Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Process is Progress: Discovering Yourself Through Writing

Originally written for and posted on Straw Dog Writers Guild's website:

I’ve always been involved in the arts in some way but never would I have ever thought I’d become a writer. I picked up my first musical instrument at 8 years old, started off as a music education major in undergrad but left with a degree in theatre.  I’ve been on stage as an actor, worked behind the scenes as a stage manager, director and producer, and have played in several pit orchestras for musicals but never would have thought that I’d take on such a solitary form of creating. It wasn’t until I arrived in Western MA over 11 years ago that my subconscious would hit the pen and paper for public consumption.

Being 27 years old and living in a college town, it was hard to make friends.  It was recommended to me that I join a writing and performance troupe for women of color in the area.  I had no clue what I was getting into yet was open to whatever results followed.  From this experience blossomed the need and desire to write even more beyond the material generated just for the group.  The same woman who made the recommendation for me to join the troupe also suggested that I then enter a playwriting competition.  Acting, directing and stage management were skills I was most comfortable with.  Spilling my soul to paper again beyond the form of a monologue was yet another challenge I was willing to face.  This play received an important accolade, one that encouraged me to continue writing.  It was an award named for my favorite cultural critic, essayist, playwright and poet James Baldwin that came along with a nice cash prize.  This recognition gave me the permission to explore further this newly discovered trait.

As I learned more to exist in this space, one quite different from the one of vital formative years, I became more open to pursue writing on my own.  I took on journaling, which I now have several bookcases dedicated to the journals I’ve accumulated over the years, as a way to reflect on writing projects past.  From the time of being a member of the writing and performance ensemble to the themes that emerged from the play, I realized that my writing assumed a very important mission.  I discovered that I was writing about how my identity has changed through “growing up” in Pioneer Valley – and that was through the world of dating.

Unlike most people, I didn’t begin seriously dating until I moved to this area.  One would think that I would have pursued love earlier on in life but through attending undergraduate and graduate school years prior, I was more determined to make my parents proud with degrees in hand and a substantial way to support myself.  The things I learned about myself through dating were very eye opening.  I didn’t want to acknowledge the harsh self-awareness to myself yet I was willing to share it with the world through the monologues I wrote for the performance group and the play (which deals with interracial dating and my qualms with its associated issues).  My writing also became more of a social justice issues as only negative stereotypes about women who are like me (both women of color and plus-size women) are relegated to hyperinvisibility in mainstream media as it pertains to romance and dating.

Sometime in late 2016 after dealing with the sudden loss of my mom, I needed to dive head first into a project.  I collected all of the free write poems and journal entries I’ve written over the years and saw how multiple themes around the person I’ve become while living in this area emerged.  At now 39 years old, having now lived on both sides of the “tofu curtain,” My writing reflected the experiences of a very proud, still single plus size Black woman with natural hair and a very statuesque figure living in an area that is extremely monochromatically different than where I spent the first part of my life and of someone who spent a lot of time out in coffee shops, restaurants and movie theatres alone.  Born from all of this was In/Put. 

In/Put, a self-produced spoken word album, was recorded live at Click Workspace earlier this year in March.  Instead of looking to get the poems that became this project published, I thought to recite them for people to listen to them as a way to pay homage to my earlier theatre training.  Plus, I love to hear myself on the microphone.  The idea of the live recording was inspired by stand-up comedy, a form of entertainment that I absolutely love yet have found the courage to take it on.

After a successful Indiegogo campaign, relying on very talented friends and having my parents’ indirect support (both of my parents have since passed on as of Christmas of 2017 and I was fortunate enough to have access to an inheritance), In/Put:  Live from the Valley will be out in February of 2019.  One of the most important things that I did for this project was to hire a dramaturg/script advisor.  Though poetry, I wanted to create an experience for listeners – as I’m a storyteller, I needed all of the work to make sense together as a collection.  She, the dramaturg, helped curate the order of the poems and gave some very good feedback on the work.  I did several rewrites on some of the poems before the recording.  And also given my theatre background, I wanted the work to flow like a monologue as it is easier for me to perform rather than recite poetry. 

I am very much looking forward to sharing this work with others and continuing to still learn more about myself as others experience this work for the first time.  I’m unsure what types of writing I’d produce next which I’m finding it rather difficult to write about any other subject than dating and identity. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Being Neighborly: Reflecting on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood in These Times

It's been a very long time since I wrote a blog post.  So many things have happened since my last post including the sudden passing of my dad.  What better way to return to this type of reflexive writing by writing on one of my favorite shows from childhood and its subsequent documentary.

Following a longstanding tradition that I created for myself years ago, I went to see a film at Amherst Cinema on Independence Day.  Seeing the documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor did my heart and soul some good on a very rough holiday.  I've always struggled celebrating the Fourth of
July due to my racial identity and also being so far from "home" where my family barbecued every year up until recently, of course.  Since living in Western Massachusetts, with the exception of my first year in the area, and one year going to see the fireworks in Boston, I've "celebrated" Independence Day by going to the movies alone.  One of my favorite outings was when I saw Away We Go for the first time.  Not anticipating the film's ending, I cried (literally) walking down the streets of the center of Amherst until I gathered the courage to find a place to have lunch.  Wiping away tears as I browsed through the menu of one of the few restaurants open that day, I used that time to self-reflect on what the day could mean for me and how to best use my time along.  Being the overthinker I am, the day became time for me to journal and enjoy the best date I've ever been on - spending time by myself.  I've become more of an introvert wanting to spend time alone as I've gotten older.  Not necessarily because of my personality, as I love to socialize, but more so as protective armor.  People tend to be nastier these days.  Some people say that the current political climate has permitted those who've heard back for decades to say what's truly on their minds.  Sometimes, just like the past few days, it's the very hot and humid weather causing everyone discomfort and their actions towards others to follow suit.

This brings to me my experience watching Won't You Be My Neighbor (for the second time actually since I also went opening weekend- BTW, please support films opening weekend as those ticket sales do determine how long a movie will stay in theatres) and all of the thoughts going through my head.  Though I'll be referencing the film, I promise that they'll be no spoilers here.  For many of you who are fans of Fred Rogers, none of what I'm about to mention should be new news.  I took the title phrase and actually asked myself "won't you be my neighbor," of course, referencing myself.  Am I a good "neighbor"? Would people want to live near me?

Fred Rogers, affectionately known as Mister Rogers, knew how to soothe people, especially children, at times of need.  The film recalls episodes of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and it's subsequent themes during the Vietnam War, Robert Kennedy's assassination, and a special that was taped post-9/11.  These episodes were really good at staging similar situations in the Land of Make Believe (i.e., King Friday XIII wanting to build a wall to keep danger out of the kingdom) and the younger characters (many times that being Daniel Tiger) talking with adults to work out their emotions and rationalize what was happening in the world around them.  Through the safety of projecting and the magic of television, viewers were able to work out emotions and feelings without having to experience situations first hand.  Through the intersections of representation, subjectivity and spectatorship, television has the power to empower those who need to feel a part of a community.  I know for myself, Mr. Rogers made me feel like I and my feelings mattered.

How could I be more like Mr. Rogers?  How could we all be like Mr. Rogers?  Is a simple "hello" to a complete stranger as you pass one another in the grocery store enough?  Is holding the door for the person behind you as you each attempt to enter a coffeeshop in the morning, getting that necessary brew to start your day enough?  Is following traffic laws and actually following all of the rules that you've learned in drivers' education instead of intentionally speeding and cutting off other drivers enough? Is a smile to people as you pass one another walking down the street enough?  I know for myself, having these small things done to me make me feel important - putting me on the top of the world for the day, not just that brief moment.  Why.....because I mattered to someone.

I haven't lived in a true "neighborhood," well one by Fred Rogers' definition, since I was a teenager in Detroit.  The children who attended the same school participated in a carpool with parents and grandparents alternating days of when they'd drive the brood early in the morning and pick them up following band practice and sporting events.  My mom or dad could knock on any neighbors' door to ask for a cup of sugar or even to watch me while I played outside late into the evening.  We also didn't have to worry about intruders such as home burglaries and potential car thefts as we looked out for one another - visitors took notice of those of us on the porch as they search for things to take.  Luckily, none of this happened in this neighborhood.  Every time I go back to visit this neighborhood, my next door neighbors would tell fond stories of watching my parents attempt to teach me how to ride a bike (even in my late 30s, I still don't know how to), play with friends from across the street or even play by myself as being an only child for a long time (as my brother didn't come along until I was 14 years old), I had a clan of invisible playmates.  What's funny yet special about all of this is that despite the Motor City having a "not so good" reputation today, I hold my hometown close to my heart as many others thought to take care of me and look out for my well-being.  I am definitely proof that it "does take a village to raise a child" as I wouldn't be who I am today if not this many people cared for me.

Fast forward to my brief return back "home" to attend graduate school.  I lived in what was then the Cass Corridor, now heavily gentrified "Midtown" (FYI, I will never call it that).  I lived in this area from 2004-2007, still a prime time for heavy car thefts on Wayne State University's campus (where I earned my MFA), home invasions and random people being held up at gun point.  My apartment was broken into during the Thanksgiving weekend of 2004.  Days after the discovery and reporting it to the police, two of my neighbors approached me and said that while they heard and saw suspicious activity, they didn't feel compelled to say or do anything because they didn't want anything to happen to them.  I'm not going to lie:  this wouldn't have happened in my old neighborhood.

There's no need for me to go into what my experience has been like living in Western Massachusetts for the past ten years as I've spent several previous posts going into how what has happened has changed my perspective of progressive, college towns and regions.  What I can say is that now I believe that there's many more factors to consider as to why it's hard to feel and be "neighborly" in this area including the prestige and privilege that comes with the intellectualism associated with these types of places and also living so far from our neighbors being in a rural area and homes not being so close to one another.

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood also holds a special place in my heart because it's one of the few things that my parents and I shared and also something that I share with today's young people.  This show is one of the few that aired over a span of decades.  My parents were around 10 years old when the first episode aired in 1968 and when I was a child, new episodes were still being produced.  And, I got to see many of the episodes my parents watched in syndication as well.  And while I'm unsure if Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is still available in syndication, children today can experience Fred's brilliance through the animated series, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, which I didn't realize was a thing until I stumbled upon this article in the Huffington Post after doing my usual Google research upon watching the documentary.  Daniel, of course, is based on the puppet from the initial Mister Rogers' Neighborhood television series, and the show is set in the Land of Make Believe.  And, I must say, watching the theme song brought tears to my eyes as the show has identified an important piece of nostalgia from the formative years of multiple generations.

The theme song to the animated series, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.

Considering all that we have going on in society that makes us question our own humanity, please take some time to go see the documentary, Won't You Be My Neighbor.  I hope that you connect with it in the same ways that I have:  asking yourself how can I be a better "neighbor".  To find a screening near you, visit the website for the film.