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Our Baby Is Ten!

That baby would be Extreme Kids & Crew. Jason and I were very honored to receive the Felix Award at the wonderful, bedazzling Tenth Anniversary Gala. Thank you, everybody! Here’s the speech I gave.

There’s a lot of things I’m having a hard time believing.  That we are all here. That the Felix Awards are live, in person.  That Extreme Kids has made it this far through the pandemic to arrive at the practically established, double digit age of ten. Incredible.  But perhaps not so incredible when we consider the muscle and heart, tenacity, grit, wit, humor and more of Caitlin Cassaro and her fabulous staff.  

I’d like to start this talk with a moment of silence and gratitude for them and for all the people who have helped shape and create Extreme Kids. Some of them are still with us.  Some aren’t.  We as a community have suffered a lot of grief these past couple of years, and well before that.  So I invite you to close your eyes, or leave them open if you prefer, and dwell on those you have loved and who have loved you and who are in some ways responsible for bringing you here tonight.  

A whole lot of people. 

For Jason and me, the most immediate bringer would be our son Felix, in whose honor these awards are named.

Now we love Felix. Many of you love Felix. Everyone loves Felix.  But there have been times when parenting him was extremely exhausting.  When he was living at home, he’d go through these seasons of insomnia that were truly epic.  In order to get a little rest, Jason and I would care for him in 2 hour shifts, but that didn’t always work.  I mean, Felix can get loud.  When he was happy, this loudness could be rather wonderful, huge waves of laughter that rocked the house  When he wasn’t, oof.  When he wasn’t happy, we’d get the police banging to the door at 2 in the morning.  Bang! Bang! Bang! What’s going on in there? 

No, sir, no one’s getting murdered.  It’s just our son. 

Have you tried giving him melatonin? A friend would inquire.  Yes, my teeth gritted.   We had tried melatonin and harder drugs, too.  We had altered his diet.  We had dabbed his pillowcase with lavender oil and rubbed his feet with frankincense.  In the midst of one of these jags,  NPR launched a campaign to get New Yorkers to sleep more.  I would turn on the radio and there would be these chirpy newscasters saying, “Let’s get to bed at ten!  We’ll feel so much better!”  I wanted to throw the radio out the window.  I stopped giving to their fundraising drives.  My mom called. She’d read another article.  This one was about the CIA and how they broke down their prisoners with sleep deprivation.  “It’s a form of torture,” she told me.  As if that would make it go away?  

Practically speaking, we needed a night nurse, someone to help out those long hours from midnight to six or seven, so Jason and I could finally get some sleep.  To this end, I had filled out many forms and made many calls. Same with my doctor. Same with the people at Child Services. Visiting Nurses said Felix was too young. Another agency said he was too fragile—which is funny. I mean Felix might be the least fragile person I know. Most just put me on hold or said, we don’t do that kind of thing.  All this to say, I had tried the routes of government and medicine.  They hadn’t led anywhere helpful. 

It ended up being Felix who, in his weird way, led to some sort of respite. 

A fall day, Felix yowling and banging his walker against the front door.  As Jason was there to take care of the girls, I strapped Felix into his pediatric stroller, a bulky metal thing, sturdy enough to accommodate his ever larger body, and pushed him outside.  He quieted.  Being outside was often all it took.  I was glad to be outside, too.  A cool, moist, white skied day with the smell of decomposing leaves and bark in the air.  We turned on Lafayette. The people on the sidewalk looked our way.  I was used to that.  Felix almost always caused a stir, generally a pleasant one, at least if we were walking around our neighborhood.  Often I enjoyed the conversations he sparked.  But I was too tired to partake in any conversation that day.  We were on something like Week 12 of two to four hours of sleep a day. My shirt was buttoned the wrong way.  My legs were bruised from bumping into things.  I got to this cracked bulge of concrete. A tree root had pushed up the sidewalk. I struggled with the stroller, trying not to jostle it, but it was impossible.  Felix screamed.  Finally we got over the hump, only to be confronted by an old lady in a church hat. She approached in the way of a person who liked to chat.  I almost winced.  She leaned down to smile at Felix then looked at me, so kindly.  Her eyes were filled with light.  

“Good morning,” she said.  

“Good morning,” I said.  

That was it. She went her way.  We went ours.   But now I had a bounce in my step, a warmth in my chest.  I felt like I’d slept, a real sleep, an all through the night sleep. 

Later, I wondered if that had really happened.  Maybe it had been a dream.  Or a narrative I’d made up.  I’m a writer, after all.  I like to make up stories.  

Then it happened again.  Not with the old lady.  A different day, a different stupor, a different person drawn to Felix and through Felix to me.  Again I had the feeling of being lifted up, dusted off, and gently put down, all from the light in someone’s eyes.  I didn’t care anymore if I was making it up. It was working.  These people, who I didn’t even know, were holding me up.  After that, when things got hard, when I felt myself on the verge of snapping,  I’d strap Felix in the stroller and we’d go out in search of these people. 

We did not always find them.  But these types of encounters happened enough that I began to trust that they were real.  A simple nod of recognition could work like six, seven hours of sleep.  I began to wonder about these people, this power they had.  They certainly weren’t powerful economically.  I mean, most of them were older, most were of color, most didn’t look like they had a lot of extra money.  Maybe, in part, it was the difference in our outward markers that made their greetings so special.  Americans are taught to love equality, but we don’t get to experience it that often.  It is a wonderful, visceral feeling.  Here we are, on this planet, in this city, in these bodies, together in this moment, absolutely equal. Just people.

In spite of that precious quiver of equality, I doubt any of these people would remember me or Felix. New Yorkers who can walk, walk a lot; we take multiple walks most every day.  Felix and I would have been part of a walk that disappeared, as most walks do, into some dusty file of memory. If they had been able to see the light in their eyes, then I think they would have remembered.  But they couldn’t.  I was the one who got to see that. I got to gobble it down. 

Maybe it’s easier to shine that light on people we don’t know well.  With the people we’re close to, things can get muddled.  There’s so much history, hurt, hope, yearning.  When someone you love is suffering, you so desire for something to be done, for them to feel better. You can’t help suggesting things, bringing up studies, remedies, the evils of the CIA, whatever it is you grasp for.  Even if you remember that unasked for advice is seldom useful, even if you hold your tongue, they can still feel the weight of your concern. It would be very hard for instance, for me to say a simple, pure, unaligned “Good morning” to my teenage daughter.  Whereas I might be able to say this to someone else’s. And it might be welcome, a light recognition from someone outside of the family.  Good morning. Here we are.  

I started fantasizing about a place where these exchanges would happen more often, more reliably.  A community center with disability as the draw.  So it was not only Felix who brought me here tonight. It was also the people he attracted, the lady in the church hat and all those others who gave me energy when I was completely maxed out.

The energy they gave me.  I think of it now as light love. Love light. It’s different from the dense, sometimes heavy bonds of love that bind close families and friends. It’s fleeting, almost impersonal, and precious.  If we let it run through us, we can be like an electrical wire for each other.  

When I was the opener and closer and greeter and janitor of Space No. 1, Extreme Kids & Crew’s first playspace, I felt that kind of electricity a lot.  Not always.  There would be days when no one showed up, or when the people who did were too tired, distracted, nervous to be able to take part on that level.  That was OK.  You can’t always get to that level. I know I can’t.  But very often, this sweet, simple exchange would happen.  I am sure that’s why Extreme Kids took hold.  Alongside all the hard work of Caitlin and crew, I am sure that is why we are still here today. 

I think of community centers now as places to practice light love.  We may be making art, or swinging our kids, or making a raised bed, but we are also recognizing each other, listening and responding, finding a lost shoe.  At root, we are building each other up. 

I’m not arguing that all we need is light love.  We also need strong love, bold love, diverse love. We also need safe shelter and healthy food, good jobs and inclusive, flexible education, healthcare, racial justice, civil rights for every single human being in this country, and underlying and connect to all of this, a deeper understanding of nature and our place in it.  We need a lot, and always have.  As we work towards these things, which we will forever be working towards, some gentle, light, loose love really helps.  Without it, we get worn out and start to lose faith. Or get concerned only for ourselves or our families and become cut off. 

So thank you for engaging in this practice with me, as all of you already have.  I hope you will continue to practice at Extreme Kids and extend your practice to Lonely Worm Farm, too.  It’s a wonderful place to visit. There are wetlands, glacial slopes, magical herbs.  If you are having one of those days and don’t feel like dealing with people, you can practice light love with a chicken or a pine tree or a gust of wind.  I think that’s what Felix is doing when he closes his eyes and tastes the breeze.  Just connecting.  Saying hi.  Loving lightly.  The way I see it, he is leading the way. 

Found Dreams & Mugwort

The kids are trying to remember the lyrics to Hamilton, with no help from the internet as there was a thunderstorm a few hours ago and the electricity went out.  Fireflies outside, candles inside.  The dog noisily eating kibble after a good round of barking at the chicks, who scattered about, relatively unmolested, protected by good wire fencing. 

Earlier today, back in the time when we had electricity, I was clearing my computer desktop so as to have some space to work on a new website.  Medical records and such were easy to assign to their appropriate folders.  Not so much a document entitled “Dream April 2016.”  

I had a dream the other night, involving cutting cardboard into the shape of a midriff, the curve of a woman’s breast and arm in repose, accompanied by a phrase invoking the miraculousness of life.  A cliche, but with an urgency to it.  The feeling was that we all, with our snotty noses and frustrations, were miracles.  Even the current candidate for president.  He may be a miracle of ickiness, but he is a miracle nonetheless. Those concerned with the changing or maintaining of systems sometimes get annoyed by this sort of thing—who cares that we’re miraculous beings hurtling through space on a gem of a planet in a universe somewhat scrutable by numerical formulas? Four million refugees need to be fed and we can’t elect a Nazi. Well, yes.  And yet, that inkling of holiness, utterly outside of human will, is grounding. Whether you like it or not, whether you sense it or not, it is a balm, a perspective that lessens some of the pain and fury of the here and now. 

I don’t remember dreaming this.  And yet those words bring back the astonishment that I felt then, that I feel all over again.   It is a treasure, writing down dreams and refinding them.

I am particularly pleased to find this at this moment, as I’ve assigned the Lonely Worm Farm’s first interns their first and only homework: sleep with some mugwort under your pillow.  See what happens to your dreams.  I was thinking of calling this place Mugwort Farm as it grows in great bushy clumps practically everywhere except the boggy part of the field and the shade of the woods.  It is considered an invasive weed these days, but it was the first of the Saxon’s nine holy herbs and is said to induce vivid dreaming, along with other intriguing properties.  I am thinking of selling mugwort dream pillows to help fund this sprawling operation, but don’t want to engage in false advertising, hence the homework.  Will it be effective?  Stay tuned… 

Thanks Lonely Worm Work Crew!

In celebration of stone easers, sapling bearers, rafter hoisters, rust scrubbers, cobweb sweepers.

This Saturday, May 1, thirty volunteers visited Lonely Worm Farm to raise a yurt for our first farmers and make the barn habitable for our first goats. Gorgeous weather, gorgeous people, I couldn’t have asked for more! As my brother says, the teamwork makes the dream work…

Thank you, everybody!

Poem for the New Year


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
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. 

Beginning

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.

Magic drinking the pond


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!

Seven trunked pine in the forest out back.

Felix’s Laughter

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.

Asylum

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 elizafactornyc@gmail.com.

Breath

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.

Fear. Fear.

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?

Poem for the Times (indebted to Roald Dahl)

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.