Friday, May 24, 2019

Community Conversation

We went to a Community Conversation last night at Uplift High School where the neighborhood of Uptown were invited to attend an area-wide conversation about race and faith. It wasn’t very well attended. But the folks that were there were engaged. The panel consisted of staff from Kuumba Lynx a performance hiphop education group operating within Uplift High School, Dr. David Stovall of University of Illinois/Chicago, Daniel Hill, pastor of New Community Church in Bornzeville, and Tuyvet Ngo of the Illinois Vietnamese Association. They brought their deep background and experience in the community to the table.

As they were talking about crossing cultural boundaries I was reminded of a time many years ago now. I’m sure my daughter won’t mind me telling this story. (Hahaha, she’ll totally mind.) We told her if she met a certain goal for summer reading we’d reward her with a visit to a special restaurant. As one might guess, she totally blew away that goal plus. We took her to Macarthur’s a soul food place on the West Side.

*Fried catfish
*Corn muffins
*peach cobbler
*Bread pudding

You get the idea. And, oh yeah, mac and cheese.

We drove out there and went in and ordered. I noticed she wasn’t very excited or talking much. Maybe she was overwhelmed by the food. Finally she whispered to me. “We’re the only white people here.”

I looked around. Everyone around us was eating, and was black.

Suddenly I realized that this was much more than a reward for reading, it was a teaching moment. It was an opportunity for her to feel uncomfortable, part of a minority, a bit of an outsider. A lot like how certain populations feel amongst white people—out-numbered.

I couldn’t fix her discomfort. I only knew that this was life and she needed to experience it. What I did do was make sure she tried the peach cobbler and took home some corn muffins for later.

She’s grown up in a diverse neighborhood, within a diverse community, but it was important for her to feel that moment, what it’s like to not be top dog. Since then she has traveled. As a high school graduate she went to southern Italy where she was the only blonde for miles around—and very few people spoke English. She’s had to traverse all kinds of communities and be the outsider. She’s had to make inroads and bridge cultural gaps. Make a way when there seems to be no way and a common language is not possible.

We were lucky with the Community Conversation—most of us were on the same page: Let’s find a way to unite and work on issues.

Uptown Church & Uplift Community High School Community Conversations

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The Benefits of Writing Small

As a writing discipline Flash can be very useful. In this day and age of web content, many designers are looking for people for can write small and effectively.

I’ve been writing flash now for at least ten years. More and more of the pieces accepted for publication are 3,000 words or less—some as short as 50 words. I believe all writers need to be trained in the art of flash.

Much like in archery—you aim for the bull’s eye and then move a degree to the left or right of it, leaving the final analysis to the reader to hit the target. My job is to get you close, bring the context into view.

All writing is about perspective and a small piece can offer in a minimum amount of words something completely out of the box.

One thing I try to do with my writing is to take for instance something that just happened, actually happened to me that I’m thinking about. Then I add something else, and something else, and combine them into a story salad. I’m not sure where this thing is headed.

Recently I had a scare when I returned home from bootcamp and was putting my bike away in our building basement. Suddenly a stranger walked in. Hey I asked what are you doing here? He left, but later I thought that could have gone badly. The n for some reason I thought about the Challenger disaster, still mourning the astronauts who perished that day. Then I thought about how relationships change. I know, this is all so random. Then I put them all together in a 2,000-word story.

So what’s on your mind? Take a minute and write down the disparate stuff banging around inside your head and then construct a story using all those elements.
Image result for brain words

Monday, May 20, 2019

Google Brain Net

Does this sound like progress: Someday our brains will be able to upload. So that new manuscript or novel you’ve been thinking about will finally get written.

Advances in technology are moving toward just this. Already there is BrainNet which allows brain-to-brain communication for collaboration purposes. And, at this point in time, it is not a far step to imagine a device for the physically challenged where they can think a command and their chair steers them along. Perhaps in the future what we think can immediately be transmitted/translated onto a screen then sent via email or even telepathically.

Except I can envision a few small glitches. Who of us hasn’t gotten into trouble for inadvertently sending something out that goes viral in a bad way, that badly worded email to reply-all? Not everything we thing needs to be said, least of all put out there. I imagine many YouTube vloggers will one day cringe when they revisit earlier posts. Just like how political candidate\s wish to “take back” tweets from their college days.

As much as this might sound like an advancement—and, let’s face it, it will likely come to fruition—we might not be better off or more likely to produce the Great American Novel. I forsee some families breaking up, friendships ending. I had a friend who in the morning (not a good time for a lot of people) if caught off guard would likely tell you off in the elevator. I remember one time hearing her yell at someone who got on that they smelled. Yup, if you think it here, it will come out there, direct to print or audio.

There is so much wingding that flies through my brain, I’m glad no one knows what I’m thinking. As authors we should beware of certain technology.
Image result for computer brain

Friday, May 17, 2019

Missed Connections--a throwback to past writing

This story recently appeared in Spitfire Literary:

Missed Connections
by Jane Hertenstein

You were ahead of me in line at the Corner Bakery on State and Wabash, getting a salad, and you had on black pants and a very flattering white sweater. I was a few spots back, wearing a black coat, and I’m pretty sure we made eye contact numerous times. I wanted to say hello, but you were with a group of friends and I thought it might be awkward.

Yesterday I was riding my bike down Glenview and someone yelled my name, hey Sonja! Who was it?

Hey there, saw you at the pop machine just 30 minutes ago. You had on a tie-dyed T-shirt and I was sitting at the table next to the window checking you out. You looked and smiled. Wanna chat?

Tim, I said I needed a little time, but it’s been three weeks. Please call.

To the guy I made out with last night at the Fireside Bar—I lost your number. You wrote it on a tiny piece of paper I must’ve misplaced. Anyway, if you see this, I’ll be there again tonight.

We were on the train this morning, same car. You got on at Fullerton and I scooched over, and you sat down. I said nice shoes. You said thanks and read your Red Eye. Are you gay? Here’s hoping—reply, okay?

Ashley’s boss entered the room and she made Missed Connections disappear and reverted to her call center screen.

click the link to finish reading
Image result for missed connections

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Ostrog Monastery

I'm bringing back a flash I wrote inspired by traveling. A flash is like a postcard, written to remember our trip and let others know: Wish you were here!
“Now we climb.”
My husband and I were on a day excursion to Ostrog Monastery. Our tour guide had just announced that the last part of the journey was about to commence.
The bus pulled into a broad parking lot. It was with great relief we disembarked into a thick cloud of diesel exhaust and pilgrim cigarette smoke. “Now we climb,” our tour guide informed us.
I tilted my head. The monastery and cave church blended into the white bluffs above us. Centuries ago, hermit monks had excavated a chapel and living space much like how pigeons or doves build nests in insurmountable crevices impossibly high. Steps cut into the mountainside, zigzagged across the rock face. I hadn’t brought the right shoes.
“On the knees,” our guide continued in broken English.
click to finish reading

Image result for ostrog

Monday, May 13, 2019

Bright Invisible--my latest work is available as a chabook

Bright Invisible: Word Sketches from Great Spruce Head Island

a PDF chapbook, This chapbook will appeal to readers of the New York School—particularly fans of James Schuyler and John Ashbery. Great Spruce Head Island has been a source of inspiration for generations of artists and writers. I was invited to GSHI to spend a week walking where Frank O’Hara, Ashbery, and Schuyler walked. Through essays, journal entries, persona letters where I channel James Schuyler, I attempt to experience the island through their eyes. CLICK on image to the right of the page to request *FREE PDF

Friday, May 10, 2019

Bitter Fruit

For the next couple of weeks I'd like to post some old stories from my OTHER WRITING archive.

Here's a throw-back to The Write Room and a piece called Bitter Fruit.

Last summer I worked at a fruit stall at a Chicago green market located at State and Division. I started at the bottom of the ladder, assistant to the assistant peach purveyor; Katie knew her fruit. She always let me know when I was doing something wrong. In terms better suited for the job than myself, I was green.

The Russian ladies shopped for Old Golds, a variety of apples good for cooking. “It reminds them of home,” Paul often repeated. My boss Paul never liked how I stacked, “put up,” the apples. He had a system riddled with contradictions. First he warned me not to over handle the fruit, yet I was required to touch every piece. Once he instructed me to find the small ones and put two in the bottom of a quart size basket, then four more on top of them (that way they won’t roll off, he explained) and then a large one at the summit. Okay. But the next time it was one at the bottom, medium-sized, and then four, followed by one more (Why so big? The customers will think you’re trying to trick them.) I couldn’t win for losing. I don’t even like fruit.

I began to attach narratives to our customers. Just as the Russians were drawn to the apples because they reminded them of home, the gays were like bees swarming the peaches. I let my imagination go. The little old ladies were tempted by the blackberries as if that were their only vice. They carried them home like eggs in their handbags swaddled in plastic bags wrapped twice around. Kids were ga-ga over the blueberries, snitching stray ones off the table and popping them into their mouths. I liked to think their mamas read them Blueberries for Sal.

click to read the rest!

Image result for farmers market

Thursday, May 9, 2019

The Success of Failure

Jean Vanier died May 7, 2019. The way he lived his life and the words he wrote have had a profound affect upon me—and my life choices.

On Tuesday as accolades piled up at Facebook and social media, I was struck with how much this gentle man impacted others. You see, he dwelled with the least of these: people with intellectual disabilities. For someone destined for greatness and titles, he gave it up to live modestly, sincerely, and without pretense. To give dignity to others.

Jean Vanier came from privilege as a son of the British monarchy’s representative in Canada. After stints in the British and Canadian navies, he considered becoming a Catholic priest. He attended seminary getting a PhD in Philosophy with a dissertation on Aristotle in regards to happiness. In the early 1960s, when he traveled to France to see his spiritual mentor, a member of the Dominican order then serving as a chaplain at a home for people with intellectual disabilities. He found what he described as a “chaotic atmosphere of violence and uproar.” Some patients were shackled. Those who were not did little but walk in circles. Especially disturbing to Mr. Vanier was their screams. The scene was typical of mental institutions around the world at the time.

Thus his life took an unexpected turn—he asked if he could remove 2 of the asylum’s residents and live with them in a small house. It was a peer-to-peer relationship, he saw these brothers as having a lot to offer. He grew as a human being.

That house was the first of 154 communities across 38 countries that today form the network known as L’Arche. In 2015 Jean Vanier was awarded the Templeton Prize honoring “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Bestowed by the U.S.-based John Templeton Foundation, the prize was worth approximately $1.7 million.

I was struck by reading the various tributes how Vanier lived his life in contrast to society. “We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” He valued failure—how opposite is that?

The same day as his death I read about the US College Scandal:
Where parents have done their damnedest to get their kids into prestigious colleges—even breaking the law. It’s all about advance, advance, don’t retreat. Win, win, win. Kids today have to be the best, the smartest, carve out a niche for their college essays by being unique. Well, not everyone can be unique, literally we’d all be unique, and therefore, no one would be unique.

“The fear of failure, of feeling helpless and unable to cope, had been built up in me ever since my childhood. I had to be a success. I had to prove my worth. I had to be right. This need to succeed and to be accepted, even admired by my parents and by those whom I considered my “superiors,” was a strong motivating force in me and is a motivation at the heart of many human endeavours.”
― Jean Vanier, Becoming Human
“I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.”
- Community And Growth, Jean Vanier

The upside world of Jean Vanier is that in succeeding we lose, that in failing we progress, can go forward. It is the same paradox found in I Corinthians 1:26-28 Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were powerful; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly and despised things of the world, and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are,…

I’m wondering if in fact we should teach our children the privilege of losing, the importance of failure. The BBC article I linked to above asks the question: How important is an elite college degree? We certainly know it isn’t worth the price. Only the wealthiest can afford a 4-year degree from Harvard, Stanford, Yale.

I remember when my daughter graduated from college and was writing short stories (she still is). She had an acceptance in the inaugural issue of Goreyesque and was offered a public reading at Loyola University downtown Chicago. We were so awfully proud. Afterwards there was a reception. A man came up to us. I expected him to say he enjoyed Grace’s reading or to comment on her story, instead he asked how she got into The New School. He had a daughter/son he’d like to go there. Well, I wanted to say, first you have to get out of the box—but why bother since he didn’t even know he was in a box. He had no idea what was important. Some things money cannot buy.

Jean Vanier knew this and lived his life accordingly.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Fungus Among Us

For the next couple of weeks I'd like to post some old stories from my OTHER WRITING archive.

Here's a throw-back to Liars' League NYC

The fact that she was a cat lady was the least of her issues
The spokes of her wheelchair were clogged with fur. The big wheels looked like they were sheathed in brown and grey shag carpeting.

Georgina was a cat lady.--click for the rest

Image result for fungus among us