Hug A Teacher

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Some days I feel incredibly foolish.

I know I probably shouldn’t, it’s just that I’ve spent my entire life believing with all my heart that my storied Generation X was ushering in the end of racial prejudice. I used to believe this in the way some people believe in the gospel and others believe that a zombie apocalypse is imminent and they just can’t be convinced otherwise. I knew even in my seven-year-old heart that racism isn’t a natural state. I refuse to accept that hating anyone because they are not like you is our highest destiny.

On a postcard kind of a day on the shores of Lake Michigan when I was a kid, my young swingin’ single mom brought me along to meet a new beau — a professional Puerto Rican soccer player named Fernando. (Cue Chicago’s Saturday In The Park for the full effect.) As he came running toward us, heading the ball with mechanical precision, and dribbling ever-tightening concentric circles around us — I yanked mom’s arm and whispered that I couldn’t wait for my grandparents to meet him.

My teeny heart shattered when she told me that no one else in our family would ever meet this adorable human who had pogo sticks for legs. Nope, they would never meet him because they were… prejudiced. I asked what in the world that was, with my face screwed up real good. Mom said she’d explain later. But she really didn’t have to. I began to put it together right then and there that it had something to do with some people thinking that they were better than the next human, just doing their damndest to navigate the mystery that is life. The older I got, I felt that this distortion in one’s thinking could only be blamed on a facocta (Yiddish slang for ‘fucked up.’ Also super fun to say!) idea about themselves — that the need to feel superior over others is wrought from a crazy-sad inferiority complex. And while that should be a comforting thought, it’s not anymore, when the world’s been turned upside down. But believe this: The tyrant fears the poet. Rise up, poets!

A couple of years later Mom & me moved to San Diego. She was only halfway through law school and couldn’t afford anything fancy. We ended up in an apartment that had a magnificent view of the San Diego skyline, but was in a rundown neighborhood of tall palms shading crumbling craftsman bungalows and half-way houses. Mom being the open-minded young parent she was, enrolled me in a magnet school in an even rougher neighborhood than ours.

For the 5th and 6th grades, I was the lone blonde girl on a practically empty school bus en route to Fred Baker Elementary, where I would become only the fifth white student. Baker was a science magnet, named for the San Diego physician and civic activist, Fred Baker, who was also an amateur malacologist*. Instead of bussing lower socioeconomic students into affluent areas, Fred Baker Elementary flipped the script by stocking the school with brilliant teachers, (most of them with Ph.D.s) in order to attract students to a predominantly black neighborhood plagued with gangs and crime, in exchange for an extraordinary education. I was in!

My 6th grade teacher was Mrs. Smart. I tell you, I never wanted to let that woman out of my arms and she has never left my heart. In Mrs. Smart’s class, we began the day like any other public school classroom, with the pledge of allegiance. But what followed was something Mrs. Smart wrote called the B-7 Creed that the students recited together:

I have the right to be myself in this room. This means that no one will treat me unfairly because I am black, brown, or white, fat or thin, tall or short, boy or girl. I have a right to hear and be heard in this room. I will be free to express my feelings and opinions without being interrupted or punished. I am somebody. I am 10 feet tall. I am loved.

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This was 1980, dear readers! You have no idea how long those words rung out in my mind. To listen to Mrs. Smart, who shared so many of her personal experiences with us and empowered and inspired us all everyday, why shouldn’t I think that racism was in the rear view mirror? It seemed like an ugly thing from Mrs. Smart’s day that we saw as part of the horrible past. I thought of humanity and progress as things that could only move in one direction. Forward!

The Baker community cheered on my attempts at singing Michael Jackson at the talent show and on less celebratory days, we mourned together with a black band tied around one arm when one of our classmates’ siblings was lost to gang violence. Dr. Hassan El-Amin was my endlessly patient music teacher who deeply understood my need to vacillate between flute and trombone. I finally landed on trombone, because we were allowed to check instruments out over the weekend and the trombone made the bus ride a little less lonely. Dr. Callaghan was my Spanish teacher who invited our entire class for a sleepover at her 1-bedroom beach cottage so that some of the students could see the ocean for the first time. Mr. Shaheed was always laughing as he told us riddles and fables. Mr. Rashada was quieter, but consistently had a nugget of wisdom to impart — like when I’d walk home with my best friend Queenie on a Friday for a sleepover and he’d tell us a better way to walk around the part of the park where an open drug market was operating.

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How could my mom let this happen? I don’t know, but I thank God that she did.

In sports and entertainment, it sure seemed like color was beginning to fade away. As an undergrad in D.C., I was told to avoid the SE and SW quadrants, neighborhoods responsible for earning Washington the unwelcome distinction of being the nation’s murder capital. But it was at American University (ooooh, the symbolism!) a professor told us how the CIA was responsible for planting crack cocaine in South Central LA in the early 80s and had drug dealers on the payroll to fund the fight against the Sandinistas.

I graduated and packed up to move to Los Angeles just as the riots broke out. My co-workers at the Post-Production house where I interned offered me a job and couldn’t understand why I was running off to a city on fire. But I couldn’t be stopped. I was heading to Hollywood to make it as a screenwriter and no one was going to stop me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the CIA’s involvement and tried to share this information with anyone who would listen. No one was listening. So I told the story in a screenplay about an interracial love story leading up to the riots. Even with that kind of fallout from the Rodney King verdict, I still believed that things were getting better.

November 8, 2016. My friend Daphne, an elementary public school teacher returns to her classroom after the election and described the feeling as suddenly seeing herself as a first responder. Wow. How %*&#ing profound. When the entire world seems to be sending one message with their votes (or lack of vote), teachers are in a unique position to teach first, by their own example. So while they are mandated to remain politically neutral, it doesn’t matter because kids have the most well-calibrated bullshit meters of anyone and they know how to judge someone by their personal actions and not the blah-blah-blah that comes out of their mouths. What teachers do can affect the next generation more than any one scary clown.

Essentially, we are called upon to act as teachers — therefore, we all have the opportunity to be first responders, too. Let us respond with humanity and kindness to our fellow beating heart humans. A post-racial world? Why should that be the goal? Race is not going away. Race is diversity and beauty. Race is cultural history and identity. Race should be celebrated and shared, and we can’t do that in a ‘post-racial world.’ Reveling in race and its rainbow of colors and ideas is marvelous, don’t you think?

 

(*Malacology, the study of mollusks. Not to be confused with Conchology, the study of mollusk shells. Talk about specialized!)

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Lucky Number Eight

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There’s no doubt you’ve heard of the ‘lucky number seven,’ a real scene-stealer if you ask me. The star in my mind, is seven’s older and wiser sibling, number Eight. The best thing about Eight? When it gets all tipsy and uninhibited — say at a holiday party where all the other guests seem overly upright and linear, and Eight is just hanging out with its curves and such and then just falls right over! Do you think Eight gets even a little bit self-conscious in this situation? Not a chance. In fact, that’s when things get really interesting — when Eight topples right over into Infinity.

As a person of letters, I sure have been thinking a lot about numbers as of late. Since the start of the apocalypse a few weeks ago, I’ve returned to a specific place in my dreams and musings quite a bit. It’s somewhere I had no idea existed until I was lucky enough to visit it a few years ago — a place where Eight adds up to a delectable mystery known as Castel del Monte (Castle on the Mountain). You may have seen it before and not realized it, perhaps on the back of an Italian issued one-cent Euro.

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The builder of this far out and fascinating citadel was the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, who by the way, died in the year 1250. (Go ahead, add those numbers up!) Let’s just call him Freddie for fun. Freddie was known during those times for his, wait for it… love of peace and justice! Imagine that!

This castle has a whole mess of Eights everywhere. From the octagonal floor plan, to Eight towers, to groups of flowers painted in Eight — the theme is in every detail. The most amazing thing about the castle though, as we contemplate it in the year 2016, is that there is no universal consensus among people who study these things as to what the actual purpose of it was. It doesn’t have the features of a regular fortified castle such as a moat, drawbridge, or underground tunnels that would suggest a military purpose. There’s no kitchen! Some have theorized that it was a super swanky hunting lodge. Really?! Without stables?

What were you trying to tell us with this masterwork of wonder, Freddie?

When I went to the castle it was with a group of, no joke — 16 writers from around the world, chosen for a screenwriting fellowship funded by the Apulia Film Commission. The concept was to fast track the development of scripts to bring more film and television production to Apulia, way down south in the heel of the boot. Needless to say, all 16 of us felt pretty damn lucky.

The day we visited Castel del Monte was magical and mystical, just like all of our days in Apulia, where pretty much anything was bound to happen. This was due to the fact that the program leaders never told us in advance where we were going, creating a very raw and real backdrop that kept us on our toes emotionally — literally not knowing what was going to be around the next corner. Consider that by this point in the trip, we’d been on the high seas with a dozen officers of the Italian Coast Guard, visited stylishly dressed inmates at a men’s prison (not one standard issue prison jumpsuit to be found), and heard harrowing stories from too young of patients at a drug rehab. We even met a Clown Priest! (it’s a thing) So who knew where we’d end up next.

After touring the inside of the castle, some of us were drawn to the center of the octagonal courtyard. Standing there with three of my new Italian friends, we sort of inexplicably hooked arms and felt a rush of energy course through our veins.

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Lots and lots of eerie things happened over our several weeks there. I mean, these were sixteen highly creative and tuned-in people. Basically, we were all kind of laying our souls bare to allow the stories we were there to work on flow through us without the usual angst that writers so often suffer working in solitude.

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According to http://www.charmingitaly.com, “the octagon was the favorite shape for buildings erected by the Templars, the famous warriors who are said to have fought to defend the Holy Grail. The octagon is also said to evoke strong symbolic and esoteric images. Some say the Holy Grail was octagonal itself and that it was hidden in this Puglian castle.”

Were our eight feet standing on the spot where the Grail was once hidden?

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Another incredibly lucky thing for our group was having Christopher Vogler one of our as our writing coaches. https://chrisvogler.wordpress.com I’d stared at Chris’s picture on the back cover of his brilliant bestseller The Writer’s Journey for well over a decade. The book’s title is a play on The Hero’s Journey, made famous by comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell (A Hero of a Thousand Faces) whose ten hours of interviews with Bill Moyers will change your life.

Chris is known the world over for translating Joseph Campbell into a form for film people to use to make sure that their storytelling succeeds by leaving audiences with that deep catharsis they unknowingly crave when they watch a movie. (As generous and big-hearted of a man Chris is, I wouldn’t be surprised if he translated Campbell’s work to prevent Hollywood from producing any more dreck.) As a story analyst at Disney in the 1980s, he blazed a new trail with a little ditty he penned called Memo From the Story Department and revolutionized the thinking about story for the screen.

I’d been struggling with certain aspects of my story, mostly because it was based on a real person I had not yet been able to interview, so I had lots of blanks to fill in. Her name is Sally Becker, a Jewish painter who saved hundreds of Muslim children from war torn Bosnia in 1993. http://www.sallybecker.co.uk Sally became known as The Angel of Mostar, named after a town with a very beautiful and symbolically important bridge, the Stari Most, that separated the Muslim and Christian sides of Mostar. During the war, the bridge was blown up, which gave me the idea to title my script Bridge Keeper to honor Sally as someone who was working to bridge the gap between warring sides.

After one of Chris Vogler’s mind-blowing lectures, he passed out his business cards to all of us. They have these gorgeous illustrations from the newest edition of his book, so there are several designs to choose from. He was so instrumental in helping me find the heart of my story (screenplay structure is NOT for sissies!) that I felt most drawn to the card with the skeleton key. At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to the small castle in the background, but the very next day, we arrived at Castel del Monte. I pulled Chris’s card from my back pocket, flashed it in his direction for a knowing nod from my guru, and stormed the castle in search of answers.

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It happened quickly. In the chapel on the first floor, I knew that my character would have to come here, to Castel del Monte (she’d been living in Puglia at the start of the story) to have the whopper realization that would send her across the Adriatic Sea with no plan for how to save those children. Carved into the wall above me as plain as the red nose on that clown priest, was a cross, a Star of David, and a crescent moon with a star. Movie-Sally would gather her courage standing here, after receiving a message from a Roman Emperor who lived some 800 some years before her — that it’s our humanity that binds us, no matter what terrible deeds are done in the name of religion or anything else.

Perhaps part of the mystery of Castel del Monte is that it holds many more answers. Could it simply be a monument to peace? With a little luck, we’ll learn to ask the right questions, and trust that wisdom is infinite.

 The number eight is the symbol of infinity, eight is the eighth day after the seven days of creation, and so goes beyond creation.

Apulia, A Film Tourism Guide

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Embracing Disaster

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Our cracks are showing! It’s as though we’ve dropped a precious piece of pottery on the ground and smashed it all to smithereens. I’m talking about our country of course, if you live in and love the Not-So-United-States. The sinking feeling is the same as when we break some cherished gift from our Great Grandparents, say like, the votecivil rights, or clean air. Did we take too much for granted and not protect the most important pots holding our American ideals?

So we’re left now to pick up the pieces while trying to avoid getting cut on the shards of divisiveness and pernicious politics. For many of us, our first instinct when something seems broken beyond repair is to throw it out. After all, who needs the painful reminder of what we’ve lost?

In Japanese culture, there is a brilliant art form called Kintsugi that dates back about 600 years. This is the art of repairing pottery with gold (or other metals) with great reverence for the idea that something is MORE beautiful for having been broken. Instead of hiding the damage, Kintsugi exhalts and elevates the broken piece to a never before realized elegance. It’s a metaphor for so many things, you can just fill in the blank of what parts of your life may be in need of a gold infusion.

The story goes that a 15th century Shogun broke a prized tea bowl and sent it back to China for repair. When it was returned, the staples used to fix it were visible and so the Shogun asked his Japanese craftsmen to improve on the aesthetics. With such an inspired solution, it’s not surprising that the evolution of Kintsugi has come to include modern day applications on a much larger scale, such as a floor.

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Like the earth’s fault lines, we too, have our individual lines that tell our stories. There are lines we can see, like with our veins, in our palms, or in our wisdom wrinkles — but there are also more invisible ones. Like the friction between the tectonic plates, we have to release the pressure within ourselves to avoid severe cracking. With the tectonic shift that occurred last week and that has left so many of us devastated, we MUST not let it destroy us.We have to try to take it on the chin.

That’s an expression I’d never stopped to think about before I had a dog years ago who jumped off a thirty foot bridge and survived. The vet told us that since Rio The Base Jumper was under two-years-old, the two sides of his doggie jawbone had not yet fused together, and that it was all still cartilaginous tissue around the chin. That’s what allowed him to bounce instead of break.

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This image of Kintsugi simply stopped me cold. Her ‘cracks’ are kind of everywhere. We can’t see her legs, but the cracks are clearly wrapped around her hips and shall we say, her sexual epicenter. They are also all up and down one arm that has undoubtedly attempted to embrace disaster time and time again.

For me though, the kicker here is the damage in her face. After almost two years of living with trigeminal neuralgia, (inflammation of the trigeminal nerve that comes from the back of the neck and branches out into three parts on both sides of the face), I cried when I saw this — it’s even on her right side like mine. Neurologists and pain management have explained it to me as my body going into ‘fight or flight’ mode, and then just staying there long after an initial event, usually a virus.

So when I think about the work ahead, I realize that it’s not only about tending to the cracks in myself, but more importantly, identifying the cracks all around us, so that we can begin to pour in the gold and to rebuild all that’s been broken. I believe in the power of Kintsugi and know that we can make it more beautiful than it was before, by celebrating and adopting the diversity of solutions that come to us from every culture and civilization on earth.

Now on to Mexico, that blessed country that brought us tequila — now available with gold-flakes in it — a gift from some friends that we’ve been saving for a “special occasion.” While special occasion isn’t exactly the right way to describe this new reality, I can’t think of a better delivery system right for the gold right about now.

 

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Scratch and Sniff Opera

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“11/9” is a day that so many of us thought would never come. Today we awoke to the shock that our next president could fundamentally alter all that we know and care about. His decisions will undoubtedly leave many millions of people behind. I remember kissing the ground when the Big O won the first time around. I believed with every fiber of my being that his victory represented moving into a wonderful new era of prosperity, equality, and endless possibilities. Cut to last night.

Right now, I’m looking outside and there is a sweet wind blowing, carrying the scent of orange blossoms with it. It’s tossing a smattering of leaves around the garden playfully and I recognize it immediately as an invitation to pause. So I do. I want to glean what the wind might have to say to me. Speaking a non-verbal language, the effect is much more potent than any words could offer in this moment. It feels soothing, this wind, maybe because it is making me think of untapped power. From gale force hurricane winds to the softest kiss of breeze when you least expect it, wind is but one expression of Mother Nature. With this wind, she is reminding us all of movement. It may not always be positive, but it’s movement nonetheless, and it’s what is taking us from one moment to the next. We are never truly stuck in one moment, although it can sometimes feel that way.

Strangely enough, my SALVE today is the farcical opera by Prokofiev entitled The Love for Three Oranges. The first audience for this opera failed to realize that it was a farce, despite the fact that Act One begins with a king lamenting that the prince’s sickness has been brought on by an over-indulgence in tragic poetry. The opera was greatly misunderstood at first and is now widely performed and loved. The New York City Opera and others have used scratch and sniff cards that are handed out to the audience, to bring to life the aroma of oranges and other (less pleasant smells) to aid in the telling of this tale. It’s hard not to laugh at the sight of patrons of the opera in all their finery holding scratch and sniff cards up to their noses. High art meets low.

Let me tell you what happened right there.

I was writing about wind because it is right outside my front door. At the same time, my music shifted to an opera I had never heard of before — not that I am much of an opera person. But when I went to look at the name of the piece that was streaming, I saw The Love of Three Oranges. So I ask you this: who needs scratch and sniff opera when we have the world around us putting on such a spectacular show?! This is my SALVE today. Anything else can happen, but this moment cannot be erased from my heart. And the feelings it leaves me with? Wonder and awe.

What’s your SALVE?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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