Tuesday, June 26, 2018


I am sitting here in my kitchen, looking out at the peach trees I planted and my two dogs in the yard, thinking about the world. The world right here seems fine on the surface. The grass was cut today and smells new and fresh. The little two-year old peach trees are bursting with life...hundreds of tiny peaches are dangling like fuzzy ornaments. The birds are calling in the distance. The neighbors' sheep are bleating. If I lived in a bubble, I might imagine that all was right with the world. But all is not right. 

The Supreme Court voted 5-4 today in favor of banning Muslims from entering this country, in what can only be described as an act of racism, plain and simple. The US is running on fear and that is the opposite of love. Our so-called president is a fearmongering ignoramus, a two-bit performer, a no-talent narcissist. And many people are supporting his hateful agenda. And man, he is gloating right about now. It makes me angry just thinking about it.

Children are in cages. Parents are desperate. It wasn't enough that these people were fleeing for their lives. LEGALLY seeking asylum. But now their lives are forever destroyed. The damage is irreversible. For the children and the adults. And we know that ICE never had any intention of reuniting children with parents. How is that ever going to happen? It is sickening and heart wrenching to think about it. I wonder, who are these goose-steppers? Who are these brainless, spineless monsters?

Just before #45 signed the bogus order to stop separating families, I wrote a letter to the FLOTUS. I was about to send it, and then she wore the coat. I knew that appealing to her as a woman, an immigrant, a mother, was a waste of words. I did not send it. Here is what I wrote:

Dear First Lady, 

I'm writing to you in the throes of profound sadness, heart-wrenching disbelief and abject fear of what is happening to our country. I have chosen to write to you because you sit in a place of power and honor, as the First Lady of the United States of America, FLOTUS. You; an immigrant, a woman, a mother. 

My sleep is disturbed, my heart is disturbed, my very soul hurts as I watch and listen to the news reports of thousands of immigrant children, displaced, ripped away from their mothers and fathers and placed in what can only be termed as internment camps. I imagine that nursing mother whose baby was ripped out of her arms. I feel her grief and I imagine her breasts becoming painful, perhaps infected, with no place for her milk to flow, no tiny mouth to suck on them for sustenance, warmth and succor. She is devastated. And I imagine her baby, traumatized, crying, with no one to hold her. Who is nursing that baby now? 

I can hear the five-year-old boy screaming for his papa, inconsolable, as he is being put in a cage. What if this were your son?

No parent would risk what these parents have risked if there was any other way. All they want is asylum. I hope that you would do anything to keep your son from harm, as I would do anything for my children. I heard you speak out against this with the other First Ladies. You yourself said that you “hate to see children separated from their families.” You visited, you influenced your husband to rescind the order to separate, and I thank you for that. 

But it doesn’t go far enough.
I don't know these children, but they are my children. They are our children. And they are undergoing trauma that is irreversible. The damage irreparable. They need to be reunited with their parents. Immediately.

Over the course of my life, I have had the unique honor and privilege to have worked with refugees and immigrants from all over the world. It has been my joy to have taught hundreds of people to speak English and to help them navigate their way around their new country, to welcome them and befriend them. I've learned their stories and I have held their hands, I have been their friend, and they have become mine. I have taught them and learned from them and my life is far richer because of them.

The people at the border have come here to escape something horrible, unimaginable; perhaps gang violence, perhaps abject poverty, human trafficking, war or climate disaster. They come here seeking safety and shelter. They're not stealing our jobs, they're not raping our women, they are not criminals. They are refugees. 

I am pleading with you, First Lady Melania Trump to do something. To use your incredible power and influence to do the right thing at this moment in history. Be the hero of the situation. You have the power to change the course of history. I'm afraid that if you don't, you and your family will go down in infamy.
This is your moment. 

Thank you,
Jana Laiz
Mother, daughter, sister, friend, woman, citizen 

I was hoping to reach her... I'm sure she would never have read it, but it was cathartic. Now it feels pathetic. 

So I am having a spiritual crisis. I am not feeling full of anything but rage. I know I am suppose to fight this with love, but I am having a real crisis. My heart is bursting with pain for the mothers and the fathers, the children, the babies. Is that love? I cry a lot these days. And I call my Congressmen and Senators and I call Republican Congressmen and Senators. I protested and made #143 tags for everyone to wear in solidarity with the little boy #47. Mr. Rogers' number was 143... and it means I LOVE YOU. #whatwouldmrrogersdo? 

I want to be like Mr. Rogers. I want my neighbors to be from Syria and Canada and Iran and Sudan and China and who the hell cares! EVERYWHERE. What are they so afraid of?

Try reaching out to an immigrant or refugee today and see what happens. 
I'm going to march on June 30 and try like hell to be love.

Will you join me?

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Yes, you heard it right! OCTAVIA SPENCER!

Dream BIG! That's my motto.

Dreams actually do come true if you dream big enough and work hard at manifesting those dreams. That means holding the vision and not letting fear get in the way. When I teamed up with Ann-Elizabeth Barnes to write "A Free Woman On God's Earth" The True Story of Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman, The Slave Who Won Her Freedom, our goal was to tell this remarkable story in an accessible and enjoyable way that children (and adults) would love and be inspired by. Mumbet is our hero and her story is important. Who would have thought that renowned illustrator Jacqueline Rogers, would join us in telling this story! That in itself was amazing.

Little did we think that one day there would be a film about her. Based on our book! But the truth is, we imagined it, and we dreamed about it. It was a fun fantasy we indulged in. When we sat down to write it, we saw it visually, like a movie, scene by scene and wrote it that way. Jackie added her gorgeous art, which could tell the story even without our words. And when director, Alethea Root read it, loved it and asked us for the option, we were thrilled and honored. Was our dream coming true? Would our fantasy become real? It sure felt like it. That was in 2010.

And so began a very long, arduous and wondrous journey. In that time, we never wavered in our belief that this would manifest. A team came together; a director, a screenwriter, producers, executive producers, historians, actors, even a politician or two, and we worked really, really hard. And we held that dream.

And now, eight years in, something remarkable has happened. Academy award-winning actress, Octavia Spencer joined the MUMBET team as Executive Producer!

I had known it was happening, but the day the Variety announcement came to my inbox, my heart raced and I shook, for the entire day. It was real! 

There is still a long road ahead, movies take a long time to make! But we will continue to hold this dream. And I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that this movie will manifest and thousands of people, maybe millions, will know the name of Elizabeth MUMBET Freeman. She will take her rightful place in history, and I am honored to be a part of that.

So dream BIG. You just never know!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Can a Tree Teach Race Relations?

I've been thinking a lot about race, as many of us are these days. I've been crying and losing sleep over events that I wonder if I have any control over. I spend nights imagining how it will all turn out. I ponder over why people hate so much. I march. I teach. I write about these issues in books. I've read blogs and articles on the subject. I hear progressive people say "You cannot say 'I don't see color,' and I agree. I see color everywhere. But to me, it's not so much as, "I don't see color" as it is, "I see color and find all of those colors fascinating and beautiful." 
  I'm a Jewish woman, was married for 25 years to a Filipino man, I have two interracial children. My middle sister is happily married to a Brazilian, whose parents were both adopted, origin unknown, and so might actually be of Middle Eastern, African or Latino descent, or maybe he's just  Brazilian. They have one interracial child. My youngest sister was in love with Ghanaian man, has two boys with a Mexican man and is now happily in a same-sex relationship. My middle sister and I are ESL teachers. We are advocates for immigrants, we celebrate diversity. I studied Language & Linguistics and Anthropology at NYU. I travel. I am fascinated by culture, by language, by customs and how people think, communicate, love... I want to know where your ancestors came from. Who they were, how they lived. If I ask you about your ethnic background, it's because I want to find out more about my own. For me, it's to feed my soul. To know I'm not alone on this human journey. 

My mother spit into a cup, sent it away and found, as she expected, that she is 93% Ashkenazi. Jewish. 3% is comprised of Iberian Peninsula, Celtic, Central Asia and the rest unknown. I find that 4%  most intriguing. How many white supremacists would be surprised by what their saliva reveals? Would that change any minds? Maybe.

I am heartbroken at the hate and vitriol spewing these days. I know the pot has been stirred and the dregs at the bottom have come rising disgustingly to the surface. But so much anger. Is it fear? I think it is. What is there to be afraid of? But here's why I'm writing this blog today; I wrote a story just published in Writing Fire, an anthology of 75 women writers, that I need to share. I wrote it and wondered when the time would come for it to be ready to offer to the world, and unfortunately, I believe the time is now. 

Here's how it came to be:

I often dream entire passages or lines for books I'm writing and one night, I woke with this line, "I remember the winter long ago, the one that lingered like regret." I had to rustle around in my bedside table to find paper and pen to write it down. I wasn't writing anything at the time that could use a line like that and I wondered what it would be for. I knew it would have to go somewhere. When your dreams offer you lines like that, you don't say no. Later that same day, out of the blue, my (then) husband came into my office and said, "You should write a story about a lynching tree from the point of view of the tree." And he walked out. I thought about it all day. The idea stuck. Then I remembered that line and I knew that must be what it was for. I began to do research into that most heinous practice. That most insidious, hateful, malevolent and evil practice. It was a hard place to go, let alone write about, but I knew I had to do it. Had to go to those incredibly disturbing places. I researched lynchings and based my gruesome tale on the real, horrific, brutal murders of Sam Hose and Emmit Till. And I began to write. In Southern tree dialect. All made up, based on what I thought a Magnolia might sound like if it could speak.

When this story was done, I had no idea what to do with it, who to give it to. I shared it with a few of my friends, some from the South, one of whom said, "My grandmother from Mississippi talked just like this. How did you do that?" Her great-grandmother had been enslaved. I knew I was on the right track. She, actress Tammy Denease suggested we turn it into a play. We're working on it now. 

It's very disturbing and quite graphic, so please beware. If it inspires you or calls you to action, please share this blog. If it changes your mind or opens it, I've done my job. If it offends, apologies, but not really. It has to be told.

Warning: Contains graphic and disturbing images.
Excerpt by permission from Writing Fire, published by Green Fire Press

Magnolia Justice
by Jana Laiz

     I remember the winter long ago, the one that lingered like regret. And the spring that waited…But I’m jumpin’ ahead of myself. I’ll start from my beginnin’. First thing I want to tell you is, I have consciousness. That’s right. I feel. I see, I hear, I smell, and I dream. Thing is, I do it slower. I do everything slower. I started out small, like we all do, tryin’ to reach up and feel the sun’s warmth like a blind child reachin’ out to find her mama. I managed, hard as it was. So many of us tryin’ to find our way. But it was quiet then, easier. Birds and rain and wind. Those were the sounds of my smallness. And they were the sounds of my middlin’ too. ‘Cept for the steady hum of the blood runnin’ and the loud movement of the underground. Most folk think it’s quiet under there, but it ain’t. Them worms makin’ a path through the Earth ain’t easy and we feel it and hear it, too. Maybe how y’all hear a bulldozer nowadays. But then, we’re connected in ways you ain’t and never will be. And I don’t mean that figuratively. We're really connected, gotta be, or we’d just fall. So my lullaby was the stars singin’ their high-pitched song. The soft wind ticklin’ my body. Even the gentle rain pourin’ down on me, findin’ its way into the ground around me, beneath me. All those things were my lullaby, my early melodies. But all that changed. Now I cain’t forget. But never you mind. I’ll get to that later. 

     My first season, my first buddin’, I was young and small, but oh, I was fragrant! My blossoms were the sweetest in the county. I heard them say it. “Ain’t that Magnolia the sweetest in the county?” And I was. I could smell my own self, and I smelt real good and heady. And I stood straight, though still small. That first season, things were quiet around me. I stood out in a field of flowers and fruit trees and pecan trees, all of us quiet, hardly speakin’ to one another. Weren’t much to say at that time. Nothin’ much happenin’, ‘cept for the critters comin’ to steal the fruit from my neighbors’ branches, the folk comin’ and admirin’, but not much else. We saw the folk from the big house and them that worked in the fields, but no one paid us no mind, ‘cept, like I said, admirin’. The light folk walked by at twilight, commentin’ on this, that or the other, arm in arm. Once when I was still small a man took a knife to my trunk and carved something there. I never did know what he wrote, but the girl he was with was sure happy, so I knew it couldn’t be bad. Hurt mighty, though. I cried out, but of course none but my own kind heard, and there weren’t much they could do, ‘cept sympathize.   
     The dark folk, the ones that worked in the fields nearby me, they never said much, but they sang loudly. I liked their singin’, though times were, made me feel sad. But I swayed to their melancholy tunes. Them days, I didn’t understand why their songs always sounded sad. That was before. Now I know. Wish I didn’t. 
     Sometimes, when I was more spread out, wider and taller, they’d come out from the fields and sit down by my side and lean against me, breathin’ hard and smellin’ like cotton and sweat. They never stayed for long, someone always hollered for them to get back out to the fields. And they’d get up, tired like, defeated, and trudge back out to the cotton. Sometimes they patted my woody hide, sayin’ “Thankee for the shade.” I liked their company, though their smell was strong, but I didn’t mind. They never carved into me. Once in a while one of ‘em might pluck a flower from my bough and give it to another, but I didn’t mind that, neither. I wish I could’ve talked to them, or rather, I wish they could’ve understood what I said to them when they sat there, restin’ in my shade, tryin’ to feel like people. 
     As I grew, my blossoms were fat and pink and perfumed. I was the prettiest out there in my field. The pecans were attractive, the great Spanish oak around the big white house with all their moss decoratin’ up the place, they was pretty too, but none held a candle to me. I never lorded it over no one, that’s not my way. But I knew.
      Later years, they planted more Magnolias, lining a path on either side, but I was the first one. Now they calls me the old one. I’m still standin’, all these years later, not quite so straight anymore, not quite so fragrant. But back in those days, Lordy, I outshone them all. 

     The light and dark children often climbed upon me, sometimes together, sometimes separate, and I told them the old stories as they sat on my limbs, breathin’ deeply of my perfume. Whether they understood me or not is anyone’s guess, but I’m always hopeful. Seemed funny to me that the children could play together, but not the big folk. No, from where I stood, it didn’t take me long to learn their story. The light ones stayed in the big house and told the dark ones what was what. Those dark folk hopped to it, too; I seen the consequences if’n they didn’t. But like I said, the children played together, but the light ones always had their way, always told the dark ones how to move, what to say. I didn’t like it much, but that’s the way it was. I watched them children grow into big folk, and then there was no more playin’ together, no more laughin’ at each other’s silly antics. No, the light ones followed their mamas and daddies and got demandin’ and the dark ones put down their heads and their dark eyes and said, “yes’m” or “no sir,” and the like. Made me sad to see, but ain’t no one listenin’ to the thoughts nor opinions of a tree anyhow, so I just kept real quiet.
     There was one time I shudder to recall, one big dark feller he fell down in the fields. Must have been sick or something. Done fainted right there in the cotton. Overseer tell him to get up! Hot, fiery words that made me tremble. The dark man couldn’t get up. Sick he was, but that overseer didn’t care one whit. He dragged that man up on his staggering feet, and what he do?! He done brought him over to me. I trembled and shook, but weren’t nothin’ I could do. That overseer leaned the sick man against me and took a whip to his naked back. I really don’t think the man even felt it, he was already half gone. He lay there by my underside for hours. I felt his blood seep into the soil at my roots. Late that night, a dark woman came out of a little shack, silent, stealthy, and stooped beside him, cryin’, ministerin’ to him with cloths of cool water and unguents. He groaned some, and finally got himself up off the ground beneath me and leanin’ on her, made his way back to his sleepin’ place. I felt sick with relief when he left, though I had tried to comfort him. I sang to him, whispered words, but I’m sure he didn’t hear. He was heavy with sickness and sorrow and it made me sick and sad, too.
     There were some happy times, I do admit. The light folk from the big house had big tables brought out and placed all around me. Sweet smelling, steaming vittles were placed upon them tables and scores of fancy folk would come over and eat and sit on chairs around me, admirin’ me, talkin’, gossipin’. Music was played by some fellers. The gentlemen and ladies danced some. I swayed to the rhythms. Gentlemen smoked cigars, ladies fanned themselves and fancy light children held hands and danced around me. One even tried to climb me, but was hollered at, somethin’ about Sunday best and such. Some of the dark folk were dressed fancy, too, but they weren’t eatin’. They was only servin’ the food. I saw the dark children hidin’ and spyin’, their mouths salivatin’. When them parties was over and done, the dogs and pigs got the scraps. Not one crumb went to them dark, hungry little ones. No sir, not a one. 

     Years passed, the fullness of the moon came and went in unending tradition. I grew taller and broader. Things didn’t change much from where I stood for some time, but then everything got a little faster. The birds woke me at strange times during the new moon, when everything was dark and warm and the night lay heavy with sweat. I see from every angle, you know, and I saw shadows in the darkness, movin’ shadows, following other movin’ shadows away and away. And I understood. I never said nothin’ to a soul. But every time, next day at sunup, the dogs would be a-barkin’ and light folk were a-hollerin’, runnin’ around with guns. Sometimes the shadows came back in shackles. Mostly them shadows got away. I hoped they made it to the land of the Maple and the Fir.
     This is how it started. Dark folk and some light ones trying to change things as they were. For my kind, we change some, but mostly, things change around us. And we stand and watch, sometimes with pleasure, sometimes with grief. We weren’t sure what to make of these changes, but I thought they was good. And that’s when the folk with guns came. Scores of ‘em, sleepin’ in the fields, wavin’ flags, shootin'.
     It were no pleasant time, you can be sure of that. Them guns were loud and everything smelled liked blood. Not the sweet blood of my kind, but the hot, slick, spicy blood of folks. I noticed something strange though. Blood of the light ones and blood of the dark ones, well sir, they was the same. Couldn’t tell them apart by color nor of smell. If them red pools lay there in the field, you wouldn’t know one from another. They mingled together out there, seepin’ into the earth. Them harsh folk with their clothing all the same and their guns, well, they couldn’t see it. Couldn’t see what we saw. To us, folk were folk. Big, small, light, dark. Same blood, same bones. Didn’t matter the color of the hide. We saw the way the water fell from their eyes when they was sad, light ones or dark. We saw their crinkly faces and the lightness of their step when they was glad. But it didn’t matter to them harsh folk that they was the same. They saw somethin’ else. Difference. They thought they was better and they was fightin’ to keep it that way. And them dark folk weren’t treated right. No sir. Trees ain’t the judgin’ type, but I saw what I saw and I know what I know. They wasn’t treated right. And it got worse. A lot worse. 

     The fightin’ raged on and on, from buddin’ time to flowerin’ and back again. It got so I was used to the smell of it and the loudness of it. But it rankled me and mine. We could only talk of it in the stillness of the night, when there was respite from the beatin’ of the drums, the shootin’ of the guns. I was one of the lucky ones, never havin’ a bullet pass through my flank. I know others that weren’t so lucky. Bullets don’t make us fall, but they do their damage just the same. We shook ourselves and wondered when it would end, when we’d be able to hear the birds and the wind again. For myself I can only say it went on too long. By the time it was over I felt stiff in my limbs. My blossoms felt grimy. My kind, well, we hear things, we’re connected through roots and earth and the seasons and we communicate in ways unlike folks and I learnt the truth. Them dark folk were free. Free to live like people and the light folk in the big house couldn’t order them around no more. I watched the dark ones, confused lookin’ and mighty scared, wanderin’, wonderin’ where to go, what to do. Some of ‘em stayed on, havin’ been birthed and grow’d up on the place. But I watched and listened carefully to the light ones. There was a difference in their tone and manner toward the dark ones. I’m thinkin’ t’was fear. I never heard it comin’ from them before, but I was sure that was what it was. I, for one, thought they had it comin’. 
      But from where I stood, things didn’t change so much, ‘cept the dark ones tryin’ to get along, almost more fearful than before. At least before, they knew their lot. They had their sleepin’ places, their meager food. Now, they weren’t sure what was what. Some went away, to colder climes, I heard. But them that stayed, well, bein’ freed didn’t make the light ones any better towards ‘em. Different maybe, like I said, scared and even angrier than before, but no better. It was worse for some time, neither of them knowin’ how to act. The dark ones had to ask the light ones for work to make the coins and papers to buy their bread. And it seemed to me, though the light ones now paid the dark ones, they knew who was still master.
     Times went on like this and gradually, it became quiet again and my kind could fall asleep to the stars’ lullaby and the wind could rock us again. But it never felt as clean nor comfortin’. I tried to put the past from my mind and stood straight as I could in my advancin’ age. And still I watched. Things were changin’ again. The dark ones were beginnin’ to rise up a bit, tryin’ anyways. The light ones didn’t like it none. That’s when the nights got all blazed up. That’s when the ghosts appeared with their burnin’ sticks and their fiery talk. They torched the little sleepin’ places where the dark ones lived. I seen the dark ones runnin’ and screamin’, grabbin’ their young ‘uns. Sometimes there was no escapin’ and I smelt their burnin’ flesh and I felt sick. I wished I coulda run, but I ain’t got that option. And here is where I’ve been leadin’ up to this whole time. 
     The winter came, not cold, never cold, but cool. Mostly the summer nights were when the ghost men came out, hollerin’ their wrathful words. Maybe the heat made them angrier, heated them up. And maybe that’s why what happened next happened at all. ‘Cause this day was different. It was unnatural warm. Dark folk was workin’ in the fields, preparin’ the earth for the Spring plantin’. The day was near done and they’s all sweatin’ and commentin’ on the unusual weather. I’m surprised when one dark feller pass by me, makin’ his way to the big house, before he’s told he can leave the fields. He goes to the back door and calls for his boss to please come out; he’s got somethin’ to say. The big light one comes out on the back porch askin’ what he’s doin’ there before the day’s work is done. I sees the dark one tip his hat and ‘pologize. He asks for some money owed him and for the day off next day to see his girl, the one he’s to marry. He smiles and tells the boss that he’s plannin’ a weddin’. The light one, arms folded cross his chest, tells him to get back out to the fields and not to bother him no more. He’ll get his money when everyone else does and not a minute before and he’d better be out in them fields next day like usual. Them words are spoke harsh, and the dark man goes away. I see his pain as he passes me by. I tell him to pay no mind, but of course, he cain’t hear me. Next day, he’s pullin’ stones out the ground for the missus’ garden and the boss comes out a-tellin’ him never step upon his porch again. The dark one stops his diggin’ and I see he’s got a big rock in his grasp. He tries to apologize once more, but the light one, he points a pistol at the dark feller, movin’ toward him, threatenin’ and yellin’. I begin to tremble and I hear my own dry leaves rustle. The dark man is taken by surprise and I see him fling the rock toward his attacker, like he’s tryin’ to protect hisself. I see the light one fall to the ground, his red blood pourin’ out his head. I don’t want to look no more. I’ve seen too much and this ain’t too different from what I seen before. But what happens next is what I need to tell y’all, what I want out of myself and gone. But I know it never will be, not ‘til I’m earth itself and my glorious blossoms are merely a legend.
     That dark feller, he look’d at what he done and he groan loud and look as terrified as any folk could look. And he run. Far and fast, he run, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before he couldn’t go no further. What I didn’t know and still shudders to recall, is how evil folk can be to one another. 

     That night my sleep is restless, cause I feel somethin’s comin’. There be whispers in the night from my own kind and it don’t feel right. Whispers about a dark man killin’ his boss in cold blood, rapin’ his wife as he lay dyin’ and I know this ain’t the truth. But y’all already knows, I cain’t testify. Light folk are combin’ the countryside for him. And I know they’s gonna find him. I can feel it, like I can feel a storm comin’. What I don’t expect is what they gonna do to him once they have him. Next day, when the sun is high and the coolness of the winter night has gone and the day is heated up this unusual heat, I see the man being dragged by some light folk. He’s not puttin’ up a struggle as they got him in chains. He falls once and they kick him and tell him to get up. There be scores of light folk followin’. Women and children, but mostly men with angry faces.
     I’ve waited this long to tell this grisly tale, and I ain’t even sure I can come out with it now, but seein’ as I’ve gone this far, guess I better finish. They unchain the man and he drops to the ground. They’s right near me now. I see some little boys throw pebbles at him. They laugh and their mamas laugh with them. Big light men drag him to standin’ and then they bring him to me. I start to tremble and shake and I wish I could run. I tell ‘em to get away, but they come closer and they throw a rope over one of my branches and they pull it taut around me. It’s real tight, but that ain’t what’s troublin’ me. No, all I feel is fear. And not for myself neither, but for the dark feller. I’ve heard the whisperings from my kind, unspeakable things I didn’t want to believe but I now know is true. They put the dark man on a wooden box and then they put the rope round his neck, but they don’t make it tight nor kick the box away just yet. They’s got their heinous work to do first. One big, light feller smiles at the crowd that has gathered around me, folk standin’ on toes, pushin’ and shovin’, children on parent’s shoulders to get a better look. His smile is evil. I can see it when he turns round. He pulls out a big, shiny knife and it glints in the sunlight as he holds it up. Someone throws him a tomato and showy like, splits it with the knife real smooth. Everyone cheers. I know I’m quiverin’ now and I don’t want to look, but I cain’t help myself. The dark man is shiverin’ and cryin’ softly now. Maybe I’m the only one can hear him or maybe it’s that I can feel his fear, him bein’ connected to me and all. That light man, he comes up to the dark one and puts the knife to his throat and then with a swift movement, peels off one ear, then the other. The dark man screams out, but I cain’t hardly hear him through the cheers of the crowd. Folk be putting out their hands, beggin’ for the ears. The big light one gives one to a little boy and he takes it like it’s candy. The other goes to a woman with angry glee on her face. She holds it up and hollers somethin’ I cain’t understand. By now I am sick, but I, like the dark feller is a prisoner. I cain’t escape my own self. And I’m mad, because I ain’t never wanted to escape myself before, but I do now, ‘cause of them.
     As I said before, things get worse. Other folk want their turn with the knife and more parts are cut off and handed out like Christmas toys. By now the dark man is cryin’ out for Jesus, but he cain’t be heard through the cheers of the crowd, that grow louder with each part of him that falls. He screams loudest when they take his manhood and it seems to be the most coveted prize of all, light hands a-reachin’ and a-grabbin’. Blood everywhere. Then they pour liquid over him and that’s when they tighten his rope and kick the box from under him. And quick as a wink, he starts to burn. I wish he died then, but he don’t. He swings and burns and screams and as the flames are lickin’ him, they’s lickin’ me too. I guess I’m lucky ‘cause them light folk tied him to my weakest branch, so what I do next saves my own sorry life. I’m angry now, somethin’ I ain’t never felt before, and it courses through me like the hot fire that’s consumin’ him. I sway hard and hard again and he swings crazily and my branch breaks off from my trunk. I scream out as he falls to the ground, my broken branch fallin’ on top of him. There he lay at my roots, writhin’ and burnin’ as folk back up some to watch him blaze. And I cain’t look away, though believe you me, I want to. Fact is, I want to die along with him.
     When all that’s left is soot and sorrow, men and women folk, even little ones, scoop up the coolin’ ashes to carry home in their pockets. Souvenirs. And I’m left all alone. It’s quiet then and I hear my own kind asking me in whispers, but I cain’t answer no one no more. I cain’t speak. I got nothin’ left to say.
     Years pass me by and no one seems to want to know me no more. Ain’t no folk comin’ nor admirin’. No one a-restin’ against me. Even the birds ain’t landin’ on my branches. I feel tainted and dismal and I mostly just sleep, tryin’ to remember days when I was the prettiest tree in the field. Rememberin’ when I heard the birds singin’ and the wind whisperin’ its lullabies. But mostly, I try to forget. But of course, I cain’t forget, and the memory clings to me like chokin’ vine.
     I wake up now and again and one time I know I’m dreamin’ for I think I see dark ones and light ones holdin’ signs together, headin’ in the same direction, walkin’ like they’s equals. But that cain’t be and I don’t ask no questions then, I still got nothin’ to say.
    Until now. Now, when these thoughts cain’t stay inside me another minute. Now, when my days are nearly done. Now, when I’ve become a monument to the tragedy of that day. Well, that’s one good thing. They put a plaque on me. I don’t know what it says, but I think it says ‘sorry.’ I surely hope so.

     I’m old now. My blossoms, the ones that do come, are more cloying than sweet. Sometimes as I look out toward the fields and watch the sun settin’ in its way, I see the beauty and I try to be grateful. The memories have faded some, but truth be told, forgettin’s not the hardest part. The hardest part is the forgivin’ part. And I know I better do it ‘fore I die. Truth is, I don’t know that I want to. I’ve been holdin’ on to this hurtin’ for a long time. Feels familiar. But y’all know that’s why I’m tellin’ this tale. To let go my pain. Like my fallen branch that I wrenched from by body to save myself, I know I got to free this hurt and sorrow, or I’m-a get too bitter to behold.
     You know, the heart of a tree is deep and wild and still. We live quietly, standin’ and watchin’, slowly livin’ out our lives, givin’ to others of our fruit or fragrance or shade. Sometimes others take what they oughtn’t, leavin’ hurt behind. That’s what happened to me. My heart’s likely deeper than some and maybe that’s why I feel as I do. But I’m ready now. I’ve had my say. I done told my story. I give it to y’all.
      So now, as I get ready to return to the earth that holds me up, I look ‘round me real wide and long and hard. I ain’t wanted to look at nothin’ since that day. I look at what is, not what was and I’m surprised by what I see. I see light ones and dark ones laughin’, workin’, even schoolin’ together, hurt gone…mostly. And I wonder, maybe if’n they can forgive, I can too. And as I do, I feels lighter than I felt in a long time. When I return from where I come from, I don’t want to be bitter. I don’t want to poison the ground with my anger. No sir, I want the earth sweet, like my blossoms in their glory. Them ghosts need to be free.
      So I will mix with the bitter ashes and sweeten them with forgiveness so that whatever comes after me, rising up out of his ashes and mine, will give sweet fruit or fragrance or shade.

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. http://www.renaissance-house-harlem.com/ 

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.  https://bethechange2012.wordpress.com/
 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.