The timekeepers say it’s 2021 Hidden dawn, loaded gun. Yet it’s quiet here, The hoarfrost glittering in the field Weeds outshining the wares at Tiffany’s Tiny stars of pink, purple, gold Blinking from broken stems and burrs. The intermittent pound of a woodpecker the only sound around Aside from my boots, crushing the frozen stalks.
Here I am, pausing amidst a thicket in a flood plain said to belong to me. As of a couple days ago, Jason and I hold the title. Title! As if land can be typed up, copyrighted, sold on Amazon. I certainly didn’t write it, nor do I possess it, not really. It possesses me.
30 acres! Well. 29 to be more precise, in said flood plain and in the higher wooded terrain across the lane. The dream is to turn it–or a part of it, the small human part of it–into a biodynamic farm and inclusive arts center where we can live with Felix and others. I keep coming up with fancy names for the project, but when I talk about it, I just call it the Felix Farm. I take it Felix approves from the upward rising roars with which he greets my talk.
Anyway. The grasses. They were Felix-ish in that they would have dwarfed me if they stood at their full height, instead they bent and swayed, giving me the illusion of towering over them. Our dog Magic, however, was totally subsumed. I only knew where he was from the swish and undulation of the stalks. There were scads of tiny purple flowers arranged in pyramids, fuzzy, burrish dots of slate blue, white bells, seedy sour blackberries, poison ivy which I hope to have avoided, fuzzy bees, dragon flies, goldfinches. There was the weight of the muggy August air, the heady plant smells, the cacophonous buzzing, peeping and trilling of countless unseen creatures, and my phone, overheating in my pocket, cycling through ringtones for reasons unknown to me. Perhaps it was trying to compete.
None of our kids have seen this place yet. Jason and I bought it after having visited only once, each of us separately. It was all rush, rush, an emergency response to a late June phone call from the head of Crotched Mountain School, where Felix has been living for almost seven years. The added costs and loss of revenue due to COVID had decimated finances already on shaky ground. The board of directors had unanimously voted to close on November 1, giving some 90 kids and the 350 adults dedicated to helping them four months to find new schools, new jobs, new habitats. In the midst of a pandemic. In a country that spends far more money on juvenile detention centers than residential schools for kids with disabilities.
My grief is more for the community than for us. We are fortunate. We have Jason’s job, which–because we don’t dare bring Felix back to Brooklyn– allows us to do things like purchase 29 acres in Dutchess County that come with a three bedroom house built in 1856, a barn calling out for goats, an ever rippling pond. We have Felix magic, which has led us to dozens of marvelous people over the years, and it seems to be working now in the guise of Mark, a local contractor whose previously scheduled job just got delayed, allowing him to make our entryway and bathroom accessible to Felix’s wheelchair. With his assistance, we should be able to roll Felix into our new abode by November 1.
What comes next? Stories for sure. Masked people who will help us farm and carve out paths through the forest. Like everyone else, I’m looking forward to the day we’ll be able to take off these masks and show off our smiles again. By then, who knows, maybe the barn will be cleaned and the roof fixed, and we’ll have some baby goats. Maybe the beginnings of a wheelchair accessible orchard will have been planted. We will see. There’s lots to do!
I’ve been missing my qi gong pals in the Metropolitan Detention Center. For the past year or so, I have been leading a class there through the Prison Yoga Project. For obvious health reasons, all such programs are on hiatus until we are on the other other side of this Covid 19 surge. But as I was cleaning my desk (how many of us are cleaning desks at this minute?) I found this piece of automatic writing from when my prisoners and I were experimenting with a movement/writing format. It cheered me up, and felt relevant in this season of remote connection… From the fluorescent lit, windowless chapel of the female ward, some Tuesday afternoon in December:
Felix laughing like the wind–his lungs filling with the air of galaxies inside him, his laughter carrying over sidewalks–Felix’s laughter so free it disrupts, people look out from car windows wondering what is happening, what are these waves rippling through them, what is this loosening in their belly, in their temples, cheeks, why are they smiling? What is getting into them? And some take this glee and start giggling, feel this tap of merriment growing in them–for no reason–for no blessed reason and they roll down their windows and wave and laugh and say hey, brother! And some purse their lips and swallow down this force, it is dangerous, who knows where it will lead, and it gets bitter as it is swallowed, and their bodies stiffen at the taste and some, well, their minds are on different things. Felix laughs and they don’t notice, they are perhaps thinking of their own children, grown now and so far away and how to visit when the laws say this and then the cost is so dear, but they are there, on the other end of the telephone, when the cards and connections work, their voices are transmitted, waves that wiggle up to satellites in space then back down to earth towers and little plastic receivers that travel in back pockets and should not fall out in toilet water. The waves of their children’s laughter, the taste of the fruit of summer, let’s hope they are thinking about this.
Imagine. You buy your bread at the market, you amble through your neighborhood, you watch your shadow on the sidewalk. Then maybe suddenly or maybe gradually, you can’t. You awake and the market’s doors are closed to you. If you speak, you may be attacked or imprisoned. You have been told to leave, but there is no place to go. The sun, which had been your friend, now illuminates you too brightly.
According to the UN, 65 million people living in the world today have been displaced from the land where they they once belonged. You know the causes. They are the stuff of newspaper articles. War, genocide, flood, famine, social collapse, violence, crushing poverty. What the articles don’t, can’t offer is a deep reckoning with individuals who flee but who do not want to be erased.
Asylum aims to do just that. Asylum will be a 15 minute web film starring immigrants cast from the streets of New York and the Bay Area. The script has been drawn from interviews with people seeking safety in the United States today, and sheds a clear light on the violence they receive upon coming here.
Click here to watch the preview. (The password is: asylum1)
The impact of Asylum is two-fold. Participating immigrant families are able to meet each other in a safe and understanding space, where they can act out their traumas, anxieties and fears, a powerful and healing act in itself. The final movie will give the larger American audience a visceral, authentic jolt, leading to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a new immigrant today.
Director Nesaru Tchäas told me that one of the challenges of casting recent immigrants is their wariness about who is reaching out to them. In collaboration with bilingual volunteers, he and his team hit the streets for hours at a stretch, talking to people living on the margins, explaining that they are making a film about family separation, inviting them to come to orientations and learn more.
Those who show up are given the script in Spanish. Reading it can be a highly charged experience as run-ins with ICE are commonplace. At a recent session, one of the girls auditioning had just lost her father to deportation. Another described a recent ICE raid in their building. Impassioned, emotional conversations are the norm. As Nesaru puts it, “We audition people who have been in the country for 1-2 years, even a month. They are nervous. They don’t usually have the opportunity to talk; now they do. A new community emerges at each orientation.“
In the past couple of months he has been in conversation with about a hundred families and has cast two of the three main roles and many of the supporting parts. Asylum is scheduled to be shot in New York in six days in April of this year.
Nesaru learned how to collaborate across class and culture by teaching in rural India and being a Hindi-English translator for an architectural project serving one of India’s profoundly marginalized urban communities. He has learned filmmaking by working as an assistant director in the industry and brought together an inspired team of young film professionals to produce Asylum. I am confident he can pull off this ambitious and beautiful project.
Please join me in helping back Asylum. So far, his team has waged a successful Kickstarter campaign and will be receiving in kind support from Broadway Stages (New York’s premier production company, home to a host of Netflix productions including Spike Lee’s series She’s Gotta Have It), but we need a few more angels. We have a couple generous ones already, but we still need to find $100,000. Come on, step up! Be an angel or connect me to a funder! To donate, click here. For more information, feel free to contact me directly at email@example.com.
Back in the 80’s, living in Sunset Park, Brooklyn I’d take the N or the R train into Manhattan, where I worked in the film cage at SVA. I considered this my reading time and barely noticed the commute, unless there was someone gesticulating and mumbling nearby, in which case, I surreptitiously took out my notebook. I was fascinated by the words and gestures people used when talking to themselves or their demons. One day a man stood up and gave the following spiel, periodically lifting his arm in the manner of a Heil Hitler salute. His words were about color, but I cannot remember the tone of his skin. I assume that he was African American as I cast an African American in a film project that his words inspired. But the image I have in my mind is of sunlight shining through scratched and smudged subway windows, elevating him to a beam of fiery light and rags.
79% of your babies out of wedlock
That a disgrace.
Why did He put you here? To get degrees?
You don’t know how to communicate
Lack of knowledge is the most dangerous.
I was the first one–and you know that.
Draft. FDR. First month: mail call.
Who read your mail?
You don’t respect the man. You don’t know him, that’s why.
You know what you’re doing or you don’t.
I was too young to be a mercenary.
This man walked the highway.
I don’t think I’ll see you tomorrow or next year.
One father. One son.
He put you here.
I was too young to be a mortician.
Frankly, I don’t give a damn. I worked in a drug store.
I didn’t fear until 1982.
I was too young to be a mortician. I cried like a baby.
17 ½ years old. I went to Central Park.
I went to the Air Force.
What color am I?
Only one mistake your father made:
When he made Adam and when he made man.
No, I’m wrong. When he made Eve and when He made man.
50 billion years ago.
The last 49 years I’ve been out on this highway.
The Father. Son. Holy Ghost.
You know what takes you here. You know what takes you away.
You don’t know that? The lack of knowledge.
The lack of knowledge.
50 billion years ago, and you don’t know what color you are?
Oh for that fecund time,
devils and angels humping in the swamp,
that felicity and give.
Now we are drained, separating, segregating, purifying
on the verge of flame.
But not yet.
Not all is smoke and red ember, ash dust and weeping.
I take the Toyota for its yearly emissions test,
I sit on an unfinished wooden bench with two men my age who call me “Miss.”
The smog rises on Atlantic Avenue and we talk about the heat.
On the way home, a lone pigeon
Plays catch me if you can with my windshield.
This is no time for daredevils, I tell him, deciding he is a he.
Get back to your flock.
Inscribe your circles over apartments and intersections,
Bring them together.
There are those who say the communal revolutions of the birds
Are a means of confounding predators, which could be.
But that does not mean they don’t also keep the planets aligned.
Dark wings swooping up and around, silvering as they veer,
Like office papers that day in September,
Flickering between light and shade,
Falling from a clear blue sky soon to blur and reek
of singed wire and flesh. Now it’s olivine
dropping from the Hawaiian heavens.
Once upon a time in the White House, lived a nice man who played by the rules of school,
Now there’s a nasty one who follows the rules of the alley.
But sometimes schools are alleys, and alleys schools, and they both
can’t help but exist, along with circuses and traffic jams,
Farms and liverwurst factories, suntan lotions, iphones,
Plastic toys that scrape the soles of your feet,
And send curses into the universe.
My nine year old daughter trembles, sobbing.
She has fallen into the idea of innocence,
And wishes we were born to a less tarred species,
Or at least an earlier version,
Before cities and slaves, agriculture and climate change.
Back when we swang from the branches of trees and delighted in the taste of grubs.
I, too, find property clunky and ridiculous.
I, too, would like to fling my tail at the fates, lob coconuts for the fun of it.
I remind her of her friend Nicolette, the possibility of wind power, the tang of mango.
How could that miraculous fruit land so sweet on our tongues if we didn’t belong here too?
Come mangos, grow global, make a big one, larger than the Death Star,
alight on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Sop up that lump of gilt and dust in your sticky nectar,
As the giant peach once gave James’s aunts their just desserts
in a book my mother read me as a child.
She turned seventy-five in June.
I flew out to California to celebrate
My cheek to the cold airplane window,
Watching the cloud shadows wisp and morph on
The stark geometry of Kansas, broken by the Rockies.
Mourn not what has passed, I said to myself.
It returns, in its way,
as the sun on the mountain, the snow in July,
The metal wing of my plane, slicing through the blue.
Trust in the amniotic sea,
newts and bugs that walk on the water
Birds hatched in hidden caves, blinking and wobbly
Tendered in the benevolent haze of a fresh dawn.
I did this interview with Dr. Pamela Brewer back in August and remember enjoying it even though it was on the telephone and I have an aversion to telephones. You know when someone asks you a question, and you are astonished that your answer so well squares with your thoughts? I think it has to do less with the wording of the question than how the question is asked. Dr. Brewer had an open and understanding way about her that allowed me to launch into exactly what I care about amidst a bunch of laughter. So much laughter. I’m happy to be able to post it here MyNDTALK podcast
A quick Hallelujah for the Heidi Latsky Dance performance at the Baruch Performing Arts Center last week. Latsky started integrating people with disabilities into her company in 2006, and it is a real joy to see them now. This particular show D.I.S.P.L.A.Y.E.D. started with the audience moving and the performers still. The living statues were not given names, only body types. For example: “Female, late 40’s, brown hair with gray, Latina, 5 feet 4 inches, tiny brown eyes, circular face, high cheekbones, small forehead, skinny physique, exceedingly strong arms and hands, toned right leg, missing entire left leg at hip, slow but steady gait, moves with ease.” You could study them, ogle them, gawk at them, but they did not look back at you, or otherwise acknowledge your presence. On stage, the stillness exploded into movement, a festival of gyrating, leaping, rising, falling, wheeling, rolling, straddling, tussling, embracing. The dancers had all sorts of bodies, and their stiffness or looseness, wheeled-ness or legged-ness, oldness or youngness complemented each other and made their interactions, or lack thereof, all the more riveting. The effect was of a pulsing urban madness undergirded by solid form. Check out the clip . It was dazzling. Afterwards the audience was invited on stage to keep ogling and documenting, resulting in one of my favorite pictures (I know it’s blurry. I don’t care):
And here are some beautiful living statues:
One of the books that most marked my adolescence was In the Belly of the Beast. I read it in the eighties, when I was eighteen, aware of its controversy. The author, Jack Henry Abbott, had been put in reform school at the age of twelve, and with the exception of a few breaks, had remained behind bars for the rest of his life. In 1981, in connection with the publication of his book, he was released on bail. A few weeks into his freedom, he got into a fight with a young waiter who wouldn’t allow him to use a restaurant bathroom and stabbed the waiter to death. As recently as this had occurred, Abbott’s words didn’t feel contemporary. They felt timeless, or at least datable to anytime after the Industrial Revolution. His voice was clear and intelligent, brutalized and brutal. It left me with the lasting belief that the institutional and personal cruelties of reform schools and prison have the effect of deforming rather than reforming those caught up within them, whether they are the incarcerated or the incarcerators.
I suppose prisons horrified me even before reading Jack Henry Abbott. When I was sixteen, living as an exchange student in France, there was a prison a block away from my school. You couldn’t see the building, just the thick grey wall that surrounded it. I would walk beside this wall, feeling its weight on my skin, knowing that there were people on the other side. I would pray in my heathenish way for them, and marvel at how crude and oafish adults were, that they could they lock people away, depriving them of sun and water and the people they loved. And now I am an adult, sweeping the floor without anyone telling me to, bossing my kids around. There are still prisons and it is my world now.
After the birth of my son Felix, whose brain was damaged in utero, I began to understand imprisonment in a broader way. At first, it was just that having a child with disabilities made me feel like being on parole. People from a daunting number of agencies and acronyms were forever knocking on our door with clipboards and questions and requests for further meetings in dreary offices where Felix and I would wait for hours to be questioned by officials whose purpose was unclear, but who had to be obeyed, and whose forms had to be filled out, even though I had filled out dozens of such forms before. Privacy became a thing of the past, our home a parade of visiting therapists, aides, assessors, social workers, occasionally policemen, checking up on our kitchen and Felix’s crib, measuring his vocabulary, noting his bowel movements, feeding the data generated into various bureaucratic systems that would need to be re-fed in a few months time.
I grumbled about this, then caught myself when I realized that if I’d been born in the projects, I likely would have had to put up with these sorts of intrusions from the get go. As it was, I’d lived with an enormous amount of freedom for over thirty years. Parole might be a drag, but it wasn’t that bad. It was like being a wild animal who is grabbed by a scientist and tagged with an ankle clip or computer chip, then released. A disruption, yes, but far better than being put in a zoo.
When Felix grew older, I began researching the history of disability in the United States and found that for a great many people the link between imprisonment and disability went far deeper than the feeling of parole. In the nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries, doctors routinely recommended that children and adults deemed “feebleminded,” “deformed,” or “insane” be sent away from their homes and confined in institutions. These institutions were not called jails. They were called schools or asylums, and some of them were truly restorative, humane places where people could come and go, and where learning, therapy, and decency were practiced. But many of them operated like warehouses. Children and adults who did not fit an ideal type were stashed away in buildings the size of city blocks or “farms” in rural areas. Once in, they stayed in. Out of sight, out of mind. Visiting was discouraged. Parents were told to forget their children; children were not given home leave. Children grew to adults in such places, and remained there when they were old. Those who did manage to get out reported overcrowded cells and dormitories, lack of basic necessities such as toothbrushes, an abundance of filth, medical experimentation and regular abuse.
In the 1960s and 70’s, activists within the disability movement shone a light on what was going on and called for the deinstitutionalization of the disabled. Their work led to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (now IDEA) in 1975, and the broader civil rights legislation of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. In the new scheme of things, children with disabilities were to be integrated “into the community” and whenever possible attend their local public schools. Families and schools were to be given the resources to make this possible. In most histories, the story ends here. The ADA is passed. Abusive state schools and psychiatric hospitals are shut down. People with disabilities are deinstitutionalized and progress is made.
But children and adults with disabilities still end up in institutions. Families and local schools do not always have the funds, experience or staff to properly help them. My son is a case in point. Even with our family’s considerable resources, we couldn’t get Felix the sort of 24-hour attention that he needed at home, and he was going crazy with frustration and rage. In spite of our enormous love for him, the sleeplessness and violence in our house came close to breaking me and endangering everyone in the family.
When he was ten, looking for a place that could take better care of him, we visited Crotched Mountain School, a non profit in New Hampshire that is funded primarily through Medicaid, federal and state government agencies, and local school districts. It’s located on a mountaintop flanked with pines and oak trees and populated by deer and hawks and the occasional bear (Alerts go out when one is sighted and the kids and their aides have to go inside). It includes a lakefront, wheelchair accessible trails, ten bungalows where 60 residential students live, and a school for ninety students with multiple disabilities from ages 7-21. As we made our way to the school building, I noticed a gangly and furious teenager punching the ground by the roots of a tree while an aide watched from a safe distance, a walky talky in hand. In the lobby of the school, a girl ululated and bit her hand in joy. In a classroom, a boy in a wheelchair listed the state capitals on his communication device while his classmate spun around in circles. Some might have found the atmosphere strange, but I was in heaven. Felix wasn’t weird here. He fit right in.
I detailed how Felix blossomed at Crotched Mountain in my memoir, Strange Beauty. One of the reasons I wrote the book was to champion open and flexible residential schools and advocate for more of them. For they are rare. In their absence, children with disabilities routinely end up in institutions that are drearily reminiscent of the institutions of old, although now they are not called schools and asylums. They are called juvenile detention, jail and prison.
According to the National Council on Disability, about 85% of incarcerated youth have a disability. Their disabilities are generally invisible i.e., mental illnesses (often triggered by trauma), autism spectrum disorders, and untreated learning disabilities like dyslexia and ADHD. As anyone familiar with mass incarceration knows, those being punished are disproportionately poor and colored. The richer and whiter you are, the more likely you will be able to post bail. The more likely, also, that your disability will be acknowledged, respected, and accommodated. But as recent news stories demonstrate, even white ASD kids, nine- and ten-year old, are being dragged from school in handcuffs, and charged for offenses like hitting an aide and pulling hair.
We need more flexible and understanding special needs schools. We also need to reach kids with disabilities who are locked up. For a while now, I’ve been wondering what Extreme Kids & Crew can do in this regard. I founded Extreme Kids & Crew when Felix was seven, in order to create a space where people of all abilities could connect through the arts, movement, play, or simply by being there. We have grown over the years, and have gotten good at what we do, and have attracted thousands of children and their families from all over New York City. But we can’t reach kids that are institutionalized. So how do we set up an Extreme Kids & Crew arts program for “justice-involved” youth? How can we connect with their families? What would such a program look like?
As I’m no longer in charge of Extreme Kids, I went to the director and the board, and we decided that I would spend a year researching arts programs in the justice system, finding allies, and locating a good New York City site for a pilot program. I’ve decided to write about the process here, as I don’t want to get lonely in my scheming, and it seemed like a good way to get feedback. (If any of you have advice or leads, please contact me).
I’ve taken it as an auspicious sign that right after dedicating 2018 to this project, I was invited to a book launch at Rosie’s, the woman’s jail in Rikers Island. The invitation came from the NY Writers Coalition, a non profit that runs dozens of free creative writing workshops around the city, with a focus on writers whose voices often go unheard. For the past seven years, they have run a workshop in Rosie’s, and were publishing their third collection of poems from women incarcerated there. The event was to take place at 12:30 on January 23rd, but I was warned that I should take the day off, as it takes a long time to get to Rikers, and conditions there are unpredictable, with the possibility that a lockdown could delay or cancel the reading or temporarily prohibit us from leaving. I was also told not to bring a cell phone or a purse, and that all personal items were to be carried in a clear plastic bag or left behind.
The morning of the launch was drizzly and gray. I wandered over to the NY Writers Coalition office, where the attendees were gathering. There I met Aaron Zimmerman, who founded the organization fifteen years ago, his staff, all young and gorgeous and hip, the actress and poet Ashley August, who would be performing at the event, and various board members and donors, including my friend and neighbor Barbara who I was delighted to see, as we rarely get a chance to hang out. We took the G train to the end of the line at Queens, then the Q100 bus to Rikers Island’s outermost parking lot, which is on the mainland, alongside the ramp to the Memorial Bridge.
The bridge is the only way to get to the island and is patrolled by two guard houses with flashing red lights mounted to their roofs. There were a couple rusty trailers where visitors signed in. We waited in a line and handed over our IDs and received badges with numbers on them. Then we waited some more for the bus that would take us across the bridge. My fellow attendees grumbled, but I’ve gotten used to long waits from my time at disability agencies and hospitals. As we bounced about to keep warm, Barbara and I noticed a guard whose hair was immaculately blow dried and in place, even in the rain. He sauntered over to one of the guard houses with the flashing red lights and proceeded to wave in Mercedes and junkers, SUV’s and supply trucks. Ever more vehicles came and went, their steady circulation hinting at the enormity of the operation.
Eventually a white corrections bus pulled into the parking lot and we filed inside. Our guide had a saucy voice and enormous paste-on eyelashes and seemed to enjoy welcoming us to jail. As the bus trundled over the bridge, she spoke about what we would be seeing when we got to Rosie’s, whose official name is the Rose M. Singer Center. She warned us about the testiness of the metal detector, and explained that the “the ladies” had different color uniforms, each color signifying a different status: detainees, inmates, adolescents, adults. I can’t remember which colors signified what as I was focused on the window. There was La Guardia Airport. Right there, directly across the river. There was the American Airlines logo. There was a plane taxiing down the runway. I have been to that airport many times and had no idea, landing and taking off, how close I was to this place.
The bus trundled through parking lots, a sprawl of low squat buildings, trailers that housed various offices and hazardous wastes, empty lots surrounded by multiple loops of barbed wire. Rikers is made up of ten jails and can hold up to 15,000 people, though it more often holds about 10,000, the great majority of whom are detainees who are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime. Another 10,500 people work here. Together they make up what has been called the world’s largest penal colony. Reformers of many stripes have long targeted its abuses and corruption. Last year, Mayor de Blasio issued a ten year plan to close it down. But for now, the place is still going strong, and its immensity and dreariness are chilling.
The bus stopped. We followed our guide into Rosies, took off our shoes and jewelry, and lined up to go through the cranky metal detector. After much beeping and readjusting, we arrived at the other side, our shoes on, our names recorded in the guard’s clipboard, our hands stamped with invisible ink that would glow purple under light sources at more checkpoints down the way. Past a sliding, barred door, we came to the Programs Corridor. A crudely painted mural was painted on one side, two posters taped to the other. One, in lurid greens, blues and blacks said something like: IF YOU HIT ANYONE, STAB ANYONE, STRANGLE ANYONE, YOU WILL BE ARRESTED. The other, in warmer hues, featured a hand, palm up, holding some kind of heart or seed or pod. Women in beige and dark green uniforms walked by. A skinny girl, slightly pimpled and frizzy haired, slumped on a bench outside the room where the launch was to be held.
The room was about the size of a classroom, windowless with white walls. Folding chairs were arranged in rows with an aisle down the middle. At the back were tables where chattering people in civilian clothes presided over clear plastic boxes of supermarket muffins and aluminum trays of Caesar Salad. Maybe a dozen women in beige uniforms, participants in the writing program, milled about or sat together in a clump near the front of the room. I wanted to talk with them, but felt too awkward. I contented myself with sitting on their side of the aisle, instead of the other, where most of the people from the New York Writers Coalition were gathered. My friend Barbara sat next to me. We muttered about the girl slumping on the bench out in the hallway. She looked to be around the age of Barbara’s oldest son. She was smaller than Felix.
Deborah Clearpool, who leads the workshop, welcomed us and explained how it works. Anyone can come; some just come for one session; others are there for months, even years. She never asks people why they are at Rikers, she just gives them a regulation three inch golf pencil (regular size pencils are deemed threats and not allowed) and paper and tells them to write anything that comes to mind, a list, a rant, mumbo jumbo, anything. After ten minutes, they take a break. If anyone wants to share what they’ve written, they can. Their fellow writers listen and respond by telling them what they liked, leaving off negative feedback as it’s too early in the writing process to be useful. Then Deborah will give them a prompt and they go back to writing. They can write based on the prompt or pursue other paths, whatever they want. And so the workshop continues, writing for ten or fifteen minutes, reading, listening, responding, then writing again. Deborah has led this workshop for six years. Over a thousand women have written alongside her.
First up was Ashley August. I had thought she would be reading the women’s work. Instead she closed her eyes then ripped into her own passionate, sassy, devastatingly articulate poems. Her performance was riveting and left us wondering how anyone could possibly follow her. Yet the unadorned voices of the women in their beige uniforms carried their own weight: There were rhyming couplets about enacting bloody revenge for rape and incest; a rueful poem about Christmas in jail being not so bad, as it kept the writer from getting high; a stirring poem called 20 Years, read by a woman whose name was vaguely familiar. Later, I googled her. To my astonishment, I realized that I had read about the crime she had been accused of. It had been a scandal in the nonprofit world, involving a weird sex toy operation embedded in an organization that brought music therapy to the sick and disabled, embezzlement, and an executive director who was brutally attacked, her face sprayed with acid.
After the reading, everyone ate salad and mini muffins together. Those of us in the audience congratulated the writers and got our chapbooks signed. Then the writers were led away and we were led away. I am left with a small treasure, the chapbook Can You Feel the Free In Me. Deborah Clearman is named as its editor, but she said that she didn’t do much editing, other than correct a spelling error or two. She simply asked her writers if they had anything that they would like published, and arranged what they gave her. Here is one of my favorites:
The Love of Water
by Chivona H.
Water is the best thing God created.
You can wash with it, clean with it, cook
with it. What a miserable world it would be if
we didn’t have water or water didn’t exist. I
love water; I consider myself and my children
water babies. Well let me give you an example
how water can brighten up your life. Summer
scalding hot temperatures, beaches, pools, and
water parks and water ice trays, popsicles,
and slushies, cooling off with a popped fire
hydrant, playing water games with the ghetto
children–so much fun. In the winter time a
long hot bath or a kettle filled with water
to supply all your needs like making
hot beverages and a nice bowl of cheesy
grits, something to keep you nice and
warm to go out and conquer the day on a fully
happy stomach and warm soul and spirit. Water
water, I love you, need you, miss you, and
long for you water, water, water, I love you.
You can purchase a copy of Can You Feel the Free in Me on Amazon or you can contact New York Writers Coalition’s Program Coordinator, Catherine at firstname.lastname@example.org. By contacting them directly, all proceeds will go towards funding their free creative writing workshops throughout New York City.
As mentioned in the post, the majority of people held at Rikers are awaiting trial, many for non violent misdemeanors. Were they middle class, they would not be in jail, as their families would be able to afford bail. According to a 2014 court report, 85% of NYC defendants given a bail of $1000 or less could not come up with the funds. One small way to cut down on the number of people separated from their families, jobs, and responsibilities while awaiting trial is give to community bail funds. The Brooklyn Community Bail Fund, for instance, covers bail for non-violent offenders, ensures its clients get to their court dates, and connects them with jobs and housing programs.
Back in the 80’s, I avoided dropping out of high school by becoming an exchange student. In what would have been my senior year, I attended a French lycée in the town of Blois in the Loire Valley. When I got there, I discovered that five years of junior and high school French had given me the fundamentals of reading and writing. But I barely understood a word of the language as it was spoken. Thank goodness for the other foreign kids at the school. I hung out with two Danes and a Kenyan and we created our own little language that was mainly English with smatterings of Swahili, French and Danish. By spring, French had finally planted itself in my brain and I could follow my teacher’s lectures on Le Rouge et le Noir, giggle at the jokes of my classmates, even dream in French. That’s when I learned that my classmates had earlier taken me for a snob. My discomfort with their tongue had come off as aloofness. Now that we could converse, they embraced me. On my return to the States, my entire class showed up at the train station to present me with a card and a necklace. I had no idea that they were coming and could barely say au revoir for the lump in my throat. I can still see them, bunched on the platform, waving enthusiastically until the train rounded a bend and they were lost from view.
That lump in my throat came back while reading Kids Like Us, Hilary Reyl’s moving account of Martin, a sixteen year old from California, who is accompanying his mother on a film shoot in Chenonceau, a chateau not far from the town where I lived in France. Reyl beautifully captures the colors and flavors and tempo of the Loire valley, along with the displacement and discovery I remember from that year. Martin is not as displaced by the French language as I was, for his father, who he refers to as papa, is French, and taught him how to speak the language, bake quatre quarts cakes and read Proust. Martin’s displacement stems from his autism. In California, he attends a special education school known as “The Center,” but for their time abroad, his mother has arranged for him to spend his days at a lycée to practice French with the locals. Martin is also displaced by the end of his parents’ marriage, which is linked to his father’s imprisonment. The matter of fact way that Reyl deals with Martin’s father’s incarceration mirrors the way she deals with Martin’s autism. Both are important pieces of information, but only one facet of their complex and sympathetic personalities.
As the story is told from Martin’s point of view, we are treated to an abundance of details that a more neurotypical narrator might have missed: the train ride from Paris to the town of Chenonceaux takes one hour and two minutes; forty percent of Martin’s French classmates wear Doc Martens, twenty-five percent wear Converses; the chapter headings include hours and minutes along with the date, so that the reader knows more precisely when Martin is forming his thoughts. But numbers are not the pivot of Martin’s soul. Proust is. In particular, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time which he has shortened to Search. Search goes with Martin everywhere. When he gets confused, he scans its pages for words that can explain the pulls and tugs that people exert on him and each other.
When I was sixteen, and found myself sinking into despair, which occurred quite often, I’d take Catcher in the Rye off the shelf, open it at random and let my eyes fall upon a sentence. To my wonder, the words of these sentences invariably helped. Sometimes they related to my plight, sometimes they redirected me, always they made me feel less alone. Martin’s relationship with Search is more literal; it is the portal through which he makes sense of the world. Thus it confuses him when the pretty girl at the lycée who captures his heart is named Alice. According to Search, she should be named Gilberte, and her parents should be artists, not gardeners. But if literalism grounds Martin, it does not govern him. By the end of the story, he has not only kissed Alice, he has called her by her proper name.
Kids Like Us appeared in my mailbox because of my work at Extreme Kids. If there is one thing that I have learned at Extreme Kids and through living with my son Felix, it is that the distinction between the disabled and the so called normal is at best blurry and usually in flux. We all have our blind spots and inabilities, and though they might be taken for weaknesses, they can bring us to places of deeper understanding and experience. This knowledge permeates Reyl’s book, which is not about autism, or a broken family, or an ambitious mother. Rather Kids Like Us is a beautiful tale about young love, the solace of books, the complications of friendship, and the taste of Martin’s cassoulet.