Libraries Burning

A few years ago, after Andrew and I first got married, we quit our jobs and blew our savings on the trip of a lifetime. We had friends in Australia and New Zealand who had offered us a place to stay (rent-free) for a few months. Some other American friends had gone to South Africa on a similar savings-blowing trip. They introduced us to their South African friends, Garth and Bridget, who extended hospitality by way of their Cape Town home’s back wing, complete with kitchenette and private entrance.

South Africa was first on our four-month travel itinerary. While there, Garth & Bridget gave us an old maroon Honda Accord to drive; they invited us to join them for dinner almost every night of our month-long stay. They welcomed us as though we were long-lost family members, as if they had known about us from birth and were overjoyed to lay eyes on us at last. Theirs was a welcome that far surpassed any Southern graces I have ever known.

Yet, I arrived in South Africa full of distinctively American anxieties. I was somewhat fearful of contracting malaria, worried about the place’s fledgling democracy and unrest resulting from its 40% unemployment rate, nervous about the rampant cases of HIV and AIDs, the sort of stuff – rapes and racial tensions – I’d read about in J.M. Coetze’s Disgrace.

In reality, the country was no less complex than that which I had imagined (though it was less dangerous), but it was also significantly more beautiful – in people and geography – than I could have guessed. Andrew and I spent days walking around Cape Town, driving across mountain ranges, drinking great South African wine. When we mentioned we wanted to see other sides of S.A., Bridget, a nurse, introduced us to some friends who worked in a poor township’s orphanage; the babies there, all HIV-positive, crawled all over us, touching our faces, hungry for human warmth.

A friend who had spent many years in Tanzania once said of the continent: “Africa just gets in your bones,” and it does. When we left, I felt a piece of it had become a part of me.

Happily, when I enrolled in my MFA program, I met a young woman named Maggie Messitt. Maggie is an American narrative journalist based in a small town in South Africa; in addition to telling the stories of her South African neighbors, she has singlehandedly started a non-profit organization charged with the purpose of teaching young South African women how to tell their personal stories and their country’s stories. She calls the nonprofit “Amazwi,” which means “voices” in Zulu.

In any country, the effort to train and empower writers to record their lives and celebrate their native cultures could be regarded as a significant contribution to humankind. But add to this the staggering numbers of parents who die before their children are old enough to speak (due to AIDs), the nonexistence of public libraries, and the view of education as luxury, and the importance of the written word looms even larger.

Amadou Hampate Ba, a Malian writer and UNESCO representative, has said, “In Africa, when a man dies, it’s a library burning.” Thanks to Maggie Messitt and her dedicated staff of volunteers, this is slightly less true for South Africans. Their “libraries” databases are being preserved; through the Amazwi students’ narratives, the stories, languages, wisdom and experience of elders are finding a place in a quietly emerging canon of African literature.

This morning, I received an email update from Amazwi which included a poem written by one of the program’s students, Amukelani Mashele. Inspired by her Shangan heritage, she writes:

 

I work hard to leave footprints wherever I step

I never let challenges bring me down, so I dare anyone

I refuse to let someone judge me because,

Of Xitsonga that I speak or fair colour of my skin

Who can love me more than my own self? …

 

I am my own favourite person …

 

I am proud to support an organization that seeks to preserve national history while empowering young women to find their own voices, women who “work hard to leave footprints wherever [they] step”; women who maintain such self-respect that they can write, without twittering with insecurity, “I am my own favourite person.”

 

To learn more about Amazwi’s aims and programs, and its new literary magazine, A., please click on the Amazwi link on my blogroll or go to http://www.amazwi.org.

 

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Becoming Greenific

Leg Warmers

Ok … time for another confession.

Even though I grew up on a farm, I have never been much of a tree hugger. In fact, I am so poorly versed in eco-friendly culture, I have no idea whether or not it is all right to call anyone a tree hugger or not, even when referring to one’s self. This may be the equivalent of using other offensive, outmoded words – and I would just have no idea.

It’s not that I don’t care about the earth, but that I grew up in a place where the land and its resources were so enmeshed with daily life that they required little extra thought. The farmers seemed to take good care of our pastures. (That was their job.) My dad led soil and water conservation for years and prided himself on his best practices. But I guess I always thought of these things in economic terms: you turn off the water while brushing your teeth because if you waste water, you waste money; same with the lights, and shutting the door behind you, and running the attic fan instead of the air conditioning. Conserving soil and water on the farm seemed also to reap financial rewards, although I do remember my dad mentioning something about erosion, and that it was bad.

These days, conservationists are all the rage. Thanks to An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore and global warming have become national celebrities. Going green has taken on similar characteristics to the ’80s fitness rage. Reducing one’s carbon footprint is the 2000’s equivalent of jazzercise (sans leg-warmers).

I found An Inconvenient Truth almost unbearable to watch – not because I don’t like ‘ol Al, but because what he was saying was so true, and so devastating, and so big. It was like discovering that someone or something you’d been taught was immortal had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Suddenly (but not really suddenly), we are the ones in charge of saving everything – not just our own lawns, but everyone else’s, too.

I have never been one to jump on bandwagons. If the entire world is talking about a novel (think The DaVinci Code), for example, I’d really rather not read it. But this whole carbon footprint thing has gotten under my skin. It goes beyond the bandwagon. It must.

I, for one, am going to follow in the steps of my awesome, aforementioned sister-in-law, Jupe. Jupe is always thinking of new ways to be ecologically sound, and, for her birthday, I found these awesome bags called Envirosax. They are extra-strong, reusable grocery bags, which means that you save our landfills and recycling facilities from some plastic – and look stylish in the process. Jupe loved them so much, I’ve decided I should get some, too. (They come five in a set, and hold two plastic bags worth of groceries each!)

Still, I fear that our little smartcars and our recycling drives and our styrofoam avoidance will go the way of jazzercise. For heaven’s sake – if our current health trends are any indication, our air and water don’t stand a chance. According to the American Obesity Association, since 1976 (my birth year), our population’s percentage of overweight people has risen from 46% to 64%; the rate of national obesity has more than doubled, from 14.4% to 30.5%. So much for jazzercise. (Were the legwarmers to blame?)

I don’t have any answers on how to be greenific (remember, I’m a newbie – officially “green” – ha!), but I am committed to being my own little green person in whatever way I can. I hope, for the world, carbon reduction becomes as enmeshed with daily life as the rhythms of the land were for me growing up.

If anyone has helpful suggestions on how to become more ecofriendly – beyond buying Envirosax and conserving energy – please make a comment on my blog.

Sitting on Rocks

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When I was a sophomore in college, I called my mother and told her that all I really wanted to do with my life was sit on a rock and write poetry. She laughed (nervously) and mentioned something vague about a stable income.* And, my memory is foggy on this now, but I think my father’s reaction involved waving a rather high credit card bill in my face and talking, with some amusement, about how to live on a meager poet’s salary.

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*”Stable Income”

Yet, what did they expect? Throughout my adolescent summers, Mama sent me to academic sleep-away camps; and, when Daddy was in an especially whimsical mood, he would recite poetry at the dinner table (Donne’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was one of his favorites). Of all people, my sister – I assure you, the most practical of the two of us – majored in music, with a concentration in composition, and her music absolutely soared. Even if they’d all tried – which they didn’t, not really – they couldn’t have talked me out of poetry.

I loved – and love – poetry for its rhythm and vibrance, its uncanny ability to distill big truths with perfect precision. When I am at my most creative, my writing always goes back to poetry. I fall into this habit not because I am such a spectacular poet, but because that’s just how words naturally fall out of my head. I am drawn to peculiar images – big trees with crazy limbs, for example, or a semi-professional wrestler who also cuts women’s hair for a living – and I like to write around the images, attaching tiny themes to make them work in a poem. Sometimes this works well in nonfiction, too, but it has to be done sparingly. Otherwise, it appears as though the author is preening her feathers.

Obviously, I’ve strayed a bit from poetry, but I recently picked up Garrison Keillor’s edition of Good Poems, and it has inspired me again. There are so many good poems to read – poems that will make you laugh like crazy, or want to cry, or make you see something in an entirely new way – and there are so many great rocks out there in the world to sit on. Best of all, poems can be taken in in a sitting, like a shot of whiskey, and just like that, your whole day is different.

I write this so that all the poets in the world with high credit card bills can make their interest payments every month. In today’s literary marketplace, to make it as a poet means that you have probably met an angel who let you try on his halo. It is more difficult (and, oddly, less financially rewarding) than trying to make it in any other genre.

There are poems in this world for everyone – not just for people who like Shakespearean sonnets or Wallace Stevens’ abstractions. For the faint of heart, clicking on The Writer’s Almanac site on my Blogroll would be a great place to start. The poetry aisle – yes, there is such a thing – at a local bookstore is for the braver souls among you; because I have received such helpful feedback from you all on my own writing recently (thank you!), I’m confident you’re up for the challenge.

Happy reading!

Curious

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As many of you may (or may not) know, for the past two years, I’ve been working on a manuscript about songwriters in Nashville. It started out as a thesis for my MFA program, but since I graduated I’ve been thinking of it more along professional lines. I haven’t mentioned it here because I tend to be fairly quiet about such things, and because it makes me nervous.

The inevitable rejections a writer faces privately are tough enough, so you’ll rarely hear me or any other prudent writer I know touting the fact that she has just sent out seventeen book proposals to agents. The truth is that I tend to be pretty hesitant to send anything out (nothing’s ever perfect, you know) – which means that I’m often spared rejection, but also sparsely published. But, this summer, at the urging of a persistent advisor, I wrote a book proposal for Bluebird (see Jupe’s awesome book covers!) and sent it to one agent.

I got an email from him the day the FedEx hit his office in NYC. He asked me for three weeks’ exclusivity (pretty normal, from what I understand), to which I happily agreed. After his deadline was up, JW called me and asked me on what I imagine as the literary world’s equivalent of a second date. He said he liked my writing and that he liked the manuscript’s subject, but that he wanted to see a different chapter excerpt – preferably something more character based.

Now, because I was so sure that JW was simply going to send me a letter that said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” that he asked me out on a second date felt nothing short of miraculous. But, as second dates go, anxiety and intimidation set in; I realized that to give JW what he really wanted meant having to rethink the structure of the whole manuscript – 225 pages of which I meticulously stitched together over the course of my two-year graduate program. For reasons I won’t bore you with, I believe that taking the whole darn thing apart is the right thing to do. But I have been stalling, unsure of how to proceed.

This week, however, I gave myself an October 1 deadline. Whether JW wants the second date by then or not – he said there was no rush – he’s getting it. Otherwise, Bluebird will never be heard from again.

Now – I’d like to ask a favor of you. I’m curious to see if any of you would read the attached document (lorna-revised.doc, below) and tell me – honestly – if you’re intrigued. I need this thing to jump right off the page; I need you to be hungry for more of the story. If it doesn’t, and you can’t get past page two, please tell me. Thanks!

A date! A date! A very important date!

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Today, I did for the first time what I hope will become a habit: I took myself on a date. I did this at the urging of The Artist’s Way, a book written by a woman named Julia Cameron for people (artists and non-artists) who want to augment their artistic lives. Cameron writes, “We forget that the imagination-at-play is at the heart of all good work … in order to have a real relationship with our creativity, we must take the time and care to cultivate it.” I took her at her word.

My date was to the High’s Annie Leibovitz exhibit, something I’d been meaning to get around to, but for which I had somehow never found the time. After a bright, breezy morning with Ivy and Andrew at the park, I showered quickly (who was there to impress, after all?), threw on my flip-flops and the most comfortable dress I own, and drove to Midtown.

Immediately, I savored the freedom of all this; the bold stroke of life on my own schedule. And it’s not that anyone in my life demands so much of me that it is a burden, but there is something deliciously indulgent about not having to apologize for parking a mile from the museum (in 90 degree weather) because you are too cheap to pay for parking, of walking through an art exhibit alone without feeling the need to respond to anyone’s opinion or curiosity, without worrying whether you’re spending too much time at each photo or not enough. Add to this the fact that I have been waist-deep in Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and the freedom tasted that much sweeter. (I am so moved by this book, I can’t even write about it yet. If you have not read it, you must.)

My experience with myself and Annie Leibovitz’s photographs (from both her personal and private collections) was filled with both a thrilling appreciation for beauty and startling emotion. I stayed there for two hours, looking for stories in every photo.

I became fixated on one photograph of Leibovitz’s parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, on another of a pool of blood beside a fallen bicycle in Sarejevo, and another of two circus performers: a woman was strapped to a massive red and white bullseye – on her face was a look of total boredom and resignation; a man stood in front of her and took aim with a dagger. I cried at the sight of Johnny Cash, June Carter and Roseanne Cash playing music on their front porch in Kentucky. I cried again when I came to Leibovitz’s photo of bloody footprints left from the massacre at a schoolhouse in Rwanda. Again, I cried at the photos preceding Susan Sontag’s death, and the death of Leibovitz’s father. Leibovitz captured each scene, each tiny moment, with curiosity, dignity, a raw and naked tenderness.

This afternoon, while standing in the High Museum, where everything is brilliantly white and crisp (its design reminds me of what it might be like to live inside an iPod), it struck me that all art – drama, visual art, music, writing, etc. – is connected by that which is alive in all of us. The spirit of great art is the thing that moves us from hope to despair and back again. It leans in to curiosity — not just to beauty and freedom, but also into ugliness and rage. Art is always looking for answers, retribution, a kind of hope that sees clearly the pain and unfairness of the world but continues to demand more of it.

After leaving Leibovitz, I wandered into the High’s museum store and was overcome with the urge to buy something beautiful. I recognized in this a desire to bottle my experience, to bring it home with me and put it on a shelf – as if a painted porcelain bowl or a coffee table book would somehow infuse my living and work space with a better sense of purpose, or some higher plain of artistry.

But the truth is that such things can only stretch so far. Eventually, I would flip through the $75 coffee table book out of moral obligation, would, at some point, pass the beautiful serving bowl and think, with disdain, that it needed dusting. I’m all about cherishing beautiful things, but then again, we have museums for a reason. They show us what to look for and help us to see. They silence the noise in the background and force us to take notice.

To make some odd purchase – a postcard? a High Museum pencil set? a brightly painted umbrella? – would have cheapened the experience for me. As if I’d won myself a stuffed panda by playing skee ball at a country fair. So – the beauty will have to wait for my next artist’s date. Luckily, Cameron prescribes one per week.