girls I’ve known (part one)

I wish I had a name like Frankie DeBella. Back when I was a kid playing rec league soccer in my hometown, she was renowned for her prodigious skill. For years we dreaded the weeks we played “Frankie’s team,” because she could dribble circles around us and through us. She’d score on us four or five times int he first half and even when their coach (her father) would take her out after half time, we were so shaken by the maelstrom that hit us that we would play badly.

It was always “Frankie’s team” because there was no amount of mediocrity that could dull her, and no amount of skill that could compete. It was irrelevant who else was on her team that season; she carried them.

At one point in middle school I grew into a solid defender (as long as I didn’t have to run too much) and when we played Frankie, I was assigned to mark her. It was probably the most aggressive I ever played, the most competitive I ever felt. If I could beat that name, stop her progress, slow her down, I could be important to the game, and people would notice me.

Up close, she was beautiful, Francesca DeBella with Italian skin and long swishing dark hair like a horse’s tail. She seemed older than the rest of us, svelte and muscular without the pudginess that ringed our midriffs and thick ankles. She wore eyeliner. She never crowed and never smiled. She was hyperfocused without being overly aggressive. She knew she was on another plane; I’m sure she knew how her name was thrown about in loving, fearful whisper. But for her, the only chase was the ball, the only game was perfection, the only living person at that game was her father, and maybe if she scored one more goal, he would take the rage out of his voice when he screamed the name he gave her.

RIWP: Day One

This is a good kind of tired.

Today was my first day of the Rhode Island Writing Project’s Open Air Institute, and (as we say in New England) it was wicked hot. The theme this year is farming, and we started off our day thinking about growth and how it can bring both renewal and destruction. Cases in point: the industrial wasteland of an empty lot that will soon be transformed into a new center for local food distribution. And on the other side of history, the legacy in Rhode Island of imperialism, colonialism, industrialism… the building of agricultural empires that grew millionaires on the backs of laborers.

We visited two ‘urban’ farms– one nestled in the middle of the South side of Providence, one sprawled across 22 acres in Cranston, just a hop down from where I teach. In each, I noticed the mix between organic growth and messiness vs. human attempts to reign in plants with fences and relegating life to rows. The work is done with a respect for the land, and with a deep expertise for how cycles of growth work and how they can be harvested for human work. I wrote about the goodness of the labor:

Projects whose genesis was in the hands of those who still tend them now bloom. The people who have learned this life now further strengthen their story and eke profit and good nutrients out of land by pure work.
And now I find that passion does reside in tradition, and in history. But it is by adaptation and fresh labor that tradition functions. Something as ancient as farming can be replanted and re-imagined as something new. These fields are earned and aimed for, not inherited.

We got to experience that labor in a small way– we picked beans all spread out in a row, ripping up the plants and plucking the green beans to toss them gently into buckets, avoiding the insidious Mexican bean beetles, who glow bright yellow as larvae. Several of them, I am sorry to report, met their end squashed over my fingers. I emerged covered in dirt, but with my brain cleansed by the magic of repetitive physical movement. Like weeding or walking or weaving, the motions of picking the beans worked like meditation for me as I focused my attention on making my hands do the work.

Our facilitators, Jason and Taylor, suggested that as we walked around Southside Community Land Trust, we should take ‘snapshots’ – fifteen one-line fragments that could become found poetry, or branch off into other pieces of writing. I’m looking at my snapshots now, but resisting the urge to tinker with them….. I want to see if they happen to connect to other writing that sprouts up in the next two days.

At the beginning of the day, I wrote about community. And that is the absolute beauty of participating in these 3 days– I suddenly feel so welcomed, valued, and seen. I have been searching so hard for community and feel like I’m very much a part of something good.

Is there a way that covering ground can bring us closer to each other? If spreading out in a vast sequence of homesteads and plots of land created us as one people, is that good news for those of us who are far from home? Or those trying to start a movement, to make political change, to make a network of laboreres of thinkers of voters? Or for those of us growing classes of kids…..

In creating that settlement for growth, I’ve become a gardener in a nation of gardeners. What unites our little plantations isn’t space or even using the same water, but instead the very act of gardening.

And I think every person who wants to be a farmer once wanted to be tended to: raised and watered and sunned and fertilized as a young growing thing.

The farms we visited:
Southside Community Land Trust

Zephyr Farm

the medicine of silence — Robin K. Crigler

Reblogging this beauty from my friend Robin Crigler. Best essay I’ve read in a while (and it’s my business to read essays).

—i— you are here for not twelve hours and you say “i want to write a book about silence”: this is not appropriate, it’s not in the spirit. 2,487 more words

via the medicine of silence — Robin K. Crigler

Thoughts on NIGHT

I’m teaching Night, by Elie Wiesel, in my freshman class. So one of the things I taught the kids this week was the definition of dehumanization–essential for understanding the book. Kids were absolutely *silent* as they learned about how Nazis used dehumanization in concentration camps to make victims feel powerless and to allow perpetrators to avoid guilt. Then we read one page of the book, and when I asked kids to identify two examples of dehumanization, 60% of hands went up (shocking in this class). Every kid listened as one of my students explained how referring to Jews as “filthy dogs” was calling them less than human. Another student said “yeah it’s like they matter less if they’re animals.”

This wasn’t a responsive lesson to anything in the news; it was planned as part of teaching this essential text. I don’t mention Trump in class unless students bring up questions. Kids need to learn about the history of the Holocaust because it’s part of our human record. I just didn’t realize that they would need to apply their new vocabulary to understanding the news that same day. It’s heartbreaking, but I can hope that my 9th graders start reading their world and making their own connections.

It’s my third time reading the book, and what stuck with me this time was the ending lines. Elie’s first act after liberation is to look at himself in a mirror…. “From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed at me has never left me.” Elie’s gaze at himself, possibly seeing his dead father in himself, and certainly seeing his own journey through “the kingdom of night,” seems to freeze him at that age. This experience will never leave his mind, and no matter how much time passed, somewhere in his heart he was suspended in that state of desperate survival. And I think that visceral feeling of envisioning and facing death in his own body is what enabled his humanitarian impulses and his transcendent passion for peace. In his Nobel Speech, he references his younger self, too. He says that he wrote for the young Jewish boy in the concentration camp, to show him what he has done with the life belonging to that boy. So Elie the character and Wiesel the writer are in service to each other, showing even yet again that life and personhood matters greatly and we must respect it in ourselves and in the world. We are human, and if we see the traumatic human-ness of ourselves, we can see it in others too.

Pink and yellow

Do you smile every time you see a flower these days?

I do. Maybe it’s because it’s early spring, after an interminable winter. It feels like forever since sun and warmth found us. There are the beginnings of growth all around me now, but the air is still cold and the season itself still feels fragile. It could snow anytime, but I’m hoping it won’t.

Maybe it’s a teaching thing– I feel like I need to smile and nod at these brave budding troubadours venturing their spring songs possibly too early. If I encourage them, they’ll gain confidence and keep going.

Maybe in addition to those reasons, I am starting to really feel the truth of the renewal that I’ve set myself on in the past month or so, and I’m so desperately happy that this is working.

Without delving too far into personal details here, things are changing for me. I’m enacting an invisible yet iron division between myself and certain groups of people in my life, for the sake of my own independence and mental health. I’m living alone now, and in the space that has been left behind, I have gained the clarity to really look at my life and examine my dissatisfaction with it. I’m lonely, and afraid of the future, and feeling all the uncertainty and searching that we apparently must hike through in our mid-20s. But I know myself (and I really like myself!) and I know that I am committed to being happy. So I’m making changes. Some small, some big.

One of those small changes is taking a walk every day. I like late-ish afternoon best for walks. These days the light isn’t dying but just – changing. I like the sensation of fresh chilled air on my cheeks. I like how long my hair is, and the epiphanies that come to me as I walk through my neighborhood. I like smiling at the people I pass.

Today I came around a corner and was greeted by an exuberant rash of pink flowers– tender petals dripping from the rain that’s been falling all day, but so brightly pink that they shocked me into a big grin. I wish I was better with flower names or that I took a picture, but instead I just walked on with a spring in my step, crossing the street diagonally, thinking to myself that yes, things are going to grow now.