Speaking Up, This Time on Statehood for Puerto Rico (I Say Not So Fast)

Last weekend I taught a led a workshop on Op-Ed writing. As I researched the topic in preparation for the class I stumbled upon data that stunned me: that 85 percent of Op-Eds submitted to prestige publications are from men, at least according to the best estimations of the dieters who receive the submissions. The OpEd Project is trying to change that, with some extremely useful pointers, and a mentor project that pairs novice writers with high calibre mentors.

It took me years to believe I had anything worthwhile to say or that I had the right to claim my right to be the one to say it. It helps when I’m able to peg my thoughts on some aspect of a debate that no one else seems to have noticed, a small fact overlooked, a connection otherwise obscured.

In one of my more recent columns for Hearst CT Media I noted that Connecticut has the highest concentration of residents of Puerto Rican descent of any state, and yet its Congressional delegates have seemingly taken wait and see approach on the question of Puerto Rican statehood. There are two bills addressing the matter, and yet not one member of our delegation has signed on to either bill, in clear contrast to the number of Congressional members from other states with large number of Puerto Rican voters who have tended to sign on as co-sponsors of one bill or the other. It’s unclear to me why our senators and representatives haven’t made much effort to reach out to members of the community to learn how they want to be represented in this important debate.

Join My 1-day Op-Ed Workshop + Learn How to Get the Word Out on Your Favorite Causes

Op-Eds and guest columns present an effective way to make your voice heard on issues you care about. If you are a paid or volunteer marketing coordinator for an agency or institution, Op-Eds are great (free!) way to increase your organization’s reach to potential donors, volunteers, and clients.

This Saturday, May 1, I’ll be leading a one-day remote workshop from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. through Westport Writers Workshop on Op-Eds. I’ll be going over how to get the word out about your favorite causes, or write a reflective column about something you care about. I’ll also teach you how to work with editors, write well-crafted, convincing arguments that adhere to publications’ guidelines and word counts, and how to leverage information about your favorite agency’s mission to increase your chances of gaining publication and expanding your audience.

Title: Writing Effective Columns and Op-Eds
Time: 10 a.m. – 1 p.m.
Date: Saturday, May 1
Cost: $75
Venue: Zoom Link
Hosted by: Westport Writers Workshop
Contact: https://www.westportwriters.org/contact-us

My Column on CT’s New Black and Latino Studies Curriculum

In February, when the Senate was in the midst of voting to confirm now U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, I wrote this column about an initiative that some were crediting him for and some blaming him for: the development of a mandated course on what critics call “race theory,” what I used to publish and write about under the heading “multiculturalism,” but what I would now call “non white supremacist propagandized history” or “corrective history.”

Three months ago, when this article was published by Hearst Connecticut Media, our country’s Secretary of Education was merely Connecticut Commissioner of Education Cardona. The article focuses on how the newly minted African American/Latino studies course was, and currently still is, being piloted at a few high schools in the state, including Henry Abbott Technical High School in Danbury. Piloting will continue next year before the final version the curriculum is made available online and teachers are offered training for the elective year-long course, which must be offered as an elective at every Connecticut public high school starting in Fall 2022.

Writing this column took me back to the early 2000s when I was working to create a suite of educational web sites for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on African American, Latino, and American Indian studies that included primary-document focused lesson plans, very similar to the modules and resources currently being developed by Connecticut’s State Education Resource Center (SERC).

As I wrote my column we were all only a few weeks removed from the release of former President Trump’s 1776 Commission Report, a bizarrely ahistorical document that attributes the birth of “identity politics” to John C. Calhoun, a pro-slavery politician so villainous that … just a few years ago some of the very same far-right thought leaders who wrote the commission report were vehemently arguing that Calhoun’s name should retain its honored perch atop educational buildings and such. Sometimes I marvel at the mental flexibility and audacity of the far right> Their maneuvering capability calls to mind the kind of car ads aimed at a late night Fox News viewer.

There are still many who recount to the meta narrative of America as a story of victimless conquest. Great valor, bravery, innovation, and industry to tame a wilderness devoid of any violence against previous occupants, nations or civilizations who might represent a valid claim of sovereignty. An economy somehow built on strenuous white pioneer labor and not centuries of slavery and abusive immigrant labor practices. A land devoid of pogroms and race-based massacre, treaty violations and so on. It is a myth central to the identity of a significant portion of our fellow citizens, and like all mythologies conceived to perpetuate violence and obscure injustice, it is a corrosive, destructive vine that kills the very host it clings to.  

Many of the Connecticut educators and students who testified on behalf of Public Act 19-12, during the lead up to the bill’s passing, argued that merely adding an elective would not be enough to counteract the false narrative of America. Black history and Latino history should not be viewed as additional subplots, tagged onto the same old story of American history. Instead these narratives should be seen as necessary revisions, needed to complete the story. American history stripped of the teaching of events and accomplishments, injustices and triumphs of whole communities, races and genders that have always been present and part of the story, is simply an incomplete outline of a fairy tale, a dangerous one that perpetuates a biased, ahistorical understanding of our current reality. And in case you think that the remarkable student who traveled to Hartford to speak to legislators did not make such eloquent and powerful claims, take a look at the first half of “Making History: The Creation of a Statewide Black and Latino Course of Studies.

I learned about so much well hidden U.S. history back when as I was working on those educational web sites. We called it the product line the American Mosaic, but the longer I worked on each of its components – African American, Latino, American Indian, we were poised to begin development on an Asian American site when I left in 2008 – the more convinced I became that “mosaic” was not the proper metaphor at all. If an elaborate mosaic is missing a tile or two, the viewer can still make out the overall form and intent of the artist. I think a tapestry may be a better metaphor to describe American history.

Drop one thread and the whole thing begins to lose its shape; you can try to hold it together for a time with just a few dominant stitches – history from a perspective that glorifies European conquest and colonialism, that ignores the injustices faced by women, immigrants, workers, religious and racial minorities, the damaging legacy of slavery, genocide and colonialism, for example – but the garment will eventually fail to maintain its shape, it will begin to fragment as its flaws, its dropped stitches, its missing segments become more gaping and obvious. The whole will not hold together, and eventually it will come to pieces in your hands.

It’s the work of scholars, educators, journalists, to restore the missing fragments, to weave the ragged edges back into a strong and useful whole.

Protests, Press, Safety and Democracy, or The Day I Accidentally Protested on the Steps of Congress

I have to confess that I knew I wanted to say something about the violent Jan. 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol, but I wasn’t sure what it was. And that, even though I wasn’t quite sure what it was I wanted to say, and I had no confidence I would figure it out in time to reach my deadline, I still made the choice to ditch my extremely, probably overly researched topic for my monthly column, and instead quickly write about the insurgency (which seems too dignified a word for the monstrous crimes that took place) even as it was still unfolding.

The result is my column for Hearst Connecticut Media examining the invasion of the Capitol, the murder of at least one police officer and the attempted assassination of our leaders, through the lens of a peaceful protest I accidentally took part in during my 1989 internship at El Nuevo Pais, a right-leaning tabloid in Caracas, Venezuela. You can see me “sitting in” in the photo attached: I am sitting on the front row to the right.

As the chaotic images flashed across my TV screen on Jan. 6, 2021, my mind seemed to be circling around a loop of related thoughts and memories that had something to do with the fragility of democracy and the illusion of safety afforded by the parallel illusion of American exceptionalism, and how that related to my experience as a young novice reporter during the summer I spent in a pre-Chavez, pre-authoritarian Venezuela.

At the time, Venezuela was the most stable democracy with the wealthiest economy in Latin America. The country’s elites enjoyed life in a culturally rich cosmopolitan world capital, and that summer I caught a small glimpse of it. The young people I met through my family and my job could not have imagined having to flee their homeland. They were glamorous, worldly, confident about their future and their country’s. Elites in America would do well to consider their fate. Venezuela has experienced authoritarian rule, economic collapse, environmental catastrophe, and famine in the decades since I worked there, and nearly everyone I met that summer has been forced to flee, in some cases literally for their lives.

There is a mythology of the Trump-supporting yahoo, the duped bumpkin, who bears no resemblance to the creative and academic classes that have most consistently criticized Trumpism and the alt-Right. They, we, need to think again about who the perpetuators of the Big Lie really are. Not a few protestors traveled to the Jan. 6 event by private jet to take down our government. “They” are not so different from “us,” especially among whoever the “they” and the “us” are who identify as white.

And where do Latinos align ourselves? With traitors like Ted Cruz? With domestic terrorist apologists like Marco Rubio? That is a move as foolish as Jewish Stephen Miller aligning with a horde of folks wearing pro-Nazi T-shirts. And yet my own family includes believers in Trump’s Big Lie.

So many writers have said that when we write, rather than start out with a big, fully formed idea we want to get down on paper and convey to the world, we instead learn what we think through the writing itself – we write our way to understanding.

Daily newspaper writers, and these days, minute-by-minute digital reporters, write the first drafts of history. If they are any good at their jobs, they try to be as transparent with the corrections and clarifications that inevitably come later as possible. On the Op-Ed side of things daily deadlines mean that you are thinking aloud as that history unfolds around you in real time.

I know I have not yet arrived at my final understanding of even how my own idiosyncratic perspective and life experience connects to this moment. I only know that it does. For now, I offer these first-draft attempts at something like making sense of the chaos and danger that surrounds us in this present moment.

Poet Carol Ann Davis on the art of writing and its power to heal

Yesterday, on the anniversary of the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, I published a column based on a conversation with fellow Newtown mom Carol Ann Davis about creative writing workshops and their power to address trauma. Davis is a poet and essayist, and a colleague of mine at Fairfield University, where I am an adjunct and she is currently director of the school’s MFA in Writing Program.

My column, along with an excerpt from Davis’s 2020 book of essays reflecting on the Sandy Hook tragedy and the effect it has had on her family and community, can be found at Hearst Connecticut Media web sites, including this link.

As I crafted the column, there was so much to wrap my words around and inevitably I could feel some of what I had intended to say slipping away. It’s perhaps the nature of a day as overwhelming as Dec. 14 always is for people in the wider community here. A pervasive sense of loss haunts all of Fairfield County in relation to the day. Its public spaces are dotted with many of the playgrounds built in remembrance of the 20 children of Sandy Hoo who were lost that day, a string of colorful and safe play areas that extend past the one my family used to frequent, set on a sandy beach in Stamford, into play spaces in neighboring New York and New Jersey, each with featuring a motif or element designed to honor the children the spaces are named for – a butterfly, a firemen’s bell.

View of Lake Lillinonah, Newtown, Conn.

When I walk my dog to the lake down the street from my house, I often rest on a bench dedicated to Jessica Rekos, who, like my son, enjoyed horseback riding, and who also loved whales and water, and who never reached her 10th birthday, the age her parents had promised to buy her a longed-for horse of her own. Last night as my family returned in the evening dusk from the grocery store, on the lookout for light displays, appreciative as we always are, of both the understated and the outrageous, we also drove past the 26 lanterns lit each of the past several years on the town green in remembrance of the 20 children and six educators who lost their lives that awful day in Sandy Hook.

This is just to say that the whispers of loss are everywhere in Newtown, as they were throughout the county of Fairfield the year of the tragedy. We lived in Stamford then, but I remember driving to Jones Family Farm in Shelton to cut down our tree that year and wondering for only a moment what important personage was being conveyed in the funeral procession driving slowly along the highway with heavy police escort. Then I realized it was almost certainly for Jesse Lewis, 6, who earned his hero status by shouting for his peers to run, by being so brave in the presence of horror.

It’s too much for the heart to bear some days, and I am so peripheral to the core tragedy. Davis, whose children attended Hawley Elementary School in 2012 – the school nearest Sandy Hook and the school my son would attend if her were not transported to a special needs school each day – has written about her own family’s grief and efforts to shoulder it in her new essay collection The Nail in the Tree. Davis notes that her family’s story, heavy with pain as it is, is the “not-suffering, happy-ending story.” What the level of pain inside the center of the story is, we can imagine, if we are empathetic and try. Certainly, it seems to me, that our most rudimentary ethical bonds as fellow members of the human family call on us to try. But we can never know.

How can creative writing help? How does poetry and writing workshop help? Davis says it brings us back to the original poetry circle, the sharing of personal and collective history around the fire.

“Poetry is supposed to be builder of community, a way to convey history,” she says. “When we share it, we remember.” And in remembering, in the unison of our voices, even when those voices are speaking our pain, we draw strength.

How Likely Is Statehood for Puerto Rico?

Starting this week I will be a regular monthly columnist for my local daily, the Danbury News-Times, a Connecticut Hearst Media property. My first column is about Puerto Rico’s Nov. 3 referendum on statehood, and examines how the likelihood of a 51st star on the flag might be affected by the Georgia Senate runoff, Mitch McConnell maintaining his role as Senate Majority Leader, and a bill introduced by AOC that would sponsor a “status summit.”

Was Columbus a hero or a monster?

 

columbusAs I work on the revisions necessary for the upcoming second edition of The History of Puerto Rico, I’ve been delving into the research that has come out on the early years of Encounter between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of Puerto Rico over the past 10 years, since the first edition came out. At the same time, communities across the country have been questioning the appropriateness of honoring Columbus, with many opting to pull down statues.

In the suburbs of NYC, where I live, this has been especially contentious because alongside the high concentration of Latinos, African Americans and white progressives calling for Columbus statues to be taken down live many folks of Italian descent, including members of some very active Knights of Columbus chapters, who have vehemently defended Columbus legacy, illustrating the stake many older Catholics and Italian Americans still have in his image.

So I decided to write an OpEd for Hearst newspapers revealing just a sliver of some of the research I’m doing on the era of early European exploration in the Caribbean. I can’t wait to dig in further, as plenty of new documentary evidence and valuable scholarship has come out in this area since I wrote the first edition.

Here is my column.

 

Overwhelmed, Worried, Lonely, Lost? Me too. Maybe we can find some solace in poetry

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To paraphrase W.H. Auden, in the wake of COVID-19 there’s a silence that’s washed over the suburbs of Fairfield County. It’s eerie and awful, and were we allowed to travel in these days of national quarantine, we would surely be met with its echo in every city and rural county, on every quiet highway and empty country road, across our own country and throughout the world.

The humans are hibernating and the quieter murmur of the natural world reigns. Meanwhile, the noise of political rhetoric, amplified by social media, is as loud and bewildering as it’s ever been. These past few weeks, I’ve found myself getting lost in both extremes. Confronted by longer stretches of silence, we become attuned to the music of nature – the tap of rain against thawing ground, a faint sound of creaking as the wind bends a nearby tree. Snapping on the television to watch press conferences and catch up on the latest safeguards for my family’s health on 24-hour news channels, I’m confronted with a feeling of historical vertigo. The auspiciousness of this moment is apparent, but how do I make sense of it when I am living it? How do any of us?

Poetry doesn’t provide answers, but it gives us – at least it has always given me – a language for expressing and understanding the uncertainty of the present moment. On May 2, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., I’ll be leading a virtual workshop, “Accessing Your Inner Poet,” designed to help participants read and connect to some wonderful contemporary poetry and generate poems of their own.

My hope is that this workshop, hosted by Westport Writers Workshop, will provide a space to make some sense of what we’ve all been experiencing in this unusual time of trauma and uncertainty. And yet, I recognize the seeming flippancy of touting a poetry workshop in an affluent suburb in the midst of a pandemic that’s hitting communities of color particularly hard, that’s exacerbating already historic disparities in health outcomes between rich and poor, that’s placing healthcare workers and retail employees at risk, that’s pushing thousands of Americans out of the workforce and into poverty, and that’s betraying the weakness of an already frayed social safety net.

As a cancer survivor I am at greater risk than many. I have relatives who are healthcare workers. I am currently caring for and home-schooling my special needs child without the help of many of the doctors, therapists and resources he needs to thrive. Even as I recognize that I have not been as directly affected by the virus or the economic downturn as many others, that I am not sick or grieving, that I am not homeless, incarcerated or experiencing food insecurity, I also know that I am experiencing trauma. If we are conscious and paying attention, we all are: we are worried about loved ones; we are grieving; we are falling ill or recovering from illness; we are unable to make sense of the frailty of the body and the capriciousness of contagion.

Perhaps no era is uneventful. Perhaps every generation feels as if it stands at the center of a whirlwind of event and consequence. I certainly feel as if my adulthood has consisted of a succession of momentous and traumatizing world events and paradigm-altering occurrences. It is in times like these, when we are confronted by events that sew confusion and chaos, that we most need poetry.

In his book, “The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century,” John Burnside explains that poetry “nourishes us, it contributes to our grieving and our healing processes, it gives focus to our loves and to our fears, allowing us to sing them, at the back of our minds, in a deliberate and disciplined transformation of noise into music, of grief into acceptance, of anger at pointless destruction into a determination to save at least something of what remains.” We are living through the history of an especially painful moment. We feel it. And confronted by its trauma, it is easy – too easy – to fall into the trap of looking for solace in the banality of false aphorisms: “it could be worse,” “this too shall pass,” “everything will work out in the end.” They form themselves as easily as weeds, filling the awkward pauses of our conversations. They are as unsatisfying as they are unconvincing. Even as we utter them, we recognize their falseness.

Poetry, with its savage honesty, its ability to express beauty and pain and solace simultaneously, can provide a more satisfying and deeper container for our grief and confusion. Percy Shelley observed that, “poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world.” Lately, it seems that history is working hard to expose this hiddenness as well. Suddenly homebound, we have been afforded a rare glimpse of what the world might be, what it might sound like, without the cacophony that has characterized modern humanity.

For once, we humans have been forced to clear the roads, shelter in place and exit the spotlight. Meanwhile, the rest of creation has emerged from the periphery, demanding overdue attention. For the artist, for the writer, for anyone seeking the solace that comes from understanding our relative unimportance and impermanence, it is a gift worth contemplating.

Writing as Healing: Why I’m nervous about tonight’s writing workshop

This evening, thanks to Westport Writers Workshop, I will be leading a writing workshop at my local women’s shelter. It’s a workshop I’ve been wanting to lead for a long time, and I’m nervous about it.

I’ve been teaching writing for about 12 years now – to college students, to adults, to autistic and neurotypical teens. But tonight is different. Or maybe it isn’t at all.

Let me back up.

I am a sexual assault survivor. I am a survivor of generational domestic abuse. Over the years, for as long as I can remember, writing has saved me. Sometimes I turn my back on it, sometimes I forget about its healing power, or even fear it. But every time I go back to it, it saves me again.

I want to help other survivors learn how to access that lifeline, if it is the right one for them. I want to help them find and have confidence in their voice. I want to help them claim and declare their truth and find strength from the process that leads them there. I want them to have something that is entirely of them, and also magical and powerful, and also under their control.

From almost the moment I learned to write, writing kept me sane, kept me alive. Before that, imaginative and creative play, storytelling and story making kept me – or at least some vital part of me – emotionally safe in moments when I was not physically safe. In moments when I most needed it, in the aftermath of trauma, and sometimes even as trauma unfolded around me, I could always find it.

During times of illness or loss, writing has helped me heal, or at least salved the wounds and scabbed over the broken places well enough to help me survive. I want to guide others in their writing so they can access written expression and their writer’s voice for healing too.

Writing isn’t the only way I’ve worked to heal. More than twenty years ago, and after many years of therapy, I decided to become certified as a crisis counselor so I could work on a hotline for the local sexual assault crisis center in the city where I then lived. The therapeutic strategies we employed will be familiar to anyone trained to work with survivors of sexual assault or intimate partner abuse. We would strive from the first moments of interaction to give the survivor back her or his agency.

I’ll illustrate. If I was speaking to someone who had called the hotline, I might say: “I would like to talk to you for a while. Is that something you would like to do? My name is Lisa. Do you want to give me your name, or would you prefer not to?” If I was meeting a client at the hospital, I might say “Would you like a glass of water? I’m happy to try to get you anything I can. Would you like me to stay during the exam? It’s completely up to you.” This may seem counterintuitive. The person I was interacting with had called a hotline or had asked for a victim advocate to be with them. So why all the questions? Because intimate violence robs victims of their agency at the most basic level – at the threshold of the body. With every question we were repairing that rupture.

Years later, when I began taking writing workshops inspired by the Amherst method, I was struck by some key similarities. Writing group leaders using this methodology offer prompts, but also make clear to participants that they can choose to ignore the prompt and write about anything they want during the time allotted. They can choose to share or not share. They can write toward pain or back away from it, or shift topics at any point. The instructor guides, but the writer is in charge of their writing journey.

I’ll be employing a modified Amherst-inspired writing workshop with a half dozen survivors tonight, along with two certified counselors. There will be no “critique”; only supportive feedback about moments in the writing that spoke to us. This is another hallmark of the Amherst method: no tearing anyone else’s writing down when it is in its most vulnerable fledgling state. I want to keep the space safe and empowering. I want to guide the participants through the writing workshop I wish I had been able to attend when I was at my most raw moments of healing. It’s a tall order. I promise to do my best.

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Photo by Louis Bauer from Pexels.com

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