Saturday, July 31, 2010

Privilege: Clueless in Philadelphia

In my last post, I mentioned feeling envious of the black scholarship kids at Germantown Friends School because of their tight, warm, easy bond with one another.

Obviously, that was an outsider's view of their experience--not because what I observed wasn't true, but because it was virtually all I knew about them.

We were, all of us, part of a great racial experiment.  I sort of knew about it.  They lived it.  The Community Scholars Program at GFS in Philadelphia was formed in response to the bombing of black churches in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1963.  I knew about the bombings, about the Civil Rights Movement, but being in the camp of the "good guys" was actually an opportunity not to think about race.  The Quakers were helping to solve the problem, right?  Now I wonder what life at Germantown Friends was like from the point of view of the black kids.

To get there, I have to peel back the layers of what prevented me from really seeing them:

  • I wasn't really sure who the Community Scholars were. (In some ways, this was a good thing.) They just started showing up, but I figured that there were suddenly a lot more black/brown faces around simply because it was the 1970's.  We had the Beatles, we had hashish, we had black kids. At least one girl in my class had a doctor father, so I figured that at least some kids had the means to pay full tuition.
  • I rarely, if ever, asked myself how their home lives were different from mine.  So my grandparents had a black chauffeur.  Big deal.
  • When I almost got thrown out of school after 9th grade (not attending class or doing homework tends to draw that kind of reaction) I felt fortunate not to be a scholarship student:  think of the pressure!  
  • I had no clue how much my parents paid each year for the privilege of having a daughter who cut class. 
  • I enjoyed friendships with mostly male CS students.  They met me on my ground, which meant that they didn't act 'different' or talk 'different', so I assumed they didn't think differently than I did about their school experience...nor did it occur to me that they might talk differently among their families.
  • I never entered the house of any of the black or otherwise CS kids;  We kept our friendships within the (white) vocabulary of the school community.  
  • GFS didn't prepare us for an influx of kids whose grandparents had worked at menial jobs for our grandparents.  Our understanding of their lives was a vacuum, which we filled with data from our known world.  
  • I believed that to talk about race, even to other white people, was bad manners.  Much better to pretend we were all the same.  
  • I had no idea how competitive the scholarships were.  Didn't the parents just walk up to Dee Bristol at the switchboard in the front hall and ask when the next opening was?
Maybe it's human nature to assume that someone who shows up on your turf and acts like you also thinks like you.  Maybe that's part of what creates the illusion that race is no longer a major issue in post-Obama America...Does participation in the culture of a dominant community (in this case, a prep school) require suppression of the less-dominant culture?  Why is that?  At least GFS made the attempt to bring together two very different American worlds.  

Saturday, July 24, 2010


When I was a teenager at Germantown Friends School, I envied the black kids. After graduating its first black student in 1958, the school had made a concerted effort to integrate in the 60's.  From my point of view, what was notable about these mostly scholarship kids was the fact that they belonged to a definite culture.  They seemed so easy about it, hanging out in relaxed groups, sometimes calling each other brother and sister. They shared something warm, and I wished I could be included. It was the era of 'Black is Beautiful', and yes, it was.

If I'd been able to put words to it, I might have said that I lacked ethnicity.  White kids often feel that, as if they their racial identity is so 'normal' (are people of color 'abnormal'?) that it's not anything to take note of, like a shade of paint you see everywhere in institutional buildings.  But for me, it was more than that--the culture I came from, Philadelphia Quakerism, felt...wispy and insubstantial.  There seemed to be so little to it. My parents didn't speak with pride of my father's conversion to Quakerism from Midwestern Presbyterianism, of my grandparents' relief work during World War I with the British and American Friends.  (That was how my grandparents met--my existence is due to Quaker action in the world.)  On First Days (Sundays) we went to a plain meetinghouse where we sat in a quiet group until someone was moved to stand up and speak, but we didn't talk at home about why we worshiped that way, what it meant, or how other religions managed the God thing.  Other Quaker families talked about their faith, but we didn't.

In fact, I was like a fish so wedded to the placid water of a lake that it has no idea it's wet.  Quakerism subtly affected everything in our household.  For one thing, we valued silence.  The implication was that silence isn't empty, but full, a place in which God can speak. Hanging out together didn't have to be full of chatter. I was part of a self-effacing but prideful  culture. Decor was ever tasteful, never glittery. Fabrics were natural, not synthetic...and for me as a young kid, flowered underwear was out of the question. White ruled! White sheets, white walls, white underpants.  Humility and modesty were "better" than ambition, money seeking, any kind of hard pursuit.  Never mind that the same Grandfather who did relief work in France had left my mother a nice inheritance. "Doing" was never a priority for either of my parents.  It took me a long time to adjust to the fact that I'm an ambitious person, and that it's okay to put my name out there.

For a long time, if I went to an author's reading, it felt 'wrong' to me to ask the writer to autograph a book. Book signings! What hubris, my father might say, criticizing the author's 'need' for recognition.  Ah, but he also brought me to the rich well of silence from which words and stories emerge, like lovely creatures, blinking in the light of day.  Writing itself was all there, in the silence. It was waiting for me to discover it.

(Thanks to Beverly Tatum and her thoughtful book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? for insights about white racial identity. If I ever hear her read, I'll be sure to have her sign my copy of the book.)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Here's a Summery, Sexy Poem from Bone China, My Poetry Chapbook

Link to Bone China on Amazon


My body is a bowl
of water, and you are tipped
into me, a newt
from a jar, lip
to nipple, fingertips--
you swim
you are the vortex
around my warm rock
where you will bask
in the sun, after.

Monday, July 12, 2010

How Do Artists Keep Going?

Writers' Retreat: After a glorious week of immersion in our fiction projects (and, in one case, an illustrated book for children)...plunging into laughter, fellowship, and the grace of wind, ocean, woods and sky with several fellow writers on Cape Cod, I'm in awe of our staying power.

We, the tribe of artists.  How do we keep going? Some of us have chronic illnesses.  Threats of severe illness.  Financial pressure...Kids with issues.  The need to generate income. When important decisions need to be made about creative work, family needs tempt us to all but forget we're writers. We have trouble getting published.  We are remaindered, rejected, on the wrong side of whatever genre wave is cresting at  the moment we seek recognition.  Other people get recognized ahead of us.  Yeah, we're jealous.

Joan Acocella, dance critic for theThe New Yorker, celebrates the courage of artists in her wonderful book, Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints.  I return to these essays again and again while I clank away at my anvil, nine years now and counting since I began writing my first novel.  It's encouraging that she rejects the notion that art is born out of "neurosis", that artwork is a rare metal wrested by the refined few out of their childhood traumas.  No, it's all about work ethic, she insists.  The survivors are those who rolls up their sleeves, every day, and get the work done.

This is the best news we could receive. The creative process doesn't always feel good, but you get down and do it.  Despite everything. Whatever the work needs; you find it and follow the heat.  Somehow.

I wrote her once to tell her so, and her response to me is burned into my heart: Corragio, wrote.  Be of good cheer.  Keep the faith.  In the book's introduction she relates that during three years of corrosive criticism after his company was invited to perform in Belgium, the choreographer Mark Morris was questioned by a reviewer hungry for his "reaction" to the booing and hissing audiences, the terrible reviews. The interviewer wanted bitterness--serrated, quotable words.

Instead, he made a statement that every artist should spray paint onto the nearest wall:  "It's just a review--it's not a gun."

It's a rejection slip, not a comment on your work or on you as a human being.
It's an opinion; opinions vary.  Why give a negative opinion more credence than a positive one?

Readers, what keeps you going?

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Get Rich Writing for the Internet!

Trying to make money as a freelance writer is no joke.   For about 15 minutes, I was a "member" of a "community" of writers who, if their articles are accepted, get paid (generally less than 20 bucks) to write content for the Internet.  Since the Internet is about Everything in the Universe, you'd think I'd find a topic to fit my interests.  I'm a mom, I edit PhD dissertations.  I know some things, I didn't grow up in a closet.  I've been around, right?

Well, not around enough.  Here are some sample article titles.  It's odd that the site, while it is scrupulous about format, wording, etc., gives no context for least in the initial stages. Are you writing for kids?  Employed Ninja fighters?    And for that money, who's willing to submit several drafts until they tell you who your audience is?

Anyone care to get rich answering the following?




HOW TO MAKE A SEAWEED VEIL (for your sister who's about to marry the god of the sea)

HOW TO BUILD A GREENHOUSE OF TEXAS NATIVE PLANTS makes me wonder how good their editors are.  Cactus walls?  Or do they mean FOR Texas native plants?


YOGA AFTER A TUMMY TUCK (freelance writers can afford tummy tucks?)

THE IMPORTANCE OF HUNTING VESTS  (there has to be a catch. that one is too easy.)  Ditto WHAT IS EMERGENCY HOUSING?




And why are WOVEN ROVEN AND FIBERGLASS CLOTH USED TOGETHER?  Funny, I woke up thinking about that.

It's making me feel stupid.  I mean, I don't even know WHY IRISH DANCERS WEAR WIGS.

This one has real creative potential: HOW TO MAKE PORTALS (As in Being John Malkovich?)

Here's an intriguing listing. The only information given is PUNITIVE DUTIES.  Do I write for prison guards or my friendly neighborhood dominatrix?

G2G, everyone.  I need to see if I remember how to use a toilet.