Brain mush: “Twilight: Los Angeles”

I went to a Facing History Community Conversation with Anna Deavere Smith tonight. I will probably blog more things about it, along with some thoughts about LA and community and 1992 and race and things. For now, I’m thinking about this response Smith had to an audience question about her interview with Young-Soon Han (whose voice is featured in “Swallowing the Bitterness”).

The question came from a Korean-American woman who was living in New York in 1992: “Was there anything that didn’t make it onto the page? … Was she standing on top of her store with a gun?”

My transcription skills are not what they once were, although having the work iPad with me was helpful. (n.b. The iPads were donated; my nonprofit is all about fiscal responsibility.) The following is parts of Smith’s response:

“The feeling of the whole interview (was that) I was with an elder in the community. … There was a sense of a community, even though it was just the four of us.”

[not verbatim: She was also grieving because her husband had died not too long before that. She also kept apologizing for her English.]

“She wanted that feeling of community, but she said there’s just ultimately too much difference, and she couldn’t make that bridge. I felt that one of the remedies for her — one way that people dealt with the trauma was to try to learn more, so very often Korean-American people that I spoke to were very savvy of the broad race picture, and how they sometimes even saw themselves as proxies for white people.”

Also thinking about the opening remarks from Marti Tippens Murphy, the LA Director of Facing History. Paraphrasing: “As a child, I was told if I was ever in danger, to go to a police officer for help. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that not every child is told that.”

My roommate and I discussed race, erasures, model minorities, interracial dating, and the Asian-American experience on the way home, and then while throwing together a late dinner. More thoughts later. In the meantime, if you haven’t had the chance to see Anna Deavere Smith perform, get thee to a YouTubery. Also, read the book.

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homecoming: poetry and/or prose

I considered performing this piece on Tuesday, but ended up cutting it so that I could deliver the three poems I was performing at a normal human pace, as well as stick a bunch of haiku in my pockets and pull them out at random moments. This piece started as prose, but came out kinda poetry-like, and then I eliminated some sentences and worked on the cadence a little as I thought about performing it.

I originally wrote this piece on November 27, as U.S. troops were leaving Iraq. I had also just learned that my friend’s brother was in all likelihood going to miss the birth of his son.

(It was jarring to have been contemplating this piece for the last two weeks, then to wake up today to this LA Times article on U.S. soldiers posing with Afghan corpses.)

“Homecoming”

When he comes home, we will greet him with arms wide open. We will fold him back into the family he fought to protect. We will cook him his favorite dishes and remind him of all of the favorite things he longed for while he was away.

We will smile and laugh and cry tears of joy. We will secret our worry away, we will smile bigger to hide that we are concerned. We will watch for the signs and symptoms. We will take turns on guard at night, listening for fitful sleep that would be the warning. We will make sure he is enjoying the things he used to enjoy. We will work extra hard to make the transition smooth, but we will hide our efforts. We will not want him to sense any hint of doubt that he will reintegrate seamlessly.

When he comes home, we will have prepared. We will have tidied his room. We will have sat down the children to remind them not to ask rude questions. We will have removed the careworn toys of war we once naively placed in the hands of our baby boy. We will have practiced our smiles. We will have carefully considered the yellow ribbon on the family car. We will have debated whether this is a symbol of our support and love or a reminder that we will never comprehend what he experienced.
We will tell the neighbors that he is returning. We will have the camera on, trained on his reaction. We will capture the video of dog greeting master, happy whining and jumping all over and wonderful unconditional puppy love. We will analyze the footage and check for any cracks. We will be inwardly vigilant, outwardly relaxed.

We will place his son into his arms. We will snap pictures and we will say congratulations, so that we will not hold our breath. We will smile bigger and cry, but only tears of joy, so that our faces do not betray us. We will tell him that his son has his strong jaw. We will look away politely if a tear rolls down his cheek, and we will wonder later whether that tear is good or bad. We will wonder when it is appropriate to show him the video that he has waited so long to see. And we will watch him watching.

When he comes home, we will be a family again. When he comes home, we will start being a family again. When he comes home –

When he comes home, will it be him who comes home?

* When I first posted this, my friend Christine pointed out that a lot of imagery echoes Andrea Gibson’s “For Eli,” which I have listened to a ton. I don’t disagree that there are echoes.

Three things I’m thinking about: bowling leagues, poetry, making things

Oh hey, remember when I used to blog? Easing myself back in with a “three things” post.

1) Bowling leagues

At our all-staff meeting last Thursday, we had  a guest speaker (as we often do) Bill Parent, Associate Dean at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. For a three-hour lecture on the state of the nonprofit sector in Los Angeles, I could have done with a little less on the history of the United States as it relates to civil society. (It was really interesting, but that part lasted beyond the first hour, and there was some really interesting data at the end that we flew through. If you’re curious about nonprofit funding and growth over the last decade or so, check it out here.)

The middle portion of the lecture was about social capital and effective civil society, and Bill brought up Robert Putnam’s study of Italian cities. He assigned students to walk into a police station and say that they thought they had a broken arm, then timed how long it took for them to receive treatment. There was a strong correlation between the amount of time to get treatment and the number of choral groups in the city. (Bill said the number “correlates perfectly,” but I’d want to see data before repeating that claim.)

Putnam concluded that the number of choral groups is a strong indicator of deep community ties, as well as a way for people to “get together with a purpose.” That intentional group membership correlates with higher trust levels, increased civic participation, and “things working,” as Bill put it. Putnam repeated the study in the States, by analyzing the density of bowling leagues* (and the decline in membership nationwide) and concluded some things about people caring about each other and being in communities and stuff.

Anyway, at our next department meeting, we discussed the all-staff, since a lot of the discussion was around nonprofit funding, and as the development department, knowing about that kind of thing is important. Boss lady asked us to write down all of the groups we belong to now, had belonged to in college, and had belonged to in high school, and to rank them based on level of participation. She asked us whether our periods of highest group membership correlated with stronger feelings of community engagement. Then we went around the table and answered the question “Is LA a community?” Seven nos, most of them definitive, a few with an asterisk (along the lines of “LA doesn’t feel like a community, but neighborhoods do/I belong to sub-communities.”) The only yes was from our newest staff member, who moved back to LA from San Diego last weekend. So … yeah.

It was interesting to hear my co-workers describe the ways they make LA feel like home for them, though; I love that I work with people who say things like “I felt disconnected, so I started a writing/cooking group.” My list for current groups also made me happy; I think this is the most intentional I’ve been about group membership ever. In college, the Daily Bruin and the rowing team were the two big groups I was part of. In high school, I was in a ton of groups formed around extracurriculars, and I felt deeply engaged within the community, but it was a narrow school- (and for a year, district-) based community.

Now, though, I have strong ties to the people I served with during my City Years, I have a tight circle of roommates and college friends (plus an affinity member) that work at spending time together, and I have Tuesday Night Project, which is a constant reminder that there is good and art in the world. Also some other groups.

2) Poetry and self-reflection, etc.

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” — Joan Didion

Traci asked me to open for the upcoming Tuesday Night Cafe, in celebration of National Poetry Month. Actually, she asked if I have any new pieces, and I replied that I have two in progress, and I agreed to take the set, hoping that the deadline would force me to finish these poems — I’ve been working on one of them for, like, six months, and it’s driving me crazy. Four days later, poems are done. (Thanks in large part to Syd, who is crashing in our living room and has been subjected to me reading poem fragments and drafts at her from Tuesday to Thursday nights. THOSE ARE THE PERILS OF COUCHSURFING, OK? Captive audience!)

Anyway, poems. I was going to read this piece, “Homecoming” that I wrote during Session 26 of The Undeniables, plus a haiku and two new pieces and “native tongue.” Then I had the epiphany pictured below.

This is the first time I’ve worked on two pieces at the same time (the second piece was born out of trying to give up on the first), and now I’m practicing all of them together and realizing that there’s a ton of imagery about going home, not being able to go home, feeling rootless, and not being able to sleep. I just saved myself three years of therapy. Thanks, poetry!

3) Making things

Other awesome perks of Syd crashing here:

  • Conversations
  • She makes things
Last weekend, we all sat around with the front doors open, reading and listening to music and enjoying the weather. Then other people came over, and there was some quality porch-sitting. Syd picked and squeezed lemons from the backyard, and I harvested some of the lavender that is overtaking the front walk, then everyone consumed snacks and lavender lemonade and ironic self-deprecatory comments about our bohemian hipsterhood. Mason jars were involved.
I brought lavender lemonade to work a few days last week, and my mason jars are currently the only watertight containers I have, so I’ve had a nice porch-like week all week. Also, Syd has been cold-steeping coffee and leaving it in jars in the fridge, and on Thursday I came home to baked tofu and asparagus.**
I can’t really remember what this section was going to be about. Mostly mason jars and finally getting around to harvesting lemons and lavender. Also, cooking, or something. I am done with this post, because the kitchen smells like fresh-squeezed lemons, so I’m going to go make some simple syrup and make Arnold Palmers with the iced tea I’ve been steeping. Mason jars will be involved.

Communities and groups and stuff. Comment about it.

* Bill asked us to guess what the American counterpart of choral groups would be, and of course two of us said “bowling leagues,” because we’d read the study and are competitive and like to ruin everyone else’s fun in the interest of winning. I love that about my co-workers. (We’re actually competitive in a friendly way, just very intensely so.)

** Unfortunately, she said no when I asked her to marry me.