Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Painting the house

I finally had the house painted yesterday. I cannot tell you how long I have wanted to do that, and finally I got organized enough to get it done. This house has not been painted (except for my kids' bedrooms) since we moved here in 2001. And now I have a painter I can call whenever I need him, who did a nice job, was pleasant throughout, and gave me an estimate somewhat cheaper than all the others I've gotten over the years.

He and two other workers did everything in one day. I just had them paint everything white again, because it was too much decision stress to start choosing colors, and it would have significantly boosted the price as well. And I didn't include my bedroom, because I needed a corner of sanity amid the upheaval. Before the men left at around six last night, they put all the big furniture back in its approximate place, but advised me to wait till today to rehang pictures and push any pieces flush against the walls. So now my house looks like this.

Of course everything I pick up has to be dusted and wiped down or washed before being put back in its place. I'm throwing out some things, otherwise it'll be years before they rotate to the forefront of my attention again. I've been at it since early this morning and decided to take a break for some breakfast—and coffee. Then I'll get back to work and try to make my labor a pleasant, meditative endeavor.

Next up, the kitchen: replacing cabinet hinges that have always been wonky, and maybe the cabinets themselves, changing out the dated hardware, replacing the broken microwave and the ancient stove, replacing the counter with some sort of stone, overhauling the defunct under counter lighting, and refinishing the butcher block peninsula. After that: refinish wood floors throughout the house, and maybe pick up the carpet in the bedrooms and put down hardwood. God, just typing that made me tired. I hope it won't be another few years.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Books and flowers

I don't recall where I ran across this photo. On Instagram, I think, but I can't find it again now. I love the delicate shades of pink, the freshness of the white cabinet, the farmhouse sink and subway tiles, the books lined up above. Books and flowers, what could be better? I'm holding on to this gentle vision of our world today, as the 45th president constitutes his denaturalization task force to strip citizens "who should never have been naturalized" of their rights. I wonder who they'll find most undeserving and come for first? Rhetorical question. But aren't those flowers pretty?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Down draft

That's my cousin (who is really my sister) and me at a Simon & Garfunkel concert in Central Park in the eighties. If I recall, I'd recently graduated with my masters in journalism and had just begun working as a reporter at LIFE magazine. My cousin, four years younger, was still in college. Today she's a government lawyer, while I sit here, alone in my house, wrestling with getting down a new opening chapter for the book I'm writing for a woman with her fist perpetually in the air, a woman we need more than ever right now. I'm having a crisis of confidence. I don't know if what I'm writing is any good. I just can't tell. 

Today, I'm falling back on advice from Anne Lamott's writing manifesto Bird by Bird, in which she offers guidance like this:

"Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft—you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft—you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it's loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy."

Our July Fourth was quiet this year. We entertained my 94-year-old aunt and her daughter, not blood relatives, but still family. Our kids had lively engagements all over the map, but we just took it slow. My aunt was my mother's best friend, one of them, and she reflected that all her contemporaries are gone now. She is in marvelous shape, mind crystal clear, walks every day, looks wonderful. She walks more strongly than I do if you want to know the truth. And my husband thinks she's one of the most elegant women he's ever seen. She won the genetic jackpot, but she's lonely. I'm glad we spent the day with her and into the evening, watching fireworks together on TV. She calls me her other daughter. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Breathing space

"Look, I want to say,
The worst thing you can imagine has already
Zipped up its coat and is heading back
Up the road to wherever it came from."

—Tracey K. Smith, from Life on Mars


So does that mean the worst thing I can imagine won't actually happen, or that it already has? Also, I could dream in that room all day long, drinking in lightness and air.

The stages of fascism

A woman I work with is Muslim American. As she sat among fellow parents at her daughter's graduation on Tuesday, the Supreme Court of the United States announced that it had upheld the third iteration of Trump's Muslim Travel Ban by a margin of 5-4. Devastated, the woman watched her daughter's graduate from middle school through tears. This was not the country she had been born and raised in. Her children were definitely not having the carefree upbringing she had known.

There have been a raft of other troubling SCOTUS decisions this season—the weakening of unions, the roll-back of pro-life protections, upholding a baker's right to discriminate against a gay couple, allowing states to gerrymander their voting maps at will. Then yesterday came the news that Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a centrist, is retiring, giving Trump the opportunity to place yet another Handmaid's Tale extremist on the bench, one who will be committed to eroding reproductive rights and gutting health care for all. Why couldn't it be Clarence Thomas who was retiring? The man is an absolute waste of judicial space, and has been for decades. So now, the progressives in Congress are gearing up for a fight to delay seating a new justice until after the midterm elections, citing the GOPs refusal to even hold hearings on Obama's Supreme Court pick Merrick Garland in the eight months before the 2016 elections. The hope is that Congress will be very different in January, with a lot more women and progressives and people of diverse experiences, which might allow a more centrist jurist to be appointed, rather than another Neil Gorsuch, which would sink us all.


In December of 2016, a month before Trump was inaugurated, Evan Osnos wrote a piece in the New Yorker that asked this heart-stopping question: "What is the precise moment, in the life of a country, when tyranny takes hold? It rarely happens in an instant; it arrives like twilight, and at first, the eyes adjust."

In her post yesterday Sabine addressed exactly that question, recalling her own family's existence in Nazi Germany and posting an excerpt from an Irish Times piece on how fascism takes hold. I could hardly breathe as I read the excerpt, which I've posted below. It so fully describes this moment. Let us not be sheep.

Fintan O'Toole writes in The Irish Times:

Fascism doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.

One of the basic tools of fascism is the rigging of elections – we’ve seen that trialled in the election of Trump, in the Brexit referendum and (less successfully) in the French presidential elections. Another is the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities. Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed. That’s been tested out too. And fascism of course needs a propaganda machine so effective that it creates for its followers a universe of “alternative facts” impervious to unwanted realities. Again, the testing for this is very far advanced.

But ... there is a crucial next step, usually the trickiest of all. You have to undermine moral boundaries, inure people to the acceptance of acts of extreme cruelty. Like hounds, people have to be blooded. They have to be given the taste for savagery. Fascism does this by building up the sense of threat from a despised out-group. This allows the members of that group to be dehumanised. Once that has been achieved, you can gradually up the ante, working through the stages from breaking windows to extermination.

It is this next step that is being test-marketed now. It is being done in Italy by the far-right leader and minister for the interior Matteo Salvini. How would it go down if we turn away boatloads of refugees? Let’s do a screening of the rough-cut of registering all the Roma and see what buttons the audience will press. And it has been trialled by Trump: let’s see how my fans feel about crying babies in cages.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

She said yes!

My darling niece is engaged! Her sweetheart popped the question last night! And oh, he did it beautifully. It was the third anniversary of their relationship and he took her out to dinner at their special place. But before they went, he presented her with this box of fragrant golden roses in the shape of a heart, and then the ring, and she burst into to tears. "So is that a yes?" he said and she nodded wordlessly. "Um, I'm gonna need to hear you say it," he said, and she laughed and cried and said it.

We were all on standby. We'd known from the night before that this was the day he would propose. On Monday my husband was home from work, and our son came over to hang out with us on his day off, and my daughter also happened to be off from work that day and she came over with a bottle of champagne and told us to gather round. "Leisa is getting engaged tomorrow. And Grant wants us all to be at their apartment for 9:30 PM to surprise Leisa when they come back from dinner and to raise a toast and celebrate." And so we were there, along with some of their other friends, and his parents, and my lovely niece dissolved again into tears when she came through the door and we all yelled, "Surprise!" even though there had been a firm plan to yell "Congratulations!"

There was so much love and joy in the room, so much laughter and communion, and I looked at all the young people there, the couples, and I thought that they will be each other's support system as the years go by, and I just felt so thankful that my son and daughter and niece were able to grow up like siblings, and that they are all with really good people right now, and maybe this is how it will be. Well, the first of these couples has declared, and we will be going to Jamaica for a wedding in the near future, maybe a year from now, and it will be beautiful.

We found out that Grant had called Leisa's mom in Jamaica the night before he proposed, and he'd talked to my brother about his intention to ask Leisa to marry him when my brother visited us in New York a few weeks ago. We had been drinking margaritas that night, and apparently my brother's response was, "I have two pieces of advice to give you: One, be patient, the good times will come and go, but if you're patient and have faith they'll always come again, and the other, well, I can't remember the other thing right now, I'll need to get back to you on that." Sounds like my brother.

On the way back home in the car at close to midnight, my daughter and her love dozing in the back seat, I reflected on how mixed that day had been for the world, with the Supreme Court upholding the Muslim ban, and a federal judge ruling that the children stolen by our government had to be reunited with their parents within 30 days, and primaries across the country, including in New York where a 28-year-old Puerto Rican educator pulled off an exhilarating upset victory over a 20-year incumbent who was next up to be Speaker of the House.

The world was definitely still roiling, with very real problems that we would continue to confront, but for this night, we were in a bubble of happiness, the rest of it not quite real, almost a parallel universe that was waiting for our return, but on this night, we got to exist in a week where my darling niece completed her year-long residency, signed a contract to work as an associate dentist at a practice in Brooklyn, and got engaged to be married. These are the moments that fortify us.

This morning, I'm remembering my niece texting me in the summer of 2015 to say, "I met someone." There was something about this one; I could tell right away. Congrats, my loves. I've watched your joy and ease with each other from the very beginning, and I'm so very happy for you both!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Fantasy Lives

A young woman standing on a dock painting at the Saugatuck Art School during the summer of 1946. Photo by Wallace Kirkland, LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Image


As a kid growing up in Jamaica, I dreamed of being an artist. I always knew I'd move north to America, where my beloved and utterly cool Aunt Winnie lived. I visited her in New York with my family when I was five, and from that point on my future was set.

Color the girl in that LIFE magazine photo a shade of brown, add a few pounds and a fuzzy 'fro, and you have the exact picture I had of my future. I applied to college in New York City and started out as an art major, but then I ran into an English professor named Maire Kurrick, and a creative writing professor named Elizabeth Hardwick, and these women inspired and encouraged me, and soon I had switched my major to English with a concentration in creative writing, and my old fantasy dissolved into to a new one.

Though I dreamed of the purity of writing books, I went in the journalism, because I was the child of a civil servant, who had instilled in me, above all, to make a living, to earn my own income and make my own way. There was no security to be found in sitting alone in a room and writing in the hope that someone would like what I had written and publish it. No, one had to have a job, and a steady paycheck. And the only way I could think to do that in the field of writing was to pursue journalism.

And so I went to graduate school in journalism, and became a reporter for the recently relaunched LIFE magazine in the 'eighties. Working for LIFE had been a secondary dream of mine when I was a girl poring over the magazine's photo essays, a brand new form of journalism back then. I studied the names and styles of the magazine's celebrated roster of photographers, imagining what it might be like to drop into people's lives in far-flung places. I ended up working with some of those men and women, and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything. I suppose, in a way, that first foray into journalism was a perfect melding of the visual with the written word.

But now, here I am, a woman who sits alone in an apartment all day, writing books. Life has shown me again and again that the dreams we hold close are always in the process of being manifested. And now, I am beginning to dream again of returning to that first love, painting on canvasses, because while I do love and am grateful to make a living writing books, I am so often filled with agita at the need to please other people, while painting settles into my solitary soul as a feeling of comfort and peace.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Girl We Love

Because I need to reclaim light and joy and innate goodness in this space.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

What Sabine said

Wise woman Sabine, who lives in Germany, left this comment on my post "Tender Age" camps. I implore everyone who reads here, please take this in.

"Please, please be aware that this is not the start of fascism. You are way into it. Ask any scholar. While I truly hope for you that voting can bring change, be aware that we all across the globe need to get ready to fight this monster. Whether you call it populist or call it fascist."

Begin Again

I came across an interview with the much lauded Haitian-American author Edwidge Danticat in an online publication, The Rumpus. I know Edwidge. We went to the same college, and for a while moved in the same circles. She found early meteoric success and became a darling of the literary world. That did not stop her being kind and warm whenever we met. She is humble, a poet to her soul, and easy to love.

Toward the end of her Rumpus interview was the exchange below. For me, it landed like a clarion call to retrieve all the hope I've misplaced in the last few days, and not just because of heart-rending happenings on the southern border. Closer to home, I was wrestling with less dire concerns. And yet, they made my heart feel locked in a fist, my breath shallow, and at the edge of consciousness, vaporous fear. My editor didn't like where I chose to begin the story I am currently writing. She wants me to begin in another place. I will confess, though I was outwardly willing and positive, inwardly, it took some processing. It caused some pain, there I confessed it. I also wasn't sure I agreed, but she's the one who must be pleased in this equation. And so I will write a new chapter for her approval. On a good note, she loved the narrative outline, so it wasn't a complete fail. 

In any case, Edwidge Danticat's words found me today like an angel's song, reminding me to persevere, the stand in solidarity with all struggles, large external ones, and quiet internal ones. Doubt only weakens us, robbing us of the inspiration to meet each new challenge, making us forget that we can take them one by one, minute by minute, breath by breath, and do what's necessary. 

Thank you, Edwidge. Today, you have saved me.


Rumpus: Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist At Work is the most important book for me in terms of understanding the artist’s life and the trials in truth-telling ... This framework of accepting the haunting and inviting the spirits in: when and how did you discover it?

Danticat: ... Create Dangerously was about giving myself permission. There are people who come into writing emboldened and formed. I wasn’t like that. I had to learn to give myself permission ... that this is a worthwhile endeavor, that I would fail sometimes, it would work sometimes, but like Maya Angelou says, that place had been earned for me. All I had to do was claim it.


The photos here are by my niece and goddaughter Dani, who is following the call to write, and who is in Australia right now, gathering experiences. These sumptuous shots were taken at The Grounds of Alexandria. I'm sharing them here simply because I love and miss her, and because her photographs increased the beauty in my world today. She, too, is saving me as she travels the world, creating dangerously.

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