Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Enraged but engaged

I started off writing an angry tirade. I was swirling with negativity and I didn't like the feeling it gave me as I read it aloud to some friends. I'm still mad as hell, but I'm backing up a step or two and taking a deep breath. This will be an attempt to regain my footing, to get back in balance, to re-adjust my equilibrium which seems completely out of whack. 

All my life I have been on a mission. To make things better. It started with animals; rescuing squirrels that had been hit by cars, tending to birds fallen from nests, adopting stray dogs and cats. Moving on to stopping litterbugs and building trails in the woods.

And then, as a lonely, bullied teenager, I volunteered, helping Vietnamese refugees ~ Boat People as they entered our country; frightened, hungry, alone, and friendless. And that act of reaching out my hand across cultures literally saved my life. Had it not been for those people, I can’t even imagine where I would be today. Their warmth and generosity of spirit gave me purpose and a reason to go on.

That experience was so powerful, I even wrote a book about it, Weeping Under This Same Moon.

After volunteering I graduated college and was hired by the International Rescue Committee as a refugee resettlement caseworker, serving Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugee clients. It was my great joy. I was the one who got to go JFK and meet them with a sign that said WELCOME. I found them apartments, I helped them get jobs, I enrolled them in English classes, I took them shopping, showed them how to take the subway, and I was treated with more respect and appreciation than ever in my life, then to now.

Here's what I want you to know; anyone who is afraid that refugees are dangerous, taking away our jobs, are terrorists, and are destroying our country, has never met a refugee. Refugees are you and me. They are us, if suddenly we had to leave our homes never to return. Can you even imagine? You get a call at work saying it is no longer safe to return home. If you even have one. And so you leave, with the clothes on your back, and if you are lucky enough to be able to get some stuff, what would you take? In 10 minutes? What would you choose? And then you run, you hide, you make your way onto some vehicle, on land or sea and you say goodbye to everything you know and hold dear. And not just stuff. People. Friends, relatives, children, parents, siblings, lovers, pets. It is unbearable and the anguish is indescribable. And the truth is, they don’t want to come here, they just want to go home. No refugee wants to be a refugee, believe me. They want to live with their own culture, steep themselves in their own traditions, drink coffee with their own people, entertain in their own place, sleep in their own bed. We arrogantly think that everyone wants to come to America, and certainly, many do. But the dream of most refugees is to be able to just return home. Home is a powerful idea. What does it mean to you?

There are currently 65 million refugees in the world today. And now, the land of Liberty, our America, will not let them in. For fear. For xenophobia, for hate, for spite. The madness that has taken over our country is truly nightmarish. I wake most nights around 3 am and think this must be a dream. It’s no dream. It is the new reality, but NOT the new normal. It takes me a few hours to get back to a fitful sleep. 

It makes me sad as I think back to just a few months ago when I saw my adult children and their friends supporting Bernie Sanders, engaging in politics for the first time, with joy and hope for their future. And it wasn’t just Bernie, but all he stood for, all the values I taught them, come to life. Environmental stewardship, human rights, Black lives matter, refugees welcome, women’s rights, animal rights, LGBTQIPA rights, the list goes on. All the struggle and upward movement we’ve been working for and seen, gone. In an instant. That amazing trajectory of positive energy, raised consciousness, vanished. 

But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it's like the quote my friend read at the Women's March.

 Maybe the seed is cracking and there will be a new paradigm. All of us in solidarity can't be a bad thing.

Some days though, I feel like my joy has been hijacked, kidnapped, held for ransom. I want to file a class action suit against those who are messing with my happiness. But then I remember Deepak Chopra saying that happiness is out there, but joy is inside and no one can take it from you unless you let them. So, I'm going to try as hard as I can to keep my joy intact and not allow current events to rattle me to the core. It will be an act of will.

And as each and every one of my issues is attacked, I understand that I can't take them all on. I'd lose myself in the process. So here’s what I have decided to do to save myself. I will choose one issue that I am most passionate about. For me, it’s refugee/immigrant rights. I will talk to young people about the joys of volunteering, I will educate those who don't understand. I will allay fears, I will teach by my example, and I will ask for help when I need it.

Tomorrow, we begin production of a new audio book of my refugee story. And when it is out in the world, we will use it for good, to donate money to refugee organizations in its name. International Rescue Committee

This is what I can do.

Yes, I am enraged. But I am engaged. I will take the energy I get from this anger and turn it to good use. I will roll up my sleeves and do what it takes to change this. To protect refugees and immigrants. All MUST be welcome here. That is our creed. 

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” 

I believe that still means something.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Why I Do What I Do

Writing can be a lonely business. We writers spend a lot of time alone, thinking, dreaming, percolating ideas, taking walks to get inspired... We sit at our desk, alone, or at the kitchen counter by ourselves with our coffee, or at least I do. And we write and write when the ideas begin to flow. Sometimes we don't know who our audience will be, or even if our book will be read by anyone. Or if it will even become a book. But we write anyway, because we have to.We often will never know how our work affects people. In my case, I always hope to inspire and educate through my writing. And sometimes we get to see how the fruits of our labor pays off.

And sometimes, we reach just the right person. The one we may have written the book for.

That's what happened to me on a recent author visit to a school in Maryland. An entire high school read my novel Weeping Under This Same Moon. 400 kids and teachers and even parents! That in itself was incredible. Even better, I was invited to spend two full days talking to students and writing with them, answering their questions about the writing process and the story itself. I met with all four grades, spending most of my time with the senior class. At night, I gave a talk to an auditorium full of students, administrators, teachers and parents. I spoke about what it was like to be a teenage volunteer working with Vietnamese refugees, and how it changed my life, informed my life, perhaps even
saved it. Then I invited a very special guest to Skype in. The cover girl from my book, now a beautiful young woman, a doctor. She told her story. How she escaped with her older sister, my main character, Mei. How she was cold and frightened and how that experience informed her life. And how my friendship with her and her family changed everything for them.

We invited the audience to talk, or ask questions, and they did. Toward the end of the evening, a woman came up to the mic. She was the mother of one of the students. She was in tears. She took a deep breath and shakily told her story. She, too, had been a "Boat person" - a Vietnamese refugee. She had never shared her story in public, but hearing "Linh" speak about her experience, gave her the courage. By the end of her story, we were all in tears. She had been through much trauma which she relived on a daily basis. She thanked me for my book and we hugged. She thanked "Linh" in Vietnamese and went back to her seat.

The next day, I received a beautiful card from her telling me that being there and being able to feel safe enough to share her story was the most healing experience of her life.

Experiences like this one affirm why I do what I do. Writing is my passion, and if my writing can touch someone this deeply, I know my purpose.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Dreamers Needed

I'm just coming off two weeks of INTENSE writing. First, a week-long writer's retreat in the heart of the Catskills, where I wrote uninterrupted for HOURS a day, taking breaks for meals, sumptuous meals, fed to us by cooks who understand the hunger of writers. And the aversion to cooking when you are in a flow. 

Five of us, including two poets, a screenwriter and a two novelists, wrote our collective butts off.

Then plunging right into facilitating a week long writing workshop called Write The Change, with Jennifer Browdy.
 Jennifer and I worked with five amazing writers, delving deep into our individual and collective psyches to become writers for change. Topics ranged from depression to the joy of reawakening the creative self, from global climate change to immigrant reform and refugee issues. Mostly allowing our voices to be heard and our words to be read. 
Here's an example of my own work from an exercise I learned from Renaissance House founder, Abigail McGrath. 
Write a letter to your younger self. Choose a time in your life, young child or teen when you could have used some advice. What would you tell your younger self. Look into her eyes and talk to her. 
Letter to my younger self: 17 and angry
Oh Jana, Jana. Look at you, with that furrowed brow. It’s going to cause you wrinkles if you keep scrunching your face like that. Come, sit beside me and I’ll tell you a secret. There’s more good in people than you can imagine. You think no one understands you, and maybe you’re right. But they will. Believe me, one day they will. Because as much as you might not believe it, everyone is going through something. They may just hide it well. 
Here’s what I want you to know. The world needs people like you in it. Dreamers. You belong with the Eagle spirits, the dreamers, the artists and visionaries, the music makers, the writers and poets. Your dreams soar far and wide. Let them fly. Don’t try to ground them. Sit by the window, and stare out into the sky, forming stories. It’s OK. Wander into the woods and watch a spider build its web. It’s OK. Walk the rocky shore, dive into the salty waves, imagining you are the dolphin. It’s OK. The world needs people like you in it. 
There will be those who don’t understand your dreaming nature, try to put you in a box and make you conform, but you can’t change your nature, and you don’t have to. So relax that furrowed brow, and when you look at the people around you who try to put you in their box, just say, thank you, no. I’m OK. The world needs people like me in it.
Our next task was to write a bit about the process of writing these letters to self. And as I wrote about my process, I really took those thoughts and feelings deep into my being and owned them. It really is OK to be a dreamer. There is a place in the world for dreamers. That's when the tears began to flow.  
Our "students" told us how much they loved the fact that we were writing alongside them. I can't imagine any instructor not doing that. I'm sure I got as much out of the workshop as they did, and I'm ready to do it all over again. I am inspired!
Here are a few words from Write The Change participants that just came into our inbox:
"WOW! Thank you! I can't thank you enough, Jennifer and Jana for all your support, but mostly for the feeling of warmth and love from the group. To be able to share my story was huge for me. I feel for the first time that I can share my story to help others..."

"Jennifer and Jana, I really appreciated how you framed the classes with prompts, writing, sharing, quotes and feedback. It feels like you had a strong intention of helping each of us reach a point of clarity towards our own personal next steps towards writing the change we want to see. I know it happened for me..."

So gratifying. 
The tagline of my email is Gandhi's quote, "Be the change you want to see in the world." I look at that quote everyday as I send out emails, and I wonder if I can actually be that change. 
Maybe I can.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Herman Melville and Me

I'm writing a new book that I never in my wildest dreams thought I would write. It is a biography of Herman Melville. For kids. You might be thinking, why for kids? And I might say, because Herman Melville had an incredible life and most kids don't know about it. And I might add that kids love interesting characters with extraordinary lives. And Melville is such a character. I used to love reading biographies when I was in elementary school. I never read one about Melville. Sure, I heard of Moby Dick when I was little, most kids have heard of Moby Dick, who hasn't? But there is so much more to Herman Melville than Moby Dick. My hope is after reading this biography of Melville, a new wave of Melville fans will emerge.

I have never considered myself a biographer, but my co-authored book, "A Free Woman on God's Earth" is the juvenile biography of Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman and writing it with my co-author, Ann-Elizabeth Barnes was a joy. We added flesh and blood to a person very few people ever heard of. We want Mumbet to become a household word and now, more and more people know about her. Is it because of our little book? We like to think so. Our job was to get her story out into the world in a very accessible way and I think we did that. From there, it takes on a life all its own.

So now, Melville. Sometimes is feels like a Herculean task. There are so many Melville scholars and so many scholarly biographies of this, the greatest American writer, possibly ever. So what I am doing is a little daunting and I'm slightly intimidated by what has come before me. But I like to think that no one has done what I am presently working on. I know of no biographies of Melville for children. Perhaps mine will be the first. And this excites me. And scares me a little.

I'm the very first Writer-In-Residence at Herman Melville's home in the Berkshires, a position that I never dreamed of obtaining. But sometimes in life, we are lead to places and people we never dreamed we would go or meet. I love my position at Arrowhead. I love sitting in Herman Melville's chair, looking out his window and writing from that place. It inspires me. From Arrowhead, my colleagues and I have created a wonderful program for children we call "Inspired by Melville." It's a writing program for students, third grade to high school. And it was from this program that the idea to write his biography for children came. There was not one I could bring on my school visits. We have graphic-novel versions of Moby Dick, we have abridged versions, even pop-up versions, and I bring those with me, but like I said, there is way more to Herman Melville than Moby Dick. And I want kids to know about the person he was.

I've got to get back to work.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Paw Prints On a Purple Bench

I painted the bench in my hallway this week. I painted it purple. A deep dark elderberry color that makes me happy when I look at it. I put the finishing touches on it yesterday. The bench sits under the window looking out onto my driveway. The bench was made from wide pieces of polished wood that in a former life was part of a shelf system that used to hang on the wall of my bedroom and was full of books. I am a recycler by nature. 

I am learning to let go of things, but I save things like wooden shelves. You never know when they will come in handy. They call it "upcycling" nowadays and it's very trendy. I guess I'm ahead of my time.

Jordy, my sweet brindle Pitbull Lab mix often perched there on his hind legs, watching for cars pulling in, and was always there, paws up on the bench, head, practically out the window, when he heard my car pull in. I got mad the first time I found him there, one deep scratch marring the newly polished wood. I sanded the spot but it never was the same. 

My stomach would tighten with anxiety over my bench every time I saw that goofy face looking out the window from his spot when I pulled in from anywhere. The one deep groove became a series of grooved patterns, the bench, pretty much ruined. And then one day I decided to cherish the fact that my dog was waiting for me, and wood was wood. Who cared, really?

And now my brindle boy is gone, lying beneath the tree in my yard that blooms pink in the spring. The tree is about twenty feet high now, but was a sapling, a mere six inches when I got it as a gift for joining the Arbor Society. Jordy might have been a tiny puppy when I planted that tree. Like the tree, he grew strong and broad and eventually mature. But trees live longer than dogs, and he now lies under its broad green leaves, next to its roots.

I don't know why I didn't take a picture, and I regret it now, but the other night I went to admire my new purple bench and looked down at the place where Jordy's scratches are now purple scratches, and there I saw what looked like a paw print. I swear. I tilted my head to the side and discovered two tiny cat prints as well. I have two cats, so that's no surprise, but above the cat prints I know I saw a big print. A dog's paw print. I'm telling you. I called my daughter down and she confirmed it. I should have kept it. I didn't. But I know it was Jordy stopping by to let me know he's still here.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Saying Goodbye to a friend

There's a flowered chair that sits in my living room and it's empty these days. It was Jordy's chair. When he sat there it was covered with blankets for softness and to prevent him from shedding all over it. It is lately uncovered to reveal the lovely flowered pattern and it is mine now. I sit in it and try to imagine his soft, furry warmth draped over it, from head to hassock. I try to feel his presence, try to fill an emptiness that is palpable. The emptiness washes over me and comes upon me at odd times. It mainly comes when I walk downstairs and see the chair, devoid of dog. No soulful eyes looking at me from over its arm, no stiff, achy old boy needing help to get down from it and make his way to the kitchen for his breakfast.

I have lost a dear friend. A friend I took care of and loved for over 15 years. My children were tiny when we brought the little guy home. A who knows what ~ Pitbull/Lab? Boxer mix? Brindled and gorgeous, he was our Nigerian Lionhound. My children are adults now and Jordy is gone. Wrapped in a blanket, under a tree in the yard.

But when he lived, he lived! Every moment filled with joy. Running in the woods, on the beach, catching balls and sticks thrown, gulping down snowballs caught in midair, digging in snowdrifts, rolling in who knows what, stealing the lemon cake and eying the turkey, sneaking his way up on the bed, one leg at a time.
Oh, he will be missed.

Here's the poem I wrote for him on his passing:

May golden light guide your way
And fields of flowers dance at your approach
May you be met by loved ones, soft and warm,
Our loving family; Dulcie, Indy, Skye, Kelsey, Vincent and Tamina
And may friends; Henry, Pippi, Haiku, Mack and Merck greet you too

Your kindness and warmth, your love and licks, your sweet gentleness
will never be forgotten and will live inside us for all of our days
And may you take our love for you in your heart as you make your way to the place
of happy days and running through fields and catching sticks and lemon cakes and splashing in the sea

Your soulful eyes will watch over us and as we sit in your favorite chair,
Which will become our favorite,
We will feel your presence embrace us, washing us with love
The most loyal love there is
The warmest and most unconditional
The truest love under the sun
Dog to person, person to dog
us to you and you to us
We speak soul to soul and we understand
We know

And when our time comes to leave this place, we expect you to be there
Waiting to greet us, tail wagging, ready for a walk
We love you.
Godspeed, Jordy. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Books can heal

It's been a week since the devastating tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School and I have tried to find words to express my feelings on this subject. I am a writer, I should be able to write something profound, but I am at a loss, still, for the right words. I am sitting here in my kitchen, sick with a cold the size of Texas, waiting for my tea water to boil. The rain is pouring down tears. My head aches, but so does my heart as I scroll facebook messages, as I read articles about a funeral for a little 7 year-old boy attended by the entire NYC Fire Department, as I remain quiet, reflecting in my moment of silence. This tragedy has cloaked the nation. These are our children.

I sent books to Sandy Hook School along with a promise to come to the school to write with the children, when they are ready, and if they want me to come. I hope they will.

I have tackled life-altering subjects before. My book, Elephants of the Tsunami dealt with the December 26, 2004 immense tragedy. The book was sent over to Thailand on a healing mission. I wrote that book to heal my own sorrow, and for the children I taught, who were scared from afar. I never thought it would be sent to Thailand and I was worried that it would hurt those Thai children, that it would bring back memories of that day. But Wachiramat, a Thai teacher working with 600 children in the villages of Khao Lak and Pang-nga, where 5000 people lost their lives in 5 minutes, told me that the words were so beautiful and that even though the story was sad, it helped the children heal. The children would never forget that day, but the book brought them out of themselves for a moment.

How do we heal? Time, maybe. Love, for sure. Pie, absolutely. Books? I'd like to think so. 
All I can do is what I can do. I can't bake a pie, I can't sing or play the guitar. But I can write and when I do, all my love goes into what I write. And I have written, co-written and edited books for children and teens. All those books are in that box.

So when that box of book arrives at Sandy Hook Elementary School, my hope is that the children will pick them up and read them and laugh and be taken away to that wonderful place only books can take us, if only for a few precious moments. That is my wish.