Thursday, July 14, 2016

New Play Gives White Parents A Glimpse of Black Parents' Pain

By Richard Kirsch
Just a few days before Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed by police officers, my wife and I went to the premier of the play "American Son," which opened in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in June. The play is carefully crafted to leave White audiences feeling the searing pain of finding out that their son was killed by a police officer.
 I left "American Son" stunned but then I realized that my grief was one more example of my White privilege. For 85 minutes I had sat through what the parents of Black boys and men live through their entire lives.
Playwright Christopher Demos-Brown carefully constructs his play to bring privileged White audiences into the story. He adds story elements that intentionally disrupt any neat explanations – life is rarely neat. But no matter how you sort through the contradictions, you are left with the inescapable conclusion that Jamal Ellis would be alive if he were White.
The play takes place entirely in the waiting room of a Miami police station in the early hours of the morning, where Jamal’s parents have gone after hearing that 18- year old has been “detained.” We first meet Jamal’s mother, who is a Black, PhD psychologist. Jamal’s Dad is a White FBI agent. They sent Jamal to an exclusive, almost all-White prep school. His Mom made sure he didn’t talk Black. Jamal is headed to West Point.
 We also learn that after Dad left home recently – he’s having an affair – Jamal started to wear baggy pants, grew dreads and is hanging out with other young Black men, whom his parents don’t know.
The day before he was pulled over Jamal had put a “SHOOT COPS with your cell phone” bumper sticker on the back of the Lexus his Dad gave him as a high school graduation gift. His Mom had thought about telling him he had to take the sticker off, but she wanted to give her West Point bound high school graduate permission to rebel.
 The cop who pulled over Jamal and his friends is Black and, as it turns out, so is the police department’s public affairs officer, whom his parents have been waiting for with increasing dread. That dread deepened after Dad is emailed a grainy video in which a Black man – does he look like Jamal? – appears to have been shot. Dad explodes in anger when the public affair officer still won’t tell them where Jamal is. He lashes out first at a White policeman and then the Black official and is charged with resisting arrest.
 After Dad is taken away for booking, the Black officer sits down with Mom – who has been torn between anger and fear for hours – and tells her she shouldn’t have let her son drive with that bumper sticker, that she couldn’t hide her son’s Blackness no matter how she tried. She listens, her face anguished, and then tells him to “fuck off.”
 All the time I’m hoping, believing that Jamal will be all right. Because I want to believe. I have to believe. Because all my life my White privilege – just as Jamal Dad’s White privilege – has protected him from the tragedy of injustice.
Finally, when Dad is released, the police official reads Jamal’s parents the official report. Jamal was pulled over with the two other young men after one of them bought some marijuana. One of the young men started to run and the other two got out of the car. Jamal, according to the report, put his hand on the police car and the police officer started firing at the fleeing boy. A shot went into Jamal’s head, killing him instantly. There will be a full inquiry we are told, as the curtain falls over his stricken parents.
 And for a few minutes we are stricken too. Powerful drama puts us in the story, into Jamal’s parents’ shoes. The shoes of educated, privileged parents who are like you but different; they tried to construct a world for their son away from the danger that faced him as a Black man. And could not.
 We went home. I turned on the baseball game to break the spell. As painful as that moment was, it was just a moment. As a parent of three kids, I can think of nothing worse than one of my children dying. But Jamal is not my child. While I’m sad and angry when I hear about the killings in Orlando and in France and in Sandy Hook and now in Dallas, I don’t grieve deeply for those families either. My life goes on.
I can go to a nightclub or a cafĂ© without worrying that I will be killed. But if my 27 year old son were Black I would have been worrying about him every day since he was first old enough to walk out of our door on his own. And that, even at my age, I’d worry every time I got in my car.
What can we Whites do? We can start by speaking out, by declaring that we do have White privilege. And by wearing our White privilege as a weight that never be lifted. A weight we can try to lighten by fighting against the systemic racism that shapes our world.
"American Son" premiered at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts from June 17th to July 9th. It won the prestigious Laurents/Hatcher Award for Best New Play of 2016. Richard Kirsch is Director of Our Story - The Hub for American Narrative.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Miracles are Here

On a morning when I wake up
wanting some kind of miracle
to happen and nothing
in particular 
that's when I try just
to watch that desire
and breathe it

And then this
thought occurs to me:
Maybe you are asking
for the wrong sort.
Maybe you don’t need the
flashy miracles where some
glowing angel appears or
you suddenly can fly or
you can speak to the dead
or predict the future
with or without tea leaves.


Maybe the point is
that miracles
are right here in these
fingers creating meaning
out of little black squiggles
tapped onto a white screen.

Or in a sunflower bigger
than a dinner plate.
Or in a smiling baby
with toes like tiny pink pearls.
Feel the gentle air
expanding your lungs.
Smell the pine trees on a mountain –
just because I write the words.

All of it, every single thing
is miraculous
if you take the time to notice.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Why Do Donald and Boris Have the Same Bad Hair?

OK, OK, I know I am supposed to be writing about how scary BREXIT is and how it spells the end of the world economy as we know it, but while trying to read about it in the NYTimes today I got distracted by this:

OK is it coincidence or what? Have they consulted with each other about their bad blonde hair?

Like I said, there are far more important issues to be discussed, but it is quite comical that these two populists obviously go to the same hairdresser!

Monday, June 06, 2016

A Brand New Website for My Paintings

I've been painting for 14 years. Now and then, people ask me where they can see my work. So I decided to design a website for the paintings and invite you to take a look:

I have no formal training in art. The way I came to painting was via my first novel, Dreaming Maples. The story features several women who are passionate about their art. Young Candace is devoted to her painting. In order to write about Candace, I spent a lot of time at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. The climactic scene in the book takes
place at the Clark, beneath Renoir's "Blonde Bather."

The way I write fiction, I "SEE" every scene before I can write it. Many people say that when they read my books they feel as though they are watching a movie. So as I wrote, I kept seeing and seeing. Some of what I saw were paintings. Some of what I wrote was about painting. My journals from that period are filled with drawings and small pastels and paintings.

Two months after the book was published, in 2002, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease. The chemo was ruthless. I could barely function. I wrote poetry to get me through. But I also started to wander around the house in a chemo-induced fog, cutting out pieces of paper and making colorful  collages.

One week, when I was headed to Sloan Kettering, my dear friend Leslie Gabosh, who at the time owned an art store, handed me a fistful of colored pencils and a small art pad. She picked a Black-eyed Susan growing outside the door and she told me I should draw while waiting for my chemo at Sloan.  I did. It helped so much. Art cured and healed my soul just as the chemo and radiation healed my body.

At some point during that summer of chemo, I painted my first large canvas.
I remember standing beside our beautiful pond, surrounded by the green lush of summer. My painting: a hillside of fir trees against a beautiful blue sky.  The painting was OK, but I quickly realized that I didn't have much talent as a realistic painter.

So I started throwing paint on the canvas, the way Jason Pollock used to. (By the way, I have taken a workshop or two, and one teacher compared my paintings to those by Joan Mitchell.)

I continued to paint outdoors beside the pond. Whenever a painting wasn't working, I would simply hose it down and start again. Over and over and over, I tried to let the PAINT AND THE DESIGN HAVE THEIR SAY.  My goal always was to just STAY OUT OF THE WAY!

That was 2002. I have been throwing acrylic paint on canvas ever since. What have I learned? That painting is alive. More alive than writing. AS VIBRANT AS DIVINE LIGHT! 

You write a story or a novel, and it is made of paper (or now, it's an ebook.) But one sits on a bookshelf and the other resides in your iPad.  Paintings on the other hand are lively and pulsing. The colors heat up your soul. When you are done, you can hang them, store them in the basement or give them to your family and friends. I think of people who have my paintings and I smile at each one. PAINTING IS SO MUCH FUN!

At one point, my son Noah, who was living in New York, had so many of my paintings in his apartment that I used to joke that I had a very special gallery in Brooklyn :) 

So that's the story, or at least, that's all I need to say right now.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Missing Mom!

She passed on October 17, 2015.

We miss her.

This morning, I was looking for a necklace to wear. I searched my two jewelry boxes. Nothing. Finally, I tried the bottom drawer of my night table, where jewelry sometimes pops up.

There I found this tiny box I didn't recognize.

In it was a magnificent cameo.

And then I remembered.
I bought this for my mom 38 years ago, the first time I was in Florence, on the Ponte Vecchio -- the spot where my husband and I made the decision to get married!

Beneath the cameo was a tiny piece of lined paper folded in half. It read "Cameo is for Claudia" in pencil.

That's when the tears started up. That's when I realized anew that my mother is gone on this Mother's Day. I called my sister Karen and cried some more.

But then we realized, we have each other, and my sister Holly and my brother Rich. And our Dad.

Better to think about what you have than what you don't.  We have so many memories.

We love you Mom!!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

10% Happier

If you've always wanted to meditate, but could never figure out how to start, or how to keep going day after day, I would highly recommend a new meditation program called 10% Percent Happier. The program, which offers a "clear, easy to use, step-by-step guide" to meditation, is billed as "Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics."

Each day, the instruction begins with a short conversation between a highly experienced meditation teacher and ABC News Anchor Dan Harris. In 2004, Harris suffered an on-air panic attack in front of millions of TV viewers. The experience led him to daily meditation. These conversations are aimed at people who have looked askance at meditation, even as millions and millions of Americans are turning to the practice to reduce stress, improve concentration and boost brain health.

The introductory conversation is followed by a ten to 15 minute meditation with the experienced meditation teacher. The first seven days of 10% Happier are free, so you might as well try it (if you subscribe, the program costs only $10 a month.) 

Even after all these years I have been meditating, I am learning an incredible amount from this wonderful series. Try it and see for yourself!

Friday, April 22, 2016

About a Robin

What magic is this
robin, creeping so softly
over the green green grass.
As she passes my window
I marvel.

Here is another miracle.
Inhaling, I cannot
imagine which who what
unfathomable force or being
is at work here,
creating this black and
rust-colored  bird.
I have stared at so many
creatures and growing things
and still

I am awed by
and Lakes
and Oceans
and Babies’ toes and fingers.
I will always wonder,
My God, who makes them!?

Dedicated to a muse and my dear friend, Sharon Flitterman-King

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Jackson Pollock I am NOT...

But I sure did get inspired seeing his work last week in an exhibit at MOMA.  He was brilliant and innovative and so prolific.

Here is the first painting I did after seeing the show:

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Have You Seen the Pale Blue Dot?

My son has a small round tattoo on his arm. I asked him about it and he told me it was "the pale blue dot." Many of you may already know what that dot is all about. I didn't. But this is what I have learned: 
The pale blue dot appears in a photograph of the Earth taken on February 14, 1990. The Earth appears as a barely visible blue speck in the dark space of the Universe. The photo was taken by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) as the space craft was leaving the solar system.  
At the suggestion of astronomer Carl Sagan, NASA turned Voyager I's camera around and took one last photograph of Earth across a vast expanse of space. Later, Sagan wrote a book called The Pale Blue Dot, in which he said:

"From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
"The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
"The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Of Orchids and Oranges

One day when my son was younger, he was eating a sliced orange and out of nowhere he said, “Seeing an orange like this convinces me there is a God.”

I was a bit shocked, in a pleasant way, by his observation. I told him I agreed, but we didn’t go on to have a deep philosophical or religious discussion. There was no need to. He had captured one of life’s little miracles and that was that.

I thought about that comment this morning as I stared into the heart of my pink orchid, which finally bloomed a day ago. I love the very center of the flower.
I marvel at its mysterious structure. To me, it looks as though the orchid has two curved “arms” that reach right out of the blossom, offering up the flower’s unique beauty and architecture.

So here  I have written 139 words trying to capture the flower’s miracle whereas my son did the same thing with the orange in eleven.

Enough said.