from asking
are you someone?
Of course she is someone. You are someone,
too, sitting there at your laptop
typing a poem
nobody here will see,
not the young man with Down’s Syndrome
eating quiche,
not the dude with the funny winter hat,
not the grad student with her Mac
and soup
or the cute baby dyke couple
looking like long-lost twins.
It’s raining, just like last time
I sat here, two weeks ago
while my wife retrains her body and brain
just up Main Street,
and I wonder what it is about these gloomy
grey days that brings a certain comfort,
what it is about hipster cafes
and people-watching
and being anonymous in a public space
that is so very freeing.
I’m wearing a faded green t-shirt
that shows off my tattoo
and tight-fitting jeans
with red leather boots,
and this is about as dressed up as I get.
Let’s paint the town red, I want
to say to her when we reunite
in 20 minutes.
Then a woman so skinny
I think her legs may snap
walks in and I cringe,
the mama holds the baby up
for a burp and kisses that tiny head,
and I breathe in wondering
about all of the ways
our lives pass each other by,
our lives pass and yet
no time has passed at all
since I sat here 25 years ago
listening to that same song,
that same sexy ache,
that same refrain.

29/30

Two Kinds of Quiet

px2j3zadqk4-carolina-sanchez-b-1There have been many times in my writing life when I’ve wondered why on earth anyone would want to read my words. There is so much good stuff to read from people so much more on the front lines than I am. And still — I come here.

I come here tonight after taking a shower and climbing into bed. Mani is talking on the phone with her oldest daughter. Today was a mish-mash of working, a short run, grocery shopping, napping, and more working. The kids are at their dad’s. I miss them, though I keep the missing in perspective given that they are just a few miles away and I will see Pearl tomorrow morning when she comes over for breakfast before the school bus, and V and I have been exchanging silly texts for the past two hours.

I’m inundated with articles I want to make sure I read, a list of books I admit is daunting given how long it takes me to complete a single memoir on my nightstand, and thoughts about how best to participate in this moment of historical urgency.

I’m terrified of not doing enough, and yet aware that that seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy, an unacceptable cop-out. So instead, I am focusing on what I can do. One of those things is this — show up here and just write. Just say hello, how are you? Where are you? To myself, to you reading.

It’s very tempting to stop writing when things are murky and I’m less than clear on my contribution to this mess — both in terms of cause and solution. I notice the impulse to get really quiet.

There are two kinds of really quiet. One is the kind that would have you listen hard — listen in to the quiet. Listen for the knowing that will surely find you when you get very still (as if you are hunting wabbits and conquering injustice, for example).

But the other kind of quiet is something else. It’s a bit insidious. It may masquerade as the listening-hard variety, when in fact you are slowly receding, giving away the work to those who appear more vocal, more comfortable speaking out, more knowledgeable about what to say or do.

I am pretty sure there are a LOT of people who don’t feel comfortable writing or speaking, not our of lack of outrage but out of not knowing what the hell to do beyond circulating other people’s blog posts and news stories. “Thank god for good writers” is a thought I have frequently, these days more than ever. I won’t hide behind the quiet, but I’m also not the loudspeaker type.

These are not exactly times of balance, and yet to be effective — as writers, as parents, as fighters, as lovers, as friends, and as allies — it goes a long way to have some connection to your own values and voice. This connection comes in part as a result of cultivating quiet as a way of being present as opposed to quiet that is a disguise for checking out out of a sense of personal impotence and powerlessness.

You are not powerless.

Take your anger, your grief, your fear, your overwhelm — whatever states you find yourself cycling through — and let them be guides. Show up without knowing what you will write or say. Trust your instincts: join up with people you can learn from and move away from people who make you feel unsafe or crazy. And if the quiet of really listening for where you belong is trying to get your attention, let it. There is information there, and you are the only one who can convey it.

You are not crazy for feeling crazed. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel from a speech on January 14, 1963: “What we face is a human emergency.”

It’s enough to make any one — writer or not — have to gather up her wits and words and figure out where on earth to start. And as usual, the answer is simple: Start where you are. Then keep going.

27/30 Poems in November: Truth

day-6Kitchen-table revelation
we can change our minds
we can change our thoughts
we can get up
and turn down the heat
when the room gets too hot.
Truth is kitchen-sink
everything but that.
Truth is mad smacking
can’t change the world
just like that
one little voice
in the clanking universe.
Truth is forehead-smacking
honest inquiry
arm’s length and speak
your mind girl.
Truth is big love
and the empty sink
means nobody is eating.
Truth is kitchen table
strewn with papers
not one of them
life changing.
Truth is smack-dab
in the middle of chanting
some one-syllable name
for God you were gob-smacked
by your own foolish heart
and saw that it was time
to stop blaming yourself
for everything
that didn’t go as planned.
Truth is
you didn’t think
ahead
for once were in the moment
and in the moment
you knew what you wanted
needed and you asked
and received
and how we live
with the consequences
of cowardice and courage
may weigh the same
on the kitchen scale
and the karmic scale
and the scale that weighs
hearts and bones
and doesn’t judge.
Truth is kitchen trash
can overflowing
so cinch up the bag
and take it to the bins
in the garage,
take it to the landfill
take it to the streets
take it to heart
when you made up
your story
and declared it to be
true.

27/30

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Q: What is #30poemsinnovember?

A: A literary fundraiser for Center for New Americans in Northampton, MA.

The Center for New Americans welcomes and serves immigrants in Western Massachusetts with free English classes and a range of support services. Participating poets aim to raise $30,000 over the course of the month.

Writers do their part by writing one poem each day in November. Friends and family do their part by donating to support this effort. Powerful new poems and financial contributions translate to community support for immigrants.

I’m just $140 away from $500. Help me reach my goal.