Friday, June 25, 2010

A Summer Solstice Promise

I bark the admonition about non-retrievable body parts to my son for the third time as we course in a four-door car over the blue bridge into Coronado, his elbow and hand buffeted by the air current inches from the concrete dividers. I’m thinking about an article I read on the airplane the day before about some kind soul in China employed solely to out-sprint prospective suicides as they scale a bridge probably about this height. No sentry guards this California bridge, but suicide counseling signs--bearing an 800 number--flank north and southbound traffic on-ramps.

The look on my son’s face (his fun so wrecked, his experiment in partial flying so hammered) pulls me out of my free association. While I feel in the right as a parent, I see evidence of a self better shed, like the rich merchant in Heinrich Zimmer’s The King and The Corpse who refuses to give up a pair of battered slippers. The merchant, though he can certainly afford a new pair of slippers, focuses his attention instead on greater and greater money making schemes. At length, he accidentally dons a pair of fine slippers that do not belong to him. Then his misfortunes begin as his original slippers refuse to be buried, forgotten, and left behind much to the merchant’s dismay and eventual ruin.

Zimmer’s analysis of the tale equates the slippers with an aspect of the self the merchant did not heed letting go of at the appropriate time: “He [the merchant] is one of those who will not let themselves pass with the passing of time; but clutch themselves to themselves to their own bosom and hoard the self which they themselves have made. They shudder at the thought of the consecutive, periodic deaths that open out, threshold after threshold, as one passes through the rooms of life, and which are life’s secret (p. 17) ."

That’s kind of a lofty comparison to make with my hyper vigilant parenting skills, but I’m thinking I’d have more fun if I could, say, act like my husband does in the pre-boarding area at the airport. In his defense, he was not on his cell phone updating his profile on Facebook while my two sons, standing side by side on padded seats, left palm, nose, and most of their cheeks’ prints to the windows as the airplanes landed (to the heavy machine gun fire emitting from their thumb and finger guns)--no, he was making reservations for us so when we landed we’d have a place to stay.

As my blood pressure rose (flight delayed) and I failed to get my sons to sit next to us for the extra 45 minutes, I continued to marvel at how calm my husband remained. You’d never have guessed he had kids, not until he struck up a conversation with one of the stewardesses about smuggling in his sons early using his A pass. Or as he sprinted later that night across two lanes of traffic to hold the shuttle for us, one son following blindly into the intersection, the other teetering at the edge of the down escalator as I shrieked for him to wait for me (think background images from Denise Duhamel’s collection Ka-Ching! in which she graphically describes an escalator accident involving more than a dozen people, including her parents--backs of heads, hair in machine parts, etc). I reached my 4 year old just as we hit the bottom escalator stair, grabbed the scruff of his t-shirt as he turned to go back up the down-grinding stairs with its stoic and grumpy row of men (with their neat black bags on wheels) advancing.

Once I quelled the hysteria about the 7 year old crossing the intersection alone, silhouette visible against the bank of headlights (taxis and air porters halting for his dash), and muscled the rest of us up onto the shuttle, I glared at my husband. We’d spent the prior weekend, our first 3 days and nights in a row in 10 years away from the kids, so the contrast from the selves we resurrected as lovers and equals took a hard left turn back into the familiar--siblings at best, co-parenting rivals. My fallback, in almost all situations involving my children in public, entails either catastrophizing about potential dangers or dwelling in a perpetual state of embarrassment regarding the amount of noise we make and the lack of control we exercise.

Clearly hyper-vigilance, then, isn’t sustainable over the long haul. I’m no longer interested in being right, or in the hair color drain and toll on the adrenals. But how about spending more of my life’s hours in simple states of joy? New mothers need that vigilance when their babies are crawling towards light sockets or edges of decks. But my youngest is four now; aside from the occasional escalator to spar with, he’s pretty much launched.

Next day, sitting on the North Island Breakers Beach, kids cavorting at water’s edge twenty yards away, I made a solstice promise to try on my husband’s air of detachment.

First chance: the Museum of Air and Space, where, behind us my husband lingered alone near the entrance on his cell and both sons skirted the astronaut suit in glass case, tripping over electrical wires and velvet ropes to escape into the Alien’s Exhibit you needed special tickets to enter. I just smiled at the two docents in red jackets blocking me, and said, “But you see I think you want me to retrieve my boys.“ “Boys," I called once, then sauntered to the outdoor atrium where the helicopter and biplanes hung, without even worrying if they’d follow or whether or not my husband would find us.

How peaceful. No adrenaline zing, no harsh words for the husband when he caught up to us 3 minutes later, no one electrocuted. I took my time, lingered over what mattered to me: a case containing a scarf and shirt worn by Amelia Earhart. Did they really need to put her clothing on display? A little grim--but better: propped up beside the scarf: her book, For the Fun of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation , which she wrote about the compulsion to fly, why it mattered to try.

I lagged behind to watch some footage of Amelia arriving in the states after crashing one of her airplanes, affirming to the waiting press her commitment to persevere with dreams of further, greater flights. Then I moseyed with my daughter through the stewardesses of time exhibit, with its 8 or so mannequins sporting each decade’s garb. I fired a photo off to a friend, who responded wryly, “Thank god we don’t have to dress like that in order to be a real woman.”

But I didn’t even try to talk my daughter out of her favorite stewardess--the one in the fitted jacket, matching orange, red and pink miniskirt, so much visible thigh above a pair of knee-high red boots. I had to admit I kind of liked the boots myself.

Photos: Taken at The Museum of Air and Space, San Diego, CA

Friday, June 11, 2010

Horses, Motorcycles, and Lemons

I can’t stop being attracted to horses so maybe I should just ride one; is it spring, or the astral maneuverings of my daughter’s obsession with horses surfacing as if I’d thought of it myself.

Like the woman with grey eyes and coral mouth preparing to mount her motorcycle in front of Howard’s Station over the weekend, sheathed in her leathers, something about the loose black hood framing her silver hair that made her appear as a nun as she tilted her head to slide on her helmet. We exchange a few words on Ninjas and I consider briefly, riding one again, almost not afraid of dying again, my daughter standing quietly at my side.

Not since the screaming descent, before children, on the carbon-fiber frame of a bicycle, my husband’s helmet glinting far below through the sun/shadow spattered curves I had yet to navigate, have I used that full-body lean and swerve to sweep the curves for the joy of it—with that unhesitating precision you need on a motorcycle. And without that god-commanded umbilical restraint hardwired into mothers that keeps them within a two foot radius of their children at all times.

The rider waves, snakes smoothly out of the parking lot. I take my daughter’s hand, steer us and the conversation towards breakfast and the rest of the week’s lessons in gravity and heat. One of my sons will fall out of a lemon tree; one of my sons will mist water from a spray bottle onto a light-bulb. Rinds of glass will continue to appear over the course of the week in the toy boxes under the stairs.

The sound of the shattering glass takes me instantly back to childhood, Illinois, my brother’s lemon meringue filling on the ceiling, thick shards of pie glass exploding into the corners of the kitchen and under the refrigerator the instant my mother took the pie out of the oven and set it on the cold counter.

Here, in San Francisco, the pupil’s of my son’s eyes shutter appropriately tight; talk of a concussion recedes and by afternoon’s end he’s selling the lemons he harvested for fifty cents apiece.

And in the last two miles before our house on the drive home, the wild turkeys with their boy-sock tan necks, black-ringed, jolt and tag raggedly along the edges of the horse pasture…my husband murmuring something about what how much horses weigh, how much damage a fall at full gallop can do, and why isn’t ballet good enough for our daughter. If horses are meant to be in her life, they’ll find her, I think to myself, knowing better than to share the insight aloud.

It’s not that I find my disinterest in danger waning, but a desire to inhabit the body returning as the kids individuate and release back to me parts of my psyche, incrementally, with highs and lows erratic as the tides. The body follows suit, with time on its hands again, wanting to wrap its arms around the neck of a horse.

Not necessarily to ride it, but just to stand there with my cheek against its hot and muscled neck, its whiskered muzzle and freckled lips so close but occupied, dusky pink nostrils flaring and breathing, taking in the afternoon sun side by side.

Photo: Robyn Beattie:

Friday, June 4, 2010

DreamSpeaker Honoree Penina Ava Taesali

On Wednesday, May 26th 2010, 5 women were honored at a DreamSpeaker event in San Francisco, hosted by the Purple Moon Dance Project and Jill Togawa, Artistic Director, in association with the National Queer Arts Festival, advertised as a “celebration, honoring the lives and contributions of lesbian and women of color artists whose work has inspired social change, peace, and healing in our community.” The five DreamSpeaker Honorees were Avoteja, Brenda Wong Aoki, Stephanie Anne Johnson, Judith Smith and a poet I’ve known for over twenty years: Penina Ava Taesali.

The women were honored with a weave of spoken word, music, and dance performances by others. At the end, each DreamSpeaker was invited to speak for several moments (since our hosts meant to give the honorees the experience of being in the audience, simply receiving after so many years of giving). Our hosts spoke of the importance of women’s spaces; in that spirit, I hounded Penina Ava Taesali for her extended thoughts about how she came to be a Dream Speaker.

I want to preface her interview with the bio that appeared in the DreamSpeaker program:

Penina Ava Taesali is a poet, writer, activist, teacher, and community organizer. Of Samoan and German working-class descent, Penina’s commitment to social change and the arts is rooted in her own personal history, identity, and intercultural complexity. Penina bore the vision of sustaining the arts in Oakland as a vehicle for working class, immigrant, and minority communities to confront the challenges of economic deprivation, violence, and criminalization. Penina served as Artistic Director and founder of one of Oakland’s groundbreaking community arts collaborative the AYPAL TRAC (Asian Pacific Islander youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership—Talking Roots Art Collective) for nine years.

Penina recruited local, national, and international artists to bring 10-14 arts programs annually to underserved high school and middle school students, including cultural and modern dance, hip hop, popular theater, shadow light puppet theater, creative writing, music and mural projects. Penina also founded and was managing director of the Pacific Islander Kie Association (PIKA), providing services to 60 Pacific Island youth and parents each year. Her interest in poetry inspired other projects, including “Poetry in the Kitchen,” an intergenerational program she co-founded with beloved oral historian and poet Al Robles. She received the “Best Spoken Word Performance of the Millennium” Award from KPFA FM. Presently she works to bring underrepresented families into school councils in the Oakland Unified Schools District.

Can you talk about what it means to you, the term DreamSpeaker?

I’ve been thinking about those two words and how Purple Moon Theater wanted to honor women using these two words. Dream is the ability to see something not yet manifested and when we speak we give form to the dream through the breath, through the language, and maybe language and action.

To work for change you have to have that ability to dream BIG, to see past the obstacles real or imagined, to not be in denial about the obstacles or challenges but to see the sun of the potential and possibility taking form, taking space, letting things work out and not lose focus when the work gets hard and tiring. But most of all be brave and nurture that small seed of the dream; when the magic happens, you can become proud and humble as you nurture that dream (with a little help from your friends) into reality.

A DreamSpeaker is a person who fights and speaks for someone who may not be allowed to have big dreams, like some of the youth who have been sheltered in strict families (perhaps their parents have already chosen who they will be and where they will be in their future). Dreamers in my eyes are the countless heroines and heroes known and unknown that make life worth living (poets and artists, community activists like MLK Jr., Cesar Chavez and Ida B. Wells to name a very few).

Can you talk a little bit about what it means to you to have been chosen for this award?

Since peers nominate for this award, I felt that my peers think my work is important, that it speaks for itself, even if the management or leadership in an organization doesn’t feel it important to celebrate accomplishments. So I am grateful that my peers nominated my work.

My friends and family seemed more excited than I was when I sent the e-mail notice about this award; it began then to mean much more to me than I thought it would. Being recognized encourages me to keep dreaming BIG. There is a sense of justice at play here. Honoring me is really honoring the work and people who love and care about me.

I think we are in a time when we crave ceremony and want to support one another through prayer, ceremony and ritual. I think people are hungry to reflect and celebrate and those venues are far and few between. We celebrate birthdays once a year, Oscar parties, Grammy and the like. One of the things I loved about working with the young people in the arts is that we had many recitals that led up to the annual arts festival. Having those recitals with parents and friends in the audience cheering for the youth validated the youth’s efforts and accomplishments. It was an awesome exchange.

What brought you here, to the stage, tonight?

I believe in the healing power of storytelling on the stage, in film, or in a book; people transform when witnessing the transformation. I believe the stage should be considered a temple. It is a place where magic happens, where community becomes community, where those who thought they could never relate to the actor, poet or dancer become connected. It is one of the great mysteries: how the arts and storytelling heal.

Both personally and professionally I believe that the arts make life worth living, for the arts teach us how to become human beings. I have experienced this first hand in my own healing. I found spiritual proprieties in dance and for many years I considered myself a spiritual dancer and was very enthusiastic about dance as a medium for healing.

Reading literature has a similar though less dramatic degree on me than live theater but I believe literature teaches us how to become human as well. Also the act of writing and reflection has been a great counselor to me; I have found through the act of recording dreams what the dream is trying to tell me.

In your work with students, would you be willing to share with us a few stories of how you came to realize how deeply you affected others with your teachings/offerings/programs you offered?

First, I have to say that working with teenagers was easy for me and the staff. We were absolutely crazy about the youth. And the youth knew it. They could feel that we had their backs and we followed through. So the youth would open up and they shared their stories, broke silences, shattered cultural taboos, broke generational gaps and were able to deeply express who they were and what they wanted for themselves and their families.

There are so many stories, but the one that comes to mind happened in our Poetry in the Kitchen class with student Cheo Satern. Cheo didn’t know she was a poet/writer/ spoken word performer until she found her voice in the workshops. She blossomed from a shy young female into the most requested poet to perform at major public venues in Oakland and the SF bay area.

Cheo inspired her other youth that may have been taught that young Mien females shouldn’t raise their voices and never take on feminist issues. Here she was: this young person who had so much fire and she just blew folks away. She told me she had some idea that maybe she was a poet because she loved music and poetry and had always written but never shared her writing. She thanked me for the class and took the workshop the next year.

There are many stories I can share but I think the under-story for me is how easy and natural it is for me to work with young people. They would just give me the world: their beauty and love unconditionally. I think it's very sad that our society may fear urban youth. It’s really tragic.

Did you face certain turning points in your life that caused you to commit even more deeply to your vision?

It took a lot out of me working on the frontlines for the youth and the artists. Our hearts were broken many times because we were gentrified out of the cultural center – we fought hard to save our space but lost it. Then bigger issues hurt our communities like Prop 21 and Prop 209. The zero tolerance climate high school students were up against during their public education would break anyone’s heart. For me it was the conditions that the youth were living under that kept my vision strong. We wanted to change those conditions. This was a youth organizing and arts education program, so we did have lots of victories as well as losses.

One victory would be the AYPAL youth who started the program back in 1998-2000 who successfully planned the AYPAL 8th reunion event in 2007. Those youth--now college students or working--kept true to a desire to help their communities. It was phenomenal to come to a planning meeting for the reunion and see 12 youth that had become young men and young women planning a huge event for AYPAL youth. They hadn’t changed much--they still had that burning desire/dream of justice.

I think it was the young people who would visit me and the staff, who kept in touch over the years, that strengthened my vision. It was truly a relationship and community development magic that I haven’t seen any place else.

When we were gentrified out of the cultural center my father encouraged me to go back to school, but I would stay another 5 years keeping the arts and the Pacific Island site going. I am glad I did because some of the arts programs have expanded and the Pacific Islander site is thriving.

What is your vision?

I have a vision all about the young people demanding their human rights: education, health care, and employment. I do believe the political leaders in Oakland have failed the young people. It should be a crime to fail the children. They give you everything and they are the future. The leadership in Oakland is a crying shame.

My vision has to do with young people learning the core values of brotherhood and sisterhood. That they make unity a groovy trend and reject American values such as having money and things. I came of age during the 60s and the 70s and there was a tangible, concrete sense that people cared about me and my family. That the educational institution made it possible for poor folks to get a higher education. My vision is for the young people to enjoy what I had as a teenager – education, trees, the fist of justice working for them.

But they have to do it now themselves. I see the young people rejecting the American values system as it is today. I hope the youth could also reject their I-pods and I-phones and texting all the time, for they need to reconnect with each other in a real grass-roots way. They need to learn how to be in relationship and communicate with voice and art. I think the technology advances in the past 10 years keep us isolated.

Who are the DreamSpeakers you have been inspired by in your lifetime?

The reason I am still standing and fighting for the community through the arts is because of my father, Iopu Taesali. My father encouraged me to dream and to make the dream happen. I guess my father was a dreamer as well. He was also a man of faith. He echoed many times when the doubt would sneak into my thoughts: “Daughter, you’re on your way.”

He would speak to me in metaphors when I would question my future as a writer or as the Artistic Director for AYPAL. “The pen cannot stand up alone.” “I was at Safeway today and I picked-up one bunch of bananas – they were heavy and I looked at the bananas but there were two bunches…solid gold.” Then he’d laugh and laugh. He’d share passages from the Bible too when I’d call him with some petty issue I was having (biblical passages I’d not really heard interpreted quite the way my father does). I really am a good listener – I think that is why AYPAL and PIKA were able to really flourish and expand.

My dear friend Sister Barbara is an amazing poet and DreamSpeaker I met years ago at a poetry reading. I’ve never met anyone like her. She trained men during World War II to skydive, to land on a tiny island in the Pacific, Mop, bringing medicine supplies for the people. She meets up with her other parachute buddies once a year and still sky dives. I could write so many Sister Barbara stories--she is my cheerleader and spiritual mother, coaching me never to give up. She plays this role for many women in her life.

There are so many DreamSpeakers that strengthen and inspired my values and passion working in Oakland with the young people. I became fast friends with Alicia Yang, Alan Laird, Jason Jong, Gina Hotta, Ellen Beep, Kallan Nishimoto, Dan Chumley, Al Robles, Bill Sorro, Julio Magana and Kawal Ulanday; they are like these gigantic gallant galaxies for all aspiring DreamSpeakers. My sister Eloise Taesali who is a DreamSpeaker Womanista who is now living her dreams as an artist.

And then there are the writers and poets, DreamSpeakers that have deeply impacted my desire to break the silences and write - -- Joy Harjo, Lucille Clifton, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, James Wright, Walt Whitman, Gary Snyder, David Robertson, and so many of the youth poets I was privileged to work for and with.

What is your vision for the women artists/writers, for them to build community and succeed?

My vision is that the funders start funding the arts, public space for the arts and the program staff to keep the arts going strong.

What would you say to a young woman starting out? What will she face, how should she stay strong?

I hope the young men could step up in this work too.

But I’d tell the young women to be flexible and not compromise the vision. Stick with it. Maybe they’d have to fake a smile and nod from time to time, but do your thing at all costs. I’d tell them: Stay true to their vision and surround yourself with like-minded spirits who believe in your work. There will be what the youth call “haters’”--those who want to see you and your work crash and burn because they have that human feeling of jealousy--but don’t take them seriously. There will be more people on your side if your vision is true to yourself.

And remember that people who want to make it happen somehow--one way or another--fall out of the sky from heaven and show up strong and willing to help. Accept this help, don’t question and analyze, for there are so many people who have the desire for Reverence and Justice. I’d also say take care of the self--including eating 3 healthy meals a day, exercising and paying your bills on time.

What is your next step?

My vision for myself is to live a healthy and creative life. I need to take care of my debts and my physical health. I am grateful that I get a second chance to put myself ahead of the community. I see myself easing up a bit on my high expectations. I need some serious R&R.

Any specific writing projects in the works (besides attending graduate school in creative writing at Mills this fall)?

I hope to write many essays, poems, novels and screenplays. I want to be the bridge for my relatives that were denied voice in Samoa, Portugal, Germany and here in America. I want to hear their stories desperately, so I have to make room in my mind and my heart to let them breathe because I know many folks will be able to relate to these stories.