07 April 2014
At 15 months old, nothing makes my heart swell with pride and affection quite like when you bring me books to read, and perch expectantly at my hip, or stretch so that your tousled hair is tucked under my chin, and your toes tickle my knees. I read you even Kerouac through the first summer of your life, and though I may have just sounded like a comforting droning on, as you gazed at your mobile, or drifted into a sticky, sweet sleep, your neck cradled in the crook of my elbow, swaying on the porch swing, cicadas singing, my love of books has rubbed off all over you, just as I had hoped it would. By 9 months old, you’d inquisitively peer for long stretches of time, at a page of puppies or Dr. Seuss’s whimsies, before gently turning to the next, and the way you thumb the pages of my paperbacks, they way you’ve seen me do, makes my heart swim in strokes beneath my rib cage.
This is where it all begins. Before you are the best years of discovering the beauty, the glory, the sucker-punches, the sorrows, the comedy, and the triumphs, all sewn between spines. I hope there will be evenings in which you shovel down forkfuls of dinner so fast that you mother tells you to slow down and your father laments the way the sponge barely touches the dish in your hurried hand, as you take the stairs two at a time, soap suds still snaking from your wrists, and toss yourself, barefooted across your bed to where the book, whose plot arc and characters occupied your thoughts in every moment between, still lies faithfully waiting, open-faced and dog-eared on your pillowcase.
I hope you’ll know to bring at least two tote bags to library, because it will always be a mystery how you can walk in with one book in mind, and walk out with a couple dozen, dangling like jewels from your tender elbows, thumping into your knees, as you adjust the weight of them all several times, and step into the street. They’re not like jewels, they are jewels. Your father will tell you to marry a man who will buy you expensive jewelry, diamonds to grace your neck, that it’s a wise financial investment. Respect your father, but remember a man who buys you books, is the one who invests in your heart and your intellect. If black opals don’t make you swoon like Lord Alfred Tennyson, forget them.
Though the other kids may compare what phones they have, or brag about seeing adult movies, and girls who lean against the sinks in the school bathrooms, painting their lips, gossiping about boys, may roll their eyes at the book under your arm, don’t ever let others snuff out something you love. If you learn anything from me, let it be that. You may feel you’re a million miles away from society sometimes, like a strange anomaly or alien uprooted from its home, and wonder if reading is irrelevant or unpopular — it may very well be the latter — but remember that the written word, that storytelling itself, has survived all the turmoil and triumphs of humanity thus far, and you are its torch. Keep it lit and and it will give you light. Forge into darkness with the knowledge of those who have gone before you, who have felt what you feel, and some who have felt what you’ve never felt, who have experienced things that will crack your mind wide open to new ideas, cultures, and understanding.
Some will say books are magic, and not mean spells and witchcraft. This magic, is that time machines and portals to other worlds have already been invented, they’re not farfetched and futuristic, but something that began with the first wordsmith. One day, you will look up and realize hours have passed unnoticed, that golden afternoon has become the ebony night, all while you had inhabited another soul squeezed out between the pages. In the madcap scramble of our world, this is magic, to unshackle ourself from the constraints of time, the consciousness of our flesh and blood and beating hearts, if only for a few hours.
Don’t ever let anyone fool you into thinking reading isn’t living in the real world. There may be few things more real than what people impart to the page, when they pick up their souls, dust them off, and shake them out into ink and paper. I have traveled thousands of miles, figuratively and literally, because of books. It was a fictional character that gave me the courage to quit a dead-end job and buy a one-way plane ticket and never look back. I’d never have known you, if it wasn’t for that book.
But sometimes reading will be an escape, an emergency exit you take when life becomes overwhelming. When fire chokes the air with smoke of melodrama and indecision and heartbreak, let them be a breath of oxygen. On other days, they’ll be the kindling for your imagination, for your sense of wonder, stoke that fire often, and it will burn passionately. Stash a flashlight under your pillow for when a book won’t let you sleep until you’ve devoured every last page, because there will be books like that.
I hope you have to press your cheek into the carpet as you peer under your bed to find that last library book, because with so many, they’ll have spirits of their own, and spill into every corner of your room, even when you could have sworn that were all neatly stacked just yesterday. I hope you feel the ache of their weight, when your fingers curl at their covers and spines, chin and outstretched arms the parentheses that encompass them. You don’t have to like every book you read, and you won’t, but I hope there’s a few that make you feel something so powerful, that all you can do is place it in your lap and weep.
In a few years, you will begin school, and you and I won’t have our days interwoven together anymore. Yours won’t be the first face I see in the morning, beaming, with brilliant, gummy smile, at the sight of me (or my keys, because I know they’re jingly and delightful, when you’re only 1 year old). One day I’ll be nothing but nostalgic and fleeting memory from your childhood, and that’s okay. People come and go, chapters begin and end, books open and close. Some will break your heart, both between the pages, and to your face, the trick is to learn from each of them, because no matter how good or bad they may seem, books or human beings, all have something to teach you.
You’re my teacher too, and I love you.
Photo by Katie Eleanor, whose otherworldly photos remind me of the feeling of reading, when I was a child, and subsequently inspired me to write this letter to the baby I nanny.
03 March 2014
I sleep to the lullaby of sirens — hardly the honey-tongued, motherly, sweet melodies sung to us as babes, but more of a mother whose rope has unraveled to a quickly disappearing wisp of patience, pleading on her knees for you to behave — am lulled by the train’s whistle, gently swayed by polluting trucks rumbling past, and am distantly welcomed to the MTA at 1AM, as a bus puffs to curb, for a beat, and that strange pre-recored voice, that is both human and not, wafts up three floors to reach me through sleep-lidded eyes.
My sins are convicted by a voice without a body that booms from some street corner unseen, in an impassioned sermon that impresses most upon me, the innate ability some people possess to shout for thirty minutes straight, barely bringing any breath back into their lungs. The neighbors — and due to my very poor ability to decipher the direction of sounds, I don’t really know which ones — indoctrinate me with a muffled history of 1960s soul music, from 10pm to 3am, a course I did not know I’d signed up for.
Hustlers dot the street corners, as I coast off the interstate and slither three lanes over to wait. There’s the rose-seller, supposedly in a cult, the one with suspicious foil covered tins like little space ships, the one with dreadlocks that stroke the soft bend at the back of the knees, the one with stacks of CDs slipped from hand to hand who moves to fill the frame of my window, and when I nod a “no, thanks” regresses again, jostling the plastic cases with no jacket art. I sit at the light and let myself be hypnotized by the revolving auto shop sign winking every few seconds in the 5 o’clock sun, until the punch of green that breaks the spell, and I’m gliding in an arc through the intersection.
The salt-combed streets disappear beneath my tires, also chalky, and every car in its thick winter coat of filth. Peeling down [omitted] St, I can almost see aristocratic ghosts, with a drink dangling between their fingers, lingering on those wrought iron balconies that masquerade as delicate paper lace. Cut from the cloth of a very eclectic quilt, bohemia is juxtaposed against the ghetto, a strange tango, the two of the them, and prostitutes and starving artists and judges and hustlers and good family men and deadbeat dads and drug addicts and ministers all live within this same strip of Baltimore. That’s its charm, more gambling than a casino, a roll of the dice, and you never know if you’re going to get, a friendly smile or .32 caliber bullet through your brow.
“Hey, lady in black, how you doin’?” a night-blind cat-caller sings, and I say nothing, but sling the bulging bags of groceries over my shoulders and clumsily climb up the three flights, the bags now dangling like ornaments from my elbows. When I go, darkness still clings to the corners like cobwebs, and when I come home, a teardrop of burt sun splits the wall, as I half-shuffle out of my shoes, pushing the heels off with my toes and sliding them into my closet.
The wood beams slope gently from one room into another, creak and moan and bear the scars of a hundred something years, the ceiling bows a little, and the single-pane glass of the windows let the wind in — an unwelcome guest. In the evenings, I sometimes sit in one of the front windows and am lulled by the shifting of the traffic lights, the rhythm of cars coming and going. I can never see faces, from this angle, just hands gripping the wheel, reaching to tune the radio, or curling around a cup of coffee.
I know my neighbor in apt. 4, as Mr. B’s owner, because I’m embarrassingly bad at remembering names, except for those belonging to canines, it would seem. Mr. B., is a pleasantly well-mannered tea cup dog that rarely barks, and his owner, whose cigarette smoke mysteriously drifts into only one of my closets, calls me “baby girl,” or “sister,” depending on the day…
Excerpt from a letter I wrote to my friend Misma Andrews. Photo by Alison Scarpulla.
30 September 2013
Serve students first, the system second. Do not abuse the impressionability of youth, the malleability of their spirits. Don't allow for education to be solely about the academics, the tests, the stoic letters scrawled in red ink, but nurture the individuality, intelligence, open-mindedness, and empathy in all young people, even if it can't be proven on paper under the gun of a stop watch, even if it doesn't add up to a numerical score.
Educate them in-depth about the diversity of this world and the people who live it. Iron out the ignorance, in hopes that they will carry the torch of enlightenment to future generations, and even light the darkness in the ones before them. Let them be outraged by the injustices of the system and in the world around them, instead of conditioning, desensitizing, and promoting passive acceptance. Do not hold them back, do not bridle their passion, their uncompromising optimism, but encourage it; it will take them farther than any test score.
Do not keep it all within four walls, heads bent to a desk over textbooks. Let them be actively involved, from their communities to world issues. Don't just take them to musuems, let them witness firsthand the fruits of empathetic, passionate people who come together for a good cause. Allow them to realize their privileges, their power, and their potential. Teach them the responsibility they have to themselves and their fellow human beings. After all, what good is a world of developed brains, but undeveloped hearts? What good are hands that can hold a pencil, but do not reach out to hold the hand of another, to lift the oppressed, the impoverished, the hurting?
Teach them to lose gracefully. Every human being will face defeat in their life, don't lie and tell them they won't. Teach them that a real winner isn't necessarily the one who holds a blue ribbon or a trophy, but the one who never gives up, who knows how to pull themselves up by the boot straps, and get back on that horse, who knows how to sincerely congratulate someone who's rightfully outperformed them, and that a healthy sense of competition is an opportunity to push themselves to new heights.
Do not underestimate the transformative power of music and the arts, or allow for these programs to be hastily cut in budget crunches, with the false perception that they are less imperative than academics. For some young people, it will not only change their attitude towards school, but their attitude towards themselves, and towards life.
Do not just let physical education for female students be about sports like volleyball and field hockey, teach them self-defense, let them be empowered through their own sweat and skills. Arm them with the ability to defend themselves against any man who lays an unwanted hand on them. Use sex-education not just an opportunity to teach anatomy and safe sex, but the unmistakeable difference between consensual sex and rape. Teach young men to respect girls and women, and not to view them through objectifying lenses. Teach women to respect their own bodies, to see their worth beyond their sexuality, to know that fabric of rape culture is full of holes, of lies we're fed to excuse wrongdoers.
Most importantly, let a good and free education be the right of all people everywhere, regardless of age, race, gender, location, or class. Do not let it be about money, corruption, control, or political purposes, but about the people, the individual beings and light of humanity.
Photos by Steve McCurry
07 September 2013
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead
The world is burning as we sleep, quakes with gunfire and grenades as we sip our tea. Cobwebs like gossamer garlands dangle from the points of the porch roof and drape down into the hedged and hemmed shrubbery, suburbia’s coat of arms. Feet peppered with the earth, I put Stan Getz on the stereo. Good music makes me feel as my soul has flown straight out of my skeleton, vamoose like a cut balloon, floating on the sensuous notes of euphoria.
In some lands, air raids and bombs sing children to sleep, here, it is the chirping lullabies of crickets and cicadas, half moons of tar black soil under my fingernails from planting, instead of the scarlet curls of blood on corpses. How can we live on this earth and not care for our fellow human beings?
They tell me to care less, it’s okay, just be kind to the people you meet and don’t fret about the screams of people dying over distant seas. I feel slighted. I feel my shoulders slump. They don’t get it, do they? Doesn’t anybody understand? I ramble around these neighborhoods, sidewalks jutting into the impossible green of lawns, the stripes of faded American flags bending to kiss the stars, and I see power. Even where the walkways are rough hewn, and rusting junk suffocates every living thing beneath it, I see possibility.
We’ve made a grave mistake. Somewhere along the way, there’s been a tremendous miscalculation. We’ve added it up that the engraved paper that lines our banks is greater than human lives, and we’ve been taken for fools, falling for the charade that we are helpless, possums playing dead when we see the bloated bellies of malnourishment, the muddy tears of a refugee. But we are not dead, nor are we helpless.
We shuffle from buses and cars, to classrooms and cubicles, from bright florescent lights to night clubs. Public spaces are filled with the emptiness of people who cannot lift their eyes from the screen that connects them to everything but the people in front of them. We are powerful beings, yet we believe the lies they tell us, that we should just be cogs in this machine that lumbers on with no regard for humanity, that we should close our eyes and turn around, like a child chosen to be “it” in a game of hide and seek.
We’ve hung hopes on governments, but they’d rather fund wars than feed the hungry, invest in the of festering of wounds than be a healing salve to the hurting. The cost shelled out for arms and killing alone could obliterate poverty around the world, instead it deepens a mass grave for the ones it is burying alive; the chasm between the rich and the poor ripping apart what should be a woven tapestry of hands united. Our lives are privileged because others have been pushed into the jaws of a beast, their lives and well being the offering on the altar so our comfortable lives can get a little more comfortable.
The government isn’t the solution, we are. We’ve got to lace up our boots and get down in the trenches of the greater good, we’ve got to be willing to get dirty and sacrifice. This is no day and time to be sleeping, not with the world burning and the ashes of woman, child, and man, a black rain on cities blown into oblivion, erasing faces and leaving only names soon to be forgotten or never remembered.
I am wide awake. I hear them calling, and they’re calling me, they’re calling anyone who will listen, they’re calling any willing soul, to do something, and I am not afraid. I am not afraid to walk in the shoes of the suffering, not afraid to suffer. I only fear a life that is lukewarm, a life that is nice, if not indifferent, and nothing more.
I seek a life ignited, to shed this selfish skin and say to the world in need, “Here I am. I am willing.”
P.S. I have entered a contest that will allow me to travel the world and give back more than ever. Will you please take a moment and vote for me, by clicking the "like" next to my name, if you think I’m deserving? You can vote once every 24 hours, and voting ends October 1st. I appreciate each and every vote, thank you so much to those who have taken a moment to do so!
Photos by Joe Nigel Coleman. You can also find him on Flickr and Facebook.