sublime /səˈblīm/: tending to inspire awe usually because of elevated quality (as of beauty, nobility, or grandeur) or transcendent excellence. [Merriam-Webster]
There’s a video of me in 2018 walking along the edge of the Grand Canyon in Nevada and I can not stop laughing. I sound almost giddy, with uncontrollable giggles accompanied by a lot of exclamatory, somewhat coherent phrases.
I do not know if that is everyone’s reaction to seeing the glory of this natural wonder, but I can attest that at that moment, I truly understood the meaning of the sublime.
I know that you’ve been with me every hour, every minute, and every moment of the last ten years, but I hope when you re-read these words at the turn of your half-century on this Earth, that they make you smile.
You probably remember how, two weeks before our fortieth birthday, I cracked open a fortune cookie to find the words “You will soon be inspired to make a life-changing decision” on a tiny slip of paper.
“Life-changing” feels like a loaded phrase with many meanings. Perhaps, I needed to let the universe guide me towards spontaneity and adventure. Maybe, I should accept the path I was already on with a measure of certainty that success would certainly follow. It could also be encouragement to take a sharp left turn into the unknown.
However, you know me. I have said over, and over, again that change is not something I take lightly.
I do not jump. I plan.
I do not step off the path, I take the sure and steady curve to get where I need to go.
Over the course of a writing retreat this past November I was listening to a MasterClass with the author Amy Tan. While sections of the course were directed to writers that were just getting started, I paid close attention to the lesson focused on writer’s block.
While 2021 was so much better than 2020—and 2022 even better so far—I still found myself choosing to spend what spare time I had sitting on the couch watching television instead. I know we are not supposed to be hard on ourselves, to be thinking about missed opportunities from this ongoing pandemic— after all, we can’t all be Brandon Sanderson—but I can’t help but consider how much of my real blocks are about more than just the state of the world.
During this lesson Tan talks about writing rituals, about methods to block out distractions, and then she looks straight at the camera and says: “Ask yourself: Why did you decide to become a writer in the first place?”
Her purpose, of course, was to encourage us to move past the imposter syndrome that leads into a cycle of NOT writing. To remind you about what the initial impetus was for first putting pen to paper.
At the start of the sixth annual Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature author V.E. Schwab described how a co-panelist stated that J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels were required reading for anyone venturing into the world of fantasy – both as a writer and a reader. In response Schwab,
“…told the man on the panel I had never read Tolkien, and he looked at me not with derision exactly, but with such open astonishment, as if wondering how I found my way into that chair, onto that panel, into the building, onto the pages of books, without him. And I simply said, “I found another door.”
That simple statement has been tumbling about my head for a number of days as I tried to remember what served as my entree into the world of books and reading. I knew what pushed me towards the fantasy genre, but there was no singular book that made me realize that I valued and loved the written word.
A few months ago two friends of mine asked me to do a reading at thier wedding, and after I offered to write it for them they said yes. I wanted to share the piece with you along with a recording of a portion I had to cut due to time constraints (and that it didn’t quite fit in with the broader piece).
Here is the final reading from the ceremony this weekend.
August 14, 2006. This story begins in a stately building on the corner of 18th and Massachusetts in Dupont Circle. On this particular humid day, typical of a Washington August, a young twenty-three year old woman walked into her first day at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. While the specifics of her emotions are lost to time, they are likely tinged with a combination of relief (she has a job!) and excitement (she has a job in her field!).
That was then. This is now.
I have always been a big believer in loving what you do. Every day we get out of bed and head to a workplace to spend a third of our weekly waking hours as means to support ourselves. In these hours we have a choice – to let our work become rote, a black hole of time filled with disengagement, or to find work that stimulates our mind, bringing passion and joy along for the ride. It is a luxury, perhaps, but something that I feel is essential.
In the foreword of the new translation of his book Night Elie Wiesel wrote:
“In retrospect I must confess that I do not know, or no longer know, what I wanted to achieve with my words. I only know that without this testimony, my life as a writer—or my life, period—would not have become what it is: that of a witness who believes he has a moral obligation to try to prevent the enemy from enjoying one last victory by allowing his crimes to be erased from human memory.”
Like most American teenagers I encountered the words of Elie Wiesel in an English class. The stark white cover, Wiesel’s name in blue lettering, a shadowed image of barbed wire obscuring a singular figure: we were two years from my first visit to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (of which Wiesel was the founding chairman) and while I knew about the horror in abstraction, this was the first witness testimony I had ever read. Continue reading “Never shall I forget that night: On Elie Wiesel”→
How can I even begin to say goodbye. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right. It doesn’t even seem real. I’d like to think that you’re looking down Finally able to see the brilliant azure of sky And green of earth the way God intended. But all I can think, all I can hear is your voice, your laughter A daily comfort from 9-5
Who will I talk to about the practice of writing, Of finding time to give beauty the time it needs To learn to not hasten, or look forward to the light Or the Spark! of inspiration.
Idris Elba doesn’t know what he missed But I do. We do. It’s like one of your paintings A splash of color, and shape Full of meaning, full of heart Full of soul
I’d like to think you can see us–can see how much you will be missed. But I know, that you know, that I won’t see your reaction That tilting head, that eyebrow raised…. The face that says so much with so little It isn’t fair. It isn’t right. It doesn’t even seem real.
Today I found out that a dear friend and coworker passed away. Like much in life we aren’t prepared for, you don’t quite know how much someone means to you until they are no longer there. Charisse painted with skill, and wrote with the weight of her history and her life experience. Every day that I got to know her was a lesson in how to be more optimistic, unselfish, and to imagine that greater things are just on the horizon. My heart is aching–for her family, for her friends, and for those of us who will no longer be able to tell her how very much she meant to us.
In high school you know how good a teacher is based on the rumor mill. Sometimes it is because the teacher is an “easy grader,” or someone who never notices that you cut class. Sometimes the teacher is Jim Percoco.
I’m not sure when I first heard about Percoco’s class. I must have been fifteen, a sophomore that had just dumped her computer science class for a course on typing. I can’t remember if I was unhappy, or just finding myself stagnated intellectually, but it was clear, that sometimes I was just bored. The next year I was assigned to Jim Percoco’s course, and from the moment I stepped through that door I could tell I was in a different world.
All the best teachers encourage you to look beyond yourself, to look up from the text book and learn from the world around you. Jim Percoco did more than that–he took a subject that many found stogy, boring, and lacking in relevance (in a generation before social media, blogging the ease of access of the internet on your telephone) and forced kids to willingly step outside and look at the “stuff” of history–to look beyond the words on the page and actually see the people who lived before us.
A lot of this continued into my senior year through his course called Applied History. The first half of the year was coursework, and the second half was spent in an internship (mine was at the Octagon House in Washington, DC). All just another step on my way to an undergrad degree and eventually an M.A. in history concentrating in public history.
The benefit of Percoco’s teaching style did not limit itself to his lesson plans. While the “reel” vs ” real” programs (looking at history on film and in the textbook), or the time we staged our own protest a la’ the Civil Rights movement were great, practical experiences, it was the way he carried and articulated his passion for the past that had the most impact. He wasn’t just a football coach teaching history, he actually cared about the lessons it could teach us–and the inspiration it could bring–Clio style.
From where I stand, almost eleven years since I first set foot in that corner room at West Springfield High School, there is no one more worthy of induction into the National Teachers Hall of Fame than Jim Percoco. (The induction ceremony is today June 17, 2011, in Emporia, Kansas).
I know for New Years I said I would try to go to a new exhibit every month — exhibitions that are off my well beaten path.
Ah the best laid plans.
In January my plans to visit the Udvar Hazy Center in Chantilly were thwarted by weather, but I’ll figure out a way to get there for “January” sometime in February/March. For this month I attended a co-worker’s poetry/written word event at Old Town Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory. The assignment (which was partly a SPARK! event) was to look at an exhibition Mixing Bowl: Immigration & Diversity in America and produce a piece that reflected the inspiration. The pieces that were performed were evocative and full of incredible imagery and emotion invoking personal stories of familiar pasts.
One story spoke of a boy at Ellis Island learning about his family’s history–a history that was his by adoption rather than birth; another of of a woman traveling to gain a glimpse of her grandmother. There was a piece that looked at today’s immigration stories, of becoming a permanent resident, of crawling your way up into the American Dream–and one more that looked from the outside in–from the lens of a DMV worker. All immigrant experiences, just in different times–and different places.
The inspiration came from the art that surrounded us. One piece was filled with butterflies fluttering beyond the canvas, along the walls and floors, obscuring and revealing text; while another was like a still from a movie–a man, dressed in a white shirt and black pants gazing quietly out amidst a subdued cocktail party. The largest installation included three hanging sheets upon which was projected the quiet silhouettes of figures embracing in farewell (or hello!). Then there was the view from what may have been a detention cell made entirely out of tape, and the doll–crying pearls of tears.
Art begets Art. Poetry begets Poetry. One begets the other. Each told the story of immigration, of our Mixing Bowl from a different perspective. One through visceral visuals, the other through expressive expressions in the form of words. All stories that come from real people from yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
Mixing Bowl will run until February 27, 2011 in the Target Gallery at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria, VA (which is one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2011 Dozen Distinctive Destinations).
Note: I will be participating in the next iteration of “SPARK!,” and will be getting in touch (as one of my co-workers friends described it) with my soulfull self.