On Doorways and the Love of Libraries

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.”

My librarian mom, retired! | Credit: Priya Chhaya

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.

However, even though the actual door was a long-faded memory, I will never forget the architect: my mother.  Continue reading “On Doorways and the Love of Libraries”

Alex and Mike: A Love Story

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. 

Continue reading “Alex and Mike: A Love Story”


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.


Continue reading “Ten.”

Never shall I forget that night: On Elie Wiesel

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”

My Heart is Aching

Dear Charisse.

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.

And the Crowd Goes Wild: Introducing Hall of Famer Jim Percoco!

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).

Congratulations Jim!

Get in Touch With Your Soulfull Self

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.

The Noble Six Hundred

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints in the sands of time

Last September during my trip to India I found myself in conversation with my aunt, a former principal and history teacher. We talked about our favorite periods in history (mine: colonial America and the Napoleonic era), and those moments of inspiration when everything clicked. There was also the discussion about current events, and how we can see glimpses of past actions in our current situations (with the nod to complexity).

We also discovered our mutual love for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow–more specifically the Pslam of Life.

TELL me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is but an empty dream ! —
For the soul is dead that slumbers,
And things are not what they seem.

The poem talks about living life to the fullest, that even though each life ended in death, our goal should not include blindly walking towards the end, without fully making our mark, without placing our footprints in the sand…

Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again

She gave me a list of her other favorite poems (If, by Kipling; The Mountain and the Squirrel, Emerson; Wander-Thirst by Gould;  Cargoes by Masefield;  and a childhood love-the Charge of the Light Brigade by Lord Tennyson), and with each one I was struck by the incredible imagery that invoked times past.

Like the poem Cargoes by John Masefield which talks of Stately Spanish galleon’s that drip through the tropics by the palm-green shores, and how it is juxtaposed with a Quinquirme of Nineveh from distant Ophir or the Dirty British coaster with a slat-caked smoke stack.

When we write about the past nothing expresses the feeling of the moment than a quotation from someone who was, well, in the moment–but poetry can capture another perspective. Often invoking high emotion it reveals how bystanders react to events around them–as in The Charge of the Light Brigade. Written in honor of a cavalry of British Forces during the Crimean War (1854-1856) that charged opposition forces had casualties of 247 out of 637. “The Noble Six Hundred” they were called–and to this day–their acts are memorialized in a poem read by students all across the world.

When can their glory fade?
O the wilde charge they made!
All the world wonder’d
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade
Noble six hundred


…and just because I love it so.  Here is Wander-Thirst by Gerald Gould

Beyond the east the sunrise; Beyond the west the sea
And East and West the Wander-Thirst that will not let me be;
It works in me like madness to bid me say goodbye,
For the seas call, and the stars call, and oh! The call of the sky!

I know not where the white road runs, nor what the blue hills are,
But a man can have the sun for friend, and for his guide, a star;
And there’s no end to voyaging when once the voice is heard,
For the rivers call, and the road calls, and oh! The call of a bird!

Yonder the long horizon lies, and there by night and day
The old ships draw to home again, the young ships sail away
And come I may, but go I must, and if men ask you why,
You may put the blame on the stars and the sun,
And the white road and the sky.

Some off-site blog posts

If This House Could Talk…What Would It Say?
…And that’s the Beauty of the Open Mic

This Was Yours From The Beginning

Every so often the year starts with a bang, and last night sixty-two high school seniors rocked it.

For the last four years I have worked with an organization called the Posse Foundation, which works with universities across the country (and students in seven cities) to provide full tuition scholarships for the next generation of leaders. It started when one of Deborah Bial’s students told her that “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me,” and today the organization is founded on the “belief that a small, diverse group of talented students—a Posse—carefully selected and trained, can serve as a catalyst for increased individual and community development.” Many of you may have first heard about the organization last year when President Obama donated part of his Nobel Prize winnings to this worthy cause.

Last night was the 2011 Posse celebration ceremony for this years scholarship recipients. It is the moment when each Posse meets supporters from their future college/university (the DC schools are: Lafayette, Bucknell, Pepperdine, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Sewanee (University of the South), and Grinnell) and rousing cheers from other Posse’s currently at said universities. They are, after all, about to become a part of the family.

This year we not only heard about an amazing alumni Loubens Theork who graduated from Hamilton College and started a scholarship program for Haitian children (and he will be using 10k from this year’s Alumni Achievement Award towards this program), but we learned that every single one of the sixty-two students has already proven themselves to be leaders in their communities, schools and families. What is even more remarkable is that fifty percent of these students will now be the first in their families to attend college.

I know that is something that a lot of people throw around, but even from my seat in the back I could feel the pride in the room. As parents and grandparents called out in joy for their daughter, grandson, brother, sister these men and women represented, as Frank Sesno the Posse D.C. Advisory Board Chair stated, that something that had gone right.

My role in Posse is after the celebration, when Posse preps students for their entry into the collegiate environment. For four years I’ve worked as a writing coach and have found it fulfilling, exhilarating and have developed my own sense of pride for these students who continue to work hard even after they graduate.

This is what I find so inspiring about this organization. The relationship with the students does not stop with the money, but rather continues well beyond the four year college experience. A full support system. I always walk away from this ceremony wanting to be more and to do more.  One of the university liasons from Grinnell told these students that this honor “was yours from the beginning.”  And he was right, because that statement emphasizes that every accomplishment we have ever recieved is a consequence of our families and our own decisions along the way. We make it happen.

One final thought. The motto of Lafayette College comes from the words of the 19th year old Marquis de Lafayette who left France to fight for the colonial revolutionaries. When asked why he chose to fight he answered“Cur Non”, or “Why Not?”. So this year, anytime you are faced with a challenge, or anytime I am faced with a choice I’m going to remember these sixty-two students and ask–Why Not and try to make a difference.

Congratulations Posse Class of 2011!

Another Day, Another Year

What’s an end-of-the year blog without an end-of-the-year list? I’ve tried to fill 2010 with a lot of history—from great trips with my family to intelligent conversations with colleagues in San Francisco, Austin and Portland. At every step I’ve learned a little bit more about life, and a little bit more about myself. Below is a list of my top 3’s for the year. Some, like my music picks, are not necessarily from songs released in this year—but since they were new to me, I’m going to count them anyway. Others on the list you might recognize from other posts on this site.

Top 3 Books
Faithful Place by Tana French
French’s third book in the Dublin murder squad series is gritty and gripping, raw and emotional all at the same time. (Like how I used those adjectives without telling you anything?) Anyway if you like great mysteries that are well written check out this book. While reading In the Woods and The Likeness might be helpful it isn’t 100% necessary.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
History. Science. All with a very clear consequence for every individual in the United States and abroad. And all due to one woman whose life changed forever with her death.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens
Like I said some of these picks that are new to me—but after watching the BBC/PBS adaptation I had to read the real thing. Dickens, while always providing a dearth of genius does an amazing job showing the shifts between the rich and the poor—and the circumlocution office is just icing on the cake. Not to mention the vivid detail and characters in all walks of life.

Top 3 History Fun
I wrote a lot about these three experiences on this blog. I learned much about the western immigrant experience in San Francisco, saw how you can tell the story of times past through the remains of ordinary people, and catch a unique vision of America (one that is cleaned, up and brightly colored). For that I choose Angel Island, Written in the Bone, and Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.

Top 3 Music Picks
Rodrigo y Gabriella: Awesome strains of drifting guitar, rich in melodic sounds and rhythmic beats.

O’ Children by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds: This song was featured in the latest Harry Potter movie, but once I downloaded it I found it entirely engrossing in texture as his voice mixed with the chorales.

Wicked Soundtrack: I am a sucker for musicals and while I did love my purchases this year of the latest Green Day CD I found this to be the album that I am in love with the most. Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel’s voices are remarkable and for a show with such a fantastic message you can’t go wrong with a song about fighting gravity.

Top 3 Television Picks
Fringe: How can you go wrong with parallel worlds and creepy X-files like cases. What really brings in this show, however is the phenomenal acting this season by Joshua Jackson, Anna Torv and John Noble. I know many are all about the awesomeness of cable, but sometimes its shows like this that can tell a story within network constraints that I love.

Masterpiece Theatre (Little Dorrit, Wallander, Sherlock): All three of these mini-series were at the highest caliber of storytelling. Little Dorrit, as I mentioned above, is one of the classics; Wallander had gripping mysteries with an awesome soundtrack (and Kenneth Branagh blew it out of the park); and Sherlock which looked at the classic stories with a modern day slant.

Lost Season 6 Finale: I know this was a controversial ending for those who once loved the show, but even now months after the finale I can say I loved the ending for the series. I’ll admit that there were times this last season that it was clunky and could have had a tighter narrative, but it ended just as I would have wanted it to. Most of what I said right after the episode aired still holds here.

Top 3 Movies
My top three movies for the year are all fairly popular ones. The first part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was amazing. While the book is still superior, there were elements of the film that had me emotionally involved, not to mention mesmerized (the scene where we are told the story of the Three Brothers). In the same vein Inception proves that you don’t need 3D to tell a story, and to be an excellent entertaining film. The fight in the hotel hallway is probably one of my favorite parts. Lastly, what can we say about Toy Story 3 that others haven’t already said. Any animated movie that can have you at the edge of your seats and cheering has my vote.

Now while this is a top 3 list, I do have to also give props to my favorite Hindi film of the year—3 Idiots which was compelling, and funny at the same time (though some of the songs could have been more memorable), and Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon in Invictus were excellent.

And the rest….

I’ve also had the chance to see some pretty great theatre. As a season ticket holder for the Shakepeare Theatre I was blown away by The Liar and more recently Candide. I also saw Wicked in early January and as I mentioned with the soundtrack the actual musical was beyond words.

Which brings me to 2011. What are my resolutions for the coming year? Well I hope to work on my two National Novel Writing Month projects—cleaning them up, tightening characters which will in turn help with my overall attempts at fiction writing. I also would really like to try my hand at learning Hindi, a language that I’ve never quite grasped, despite hearing it at home for most of my life. I am also looking forward to working on an exciting archive project not to mention my New Year’s Resolutions for preservation. I’ve also realized that this blog is now over a year old—so happy birthday blog!

Add to the list! Tell me what your best ofs for 2010 are, or what your new years resolutions are.

Farewell Twenty-Ten
I guess I knew you when
And while this year was not great
I’d like to think, not the worst to date
But 2011, here we come
Looking for brighter skies, and then some
With something for the spirit too
After all, I’ve got all of you

Happy New Year!!